Saturday, 12 February 2011

The Challenge of AAA Writing, or Why Tom Can't Get No Respect

This is a guest post by Mark Seymour, the top student from the Story Design module I taught at Southbank Uni last year. Here he talks a bit about my classes, a bit about the role of the writer in games, and lots about Dead Space 2 and how narrative design in AAAs isn't all it could be. Read and learn how to complain about everything and still sound like a great guy.

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:

1. Multiplayer
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.


  1. I think it's absolutely fair to say that games writers don't hold as much power as writers in other mediums. This said, I try not to forget what this blog is named after: the fact that in our industry we're pursuing /interactive/ stories, and that puts gameplay - not writing - in the spotlight.

    I'd also point out that there are lots of infamous instances of auteur screenwriters having their work censored, recut, mis-sold and otherwise messed around with. Of course, in games this is de rigueur.

  2. Consumers used to buy interactive fiction. They don't any more; the truth is we were much closer to the panacea of the game writer as king in the past.

    The structure of AAA titles right now means writing will never be considered to be of primary importance. What sells is the action, the pretty, the firework splendour. They are the dumb Hollywood action movies, the Transformers of the gaming world, where spectacle is sold.

    But games are too long. I can watch Syriana in 2 hours. Even the dumbest FPS will drown a lot more hours than that. Generalising to simplify the sales situation: the young audience with time to burn are seekers of spectacle; the older been-around-the-block gamer looks for casual play-in-small-bites, because he/she doesn't have the time to see the game through more than Syriana at a time if that long.

    Complex game narrative is lost on these customers. What moves millions of AAA units is not story.

    This is why its much more likely that smaller outfits will produce more cutting edge and interesting narrative experiences, who are looking to capture consumers who aren't satisfied by the AAA spectacle.

    I understand this really doesn't explain every title on the market, and there always exceptions, but until writing can prove it has to power to move serious units as strongly as design, well, the writer is not going to win this one.

  3. Since you mention the Coens: Barton Fink? Hollywood's fairly notoriously horrific for writers, and TV might even be worse - but you're probably right video games are worse, still.

    I think there are famous game writers, albeit few. I'd hazard most people who play a lot of narrative-driven RPGs know who Avellone is, and I think you'd be hard-pressed to find an aging adventure game fan who wouldn't recognize at least two of, say, Tim Schafer, Jane Jensen and Ron Gilbert. Sub in Roberta Williams if they're really old. Some might be more "design lead" celebrities, but known primarily for the way they write.

    Anyway, point was I agree with Harbour Master that - at least to a consumer with a passing interest in this topic - the situation looks sorrier now than a decade or two ago, and I desperately wish people would lose the idea a forty-year-old industry is in anything but self-imposed "infancy", because I'm not buying it any more. On a more optimistic note, ultra-niche stuff like Digital or even, to an extent, Penumbra can get exposure now it wouldn't have back then.

  4. I think the internet really is the key to generating respect in this regard. With the rise of the digital age, the traditional canon of What Is Great/What Is Trash is no longer so solidified.

    As long as the right words get spread to the right places (easier said than done, of course, but doable nonetheless), games writing can be elevated to its rightful position.

    @Harbour Master:
    Haven't a lot of JRPGs have coasted off samey mechanics for a long time while selling themselves on having a new story to tell? That's only started to lose steam recently, though I'll admit that turning to Westernization is not the solution I was hoping for.

  5. Jeepers Sid, Japan is a whole different kettle of sushi =) This is a land where manga and anime are considered to be adultworthy mainstream. I think we need a different analysis here. One I'm unfit to provide, even if I did live there for five years - I had little to do with Japanese gaming culture.

  6. Bioshock 2? Seems odd to choose that one instead of it's predecessor, with it's interactive opening.

  7. I felt there was more to talk about in the sequel, both good and bad.