Game Writing Awards: Suspicious & Confusing

By Alec Meer on January 18th, 2008 at 5:30 pm.

A man only his father could love. And he didn't either.

Clearly seeking to be recognised for something other than striking in 2008, the Writer’s Guild of America has revealed the nominations for its inaugral Videogame Writing Awards. Ooh, good idea. Probably. Click on to find out which games are in the running for the trophy, and how the whole thing’s faintly embarrasing.

The thinking behind it?

“Developed by the WGA and spearheaded by the Guild’s New Media Caucus to encourage storytelling excellence in videogames, improve the status of writers, and foster uniform standards within the gaming industry, the WGA’s inaugural Videogame Writing Award spotlights quality work by videogame writers, raising their profiles, and validating their contributions to this rapidly maturing medium.”

Which is, y’know, awesome. In theory.

The key bit of that quote, though, is doubtless “foster uniform standards within the gaming industry” – gaming is, after all, a big old chunk of the entertainment biz, and one that the WGA doesn’t yet flex anything like the muscle within that it does in film and TV. There’s scope for this to be sinister – we don’t really want more red tape around videogame publishing – but let’s hope that what it means in practical terms is better wages and recognition for those poor, unknown souls scribing elaborate yarns about dungeons and dragons and robots and ninjas and Chiefy Masters all that.

Certainly though, there isn’t enough acclaim for videogame writing on a wider level. A cynic might say “that’s because most videogame writing is roughly on a par with the blurb on the back of a cereal box, as written by a My Chemical Romance fan”, but that cynic would be wrong. 2007 was something of a banner year for game writing – stand up Portal, Bioshock, Call of Duty 4… None of them are exactly Crime & Punishment, but they are definite signs of an increasing maturity in the field.

So, which games have been nominated for these first WGA awards? Brilliant, exciting ones, surely. Surely?

CRASH OF THE TITANS, Written by Christopher Mitchell, Sierra Entertainment

DEAD HEAD FRED, Written by Dave Ellis and Adam Cogan, D3 Publisher

THE SIMPSONS GAME, Lead Writer Matt Selman, Written by Tim Long and Matt Warburton, Dialogue by Jeff Poliquin, Electronic Arts

THE WITCHER, Lead Story Designer Artur Ganszyniec, Dialogue Sebastian Stepien, Additional Dialogue Marcin Blacha, Writers Sande Chen and Anne Toole, Atari

WORLD IN CONFLICT, Story Design Christofer Emgard, Story Consultant Larry Bond, Script Consultant Ed Zuckerman, Sierra Entertainment

Ah. Hmm. Well, it must be because the ceremony only recognises card-carrying WGA members, right?

“To be eligible for entry, games must have been released between Dec. 1, 2006 and Nov. 30, 2007. For this first year, work that was not produced under WGA jurisdiction may have been submitted, but must contain separate writing credit(s).”

Again, ah. Hmm.

Well, let’s take a closer (by which I mean “very quick and dismissive”) look at those nominees..

Crash of the Titans is the most recent Crash Bandicoot game, which scored a stellar 5/10 on RPS-compadres Eurogamer, in a review which mysteriously doesn’t mention its apparently stellar script.

Dead Head Fred is a PSP game you’ve never heard of, with Him From Scrubs Who’s A Bit Like House But Not As Funny on vocal duties.

The immensely irritating Simpsons Game is presumably in there purely because it was written by the TV series’ pen-jockeys.

The Witcher… Don’t make me talk about the Witcher again, please. Ack. Well, it’s an RPG beloved by many, but one thing a fair few of its defenders and detractors alike agree on is that the English translation leaves a bit to be desired. A lot, in fact. The original Polish script is reportedly much stronger, but it appears the Atari English writers/translators are also name-checked for this award. I’m not going to risk RPG-fan wrath by taking another pop at the Witcher here, and I’m happy to admit it does some fun things with its narrative, but I am a little shocked that it would be considered an ambassador for game writing, for last year of all years. You may disagree.

