The Average Gamer

Who Writes Games, Anyway?

As regular readers may know, I’ve been talking quite a bit about writing in RPG journals. Tying in with that, games need to grow up, stop obsessing over different ways to blow up the scenery and hire some damn writers. Yeah, I know that loads of very vocal people skip the dialogue and jump straight to the action. There are an awful lot of us out here who actually quite enjoy the cutscenes in Final Fantasy games, thank you very much. We have even been known to crack open a book now and then. We’d like to be considered too.

Brian Baglow of ScottishGames has posted an interview with Gordon Rennie, an author and comics writer who has been involved with quite a few games. Here’s an absolute gem of a quote:

The games industry has a reputation for poor writing in games. Do you think this is fair?
Pretty much, since very few games are written by writers. If you want a plumbing job done, you call a plumber. In the games industry, when you need plot, dialogue and characterisation done, who do you get to do it? Why, a level designer, mission scripter or a pal of the producer’s, of course.

I was playing a game recently, which I won’t name – okay, it was Gangs of London on the PSP – and you’d swear the dialogue was written as an afterthought by whoever was around the office that day, possibly even the guy that delivers the sandwiches.

Brian Baglow and Gordon Rennie, ‘But it’s not ART…’

Is anyone surprised? Nah.


  1. Mr Butterscotch

    27th Jan, 2007 at 6:54 pm

    Games are by their nature interactive, which means that there’s always a trade-off between the narrative and player choice. Either you give a product that is tightly scripted by compelling, ie Half Life, or you do something more freeform where the gameplay takes precedent. On the latter the story is definitely much further behind.

  2. Weefz

    27th Jan, 2007 at 11:50 pm

    See, I don’t buy that. Why can’t you write for several different outcomes? It’s not like alternative endings are a new idea.

    I don’t see why it’s soooo complicated to write a branch of story where a) Player goes in a shoots everything in sight. b) Player goes in and talks to people and then shoots everything in sight thus betraying whatever they agreed to do. c) Player goes in and talks to people and doesn’t shoot up that much except for the bare essentials. d) Okay, limited by budgetary constraints.

    Sure, novel writers can only explore one choice their characters make. Isn’t that the beauty of games? The protagonist can make a mistake and have to deal with the consequences. Or not – whichever the player chooses. Hey, we can even do both.

    Are a few extra cut-scenes really that expensive? Way back when, Wing Commander managed at least two endings, both of which were natural outcomes of the player’s actions.

  3. Mr Butterscotch

    28th Jan, 2007 at 7:02 pm

    Well, it depends which way you look at it. Games like Silent Hill are about as well known for their multiple choice endings (ie did you save the nurse, the cop etc?) but at the same time, there are only very rare moments that actually alter which cinematic you receive at the end of the game.

    I think that it’s easy to forget that storyline is actually a very new idea in computer games. The original games (Pong, Space Invaders etc) just didn’t have them, and frankly it would be ridiculous to see a plot tacked on to a game like that, beyond giving a reason for the actions that the player must perform ad infinitum in search of a high score.

    Half Life (to use the same reference point as I originally did) and Half Life 2 are both about telling stories – interestingly not a single review marked either game down, and yet lets be fair they are almost completely, maybe 80% on rails. You can’t kill any other rebels in the second game, you can’t get anything other than the half-baked ending, you can’t go really beyond the areas you are always moved in to. Yet no-one can say that the experience isn’t great. The sci-fi storyline was not that good in my opinion, but the action was so tightly scripted (remember the scientists dying in the lift in the first game) that no-one cared. Have you ever picked up a game for the storyline? I don’t think I have…

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  5. Weefz

    28th Jan, 2007 at 10:50 pm

    Have you ever picked up a game for the storyline?

    Nope, but I do feel let down by hackneyed scripting and characterisation. Although I talked about linearity above, there’s more to writing than just storyline. Half-Life and its sequels are notably outstanding examples of the FPS genre that make you really care about the world and the characters within it. That’s the sort of thing I’m asking for.

    I’ve said elsewhere, Gears of War’s tactics and gameplay are nothing to be really impressed by but the game itself was enjoyable. There was a reason for going into these places to shoot everything in sight and the characters of Cole and Delta Squad are engaging. I love the way you hear something in the background and just as you’re thinking “What the hell was that?” one of the squad says exactly the same thing. That’s simple but effective writing. Sin Episodes – fun shooter built on the same engine as HL2, storyline was completely pants and cliché. Neverwinter Nights 2 started out interesting but now I’m in the Docks in a boring Thieves vs City Guards storyline, which isn’t exactly inspiring to say the least.

    Intriguing premise and characters can help make a good game into a great game. It can be the reason to choose shooter A over shooter B, especially if you don’t have an established franchise to build on.

    The Secret of Monkey Island came out in 1990. The Gold Box D&D games started in 1988. Characters and plot in games isn’t that new a concept.

