"Who writes this stuff?"
It's something considerate game players and critics often ask aloud -- and they're barely heard over the sound of a laser chainsaw going into some monster's maw. The New York Observer
has published an interesting piece on writing in games, with a focus on novelists, screenwriters and journalists that have made the leap to interactive storytelling. Some of these writers seem to have a higher profile than the plots, characters and dialogue they provide.
"What I found on the other side was that I'd never really understood how hard it was to get any kind of coherent story into a game, let alone a good one," said Rhianna Pratchett, former journalist and writer behind the Overlord
games. Her observation isn't just critical of the quality of games writing, but of how late it finds its place in the development process -- if it's incorporated at all. Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter
author Tom Bissell and his writing partner, Rob Auten, were apparently called in to fix the dialogue for an upcoming franchise reboot at a stage where the game was "largely finished."
"I always say that the games industry makes Hollywood look like avant-garde poetry publishers," Bissell said. Games writing pays a lot less than Hollywood, of course, and doesn't offer the same kind of recognition.
Marc Laidlaw, novelist and writer at Valve, believes the world of books provides a more apt rival. "I think you learn a lot about writing dialogue and stuff from movies," he said, "but games just compare more closely to novels, I think, because you immerse yourself in them and they take up a big part of your life for a very long time."
Valve is anomalous in having in-house writers like Laidlaw, and the studio's games, like Portal
and Half-Life 2,
are anomalous in being commended not just for dialogue or individual scenes, but for how well their scenarios and characters fit within the unique structure of a game. If writers become part of the collaboration at an earlier stage, we might again ask, "Who writes this stuff? And where can we play more of it?"