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.

End Game

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.

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12 thoughts on “IGDA Writers Panel: Players Versus Characters, 2

  1. Great ending to what appears to have been a really interesting panel. Wish I could have been there.

    As for the pitch and game audience not being the same, it reminded me of when I watched Bridesmaids. I was surprised by some of the writing and the interactions between the women were great, before it turned into another film about poop and vomit. I was wondering how Judd Apatow had nailed the dialogue so naturally and managed characterisation that didn’t feel two dimensional.

    Then I checked the credits and the writing was done by Kristen Wiig and another woman. My point being if you want to have a film about women then get women to write it. Same for video games, want to get a more diverse perspective then you are going to have to hire outside of the demographic your normally do.

  2. @BC, I think much of “character diversification” problem is more one of risk-aversion; no one wants to be the asshole who intended to write a full-rounded black character but ended up with a cardboard cutout who says “yo niggas” all the time. And issues of race and gender can be, shall we say, a little sensitive. You don’t want to find yourself on the wrong side of major shitstorm – so you do what everyone does. Stick to what you know.

    According to the linked Gamasutra article: “[Manveer] Heir figured that if you have a good writer, they should be able to write any character. If you ask the business folks to not only take a risk on a potentially racially divisive character, and then ask for more money to hire someone new, that’s not going to fly.”

    A decent writer shouldn’t find his/her writing trapped by the nature their flesh, a sort of self-censoring response to the fear of being racist; The Wire is quite some proof of that one.

    But yes, probably more diversity on the developer side would help some. Help break the deadlock of what “traditionally works”.

    (I’ve not seen Bridesmaids. Is it worth the watch?)

  3. Ooooh you had to bring up The Wire, didn’t you? To be honest I think that The Wire is an exception that proves the rule rather than something that debunks it. But lets say, for the sake of the argument that there were as many well written shows as The Wire. Those guys lived and breathed their material, in many ways David Simon which surrounded by this world so he is still writing about what he knows basing characters on people he had met or dealt with during his time in Baltimore.

    People writing on video games are generally not living and breathing the topic they are writing about. So you go back to the fact that their pool of creators is not diverse enough.

    As for Bridesmaids, there is part of a film worth watching in there. Kristen Wiig is really rather good and all of the characters have some depth, but then it just keeps falling apart whenever it decides that it would be great to involve broader humour that covers puking, shitting and screaming. If you can put up with those parts then there is definitely stuff in there that I liked… I just found myself skipping entire scenes.

  4. Of course I had to bring up The Wire. I explicitly put two quotes from season one of The Wire in the ruddy article.

    I take your point that it’s wild outlier of a series, because it does everything so well. But I don’t think The Wire is the first fiction in the world featuring black characters written by white writers that was acceptable. Although I feel like I’m teetering on the edge of one of those discussions that slip into “but those ethnic minority characters are just white characters with a different skin colour!”

    As for “people writing on video games are generally not living and breathing the topic they are writing about” that could be something levelled at many, many pieces of fiction. Not trying to belittle your point, but as a writer I would find it horrible if people said I wasn’t allowed to write women just because I wasn’t one.

  5. Yeah, I don’t want to get into that part of the discussion (RE: White characters with Black skin).

    As for that being levelled at many pieces of fiction, that is exactly my point. The number of poorly written female characters everywhere is ridiculous. And the casual, subtle racism (a co-worker pointed out that in X-Men: Last stand all of the final, disposable, villains squaring off against the X-Men were asian) is demonstrative of how bad things are for anyone who isn’t white and male.

    I think my point still stands, I don’t think I write particularly good female characters, and I make it a point to get women to read some of my fiction and give me feedback when I’ve written that was utterly bollocks. I am not saying that men shouldn’t or have portrayals of female characters but like when you have a technical expert to consult I think that they should get women in to make sure that they haven’t written something utterly trite. Incidentally, I think that the men in Bridesmaids are pretty poorly written, but hey, it is a nice change.

  6. I really enjoyed Bridesmaids, poop, vomit et al. With rom coms I expect a certain degree of daftness and it didn’t really exceed the quota for me. I loved Kristina Wiig’s performance and the snappy script (my personal highlight being the flight scene). Looking back though I do agree that there was at least one male character who was an unbelievable ass.

    That sounds nasty regarding Mirror’s Edge and I can understand how things written for third person wouldn’t work in first. I can’t think of many first person games where your character spoke from behind the viewport. Garrett? The tosser from Dark Messiah?

    “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.”

    I find most third person games are less immersive because I don’t feel like I’m playing as or personifying the protagonist (despite the extra room for characterisation), rather that I’m simply controlling them like a puppeteer watching through a floating camera. There’s a physical disconnect there. A third person view says “This is not about you, it’s about this guy/gal here” while a first person view says “This is about you — look at me looking into your eyes”.

