Fourteen years in game development grants you the right to host your own panel at AGDC. Over a decade of experience as a game writer also grants you the right to say things like this:
“Writing in games is pretty bad a lot of the time.”
A writer for Tomb Raider: Legend, Thief: Deadly Shadows, Deus Ex, System Shock and more, Austin Grossman is now the author of a new novel and claims the experience of letting himself go and writing without the usual self-imposed boundaries of working within a game world has opened his mind to how horrible game writers choose to be at their art.
“I love the medium,” he said. “I’m in love with what it could be.”
Pointing a finger at blind allegiance to formula and repetition, Grossman suggested that the Hero’s Journey and Aristotle’s three-act structure were ideas game writers should probably forget. “Every hero’s journey game we make, we abdicate the opportunity to do something new,” he said.
Grossman also took a shot at formulaic fantasy games: “I love elves, I just love a well-written elf.”
But his one-hour panel entitled “Literate Gaming: How We Can and Must Do Better At Writing for Games” wasn’t only a slam fest. Grossman explained several paradoxes of writing for games (how writers are expected to wedge their creative art into a development process designed by engineers, why autonomy is to be desired and feared, etc.) and offered a handful of insightful gut checks for anyone looking to write for games.
“It’s getting harder and harder to use the excuse that telling stories interactively is hard,” he said. “I don’t feel like we’ve gotten anywhere near what the medium will become.”
Citing the traditional excuses about 3-D animators ruining a story, or the idea that a publisher or developer is to blame for making a writer’s writing bad, Grossman suggested that the buck should stop at the writer’s desk. “There are a million excuses for not writing well,” he said. “[But] there’s nothing expensive about good writing compared to bad writing. There’s no bottleneck. It’s not like the PS3 has a better vocabulary.”
As for writing itself: “It’s a sort of spooky art. It doesn’t succumb fully to formulae. It requires making a lot of judgment calls. It requires a lot of wisdom to know good ideas from bad. … Revisions and changes are costly, but mediocre writing is more costly.
“We are the ones who have the opportunity, when we make a game, to write it like it matters,” he said, as a sort of farewell call to arms. “Game writers feel like people in other media are the real writers, but they’re not. We’re the real writers.”