This is the second half of an article on the IGDA Writers Panel held at BAFTA, London, on October 26. The first half was published last week.
Last year’s panel was held in a lecture theatre at South Bank University which was spacious and desk-enabled. At BAFTA, the audience were not as lucky. Dinky chairs jammed us into snuggling distances with our neighbours and I had to be careful not to poke out someone’s eye with the careless flick of a pen. The panellists got to wave their arms about and express themselves with gusto, but I didn’t have enough room to swing a gnat.
But every crowd has a silver lining – at least I got a free drink.
Just The Player?
The third act of the discussion addressed whether it was just the player alone that defined character. Could genre come into it? Or even the controllers?
Stern went first. He said that everything was called games and threw out diverse examples such as hopscotch, chess and Command & Conquer. Each had different expectations and some games had way too much story. I was reminded of Tidalis, a clever puzzle game that has no need for the copious cartoonish cutscenes that bulk up its adventure mode.
Pratchett related a situation where the developer couldn’t use “wee” in a Wii game, because it wasn’t kid-friendly. Although she touted this as an example where age affects what you write, I think this is more demonstrative of a platform’s constraints (in this case, non-technical).
Swallow said the interface was crucial as well because it defined how a player is able to react. Kinect and Playstation Move offered a completely different language to that of a controller.
When Walsh asked if viewpoint was important, Pratchett said a shift between third- and first-person was. Mirror’s Edge was originally developed as a third-person game and Faith, the protagonist, had plenty of lines to say outside of cutscenes. When the perspective was switched to first-person, these asides just didn’t work. As a result, half of the Mirror’s Edge script was dropped.
Pratchett went from this to say that third-person had more potential for characterisation whereas with first-person a writer had to be careful how much voice was put into the character. Swallow offered the counterview, that while a player can customise and invest in a third-person character, the player was always looking at its posterior remotely rather than filling his/her shoes.
Stern said you had to tell your animators how to give your characters the correct physical dialogue – that was a tool too. He also said he stood up for actors, who did brilliant work full of subtle movements that got blown up into uncanny valley proportions when transferred across to the game. In another reference to the game writer as a project’s narrative glue, Stern said actors, animators and writers all had to work together – and this was not an easy thing to do.
Walsh commented on the delivery of dialogue, referring to the terrible dead-pan enunciation of what should be significant story moments: “Sorry… I can’t come with you now.”
Stern said although he also spent quality time with his actors, most scripts were still written in Microsoft Excel, often with “context” as a note.
Walsh then waded into a long, amusing anecdote about how the meaning of a climax scene was changed as it moved between different hands within a development team. I’m afraid I couldn’t note the whole thing down but suspect it was about the ending of Saints Row.
The floor was then opened to questions.
The first question was a repeat of something that came up last year. Can writers lead projects? Swallow said projects were always design-led and Pratchett added, as a writer, sometimes all you got was a bit of art and a name – from just that you were expected to give the character life. However, I am compelled to repeat that outside of AAA work, interactive fiction and point-and-click projects are virtually always writer-driven.
The next question essentially asked that if games writing was so different, did we need to start developing writers that haven’t worked in other media, with its preconceptions that don’t fit gaming? It was an interesting one as Swallow had said the previous year that no one should fixate on being purely a games writer. His warning was “don’t limit yourselves”.
In answer to the question, Swallow said we were starting to see this happen although more courses for games writers were needed. Pratchett said she started out in games journalism which gave her a different perspective on games compared to an ordinary player. But the truth was games writers were making it up as they went along: there were no “guidelines” to follow. I’d also add to this that games technology – and thus what narratives we are capable of – continues to evolve, further complicating attempts to formalise the games writing process.
An audience member then asked why comedy is so rare in games and Stern shouted “Timing!” over the tail end of the question. Much laughter followed.
Stern went on to explain that although Size Five Games’ point-and-click adventures (e.g. Ben There Dan That) are hilarious those games were able to control exactly how much could happen on-screen.
Walsh conjured up another couple of practical problems. First – try writing 100,000 lines in a fortnight, he said, and making them funny. Second – if a writer joins a project too early then, after rewriting lines sixty times, any funny lines just don’t seem funny any more and will end up being dropped.
Pratchett said good examples of funny games were those built with comedy from the ground-up – such as Monkey Island. Walsh then said those games were a small market and admitted that being funny was rarely a goal of a project, with comedy perceived more as an add-on.
There was also a question about movie tie-ins.
Stern said the main problem was a movie tie-in game had to come out when the movie came out. Walsh followed this up with an equally serious issue: the movie license sucked up money that could be better spent on the development of the game. He also commented that “The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay” worked well because it was decoupled from the story of both Riddick films, also neatly escaping the trap that a film can change while the game is in production.
Swallow mentioned the game Blade 2. The development team were given no access to the film, no set visits, no script information, nothing. They had to make it up – and worked around this using the original Blade film as their source material.
Walsh said films rarely get book or comic tie-ins right anyway. In summary, the “tie-in” is an additional constraint on the already difficult task of making a good game.
The final question asked whether audience diversity impacted writing.
Stern brought up research that revealed that video game character diversity, which had a signficiant bias towards Caucasians, reflected the diversity of game developers themselves (there’s a Gamasutra article that looks at this). So, Stern explained, audience wasn’t the problem – it was a lack of developer diversity that was the real issue.
Walsh said the same problem exists in other media and whoever commissions a project inevitably green lights something that matches their own personal preferences and fantasies. Stern came back to say that the audience for the pitch was not the audience for the game.
Swallow said the problem was the “speccy, white boy culture” but finally it was changing.
I was left with the impression of a punishing field where failure was the modus operandi. Why the Hell would anyone want to write for games? With such odds stacked against the writer, it just seemed so damn unrewarding. You cannot lose if you do not play.
As the room emptied I approached Stern. A bespectacled white male in his late thirties, I was an obvious demographic outlier.
I told him that Gregg B couldn’t make it, but Gregg was grateful for Stern’s kind words.
You see, after Gregg had written a long, in-depth review on Splash Damage’s Brink, Stern had dropped a line to Gregg to say thanks and invited him to attend the panel. But Gregg lives somewhere very, very north of London and popping down to BAFTA for one evening was a major project. So I attended to represent not just Electron Dance but also Gregg.
I gave Ed Stern a decent handshake for Gregg and made my way out.
Later that evening I felt a little uncomfortable, but thought I was merely tired and hadn’t gotten enough sleep during the week.
The following morning, I stopped my commute just a few stations short of the workplace. My stomach was restless and my fingers jittery. Something was wrong and I returned home. Once there, a fever broke out and I clambered back into bed.
For the next twenty-four hours I dropped in and out of sweaty consciousness. After that, I began to recover but could barely eat for three days and the resulting rapid weight loss confounded our weighing scale.
There’s a point to this story. It doesn’t take a paranoid genius to work out what happened. Stern had tried to kill me with some sort of poison that was absorbed through the skin. But he’d failed.
You come at the king, Stern, you best not miss.