World in Conflict, though – fair play, that did have some great writing. Quite the rarity for an RTS, that. It deserves to win this for wretched/tragic Bannon alone. So, I’m mighty glad it gets recognition here. The others are head-scratchers though – I’d love to know how this motliest of crews was selected. Shenanigans? No-one could be bothered to fill in the nomination forms for better games? Everyone involved drunk on tramp-juice? Let’s hope for the latter.

It’s possible the explanation’s in that “must contain separate writing credits” proviso – could that mean games written by developer employees who aren’t purely writers are ineligible? It’d certainly explain the glaring ommission of Portal and co – but if it is the case then, well, this whole award is absolutely futile. Game writing – from the core plot to the dialogue to branching moral choices to the the surprised bark an NPC makes when you sneak up and stick a dagger in his liver – is in almost all cases a collaborative effort from multiple members of the team, many of whom aren’t specifically designated ‘writer’. Does this award reflect that?

Another possibility, as a wise RPS commenter has, er, commented, is that Portal at least is out of the runnings because Valve give all their staff essentially equal-billing in their games’ credits – i.e. there’s deliberately no official way to tell who wrote the words and who made the gun go “THROMMM-SHOOWSH” or whatever. Such egalitarianism is hardly common practice, however; while it might rule out Portal, it doesn’t justify the creepy randomness of these nominations.

More details here.

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35 Comments »

  1. Phil says:

    I call shennanigans and will happily be the first to get my broom.

  2. Scott says:

    Maybe Portal was snubbed because it didn’t include a separate writing credit? Valve games using the free-form, cabal-oriented, pinko commie development methodology that they do.

    Or maybe they’re just clueless, who can say.

  3. Will Tomas says:

    It all seems a bit silly really. If you’re going to do awards like this at least bother to look at which games did what you’re praising them for well.

  4. Lorc says:

    I find it hard to get worked up over this. After all, when the nominations are as unconnected with reality as these, then the award itself is meaningless (and the people behind it, irrelevant).

    They’re not offering credibility to games, they’re trying to claim credibility within the gaming sphere. Better luck next time fellas.

  5. Radiant says:

    Surely CoD4 had the best writing of any game out last year?
    It was the prefect story and pace for a shooter.

    With World In Conflict I kept expecting Liz Lemon from 30 Rock to pop in.

  6. Tikey says:

    I disagree, The Witcher has a great writing, but mostly because of its origin in the stories and novels by Sapkowski.
    Even though I must say that the whole amnesiac hero part was kinda disappointing as it is a overused resource.

  7. Garth says:

    I guess their idea of Uniformity in game writing means we need more Crash Bandicoot games.

    That alone pretty much shatters the whole idea of respectability.

  8. Mike says:

    I’d like to say ‘at least they’re trying’, but including a Crash game makes it hard. I’m going to go for it anyway.

    At least they’re trying. It’s like the aim to get a Nobel Prize by 2032. If we don’t make baby steps with high hopes, we can’t expect to get very far. At least they didn’t nominate Halo 3.

  9. Erik J. Caponi says:

    As a working game designer who would love to be represented by a collective bargaining organization, I’ve made contact with the WGA several times about working to organize writers and game designers who work in a writing capacity. The response I got from their point of contact was, essentially, “Gosh, that sounds hard. Let us know how that goes.”
    They were not only apathetic, but seemingly hostile to the notion that they would be expected to sell the idea of unionizing to both potential members and their employers. If a large group of us were to come to them, having convinced our employers to become WGA signatories, I’ve no doubt that they would accept us with open arms, but as far as working from their end to include the writers who are creating a large portion of the fastest growing sections of media products, we’re pretty much on our own.

    In my opinion, by creating a token award to writing, the WGA is attempting to unfairly capitalize on the success and existing credibility of the industry, while avoiding any responsibility to the individuals working in the capacity that they are attempting to reward. As such, I see no reason to give any weight to an award they are giving to a group of people that they’ve shown no interest in helping.

