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March 21, 2008

Game Writers, Game Designers

There's an interesting blog tête-à-tête underway, triggered by a (perhaps intentionally) provocative opinion piece by Adam Maxwell over at GameSetWatch on "The Case Against Writers In The Games Industry." In it, Adam makes an argument that writers are perhaps an unnecessary part of game development, and that game designers offer more bang for the buck, at least as far as he's concerned:

"For the same price (sometimes cheaper, I’m sad to say), you can hire a designer who is also an unsung writing hero (they exist in far larger numbers than anyone wants to give the industry credit for) and when the story is done, that same designer can be there to throw his lot into the fire with the rest of the designers and actually make the game fun. He can be re-tasked as needed, and he can be useful at every stage of development.

"For those reasons, and maybe even a few more, my money is on the designer over the writer, every time."



Needless to say, it has provoked a number of opposing comments on the GSW site, with which I mostly agree. A good example to summarize them would be this excerpt from steve:

"This kind of thinking is prevalent in the industry, and while it certainly has some legitimate points (the last one being perhaps most important), it also explains why so many game stories/plots/bits of dialogue suck."



Adam really misses the mark on this one, but I suspect his piece was at least partially intended to raise a few hackles. It was actually an adaptation of a post he made on his own personal blog site, where he is essentially playing Devil's Advocate; in the comments section there, he notes:

"As expected, I annoyed, infuriated and challenged a lot of people with this. To those people I will say: I'm glad.

"The point of the article is to challenge the assumptions made by many in this industry about the point of writers, the role they fill and what they bring to the table. To be more effective and, honestly, more useful to this industry the world's writers need to focus more on how games work and learn to adapt their writing to accommodate that."



He goes on to make some important points about writing for games, which are really the points that a lot of us have been trying to make for some time; that there is a big difference between static writing and game writing, and that a truly successful interactive experience requires a frameshift in the approach to game writing. Still, I can't help but be frustrated that so many of us seem to grasp the notion of what we want, without having any real idea about how to get there.

It's no secret that Vespers follows a fairly linear path, as far as games go, but I think the fact that it is based on a game written by a writer of interactive fiction gives it a stronger literary base than most games out there, and because of that I think it works really well. Nevertheless, it's uncertain if or how it will contribute to this frameshift.

My first thought on reading Adam's piece was the impending maelstrom of responses, particularly from the game writers out there. My thoughts immediately turned to the Writer's Cabal blog from Sande Chen and Anne Toole, two writers with a great deal of experience with writing for games, and they did not disappoint. They came back with a point-for-point rebuttal, with some great insights such as:

"Adam seems to misunderstand the writer’s role. The best writers don’t just throw some story and dialog over the wall and go home. Games create emotion — you can’t escape that. The developer’s job is to identify what emotion the game should elicit, then use every tool at his/her disposal to get there. If you want the player to feel heroic, you can design it in, draw it in, write it in, sing it in, or all of the above. This is what great writer/narrative designers can do: help you create this emotion across all disciplines. After all, are you in this industry to make okay games, or to make great games?"



I expect we'll be hearing about and reading a lot more responses to Adam's piece, so in that respect I think he will have succeeded in his likely goal of getting the attention he desired -- but also, to be fair, of casting a brighter light on the topic of writing for games and the ultimate goal of figuring out just how exactly to maximize its impact in this new medium.

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