Writing in the Game Industry

Snipehunter's picture

I was asked today to speak at a conference on a panel discussing writing curriculum in game design schools. I couldn't make it due to a scheduling conflict, which is really too bad. As you are likely aware, I have a pretty well documented, if misunderstood, stance on writing in the industry: I don't think you should hire a writer, if a designer who can write is also available.

I can imagine that some people might interpret that to mean you shouldn't teach writing to new designers, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I think there are few more important skills you can teach a game designer. Learning how to write well enhances your ability to think critically and allows you to more easily convey your thoughts to others. Everything else a designer does hinges upon those skills. Really, why wouldn't you teach aspiring game designers to write?

In fact, that's the piece that seals the deal for me. My issue with the state of game writing isn't the quality of the writers. In fact, I'm one of the largest advocates for the quality of game writing that I've heard. No, my concerns about the state of game writing are paradigmatic.

Games are getting stale - the success of the Wii is a testament to this. Our games are starting to feel similar and anything that sets them apart from each other is lauded as a massive and huge innovation, even when it's really just a flash in the pan fad. We're so hungry for something new that we're grasping at gimmicky controls and a 2D casual game revival as if they're the future, but neither one is. The industry and its consumers are holding game innovation back because of this -- we're not actually changing the game when we change the controls, no matter what we might think.

Mirror's Edge was a great game with great writing, but could I get any of my friends to look at it? No way. You know why? They all think it's an FPS game with the same old tired story... and despite how much I liked the story and the game's novel parkour mechanic, they're not all that wrong. It benefits greatly from being a short game, because the more time you spend with it the more "like those other games" it feels. Ennui sets in pretty quickly, now-a-days.

Which is sort of weird -- it uses its controls in a novel way, and its approach to the first person action game is certainly, at least as of this writing, unique. So, what went wrong?

Perhaps it's shifting the blame a little, but I think part of what went wrong is what I've tried to point out, before: Games don't really benefit from linear stories, anymore. It's no longer novel and we're relying too heavily on the crutch a linear story has become. Mirror's Edge's story is great, but the way it's presented and the way the game is structured around it both mean I can only ever experience the world and its characters in one way. No matter how hard I try or which buttons I press, I'm just along for the ride. It is, essentially, a giant quick time event... and don't we all hate those?

Authorial Control is an issue that I think stands between true gaming innovation and our game writers today, and it's one of the reasons I'd rather hire a designer who can write over only a writer. Designers tend to lack the adherence to tropes and structure that you find in trained writers. Now, as an aside let me say that this can also be a bad thing, but generally speaking this means that their approach to telling a story is different than that of a classically trained writer. Designers tend to think of solutions in the form of loops or systems.

This, if you think about it, also means we impose structure -- it's just a structure that allows the subject of the narrative to control its flow. Perhaps that's a better to way to say it -- we worry more about flow control than we do about the source or the end of the flow itself.

Whatever metaphor you prefer, what I'm saying is this: Designers know stuff about games that maybe a writer doesn't. Why wouldn't I value someone who could write, but who also had that knowledge?

But, you know, maybe that's not all that fair. For all we know, writers do know that stuff. It's not like writers in our industry have any actual control over most of the games they write on. Perhaps our industry is more fascinated with standard, non-interactive storytelling than we let on. There are a lot of would-be film makers hiding out in game developer land, after all.

You know how to fix that though? It's not to exclude writers from design or designers from writing; it's exactly the reverse of that: You need to merge the two disciplines into one. That's another reason I favor the writer-designer over the writer (hell or even the plain designer): It's the best of both worlds.

I've heard a lot talk over the last year about how specialization will save us all, but this is a case where I don't think that's true. Perhaps training some poor sod to do nothing else but light 3D levels is a good idea that saves time and money, but when it comes to training someone just to design or just to write? I think supporting the notion is a horrible mistake this industry can no longer afford to make.

If we're going to include writers on our teams, they should know more than writing and they should be able to do more, too. I don't just mean capability; I also mean responsibility. Let's incorporate them intimately into the process if they're so important to us. Take your writers, teach them everything there is to know about the tools we designers have at our disposal and then set them free to not only conceive, but also implement their stories. Show them how important -- or not -- the precepts of authorial control are to games and teach them the value of systems and loops. Writers don't have to be linear storytellers, right? God knows I've been shown many examples of this in the last year, so why are nearly all of our game stories linear? Why not show our writers how we would go about changing that paradigm and then let them have a go at it, armed with that knowledge?

To put it another way: Why aren't our writers already designers? What really sets those two roles apart? The only differences are knowledge and experience and if you're telling me that either a writer or a designer is incapable of learning the knowledge of the other role, I'm afraid I'll have to disagree. I'm also afraid our games will continue to suffer and feel self-similar, until they do.

We need to let them.

In other words -- Hell yeah, teach your aspiring game designers to write. The world will change, when you do.

- Snipehunter