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Default Gamasutra - Rebuttal: Why Writers Matter

March 25th, 2008, 12:33
A few days back Gamasutra had a piece called The Case Against Writers in the Games Industry by Auto Assault's Adam Maxwell. Let's start with a sample from that:
When we discuss of the role of the writer, we have to be clear. There is a huge amount of writing in game design — and good writers tend to make better designers (all else being equal) — but being a writer doesn’t automatically make one a game designer. Writers do not dictate the way players interact with the world, nor do they dictate the way the player experiences the content that they themselves may create. These are the responsibilities of the game designer.

A writer might create the characters, and a writer certainly architects the plot of a game’s story, but the work a player actually sees and consumes? That is the work of the designer, even when the writer has written the dialogue, decided the plot, created every character and conceptualized every setting. There’s a critical reason for that, a reason that is perhaps the most compelling fact behind avoiding writers:

The work of the writer is inherently linear – the work of the designer is typically not.

When a writer sits down to build a story, they are usually building a plot. Most games certainly have plots, so you might be asking yourself why a writer wouldn’t be useful. After all, an experienced and well-educated writer will know everything there is to building a plot, and games could certainly benefit from better plots, right? I couldn’t agree more, but I’m afraid that it’s something of a leap to go from there to, “the person to architect a game’s plot is a writer.”
Today, Brainstem's Ron Toland rebutts with Why Writers Matter:
“When a writer sits down to build a story, they are usually building a plot.”

There are two mistakes in that sentence. First, building a story means building characters, the relationships between those characters, the setting around the characters, and the conflicts—plots—that involve the characters. Second, game writers should never sit down alone to build a story. They should meet with the entire team so that the art, sound, game mechanics, and story all work together to craft an interactive experience.

"The work of the writer is inherently linear – the work of the designer is typically *not*."

A bold but bogus claim. Has he never played D&D? Read an RPG module that accommodates several different paths to play through? Read a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book? All of the above were created by writers. All use non-linear storytelling.

Conversely, the work of the designer is often very linear. Super Mario Brothers is an incredibly linear game. So are Portal, the Heroes of Might and Magic series, and many others. All of those games were designed to be linear, and are great games.

Games are often linear because of limitations in technology and time. Writers can help make that linear experience feel more free than it really is, by involving the player in an unfolding story.
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March 25th, 2008, 12:33
While I agree with the rebuttal more than the original point, he misunderstood or took out of context several of the points from the original. For example:

"…a writer expresses the plot by putting together scenes"

False. Portal has no cut scenes, but plenty of plot, all expressed through dialogue, character and setting.
For someone who made a point of separating game lingo from movie/book lingo, this is an odd mistake: scenes in the original context obviously didn't mean cutscenes but rather event-scenes or instances of things happening.

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March 25th, 2008, 18:50
Originally Posted by Lord Alex View Post
Yes, although the three mediums are similar (at the most basic level), writing for games is closest to movie script writing, but different enough to require its own unique set of rules and skills.
On the whole, however, it would be easier to teach a screenwriter to become a good game "writer" than just about any other option, including a game designer; hence, the reason why many unemployed screenwriters (due to the strike) were gravitating to game writing; they have a lot in common.
You would think that would be so - but actually - you're wrong.

I'm not knocking you for that - it is a widely held misperception. However, the consensus in the industry is that screenplay authors have too much to unlearn and worse - have great difficulty understanding and recognizing that. They think their screenplay skills apply when quite often, they do not. It leads to a lot of problems. Indeed, it is a very significant and commonplace problem in the industry when developing writing talent.

All professional mainstream writers share many skills with game writers, and on the surface they do have a lot in common; however, it is in the differences where the skill of writing for games is really told and is made. These are subtle and exceptionally difficult nuances to master.

The truth of the matter is this: no past experience as a writer of fiction (novels/novellas), journalism or screenplays is any predictor of success in writing for RPGs. Period. When you are hiring for a position on a game dev team- that's a hugely significant issue. Who the hell do you get to fulfill this viatal role on the team and how do you identify them?

I have tried all of the above as writers. Some of these - and in particular screenplay writers - thought that the task would be easy. It is not. It is very di can be a writer" is the standard response.

That response is right. Anybody CAN be a writer. But that proposition in logic does not end there. In fact, that's the essence of the problem.

Because while almost anybody CAN be a good CRPG writer, almost nobody is actually a good CRPG writer. Because there is no qualification or past experience - other than writing for CRPGs - that is a good predictor of success, it's a horribly difficult position to hire for and fill on a team. And without one or three? You are screwed.

