Writing for Games Panel Recap
A huge group of industry veterans discuss why story is important in games and some of the surprises they faced when they first started.
Who Was There: A huge group of star writers made up this panel, including Chris Avellone (Knights of the Old Republic), Neal Hallford (Betrayal at Krondor), Wynne McLaughlin (Star Wars: The Old Republic), Anne Toole (The Witcher), Haris Orkin (Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3), John Zuur Platten (Ghostbusters: The Video Game), and Dave Grossman (The Secret of Monkey Island). It was moderated by Jana Hallford.
What They Talked About: After each of the writers briefly introduced themselves and discussed their careers, they moved on to discuss why story in games is important. Chris started off--interestingly enough--by saying that he was probably the wrong person to begin with as he didn't always believe it was. After some jeers from most everyone in the room, he went on to clarify himself by saying that it's important to set up the context behind a game, but that otherwise he didn't feel story was super important. Neil took the opposite stance and followed up by describing an old typewriter in an antique shop and saying that it was on sale for $3,000. Normally, that would be a rip-off, but what if you found out it was the typewriter that Stephen King wrote The Stand on? Wouldn't it be more important then? "Story increases the value and perception of the world," he concluded.
Anne said that story should never be forced upon the player and that the writer's goal should be to make the gameplay itself tell the story. According to her, the old writer's adage of "show, don't tell" becomes "do, don't show" within an interactive medium. Haris mentioned that every successful story has strong characters that the audience can enjoy, and he reiterated the idea that the story should tie in to the gameplay. Dave finished with the idea that story is so important because it's what ultimately makes the game memorable and relevant.
The next question that Jana asked was if there was anything unexpected about game writing. Most everyone mentioned that writing their dialogue in Microsoft Excel was a huge surprise to them at first, though many were surprised by other things as well. Chris was shocked at just how many details there were to track in the business, especially when it came to doing voice work--if a voice actor improvised on any of his lines, for example, it could mean a ton of work rewriting things further in the story. A huge surprise for John was how much work has to be done scaling back a story because a level is cut, or otherwise dealing with last-minute changes. He said that for Ghostbusters, he had worked on three drafts without Bill Murray's character because he just wasn't attached at the time, but thanks to a coincidental run-in with Dan Aykroyd, things changed and he had to be inserted.
Anne was often surprised at how a writer could be called into a project that's 90 percent done and asked to create a story when they've already finalized art assets. She went on to say that she actually enjoys it because it's a challenge; though, the fact that there isn't really time for the rest of the team to ask for a second draft or significant rewrites makes her job easier too. Dave mentioned that one of his great surprises was the course his career took. "I didn't plan to write games for kids," he said, "Ron Gilbert just sort of talked me into it one day."
Best Audience Question: What sort of education should someone interested in writing for games look for? "Did you ever see that movie Wargames? That was my education," said Neil to laughter. The group went on to say that though there are a lot of schools now that teach design, a lot of it you've just got to learn yourself. They recommend looking into some of the books out there, such as The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design, and they also suggested making modules in Neverwinter Nights. Finally, Anne added that it can't hurt to learn programming.
Weirdest Audience Question: One audience member said that games are the medium closest to the epic poems of the past and asked if any of the writers drew parallels between themselves and the famous bards of the ancient world. "I will now!" said Anne. The group went on to say that a hundred years in the future, all entertainment would be expected to be interactive and that there are certainly writers out there today that would be remembered for what they've done, though they neglected to name names.
The Takeaway: If you're serious about writing for games, the trick according to this panel is to practice and to expand your horizons. The general concensus was that a working knowledge of design is important, as it would integrate you into the team better and give you more control over your worlds. Chris in particular emphasized that you should be trying to make games in your free time, as that will help give you the experience you need to succeed.