Hooray For The Writer’s Strike?

By Alec Meer on November 27th, 2007 at 3:34 pm.


COD4′s Captain Price. Everything a real man should be.

Protesting writers may be dragging the US movie and TV industries to an embarrassing halt at the moment, but ever-terse entertainment industy rag Variety (via Eurogamer) reckons distressed wordsmiths may turn to videogames to fill their increasingly empty coffers.

Having slaved through more atrociously-written games than I can remember, that’s potentially very exciting. While a disdainful look at the last few months of similarly atrociously-written Hollywood blockbusters (Die Hard 4.0′s “send all the gas!” lunacy kept me chuckling for months) suggests that this won’t lead to an influx of Bioshock and Planescape beaters, having professional writers attached to games is surely a step up from getting That Quiet Guy In The Office Who’s Good At Apostrophes to do it. The idea of TV writers coming over is particularly exciting – there’s been some incredible US genre telly of late.

“It’s hardly lucrative work compared to a major feature assignment or spec sale”, says the Variety piece, replete with its signature and gigglesomely futile abbrevitations (“vidgames”). “Typical fee is $50,000 and only rarely do publishers go after bigger names or more experienced writers who also get involved in the design process and might command low six figures.”

But when those writers are desperate for work? Significantly, the Writers Guild of America is allowing its strikers to work on games. As the Variety piece points out, the trouble is that, for a great many games, a story is something often added only after the concept’s sorted. In so many cases, most of the writer’s work finishes up as simply sloppy cutscene cement between the more solid brickwork of the game itself. Given this, would game publishers see the merit in getting expensive pros to do this dirty work? I’d love to see more examples of the approach taken by Valve and Irrational, where the writers are involved in shaping the entire game.


Assassin’s Creed. Ssh, now.

There’s also the matter of differing disciplines. The most effective method of telling a game tale is often to discover it as you play, rather than the stop, watch and listen cutscene route – Portal and its simultaneous play’n'narration versus Assasin’s Creed and its protracted, shut up, Oh God, please shut up between-mission exposition, for instance. Would games be an easy fit for writers who’ve honed their skills on non-interactive storytelling? If there was a surge of striking scripters fleeing into games, it could simply result in more of the same overwritten cutscene frenzy that blights the flow of so many games.

At the same time, I keep catching hints of increasing maturity in how to write a game, with an exciting awareness of how the form differs from simply watching. As well as the obvious Valve and Irrational efforts, I was floored recently by Call of Duty 4′s interactive cutscenes, and The Darkness’ amazing watching telly on the sofa with your girlfriend moment. Even Crysis, for all its irony-free gung-ho gibberish, has moments of surprising slickness in presenting its narrative. Do games actually need Hollywood guys to come and stick their noses in, or are they on track to sort themselves out?

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32 Comments »

  1. Jim Rossignol says:

    “Send all the gas” was the end of Hollywood.

  2. Piratepete says:

    Personally It would be my dream job to be a writer for games, and as everything I have written short story and fan fiction has been well received I think I could be good at it. Just jumping from mechanical engineering to games industry is a hell of a leap, (I wouldn’t know how to go about it).

    I do think the narrative in games could be better, although I think narrative in games is poor in general Bioshock was a pretty good example of how to do it well. For example the fact that the missions popped up when “would you kindly” was used was brilliant and beautifully explained through the narrative. However it then failed utterly due to the “Are you a Slave or a man” bit with Andrew Ryan, it was a powerful and dark scene, and well done, but just why? Why would he do what he did? It made no sense. Ryans motivations to behave like that are a mystery to me, thats where the writing failed.

    One thing I will say tho is that if we get a bunch of Hollywood writers writing games for us I don’t think the narrative will improve, it will get worse. Look at Lost/Heroes/etc, there is some terrible terrible writing in those shows. Some nice ideas but nothing of consequence is done with them at all, just glossy scenes to demonstrate the ‘idea’ rather than explore it.

    Comic book writers imo offer the best marriage of visuals and story for games. OR me :)

  3. MacBeth says:

    Interestingly (or not) Googling “Send all the gas” has RPS at top spot already…

    I confess I was paying very little attention to the dialogue when I watched Die Hard 4.0 so was trying to refresh my memory…

  4. Alec Meer says:

    Awesome. I’ve never been more proud.

  5. mno says:

    I didn’t particulary like COD4’s Captain Price in the scene from the picture above. He beats up (and tortures?) a tied up man and then executes him.

    Sure, the other guy was involved in detonating a nuclear device, but it was kind of distasteful anyway. Sort of like the US TV series “24″. Yuk.

  6. Acosta says:

    Narrative won´t be important in a game without building the game around the narrative. But for that you must be writers that understand the medium (and its actual technical limitations).

  7. Piratepete says:

    Which is why i would be brilliant at it :)

  8. James says:

    I didn’t particulary like COD4’s Captain Price in the scene from the picture above. He beats up (and tortures?) a tied up man and then executes him.

    Sure, the other guy was involved in detonating a nuclear device, but it was kind of distasteful anyway. Sort of like the US TV series “24″. Yuk.

