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.