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Game Writing Awards: Suspicious & Confusing

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.

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Alec Meer

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