Posted on April 2, 2008,

The Value of a Good Writer


Recently, a bit of a spark was lit under the debate over the place of writers in the games industry. Adam Maxwell, a game designer, wrote a piece that was run on Gamasutra which proclaimed that writers don’t have a place in this business, and that they’re essentially an obstacle in the path to creating a good game. I vehemently defended writers, pointing to examples of cases where writers had a dramatically positive impact on a game and Portal, BioShock, and so on.

A new analysis of the value of a good writer by developer James Portnow dives into the subject of how he believes videogame writing should be done. He starts off bluntly enough, as he asserts: “I’ll be blunt.  Videogames are terrible at making statements.  You want to tell a person what they should think?  Go write a book or appear on daytime TV or compose an epic poem…don’t make a videogame.”

One of the subjects he discusses is the problem of binary choices in games. I’ve written before about how it’s this sort of thing that really detracts from the overall experience of a game like BioShock or Mass Effect, and there’s no doubt that Portnow agrees that binary choices need to go.

EPIC FAIL!  Binary choice is one of the worst things in gaming.  It keeps us from being an art and, more importantly, it takes away “fun” from any game it is in.  This one ridiculous cop-out has sabotaged more masterpieces than I can name.  What is it?  Glad you asked…

A binary choice is a choice between two extremes.  Do you want to be Mahatma Gandhi or the lovechild of Satan and Hitler?  Do you want to save the world or blow it up for all eternity?  Do you want to get laid or not (always a stupid question)?

HUMANS SIMPLY DON’T INTERACT THIS WAY!  In case you didn’t get the emphasis on that previous sentence, please take a moment to go into a quiet room and shout it as loud as you can.  Done?  Good, now maybe you’ve got it.

For the full read, head over to Next Gen.

Join the Conversation   

* required field

By submitting a comment here you grant GameFront a perpetual license to reproduce your words and name/web site in attribution. Inappropriate or irrelevant comments will be removed at an admin's discretion.

3 Comments on The Value of a Good Writer


On April 2, 2008 at 9:40 pm

I agree those choices don’t make sense, if you’re human.

But if you’re a robot…


On April 3, 2008 at 8:53 am

There was a good point that writters and game designers go about their job differently (eg. “The work of the writer is inherently linear and the work of the designer is typically not”), but for a good game you need both and both need to understand how each other works to work effectivly together.

Shawn Sines

On April 3, 2008 at 9:14 am

The core issue here is one of production. The writer can write 20,000 lines of dialog but it has to be put into a production schedule and budgeted. Branching narratives are monsters that quickly become unwieldy of not contained and you can spend a lot of time putting in dialog choices that players will not choose because players tend to stick to clearly defined positions. We don’t always choose the good or bad but we try and recognize the outcome of the dialog to get the response we expect.

That said, even with the poor translation, The Witcher managed to prove that good choices and bad choices do not always have a like outcome. Branching dialog can be handled without becoming binary on the decision patch so long as the game design accounts for a way to keep track – like with for example an alignment string that determines which branching dialog the player might encounter based upon the evaluation of this and other values.

The core issue though is still budget and production time. If the game requires recorded speech – as most of us expect these days – actors and recording time have to be accounted for and that is just the tip of it as integrating that text option also has an effect on the design schedule.

I think Bioware and others have done a fairly good job muddying up the good/evil choice dynamic lately but I think the practical limit is production based not intent to simplify the story or to shortcut..