There is no places for writers in the games industry.

Last week there was a bit of fallout on the internets from an article titled “The Case Against Writers in the Games Industry”. It was by a game designer named Adam Maxwell, and it basically makes the claim that having a dedicated writer on a development team is a waste; it’s always better to have another game designer who knows how to write.

It’s easy to see why it got a strong reaction; it’s written to provoke a reaction. It dredges up Roger Ebert’s old “authorial control” argument, which has already been shot full of holes for the last couple of years. It makes terrible assumptions about the role of writing and storytelling in game development. Of course, it’s also filled with so many typos, unfortunate word choices, and wacky grammar mishaps, that it’s like porn for people who love irony.

But see, here’s where the problem comes in: I agree with the conclusion of that article more than I do with those of the various rebuttals. The article, and Maxwell’s followup on his own blog, are both so full of wrong that I’m hesitant to say I agree with any of it. But having a game designer who can write well really is more valuable to a studio than someone who writes well but has no talent for, or desire to do game design.

That’s not even provocative; it’s trivially true. Even better than that would be a designer who can write and is an excellent concept artist. And better still would be a designer who can do all that and also be good at character modeling, animation, scene creation, level design, and composing music. Best of all would be someone who can do all that and make shadow clones of himself so that he could get the game finished on schedule.

In a rebuttal to that article, Ron Toland of the IGDA Game Writers’ Special Interest Group points out all of the erroneous assumptions, and describes game development as a lot of people working in concert. The designer, writer, artist, animator, composer are all equally important, each contributing his own work to the game, with the end result suffering if any part is missing.

For example: you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who seriously believes that good music isn’t important to a game. And it’s ridiculous to say that having a dedicated composer is a waste, that it’d be better handled by the game designer. Because most people understand that not everyone is equally good at making music. So why do people assume that everyone is equally good at writing?

Another rebuttal came from Kelly Wand, who talked specifically about the game mentioned in the original article. He got slightly less philosophical than the others, talking more about the industry-wide perception of writing in games. The best part is this:

[…] I find it a remarkably revealing insight as to just how derisively they view the creative process in general and the legacy of electronic entertainment in particular. It’s indifference to mediocrity, usually posed as a loaded “either-or” analogy.

That perfectly describes the reaction you get any time you try to broach the topic of storytelling in games. The complaint goes that you can either have a game or a story. It’s either The Sims or Final Fantasy, action or cut-scenes, activity or passivity, players’ fun or the writer’s ego. You hear that there are plenty of games that are perfectly fun without stories, so clearly story and writing aren’t necessary — why do you hate Tetris so much?

Except I’d say it goes past “indifference” and crosses over to open hostility to anything other than mediocrity. I would be encouraged to see more people “indifferent” to storytelling in games; at least it would mean that they’re no longer trying to undermine its importance, marginalize it, and drive it out completely. “Sure, adventure games can have stories in them, but keep it short and simple, dammit. And don’t ever, ever assume that what you’re doing is as important as the game design.”

In the “case against writers” article, Maxwell says that BioShock was “hamstrung” by its insistence on story, which to me is like saying that The Seven Samurai was hamstrung by its insistence on having so many samurai. In that presentation about writing in games I made fun of a while back, the presenter made a list of game types, to help you determine “how much story you actually need.” He listed “story-based gameplay” as its own category, even separate from role-playing games!

And with attitudes like that being so prevalent, I think even the writers are being a little short-sighted about this. Wand ends his rebuttal with the observation that people don’t have to be so fearful that writing is going to “take over” gameplay. That writing isn’t meant to be the “food” of a game; “It’s the salt.” That’s a fine analogy: modest, non-threatening, acknowledging that too much writing can ruin the end result, while at the same time emphasizing that the end result is completely unpalatable if the writing is missing or done poorly.

Wand and Toland’s rebuttals do a good job of defending the role of “game writer” as it exists now, but I think they’re overly defeatist about the potential for game writing to improve. We’re so used to the idea that game design is the master discipline in game development, and that storytelling and writing are the antithesis of interactivity, that we’re willing to argue even to get promoted to “salt.”

As long as we keep thinking of writing as this completely separate discipline, that it’s important to the game but not the “food” of the game, then both writing and game design are going to stagnate. You wouldn’t design PaRappa the Rapper or Rock Band while leaving the music to be some autonomous thing that gets added in later. You integrate it from the start. But while music-based games are still relatively rare, there are tons of games that try to tell stories. So why are we content to keep treating the writing as some separate thing, that doesn’t need to be integrated from the start?