  10. Sal says:

    World In Conflict voice acting and dialog was lame…

  11. Jujo says:

    Only one thing to say:

    “One day we’ll look on this and laugh, and laugh, and laugh.

    Ohh…boy!”

  12. yxxxx says:

    If they are on strike how did they write a press release ¬_¬

  13. Pwnzerfaust says:

    I’ve been convinced for a long time that the WGA does not deal with writing in the storycrafting ability so much as it deals with writing in the penmanship ability. This is the most convincing evidence I’ve seen yet.

  14. Andy Johnson says:

    To expect this to be the holy grail upon announcement would be a bit ridiculous, but I think it’s a step in the right direction, despite the fact that most of the nominees are something of a joke. World in Conflict, on the other hand, was very well written in parts, and its narrative was enjoyably unconventional (starting in medias res, for example) as well as it having the entertaining Bannon plot.

    I also think Call of Duty 4′s writing is moving us in the right direction, but it’s a slow progression.

  15. pJ says:

    Here is another issue many may not know – and why some of the games mentioned above were not nominated – because I don’t think they were even submitted.

    Even if you fell outside of the WGA when you submit for this first year of the award, in order to sign the submission form, you had to agree to join the guild.

    Well, I can tell you that many writers most likely wouldn’t want to join the guild seeing as being guild LIMITS the work available to video game writers. As of yet, publishers don’t want to pay WGA fees and there is no standard negotiating price for video game writing. And lastly, we all know that the game isn’t really just “written by” one or two people – it’s a process of developers, level designers and artists who all take part in the process.

    My feeling? The WGA was trying to find a way to crack the business open so they could get in on it – what better way than to create their own award with the little caveat of “if you want the award, you have to be a member.”

    Look, I think there will be a guild for videogame writers- but it’s going to take the WGA some understading of the process. We go through milestones that take years to write a videogame and it can’t be viewed like it’s a script or even a show bible. It’s much more than that.

    pJ

  16. Dinger says:

    I had a comment on slashdot that dealt with Portal,and I’m of course happy to expound upon it here. The big difference between videogames and every other genre that the WGA participates in is that videogames aren’t passive, and those who correspond to “writers” on the WGA model only make a part of it. If the WGA were clued in to the “videogame scene”, they’d be trying to tap in to the programmers and designers, and not just the “writers”, that is, the good folks doing dialogue.

    It comes down to: when we think of “good writing in games”, with the exception of games that are obvious ripoffs of cinematic genres, the “good writing” derives from and reinforces the game design. After concept, a script is the usually the first step in a film or television show. Direction comes afterwards. In videogames, the order is reversed. Video games are designed, the paradigm of intereaction is established, the scenes are set, then they’d ask for a “professional writer” to fill in the blanks. And in those cases, the results suck a lot more than a collegial, collaborative environment (Hey, I like Looney Tunes, what can I say?).

    So, sure, what the heck are they doing? I mean, unions generally want prospective members to organize themselves, but in my experience, they support movements that reach out to them for help in organizing.

    I find it rather disturbing that the WGA would take such a lackadaisical approach to bringing in new membership, especially after seeing what happened to the Screen Actors. Ah well, maybe New Media will dismantle them.

  17. JakethePirate says:

    Separate writing credits, the WGA getting involved and all that other stuff is not good for the industry. Not at all.

    Games are not a medium in which separate writing can work because they require a certain kind of coherency among their component parts or they end up as a movie with some gameplay built around it.

    Deus Ex could not be written by someone removed from the rest of the development team because of the semi-malleability of the plot and dialogue is as dependant on general gameplay design, level design and a whole host of other things I might think of later as much at it is on writing. Similarly, the tableaux, experiential narrative and general sense of place that Bioshock was praised for are a product of coherency between the writing, level design and aesthetics.

    The un-nominated Portal is an obvious example of the value of the coherency and the writer being a real member of the development team. You can’t write a movie as you go, but you can do it with a game because the writing is only part of the foundation of a game, not the exclusive foundation.

