You Don’t Have to Play a Game to Write For One


(This is another edition of </RANT>, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)

This week, there’s been quite a significant controversy surrounding BioWare writer Jennifer Hepler, who has been the target of unfortunate abuse by so-called fans of her studio’s games. Alongside being blamed for “forcing” homosexuality into Mass Effect and “ruining” Dragon Age with her writing, Hepler has also caught heat for her confession that she’s not a gamer, admitting that she hates in-game combat and wishes it could be skipped in order to just enjoy the narrative. Now, I won’t focus on the ludicrous abuse she’s been getting, as I’ve talked enough about that elsewhere. Instead, I want to now focus on an argument I’ve seen a lot of this week — the assertion that in order to write for videogames, you need to play them.

Don’t be stupid.

In no way does one have to be a gamer in order to write a story set in a game’s world, especially if it’s a world you’re creating yourself. A writer’s job is to create universes and characters, which can easily be done without having intimate knowledge of a videogame controller, or understanding how hotkeys work. Authors have been doing it for centuries. All a writer needs to be concerned with is making that unique world and populating it with interesting characters who have compelling goals. In other words, you need the experience of a writer, not a gamer. I’d be concerned by a writer who has not read a book, but I don’t give a sh*t whether or not a writer has played a game. In fact, in some situations I’d think that’d help.

Let’s face it, game narrative in the vast majority of titles out there f**king blows. Many of the game plots we have were written by teams of developers, not actual writers. Sometimes that works out fine, but if you want an artistically crafted story, you need to go to an artist who specializes in crafting such art. Just look at some of the professional authors who have been writing for games lately — Rihanna Pratchett, R.A. Salvatore — and ask yourself whether you reckon these people are hardcore gamers. I somehow doubt (though I could always be wrong) that Salvatore spends his time fragging noobs in Halo. The man’s too busy f**king writing for that sh*t. He knows how to craft a story, and that’s what you’re looking for when you need a person to … y’know … write a story. I don’t care how good you are at Demon’s Souls if you can’t write for sh*t, and I don’t care how much you suck at Demon’s Souls if you can write for sh*t. I think most studios who care about exposition would agree.

Like I said, most game writing is pure drivel, so what would a writer truly gain from playing more games? They’d probably gain the knowledge that it’s easy to craft a game story and have idiot gamers lap it up. Just look at how well Heavy Rain’s piece-of-sh*t writing went over with the crowd. That’s the kind of crap we get when a game maker tries to write. I say we need more professional writers, whose first (and sometimes sole) passion in life is writing. We don’t need less of them.

Now, some would argue that the writer needs to play games in order to know how to weave their story into the gameplay. I counter this by saying that it’s not a writer’s job to do anything like that. That is the developer’s job. A writer comes up with a story, a developer makes it work with the game. This is because videogames — at least big budget ones — are team efforts, with different people doing different things. If the writer was also the game director, then sure, he or she should be playing games, but if the person’s only job is putting pen to paper, then I don’t see why they’re required to have those l33t gaming skizzillz. It’s a director’s job to know the difference between an RPG, an FPS or a survival horror. A writer needs to know the difference between fantasy, science fiction and horror. Different jobs, different genres to study.

Not to mention, if you think a writer is totally blind to how games get made, you’re a moron. I dare say that, whether or not a game writer plays these things, they still know more about development than you or I. They talk with developers regularly, probably even daily. They’re in contact with the dev team, they share ideas, they work together. They probably learn more about narrative structure in a videogame just by doing their job than they’d ever learn with a month of playing the damn things. It’s not as if any writer goes in totally blinkered, and it’s not as if the story and the gameplay will be two totally distinct bubbles. There’s a reason why studios like BioWare and Valve and Gearbox have dedicated writers on staff — so they get to know the people who make the actual games. I’m sure there are some folk out there who have rarely ever picked up a controller but still have a more intimate knowledge of narrative structure in interactive entertainment than you will ever have.

It’s naive and childish to demand that everybody involved in the making of a game be gamers themselves. Do you think every coder on staff is a gamer? Do you think the people publishing it are all fans of games? There are some folk who get into game development not because they love games, but because they love what they do best — be it writing, coding, or creating conceptual artwork. You don’t need to play games to do these things well. You just have to do the job you were appointed to do.

