"Writing for games demands the novelist’s gift for character, the poet’s eye for detail and the scriptwriter’s ear for dialogue – as well as the ability to understand interactivity and game design. Over the course of the week, we’ll explore the practicalities of storytelling in everything from card games to console games, including insights from professional game developers working in the world’s biggest entertainment industry."
Tutors were novelist and games writer, Naomi Alderman (We Tell Stories, Perplex City) and David Varela, a writer for games, transmedia and other media ( http://www.davidvarela.com ). The guest speaker was Rhianna Pratchett, a BAFTA nominated games writer and winner of Writers' Guild of Great Britain 'Best Videogame Script' award for Overlord ( http://www.rhiannapratchett.com )
Of the eleven people on the course, the vast majority were under 30, one was still in his teens, two were in their thirties, and only one was middle-aged - me. I was one of only three women on the course too. None of which surprised me. If I'd thought about it, I would've expected this kind of demographic on a writing for games course, but I was surprised how odd it felt to be such an anomaly. I think this was less to do with my age, actually, and more to do with there being such an emphasis on AAA console games, the big commercial titles, of which I've played very few.
Besides me, there were a couple of others on the course who were also interested in writing and creating alternatives to hardcore commercial games - one works in serious games, the other in theatre. However, it was truly fascinating to be surrounded by such a lively, ardent, imaginative bunch of hardcore gamers, including one who works in the industry as a game designer. This was only the second time Arvon has offered a writing for games course, and the previous course (also taught by Naomi and David) was made up entirely of young writers focused on the hardcore game industry. With the continuing rise of casual gaming and other forms, it will be interesting to see the make-up of the course next time around, in a year or so.
One of the great things about a writing for games course is that you do a lot of playing, which is fun. Another, is that it's taken as read that games will become the dominant art form of the future and so discussion cuts straight to the chase: How can writers, improve, develop and broaden the expressive quality of games and, specifically, storytelling in games? And they all want story! Not only that, they want to be emotionally involved, moved to tears even, by stories in games. The downside of such a course is that, at this historical moment, the games industry seems to have little respect for writers and the craft of storytelling and yet their ethos appears to dominate and shape the ambitions of most aspiring games writers nonetheless.
As Rhianna Pratchett's experiences made clear, when it comes to AAA console games, writers are kept at arm's length. They tend to be brought in towards the end of the production process to drape a story over the gameplay design. Their task is to come up with something that makes narrative sense of a given 3D game environment, with characters, game mechanics, types of game play, reward schemes, etc. already designed. They write the cut scenes (pre-rendered cinematic sequences between gameplay), the dialogue and 'barks' (all the incidental lines that NPCs say to give the game world colour or to make it seem believable, e.g. 101 ways to say, "Look, over there!"). Under these circumstances, how can writers innovate? It seems bizarre, especially since the videogame is such a new narrative art form with so much untapped potential.
I've never harboured a desire to work in the games industry, so why did I go on the course? Because as a writer and maker of digital literature, gameplay and stories are merging for me. As soon as I started creating digital stories and poems with interactivity, they started to become more game-like. My experimentations were pulling me in that direction. I didn't consciously start out to make games - I'd come from a visual arts and film-making background, I was interested in interactive, multimedia, non-linear storytelling - but there was a point when I thought, "Hey, this is like a game!" and I found that intriguing.
The main thing holding me back was that I didn't know how to program sophisticated interactivity and gameplay. Since then I've been learning as much as I can - moving towards Object Oriented Programming in AS3. For me, becoming proficient in OOP is essential if I want to innovate in story-game-play expressivity. The kind of storytelling I want to achieve, I believe, has to begin with the programming - it has to be embedded at the code level. Whether I can achieve it on my own, I don't know, but I think the story has to be invented at that level so I need to have a deep enough understanding of OOP and its narrative possibilities.
So, even though the Arvon course didn't delve into storytelling at this level, I found it valuable and fascinating to be immersed for a week in an environment where everyone was utterly besotted with storytelling and gameplay.
I'd be very interested to hear other digital writers' thoughts about the relationship between their work and games or playability.