A long time ago, in a far away land (let’s say… Dagenham) if people wanted a good story they would have to turn to ‘The Sun’, or if their tastes didn’t include ‘My alien husband was murdered by our half alien daughter’ they might find their story in a good book, or at a push on TV or Radio. Some of us – the types brought up knowing only how to press ‘Up up, down down, left right, left right, a b a b’ (etcetera…), often end up playing ‘mindless’ games. Games where story isn’t important as how many head shots you get in 10 minutes. On the other hand, I enjoy a game with a start, middle and an end with interesting, believable characters and with a great story.
Good story writing and scripting can give a game depth; it can give characters emotion and personality to the game’s setting – but no matter how good the game is, it can sometimes fall flat without interesting writing (despite giving Nathan Fillion work, I’m looking at you, ‘Halo: ODST’) . Some companies have even taken the surprising step of actually hiring good writers (shock horror) to write story and script dialogue for their games. Then they actually use these writers to create graphic novels, comics (and sometimes even films) based on the games to keep the stories alive and deepen the mythology. To find out about what the hidden art of writing in video games is like, I spoke to Rhianna Pratchett (writer of the Overlord games with the SPAWNING minions) and Antony Johnston (writer of the GORY ‘Dead Space’ games – so now hopefully my Oasis themed title makes sense).
Antony Johnston was originally hired by EA to write a prequel comic, but that was just the start, as (award winning) Antony himself explains: “EA hired me to write the Dead Space prequel comic, and to do that I needed to be well versed in the lore and mythology of the game universe. That meant I was brought on board quite early, long before they’d found a writer for the game. Then, after I turned in the first couple of comic scripts, they asked if I was interested in writing the game as well, which of course I jumped at. I did a quick tryout, writing scenes for a sample scenario and they liked it.”
As a comic book writer, with a huge variety of books and graphic novels behind him, it seems that the transition from comics to games had its advantages – both are visual mediums – but it wasn’t always the easiest transition: “There are just as many similarities as differences. The major difference is the interactivity; somebody is playing this game, not just passively taking in the story, and that creates a different dynamic to everything you write. It all has to be very immediate. Then there’s resources; it’s an unavoidable fact of game design that you can’t have everything you want, for reasons of time, budget, hardware limitations, etc. So that’s often a serious constraint that you have to work with. Several times I’ve written entire, multiple scenes complete with character development and some lovely exchanges, only to be told one of the characters has been cut, or there aren’t enough voice slots for all of them to speak, or whatever. And there’s nothing you can do about it; you can’t argue your case, because the resources simply aren’t there. You just have to suck it up and rewrite it.”
As a gamer, you don’t often think about the writing, or the way that the story changes based on the resources available, still the changes between the modern consoles, and the ‘run from right to left and rescue the princess’ stories of the previous generation have changed. But often, it seems that story is there to serve the gameplay rather than the gameplay to serve the story. But how do you go about telling a good story when there’s so much previously created design that you have to work around? “You have to be economical; in a comic, you’re limited by physical space and page count, and in a game you’re limited by runtime, because if a cut scene lasts more than a few seconds, many people will just skip it. Plus the resources issue raises its head again, and both of those constraints mean that, like comics, you often have to develop and breathe life into a character using very little. There’s also the episodic nature; players expect game levels to have a beginning, middle and end within themselves, but also tie in to an overall, grander story. That’s very similar to writing issues of a comic, which in turn serve a larger story arc, and I have wondered in the past if that’s one reason why a lot of comics writers also find work in games.”
And in the case of ‘Dead Space’ it seems that necessity was the mother of invention. Just as Alfred Hitchcock went into writing ‘North by Northwest’ knowing only that he wanted the ‘plane in a cornfield’ and ‘chase across Mount Rushmore’ set pieces, so too has Antony created a narrative that makes you care about Isaac and his girlfriend Nicole, and makes the marker and the ‘Church of Unitologists’ more interesting than your standard ‘destroy the big alien boss’ MacGuffin.
Story telling and scripting has come a long way since the ‘point and click’ days, but it is still a highly unused and young asset for many games developers unless it’s another ‘point and click’ style game – but what opportunities does that give people who actually write stories? “So few games actually fulfil their story potential that anything even halfway there is a major landmark. That’s an exciting thing to be a part of. And then, again, there’s the interactivity and the challenge of writing branching paths, multiple routes, that must still tie in to one another and make a good story. That part of it doesn’t make a writer or game designer’s job any easier, but it’s something only games can do, and is a big advantage for the medium.”
If writing is such a big advantage, I asked Antony why more developers don’t use more dedicated story writers? “The medium’s immaturity makes it hard to be taken seriously as an artform, and can result in “the talent” — actors, directors, sometimes even writers — not giving a game their full attention and effort, and figuring nobody will care because, well, it’s only a silly videogame, isn’t it? And the interactivity means you’re not in control of the pace, sometimes even the order, at which your story unfolds, and that makes it very hard to apply all the methods and tricks you may have spent years perfecting in linear media.”
Some developers are getting it right, games such as ‘Mass Effect’, ‘Portal’, and ‘Brütal Legend’, but I think the industry has a long way to go. Still I do think that the writing in a game can make the game better and stand out from all the rest, I asked Antony what he felt good writing does for a game. “What good game writing can do, is elevate a “good” game into the “great” category. Portal is the best recent example of this; the gameplay was good, and the concept innovative enough, that it would have been a fun game even if it had literally had no script. But the character of GLaDOS, and the story that unfolded primarily through her dialogue, all turned a neat little game into a cultural phenomenon. Also, Jonathan Coulton’s theme song didn’t hurt.”