Now, I’m not saying a writer shouldn’t be a gamer. If somebody who writes for videogames is also a big fan of them, then that’s fantastic. It’s great to have a writer who is also passionate about the medium. But it’s a bonus, a privilege, a nice option. It’s not mandatory, and it doesn’t change whether or not somebody is a good writer capable of crafting an entertaining story. You no more have to play games to write for them than you have to eat chicken to make KFC commercials. It’s always great if you do, but you shouldn’t have to. Not if you know what you’re doing in the first place.

Now the rest of you, go play some f**king videogames and don’t worry about whether the people who made them do the same.

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12 Comments on You Don’t Have to Play a Game to Write For One

mattcd42

On February 22, 2012 at 1:05 pm

I completely disagree. One can write a story for a video game without playing them, but can they do their job as effectively without understanding the medium they’re engaged in? There is a clear cut answer and it is no they can not. I mean how can they? If they’re not understanding what weight their story gives to the rest of the game, or even where a game could contradict their story by base mechanics then how can craft your multimedia tale? More importantly how did you end up in that position when clearly there are tons of more qualified people to take your place because they wouldn’t have such a glaring handycap.

Plus to your point. “Now, some would argue that the writer needs to play games in order to know how to weave their story into the gameplay. I counter this by saying that it’s not a writer’s job to do anything like that.” I counter with your other point, “Not to mention, if you think a writer is totally blind to how games get made, you’re a moron.” Really? I think you have to pick one.

Now the dirty truth is this, there are lots of great writers, but if you’re working for a video game company, you need to be a good video game writer to excel in that position.

Also you seem to have some confusion on what matters in the dev cycle. “Do you think every coder on staff is a gamer? ” Honestly this dosn’t even matter. It’s like this, if you tell someone to write a compelling story for the new Final Fantasy or whatever they need to know what that means by having played previous games or they’ll be lost and not able to capture what makes those games popular. If you tell a code monkey, hey we need you to program this new mechanic for the battle system to make these numbers do this for the game, that’s essentially a mechanical problem, if they play games or not doesn’t really bar them from an end result, it just might make them visualize the outcome a bit clearer.

While I think the attacks on Jennifer Hepler are a stupid case of people on the internet with too much time, I will say people being interested in the people that make the video games they play is not a bad thing. Following certain design leads or certain creators collaborative career allows you to make connections to some people who created something that you experienced and you can see if they had other projects you want to check out or avoid. Or also see where ideas are similar where you otherwise wouldn’t of found such connections. Preaching ignorance is always a bad choice, especially online.

John Wayne

On February 22, 2012 at 1:39 pm

I would agree with you to some extent, however – and this is a big however – the controversy surrounding Jennifer Hepler is far more about the position with which she is a assigned within Bioware and the massive weight given to the writing team’s decisions as a whole. Bioware is best known for the narratives and the spinning plot that is detailed from its games, however in recent years, they seem ever more to be replacing their gameplay structure with an increased focus on the narrative of the game itself.

If the writer is given a position – with an almost isolationist stance from the game itself – and the author has little knowledge about the mechanics of the game / the core features of the general genre, the game itself is going to suffer, due to a problem between synthesising a ‘link’ between the two (story and gameplay). The overall direction of the game is based solely around how it is ‘built up from the ground’ so to speak. Game principles revolve around the functionality of the story and the general outline of how it will be integrated.
An Analogy might work best:

You’re an architectural team. You’ve got the planners and the builders. One relies far more heavily on the other in the overall production of a successful building. The Planners give the builder’s the designs with which they’ll design the game. Put too many people on the planning team / focus all your resources to it and it’ll suffer; the building won’t be built on time, with various other problems. It’s the same vice verse, but the building team itself can still continue, even with a half assed plan.

It’s not a bad idea to focus your resources ON the writing itself, but when it is given far too much weight, it grinds the mechanics to a halt – and as is my opinion with Mass Effect (personal) – the gameplay can become overly repetitive and insufficiently challenging.

On a side note, the attacks on Hepler are unwarranted; but I feel she is a strawman to a larger controversy, one about the state of the industry and the general negativity towards the overall designing of games. Original ‘gamers’ (I mean pre this generation) want far more mechanical games with a stronger balance / proportionality given to gameplay. This is a genuine trend on most gaming communities that revolve around ‘core’ principles.

