Saturday, 12 February 2011
The Challenge of AAA Writing, or Why Tom Can't Get No Respect
There really is no celebrity game writer culture, is there? No King or Bukowski, no Coen or [David] Simon or even an Alex Garland. It’s not like film or literature where (s)he who holds the pen has the power to draw in an audience based on name alone. I watch a Call of Duty trailer and tick off a mental checklist:
2. Nazis and/or Russians
3. Gratuitous violence
4. NPC with a moustache
And as long as at least two of those are satisfied it’s a preorder and another tropical island paradise for Activision. Show me a trailer for the Transformers movie, though, and I’ll switch off. Story and character are more important than moustaches, AC-130’s and detachable limbs when it comes to cinema but in games it’s usually an afterthought and for the majority of gamers, that doesn’t really matter. Look at World of Warcraft.
Speaking of Alex Garland, by comparative standards Enslaved boasted some of the better AAA writing of last year; its story didn’t feature an awkward sex scene where neither character took their clothes off and at no point did anyone enter monologue and say something like: “I’d have to kill that giant laser-beam vomiting robot by shooting its glowing orange weak spots” ala Alan Wake (how do you go from Max Payne 2 to that?)
But by eschewing dedicated games writers Ninja Theory ensured they had a claim to fame they never could have had by employing an industry specialist. A fame firmly embedded in another medium altogether.
So if there’s one thing I’ve learned from 12 lectures with Tom Jubert it’s that games writers aren’t always on the receiving end of much respect. (Ha, thanks mate, what a legacy that is; knew I shouldn't have told you to write about what you learned - TJ)
In one of the final lectures we listened to a panel of writers recount tales of woe from their own works. Judging by their accounts, both Rhianna Pratchett and Andrew Walsh had a hard time with Mirror’s Edge and the latest Harry Potter game respectively, both having substantial parts of their scripts annihilated without their approval.
Maybe its naivety but I can’t imagine anyone taking Thomas-Anderson’s There Will be Blood script and altering the film’s denouement so Daniel Plainview repents and spends his fortunes helping his disabled son live a better life. People respect his storytelling ability but that doesn’t appear to be the case in the videogame industry. Also, a world without "I drink your milkshake"? Horrid.
That’s not the only thing Tom taught us, and I don’t think he intended to leave that mark, but in the context of story driving gameplay and not the other way around, it seems to me like respect is a hurdle that needs to be conquered.
Lectures weren’t all doom and gloom though. In fact compared to the stress of the 3D level design and 3D character modelling and animation units we studied in tandem with writing, Tom’s lectures were a welcome opportunity to actually talk about some games as well as listen to the writing and ideas others were working on.
Lectures were split into two halves; the first hour dedicated to Tom’s unbridled love of Planescape and the second our own writing. Planescape aside, we studied titles like Bioshock 2 and Everyday the Same Dream to see how they told their stories without employing the conventional cut scene. With our own work – a 3500-word document split between script samples and a general overview - we were encouraged to ditch the tired old cinematic and explore more inventive avenues of storytelling. And it’s not until you sit down and give that a go for yourself that you realise it’s actually damn hard and that the cut scene exists for some very good reasons, not least of all because it’s safe and reliable.
I tried my hand at interactive dialogue, another weary method of storytelling, and while that was a tactical choice to sidestep the cut scene and ensure the man marking my work was slightly appeased, I had a tough time finding ways to tell a story via gameplay and speaking to others on the course, they did to.
It came as no surprise that the indie titles we looked at, by comparison, boasted the lion’s share of the interesting ideas, but having just finished Dead Space 2 there are certainly AAA games with a few ideas of their own. Dead Space takes some of the most artificial game tenets (the HUD and cut scenes predominantly) and ties them neatly into the narrative design. Protagonist Isaac Clarke wears a super high-tech space suit that incorporates the life gauge into its design. When angry Necromorphs begin tearing his kneecaps out of his armpits, the life gauge on his back estimates his chances of survival to an exact measure, all in typical last-generation fashion. The life bar is still a life bar but at least in Dead Space it has been weaved into the lore rather than popping up as an inexplicable red hue around the screen.
Elsewhere, 95% of what could be intrusive cinematics occur with the player in full control and are projected in front of Clarke’s face, again as part of his suit’s repertoire of science-fiction usefulness. By tying mechanics into story, fighting an endless barrage of zombie Mr. Tickles in space becomes a more intense and believable affair, there’s no respite (unless you pause) and without a screen adjourned with endless statistics the world and the horror within takes precedence.
That said Isaac Clarke is still partial to the odd observational comment, the kind of remark that makes you question what the average IQ of people playing videogames is. Thank you for reaffirming the sudden, distinct and total removal of light from the scene, I hadn’t noticed.
Dead Space is far from perfect but the lesson learned from trying to invent creative ways of telling a story is it’s an immensely difficult and risky process and it’s one that doesn’t happen too much.
But as is so often pointed out, this is an industry still riding through relative infancy. The situation now – from the perspective of those who treasure narrative over shooting half Russian half Nazi zombie alien monsters in the face – for the most part is far from idyllic but I’ve come away from these lectures with a little bit of hope that one day, I’ll be able to play a fantastic AAA behemoth title without being reminded of something as glaringly obvious as all the lights going out.