What does a games writer do, exactly? What is a writer's job? If we're talking about a writer on a movie or the author of a book, it's easy for us to figure out on our own what exactly that person is doing. But when we look at the writer of a video game, things become a bit more cloudy.
As you might expect, the key responsibility for a games writer is to write. Doing so fills a gap within a game's production that, quite frankly, others cannot fill. But that does not mean the writer is the Big Mind behind a game. Writing for games, I have been told over and over as I've been talking with games writers, a collaboration. "It always is on games," Haris Orkin, a writer on Dead Island: Riptide, recently told me.
"It's a collaboration on movies and plays as well but even more so for games in a way, because the world is being built by other people… You have to work with game designers, level designers, the artists; it's really a collaboration between all of it, because the story is told by every part of the game, as much by the level design and the art as it is by writing. The dialogue in a way is the least important part of telling a story; you don't really need that necessarily to tell a story in a game."
Jill Murray, the recent Writers Guild of America award winner for her work on Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, is a novelist in addition to working at Ubisoft. (Read Kotaku's interview with her about the game.) I asked her about the contrast between going from books, which are generally the result of a single person's vision, to games.
Murray echoed Orkin's comments, and emphasized that the final product, at least in her experience, is the outcome of many minds contributing many ideas.
"The difference is that video games are entirely collaborative, and you have to—you get to work with designers, world artists," she said, "and all of these people bring so much personal experience and so much technical experience that the game is the combined result of many visions, even if there is a creative director or producer making the final decisions. The game is really the result of all of these people coming together."
But Murray is far from resentful that she is not the main attraction on a game project. The experience of working on a game, she said, is fulfilling in its own ways.
"While you might get to have 100-percent control over your novel, you're also 100-percent sitting by yourself in like your ugliest sweatpants or at the cafe where they know you too well for too long. And the first thing I really enjoyed was going to the studio. It gives me pleasure to go there and be with my colleagues and to know the other writers. I really enjoy that community."
Christopher Schlerf, lead writer on Halo 4, was initially on his own in crafting that game's story, but later he became the core component in what he called a "narrative team."
While he was the designated "writer guy," the group was filled with folks from every section of the development team to help him put it all together. Collaborating in that way is what made it all work, he said.
"It started out as basically just me, and then we brought on Armando Troisi as narrative director from the Mass Effect series... Armando is a really good foil. He is very much about the implementation: how do we get it in-game in an interesting playable way? We also brought on a writer named Brian Reed, who has done some of the comics for us as well. From there we've grown; we've added two narrative designers to the team. We've brought in a producer. And as we go forward we're going to be growing that group.
"I think [creating the narrative team] really was the turning point for elevating the Halo 4 story from simply being a story told to being a story played."
Ubisoft's Jeffrey Yohalem is a bit unique. He claimed significant ownership of Far Cry 3's vision, probably moreso than the other writers I spoke with would on their titles."I think that the story and what the game is trying to say was definitely a very intense," he said. "[It] involved collaboration between me and Patrick Plourde, who is creative director. I think that we really guided the curation of the game" He admitted that even in a game that has close to a singular vision there are other forces contributing. "At the same time, our director has certain things he wants to highlight, and the game designer has certain things that he wants to highlight. The level designers have certain things. And I made sure that those things worked within the meaning that we were trying to convey."
Orkin, who works on a freelance basis, says the function of a writer is multifaceted, but ultimately the writer is the glue that turns a game into a coherent whole, similar to what Yohalem described.
"Since games are driven so much by gameplay and level design, part of the challenge of being a game writer is making the story work even when the gameplay or levels change or if there is something that is added to the game which would be really fun to play but might not make total sense in the story. You have to try to make it make sense. That's really one of the big parts of a game writer's job, I think, making sure the narrative still works even when things in the game work against the narrative."
One might think that this deference to gameplay might frustrate the writers, but those to whom I spoke declined to express dissatisfaction with the process when prodded, instead opting to look at the bright side, as Murray did. "I may get sometimes a little bit annoyed by it, but I really love the arguments I get to have and the things I get to fight for," she said. "It feels really wild. It pleases me to get up and argue about diversity or the meaning of mechanics or what happens when you change a scene."
Some game writers are just writers, and some have other jobs in game production as well. Yohalem has other duties and says his philosophy on writing a game is informed by his additional responsibilities.
"My case is different than a lot of writers, because I'm in the core team. So myself and like seven other people, we design the game," Yohalem told me. "In my mind the gameplay has to be the story of the game. I participate in the design of that, but also the point is to deliver a meaning. It's to deliver our artistic intentions—you're curating an experience with players. It's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, but you wanna put together the right puzzle that says something meaningful."
