October 26, 2011. It was time to attend another IGDA writers panel. Last year's panel write-up on Environmental Narrative had been well-received, so I was encouraged to do a repeat performance this year.
The panel's theme this time around was “Players Vs Characters” - the games writer's pocket incarnation of “What happens when the irresistible force meets the immovable object?” The four writers, convening at BAFTA, were almost the same as last year's line-up:
- Ed Stern (Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, Brink)
- Rhianna Pratchett (Overlord, Heavenly Sword, Mirror's Edge)
- James Swallow (Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Killzone 2)
- Andrew S. Walsh (Harry Potter, Prince of Persia. Medieval II: Total War)
The panel was run differently too. Last year, each of the big names delivered a short presentation, followed by questions. This time it was a freeform discussion with Walsh chairing.
In another departure from last year's panel, I'm going to pepper the write-up with my own commentary.
What Is Character?
With a picture of David Caruso looking down on us, because that is what Caruso does, Walsh opened with the first question: what is character? This shouldn’t be a difficult question to answer, Walsh said, because character has been around for a long time in other media.
Stern got first dibs and tackled Walsh's implication that there should be much in common with other media, saying he saw games “as more dissimilar than similar”. Things which look like character aren’t because of the issue of interactivity. The cinema-goer is expected to be passive when watching a film, he said, but the gamer gets to play with perspective and pacing all the time.
Swallow picked up the question directly. On characters, he said they must be “characterful” in other media but, in a game, the main character must be an empty vessel. The common wisdom that “character is story” does not work in games. Pratchett disagreed, asserting that plenty of players like to play through a vessel, but others like to play as a given character. The success of such a role-play could depend on how customisable the character is – costume, weapon, technology and so on.
This encouraged Stern to ask Swallow about Deus Ex: Human Revolution. In DX:HR, the writers had to write “four characters” for the protagonist to support the different gameplay choices offered to the player. Stern pointed out that no-one would ever write a movie like that. Swallow agreed and said they'd written the character’s history and just handed him over to the player. This gave me the impression the DX:HR team had created an approximation of an empty vessel using four distinct characters.
With all this talk of games writing being so unique, Walsh asked the panel whether writing techniques developed in other media were useless for games. And there was a brief silence.
No one really addressed the question head on. Stern suggested that writers were there to solve problems and sneak in meaning where they could. “I cannot answer questions from the team unless I know everything about that character.” But, he added, the best character is usually the environment; a writer really needs to understand the world being made.
Swallow continued this line of thought and said a kind of invisible writing appears in games. Text on scrolls and in e-mails, character barks, environmental design, character background and faction detail… all of these things inform a game.
Walsh pressed on and finished up the entrée discussion with a final question – what makes a character stand out?
Pratchett kept the environment theme alive and cited Rapture as the most important character of Bioshock. The environment can be brought to life through the presence of objects; the exact manner in which a dead body is found, for example, is story telling in itself.
Okay, I'll come clean, no one really discussed what makes character stand out, only what makes the environment stand out. Stern said he calls it “CSI writing, because you're writing a crime scene.” And he gave another boost to the importance of environmental narrative: players may skip cutscenes, but they can't skip the environment.
Player Versus Character
It became obvious that the panel were going to be focusing on 3D games. Although the discussion occasionally scuffled with other game forms, there was no talk of Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer, contentious Braid, Gemini Rue or Bastion. Then again, it was the kind of audience that probably wanted more of a focus on AAA rather than anything of the indie variety.
Walsh led the panel to the main meat of the discussion: the struggle between player and character.
Pratchett went first, floating the idea that there's an invisible link between player and character and a writer's job is to align their motivations. The issue then is how to fold narrative into the character's actions – which often highlighted the severe disconnect between cutscenes and player action.
She then described the situation where the player has been mowing down hundreds of bad guys, yet the protagonist doesn't reflect on this at all during a cutscene, instead just having a laugh with his friends. This is a complaint I've heard levelled at Uncharted, although it's merely a recent, popular example and not the sole offender. Pratchett reeled off a couple of other examples of cutscene damage - when the protagonist does cool stuff in cutscenes that are not possible in game play or, worse, does something stupid.
