Friday, 2 August 2013

Guest Post | "Wait, Video Games Have Writers?" by Jay Posey

One of the subjects I touched on in my review of Jay Posey's debut was the idea of the novel as a collaborative process, because in much the same way that video games require the participation of their players, Three requires its readers to do a little of the legwork.

This wasn't something I minded in the slightest — rather than getting hung up on the lack of facts in the first act, I applauded the resulting sense of individual discovery — yet so many authors are content to spoon-feed us everything we need to know (and more) that I suppose I can see why some of Three's readers have complained about Posey's decision to leave certain elements of his narrative and characters to our imagination.

I can see... but I completely disagree. In fact, I think this approach is one of the book's biggest boons.

Yet there is somewhere a balance to be struck, between too much and not enough, and Jay Posey has a fascinating perspective on this question, informed by his day job making video games... as he explains.

***

In addition to being an author, I’ve also been very fortunate to get to do one of the coolest jobs in the world which is, of course, making video games!  Game development probably doesn’t rank quite as highly as, say, underwater photography, vacation tester, or bacon entrepreneur, but I think it’s still up there as one of those pretty cool jobs that lots of people wish they had. (Or at least, that they think they wish they had.)

But when you do the job I do — I’m a Senior Narrative Designer at Red Storm Entertainment, where Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six franchises were born — there’s a great conversation to be had that goes something like:
Interested Guest at Party: “So, Jay, what do you do for a living?”
Me: “I’m a writer.”
Interested Guest at Party: “Oh, wow, that’s so cool!  So, like movies?  Or books?  Or what?”
Me: “Video games, mostly.”
Suddenly Dramatically Less Interested Guest at Party: “Ooohhh, I thought you meant like a real writer.”
(That of course is completely made up, as I never get invited to parties.)

Some may be surprised to learn that, in fact, many real writers do work in the video game industry. Mary DeMarle, Amy Hennig, Rhianna Pratchett, Christy Marx, Marc Laidlaw, Anthony Burch, Erik Wolpaw, Drew Holmes, Andy Walsh, T.J. Fixman, Steve Jaros, Tom Abernathy, Aaron Linde, Richard Dansky. I could go on and on listing awesome writers who already work in games, but I won’t — even though I’ve left a bunch off the list and they will probably be letting me know via Twitter in short order. Sorry guys!

Now, I’ll be the first to admit, it’s sometimes hard to tell that great writers are doing great things in games from the final product. There are a lot of broken attempts at storytelling out there to be sure.  As an industry, we still have the habit of falling back on other media’s rules when we flounder (that’s why we still have so many cutscenes). There’s also a fairly frequent refrain that shows up in discussions of video game storylines that says what the Industry really needs is just to hire one or more big name Hollywood writers to come in and teach game developers how to write. Certainly, there are plenty of studios/publishers out there that could use a little nudge to help them see why hiring a professional writer early on might be a better way to go than asking an overworked developer to “slap some story on” at the end of a project.

BUT.

There are some important things folks should know.

On the one hand, Story is Story. Humans have been telling stories pretty much since the Dawn of Man. There are a number of aspects of telling stories that work regardless of whether you’re working on a long-form novel or on a video game. The importance of characters, how dialogue works, how to create intriguing plot twists and satisfying emotional pay-offs, all of these things (and more) are applicable to storytelling in a variety of different media, whether it’s radio, TV, film, prose, stageplays, comics, whatever.

On the other hand, every medium has its own particular strengths. Books give us access to a character’s internal life. Movies excel at visual storytelling. TV shows frequently tell us many stories at once, and episodically sustain us over the course of weeks, or months, or years. And all of those media have something in common: the writers control the characters.

The strength of games is their interactivity. While other media are primarily passively received, games are fundamentally active. Whereas a movie audience might be content to sit and watch events unfold on a big screen to characters they cannot influence, gamers expect to participate in their own experience. Which means as a writer of games, you can always count on having at least one wild-card in your cast: the player. 

Players want to influence and experience the world that a game lets them inhabit. Players want to matter.  Some of them want to be good citizens of your game world, role-playing the character you’ve asked them to be. Others want to interact however they see fit, and will run around jumping on boxes while you deliver important news about the alien invasion, or will pick-pocket the clothes off of every citizen in town.

Game writing is ultimately collaborative. As a writer, the story you write isn’t complete until the player engages with it and makes it her own experience. And while there have been many missteps, and will continue to be more along the way, I can assure you that there are already real writers in the industry who are passionately striving to decipher the power of video games as a story-telling medium, who are daily working to bring gamers amazing story experiences that are both personally meaningful and yet shared within a community, and who one day will, I believe, be heralded as heroes of the craft.

Or, at the very least, maybe as level 99 writers.

***

Jay Posey has been described as “fascinating,” “insightful,” “highly entertaining,” “extremely handsome,” and “one of the most dynamic speakers in the Posey household” by parties who may or may not have been biased or himself.

Thanks a million for the guest post, Posey!

With which, I'm going to give the floor to you folks. Any thoughts on the notion of the novel as a collaborative process versus the video game as an interactive narrative?

5 comments:

  1. I have a hard time wrapping my head around how people can think that video games don't have writers. Not that I don't believe that people think it, but more than I don't want to believe that people are that blind or ignorant. Do these people think that video games piqued and stopped with the advent of Tetris or something? Are they unaware of the thousands and thousands of heavily story-based games out there? Do they think RPGs are just dungeon-crawlers with no purpose but to get some ew piece of shiny treasure?

    Video game writing used to be what I wanted to do with my life. That isn't to say that I have any specialy talent or training for it, but I spent many nights wishing I knew how to code entire games from scratch because it would be the only way these things get out of my head. That game writers might not be "real" writers is a thought that never even crossed my mind even when all I was doing was playing the games and not wishing I could make them, because dang, I played games with awesome stories, and somebody had to be behind the scenes making sure the plot made sense and things flowed properly and characters didn't just speak gibberish.

    Awesome post, and way to remind me of some of my early passions in life!

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    Replies
    1. I had no idea, Ria!

      You and I... we should put our heads together and write a Shadowrun Returns fan campaign. :)

      Delete
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