The Average Gamer

Writing in Games – BAFTA Panel Discussion

A panel of games industry writers gathered together to discuss narrative in games, specifically the idea of character, how players interact with the characters and story, and all of the other factors which influence game narrative.

The panelists were Rhianna Pratchett (Heavenly Sword, the Overlord series, Mirror’s Edge), Jim Swallow (Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Killzone 2), Ed Stern (Brink, The Enemy Territory games) and it was chaired by industry veteran Andrew S. Walsh (X3:Reunion, Prince of Persia (2008), and Medieval II: Total War).

They started off by discussing the role of a character to help tell the story and the discussion outlined the two main approaches that games seem to take: either an empty vessel with no voice, or a pre-defined character such as Nico Bellic or Nathan Drake. Opinions differ upon the best approach for each game and the amount and method that “story” is delivered to the player. The panelists seemed to agree that even with a good compromise between the two (as in several of Valve’s titles), games have the unique challenge of straddling explanatory story and interactivity with player agency.

It was also mentioned that environment itself is often a character, namely because the designers and level builders are focusing so much time and effort on building the “sets” that will enclose and immerse the player and characters. Sometimes this is a good thing, as Rhianna Pratchett cited in the case of Bioshock’s Rapture, but to me it also means that each team has such a laser focus that it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. When watching a film, for example, the director or cinematographer decides where the camera goes and where it’s pointing. In games the player takes on this role, thereby potentially missing something important to the story.

Judging from the difficulty in finding adequate terms to describe the complex concepts that make up game design, we’re still struggling to find the right language for the medium. Ed Stern made an excellent point in that new mediums are often described in terms of the mediums that came before (as in the term “Horseless Carriage”). To my mind, we often define games in terms of their gameplay as well as their tone and theme, although the two are not always linked. Further complicating this is the fact that some of the most basic storytelling devices in non-interactive mediums, like a close-up shot of two characters chatting is more “expensive” in terms of development time than helicopters exploding or cameras flying through the air.

In addition to the simple hurdle of a medium trying to define itself, is the process itself, specifically the commercial and financial realities attached to the projects. The panelists described the process as something akin to a “school play”; you might have all the time in the world to craft something great, but you are very limited in terms of range with your actors, sets, props, etc. As writers, they have each written thousands of lines of dialogue, but even though the effort and resultant quality may have been significant, the tight deadlines and very little context given to actors can often pervert the original message. Ed Stern described motion capture actors that have provided incredibly passionate and nuanced performances, but when mapped to a body that’s of a different proportion, some of that complexity is inevitably going to be lost in translation. Beyond this is the larger question of the ultimate audience. Quite often the people pulling the purse strings on some of these very expensive budgets do not represent the audience as a whole, which explains why, as one of the panelists put it, the protagonists are all of a certain ethnic background, culture and identity.

Andrew S. Walsh also pointed out that the other mediums, such as film and television, still have many of the same challenges outlined above, but what was really sobering to me was the simple fact that writing and story are often such a minor consideration in the entire process of games today. The four panelists agreed that quite often they may be attached to a project very, very late in production, or are under such tight deadlines that the quality is not what it could be. It almost seems like writers are involved as an afterthought, which seems a bit ass-about-face to me. While the medium is primarily a visual one, I still believe that a strong literary vision, provided by someone who is adept at crafting a story and characters, is integral to telling a story of any kind or medium.

I want to try and avoid some of the binary thinking that pervades many discussions on the subject, however. Not every game has to have a supremely well-crafted story to be enjoyable, and for a large part the two can and should co-exist happily. But it’s important to remember that although one might have been commercially successful for the last ten years or so, there’s also room (and potential for more profit) in an increased complexity of content, and as gamers and consumers we should demand more of the stories presented to us in games.

In short, the discussion was enlightening, but also kind of a sobering one for someone who believes in the storytelling power of the medium.