    I am not opposed to unionization, but I believe separating writers from the rest a development team and putting them in a union that’s outside the industry is counterproductive because for the coherency that a game requires, designers must be designers first and whatever their specifically doing second (not that I can claim any real experience or authority on the matter).

  18. pJ says:

    Dinger said “they’d be trying to tap in to the programmers and designers, and not just the “writers”, that is, the good folks doing dialogue.”

    I agree with you (as in my post just above).

    I’ve spent the past two years writing a big videogame sequel and it was my first – I learned that while I was very involved in breaking story and writing the game’s summary in addition to the cinematics, the process was an effort by a large group of people on the game and they should all, in effect, be part of “the writing” if it came down to being members in the WGA.

    pJ

  19. malkav11 says:

    The translation on the Witcher is admittedly rough, but the storytelling is still very strong, as games go. Some of the best this year. (Not up to the standards of Portal or Bioshock, no. But with a better translation? Who knows.)

  20. kadayi says:

    I hope The Witcher gets it, as that was a most enjoyable 50 or so hours of gaming. Yes I loved Portal and it should be on there, but I fully expect Portal to win other awards, where as the Witcher probably won’t because the majority will give Mass Effect the RPG nod (the gits).

  21. Zeno, Internetographer says:

    This just in, an actual transcript of the WGA conference deciding all this:

    “-Damn, striking sure is boring. Wish we could, you know, have some awards or something.
    -Oh shit man, I forgot all about that, we’re supposed to be doing some kinda video game thing!
    -There’s no time to actually review these things… I’ve got a couple kids, I’ll just look through their rooms and pick some at random. Nobody will ever know… I mean, it’s not like anyone actually plays these things anymore, right?”

  22. DigitalSignalX says:

    Agreed writers in the video game industry should be viewed as content developers first, then secondly writers in the literary sense. Keeping them exclusive is a mistake and will only hurt the industry. That said, company’s fear unions and I can easily picture large firms bowing quickly to uneducated demands for separate writing credit representation in order to avoid negative publicity that could be tacked onto the current ruckus.

  23. Okami says:

    I’m not going to risk RPG-fan wrath by taking another pop at the Witcher here

    wise choice….

  24. Matt says:

    Without bringing in a writer and a songwriter portal would have been half the game it was. Writers can be very useful if used correctly and if they are good at their job. And good writing is about more than just writing a story. Most game focus on game mechanics though so writers are bound to be secondary, anyone can write a story, you don’t need a good writer for that.

    As for a union or guild, it will be a difficult thing to start as basically all writers have to join or writers basically will put themselves out of work by joining and not agreeing to be paid nominal fees, not many writers could find the project or have the reputation to get away with it.

  25. Anthony Damiani says:

    I’m sorry, World In Conflict was just awfully written. Really. It was ham-fisted and manipulative, with events that followed not from any logical progression or outgrowth of the characters, but from how they wanted to make you feel. It’s nice that they at least CARED about the audience’s emotional reaction, but when their attempts to do so are so transparent and ill-flowing, they’ve generally failed to achieve their objective.

    “Hey! Let’s make the annoying guy sacrifice himself heroically to redeem him for pissing the player off through the past 12 levels!”

  26. Dragon says:

    I’m not going to pick on anyone in particular but there’s a lot of crap being written about this and about video game writers being members of a guild. The WGA currently doesn’t include video game writers as members at the moment. They want to open their doors to them hence these awards. Being a member of the guild will in no way limit a writer from types of employment – they are still free to take on whatever work they want to – but being a member has advantages – primarily in the areas of healthcare provision, pension, legal aid and so on.

    It’s probably worth pointing out that while the WGA is only just getting around to video game writers, the WGGB already has agreements, rates and guidelines in place and accepts video game writers as members (for example, Andrew Walsh who was one of the writers on X3: Reunion)

  27. Kieron Gillen says:

    World of Conflict: I liked the bit with the troll.

