The myth of the game writing vacuum

You won’t believe this.  I was trolling the web the other day and came across a statement supposed to promote game writing, which essentially said: “You can develop the story and dialog independently of the rest of development.”  While they added the caveat that there would be iteration, of course, they proposed that game writing could be so much better because it could occur in a vacuum.  After I stopped laughing, I realized I was facing two assumptions — 1) that we can write without too much concern for other departments and 2) that writing is actually better when it does.  Let’s test these assumptions in each stage of development.

In the Beginning
When we are brought in early in a project, a lot depends on what we write, and we depend a lot on any constraints from the company in terms of design and scope.  If you write something up without taking those into account, it just doesn’t ring as true.  Furthermore, some games just can’t start production until the game story is complete and thoroughly vetted by everyone making the game.  Survey says?  The assumptions are wrong on both counts when bringing in a writer early.

In the Middle
Occasionally we are brought into a project while it is in mid-stride.  Sometimes there’s just the game design document and demo, but usually the game is in production.  That means we’re sometimes dealing with concepts that are set in stone or hard-coded, while other ideas are open to discussion.

Should we work in a vacuum?  Definitely not — the game concepts are constantly going through changes, sometimes on a daily basis.  This state of flux demonstrates why writers often work on staff rather than remotely, though good communication can make it work wherever the writers are.

Sometimes developers are too busy to communicate and much prefer the plug-n-play writer.  In these vacuum-like cases ;), unless the writers are poor, the game doesn’t suffer from poor writing so much as suffer from missed opportunities.  Outsourced writers as well as outsourced artists can come up with ideas that will benefit the entire game.  If there’s not time to field these ideas, you miss the chance to improve.

The verdict?  Avoid letting your writers write in a vacuum, but if you must, consider what you might be missing.

The finale
Game writers have historically been brought in at the very end of development.  Some developers may tack in writing at the end, like a texture on a wall.  The “story,” such as it is, is already set, and the game is in the last legs of production.  You can change very little at this point.  The myth of the writing working happily in a vacuum probably stems from this very situation.

Can the writer work with little input from the other departments at this stage?  Yes, with reservations.  Like working with artists, you will need to clarify your parameters on such issues such as length and style.

Does writers working in isolation improve the writing?  It doesn’t hurt it at this point — chances are your writer has played the game and knows what to do.  Richard Dansky suggests that what’s missing in this equation is time for writers to reiterate and improve upon their work, just as the designers, artists, and programmers do.  The earlier the writing begins, the more chance writers have to perfect it.  You’re certainly more likely to get higher quality than the writing you throw in moments before you ship.

So can writers work independently of game production?  Certainly they can, and sometimes do.  Depending on the quality of your writer, you’ll get okay writing, or even good writing.  But if you incorporate your writers early and ensure communication between them and your entire production, well… that means great writing!

Agree or disagree?  What else do you think will improve game writing?

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Published in: on October 2, 2008 at 1:51 pm  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hmm. Well, it’s flattering to be blogged about, and on my birthday no less!

    However, I’m afraid there’s some misunderstanding about that blog post on why videogame writing should never suck. Please check it out if you have any questions; I haven’t made ANY edits. I know I can be an idiot but I do have a few quibbles with the way my post has been presented. 🙂

    I was blogging about the few technical, upstream dependencies of our work. (I.e., we all know that our scribblings don’t require specialized tools.) And yes, I did say that game writing could occur in a vacuum. But I never claimed that “game writing could be so much better because it could occur in a vacuum”! I think we all know what happens when we aren’t included in the process of production.

    Of course, Anne’s other points are well-taken. There really ARE people who believe that you can slap a plot on a game in alpha and make it stick.

    It’s a backhanded compliment to see my blatherings getting mentioned at the Cabal. Thanks for reading!


  2. I would suggest giving your post a revise. I didn’t link to it since I figured you would anyway. The topic is “Why video game writing should never suck” and you proceed to say “Video game writing has no dependencies.” Anyone reading it will conclude that you think writing shouldn’t suck BECAUSE it can happen in a vacuum. If that statement doesn’t support your thesis, then cut it out. Of course, game writers are not necessarily good essay writers 😉

    Do check out Richard Dansky’s post: — I’m not the only one who has a different point of view.


  3. I don’t know if you changed your blog post, but if it is:

    “Videogame writing has no dependencies. A game’s plot and character development can be created in a vacuum. Game writing doesn’t need special tools, art assets, or a stable “build” of the game development software.”

    then I was shocked too. If the writing is to dovetail into the design, it’s hard to imagine that game writing can be done in a vacuum.

    – Sande

  4. I never claimed that our work SHOULD be created in a vacuum, only that it CAN. Clearly paragraph 2 of that section is invisible or something. Context, people!

    I trust our readers can figure out how they feel about this little dustup, and whether I have a legitimate gripe about this statement: “…they proposed that game writing could be so much better because it could occur in a vacuum.”

    Thanks for reading.

  5. […] any other aspect of game development, but also because the narrative should not be confined to a vacuum.  It is, in fact, part of the system and should be integrated into the system.  If you […]

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