Defining the precise role of a scriptwriter in the videogame industry is not as straightforward as pointing out the rather obvious “dialogue” tip of the game development iceberg. Although scriptwriters are a moderately recent addition to the dev team, their function can be surprisingly widespread, and when properly involved, a professional writer can turn an ordinary game into an extraordinary entertainment experience.
The scope of a game has gone far beyond that of providing an hour or two of twitchy distraction. We’re paying three times the price for a game than we do for a movie, so the audience should quite rightly expect at least the same level of entertainment from their Xbox and PlayStation as they do from a cinema screen or DVD player. And herein lies the real gulf separating developers from modern gamers; audience perception.
We’re happy to be labeled as “gamers” (and, as opposed to viewers, readers or listeners, it most accurately describes our participation in the experience), yet the person on the end of the controller is still considered a gamer in something of an outdated sense of the matter. Gamers were once a tool of the system; a necessary component to make the program operate as designed and fulfill its purpose as an enjoyable onscreen diversion. But today’s gamer, despite his unambiguous categorization, must be regarded as something more than a joystick operator; gamers are an audience, every bit as much as a moviegoer or concert crowd, and demand the same level of consideration.
Most likely, game players are not fully regarded as an audience, due to the non-interactive connotations the word carries with it, yet the inherent implication of a demand to be entertained is something that needs to be addressed. To this end, an experienced writer brings intrinsic abilities to bind the developer and its audience together at a very early stage. When screenwriters begin their task, there are but three concerns: character, story and audience. The audience is the one aspect that’s irrefutably consistent.
By including someone who’s trained to exploit this particular aspect of the entertainment industry, any medium can find itself much closer to realizing its full potential and avoid the profit-rending “niche markets” as much as possible. Not that there’s anything wrong with niche markets, but a well-structured story can transcend its intended, often limited audience and find appeal in a much broader spectrum. This rather specialized aspect of the many entertainment industries is as important as it is overlooked; especially by the game industry.
Of course, the shortcomings are not all on the part of developers who’ve been slow to acknowledge the necessity of a scriptwriter. The wordsmiths themselves face a problem within their own industry when it comes to writing for games. Movies, books, comics, poetry, magazine articles, web content, even song lyrics all have established, recognized structures when it comes to crafting entertaining literature, yet the method for scripting a game has yet to be fully refined.
In all other forms of entertainment media, the writer is the only person who must begin with nothing. An editor has a manuscript, a director has a screenplay and a comic artist has a panel-by-panel script. The writer must pull his inspiration directly from the ether, then graciously give away his children to those who arrive late and demand changes. When it comes to games, however, development can begin long before a writer is ever involved. The engine, genre and gameplay can be established way in advance of any kind of back story, dialogue or even characters – the primary realm of the writer.
In many ways, not having to start completely from scratch should be a relief to the videogame writer, but living within someone else’s artistic universe puts tight reins on a profession used to enjoying (if only briefly, at the beginning) complete creative naissance and redefines the writer’s position on the developmental ladder. Even though the pen pusher may no longer be the father of the story’s world, his role within this particular medium is far more extensive and varied than almost every other type of fiction writing.
When we look at a job posting for a game designer, it reads like a checklist for a superhero. The specialized requirements (programming, direction, art, management, music, magic powers and yes, writing) are so disparate it’s utterly irrational to expect professional competency in all these areas from one person. Even if he’s only actually required to perform one or two of those duties, a jack of all trades, as they say, is still a master of none.
But the written word crops up in a variety of places within a modern game, from dialogue and character biographies to instruction manuals and box inlays, and a writer can help piece together each of these seemingly diverse elements to create a cohesive narrative. Monitoring all these small details of story and narrative are, individually, too minor for a programmer or designer to spend his limited time chasing and tweaking, but when mixed together properly, this gloss can cover a great many cracks in the rest of the game. And, adversely, ignoring the quality of the writing can bring a superb game to its knees to be remembered as not much more than an average, fleeting amusement.
Even our hand-held consoles are capable of delivering vast worlds replete with a myriad of divergent characters. In my recent experience with the superb Nintendo DS system, I’ve seen several games exhibit both the creative and destructive power of the written word. Trauma Center: Under the Knife is a remarkable game that makes excellent use of the system for which it was designed. The DS’ touch screen finally had a genuine purpose, rather than just being a clever redesign of a standard controller. The graphics and sound were spot on, while the gameplay was unique, imaginative and highly entertaining.
Unfortunately, this potentially astounding game was mired in a stinking bog of trite dialogue, undeveloped characters and an inconsistent back story set in a shallow, confusing world.
The distinctive gameplay of Trauma Center and its excellent use of the DS’ capabilities beg the question “Do we really need fully developed characters and an engrossing back story when the game’s this good?” And in many respects, the version we saw would likely have been better if reduced to the core gameplay aspects; dispensing with the tedious back and forth between one-dimensional characters. But the DS is more than capable of providing an excellent platform for the kind of gripping story that would add dynamic tension and purpose to the life and death surgical procedures, so it seems a real shame to dispose of a progressive narrative built around the wonderful game mechanics.
Inversely, games such as Gears of War have succeeded in utilizing a scriptwriter to plaster over the cracks in what is, if we’re honest, mediocre gameplay. Gears is a terrific game, don’t get me wrong – I’ve lost many hours of my life to it. But for a next-generation title, the actual journey is linear and forced, allowing no form of progressive decision making or the freedom of movement we expect in a modern title. But these shortcomings are barely obvious during play, as we quickly and emotionally invest in the well-rounded and individual characters; caring about keeping them alive and eager to see how their tale will reveal itself.
Even though Marcus and Dom have completely identical abilities, their speech patterns and attitudes during the superbly brief, yet necessary cut scenes allow us to fully believe in their motivation for going on what would otherwise be a random shooting rampage. The shortcomings in Gears of War‘s gameplay are offset by well-scripted dialogue, properly developed stories and established world histories; subtly revealing the intangible background influence a scriptwriter can have on game development.
Ultimately, the massive scale of game productions means every job is becoming more and more specialized, while tighter and tighter milestones put pressure on management to reduce workload by appointing tasks to trained professionals. This deadline-driven production system has tested the videogame scriptwriter by fire, and as more and more games receive acclaim for delivering a well told story alongside invigorating gameplay, their importance is set to skyrocket in this wonderful, creative and dynamic medium.
Spanner has written articles for several publications, including Retro Gamer. He is a self-proclaimed horror junkie, with a deep appreciation for all things Romero.