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Rebuttal: Why Writers In The Games Industry Matter
Rebuttal: Why Writers In The Games Industry Matter
March 24, 2008 | By Ron Toland

March 24, 2008 | By Ron Toland
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[Adam Maxwell stirred up a hornet's nest with his argument against writers in the games industry - an editorial Maxwell has since commented on further on his personal weblog - but the IGDA Game Writers SIG isn't going to stand for it. In this rebuttal, Brainstem Games' Ron Toland aims to put the "well-circulated myth" that "writers are nice to have, but completely dispensable" to rest.]

In his op-ed piece, “The Case Against Writers in the Games Industry,” Adam Maxwell articulates a well-circulated myth: to make a good game, writers are nice to have, but are completely dispensable.

It is time for this myth to be laid to rest. It needs to find its place in the graveyard of outdated truths, along with the line that “you don't need artists to make good games,” or “you don't need designers to make good games.”

As we can see from Maxwell's article, he is completely in thrall to this myth:

"Had I been hired simply as a writer that would have been the end for me. You see, that studio imploded very shortly thereafter, but it’s not that implosion that would have doomed me -- as a designer I survived. No, what would have doomed me is the simple, and some would say sad, truth: There is no places for writers in our industry."

I suspect that Maxwell survived because he carried the label of designer, even though what he was doing was (technical) writing. Why would the label "writer" have hurt him? Because of the myth about writers in the games industry that he still believes.

This myth is based on a profound misunderstanding of the role of the writer in game development. Maxwell provides several examples of this misunderstanding:

“When a writer sits down to build a story, they are usually building a plot.”

There are two mistakes in that sentence. First, building a story means building characters, the relationships between those characters, the setting around the characters, and the conflicts—plots—that involve the characters. Second, game writers should never sit down alone to build a story. They should meet with the entire team so that the art, sound, game mechanics, and story all work together to craft an interactive experience.

"The work of the writer is inherently linear – the work of the designer is typically *not*."

A bold but bogus claim. Has he never played D&D? Read an RPG module that accommodates several different paths to play through? Read a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book? All of the above were created by writers. All use non-linear storytelling.

Conversely, the work of the designer is often very linear. Super Mario Brothers is an incredibly linear game. So are Portal, the Heroes of Might and Magic series, and many others. All of those games were designed to be linear, and are great games.

Games are often linear because of limitations in technology and time. Writers can help make that linear experience feel more free than it really is, by involving the player in an unfolding story.

"...a writer expresses the plot by putting together scenes"

False. Portal has no cut scenes, but plenty of plot, all expressed through dialogue, character and setting. These were crafted by the writer to provide what the designers felt was missing from the game. Rather than do it themselves, they did the right thing and called in a professional. The result was one of the year's most impressive games.

"This is why the writer’s work is linear -- the writer’s power depends on the sequence of events."

Again, false. It seems he's got movie scriptwriting confused with game writing. It has been established in the games industry that the two are different, and require different skills.

“...that’s something you can never say about a writer. No matter how well written, a story can’t make the game better."

Strange words, since this is exactly what the lead designer on Portal said at GDC during their post-mortem. They had the game mechanics down, but needed a good story, and a good writer, to make the game better.

Maxwell also goes astray when he asserts that a lack of authorial control cripples game writing from the start:

"...authorial control is not something native to video games...It exists, I don’t deny it, but where it exists it does so because it has been enforced. Special effort has to be made to accommodate it; in the early history of gaming new technologies had to be created to enable it at all, in fact."

The notion of authorial control is another myth. Does the director of a film control the conditions in which I see it? Does he know how often I'll pause a DVD to go grab some popcorn, or when I might doze off and have to finish the movie later?

The idea that artists can control how audiences experience their art is a false hope. Games, with their inherently interactive nature, just make it more obvious. Good writing in a game can have just as much emotional impact as good writing in movie, so long as the writer knows how to use the medium.

Even worse than his myths about game writing, Maxwell has mistaken beliefs about the role of designers:

"A writer might create the characters, and a writer certainly architects the plot of a game’s story, but the work a player actually sees and consumes? That is the work of the designer..."

That's a pretty hefty claim. Do the designers also create the art consumed by the player? Or write the code that enables the game mechanics? Or compose the music playing in the background of the game?

No. Neither should designers be the primary person on a team concerned with story.

According to Maxwell, the designer's job isn't made any easier by the presence of a writer:

"Case in point, as a part of my job on Dirty Harry, I met with our writer once a week to discuss the story, his progress in the script, changes we had made to the game that he had to accommodate. It was a great process that really helped the game, but it was also a 3-4 hour event, once a week....During that time, I was not balancing weapons, implementing core game play systems or overseeing the work of the rest of the team, which was what my job description actually called for...I’m not saying this time was wasted, but it was time where part of the game design was suffering for the sake of the writer."

A wonderful anecdote that fails to prove his point. Is he claiming that, as a designer, he never talked to the programming team? Never once stopped to see what an artist was modeling, or talked to the art team? And I suppose he never spoke to the sound designers, either?

Didn't those meetings take time away from working on game mechanics? Or are they properly recognized as being part and parcel of developing complex software with a team of people?

Instead of showing how inconvenient writers are, Maxwell's story supports the idea of having a writer on staff and integrated with the development team. That would give the writer direct access to all departments and give the designer more time for balancing game mechanics.

His worst mistake is that he implies that designers are the only people required to make a good game:

"Designers give us puzzles to solve, worlds to explore, new ways to interact and above all, new games to play...Even in a linear single player experience where story is king -- say an old school RPG, writers alone can’t get your game done; you will need designers to implement game play."

False. Game development teams give us new games to play. You can't have a game without programmers. A game without artists is going to look terrible. A game without designers won't have good mechanics. A game without sound designers is going to sound cheesy. A game without writers (or someone acting as the writer, even if they're called a designer or narrative designer or scribbler-in-chief) will probably be full of clichés. Just like movies, games require a lot of different disciplines to come together and make something fantastic.

Writers are not game designers. Nor are they merely dialogue-generation-machines. Writers use story—character, setting, and plot—to enhance the experience of players, just as sound designers use music and sound effects to improve the player's experience.

There are many tools in the writer's toolbox for conveying a game's story. Story can be expressed through dialogue, or the graffiti on a cement wall, or the name of a character. This is the writer's unique role, their place on a team of talented people with different skills.

Can you make a game without a writer? Yes. But, like a game without sound, their absence can be felt. Development teams need writers to help them craft the best stories they can for their games.

Better stories lead to better games. And that's good for everyone.

[The IGDA Game Writers' Special Interest Group was formed in 2002 to improve game writing as a craft and combat the myths surrounding game writing. They offer an active community to support anyone involved in game writing, from dialogue scripters to narrative designers to those managing writers. They encourage anyone interested in the topics discussed to visit their website or their wiki to learn more about them and join the conversation.]


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