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  • Op-ed: Writing Off Game Writers

    [07.21.08]
    - Lee Sheldon

  •  1. We are a young industry. It's too soon to expect artistic greatness.
    If we ignore the earliest "computer" games, we can still start the video game industry's history with Spacewars in 1961. Although we did not become a commercially viable industry until the mid-1970s, a number of games were produced in between, and quite a lot of thought was given to content in addition to what the technology supported. That is almost 50 years.

    The Great Train Robbery in 1903 established film as an entertainment medium. In 1915, 12 years later, Birth of a Nation was released, the first film recognized as an artistic achievement in its own right, however misguided its theme.

    2. Technology has been moving too fast for us to create sophisticated storytelling.
    Technology in the 20 years from the first film mentioned above to sound evolved at an extraordinary pace, and storytelling evolved with it. Film grammar as we know it today was developed during this period. But the speed or scope of technological development isn't as critical to this discussion as the awareness that cavemen were telling stories -- interactive stories, entertaining stories -- with only gestures and grunts supplemented by the technology of firelight and a few props. Any bets that there were certain hunters more adept at storytelling who were asked to report on the latest mammoth kill?

    3. Story and games don't mix; or we don't yet know how to tell stories in games.
    Just as film grammar and how it affected storytelling developed in the early days of motion pictures, game grammar has been developing for decades as well. Whereas from the beginning film technology often adapted itself to storytelling needs, we are today asked almost exclusively to adapt storytelling to game structures.

    It should be no surprise. Given the current educational offerings of many schools wanting to place their graduates in an industry focused on programming and art, is it any wonder we don't have people thinking about how we can serve storytelling rather than how storytelling can be shoehorned into current technology? If the makers of AAA titles are content to ghettoize storytelling in cut scenes and screens of endless text (both easily ESCaped through), it will probably remain that way except for the occasional innovations. How long ago was Half-Life?

    4. Stories are linear, games aren't.
    Actually neither is true. Non-linear stories can be found everywhere. Linear games are everywhere (and are often accused of being linear because they tell stories). And boy do we need to get beyond the archaic notion that the only solution to game writing is branching.

    5. Writers from other media can't write games.
    Bringing in writers from linear, non-interactive, media who don't get games ends in either everybody assuming it won't work, or that writers' work should be segregated at the beginning of the project -- hopefully not at the end in these enlightened times, but who knows? -- then "adapted" to the game.

    Game writing requires its own skill set. While writers from other media may be able to acquire it and do good work in games, they must first understand there is a fundamental difference in writing for our medium. The paradox from which this misconception arises is that too many companies assume that only non-game writers are good, so they hire an expensive Hollywood writer who doesn't understand that difference, and end up with a costly non-starter of a story. Then, not surprisingly, they arrive at the conclusion in the heading of this paragraph.

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