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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The art of writing big-budget video games sounds pretty bleak

Illustration for article titled The art of writing big-budget video games sounds pretty bleak
Screenshot: Microsoft Studios

Most people would reasonably assume the process of writing of a massive AAA game is notably different from writing a smaller indie game, much as Hollywood blockbusters normally involve numerous writers as opposed to small, personal films. And while that’s true, it may not be clear just how impersonal it can be. According to several successful video game writers, the answer is: Very, very impersonal.


In a new piece over at PC Gamer, these writers discuss the sprawling, multi-step strategies required to effectively write a video game, and the “it’s just business” attitude suffuses almost everything they have to say, which may be more honest, but probably doesn’t inspire many young people to get into writing for games—which is what they encourage, frankly. As Tom Bissell, lead writer for Gears Of War 4 (and credited writer on everything from What Remains Of Edith Finch to the The Disaster Artist series) puts it at the end of the interview when discussing the artistic challenges of the medium:

When I’m asked, and I’m often asked, by younger people, “How do I get into writing videogames?” I ask them, “Do you want to tell meaningful, personal stories?” When they say yes, and they always say yes, I say, “Then maybe don’t write videogames.” I’m not trying to be snide when I say this, or discouraging. But the fact is, videogames are highly collaborative and complicated, possibly the most complicated popular art form ever created.

That inspiring bit of wisdom comes after a fascinating exploration of the degree to which writers are and aren’t a part of the overall development of a game. It’s increasingly universally acknowledged that writers need to be a part of a game from the moment pre-production begins. While all the other aspects of development—designer, environment, and character artists, for example—are largely focused on their respective portion of the game, the writer is meeting with all of these various teams and trying to incorporate the multifarious elements being brought together. It’s often when there isn’t a key writing vision on board from the start that problems happen, notes former Rocksteady writer Phil Huxley, who most recently penned Du Lac & Fay: Dance Of Death. “If there’s not someone concentrating on the narrative from the beginning, that can often feel very disjointed and you’ll end up with the game not feeling right.”

But a lot of weight is given to whether a game’s creative director came from a writing background, as many of the best narrative-driven franchises, like BioShock, feature creative directors in that vein. Walt Williams (lead writer of Spec Ops: The Line) stresses that the value of writing to a game often lives or dies based on that background: “It’s only truly important if the creative director identifies as a writer. If they don’t, then writing is expendable.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean writers are necessarily the superior creative force, either. After discussions of the view of writers as “narrative paramedics” brought in to fix messes created by cutting entire levels or features, and the tricky nature of editing tighter versions of stories that still make sense, Williams explains his own take on the lead writer position for open-world games: “You have to be the one to constantly have your eye on all of it and then fucking yell at people when they step out of line and do stupid stuff that doesn’t match with the tone of everything else. You also need to accept the fact that while the game will be better, you will not be liked.” This is where the A.V. Club again reminds readers that if your boss thinks it’s okay to scream at you, no matter the reason, then your boss is an asshole. (We’ll give Williams the benefit of the doubt and assume he was using a hyperbolic take on “a stern talking-to.”)

They all seem to agree that ultimately, the success or failure of a game rarely falls upon the writing, and that what often seems like an absurd moment in games is the result of a huge combination of factors. But that pragmatism can sound pretty disheartening to anyone looking for some hope that these creatives consider what they do to be artistic. “Our biggest mistake is that we’ve decided to consider AAA games as something better than they are,” Williams says in what is sure to be an uncontroversial statement. “We like to think our super-silly destruction derby arena is a piece of serious art that can say something meaningful.”


Check out the whole article at PC Gamer.

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.