Back on Friday word spread around the videogame blogs that the Writers Guild of America is introducing an award for videogame writing.
My first reaction to reading that was, “Huh. Another award for BioShock this year.” Which is a good thing; videogames will be better as soon as more people acknowledge that a good story and good writing can help take a game from good to exceptional. And more importantly, that “well-written” and “best-selling” are not mutually exclusive.
Of course, that reaction just shows my naivete, because I hadn’t appreciated the darker side of the announcement. On Ron Gilbert’s blog, he points out that the WGA will be judging based on submissions of game scripts, instead of how the writing is incorporated into the actual game. Which means an award for the worst kind of videogame writing: lengthy, non-interactive attempts to sound smart, and monologues that make a point of showing off how well-written they are. (If you want examples of over-long and wordy writing in videogames, I can point you to several of the things I’ve written).
On John Scalzi’s blog, he’s got a more positive reaction overall, but points out that this is basically a not-very-subtle attempt by the WGA to recruit people outside of its usual field, and to eventually unionize another section of the entertainment industry. And talking about unionizing any part of the games business still gets me very nervous. The two things that convinced me I wanted to eventually work in games instead of movies were that games were still innovative, and that games were still small.
And thinking about unions in games finally did something even three years of working at Electronic Arts wasn’t able to: it made me realize that I’m basically a dinosaur, and that videogame production has gotten huge. I worked on my first videogame about 11 years ago, and that was already — based on how charitable you want to be — either the silver age, bronze age, or final phlegmy death rattle of the adventure game. But there was still a sense of small teams with little specialization, where everybody who wanted to be involved in the game, could be to some level. More often than not, the person who wrote the game was the person who designed the game, meaning that the story (if any) and game design were perfectly integrated. If you emphasize writing as this separate thing, then that just widens the divide between story and gameplay. And sets back attempts to tell a story through a game, instead of telling a story that gets interrupted every so often for an interactive sequence.
And then I had a end-of-The Sixth Sense-moment when I realized that in the 11 years I’ve worked in games, I’ve never written for a game I designed. And the work I’ve been proudest of has been on games that were already plotted out and completely designed, and I just came in (sometimes as a freelancer) and added jokes. So I’m part of the problem, and I have been all along!
So then I just stopped thinking about it and started playing Team Fortress 2 some more. Which, without any doubt or reservation, gets my vote for Game of the Year. And does a better job than any game I’ve seen this year (including BioShock) of proving that videogames can be art. And which has no story to speak of, and very little “writing,” but still has a sense of style and overwhelming character that hits you like a rocket to the face.