Yanked from my Live-Journal:
So You Want to Write for Videogames?

Well... until I jumped in feet first and discovered it wasn't water I was leaping in to but a meat-grinder, I never realized what the process of writing for video-games entailed. Now... after about two years' worth of experience, I'm getting an idea....


Well, first off, it's not a bad thing. It's just different and horribly exciting in that pioneering sort of way. When television first found its way into the home, all it did was emulate it predecessor: Radio. That's all the entertainment networks understood at the time, which is why nascent television was a wasteland of variety shows and radio serials adapted to a visual format.

Well, guess what... video games are in the same boat. They try emulating the movie model because movies combine cinematography and story to create a cohesive narrative. The bad movies fail at both. The mediocre movies succeed at either in some level, while the true classics fuse both seamlessly.

Unfortunately, video-games lean far more towards the Hollywood blockbusters. Why? Because video-games are about action, and nothing screams action like an episode of "24" or the latest Willis/Arnie/Ice Cube/Diesel/Snipes explosive-laden blockbuster. Good luck convincing your producers that the last episode of "West Wing" or recounting Hitler's last days in "Downfall" is amazing because of the pure drama or pathos of the dialogue and situations.

I mean... damn I love "Lost" but you tell me how the hell you put that series into a game format? Sure, you can do it, but the game would be boring and slow. How do I know... because the game based on "Alias" used all the show's conventions. Someone did the same for "Mission Impossible." And both failed miserably! The conventions don't translate well.

So... what does writing for video-games entail? It entails putting that ego on the shelf and coming to terms with the realization that as a writer, you are completely secondary in consideration. It isn't mean or nasty in the "kick the puppy dog" kind of way. No. It's actually necessary and healthy for a project because the principle consideration of the videogame is to entertain the player through gameplay. People play "Ratchet & Clank" or "Jak & Daxter" because of gameplay. People play "Splinter Cell" or "Metroid" or "Metal Gear Solid" because of the character (who embodies the ultimate in wish-fulfillment and player fantasy), which eventually boils down to gameplay. Consider "Prince of Persia." What they did right was turning you into a god (visually speaking with your abilities) with a push of a button or two. Gameplay.

The fact is, writers have a difficult transition into video games because they are generally an afterthought to the process of perfecting gameplay. It's why game designers are often also the game writers... because they understand the game better than anyone else. And regardless how brilliant an idea might be, the reality of the software, the brand name, fragile egos or even scheduling may force you to kill an idea that is otherwise gold.

This is even more so when it comes to movies. Videogame companies seem particularly proud of mentioning they got "Hollywood talent" to write the script. But the fact is, there are more horror stories that emerge from that union than success stories. And the reason is simple. Hollywood writers, novelists and even pen & paper game writers don't understand that they and their story MUST serve gameplay, and not the other way around. It's a bitter pill, but a lesson best learnt quickly.

The purpose of the videogame writer is help tell a story AND to help the player navigate the game AND to create a character with enough "gaps" so that the player himself can be the hero. Who is the main character in a First-Person Shooter? Does he even have a face? The hero of the FPS is almost always the player and not the modeled character (Master Chief is among the exceptions, but even then, he hasn't a real name or face... so he could be you). Take a look at Half-Life 2 - the protagonist is deliberately kept silent so that the player can be the hero - not the person controlling the hero. It's like the adult version of children's literature… the best stories are the ones that could happen to the reader. Any kid might be Harry Potter. Any kid might have Pokemon as pets.

And all the while, the writer must remain relatively hidden so that he isn't stepping on the player's toes. Sure, games benefit from good storytelling (well... maybe not "Tetris"), but how many games suffer from too strong narrative. I refuse to play any more "Metal Gear Solid" or "Final Fantasy Tactics" because I'm spending five and ten minutes each cut-scene being spoken to rather than getting to the meat of the action. The games bore me, and even me (as a writer), find myself cutting past dialogues if I can.

So... you want to be a videogame writer? While I can't show you where to go, here are some tidbits to help survive the process or even use in interviews.

1) The writer must support gameplay

2) The writer is often secondary to the process

3) The writer is there to support the player's wish-fulfillment

4) When writing, absolute brevity is key (some companies provide me with character length for lines, lines per paragraph and number of lines allowed for the entire scene (which is rarely more than 10-20 lines of dialogue)).

5) Finally... you are part of a team. And as much as writing is a solitary experience, the critiquing process and creative process are often three or four levels deep worth of approvals.

6) And like anything else... play games, play games, play games.


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