Tons of games try to tell stories, and tons fail, or are mediocre at best. We can add better writers all we want, and we’ll still just end up with grammatically correct descriptions of the ice level, flowery and evocative descriptions of what it means to be a space marine fighting demons, and stirring speeches from our spiky-haired amnesiac hero right before he does battle against the clever-quip-spewing boss monster.

For my part, I’ve worked on more games as “just” a writer (or a writer/content programmer) than I have as a designer. And from a practical standpoint, that’s sometimes a necessity: even fairly short games can require a lot of writing, and there’s just not enough time to do double duty. But I will say that the work that I’ve been most proud of has come from designing the game as a writer would; not from saying, “and another puzzle goes here” but “this section should be interactive with a puzzle works like this because of the way these two characters interact and the way the pacing is building up to this moment.”

That’s less a statement for or against game writers, and more an interpretation of what “game design” is. “Designer” and “writer” in videogames aren’t directly analogous to movies, like we often assume they are. In movies, a screenplay isn’t just dialogue, but scene descriptions and story flow and occasionally even camera direction. You wouldn’t automatically assume a novelist would be a good screenwriter — that’s the fear most people have when they talk about writing overtaking game design, that you’re dragging the tedious elements of one medium into another where it doesn’t fit.

But you shouldn’t automatically assume the director would be a good screenwriter, either. Or that the director can plan out an entire movie, calling the screenwriter in for a couple hours every week to suggest lines for the characters to say. If a game is going to have a story at all, then the designer and the writer need to think of the game as a story.

Or don’t even bother, because we know a stupid, or poorly-integrated, or just-slapped-on-for-the-sake-of-it story when we see one. And those aren’t doing any good for the perception of writing in games.

8 thoughts on “There is no places for writers in the games industry.”

  1. Funny. Adam Maxwell’s blog is on a website whose other main contributor is an ex-coworker of mine. As for my take on his blog, you pretty well summed it up, so I won’t say too much.

    One of the basic things that I think makes the distinction easier to understand, for me, is that in my experience, it’s the designer who carries “the vision” of the project, and makes sure it can be turned into a reality. In that regard, the designer has to be a jack-of-all-trades, because he(or she) has to understand how the gameplay, art, writing, sound, music, and the technical limitations of the time all work together to make a compelling experience.

    Sure, you *can* be a designer and have functionally no knowledge of programming/art/music/writing, but I would argue that in a medium that’s as integrated as videogames, you *aren’t* a good designer if you don’t have that knowledge, because you simply can’t integrate those things as well as someone who does have that knowledge.

    For many years, I had what I thought was a serious problem: I know a reasonable amount about a lot of stuff, but was not a master of any of them. I’ve played many instruments for many years, and have a basic understanding of music theory, but I’m not a “musician.” I drew in my spare time for decades, but was never good enough to be an “artist.” I programmed a little in college, and was absolutely horrid at it, but eventually grasped the logical underpinnings. I’d certainly never amount to anything as a software engineer. Heck, I even minored in Film & Media Studies, hoping to find something in that umbrella that would allow me to use this broad knowledge to some reasonable end.

    It wasn’t until well after I’d graduated that I finally figured out that game design is exactly what I’ve been looking for my entire life. On top of that, education as a Mechanical Engineer and experience with the actual regimented design process was extraordinarily useful, and for the few specific skills that are unique to game design, I quickly found a niche that I think I’m quite good at.

    So, over the last six years, I’ve found that as a designer, the more knowledge you have, the better. The more breadth you have, the better you can integrate each of these things into your design. I can talk with a musician about the technical aspects of their composition, because I have that knowledge. I can talk to an artist about their silhouettes and color palette, because I have that knowledge. They can also talk to me in their language, and trust that I understand what they’re saying without dumbing it down (too much).

    I don’t mean for this to be a huge, “Hey, check out all the stuff I can do!” post, but the point is that without this knowledge, I would have to operate blindly, hoping that I can talk to an artist and share the vision of the game – get them to internalize it to the point that they can really make it their own – without speaking their language.

    Without experience in NaNoWriMo (I’m not going to pretend I’m a good writer, but I’m not a terrible one, either), I wouldn’t have the experience necessary to understand how *I* can integrate story into gameplay, or even talk to an external writer. If the writer has no game design experience, and I have no writing experience, then it’s going to be very, very difficult to get someone to really internalize the vision of the game. Because at least *I* can bring the “bridge” to the discussion, I’m on good footing. If you have two sides and no one can speak a common language, it’s really no wonder that the designers and writers have been at odds for the most part.

    But yeah, when it comes back to it, it’s a shame that Maxwell wasn’t a better writer, or his post could actually have been interesting. Ah, well.

