Why Screenwriters Fail at Game Writing

Posted: May 28, 2012 in Uncategorized

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.

TJ

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Comments
  1. Jessica M. says:

    Is story just as important as gameplay though? if you make a story driven game like Mass Effect, you don’t want to write a story blind or an after thought being you got to work it into the action parts of the game (example, Squadmates talking to Shepard while getting to point A to B, or an action the player takes to progress the story). Is there a way where you work both the story and action together like what you do with Ratchet and Clank to move the story along without the help of movies? One of my fav parts of your writing is how you insert the story within the gameplay as well while you’re flying though levels and what not. Do you write a basic idea down first or the gameplay is figured out first and you pretty much add a script to it while you go along (with it changing within the development cycle)

    Also: besides the fact you have to work around the designers gameplay, do you have to also have an basic understanding how a game works in writing as well. I see a lot of good writers, as you said, try to pick up writing for video games but fail being how different the narrative is suppose to be, say to a TV show or a Movie. Writing in video games always seemed to interest me, so if I ask too many questions, sorry in advanced.

    • tjfixman says:

      Story is absolutely as important. It’s what gives meaning to our actions inside the game world. The point most people forget is that the designers are storytellers too. Their enemy setups, objectives, and set pieces are part of the hero’s experience, so working with them to sync up the story you’re trying to tell with what they’re designing is key. Sometimes they design something that breaks the story but turns out to be really fun. When that happens, it’s the story that usually needs to bend. Not always, mind you, but usually. The key is to make a fun game, and a good writer will figure out ways to support anything that allows the player to have more fun.

      • Lorpius Prime says:

        “Designers are storytellers too.”

        That’s the line I think a lot of us were looking for. Great big kernel of wisdom in such a tiny, four-word package. I suggest framing it. :-)

  2. nunya bidnis says:

    “Games are built around two simple questions: ‘Where does our tech shine?’ and ‘What is fun to play?'”

    No offense, but this strikes me as kind of backwards as either an industry conception or a guideline for creation. It seems to me no different than a writer sitting down and saying “What is fun to read, and what am I already good at writing?”

    It’s almost kind of bizarre, and certainly a sign of the relative immaturity of the medium if development, and certainly the consumption of games is focused on the mechanical aspects of the title as opposed to its content and what it communicates to the audience. I imagine if the spoken word was as centered on the mechanics of operation as games are, we’d be gurgling and ululating instead of -communicating-.

    • tjfixman says:

      No offense taken, but to be frank, I think the outlook is a bit naive. Here is the thing – games cost millions to make, involve thousands of man hours to create, and take hundreds of people to put together. There is a lot on the line. And if the game tanks, often times the studio will tank and the publishers loses a huge investment. People lose their jobs. Our audience will be left with either a canceled game or a crappy one they just wasted $60 on. So looking at the studio’s abilities and strengths in order to determine what kind of game will give them the best chance of success is the most mature thing they can do.

      And again, this doesn’t mean story concept doesn’t come into play. But for example, if a team REALLY wants to do a space game, and has an awesome idea for one – but they learn that they can’t do zero gravity or some other feature publishers tell them their audience expects, is it mature to proceed anyway and set themselves up for failure? Or is it smarter to find a world they can do better than any other studio out there?

      To me, making tough choices like this in an effort to bring better games to our audience is a sign of the maturity of our industry.

  3. I’ve been working in quality management of a big software company for many years now. And I’m viscerally familiar with ever changing scopes, crammed deadlines and the very common phenomenon of technology-defines-product (rather than vision-defines-product).

    However, for some reason even I have the romantic notion that in the game industry, the narrative would take a leading role during development. Of course, it may be that my impression comes from a crooked sample, since I love deeply-story-driven games (and preferrably buy/play those).

    So my question would be:
    Would you apply this assessment to all kinds of games? I mean, I can very well imagine that a Pokemon (insert color here) or a Command&Conquer (insert number here) is extremely subject to gameplay/engine mechanics defining and re-defining the plot. But what about a Dragon Age? or a Final Fantasy? Or a Deus Ex?

    Regardless of that: great post/blog!
    Bookmarked for great justice.

    • tjfixman says:

      Story may take a lead in the sense that the writer could create the initial concept based on what the studio is looking for. But if you’re hoping story will guide the entire project towards Gold, you’re going to have an uphill battle. Even with heavily story-based games like Mass Effect, there has to be a handshake between story and design. What you’re asking for from a story perspective may turn out to be more fun to watch than it is to play, or the team may run into production constraints that prevent them from executing your vision on time.

