Writing for video games branches out

The theme that stood out during the recent Academy Awards evening was writers and their craft–a dramatic turnaround for an industry that has historically diminished the role of the writer in creating films (Forrest Gump, anyone?). After long years of scrabbling, writers are starting to get some well-deserved recognition.

Sure, film is a visual medium, so visual artists–directors, directors of photography, art directors, and others–will always be essential. But so are professional writers who have experience crafting narratives and developing characters, skills that apply to creating video games, a similarly collaborative process.

"You wouldn't have a game designer also do animation and modelling," explained Sean Smillie in a meeting room at Yaletown's Action Pants, where he works as a senior writer and game designer. Typically, however, the responsibility for any writing that may be required by a video game has been handed off to the designer, whose job is to structure the gaming experience.

Anne Toole, who formed the Writers Cabal partnership with Sande Chen to provide narrative design and dialogue for games, has also written for film and television. On the phone from her Los Angeles office, she said that while film is a director's medium and television is a writer's medium, video games are "a designer or programmer-driven medium. Designers are the ones calling the shots" when a video game is being created.

This makes sense when you realize that "If you take the story out of the game, you still have a game. But if you take the game out of the story, you don't have a game," said Toole.

Ultimately, video games are an interactive medium different from film and television. "It's not just the dependencies of writing" that need to be considered, said lead designer Eric Holmes, in the staff lounge at Vancouver's Radical Games. Video-game writers need to consider "the dependencies of the game, of interactivity".

Which is why screenwriters don't necessarily make the best video-game writers, because they are just as likely to hand over a 120-page script and expect that the developers can make it into a game. They simply don't appreciate the implications of interactivity.

"The biggest thing about this medium–and it is a unique challenge for writers–is you have this wild card, which is the player," said Holmes. "You're throwing an actor, basically, into the scene." Writing video games means taking this player-as-actor dimension into account.

Every time a player is provided with the opportunity to make a decision, for example, the game needs to branch and tell the story–or a variation of the story–for each possible decision. Every subsequent decision branches the story even further.

That's not even factoring in games' dialogue requirements. Holmes said that with Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, more than 5,000 lines of dialogue were required.

"Some video games have 20,000 lines of dialogue," echoed Smillie, which could include 300 different ways for a soldier to give a victory yell.

But despite the need for writers, few developers have staff positions for them. Toole said that in 1998, when she first tried to get work writing video games, everyone was saying that the industry needed good writers. "But no one seemed willing to hire them."

The situation has changed somewhat, as game designers commonly turn to contract writers for help getting the work done. That's where writers like Toole and Chen enter the picture. The biggest drawback of being a contract writer, said Toole, is that she doesn't have real access to the rest of the team, so her ability to collaborate in the game development is compromised.

To solve this problem, Smillie said, writers must be part of the team from the start. "If you're going to hire a writer to write for a game, you bring that writer in, you introduce them to the team, you have them see who's doing what and what's going on, have them on-site writing. I firmly believe that when you start a game idea there's the writer, the producer, the game designer, the art director. Let the writer do his job but have everyone else contribute."

Holmes agreed that collaboration is key. "An artist or designer can come up with a line, but it takes someone who's a writer, who's been doing nothing but writing for years, to know that it's right."