Who writes videogames? (not in the programming sense)
January 19, 2008 6:12 AM   Subscribe

Who writes videogames?

Something I've wondered for a while, who writes videogames? Not in the programming sense, but dialogue, storyline, etc. Who is employed to write whatever the videogame equivalent is for the screenplay?

Also, why does the writing tend to be so bad?
posted by Ndwright to Technology (18 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I don't work in the gaming industry, but recently played both Half Life: Episode One and Episode Two. I thought the story and dialogue were great, and most of it was probably written by the people mentioned on the 'people' page of the 'Valve Software' homepage. Although there is not much informartion on that page, some people are labeled as 'writer' and there's some info on their background.

If you're into playing videogames yourself, you should check out 'The Orange Box' by Valve. 'Portal', 'Half Life: Episode One' and 'Half Life: Episode Two' all have a commentary mode where you can listen to audio commentaries by the developers. Some are about programming, some about writing the story, some about level design, some by the voice actors and they're all quite interesting.
posted by davidr at 6:39 AM on January 19, 2008

If you go to Moby Games you can look up the credits for any game and bios for some of the people involved. I don't think there is a single answer. I'd suspect the writing tends to be so bad because often enough some game designer or programmer who may not have any business writing is doing it in between programming or designing, basically, working on the level of fan fiction. Additionally, the storytelling can be hindered by the technology and gameplay. For example, given the constraints Valve imposed on themselves for Half Life (no cinematics, tend to let the world speak for itself rather than use blatant exposition, the gameplay exclusively shows what Gordon Freeman sees, no putting words in the player's mouth) you can really see the difference in storytelling between Half Life 1 and 2, where the state of the art had advanced to allow for much more characterization and detail.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 6:51 AM on January 19, 2008

The writer for the Half Life series has mostly been Marc Laidlaw, who previously wrote several horror/scifi novels.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 6:56 AM on January 19, 2008

Best answer:

It varies per product.

We've used in-house professional writers, contract external writers, in-house designers writing dialogue and text on a whim..

Also, it's marginally disingenuous to say that writing is bad, but..

The writing is bad because there's a disconnect between how a narrative and static documentary approach works with a game.

To go off on a rant, I'm sick and fucking tired of focusing on big ass storylines and wordy descriptives. I'm even more sick and fucking tired of hack writers coming out of the woodwork to lecture game developers about how we should listen to them for story design.

In some writer's view, the story they write is god.

And that's bullshit. It's a static approach that doesn't use the strength of the medium. Every single element we put into a game experience, controls, foley, puzzles, enemies, systems, dialogue, core storyline.. they all support the player-driven experience.

Some of the more modern designs, Uncharted, Portal, Bioshock.. They get it. They see how to focus your game elements, leverage quality writing, voice acting and experience construction to deliver something more than the sum of it's parts.

Caveat - Game Designer of 12+ years of experience who might or might not be sick and is feeling a bit crotchety.
posted by Lord_Pall at 6:57 AM on January 19, 2008 [11 favorites]

What Lord_Pall said.

It also depends on how much the project leads value story and realize how hard it can be to do it right in a game. Some designers don't really 'get' the points Lord_Pall brings up and thus don't value story, they focus on gameplay and believe that to be the only factor to making a good game. Sure, you can make a good game without story. But a truly 'great' game usually has a compelling, well integrated story.
posted by jopreacher at 7:28 AM on January 19, 2008

Oh SNAP! Something I can contribute to that isn't about dogs or MS Office - go me! I teach an Intro to Game Design glass to undergrads. Our textbook makes many of the same points as the comments above:

One reason game writing is "bad" is the medium doesn't [yet, in general] tend to attract writers. If you're that good of a writer that you could make a living at it, you're going to write novels or screenplays, not video games. So the very best writers are probably not working in video game writing. It's still such a relatively new medium (compared to fiction writing and writing for film or stage) that it doesn't have the allure.

Secondly, a game writer doesn't have certain approaches available to him/her that a novelist would, such as the ability to write at length about what is inside a character's head. It's trickier to explain a character's motivation when you can't present the character's thoughts. So all the motivation has to come from action and throwaway lines and asides. Much harder, although more similar to film/stage writing.

