You take games too seriously.

Reporting Back from the NYTV Festival’s “Writing For Games and Comics” Panel

Good news, wannabe writers. In the words of Joshua Ortega, head writer of Gears of War 2 and the Gears of War comics, “it’s never been a better time to be a writer.” Ortega delivered the pronouncement at the New York Television Festival’s panel on writing for comics and videogames last week, amidst colleagues and trays of free Chipotle burritos (seriously). 

But, of course, there’s bad news, too, as Todd Fixman, head writer of Resistance 2 and Ratchet and Clank pointed out: it’s harder to get into writing for games than just about any other industry. Ortega, Fixman, and the third writer on the panel, Rich Bryant, the writer of the main campaign in Fable 2 all took roundabout ways into their positions. Their earlier work on spec screenplays, novels, and even Spin City got them the attention that brought the studios to their doors.

So why is it a good time to be a writer? Well, as Ortega said – the sheer amount of content out in the world today, and the ease with which it can be spread. While I’m sure we’ve all had thousands of YouTube success stories pounded into our heads, the assembled writers reminded us just how easy it was to start a blog, put up a clever YouTube, or make a comic book – things people are far more likely to read than your monospaced 140-page novella.

What they had to say about their projects, and the games they felt got writing right, continued after the jump.

With the writers of three much-anticipated games on stage, the average gamer is probably salivating for any inside info the writers dropped. And, well, the answer is… Not really. All of them, actually, seemed to agree that writing for games held an outsider’s position in the development process. For Ortega, while writing Gears 2, he was given an amount of time – say, 40 seconds, a piece of information to deliver, and the character models on hand. No changing any of it, no going back. Within this limitation, he had to be as clever as possible.

For Bryant, though, on Fable 2, he described a very different phenomenon. He came in when programmers had already put in most of the quests – in a completely bare-bones form. There was a goal, but it was unclear what that might be. So Bryant’s work was to turn a generic fetch quest into something truly engrossing.

This seemed to be the overwhelming consensus of the writers – writing for games requires a deep imagination, and an ability to take the simple tasks that make up a game and turn them into a full-fledged experience. As Bryant said, though: Good design is simple and intuitive. Good writing is complicated and deep. It’s hard to find a happy medium between the two. 

When asked, though, the panel threw out a few games whose stories they found particularly well-rounded – Fallout, Psychonauts, and Majora’s Mask among them. But the one moment that got the whole panel to unabashedly drool was Half-Life 2‘s opening – the intuitive tutorial of your early interactions on the train and with the guards. Everything you do in that section teaches you something about the gameplay, but it does it while also teaching you about the universe you’ve entered and who your character is.

As a writer who would be very interested in one day writing a AAA game, I found the panel to be an eye-opening introduction into the role writers play in game development today. While I hope that role evolves, it is good to see that these writers are getting real attention for their work and that studios have decided to step up the work they put into writing.

Plus I got a free burrito.


Filed under: Commentary, News, , , , ,

2 Responses

  1. Sande Chen says:

    If you are interested in writing for video game writing, I highly suggest checking out the International Game Developers Association’s Writing Special Interest Group. The IGDA has meetings throughout the U.S. and worldwide.

  2. Billy says:

    It’s definitely game first-story later but I think developers are slowly looking for a better hand in hand relationship like in comics. It’s definitely the next step for developers looking for games to be taken more seriously as an art form.

    Also IGDA has a couple books out about the craft video game writing that are definitely worth checking out.

    Nice to see you guys are back in the subspace.

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