Thursday, May 20, 2010

The unimportance of writing

The idea of a writer as a “crafter of narrative” is an idea that is entrenched, understandable, and I think very misleading in our discussion of video games.

In most creative endeavors, when we talk about writers we are talking about storytellers.  They write the scripts and the books that have a beginning, middle, and end; with a protagonist and antagonist; an inciting incident and a climax—all the things a good narrative ought to have.

The temptation is to assume that when we speak about writing for video games, we are talking about the same person.  In replying to my recent post The importance of writing, Resonance 462 over at Kotaku writes:
But I feel like the author has overlooked something that is paramount to video games, and that's distinguishing themselves from movies. Movies exist to tell stories. Video games exist to be played. Both mediums can deliver compelling narratives, but the difference of passive (watching) and active (playing) is becoming part of video game design. This is a flaw in the direction.
Resonance 462 has assumed that by saying games need to begin with writers instead of programmers, that I am suggesting a narrative be written and the game will exist only to support that narrative.  I can understand why that assumption would be made, especially because a lot of talk about writing for games emphasizes the narrative element in some games (and perhaps one of my own recent posts only adds weight to that assumption).  However, I agree with the writer of this comment that narrative does not find a happy home in video games.

There are other kinds of writers, of course.  There are technical writers, poets, copy writers for advertisements—all sorts of people making their living putting thoughts into the written word.  So when I say “writer” in an unqualified sort of way, I am leaving the option open for the “writer” in question to not be a screenwriter, playwright, or novelist.  In fact, this writer may not be proficient in any traditional creative writing format.  It is entirely unnecessary for a great screenwriter to also be a great novelist, and so it should be for video game writers.

In fact, the writing I have in mind when I think about games—and indeed, in my mind when I wrote The importance of writing—is of rules for board games and card games.  These writers create games, not by creating the board and pieces, but by writing down the rules that the players will follow in order to use the board and pieces correctly.  I see this as the true role of a game writer.  

I myself am very interested in this writer and will likely spend a great deal of time on this blog talking about this writer.  I see it as an exciting creative space to be in now, as video games gain in their cultural stature and the market will begin supporting new kinds of games.  

Bottom line is this: when I say we need writers to begin the process of making games, these writers...

…do not write stories, they write games.

…do not write dialogue, they write games.

…do not write character bios for in-game databases of characters, they write games.

…do not write the exposition in introductions of games, they write games.

…are not consulted about how to make a level more cinematic, they write games.

…do not write code to implement games in software, they write games.

Once the game has been written, of course the writer of the game is free to do any and all of the above things, but only after the game is written.  The game will tell you what the story should be like and what dialogue should be written (if any), how the characters should be described to the player and how the game should be coded.  There will be great games made that don’t use this method—they will be exceptions to the rule.  They will be happy accidents.  To guarantee a consistent generation of quality games, developers need to start with writing—not stories, not characters, not dialogue, but games. 

1 comment:

Charles said...

The 'writers' you're describing already have a title. They're called 'game designers'. I think people would not have gotten confused if you had used this term.