Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Playing the game

leave a comment »

Yesterday, the magazine PC Gamer published an article by Alex Wiltshire on the challenges of writing for blockbuster video games. It’s an illuminating piece, especially if you haven’t given much thought to the subject before, and it’s loaded with interesting insights. What struck me the most, though, was the way in which the writers tend to talk about themselves and their craft. Walt Williams, the author of a memoir about game development that I clearly need to read, says of the trade: “As much as we like to say that video games can be a narrative medium, financially they’re really not…Writing is expendable.” Tom Bissell, who has worked on games in the Gears of War and Uncharted series, has similar views, as Wiltshire writes:

Bissell says that games have “shitty stories” because games are often simply absurd. “That’s not a criticism, it’s an acknowledgment of the reality that stares anyone working on an action game right in the face…The only way you escape the absurdity problem is through sheer force of will, and you can do that only when the prime creative force behind the game is also overseeing virtually every aspect of it…That’s not a position most game writers will ever find themselves in, obviously.”

And Williams concludes: “Our biggest mistake is that we’ve decided to consider AAA [blockbuster] games as something better than they are. We like to think our super-silly destruction derby arena is a piece of serious art that can say something meaningful.”

As I read this, I was strongly reminded of what another writer says about an art form that had been around for decades, but was still in its formative stages at the height of his career:

The movies are one of the bad habits that corrupted our century…The persistent banality of the movies is due to the “vision” of their manufacturers. I do not mean by manufacturers, writers or directors. These harassed toilers are no more than the lowest of Unteroffizieren in movieland. The orders come from the tents of a dozen invisible generals. The “vision” is theirs. They keep a visionary eye glued to the fact that the lower in class an entertainment product is, the more people will buy it…[The studio head] must examine every idea, plot, or venture submitted to him from the single point of view of whether it is trite enough to appeal to the masses.

The writer here is the screenwriter Ben Hecht, whose memoir A Child of the Century is filled with what Pauline Kael describes in “Raising Kane” as his “frivolously cynical” view of filmmaking. In 1925, Hecht, who had only seen “a few movies” at the time, said confidently to his friend Herman J. Mankiewicz: “Anybody with a good memory for clichés and unafraid to write like a child can bat out a superb movie in a few days.” A year later, Mankiewicz—who would go on to win an Oscar for Citizen Kane—took him at his word, and he cabled Hecht from Hollywood: “Will you accept three hundred per week to work for Paramount Pictures? All expenses paid. The three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”

Hecht went on to a legendary career, much of which was spent serving as what Tomb Raider writer Rhianna Pratchett calls a “narrative paramedic” on movies like Gone With the Wind. And while I doubt that any video game writers are earning millions from their work, their attitude toward their medium seems largely the same as Hecht’s, even before you account for the intervening ninety years. Hecht writes of the films of the thirties:

One basic plot only has appeared daily in their fifteen hundred theaters—the triumph of virtue and the overthrow of wickedness…Not only was the plot the same, but the characters in it never varied. These characters must always be good or bad (and never human) in order not to confuse the plot of Virtue Triumphing. This denouement could be best achieved by stereotypes a fraction removed from those in the comic strips.

Despite their occasional stabs at moral ambiguity, most games operate under similar constraints, and the situation is only exacerbated by the money and resources at stake. Hecht writes that “millions of dollars and not mere thousands were involved,” while Bissell says that video games are “possibly the most complicated popular art form ever created,” which only decreases any tolerance for risk. Invariably, it’s the writers who lose. Hecht says that he ultimately lost every fight that he had with his producers, adding mordantly: “Months later, watching ‘my’ movie in a theater, I realize that not much damage had actually been done. A movie is basically so trite and glib that the addition of a half dozen miserable inanities does not cripple it.”

You might think that the solution would be to give the writers more control, but those on the inside seem unconvinced. Wiltshire writes:

For Bissell it’s a misconception that they’d improve if only writers were more integral with development. “Sorry, but that’s just not true in my experience. Games can go wrong in so many ways that have nothing to do with who the writer is or how well or poorly he or she or they are treated. Sometimes cleaning up the mess in a wayward game falls on level design and sometimes art and sometimes narrative, but this idea that games have ‘shitty stories’ because there aren’t good writers in the industry, or that writers aren’t listened to, is, to be perfectly frank, a deflection.”

Hecht makes much the same observation: “In a curious way, there is not much difference between the product of a good writer and a bad one. They both have to toe the same mark.” Which seems to be the real point in common. Movies and video games can both produce masterpieces, even at their most commercial, but on the blockbuster level, they tend to be the sum of a pattern of forces, with the writer serving as a kind of release valve for the rest, even if his or her contributions are usually undervalued. (“Everyone writes, whereas not everyone designs or codes, and I think people feel they have a stake in it,” says Phil Huxley, a former writer for Rocksteady.) In both cases, success or failure can be a matter of luck, and in the meantime, the game has to be its own reward, as Hecht knows well: “Making movies is a game played by a few thousand toy-minded folk. It is obsessive, exhausting, and jolly, as a good game should be. Played intently, it divorces you from life, as a good game will do.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: