Playful Narrative is a series of short weekly articles each focused around a single lesson or point to remember when writing for games.
Hire a writer
This week’s point may be the easiest one in this series to remember and the hardest to enforce. Games and writing have a troubled history1. If writers are hired at all, very often the writer has little to no experience working for games, is hired too late or given way too little creative freedom to do much more than just polishing up the bad narrative design that has already been put in place by others2.
Many teams leave the narrative design to a game or concept designer already on the team, who generally doesn’t know a whole lot about actual writing. They have wild ideas of what stories in games should be like, because they are good at designing games and try to design the story like it is an aspect of the gameplay. These people are the reason stories in games are filled with bad one-liners, flawed and overused character stereotypes and a story that lacks in plot development, pacing, realism and so much more. It’s like giving the art direction to someone who just started experimenting with photoshop. Every team leader knows that won’t do, but in writing, it seems to be ok for most teams3.
Another bad idea is the way some studios try to fix this: by hiring good writers, who have never worked for games before. These people may know a lot about writing but they know nothing about games. They are as clueless regarding the problems presented as the people hiring them are. Teams that don’t know how to write for games hire people that don’t know either, it’s plain stupid. If you hire a professional writer from a different discipline to write for your game, you will have to have someone on the team who knows at least something about writing for games to work with the person and make the translation to the medium.
The bigger problem here is the notion that the narrative design of a game is so unimportant that inexperienced people can be hired or good people can be introduced to the project way too late to do their work. How did this come to be? Partly, societies look upon writing is to blame. Writing is often portrayed as something magical, a talent you either have or don’t, something that can’t be taught or conveyed. This of course is nonsense. It does however result in many people not grasping what makes good narrative stand apart from bad narrative. These can be divided into two groups of people, those that see good narrative design as unexplainable wizardry and those that see writing as something not so special or difficult, because they cannot differentiate between good text that takes time and skill to write and the kind that everyone and his dog can pen in mere minutes.
Most to blame though is the fact that all of these issues result in a poorly crafted narrative which in turn brings a lot of the designers who are responsible for it in the first place to claim that stories have no place in games or can’t be good. It’s a virtual circle of failing to do it right; because stories in games often suck, little funds and creativity is put into creating the story, resulting in a bad story. Let’s break this circle and start hiring qualified people.
This week’s point to remember
Hire a writer that knows how to write for games specifically and involve him or her in the creative process from the early stages on. Start seeing good writing as something that takes skill, time and effort.
Next week in Playful Narrative: Death to monologues
Whether you totally agree with me or feel like I completely miss the point, let me know in the comments or get in touch! See you next week.
- Games are not the only medium with bad writing, but they are the only medium were there is almost nothing but bad writing. [↩]
- This was put into words quite striking by industry writer Brian Gomez in this article, which is a good read if you wish to dig deeper into today’s point. [↩]
- One of the reasons for this is that most people in the gamedesign scene tend to be rather well-grounded in simple visual art skills but not so much in narrative designing skills. This results in a better understanding of what kind of art is good and what kind is not. There is no such notion in most designers when it comes to storytelling and narrative design. [↩]