Orkin would say that putting the puzzle together is more complicated than it sounds.
In comparing writing for games with his experiences with other media, he says he has come to realize that the process of creating a game, as a writer, is different every time you do it. And that developers are still sort of feeling their way around the writing process.
"I've written plays and movies and I've written TV, and they're all basically linear. Of those three, plays are, to me, the most difficult. But of all four of them, games are the most complicated medium to write for, partly because we're still figuring out how to do it. Every game has a new architecture and structure, and so you have to rethink how to do it each time. For me it makes it really challenging and fun, but it's also difficult because you don't know how well a game is going to work until you finish building it."
Phil Owen is a freelance entertainment journalist whose work you might have seen at IGN, GameFront, Appolicious and many, many other places. You can follow him on Twitter at @philrowen.
Reader Ryan sent in the video below, which features a notorious bug in Ubisoft's latest blockbuster Assassin's Creed game. The glitch makes it look like Connor likes his tomahawk a little too much.
Look, Connor, it's okay: we understand that sometimes the redcoat stabbing feels so good that you don't want to stop. But you really should. You'll need that hand for other things. Not to mention, you're going to go blind if you keep doing that.
Ever wanted to see how Kotaku plays games? Well, now you can. We've set up a special channel on Twitch, where we plan to stream games for your amusement.
We decided to start with Tomb Raider. Because it's out today. So let's listen to Kotaku editor Chris Person show you around the game. Enjoy!
Or well, Emilia Clarke, the actor behind Daenerys, wants to know. According to Metro News, she's so adamant about learning who wins the game of thrones, she's begged George R.R. Martin to tell her. And she's gotten the men behind the show drunk too, just to see if they'll spill.
‘I've said to George ‘come on, tell me who wins, please!' And he thinks I'm joking and I say, ‘no, no, I'm deadly serious!'' she gushed. ‘His lips are sealed. And I'm sure that David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] know but they don't tell anyone—I've got them drunk and they still wouldn't tell me.
‘I've been pleading with them, ‘tell me who wins!' And they won't say a word. They're under lock and key! But I care passionately about what happens to Dany. How could I not?'
No dice! But if she was really serious about finding out who wins she'd have sicced dragons on George R.R. Martin already. I mean, cmon. It's what Daenerys would do.
Check out the handiwork of Josh Summana, the guy behind this very cool time lapse of a Tomb Raider digital painting. Naturally, he includes the grime and the cuts Lara suffers in her newest game. Gotta show us that grit.
It's difficult to watch paintings like this one and not feel awed by how much attention to detail is involved in making works of art, eh?
Stacks of games sit around my living room, as I organize photographs from my phone. I log onto Ebay and check prices. I list a few games. I sell one almost immediately. That one doesn't surprise me. Tales of Symphonia. It's one of the rarer in my collection, and I had expected to make quite a bit, quite quickly. Ebay User #1 meets my expectations.
We had finished our wedding budget a while before I began selling games. I've been asking myself where all of the money is going, and I have yet to come to any sort of satisfying conclusion. Planning a wedding is an expensive project, even if you try and cut as many corners as possible. Our wedding isn't even that big, but it's big enough. And when you have an expense this large, and you don't have enough money to cover it, you begin to look for ways to raise some dough. Tonight, I've started selling my video game collection.
The sales start rolling in. Ebay Users #2 through #4 exceed my expectations. By the end of the night, I've listed five and sold four of my games. Beyond this, all of my buyers have paid by Paypal, so by the time I go to bed, my extra wedding fund has already received its first deposits.
I told her a little earlier in the night what I was doing. She asked why. I told her that if we need money to pay for the wedding, selling video games seems like an easy solution. I've left her speechless. I love to leave her speechless.
Spoiler Alert: In the mid-90's, I brought a ragtag group of warriors to what I thought was the end of Final Fantasy III. (Years later, we would learn that what we believed was the third Final Fantasy game was actually the sixth Final Fantasy game, but only the third to be released in the U.S.) The villain of the game, Kefka, had harnessed massive amounts of magic and was planning to use it to take over the world. I prepared for what I believed to be the final battle of the game, a battle which should have lasted close to a half-hour, the standard convention of other mid-90s Japanese role-playing games.
Instead, in one of the greatest video game twists of all time, Kefka, who had, throughout the game, revealed himself to be insane, turned the magic on the world itself. Mountains rose out of the ground and canyons formed where cities used to be. It turned out I wasn't at the end of the game at all. In fact, the world had changed, and I was only halfway done.
