Rhianna Pratchett reveals why writing videogames is harder than any other medium

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Mar 4, 2014, 12:55 PM EST

If you look at the console and PC gaming industry from the '80s to the present, it's come an awfully long way. One of the biggest evolutions has come in the form of how games wield their narrative. Games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong would give the briefest of backstories with occasional story break intermissions for comedic effect. We saw that change with games from Sierra like King's Quest and LucasArts stuff like Sam & Max Hit the Road and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, all of which added more in-depth stories and even voice acting.

And while there's room for both basic platformers and fully realized sandbox worlds right now, the emphasis on making games more like movies has grown exponentially with time. Whether you think that's a good thing or a bad thing, what it does is make the development process a lot more complex, but not necessariy in the way that you think.

In response to writing criticisms, Rhinna Pratchett (who has been involved with hugely successful games like Tomb Raider and Bioshock: Inifnite) took to the forums at escapist to explain just what makes writing games so much more difficult than writing for film or television.

My role is to take what they have, flesh it out and get it working in the game within the boundaries set by the developer - be they time, budget, design etc. What you get to work with can vary depending on how far development has already progressed. There's likely to be some spine of a story, some levels designed (in Mirror's Edge's case a whole game) and often a bit of character work. By and large it's at least what the developer will have needed for their pitch doc/proof of concept/green light etc. and enough to get folks actually building stuff.

The reason I (and other games writers) talk about the need to get writers/narrative designers in earlier is it would make our role a whole lot easier and more satisfying if *we* helped originate this kind of stuff. When you work as a hired-gun, rather than an imbedded writer, that hardly ever happens. Sometimes this is because the devs want to do it themselves, or they don't know where to find a games writer. Perhaps they're just not ready yet, or not used to thinking about story and writer at the same time. Often there can be an assumption that the 'word bits' are easy, cheap and that can easily be slipped in somewhere down the line. These attitudes unfortunately bypasses the skills that writers/narrative designers have for character and world building. Something that, you'd think, could be pretty useful to the development process.

I would be remiss if I ignored the fact that, actually, Hollywood screenwriting has become a lot more like this, especially in the last 10 years. Very rarely do writers get to use their own original ideas, and, even when they do, their concepts are offered micromanaged and reformed to fit the model of what Hollywood executives have learned the largest percent of the moviegoing public want to see.

Still, coming in as a primary scriptwriter after much of production is already complete is a complexity that's mostly unique to gaming. And I'm not sure there's a simple solution. Pratchett has a point: In many cases, having a writer in to script the story earlier would have come in handy, but that writer still needs to understand the gameplay mechanic that a developer wants to employ. Finding a way to seamlessly integrate your intense emotional drama with a constant barrage of, say, equally intense fight scenes requires a very specific kind of discipline.

And the solution isn't even as easy as having a writer who also develops games. Just look at David Cage from Quantic Dream. His last title, Beyond: Two Souls, boasted big names like Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe as well as a sprawling and complex narrative, but, arguably, the gameplay suffered as a result of the focus on the high-concept, philosophical story Cage wanted to tell.

So, the question of just how central a scriptwriter's part should be in the crafting of a videogame remains unclear, largely because there is no one answer. No matter how you slice it, though, games are not movies, nor should they be. Still, we've long since moved beyond the simpliciy of Pong

What do you think? How involved should a writer be in the process of developing a AAA title?

(via escapist)