Swallow explained that a forced narrative is a loss of agency. “You've got books and movies for that kind of story. We don't want to take the control away from you for 45 minute cutscenes – looking at you Metal Gear Solid.”
Pratchett disagreed as her intention was not to cast cutscenes in a bad light. She asserted that players just don't want to be told a bad story. Cutscenes are fine if used well, as covered earlier: it just depends on the player and the game.
Stern took the bad cutscene issue in a different direction, bringing up the writers' most common lament: entering a project too late. Stern said while he was lucky to be embedded in his team, others were not so - and a writer being brought in late would never happen in other media. I see this as connecting back to Stern's original point that games are more dissimilar to other media. The interactivity is seen as the principal function of a game and projects always start with that - design first, story later.
Walsh then asked why writers do all of these “bad things” if they know they're bad. This resulted in another shoot-out over the good and evil of cutscenes but Stern eventually went off on a tangent to explain a games writer's verbs are the controller buttons, adjectives are the art department and adverbs are the animators. I’m not sure where nouns fell out, probably the wrong side of bed. As a result, selling a concept internally should be done with images and video and not with words.
This is not the first time I’ve heard of this. During his talk for Eurogamer Expo 2010, Ninja Theory’s Tameem Antoniades showed the audience the internal concept reel for Enslaved, a mash-up of different movie sequences (its primary source appeared to be Casshern, a film I found rather banal). At the time, I didn’t quite grasp why a YouTube fanvid-a-like was the smart way to launch a project but, with Stern's explanation, I get it now.
But then Stern poked a stick into what appeared to be one of his pet subjects, the lack of diversity in the developer biosphere. Stern implied that the narrow developer stereotype resulted in games writers being perceived as practitioners of feng shui. Nice to have around, but they do get rather agitated when you try to do something harmless like move the furniture around. The agitation of writers to even small design changes was not generally understood.
Pratchett then pulled out the example of Alyx pretending to be a zombie when the torch goes out in Half-Life 2 Episode 1. Moments such as this, where character barks pay attention to the player’s activity, were like “finding nuggets of character” in a game. “Writers tend to exist in the corners of the world,” she said. “But they are really powerful corners.”
A question from the audience finally broke the discussion away from the implicit AAA focus: are some genres easier than others to write for?
Point-and-click, Swallow said, was very easy as it was just walls of text. I admit there’s truth in this. In point-and-click, the writer is a virtual dictator, but for an interactive 3D experience, the writer is more like a conductor hired on the début night (I discussed this with the author of Zak McKracken, David Fox, earlier this year). However, while it is technically easier to construct a point-and-click narrative, such a game is unlikely to shift anywhere near the same number of units as a console shooter. “Easy” is relative.
Stern said it depends on the degree of abstraction and distance; dialogue in a game is actually between the developer and the player. He used an example from Portal 2’s opening sequence, where the player is prompted to “say apple” although has no power to do so. It demonstrates quickly what you can and cannot do. Writing, he said, is like keeping a balloon in the air and you can almost let it touch the ground. The game itself is a character.
This inadvertently touches upon the theory that single-player games can be interpreted as multi-player games where the second player is the developer. See, for example, Douglas Wilson’s unfinished series on “dialogic” game design which draws in both Agatha Christie and Marina Abramović to sell the point (see part one and part two).
Another audience question. Are NPCs environment rather than character?
Pratchett seemed to agree. She said players are the characters in a game and, as a result, not enough time is spent on NPCs. She returned to Bioshock’s Rapture and said all of the different NPCs are “pretty bonkers” but each represented something about that world.
Walsh ended this section of the discussion with a wry observation. NPCs, he said, are the fastest way to kill immersion. How many times have you seen characters go “I'm too busy to talk right now” when they're just standing there doing nothing?
Come back next week for the second half of the discussion. You will discover: why half of the Mirror’s Edge script was sent to the shredder, the difficulty of writing comedy for a game and how to write for a movie tie-in game without access to the movie.