Posted on February 22, 2012, Jim Sterling 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.