      Production teams also spend a lot of time developing mechanics (Ratchet’s hoverboots in ACiT, the portal gun in Portal, etc.). These mechanics are always in a state of flux, and as a result the setups are changed to compliment them. As a writer you must support these mechanics with your story. If a mechanic breaks the story you’re trying to tell, but it makes the game fun, then the compromise needs to come from story.

      Hope that helps!

  4. Jon Forbing says:

    That makes writing for games sound even more exciting than I originally thought. I want your job.

    No, really.

  5. Santiago says:

    Do you get hired as a game writer directly or do you work from within the industry? I became an English major to become a game writer but I have no idea how to move to that path. Any suggestions?

    • tjfixman says:

      Hey Santiago, I may write a full article on this since this is such a big question, but the short and simple answer is “develop a portfolio.” Not many studios (none, I suspect) will hire a game writer who has not been published and established. Write for anyone who will publish you, fiction or nonfiction. Many studios will hire their writers by contacting literary agencies. In some cases, they will simply post a job online. I would also suggest you learn about game making by working as a designer or tester.

  6. Lorpius Prime says:

    I’m curious, do you believe that this is the way the process *ought* to work? I know quite a few gamers like myself often complain about the way story and writing in games seems to take a back seat to other concerns.

    I cringed when you said that a game pitch is generally built solely around a bit of gameplay or technology, because in my fantasy world, the story concept would come first and then go seeking the appropriate game mechanics or tech to tell that story.

    So I’m wondering if that’s just a completely unrealistic expectation on my part. Do games need to be built in the way you described, presumably because that’s just the nature of the business and the market?

    • tjfixman says:

      This is a tough question. Like you, I wish I could pitch a story, develop a treatment or script, and have that be the guiding force through production. Every writer wants to see story come first. But seeing how much games change throughout production reminds me that it just isn’t viable. There are so many moving parts, focus tests, and schedule changes that compromises have to be made by everyone in order to make the best game possible.

      As for your expectation, I’m sorry I have to tell you this – but unless you’re working on a small indie game, mechanics trump everything. But that doesn’t mean story gets no say at all. When it comes to major beats of the levels, level objectives, what everything looks like from characters to environments to vehicles — all that is story driven!

  7. Sam Neal says:

    Loved the article man. A really interesting read.

    I’ve always assumed that game writing was more akin to building with Lego blocks than painting on a blank canvas, but now it sounds as if Lego blocks are too open of a metaphor.

  8. Hi, I’m an aspiring games writer and I found your article really interesting and insightful. Although I’ve done quite a bit of screenwriting, but my university only offers a single course on writing for games so I found this article quite helpful. Thanks!

  9. MADevine says:

    I really enjoy reading articles like this where they talk about the realism of working as a game writer; even more so when they’re very well written. I too have seen the Hollywood writer fail at games and my thought usually isn’t “How could they fail?” like most people, but “Did they really think it would be that easy?” I feel it’s a situation of these “experienced” writers underestimating the skill required to make a game work. You brought up many good points about creating a situation where motivation is found (why we do X in situation Y) that in a movie might never be an issue, which just so happens to be what a game is all about.

    In a medium where interactivity is the art, it’s no surprise to me that so many can’t make it work. It might be a bit off topic, but I think the concept of player choice is what stumps many writers. Movies only require one or two plot points and it’s a linear progression from A to B. With the increasing popularity of games that give you a freedom to do whatever you want to whomever you want, multiple endings and branching stories add an even greater level of difficulty to the design of a game. Thinking about the consequences of actions isn’t something one things about when writing a book or a script; nor is working with multiple writers and designers, programmers telling you what’s possible, or artists saying it would be too hard, etc.

    I’ve been building my own portfolio as a writer and while I’m not published yet, my first game design project is a combat/interaction system, not story. I have enough story ideas that I don’t need to make one for a game. The point (in spirit) is that you need to wrap the story around what will make the game fun and interesting (combat/environmental navigation/unique puzzle mechanics/etc) and I think this is what a lot of aspiring game writers need to know and understand.

    Really a great article that anyone wanting to be a game writer should read. I hope to see more about this topic from you. Thanks!

  10. MADevine says:

    Reblogged this on Ramblings of a MAD Man and commented:
    A great article about the nature of writing for an interactive medium.
    Author note: TJ Fixman is a writer for film, TV, comics, and video games. He is currently a Senior Writer at Insomniac Games, where he has written for franchises like Ratchet & Clank, Resistance, and Overstrike.

