This weekend I was down in Santa Monica, enjoying a nerd-powered tapas breakfast with a group of friends and a few film/TV folks I had never met before. As is customary when meeting new people, the subject of my profession came up. It’s a conversation I’m familiar with, and it usually goes something like this:
“So what do you do at Insomniac?”
“I’m a game writer.”
“So you, like, write the code?”
“I write the stories. What the characters do and say.” I pause so they can digest the revelation that my job actually exists.
“So an entire studio takes your script and turns it into a game? That’s awesome!”
Here is where my dilemma begins. Their assumption isn’t off base; in fact, it’s a pretty logical conclusion given how the rest of the entertainment industry operates. And yet, it is so completely backwards that it would take me the rest of the meal to explain the differences. So, do I launch into an explanation just so that they leave the table enlightened? Or do I take another bite of my eggs benedict, smile, and allow them to think I wield more power than I do, just so everyone can move on and talk about The Avengers?
This time I rattled off a short, bottled answer about it being collaborative and let it go at that. But every time I get asked that question, I’m reminded of just how skewed the perception of game writing is. I’ve met feature writers who tried their hands at game writing and crashed spectacularly, all because they weren’t ready for the mercurial madness of game production. So how can an industry that regularly churns out cinematic content be so different than the film industry it cribs from?
Well, for one thing, game development almost never starts with story. Every time I go to a convention, I meet fledgling writers who tell me they have an amazing game idea they’d love to pitch me. But the truth is, games aren’t pitched like movies or TV. What gets a game green lit is invariably tech or gameplay driven. A studio discovers they can do incredible realtime zero-g simulation with their engine? We’re doing a space adventure! Did the design team discover some super fun time-based game mechanic? Let’s do a time travel game! Games are built around two simple questions: “Where does our tech shine?” and “What is fun to play?”
Crafting a game story is more about assembling pieces given to us by other departments. Once we know what our core concept is, the Creative Director, Design Lead, and Writer will sit down and look at everything we have to play with as if it were a puzzle: minutes of animation time, number of characters we can build, the number of levels, etc. If the art department is passionate about a desert level, we’ll try to work it in. If a set piece was successfully prototyped, we’ll try to work it in. So while developing a feature starts and ends with the story, developing a game means assembling a puzzle with constantly changing pieces. Items are cut, rethought, added, and changed with such astounding regularity it’s almost impossible to track.
Which brings me to the next hurdle – extreme iteration. The primary goal of every game story, from Mass Effect to BioShock to Ratchet & Clank, is to provide context for gameplay. Why am I here? What am I doing? How do I succeed? Why did I fail? The answers to these questions are both critical and unpredictable. At Insomniac we test and rework every level, setup, and boss encounter to ensure the player understands what they’re doing while (most importantly) having fun. Often times, this can mean modifying characters, rewriting VO, or even cutting full levels – and as a writer, it’s my job to make sense of it. It doesn’t matter if your hero wouldn’t go through that door without backup. Those NPCs were cut, and gameplay says he needs to go through that door. Make it work!
Another common stumble feature writers make is thinking their scenes are the main focus. The best cinematics are used to pay off what could not be done technically in gameplay, provide our heroes with emotional weight, or simply cover a level load. They’re not there so you can have your gruff antihero monologue for an hour about his dark past. Drama is great, but video games aren’t just show-don’t-tell; they’re do-don’t-tell. The medium is about experiencing the world, not watching it. Feature writers are used to a format where they control what the characters do, so this switch can be challenging. Think of it this way: it’s tough to execute an emotionally resonant exchange between two characters when they’re free to teabag each other.
The last factor feature writers struggle with is the all-too-familiar focus test line. You’ve heard them before in games. You’re walking along, slaying dragons or looking for that third generator to reboot, and suddenly your hero says something so dry and on-the-nose that it sounds out of character. “Looks like I need to access that door to reach the security room. Maybe I should use the [insert McGuffin here] I just got in the previous room!” Suddenly, you’re reminded it’s a game, and you wonder why such a terrible line exists. It’s not because the writer is bad. Well, sometimes it is. But other times we find that subtlety is lost on a lot of players, and we need to state clearly and explicitly what they need to do in order to get through a setup. Taking the hit so the game can shine is a tough part of our jobs, and many writers can’t handle it.
I’ve often joked that game writing is like building a raft of twigs and twine, and riding it down a waterfall while designers snip the twine. But changes are a part of the job, and when you find the game magically becoming more fun and engaging, you begin to understand why those changes had to be made. Those who can roll with the punches and bring a project home with a fun story will find that they took part in building an amazing experience. And that is something that no movie could ever dream of doing.