Hooray For The Writer's Strike?
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.
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?