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Develop 09: The Writing Process

The first panel which was something of a disappointment. There’s a tendency for industry panels to turn into a reinstatement of the accepted wisdom (Or, at least, the accepted forward-looking wisdom). Even as someone not actually in development, there was little about the writing process which was new to me. That said, one of the panelists – James Swallow – is a writer on Deus Ex 3, and let out a few minor details on the process, which are worth reiterating.

The panellists were the aforementioned Swallow (Maestrom), Justin Villiers (Games still under NDA) and Andy Walsh (A heaving mass of games). There’s much about process – the wisdom really is that you need a writer as early in the process to get the best out of them, and there’s no standardised place where writers enter. Get a guy in late, and basically you’re just getting a guy who’s hanging wallpaper in an already existent house.

(That line’s mine rather than the panellists by the way. I suspect that’s my biggest disappointment with the panel. For a group of writing, I’d have hoped for more sign of writerly flair in their presentation)

The method most seemed to hail involved a centrepiece writer brought on earlier – a Narrative Designer or Narrative Director, analogous to any other head of department on the team – who is the one who oversees all elements of this sort in the game. As the development amps up, assuming a text-heavy game, other writers are brought into fill other roles. Some will concentrate on barks, others cut-scenes and so on. There seemed to be a general agreement there’s too much work for one writer to do.

(And while the industry seems to agree with that, and it seems to be the sane thing to do, I wonder about it. When our general high-point seems to be Planescape Torment, where half of its 800,000 words were apparently written by Designer/Writer Chris Avellone, you wonder whether what games actually need is someone to go absolutely mental and take on the Sisyphean task rather than doing the sensible thing.)

Perhaps the most interesting point for an actual gamer is the understanding that what we’ll often dismiss as shit writing is nothing to do with the writing at all. In the earlier example, if a writer is brought in after they can change the structure, they’re often left dealing with plot holes that they can only paste over. Even if they are earlier, if the design team add levels that need to be integrated, the writer has to work out a way. And then there’s implementation itself, the time to script stuff in game – the time to make the dialogue actually work in game is always underestimated. My take away message was something which I already knew, but is worth restressing: it’s safer to damn a game for bad writing rather than a bad writer, in the same way blaming Quality Assurance for bugs is unfair.

Walker’s perennial bugbear of bad voice-acting and how to get the best was explored thoroughly, with notes on how much and how little extra detail you should add to a script to make sure an actor understands the line. In short, key words. And the best option, of course, is to just be there. Also interesting was the back and forth with a publisher wanting a maximum efficiency of voice-over and a developer not being able to implement everything that’s been recorded. If a publisher sees that only half the dialogue they taped is actually in game, they suspect waste, and cut the budget for next time. Of course, this just means that half of *that* dialogue ends up in it, making it far worse.

And finally, the Deus Ex snippet. Swalow talked a little about how writing isn’t just words. You use every tool available, including the environment the player passes through. As such, in Deus Ex, they’re embracing the pathetic fallacy and making each hub area in the game actually mirror the rollercoaster of emotions which the lead is experiencing. At a time of tension, you’ll enter a gloomy, cramped hub. If a major opponent has been defeated and things are looking optimistic, expect the next hub to be a wide-open space and generally airy. In other words, the writers influence the art team and the art team influences the writers – as when you see the environment which results, it inspires the writers to take a different angle.

[Main-image clip-art taken from here.]

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Kieron Gillen

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Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.

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