Even if you’re not a gamer, you can’t fail to notice electronic gaming has evolved exponentially since it became mainstream entertainment some time in the 1970s. Inasmuch as there were writers of videogames in those days, they might not have sketched out much beyond ‘two lines hit a dot back and forth’, ‘a spaceship in the middle of an asteroid field’ or ‘a yellow ball has to eat pellets in a maze while being chased by ghosts’.
But in the PlayStation/XBox era, when games attract A-list voice talent straight from Hollywood and enjoy bigger financial success than many movies, the games are decidedly more expansive. They have more characters, bigger worlds and more for the player to achieve.
That makes writers just as important in the game industry as computer programmers or digital artists, and on the 22nd the Perth Writer’s Festival is holding a special event – Game Changers – to celebrate the rise of the writer in gaming.
Four sessions, each an hour long, will introduce audiences to the writers behind some of the biggest game franchises in the world as they explain the art, science and future of writing for videogames.
One of the panelists is Clint Hocking, who previously worked for Ubisoft on titles like Far Cry 2 and Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, and he explains to The West how writing for an interactive story is a lot different from non-participatory forms like TV shows or books.
“By definition, writers typically produce ‘exhaustible’ content,” he says. “Games that focus heavily on story don’t tend to have the staying power to draw and retain players for long periods of time. You play until you finish the story and then move on to the next game.”
Talking to Hocking makes it clear how aware he is of his game publisher employers’ strategies, one that’s quite different from that of movie studios or book publishers because of the natural life cycle of a game. For one thing, the increasingly popular multiplayer modes in many games (particularly military-style first person shooter titles) can be seen as something of a bulwark against the built-in exhaustibility he’s talking about.
“Games that are over after a day of play are quickly resold and traded, massively undercutting sales,” he says. “Multiplayer modes are there to try and increase a game’s staying power and reduce resales. Unfortunately, the business-centric approach to developing these modes often means they’re pretty compromised and not very good.”
And even though it might not seem like it from the outside, games writers have influence far beyond their own industry. Games today, as we all know, extend far beyond the console. Even if you’ve never picked up a game controller in your life you’ve probably seen a movie based on a videogame or bought an action figure of a character for a niece or nephew.
From that point of view, Hocking says game publishers are firmly in the Hollywood-style ‘tent pole’ business, making he and his colleagues more valuable by certain measures than the programmers and artists they work with.
“Publishers consider games to be consumable products you use and then you’re done with,” he explains. “They want you to finish with the first game so they can sell you the sequel and license it to film studios and toy manufacturers. So to a corporation invested in protecting highly consumable content that burns brightly for a couple of weeks, writers are very important.”
There are also very different demands on the gaming writer. Most stories are what could be called ‘prescriptive’ – the narrative complete and intact before you even start, to be unfolded as you read or watch it. When gamers take up their controllers, they want to be in charge of the action – essentially writing the story themselves.
It must therefore make it tricky to strike a balance between crafting the overall plot and giving players the freedom to feel like they’re wielding the gun, swinging the sword or flying the spaceship. In fact Hocking says the writer’s job is neither of those things.
“I shouldn’t be coming up with a plot,” he says. “I should be trying to design a system that allows plot to emerge procedurally based on the choices the player makes. The trick is to seed story everywhere so the player finds it and generates it in their mind while they explore.
“The aim isn’t to protect the coherence of your story, it’s to let the player assemble it in a way that makes sense to them, even if that version seems bizarre or nonsensical to me. The more you abdicate authorship to the player, the better with game will be. That’s just as true for a writer as it is a designer, it’s just more difficult for a writer to achieve.”
It’s made more difficult in one sense because as a writer, you almost have to create every possible narrative path the gamer can play out. Hocking says a highly authored and controlled story has to be concerned with pacing and flow and, as he puts it, ‘keeping the characters credible after they’ve shot 1,500 people to death.’
But doing what he calls ‘proceduralising components’ of the story means the player has a lot of room to spin the tale for themselves, and that means the writer has to be aware of the complete possible depth and breadth. “You have to write for coverage of that whole possibility space while still trying to write content that feels purpose-specific and meaningful in the moment when the game engine [which controls the gameplay] calls for it,” he says.
The other major hurdle a games writer faces because of the form is what convinces the player to invest. If you’ve gone to a movie in the last century you know instinctively that even while the flashy special effects, action and CGI are eye-popping distractions, it’s when we identify with the characters that we know we’ve seen a good movie.
But if we play a video game – with all the same effects and blistering action cinema offers – surely we’re not as interested in the development of the character. In controlling the monster/gunship/soldier/hooded assassin, we’re the character. So what can the game writer do to hook us?
The clue’s actually right there – we’re the character. What better sell is there? “The thing that builds investment in games is choices,” Hocking says. “The actions the player controls in a game like running, climbing, sneaking or shooting are interesting not because they’re ‘action-y’ but because they offer meaningful choices. Typically, games offer little to no freedom within the story structure itself, but the higher the density of choices, the more invested you’ll be in the story.”
So just like ‘relationship manager’ or ‘chief creative officer’ were once the hottest new job titles around, ‘game writer’ might be the industry specialty of tomorrow. “There’s a lot of overlap,” Hocking agrees when asked if being a game writer automatically means you’ll make a good novelist or screenwriter, “but I think the transition to writing for games is more of a leap than the transition between any two other forms.”