    KG

  28. pJ says:

    “Being a member of the guild will in no way limit a writer from types of employment”

    I’m guessing you targeted my comments.

    Okay.

    I suppose that is partially true – however, the guild applies pressure to its members to NOT accept non-union work – in which case, if you do – you end up going on as a “consultant” or “producer” I work as a television writer and this is how it goes.

    And during non-strike periods, you can be fined or even black listed. I’ve worked with WGA writers who get hit all the time when their name pops up in non-union shows.

    So, that information you have above, while somewhat correct (yes, you could work non-union while being Guild) is a big NO NO for the WGA.

    So, if they decided to force publishers to go union (gonna take some doing, WGA), then the publishers cannot go to non-union talent – in which case, if a game is being made cheaply by a big publisher, then they would HAVE to pay into health and pension, as well as whatever the standard rates are.

    So, who benefits from this? The guy who just writes cinematics? Or, the lead designer who breaks story? Or the LD or wrote the story for the path? Or the puzzle writer? Which one will be in the guild? They aren’t credited as “writers” – but they write. That guy who wrote X3? I’m sure he was a in a room full of people breaking story, generating scenes and basically, writing the game with his help.

    I agree that there is a total benefit to being in the guild – And I fully support the writers during the strike – hoo ra I suppose.

    But video games aren’t covered – and it’s going to take more than dangling an award to get people on board. They tried this with editors a few years back – and we had no interest. For now, many video game “writers” haven’t asked for their help.

  29. Matt says:

    Surely standardised rates come into it? And a certain level of payment and employment are important demands in any union, any writer working outside of those limits wouldn’t be covered by the union and would be viewed by them as undercutting other writers, effectively betraying them?

    I honestly don’t know how the details of the union works but have been a member of unions in the past.

    I think a union is a good thing and writers like any other member of any industry needs certain protections and rights, the prevailing attitude in the posts I read seemed to be very much against the idea of a union and writers joining one I wanted to convey the difficult position writers would be in at the start before it becomes standard.

  30. j says:

    You can’t write a movie as you go

    You can, just see some improvised stuff. Plenty of films have rewrites, even on the set.

  31. Kieron Gillen says:

    I must admit, I worry about the unionisation of games, just because of how games actually are created isn’t like films – or, at least, I suspect the very best examples of games storytelling don’t work like films or anything else the WGA cover. If you hire a writer at the end of the project to tart stuff up, it will only ever lead to fairly mediocre stuff – pretty dialogue, at best, but you haven’t a chance, because you don’t control structure. Writing is primarily a structural thing, of knowing how scenes, in order, will create the desired aesthetic response. If you don’t control that, you’re only hanging wallpaper.

    (This is one of the reasons why games with writers who are famous outside the genre aren’t normally that actually interesting.)

    In other words, in gaming, the designer take the majority of roles of the writer – and if your Project Lead is also a damn good writer, you may be able to get something worth playing (Cross-ref: Chris Avellone). Alternatively, getting a writer in as soon as possible to work hand in glove – which, of course, required a full time writer on staff rather than someone external (Mostly, anyway). If you’re getting a writer to provide something else… well, the designer has to be pretty clever. I’d look back at something like Hostile Waters, and show how its structure allows them to essentially pay Ellis for very-effective window-dressing – that is, ideas, and cut-scenes which just contextualise the story rather than tying into the mission.

    In short, writers aren’t the source of ideas in the games industry, in the the way they are in the areas the WGA normally operate…. unless they’re the designer too (Avellone) or really close to the designers (Wolpaw).

    KG

  32. Kieron Gillen says:

    (Generally speaking, I’m pro-unionisation. I’m just not sure whether the WGA is the right guild for games writers to belong to.)

    KG

  33. raton-laveur says:

    world in conflict was written by a guy that scripted some movies before. So here’s the wga autofellating, like the simpsons game.

    that said, I loved the game and its storyline. For a title that was multiplayer-oriented, the single player campaign did a lot more than just being a tutorial.