Five years ago I went to the GDC (then known as the CGDC) with one question in mind: did the industry know how much it didn’t know about the problems inherent in combining interactivity and narrative? After numerous conversations with some of the better minds in the business I came away with my answer: the industry was, as I had come to believe, essentially clueless.
In the aftermath of that experience I submitted my first roundtable proposal to the GDC on Creating Emotional Involvement in Interactive Entertainment, the intent being to use the forum as a vehicle through which to advance industry awareness. The subtext of these roundtables has been that we need to seriously address the threshold requirement of creating and sustaining suspension of disbelief over the entirety of the play experience, because without that capability we will always be seen as a lesser form of entertainment and artistic expression. (That may not be fair, but that’s the way it is.) As will become apparent, it’s also worth noting that of all the craftspeople involved in creating entertainment, none knows more about creating and sustaining suspension of disbelief than do writers.
(Before anybody chokes on their pizza, there’s no question that interactivity is the core of our medium, and that it will and should remain so. This isn’t one of those ‘Writers can save the games biz!’ diatribes, or anything of the sort: I know what writing can and cannot bring to our industry as well as anyone, and writing is not our salvation. Rather, I’m simply making the point that problems continually arise when narrative elements – including setting, character and plot – are added to interactive processes, and that a craft already exists which has considerable experience solving similar problems. If writers from passive mediums need to learn new skills and techniques to make their core knowledge applicable to the interactive arena – and they do, as do artists and programmers – that doesn’t mean their core knowledge is of any less importance or utility.)
I mention the above history because a recent discussion in the IGDA Writers forum again reminded me how little this industry understands or values the contributions of writers. The discussion in question resulted from the request that a writing award be considered for the IGDA’s Game Developers Choice Awards at the 2003 GDC, and the main threads included what the scope of the award would be, and whether a writing award should be given at all.
Currently, writing excellence is recognized under the Game Design category, which is one of five ‘Excellence in’ categories for which awards are given. Those categories are:
- Game Design
- Visual Arts
- Level Design
When I raised the concern that writers would never have a chance of being nominated in a category designated for the most dominant development position in the industry, I was reassured that this had already happened in the case of Ragnar Tørnquist’s nomination for The Longest Journey. The problem with that example is that Tørnquist was also the producer and co-designer of the game as well, which means there is still no evidence that a person credited only with writing has any chance of being nominated in that category. (Tørnquist is listed as a member of the 2002 awards advisory board, but it is unclear whether he was a member of the board when his nomination was approved, or if board policy prevents a sitting member from voting for themselves. I do know a number of the board members, however, and am convinced that they would have aggressively addressed this conflict if it had even remotely been an issue.)
Whether or not Tørnquist was actually nominated primarily for his writing, as has been asserted, misses the larger point. The Longest Journey was an adventure game, the design of which inherently involves narrative craft. In fact, it would be almost impossible to imagine an adventure game in which the designer was not also due a writing credit, which means distinctions about the difference between a writing credit and a design credit in the adventure game genre are meaningless. Worse, because of the apparent death of the adventure game genre, it may be that no writer will again be nominated in the Game Design category simply because no more cutting-edge adventures will be produced.
All of this means that if a writer creates truly gripping cutscenes and in-game dialogues for a mind-blowing first-person shooter, not only will they have little chance of being nominated, they will have no chance of actually winning the award. Why? Well, if imagining the writer’s nomination isn’t hard enough, try imagining that the designer of such a game would not also receive a nomination. Now try to imagine any scenario in which the writer actually wins the award for Excellence in Game Design over the designer. (I couldn’t do it either.)
The upshot is that writers will either continue to have to earn the title of designer in order to be recognized for their work, or Writing will have to be added as a separate award category. That the former is more likely at this point is not surprising, considering the generally vague notions people have about the contributions writers make to our industry. Then again, given that the people charged with recognizing core contributors to our medium cannot discern writers as such, there’s little wonder the industry as a whole tends to be dim on the subject, when it happens to think of it at all.
So where does this leave us, five years after my disheartening pilgrimage? On a positive note, there is little question that over time writers and writing will become more central to the game development process. Professional writers have the knowledge necessary for creating narrative elements which support suspension of disbelief, and understand the requirements of the narrative frameworks into which more and more interactivity is being designed. In time, writers will probably not only be recognized for work at the design level – possibly as narrative designers – but they will also be recognized in other categories such as localization and adaptation.
The downside of implementing any writing award is that it will almost certainly institutionalize the idea that writers are only peripheral players. Short of reading all the scripts that a writer has written, and being privy to the notes a writer contributes to other members of a team, the only elements a writer will likely be judged on will be those that are apparent in the final work. Although a writer may create blueprints for others as often as they create finished product, the writer’s contribution will be assumed by observers to be limited to things like in-game texts and dialogues. The designer will probably be given credit for anything else a writer has done, simply because there will be no discernible evidence to the contrary.
That five years have passed without any apparent advancement in the industry’s understanding of how writers can improve products offering narrative elements is not particularly surprising. No matter how much fun users derive from a writer’s contribution, no matter how well a writer’s craft helps obscure the mechanisms of interactivity, and no matter how successfully a writer manages to create suspension of disbelief, the industry seems intent on ignorance. Given the degree to which this ignorance perpetuates poor product design, inefficient development, negative reviews and economic loss, some might be tempted to claim outright bias, but I don’t think that’s a helpful perspective.
Ever the optimist, I still hold faint hope that a Writing award will be established for 2003. Validating the contribution of writers by giving them their own award would do more to serve notice that writers matter than any other conceivable act, and the cost of doing so would be negligible. Whether it happens this year or not, however, it will happen, and writers won’t be the only winners.
— Mark Barrett