Game development is a complex, mysterious machine of cogs and whistles. While fans are offered more insight into the process today than ever before, there’s still so many great stories lying behind those development doors.
The process of games writing, in particular, remains a strongly ‘behind-the-scenes’ area, even though its products are one of the main pillars of game design and review. At a panel hosted by the Writers Guild of America yesterday, three games writers shared their most valuable and most hellish memories from their years experience with some well-known titles.
Moderated by Neil Druckmann of Naughty Dog, writers TJ Fixman, Marianne Krawczyk, and Tom Bissell delved into the writing process, covering its specific challenges and shining moments, and even offering some advice for aspiring game writers.
TJ Fixman of the Ratchet & Clank series shared a clarifying and slightly terrifying moment from his early days at Insomniac:
“I wrote this joke, where Ratchet and Clank are in a ship together and the designers wanted them to fall asleep so they could wake up in a new environment,” he said. “So this gas comes out, Ratchet goes, ‘ah cryosleep gas, I’m not gonna fall asleep!’ And of course he falls asleep. And Clank says ‘oh it’s good that gas doesn’t work on robots!’ and a boxing glove pops out and knocks him out.”
What was intended to be a small joke turned into a thorough questioning from the rest of the team, and suddenly Fixman realized what an interwoven process development really was.
“They just started peppering me with, ‘Why is this funny? What Is the joke? Where does this fall in the hero’s journey? Is this the save the cat moment?’ I’m wide-eyed and going ‘I thought, I thought it was funny I’m so sorry.’ That’s what I realized, as a game writer, you think you have this freedom, but you don’t. There are so many constraints and so many moving pieces, and from then on out I was hyper-aware that any time you write anything in a script, that changes the game for 20 different departments.”
Later in the evening, all three writers expressed their disdain for bark dialogue and expository directives, the most groan-inducing aspect of game writing for the panelists.
Barks are enemy lines that let the player know what’s going on in the field, such as the classic “Grenade!” and “Did you hear that?” On the other hand, expository directives are small character lines like “I need to get out of here” or “It’s locked.” Both crucial to delivering gameplay information, both often overlooked pieces of script, and both complete nightmares for game writers, apparently.
It’s no simple task, according to Fixman, crafting 10 versions of a dialogue line all in line with the character’s persona.
For Fixman, however, it’s all worth it. Even though he often avoids his games at launch in fear of mistakes, the fans that take his work to heart constantly inspire him.
Marianne Krawczyk had a few stories of her own tales to share after years of working on the God of War series. She explained how some of the most memorable narrative moments, such as Kratos’ familicide, sometimes required more organic story work.
“David had a really clear framework for what he wanted, he just didn’t know what the story was or how necessarily in text it existed yet. My job was to sit there and talk to him. We’d start cobbling together the story as he was figuring out how to tell it and figuring out the designer and presentation and story twists and everything came very organically.”
Krawczyk went on to say that other developers can be invaluable sources of character insight, but the range of opinions often floating around Sony studios could present a definite challenge.
“The hard thing is, everybody’s been on, but everybody has a different view,” she said. “Everybody at Sony Santa Monica studio has a slightly different view of who Kratos might be based on how they see him, how they play him. Then it’s about finding the balance.”
Tom Bissell is more known for his gaming criticism and essays, but he’s been called to assist with many a gaming script in his days. One of his most memorable moments comes from Gears of War: Judgment, when he was given the narrative task of fitting poison gas tanks into a university level.
“That’s when I began to realize that this is a form of writing that throws some real curveballs at you that probably only a few hundred people on the planet have ever had to deal with,” Bissell shared.
Once again bark dialogue appeared as the villain of the night, as Bissell recounted the time he was called to supply enemy lines for Batman: Arkham Origins.
“The unbelievably difficult part was, say I’m Batman, and I put down an ice bomb trap, and a guy hits the trap,” he said. “You have to communicate to the player, ‘oh that was my ice bomb trap’ without being so obvious…and figure out things for these guys in their various state of alarm, to say ‘Ice bomb! He got me with an ice bomb! It’s cold!’ so the player knows it happened. Then you have to do that 10-15 different ways. And that’s just an ice bomb.”
“I thought it would be fun working on a game franchise I loved for a dude I loved and admired, and at the end of it I can say I never regretted my decision to be a game writer more than that. When it’s Christmas morning, and it’s like, ‘Ice Bomb, I dunno,’ it gets pretty grim.”
Even through the frustrations of ambient dialogue, Bissell says it’s all worth it when all the mistakes, rewrites, and frustrations come together into a single, powerful narrative.
“There are two things I think that define game writing,” he said. “The first is, a lot of it is about coming to solutions to production decisions. They cut an entire level out, and now you have to find a way connect them that wasn’t apparent before. And it’s really genuinely exciting coming up with a solution.
“The second is, when you write a bunch of systemic dialogue for things that happen on top of each other, you have this grouped unfeeling system, that is going into this spreadsheet and pulling lines out and firing, yet they work beautifully together, and it feels like a moment in a story even though it’s just the magic of randomization. When it works it feels unlike any other kind of narrative I can think of and it’s beautiful and electrifying.”
You can check out even more from the WGA panelists over at Gamasutra.