Writing is a bitch and deserves far more respect than it gets. People who share views like Maxwell simply don't know what they are talking about when it comes to Western style CRPGs.

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March 25th, 2008, 19:19
While I mostly agree with Steel_Wind, I do have to disagree on one significant point: Dialog.

It's one thing to write character dialog for paper, and another for dialog that's going to be spoken aloud. Especially now that voice acting is mandatory on any so-called "Triple-A" game. Screen writers (should) have the skills to make that voice acting sound sane when spoken aloud, and not end up with something like DW Bradley's purple prose from Dungeon Lords (which I actually found amusing, but for the wrong reasons), or the horrible writing for Oblivion's Dark Brotherhood (the worst I can ever recall hearing), or the cumbersome translation of Witcher's dialog over to English.

The fine art of making voice actors not sound bad is something screenwriters should be good at. That's a big part of their job. For smaller scale games without voice acting, an experienced writer (not necessarily a screen writer) can go a long ways towards making the dialog a much more pleasant experience, keep all of the characters having distinct voices, etc.

For us niche RPGers, dialog is important, and man does it stink in most games. We may not be able to trust writers to have the skill for making a non-linear story enjoyable, but neither can we trust game designers to have the skill to make the dialog not sound like a horrible caricature, or like all characters are clones sharing the same tone, word choice, idioms, etc.

Finding someone good at both is unlikely. I think most teams would benefit from a skilled writer. But I also think that what constitutes "writing" for a game is different than fiction or screen plays. The dialog is definitely the purview of a skilled writer.

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March 25th, 2008, 20:20
Adam Maxwell reminds me of some of the guys I knew in college. Come to think of it, he would be particularly well suited to make the case against things like putting the toilet lid back down or cleaning up after yourself since he understands that kind of logic so well.

Why would skilled writers make any difference in a business where customers prefer quality writing? For that matter why should talented chefs be considered any more valuable in the restaurant business or beautiful women be any more strongly perferred to magazines like Playboy?

Maxwell's logic is an epiphany. From now on I think I'll walk down the path of self improvement by drinking as much beer and eating as many Fritos as I want whenever I want. It's my inherent nature. What could possibly be gained by resisting it?

Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on. But it don't snow here. It stays pretty green. I'm going to make a lot of money, then I'm going to quit this crazy scene. — [Joni Mitchell]
Last edited by Squeek; March 25th, 2008 at 20:29.
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March 25th, 2008, 21:20
Hehe. I squeaked.

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March 26th, 2008, 01:20
Writing is easy. It's doing the necessary re-writing to make what you've produced good and effective, which is difficult!!

If God said it, then that settles it!!

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March 27th, 2008, 15:54
The *original* articles "designers over writers", as I call it,
reminds me of a concept I once had (and still hold in part):

Picture Over Word.

Whifch means that a picture is universal and doesn't need a thing like "translation". Pictures can be - if well made - perceived in seconds, minutes, intuitively.

Words need somewhat *more* intellectual involvement, relatively heavy processing through things like "reading", "deciphering", "thinking" about the thing just perceived.

It's as if you would place a traffic sign on the street: The sign alone transports the information much faster and without much hassle at all,
meanwhile a driver would have to activate his or her "reading skills" within seconds, read everything, arragnge words, sentences and meaning within the brain, and then distill the meaning of the "wordy sign" in his or her head.

Summary: Icons are *much* faster to process than sentences.
Pictures over words.

From *this* point of view, the writer *always* loses.

There is a big, big, but:

BUT texts can contain much more suble information. They can contain much more information at all. In general. The contents of a book cannot be hold in a single picture - at least without omitting details, just because of sheer space. Thus, painting is always kind of an reduction of details. An reduction to the rather "core" of a meaning. Of a story.
Plus, you can't paint treatises. At least not in the same way as it is being made in a written treatise.

So now, pictures are in my opinion still much, much more universal. They can be understood by a much, much greater audience.
But they can't transport details, subtleties in the same way as texts are able to.

As a result, the sheer intellectual demand is greater with texts, because if the way it needs to be processed. The people need more education to fully understand (especially complex) texts.

Finally, this means both have their own niches.

There is no "case against the writer", and I think that this is wrong, but both have their own fields where they excel.

I would rather thnk before I place my money on either of them: I would think about in which field each one is used before I place my money.

“ Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.“ (E.F.Schumacher, Economist, Source)
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