Post 05 gamers (newly introduced) want a far more narrative focused game. Hepler’s statement – skipping gameplay – has too become the embodiment of the debate. The ‘Corists’ feel abandoned from the mainstream gaming scene and that their opinion no longer holds strength, despite being avid fans. It’s a ‘purist’ ‘casual’ fight at the deeper levels when properly analysed (IN MY PERSONAL OPINION).

/wall of text.

Alex

On February 22, 2012 at 1:48 pm

Videogames with a deep emphasis on story are basically mechanisms by which to make said story happen.

The story does not have to be contingent upon whether or not its writer is a gamer. There simply IS no imperative there. Or, at the VERY most, it’s your own personally derived imperative — i.e., a personal preference, not a universal requirement.

The way I see it, a good story is a good story no matter who the hell wrote it and by what medium it comes to me. That is to say, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass if someone who wrote a game I love likes games herself. Is it more likely that a passionate gamer may write something that a broad section of the gaming public would like? To be honest, I don’t know. I honestly can’t even take a guess at that because I’m sure I could find examples that support an answer of “yes” and just as many that support an answer of “no”.

The way I see it, first and foremost, and on a fundamental level, good writing takes good writers. Full stop.

Tass

On February 22, 2012 at 3:30 pm

I prefer a great story over a great gameplay. Example: I bought and played Dragon Age 2 because I liked the Tolkien-gone-wrong story. I know there are a lot better rated games out there. But I played it for the story.

Handsome B. Wonderful

On February 22, 2012 at 4:28 pm

I do and don’t agree with this.

A great story can motivate a player to complete the game. And not all gamers are writers, just as not all writers are gamers. If the plot and characters are well-constructed, it shouldn’t matter what the source is.

But here’s the rub:

Great games weave the narrative and gameplay together. Gameplay can do so much for the narrative: it can characterize with much greater efficiency than all the exposition dumps in the world, it can effectively convey a lot of things that would otherwise need explicit description in a narrative. It’s what makes games as an art form so unique: they have this other dimension that all other media fundamentally lack.

It’s why Silent Hill doesn’t work as a movie. It’s why Thor didn’t work all that well as a game. It’s not that they couldn’t, it’s that the writers didn’t give genuine thought to how the two media differed when bringing the story from one to the other, so Thor’s gameplay felt like a tacked-on slog and the Silent Hill movie shoved Sean Bean into the background to belch out exposition.

The notion that a non-gamer can still write for a game isn’t unthinkable, but it makes it less likely that the writer will be capable of appreciating the nuance that goes into his or her medium. They’ll more often than not just write a book or a movie and try to tack it onto gameplay.

Honestly, it’s one of Bioware’s biggest problems: you talk, then you fight, then you talk again, ad infinitum. That was fine in older, more limited eras of gaming. But it’s getting a little old now, and superior options are starting to dwarf it. (e.g. how people all but forgot Dragon Age 2 and will be likely talking about Skyrim for years to come) Mass Effect has a following, and it’s not an undeserved one. But there aren’t a lot of Space Opera RPGs to compete with it right now, and it’s got the boon of a forthcoming conclusion to keep people’s interest. I don’t think that they can make it happen again without finding a way to better construct the game so that it’s not a plot pendulum swinging at a measured rhythm betwixt “narrative” and “gameplay.”

But I digress. This person not being a gamer doesn’t exclude her from being able to write for video games, but it does likely limit the kind of writing she can do, and as the medium develops it will seem less likely that she’ll be able to get away with writing and not necessarily understanding how to merge it with the rest of the game. But then, there are other writers who may be better equipped to do that. Maybe she’ll just make her way as a script doctor.

DS

On February 22, 2012 at 4:48 pm

I don’t think using R.A. Salvatore really helps your argument, because R.A. Salvatore is a well-known avid tabletop player (not a video game, but a game with “combat” or “gameplay mechanics”).

As far as Rhianna goes, she clearly identifies herself as a gamer and mentions in her interviews how important the gameplay and the narrative go together. Therefore I think it’s safe to assume she spends a fair amount playing games.

I’m sure that you can have writers that don’t game, but the person that plays games has higher chances of delivering a better quality product.