While choosing to sell my games may have been an easy decision, selecting which games to sell proves to be much harder. I have been playing games for nearly twenty years now, and some of my games date back to my high school years. It's not just a matter of pulling the games out of my closet. I take a bit of time to think through each one and find that I can fit each of them into one of four categories:
1. Games I've played before, which I love and will probably play again.
2. Games I've played before, which I will probably never play again.
3. Games I haven't played yet, but I am still excited about.
4. Games I haven't played yet and probably never will for whatever reason.
The first decision is easy. I'm not going to sell any games that fit into categories 1 and 3. The games in category 1 are important to me, while the games in category 3 could eventually become important to me if I ever play them.
The next decision is slightly harder. Games that fit into category 2? Even though I will never play them again, they may still have a special place in my heart. Many of these games remind me of periods of my life, some good, some bad. I can look at one game and remember the time my roommate and I competed against each other in a speed-run, with the winner earning some major bragging rights. In another game, I see the drinking game my friends and I invented to make our gaming sessions that much more enjoyable. Selling these games feels almost like I'm selling a piece of my former life.
And then I realize, that is exactly what I'm doing.
In an old Polish wedding tradition, the bride would often cut her hair after the ceremony. The hair, which she would have grown out since childhood, would be kept in braids to signify her unmarried status. During the wedding, the braids would be removed, and the hair would be cut. This symbolized leaving her old life behind and beginning a new life with her husband.
In an American tradition, we go out to stores and fill out gift registries, asking for nice things we'd like our friends and families to buy us. We place things like dishes, pots, pans and furniture on the list, hoping we'll receive some of them. Why do we do it? Don't most of us already have dishes, pots, pans and furniture? Why do we need more? For some of us, it's simply a matter of wanting nicer things. For most of us, however, it's symbolic. We're creating a new life with this person, and we want new things for that new life, even if the old things were perfectly fine.
The third decision—deciding to sell the games in the fourth category—is the hardest. At the moment, I have no plans to play them. But, what about next month? Next year? I've spent money on all of these games, and I stand to make back less than half. If I eventually want to play these games, I'll have to buy them again, spending even more money on them. I eventually decide to sell them, because paying for my wedding is my primary goal, but it's not an easy decision for the practical side of me.
Ultimately, the decision to sell these games comes down to time. I don't have much time, and I don't see myself having time in the future. In addition to planning a wedding, I am a full-time student and a teacher. And while video games have always been my preferred way to zone, it's painfully obvious to me that they require some major time investment, some genres more than others. Even the shortest first-person shooter will still require 6 to 8 hours of my time. RPGs? A minimum of 40.
I remember when my sister got married. Their first year was hard.
"He used to turn off the games when I'd come into a room," she said. "He doesn't anymore."
There were other problems, of course. But, as I move closer to my wedding, this is the one that sticks out in my mind. Back in my undergraduate days, I would play video games constantly. It wouldn't be abnormal to find me up until 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning playing Halo. While I don't play as much as I used to, I certainly still enjoy dropping an hour or two, every now and then.
After the wedding, though, that might not be an option. It isn't that I'll have less free time-though between classes and work, I won't have a ton of it—but I will be sharing that time with another person. Am I going to want to limit my already limited time with my new wife, by playing video games? Would my new marriage even survive that?
When I look at my stack of unplayed games, I realize that I'm looking at hours upon hours of games I'll never have the time to play. I bought them once, thinking I would someday have time. However, as my list of unplayed games grew, so did my distance from that magical "someday." When I look at the next two years of my life, I realize that someday may never arrive.
Still, as I post these games to Ebay, I can't help but feel a slight pang of regret. I had plans. Plans to play those games. I am so excited to get married, and this woman I'm marrying is my perfect fit, but I'm still questioning what could have been. What things did I want to accomplish that will now be harder, because I'm sharing my life with someone else?
As I approached my 30th birthday, I started to panic. According to what I've learned from TV sitcoms, this is common. My panic stemmed from a perception that I had not accomplished much in my life. To combat this panic, I sat down with a piece of paper and wrote out a list of 30 things I wanted to do in my 30s. The list, as would be normal for someone feeling their life was limited, included a lot of travel, with a few personal goals thrown in for good measure. As far as I was concerned, if I managed to cross off half the items, I would be satisfied.
I met my fiancée not long before I started my list, and we started dating not long after. By the time I decided to marry her, I had largely forgotten all about it. Once, when I wanted to do something romantic, I decided to show it to her, crumple it up, and then work together to start a new list—things WE would do. When the time came, however, I couldn't even remember where I had put the original.