  2. Anne, I don’t mean to be rude, but that blog link seems like less of a rebuttal to the original article, and more an advertisement for your writing consulting business. So I’ve got to say I wasn’t particularly swayed into agreeing with Maxwell after reading it. I don’t agree that Maxwell just “tripped over his words” (although he clearly did); I think he’s still got a fundamental misconception of what game writing is, and it’s a very common one. He misrepresents how writing relates to game design, and how storytelling in games can work.

    Seppo, I’d agree that it’s important for a game designer to have as broad a range of experience as possible, both to understand how the pieces of a game fit together and to be able to foster that communication that you’re talking about. But I also think that the “designers do everything” mentality is what drove a majority of the negative reaction to the original article. Generalization makes you better suited to be a long-term employee than a short-term one, and that’s true for anyone.

    I’d hope that at least the lesson of that article isn’t just that “designers should appreciate and know how to talk to writers” but “writers should try to understand more about game design.” It’s also important to know your limitations, and accept that other people can bring skills to a project that you can’t. (That’s the general “you,” of course).

  3. re: “Designers do everything” driving the negative reaction towards Maxwell – I’m not saying that the designer should do everything – but that having some knowledge of the field helps foster communication between the fields (and naturally, if the writer has a knowledge of game design as well, bingo). Where I disagree with Maxwell is that good writers quite obviously bring substantial value to the process, and *most* game designers are *not* good writers.

    In the ideal case, you have a generalist who can do everything. That’s not often the case. These days, everyone’s role is substantially more specialized. I do no coding, art asset generation (beyond the prototype phase), music composition, or much of anything else beyond writing documents, and whiteboxing levels. But because I have some knowledge of the various other fields, I can interact with the specialists in those fields relatively fluidly. Without that knowledge, that communication would be a hell of a lot more difficult.

    I think the weird thing is that game writing is a lot like making any other art asset – just because almost anyone *can* do it doesn’t mean they should. I can open up Photoshop and rejigger the HUD elements in the game to test something out quickly – but I’d never want to ship that stuff, because it lacks the attention to detail that the artist’s experience brings to the table. Same with the writing, same with the music – hell, even to some degree, same with the code.

    So, yeah, it’s definitely about knowing your limitations – but that often requires being familiar with/good enough at something to actually be able to make a reasonable judgement about that. The thing with the whole designer/writer conflict – both sides think the other side’s job is easy, and as a result, that they’re disposable. But just because a job doesn’t require familiarity with an esoteric toolset doesn’t mean that it requires any less skill.

  4. Isn’t this much ado about nothing.
    If your game has a narrative, you need a good writer.
    If you don’t, you don’t.
    If the writer understands game design, then that’s good.
    I haven’t been following the firestorm, but why is there a firestorm?

  5. Well, Jonathan, there’s a “firestorm” because you’ve got a guy writing an article telling a whole bunch of people that their jobs are worthless and should get phased out. That they’re at best a distraction for the person doing the real work of game development (the designer), and at worst they’re killing games by trying to turn them into something they’re not supposed to be. And he’s trying to make his point by dredging up bits of arguments that have stirred up controversy in the past. And the people he’s talking about are the types most likely to write lengthy things on the internet in rebuttal.

    And most of all, because his screed about how writers aren’t necessary is filled with typos and grammatical errors. Which is boneshatteringly awesome irony.

  6. Hi, Chuck!

    I was being sarcastic when I said he was tripping over his own words. You have to read between the lines to understand that Adam was frustrated by his past experience and in fact, as he admits, wants there to be more story in games. You and I both agree that he hasn’t quite grasped what a good writer can do.

    I’m sorry you felt the post was self-promotional, but I always err on the side of transparency. It’s frustrating as a blog-reader to have to poke through someone’s about page and still not have a clear idea of what it is they do or offer. Better to expose bias than pretend you don’t have any.

  7. I’ll handle the sarcasm on this blog, thanks very much.

    Yeah, I admit I totally missed the sarcasm. I think I ultimately agree with the point Maxwell was attempting to make, which is that “game writing” as we tend to think of it now — long cutscenes, or flowery speeches that interfere with the pacing of the game — is going to get more and more obsolete as we learn to better incorporate storytelling into game design. But he took such a torturous path to get there, with so many invalid assumptions, to the point that I have to read it and say, “Wait. Is this guy for real?”

    And I agree that ultimately transparency is a good idea, which is why I said I didn’t want to be rude. But I have to say it did take me a minute to recognize the intent of your post. This is a VERY low-traffic blog, but I still get hit with enough spam bots that seem to be related to what I’m talking about, that it’s made me paranoid.

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