Philth

On February 22, 2012 at 7:15 pm

This debate is idiotic. The writer is not to blame the studio is first, then the consumer for buying the product. First things first a video game is based first and foremost on it being a game!!! I know, crazy concept there. Tetris has no story and yet…. wait for it… it is an amazing game. The original Zelda, Mario Brothers, etc… all lacked a story but they stay with us because of their enjoyable, and for the time, innovative game play.

A writer “can” write a plot for a game but as many others have mentioned there will be a disconnect between the story and game play if it is not considered. I might point to a few games that are still enjoyable that lack any real semblance of story, or story that was lackluster, any Final Fantasy (yes I love them too, but that doesn’t change the fact that they have overly complicated stories that end up making no sense).

So, to conclude, don’t blame the writers or even the design team; blame the company that pays them to do it, blame the consumers who buy the crappy games that tell compelling stories, and finally keep on trolling because it is fun!

gilgamesh214

On February 23, 2012 at 11:26 am

Whoa! I see wall of text (story) without no gameplay.
So this is what mess effect 3 gonna be.
FUS RO DAH!!!

Darrin

On February 23, 2012 at 6:47 pm

I just think if everyone under a gaming companies hood can work closely together it doesn’t matter if a writer isn’t a gamer. Just my honest opinion.

JD

On February 28, 2012 at 9:31 am

While one can write for game without being a gamer that’s not the best way to go about it. If you’ll excuse a crass simile, one can belch Mozart but it’s not the best way to play Mozart.

Even the same could be said for movies or any other medium that has it’s own esoteric production quirks or limits, budget etc. Knowing what would be possible without costing to much or taking to long to accomplish is merely the tip of the iceberg.

Not having enthusiasm, or even worst experience as a consumer, in the medium for which you’re writing is unprofessional. Not knowing the limits, restraints etc of that medium will leave the result hamstrung or just not as good as it could have been.

I’m not saying one has to be a gamer to help make games, but one should at least have experienced some of the greats and flops which is something a “gamer” inevitably has. Being part of the audience for something you’re making will inevitably enable you to do it that much better, help ensure it reaches it’s full potential.

The difference between games and movies is larger than the difference between movies and books. Only one has something critically unique and that’s being interactive and dynamic, only one of the mediums offer that and if you’re not a fan of that or even experienced then you certainly are not going to do as well creating it as you otherwise would.

Also as for wishing combat, ie the interactive parts to be skippable, well there’s already a medium with that result called video, perhaps if that’s what some want that’s what they should “watch”.

Jack

On March 1, 2012 at 11:58 pm

The title of your column is apt. I cringe at the thought of what might be written in these boxes if you asserted your words as fact.

Because in this case, they aren’t. Not completely, anyway. Now, I have absolutely no experience in game development, but quite a bit in game playing and a bit of story writing, as well, and I feel like I can tell when playing a game whether or not who wrote it was just trying to write, or trying to write for a game- And I think that’s a huge difference. F.E.A.R., for instance, is both a fun game and a good story, but those two elements lack synergy with one another and you can tell that in the gameplay. The first two Mass Effects, on the other hand, were clearly written with the intent of empowering the player as an escapist conquering hero (or ). It’s one thing to write a nice story, but it’s something else to write a nice story that translates well into a game- and I don’t feel that’s entirely possible if the writer doesn’t have a sense for the game their story will become.

Since the writer in question is not a gamer and in fact hates combat, a key element of the series and many others, the writing will probably suffer for it.

Though, since plenty of people seem to hate the series anyway, I somehow doubt her merit for the job is even worth debating.

Jack

On March 2, 2012 at 12:06 am

Hooray for timeouts.

Short version: I rather disagree. Maybe you don’t HAVE to, but I think it’s of greater merit then you speak of in this article.

To elaborate, I’ve played quite a few games and done a bit of writing, though I haven’t done any game development, so maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I do feel like being versed in a medium goes a long way towards understanding how to write for it. I can sometimes tell when playing a game whether or not it was written by a gamer. Too much of modern game development is playing hot potato or telephone with your product. If a writer simply writes a story and then dumps it on the devs, something will be lost in translation. The writer(s), perhaps more then any other persons involved, should be involved in the process from start to finish, and assuming they are a gamer, which I am attempting to establish they should be, they would ideally have the game in mind they wish to play when they begin to write a story for one.

At least, that’s what I do, and I have some great concepts to show for my mental efforts.