Suddenly, all the plans in my world no longer mattered. And I was more than okay with that; in fact, I couldn't imagine it any other way.
The role-playing games are the toughest to let go. I've been playing them since I could first pick up a controller. As a socially-awkward comic book geek, the epic stories presented by these games represent some of my fondest memories. Two decades later, that hasn't changed much, if at all.
I originally peppered my to-play list with quite a few RPGs, convinced I would someday (there's that word again) have an infinite amount of free time. After all, at a minimum of 40 hours, they present the best "bang" for your buck, as far as video game purchases go. And while a good portion of them sat unplayed on my shelf for months, buying each one had still seemed like a good idea at the time. Now, however, I'm reaping the true benefit of those decisions. I'm packing them up in yellow envelopes and sending them around the country to new homes.
It's a surreal process, making a decision like that: choosing to sell something that you feel has defined your past to pay for something that will define your future. How much is the future worth to you? Are you willing to let go of a piece of you? How about all of your previous plans?
In the games of our youth, when we'd die, we would be greeted with a countdown, followed by the words "Press Start to Continue." It was a holdover from arcade games, which used the countdown method, followed by "Insert Coin to Continue," to encourage us to spend even more of our parents' hard-earned quarters. The idea was that we had died so many times, we ran out of lives. "Continuing" was the game's way of giving us another chance: start the game near where we died, fresh with a whole new set of lives to try again! In real life there are very few chances at a fresh start, but I believe marriage is one of them. Yes, I will have to deal with parts of my past; I'd be delusional if I thought I'd get a completely fresh start. However, getting married has forced me to examine a lot of those past experiences and decide what's coming with me into my new life. As parts of my old life die off, I am pressing start to continue, ready to see what the future holds for me and my new bride.
I still have some video games. As mentioned above, there are a few titles that hold a special place in my heart, and I will never get rid of them. My video game closet, however, is remarkably empty. The auctions are over, I've received my payment, and the games have been shipped. There's nothing left to do but look at our wedding budget and decide how best to apply the money.
I'm not sure what video games will hold for me in the future. I'm sure they'll be there. They've been too important over the years to completely let them go. However, it's important that I don't forget that I will no longer be alone in life. I will be part of a pair, part of a duo. My time will no longer be my time, just as her time will no longer be hers. It will be "our time," and I'm not entirely sure what that will look like.
They say the first year of marriage is the hardest. You spend all of your time trying to figure out what your new life looks like together, and there's often bitterness and resentment over a loss of independence. I fully expect video games to play a part in that, as it did in my sister's first year of marriage twelve years ago. Eventually, though, I think we'll settle into a new normal, and video games will become a part of my life again, though I'm sure my dedication will be much more limited. I doubt I'll have many more 3am gaming sessions (which might be good, because I'm getting old), but an hour here and there will certainly be possible. Whatever the case, I'll be married to the woman I love, and I can't wait to see what that new normal looks like.
My world has changed, and I find I'm only halfway done.
From Vlambeer, creators of Super Crate Box — well heck, that opening bit alone is convincing enough, but look at the video anyway. Ridiculous Fishing hits iOS on March 14.
In Monday Night Combat's future, people watch corporation-sponsored clones kill each other for fun. So it's probably no surprise that in this world, those same clones are volunteered for the highly dangerous "televised combat running." Anything in the name of entertaining the masses.
Hmm, yeah, I could see an endless runner like Outland Games here becoming an actual real-life sport/event—it's a dystopia, after all.
The newest teaser for Marvel Comics' upcoming action flick shows a bit more of the drama surrounding Tony Stark as his life blows up around him. There's political tension involving a new President, best friend Rhodey flying around in the Iron Patriot armor from the comics and Mr. Stark himself looking decidedly haunted throughout.
Iron Man 3 is directed by Shane Black, who I love for the smirky buddy action flick Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. That movie was the first time I realized that Robert Downey Junior could pull off a decent Tony Stark. This trailer seems to go at what Black does best—defiant, self-destructive characters—and adds tons of money and special effects to the mix. Hell yeah.
If you are old, you should probably play video games. Really, everyone should play video games. But especially if you're old.
Proof: a new study from the North Carolina State University (as reported by Medical Xpress) that examined 140 people aged 63+ and found that the ones who played video games were generally happier than the ones who don't.
"The research published here suggests that there a link between gaming and better well-being and emotional functioning," researcher Jason Allaire said. "We are currently planning studies to determine whether playing digital games actually improves mental health in older adults."
So there you go. Don't ever stop playing games.
Photo: Yuri Arcurs/Shutterstock