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  • Op-ed: Writing Off Game Writers

    [07.21.08]
    - Lee Sheldon

  •  6. Game writing can't be taught.
    Writing for games is a craft that can be learned, just as writing for film or journalism are crafts that can be learned. What can't be taught is talent, which is why many writers in games who get games still can't churn out work that can stand alongside the best books, plays, films, and television shows.

    7. Storytelling in games must be an entirely new paradigm that breaks with the past.
    This statement is true only if we assume storytelling (and writing) must be structured and experienced in the same way as they have been in the past.

    They don't. They can't be.

    We're not going to have the AI capable of producing a Hamlet in our lifetime. Emergent storytelling and writing from players' actions as we have them today is not going to do it either.

    What's required is a combination of the knowledge of storytelling and writing in other media: that which we can directly borrow from the past (surprisingly there's quite a bit); that which we can alter and adapt to the peculiarities of our medium; and whatever new opportunities games provide us through player as character, interactivity, non-linearity, and, yes, emergent behavior.

    The answer is not to toss out the past anymore than it was when TV added pictures to radio, but to build on the lessons of the past, to teach all of the above, and to give emergent storytelling a context through which it can grow into something more than public masturbation.

    8. Designing games and writing them are the same job.
    A friend of mine I've known for many years, Warren Spector, is a talented writer who also happens to be a gifted game designer. Similarly, I've been lucky to be the lead or sole designer on many games as well as the sole or lead writer. But the skill sets for writing and designing are very different. They simply must be practiced in concert for both to perform their best.

    9. ...and since they are the same job, no company will hire "vision carriers" right out of college.
    They aren't the same. No one I know in the industry would suggest that "vision carriers" should be hired right out of college. That's a false premise based on a false assumption. The evidence is in front of everyone that in other media writers are more often than not either collaborative or sole vision-carriers (it's a very rare occasion when a writer is not the sole vision-carrier, as in books, drama, TV, or collaborative vision-carrier, as in TV and film). If the next generation of these vision-carriers isn't going to get hired right out of college to do something, then ultimately where are they going to come from.

    10. There aren't any (many) writers who get games.
    There aren't as many as we need, that's for sure, and the situation is not helped by blanket statements of dismissal of the need for writers. As long as the industry lacks the insight to hire writers taught by schools that understand the need, that situation won't change anytime soon.

    There are good game writers out there, and we need to reinforce their ranks, not chip away at them.

    The new generation of writers, the generation that recently graduated or is still in our universities, get video games -- at least the ones who want to be writers of video games do. They can be taught how to do it. Some of them have talent to amaze you. And one of them, maybe one graduating next spring, may eventually have a Hamlet in her soul. But they may not be able to program or draw or 3D model, so they won't be hired for AAA titles, and damn few non-AAA titles either -- unless more companies show some vision and recognize that writing is a discipline of game development as worthy of time, iteration, and specialization as any other.

    In the late 1960s and early '70s, the motion picture industry was transformed by a new generation of film directors, and yes writers, who got film. They were taught at film schools by members of the industry who recognized the sea change that was coming. They made films. I know there are video game programs out there that understand that and are offering or beginning to offer writing for games classes. I'm helping to form such a program at Indiana University. And others have been doing it longer than the two years I've been teaching. But today influential educators and industry professionals are telling students that unless they are a programmer or an artist the industry doesn't want them. And that's wrong.

    Witness the success of companies like Ubisoft, which employs dedicated writers on staff. Look at the praise heaped on games like Grand Theft Auto IV and God of War, wherein the writing is tightly interwoven with the gameplay and each elevates the other toward critical and commercial success. This is what the industry is striving for: raising the talent level in all fields so that every aspect of a game is top-notch, and not dismissing dedicated game writers based on old, incomplete, or inaccurate readings of their worth.

    I for one would love to meet more educators and industry professionals willing to talk about ways to embrace each and every one of the eager and creative individuals in colleges and universities who want to make games, and to help bring our aging industry a respect and critical acceptance to join all those blossoming sales charts.

    Lee Sheldon is a writer and designer of commercial video games, and assistant professor in the Department of Telecommunications at Indiana University. He's also author of Character Development and Storytelling for Games (Cengage/Course Technology). You can read more about his work at www.anti-linearlogic.com.

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