Op-ed: Writing Off Game Writers

By Lee Sheldon [07.21.08]

 Writers are sorely underappreciated and underused in the video game industry, and the institutions supplying the next generation of game creators aren't helping.

I have been a professional game designer and writer for almost 15 years now. For the past two years, I have also been teaching these skills at Indiana University. My reason for taking on the added burden of teaching as I continue to create commercial games was a realization that despite many advances in techniques for storytelling in games, a huge number of people and companies in our industry seem unaware of them. This includes writers of games themselves. My hope was to help raise a new generation of writers proficient in the skills we have learned, and find new ones to suit our ever-evolving industry.

However, I recently learned that with few exceptions, game studios still have a very limited idea of what writing a game means, or how writers can be used in games, and as a result rarely hire writers on staff or utilize contract writers to their fullest potential.

Now that I'm in academia and beginning to attend academic conferences, I've quickly realized that many programs professing to train students for careers in game development share this mindset; therefore they provide limited to no training in writing for games.

At the same time universities and other learning institutions decry the lack of originality and thematic weight of much of what the game industry produces, particularly when it comes to AAA titles. By buying into industry prejudices, they may keep their job placement statistics high, but they are certainly not helping to foster originality or any innovation beyond the technical.

If one thing is clear from the discussions I've had about game development programs at various schools (as well as company representatives describing their hiring practices), it's this: The role for writers in the videogame industry, between those training new talent and those hiring new talent, is that of contractor (usually one per title) brought in to write dialogue and help "flesh out" a story written by somebody else.

Additionally, there is general agreement that staff hires should be 70 percent programmers and 30 percent artists.

The most sobering thought for me is that if I were attempting to enter the game industry today, few would see the value in hiring me. I'm neither a programmer nor an artist. The fact that I've successfully worked with hundreds of them means little.

There are a number of misconceptions that support those percentages, and the expressed lack of need for individuals trained as writers for games. I'd like to address a few of these.

 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.

 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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