    I can’t remember the last time I thought a game where you shoot people with massive artillery cannons from a converted cargo plane, blowing them into a fine paste, would ever be “tasteful”. The Price scene is one of the most powerful gaming cut-scenes I’ve witnessed. Brilliant.

  9. Alec Meer says:

    mno: 24 is a cited influence for COD4.

  10. Acosta says:

    Keeping with COD 4, the scene with the artillery cannons was so powerful. I was completely in shock killing people so easily and thinking “is like that, actually this is how it´done and that is what those people in real bombers are seeing”.

    Actually, the only problem in that scene for me were the voices, I would have preferred they kept a more neutral and “robotic” tone so each player could get their own conclusions, and not being forced to think those soldiers were jackasses laughing at that people trying to escape.

  11. mnerec says:

    24 is a cited influence for COD4.

    Ah, makes sense.

    I can’t remember the last time I thought a game where you shoot people with massive artillery cannons from a converted cargo plane, blowing them into a fine paste, would ever be “tasteful”. The Price scene is one of the most powerful gaming cut-scenes I’ve witnessed. Brilliant.

    Well, I wouldn’t exactly call it tasteful. Still there is a huge difference between gunning down armed people from a distance and shooting an unarmed man in the head. Personally I didn’t find it ‘powerful’, just subversive and disgusting.

    Alas, this seems to be an increasing trend.

    Visually stunning game with, I admit, some strong scenes. I didn’t care much for the writing though.

  12. My trousers smell of farts says:

    Really, it should be That Quiet Guy In The Office Who’s Good With Apostrophes, not That Quiet Guy In The Office Who’s Good At Apostrophes.

  13. Dracko says:

    Still there is a huge difference between gunning down armed people from a distance and shooting an unarmed man in the head.

    News to me. Neither can fight back, you realise.

    Here’s a hint: You needn’t be head over heels over every character you’re interacting with or indeed watch the adventures of. You’re only fooling yourself if military boys, especially the SAS, don’t get their hands dirty.

  14. Faust says:

    I think a great example of a game that was built around the narrative, and not the other way around, was Mass Effect. I know this is a PC site, but I’m sure it will make its way onto the god machine soon enough. Never have I felt so connected to a story and its characters as I did when I played Bioware’s latest. I think they have realised that their writing division is their most important asset. Some of the decisions you have to make in that game really hit hard, unlike the censored Little Sister harvesting.

  15. Steve says:

    Price gets the job done. That’s why he’s sent on missions like that, and why he acts as he does. You can find that scene disgusting or distasteful or whatever you want, but there are people like that.

    The game doesn’t ask you to condone his actions, you can find the character’s actions morally reprehensible, justified, whatever. What you can’t do is look away. Why pretend people like Price don’t exist?

  16. Bob Arctor says:

    Why did Ryan ask you to kill him?

    He was expressing his ideals to the extreme. He knew he had lost, his city was in ruins after he compromised his ideals which lead to the downward spiral.

    He had a choice though, and he used it.

    This is how I take it.

  17. malkav11 says:

    There have been Hollywood or novel writers attached to projects before. It didn’t usually make much of a difference. Anyone remember Advent Rising?

    Game writing is a very different skill from writing other media. The only person that I can think of offhand who’s made the transition with any real facility is Warren Ellis. And that man appears to be able to write just about anything well.

  18. Lacero says:

    Bob Arctor:
    I read a bit more into it than that. Not only can’t you choose to let him live, you can’t even choose to kill yourself. You’ll be revived every single time.
    His ordering you to kill him doesn’t just show him making a choice, it shows him making a choice and showing you a choice you can never make for yourself (even after you’re given free will.).

    Arguably that’s for dramatic reasons rather than what his character would do, but I’m out of my depth already so I’ll stop :)

  19. Sören Höglund says:

    a choice you can never make for yourself

    Only because Rapture never self-destructs. A bit silly for Fontaine to get all worked up over it when you could die of old age before it caves in.

  20. Dragon says:

    Interesting article considering what’s going on. Some points:

    Significantly, the Writers Guild of America is allowing its strikers to work on games.

    There is no way the WGA can stop it’s members working on video games. None of the video game companies are WGA signatories so it would not be crossing a picket line to write for any of these companies. Similarly, WGA members can also write novels, newspaper articles or even TV/Films for other non-WGA signatory companies. (Neil Gaiman is a good example for someone who is still working but just can’t work on any films in the US.)

    would game publishers see the merit in getting expensive pros to do this dirty work?

    Expensive pros? Joss Whedon, Ron Moore, Josh Friedmann and Tim Kring would be expensive. But there are thousands of writers who have not become a household name and have not managed to work on a successful series and are trying to make their break into the Hollywood/TV land who would no doubt be willing to take whatever (non-guild) rates the game companies offered them.

    I gather, but I can’t find a reference source at this moment in time, that the WGA are trying to take on video game writers into their membership. I know for certain that the Writers Guild of Great Britain (WGGB) do accomodate video game writers in their membership but at the moment the WGA don’t. I have a feeling that it might have even been part of the current contract negotiations with the AMPTP.