    Bethesda’s games are strange because they allow for both first person and third person viewpoints and also don’t put any constraints on how you play, you can be Jesus of the wastes in Fallout 3 or a dirty rat. In Thief you play as the clearly defined Garrett in first person and your actions are pretty constrained but I felt like him and felt compelled to do what I think he would do — so many elements went into inspiring that quality. In Demon’s Souls I was given an empty vessel to play as in third person and I made the vessel look like myself because a) it was fun and b) I liked the idea of there being a physical connection between me and my character.

    I think that’s what this whole Players vs Characters topic is about: understanding the connection between the two or at least understanding how that connect or disconnect can be manipulated to enhance the experience (like in Immortal Defense or Planescape: Torment).

  7. The bit about perspective is really interesting if you consider Deus Ex. The gamiest moments (sneaking, killing, getting people to say things at you with no audible request from yourself) happen in first person, but the conversations are all done in third person. You could almost say there’s a separation between the two, but Deus Ex is often remembered most for how these conversations reflected your actions in the game.

    It probably also depends on how much control you get of your character, as my girlfriend and I definitely loved shouting at Wander in Shadow of the Colossus when he’d lose balance at seemingly ridiculous times or fail to grip the ledge we wanted him to. Only slightly more egregious than watching your character make horrible and obvious mistakes in a cutscene. Perhaps it’s not control, but blame, then.

    P.S. Are you saying that Stern’s poison handshake was meant for Gregg?

  8. That’s a great example BeamSplash and probably sums up Pratchett’s point perfectly.

    In my recent attempt with the original (I’ve tried to play it multiple times and failed to get into it for no particular reason each and every time) I was really impressed by how the game reflected my actions in the dialogue. For instance there was a drug dealer who I got in a fight with and ended up pepper spraying and beating unconscious. Later on a gang leader asked me to kill him. I expected to have to talk to him again to tell him that I’d already dealt with him but no, JC spilled the proverbial beans straight away. Next thing you know I’m arguing my case for knocking him out instead of killing him. That was really cool.

    Regarding Stern’s potentially deadly handshake: Joel was my human meat shield, I knew Stern was up to something…

  9. @badgercommander: The only reason I dislike this “without [X] writers we can’t get decent [X] characters” is that its logical conclusion is that it implies, aside from a few rare wunderkind, we can only – should only – write about ourselves. I’m not sure I can buy into that. But then again the argument brought up by Ed Stern was about game developers and not the writers. So maybe we’re having the wrong discussion here?

    @Gregg B: I always remember my first third-person game – The Suffering. I was disappoint. I mean, I loved that game, but it took me a long time to play through my puppet and rather than as a pair of eyes with gun. I’m better at that perspective shift now but I guess TPS is more popular on the consoles, as FPS is on the PC.

    @BeamSplashX: I’m with Gregg, that’s a great example. The thing is, though, I’ve been tired of cutscenes for a while – the pot boiler stories just don’t justify the expense of my time. Yet, I’ve been surprised with another game I’ve been playing recently [to be written up] where the gameplay was rather broken but the cutscenes were great. The last cutscenes I remember falling in love with were Thief’s. What we don’t like is bad writing; the technical delivery probably isn’t as important as we like to believe.

    On the handshake of death- just before I got to Ed Stern, he’d already spoken to 2 or 3 other groupies that had approached him and was telling people that he’d see them in the post-panel drinks as he had to fill in some paperwork before he could leave. So it might have been, rather than tell more audience members to go away, he was just bumping them off one by one.

  10. The call for diversity lacks ambition – you’re still talking about minor variations on humans.

    The prevalence of a human avatar is a very recent phenomenon.
    Looking at some classic arcade games you have:
    Pac Man – You’re a yellow blob.
    Frogger – You’re, er, a frog
    Space Invaders – You’re a gun base
    Zaxxon – You’re an isometric jet plane
    Scramble – You’re a side-on jet plane.
    Ms. Pac Man – You’re a yellow blob. With a bow.
    Arkanoid – You’re a bat, which is actually a space ship.
    Centipede – You’re a… well actually.. a thing. Small thing, though.
    Asteroids – Space ship again
    Q*Bert – Yes, well, one of those… You know… those.

    Humans were only let in if they were vouched for by a suitable companion.

    So, you’re a plumber.. But you’ve brought a giant monkey? Step this way.. (Donkey Kong)
    Riding an ostrich? Getouttahere. Oh, a flying ostrich? Why didn’t you say (Joust)

    In this century Mister Moskeeto or A Dogs Life are seen as peculiar aberrations.

  11. @CdrJameson This is profound insight. We might say that things have got better because game developers were initially prejudiced against all humans – whereas now we’ve pared that back to just subcategories of humans. We should be celebrating how far games have come!

    Incidentally, are you CdrJameson who expressed his love for Novagen’s Mercenary in the comments on Tom Jubert’s blog?

  12. Oh yes that was me. It’s so good I’ll let it off its early display of Human-centrism.

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