  11. Andrew says:

    Hello. I’m studying to be an English teacher and the Ratchet games were seminal to my adolescence, so this comes from a place of love. Placing mechanics above stories does not make sense to me.

    To be clear, I think story and mechanics can work together without either playing second fiddle (although, having no experience in making a damn game, consider this a philosophical position rather than a researched proposal),

    I think a lot of this comes down to what you said to the commenter with a similar question: “unless you’re working on a small indie game, mechanics trump everything.”

    There are no steadfast rules. Bastion started as a story, with multi-weapon isometric combat acting as a realization. Uncharted began as a story. I remember watching Ratchet and Clank making ofs in 2002, so proud I had unlocked them through gameplay. That game began as an alien and his companion, and became about weapons.

    Maybe those counter examples don’t hold up to scrutiny, but I contest that one cannot create something without a story behind it. Sure, actual lines of dialogue change. Sure, things get cut. But the thought of a mechanic must go hand-in-hand with a story, or follow from it.

    Or, at least, that’s how it should appear, right? The worst sin a game can exact is having non-contextualized, or poorly contextualized gameplay. Like any created piece, if the player/reader/viewer doesn’t care about what is going on, the piece fails. I wanted to complete Clank’s cool time puzzle things in Crack in Time because I cared about bringing him and Ratchet together. Without characters, dialogue, and, at that point, five games of bosom buddies behind it, those puzzles would have been a tech demo.

    My point is not to attack your argument. I don’t think you’re giving writers like yourself enough credit. Without you, games are nothing but Yar’s Revenge–meaningless colors and mechanics without explanation or purpose.

    • tjfixman says:

      Hey Andrew,

      You bring up some good points, but I think you’re off on a few things and misinterpreting another. Let’s start off with the misinterpretation: games often do have a story concept developed at the genesis of the idea. That is just a concept, mind you; a basic idea of the world the game will explore. When I say story compliments gameplay, I am referring to the three act narrative that details what the hero experiences.

      So applying that to your remarks about other games – well, I’m not sure where you get your information, but as someone intimately familiar with both Naughty Dog and Insomniac, I can assure you you’re incorrect. Both Amy and I write as the game goes through production, so things change daily for us due to changes in gameplay. Neither Uncharted nor Ratchet & Clank started off with story at all. Yes, when a game moves into production, we have a plan for what we want to say with our characters and the adventure they will have – but that adventure is designed with production constraints. This is no different than a comic book writer adhering to 5-7 panels per page, or an animation writer minimizing crowd scenes for the sake of production. The reality of being a working writer is that you do not act in a vacuum. You work as a team, and must develop your story with the designers and programmers in mind.

      What we do is very important – critical, I would say. Nothing in my article is intended to suggest otherwise. My point is that good game writers knows how to move with the grain of gameplay.

      TJ

      • Andrew says:

        Yeah, I’m running off of what developers said in behind the scenes vids while you are, you know, actually a developer.

        I see that writers of any medium have to work with other people to reach a completed project. I see that writing and story creation are not set-off universes but integrated into the creation as a whole. What I don’t see is how it is better for the future of video games to lead with mechanics.

        Not all games need to have deep themes about human growth and ethics. I love those that do, though. Even though Portal began as a fantasy creature laying down gateways to find a turtle or whatever, where it ended up is this great dynamic of a condescending narrator and an emerging feminist rhetoric (explored more in Portal 2). Even if Journey began with sand tech and character flight, it became an amazingly broad metaphor for life and spirituality or death and socialization.

        In my journey to become a teacher, I’ve learned that making lessons fun only goes so far. Sometimes, you have to have students experience things that are hard and sad. When you’re dealing with racism or sexism or genocide, making it fun is patronizing. Ratchet games have dealt with loss and ostracizing and responsibility, usually in a cartoonish manner, but when Clank apparently dies in RC1, we care not because he has a jet pack that lets us fly, we care because we’ve watched this naive little robot come into his own.

        Games aren’t just about being serious or about being fun. They are about allowing players to interact in worlds other than their own, to whatever end. Programmers and designers and artists and QA all have a part in that, but without good narrative there’s no cohesion.

        I think you know and believe that. But your definitions of what working on games is about seemed limited, so I wanted to expand on it. Again, thanks for starting this important dialogue.

  12. Lee says:

    “Games are built around two simple questions: ‘Where does our tech shine?’ and ‘What is fun to play?'”

    I like this. In video games, content is always more important than form.

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