    As for involvement in the games and how it would translater, you’ve already mentioned Valve who took on Marc Laidlaw who was a writer before being hired to work on Half-Life. What the writers would be able to bring to the table is characterisation, storylines and dialogue. I doubt that they’d feel restricted by the way video games handle narrative but even the marvellous Deus Ex could have done with improvements to the dialogue.

  21. Acosta says:

    Dragon: Agree, but Marc Laidlaw had a solid knowledge of videogames. That is the point, professional writers can add a lot to videogames (let me stress “a lot”) but they must have a solid base and passion for the medium.

    And it works the same for the opposite side, without a compromise forward the writer and a effort to adapt the game to the narrative (without sacrificing gameplay), that work goes to trash very easily.

  22. dhex says:

    are there any examples of games written by established outside authors from other mediums that weren’t blah or worse?

  23. Kieron Gillen says:

    Dhex: There’s a few, but I was going to bring up the idea non-games-writers somehow magically improve games is generally erroneous.

    KG

  24. Richard says:

    Not to mention that in most of the cases where a named writer or celeb is involved, their actual involvement often turns out to have been minimal. Not always, but…

  25. EMPty=IRL= says:

    24 is a cited influence for COD4

    That explains quite a lot.

    I was actually plesently suprised to see Cpt. Price execute that guy, it was a real shock to see a game actually protray full on voilence in a real and unexpected way…
    Another thing that I think helped the COD4 story was the sheer amount of excellent dialogue ingame in ever mission.
    (remember some of the dialogue in the C130 spector gunship mission. Brilliant!)
    I really did enjoy all of COD4′s story, cutscenes and so on and I think it was a good length as well.
    Also it’s quite replayable!
    And the mission after the credits ROCKS!

  26. Jens Arnesen says:

    Die Hard 4.0’s “send all the gas!” lunacy kept me chuckling for months

    Well then, mission accomplished! I don’t think anyone watching Die Hard 4.0 went into the movie expecting a great story or even semi-intelligent characters, it’s just mindless Hollywood action, and that, it performs to perfection.

  27. Alexander says:

    There’s but one thing worrying me; why are we not referring to games as interactive movies. Because it seems most people interpret them as such. I happen to be of the thought that we’re still in the ‘black and white mute movie’ era of game-making. So right now, as back then the movies started as a copy of photography, we are experiencing the birth, and we are certainly going to face some real ‘games’ or ‘interactives’ in the future.

    It’s beautiful to stare at this example of technological evolution and the way creativity reponds accordingly. On a massive scale the rules and restrictions of other media are translated or even plainly copied onto this medium. So we can expect ourselves to be experiencing almost a similar timelapse as our elders have.

    Maybe we’ll be lucky enough to be alive to see another Elvis come ’round, and the Beatles and maybe we’ll run into a Roger Waters (Kojima?) of gaming.

  28. Phil says:

    Wide spread use of MMOs brought us forward a little in terms of narrative innovation – if nothing else it pushed writers to create stories in slightly different ways, perhaps more freeform, even if that led most to rely ever more heavily on the standard fantasy cliches for characters and events – as someone else on the board said, even innovators like City of Heroes innovated by the wholesale adoption of genre coventions from a different adolescent pass time.

    I’m slightly sceptical of percieving the games industry’s narrative progression in terms of films, if nothing else something as narratively cliched and childish as the new Zelda, with the narrative complexity of 1980′s cartoon, can still draw you in and provoke a range of emotions and satisfactions the comparable films never would.

    That said, it is frustrating there’s not really a contemporary Planescape or even the pleasingly domestic Shenmue (who didn’t enjoy feeding the kitten?) – Bioshock, for all the Rand based musing and twists, was still shooting zombie like monsters in dark most of the time. An influx of talented, professional writers could at least go part way to remedying this – if only by having the professional weight to carry though something innovative.

  29. SwiftRanger says:

    Good writing is necessary so sure, let them come. But mind you, totally non-interactive in-game cutscenes à la HL² shouldn’t be (such a big) part of real game, period. If devs and writers really get serious about games then they should offer interactivity on ALL levels most of the time, not only on the shooting/puzzlesolving part. Nothing breaks immersion more than a speechless main character or a solo emo-intermezzo by one of the non-playable characters. I am not asking for an extensive dialogue tree or a story which can end in a thousand ways but at least “something” interesting to do or to say during those “immersive” in-game cutscenes would be nice. Players should be active most of the time, not passive.

  30. Jocho says:

    Alexander, there was something actually called “Interactive Movies” (or “Interactive Film”, I’m not sure of the English term), that basicly was FMV movies with choised put at some parts to alter the way the story was taken. The term has been somewhat infected since then. But it’s still a very fitting term for what games are becomming, with the strive to create a “cinematic feel”.

    As long as the player is in control most of the time, a few non-cutting scenes wouldn’t hurt, as long as they don’t cut the game (in control and perspective). That was something HL² did well, the cut-scenes didn’t change the perspective or took the control away. Now, if you’d only be able to choose what to say and the characters react to it, cut-scenes wouldn’t even cut you away from the dialog. The choise doesn’t even have to change the story, but could lead in a linear path, where the characters first react, and then goes on along the set path.

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