  6. Mr Butterscotch

    29th Jan, 2007 at 9:39 pm

    You’re damn right about Gears. It is a great game and very compelling, even if there’s nothing too new. It helps that it looks fantastic though.

    Okay, so you have D&D games from 1988, but Pong came out wayyyy back in 1972. Gaming is (using Pong as the reference point) about 35ish years old. So for say about a third of its life as an entertainment medium there was no story, only the gameplay experience. So in those terms you’re right it’s not THAT new. On the other hand, look at how much film has developed over the 90+ years it has been around. I’d like to think with that length of time in the not too distant future you’ll see the characterisation, scripting and story arc that you will remember just as much as say Saving Private Ryan or Wild Strawberries.

    I guess part of what makes a game so compelling is that it can offer a multitude of things – interaction, story, characters, a world to explore, excitement and much more. Don’t even get me started on the genre choice… and the back catalogue.

    You’re absolutely right on a good premise making a game. A great premise with some interesting mechanics (such as System Shock 2) can give a totally compelling, almost mind altering experience.

  7. Weefz

    29th Jan, 2007 at 9:45 pm

    I’d like to think with that length of time in the not too distant future you’ll see the characterisation, scripting and story arc that you will remember just as much as say Saving Private Ryan or Wild Strawberries.

    Yeah. When they start hiring some freaking writers ;)

  8. hot potatoe

    4th Feb, 2007 at 10:06 pm

    Most companies working on AA or AAA games will hire writers. But there are many factors that can still leave a game with a crappo narrative:

    They (the dev studio) may hire in a PRO writer, but thats not going to automatically define quality control. The writer could be a mainstream hack, just as in hollywood. Remember Joe Eszterhas? ( ) – he got noticed off the back of one hit (basic instinct) which boosted his career to allow him to write a slew of godawful big budget movies.

    However, assume a dev studio hires a quality PRO writer – will that writer understand how to write for games? Although people have talked about games as `movie-like` experience ever since crap like sewer shark/ night trap (mega cd), its only now that the visuals are really approaching film quality. And as the looks get better, the other elements (sound/story etc) by contrast begin to warrant greater expectations.

    So assume they have a great writer, who actually knows how to write for games, everything should be fine yes? Well now you have the game development process itself to deal with, will it be completed early? will it slip? will portions of the game be dropped at the last minute? or levels shifted around to balance gameplay? Lots of dynamic possibilities can conspire to corrupt a perfectly well written game script. Also how do the dev team implement the story? maybe some designers want to add their own personality into it? there are lots of things that could `interfere` with a positive outcome.

    But thats not to say lots of things cant go right as well. Remember that Game development is not film development. It may have similarities, but its different. And also dont forget its a very young industry – film by contrast has been going for over 100 years, giving it a much larger library of classics, but the dross to classic ratio is probably about the same as games all in all (think of all the bad hollywood films/tv movies etc etc).

    One other element that can hurt games is the attempt to be mass market, to appeal to the lowest common denominator. As games become more expensive the publishers become more worried about returns (as rather than releasing 10 mid/low budget games that you can spread your bets on making you money, you now have 2 or 3 expensive potential turkeys). You may want to give people stories that are not too taxing, and have to cater for the casual gamer is they are to be the greatest portion of you market – an old game story that can seem hackneyed to an older more experienced individual, can seem fresh to a novice.

    Think how zelda repeats itself over time, Ganon always the great enemy at the end, Zelda always in a pickle, each dungeon giving up familiar weapons… Some elements cant help but become predictable. But then theres an old quote to consider – “give them what they want, but not the way they expect it”. You may know whats coming in the game, but if how you arrive there really exciting then its not so much of a problem.

  9. Weefz

    5th Feb, 2007 at 9:52 pm

    hotpotatoe: You make some very good points. Switching levels around to balance gameplay and all that other stuff can wreak havoc on a storyline. Good project management should take care of most it, but (anecdotally) I suppose that’s something else that the industry seems to be lacking.

    I’m not sure where the difficulty of writers writing for games comes from. The concept of multiple outcomes is not a new thing to fiction. I’m not expecting games to suddenly turn into Schindler’s List. I just want a little ingenuity and maybe a believable character or two. At the moment, it seems most games are written from a basic template. The example you give is exactly the reason I don’t play Zelda games.

    There’s more to the world than dungeons, dragons, Nazis and biological experiments gone awry. And there’s more to “excitement” than spawning identikit cannon fodder. Let’s see it one day.

  10. granola54

    6th Feb, 2007 at 11:17 pm

    dont sit around waiting for storylines to improve – get in there and show people how it should be done with a tool like gamemaker!

  11. Weefz

    6th Feb, 2007 at 11:29 pm

    I’m working on it. Kinda. Sorta. Not convinced my efforts will ever see the light of day.

    I have trouble writing voices other than my own. When I try to write dialogue everyone kinda sounds like me. It’s not pretty. In other words… I’m not a fiction writer.

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