Third, even if the writer came up with the greatest story ever, as Lord_Pall mentions it still has to be fit into a medium that is not designed to be a storytelling medium. Gaming is all about interaction. Without that, you might as well watch a movie.

jopreacher, some of the greatest games of all time have little or no story: Centipede, Asteroids, Tetris, Pac-Man. Of course, these games are "great" due to their being groundbreaking at the time, which is a different category of greatness than Halo, IMO.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:38 AM on January 19, 2008

Occasionally name-writers do get involved. Roger Zelazny wrote the story for Chronomaster. (Or most of it. He died before it was finished.) And Douglas Adams was involved in writing the story for the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" game, which has a somewhat different story than the radio show, the TV show, the books, or the movie.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:21 AM on January 19, 2008

A friend of mine, Gordon Rennie is a British comics writer who is now increasingly writing computer games (he was nominated for a BAFTA for the screenplay for Rogue Trooper; the award itself shows that writing for computer games s starting to get some recognition as an art form). He's started writing a column about his work in the games industry (second part).
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:26 AM on January 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Who writes videogames?

Here are some quick descriptions of people who have written in some capacity for games that are generally considered "well-written". It should give you an idea of the diverse backgrounds of the people who write for games.

Tim Schafer

The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango, Psychonauts

Schafer was a Computer Science major in college and started as a play tester at Lucas Arts. He worked as both a writer and programmer on The Secret of Monkey Island, and he eventually transitioned into a designer/writer for future games.

Eric Wolpaw

Psychonauts, Portal

Wolpaw used to write for a video comdedy review site called Old Man Murray. His smart satire was eventually noticed by the gaming industry, and Tim Schafer hired him to co-write Psychonauts. His work with Shafer earned a few awards for video game writing, and he was picked up by Valve for head writing duties on Portal. I couldn't find anything about what he did before Old Man Murray.

Here's Wolpaw on what's hard about writing for video games:

At strip clubs, there’s a guy whose job is to talk between the strippers. He tries to do a good job and be entertaining and enthusiastic, but everybody’s just there for the nakedness. That’s a professional writer trick we call called an “analogy”. What I really mean is that game writers are the game equivalent of the guy who talks between the nude girls at strip clubs. Nobody cares about what that guy does, and anybody who does care is probably a little maladjusted. So I’d have to say the hardest part of being a game writer is learning all the writing tricks like “analogy”.

Adam Cadre

I-O, Photopia, Lock & Key, Narcolepsy, Textfire Golf

Cadre is a writer who has also written a book. All of his games are interactive fiction, or text-based games, and they are all available for free from his website. Text-based games, more than any other type of game, require good writing to be enjoyable.

Sarah Paetsch

Deus Ex 2

Paetsch earned a BA in English with minors in Computer Science and Womens studies, and went on to earn a Master's in English. Her master's thesis was about interactive fiction. She got her job as a writer on Deus Ex 2 by interviewing with Ion Storm.

Leonard Boyarsky

Fallout, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines

Boyarsky has a BA in Fine Arts and entered the gaming industry as an artist. For Fallout, he contributed to the overall art direction of the game, the game's story arc, several key game elements, and the game's dialog. He had a similar role in Vampire: The Masquerade.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:31 AM on January 19, 2008 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I worked on Bioshock's story (more as an editor than a writer, although a bit of that too), so I suppose I'm qualified to answer this.

The answer is that every company does it differently - sometimes it's the creative director (as in Bioshock's case), sometimes it's a senior designer with a well-regarded writing ability. Lately contracted professional game writers have been used by many companies that don't have their strengths in story. In Bioshock about half of the random mutterings of the various splicers were written by our senior audio designer.

Ultimately the answer depends on the strengths of the studio, the nature of the project, and who the powers-that-be (the creative director, project lead, and the project's champion at the publisher) recognize as being up to the task.
posted by Ryvar at 9:50 AM on January 19, 2008 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Great answers guys, thanks.