If finding a writer in the games industry is hard enough, finding a female writer in the games industry is even rarer. Daughter of author Terry Pratchett, Rhianna Pratchett has moved far beyond her father’s shadow, writing Codemaster’s ‘Overlord’ games, creating some of the ‘Mirror’s Edge’ universe, and realistically proportioned heroine ‘Faith’ as well as working on the new Prince of Persia and Heavenly Sword. So how does a girl get a job writing for games? “I originally started out as a games journalist, working for the likes of PC Zone magazine and The Guardian newspaper. After a few years at the coalface I was offered a part-time job as a story editor for a small, European-developed hardcore RPG. Off the back of that I managed to get a few small writing gigs until I became the writer for Sony’s Heavenly Sword – my first AAA title. It wasn’t so much of a coherent plan as opportunities being presenting and me thinking ‘Okay then, I’ll give that a go!”
Rhianna has worked on all areas of the process in creating a story that is fun, humorous but most of all well written and gives people the drive to continue playing the game. So what is the difference between writing by yourself or as part of a team? “Even if you’re the solo writer on a project, narrative creation is still a collaborative process. You’re constantly working across the different sub-teams from the designers and animators, right through to the audio and marketing teams. Although I enjoy taking the lead writer role, having narrative support (be it in the form of narrative designers or other creative professionals) can be invaluable. The more people that are on the side of story, the better!”
As a fellow female working in the games industry, I thought it might be interesting what she felt when it came to writing for a female character – are they all just ‘boobs and bums’ (don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of the old ‘T and A’ – when coupled with some personality)? “I think it’s great for a female character to look sexy (or a male character for that matter) as long as she’s more than just that. That she has genuine personality, interesting traits, flaws and importance to the story and gameplay; that she’s dressed more or less appropriately for her role. If the majority of what she represents is eye candy, that’s when I start getting bored.”
In the case of the game Mirror’s Edge, the female character was different; realistic and without a bust like two bald men in a tube top. Even though she runs along walls and leaps across tall buildings (or in my case, falls to her bloody demise), she still has a personality far more believable than most females in gaming today. It is also great to see that Rhianna continued the story of Faith with a series of comic book stories set before the game: “I’ve had a lot of positive reactions to the character of Faith and it was a lot of fun to developer her further in the Mirror’s Edge comics. I was personally very happy with her visual look in the game. People argued about the tattoos, but in the comic there’s a lot more details about their origins and significance in the character’s backstory.”
When a game doesn’t appear to have that much of a storyline the characters and graphics are probably trying to make up for it. The best possible way to give a character a personality is through writing and scripting, although I asked Rhianna why many games companies seem not to take this option: “I have a personal gripe (and I’m not saying it’s a reasonable one) with developers giving the aforementioned clichéd nymphet character glasses to make her appear to look ‘smart’. Some people have the same inner grumble about characters with scars or tattoos to make them look ‘hard’. The glasses-on-bimbo thing sometimes happens in the worst Hollywood drivel (the Alone in the Dark movie, I’m looking at you) and it comes across as merely a silly affectation. Did she suffer from pink bottle-bottom NHS spectacles at the age of 8 years old? Were they occasionally held together with sticky tape across the nose? I think not. If a character is going to be hard or cool or smart or whatever, then it should be as much down to their gameplay role, narrative construction, dialogue and audio, as it is to their visuals.” For the ‘glasses on bimbo’s thing’, I’m personally looking at ‘sex-retary’ Bayonetta and her ‘not NHS’ specs.
So, it seems that there are at least two individuals focussed on developing writing in games. As games struggle to be seen less as a toy, and more as a medium comparable to books, films and TV – I asked both Rhianna and Antony what they thought the future of writing in games was. Rhianna was hopeful that the hiring of writers would become more widespread: “I’m hoping that we’ll see more narrative professionals being brought on board at the start of a project, rather than after a game world has been defined and structured. Games narrative needs to be the chocolate chips inside the gooey cookie of games development, and not just the chocolate sprinkles on the top. As a result I think we’ll see more sophisticated stories being created across the board, and not just by a select few.”
For Antony, it seems that he believes the seeds of good writing already exist, but need to be nurtured as the games industry itself develops: “Just constant improvement and boundary-pushing. There are enough well-written games out there now that people know what needs to be done, and how it can be done. They just need to apply that to more games. And I’m not just talking about writers. Much like Hollywood, game writers are often the least powerful people involved in a production. Game designers, producers and executives need to make these decisions as well, and then, if we’re lucky, we can all look forward to a golden age. Of course, the thing about golden ages is that you never realise you’re in one until it’s over…”
For me, story is important. It’s the reason I can’t wait for ‘Mass Effect 2’. I’m not looking forward to it because of the improved graphics or combat system, I’m looking forward to it because I care about Shepard and what happens to her and and her crew (my Shepard is a take no prisoners her – thank you very much). I care much less about the fact that Isaac may or may not have antigrav boots all the time in ‘Dead Space 2′ – I want to find out what happens to him and that Gorram marker… and I also want to see what happens when Faith lands the blinkin’ helicopter at the beginning of ‘Mirror’s Edge 2’. As soon as writing becomes as big a consideration as gameplay and graphics in games, and with people like Antony and Rhianna working to make that happen – I think the whole industry will be better off as a result.