As for the "why is it so bad", I do acknowledge some videogames have fantastic writing and storylines. In my experience however, most don't, and I now see why that is the case and why it's not neccessarily "bad". Having grown up on RPGs before the days of voice-acting in videogames I tend to pay more attention to the text than is strictly neccessary.

Also, loved the "talking between strippers" analogy.
posted by Ndwright at 10:24 AM on January 19, 2008

If you liked the "talking between strippers" analogy, check out the interview the quote is taken from. Eric Wolpaw is hilarious. There's also this rambling explanation:

Hold on, I never finished answering the earlier question about what’s really hard about writing for games. Say you’re writing a play; the pressure’s totally off because nobody expects it to be anything but 100% pure crap. So writing for games is definitely harder than writing a play. Writing your own name is another thing that’s harder than writing a play, though, so that wasn’t too great a comparison. Luckily, I was just getting warmed up. If you think reading a book is hard, you should try writing one. Because it’s even harder. It’s still not as hard as writing a game, though. If you discount the purely visual pop-up parts, a book is made almost entirely of words. As a novelist, you just need to think of a few decent strings of words and then fill the other 98% of the book with more or less random descriptions of things and exclamation points. In a game, the 98% garbage section is filled with the actual game. Even worse for game writers, the 98% garbage part of a game isn’t even usually garbage because instead of reading something boring about the history of Belgium, the “reader” probably gets to jump a Camaro over a dinosaur. That means the pressure’s on to make the two percent wordy part that you’re responsible for really, really spectacular. It’s a tough job.
posted by painquale at 10:47 AM on January 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Where The Hell Is Matt guy is a video game writer as well. Might want to check out his blog archives where he might talk about the process.
posted by mathowie at 10:57 AM on January 19, 2008

Here's a link to a small Ars Technica series on game writers. And an interview with two writers on The Witcher.
posted by cmgonzalez at 12:46 PM on January 19, 2008

As a novelist, you just need to think of a few decent strings of words and then fill the other 98% of the book with more or less random descriptions of things and exclamation points.

That's about where I stopped taking that rant seriously.
posted by secret about box at 2:32 PM on January 19, 2008

Response by poster: I'm pretty sure that was tongue-in-cheek, seeing as how he also dismisses the entire field of playwriting.
posted by Ndwright at 5:04 AM on January 22, 2008

I just saw this question. I'm not sure about all games, but my cousin wrote the dialog for two of the "2k"hockey games at the turn of the century. He had been writing 'zines on hockey fighting when an editor at the Village Voice discovered him. He started writing a column on hockey fighting for the Village Voice called "Mixin' It Up." He was contacted by the game designers from there. I think he was paid by the line and made like $1500 per game.

Basically they sent him an Excel spreadsheet with the situations "hard check on boards 1," "hard check on boards 2," etc., and he had to come up with slightly different ways of saying it each time. Two well-known hockey announcers read the text.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:42 AM on July 11, 2008

Why is game writing so often bad? It's the easiest question in the world to answer. Just look at the entertainment sector that is the closest to videogames in nearly every way: the movies.

So, to turn the question around: "Why is movie writing so often bad?" The answer, simply, is that they just don't care. When hugely braindead blockbusters sell such a disproportionately large percentage of the tickets, then the movies that are most likely to be made will be more braindead blockbusters. It's exactly the same with games.

It's a tyranny of opportunity costs. When you can make one of several projects, if you only care about raw profits, then the tendency is to make the one with the greatest return on your investment. In fact, in economic terms, if you could make a project that you think will return $5 per dollar spent, and one that you think will return $7, then you're a fool to spend the $5. Foolish in a way that could conceivably get you outed from your position in decision-making.

Notice that this is all only what you think. Really, what people think is tremendously variable, and influenced by what's popular in the culture and what's been a previous hit. Multiply that by an entire industry, and you have 80% of the companies chasing the same trendy themes and storyline, all of them knowing that they have to go after the things that offer them the greatest potential profit.

Chasing the greatest profit means chasing the demographic that will best provide it. That demographic tends to be teenage or young-adult male, possibly the demographic that is least appreciative of care taken in writing stories. The publishers know this, so they devote their resources to the areas that will see the greatest return on their money.
posted by JHarris at 2:20 PM on December 2, 2008

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