Kevin (erf_) wrote,

the annaform oracle (part 1)

(part 1 - part 2 - part 3)

So. Cupertino, right. (Months late--sorry. Life interferes with the process of its documentation.)

One day, coming home from work, Cormac told me, "Hey! It's my friend Diana's birthday tomorrow, and we're going to go help her make cupcakes. She's a writer at Cryptic. I think you guys should meet."


Game writers: perhaps the industry's most poorly understood profession. A lot of studios do without them entirely, as they're associated with game elements that, on this side of the pond at least, are well-recognized elements of poor game design: immersion-breaking dialogue boxes, walls of text, pages of backstory the player is just going to skip. Sure, the profession has a storied history, with interactive fiction and point-and-click adventure gaming pusihg new boundaries in storytelling through the '80s and '90s, but those genres are virtually dead and modern gamers have short attention spans. Why bother spending precious time and money on writing, say many designers, when in the end, what really matters is how fun it is to collect shinies, fill gauges, and blow shit up?

After all, many of the greatest games ever made have threadbare, nonexistent, or completely ridiculous narratives. Super Mario Bros., Bubble Bobble, and River City Ransom are all about rescuing girlfriends kidnapped for absolutely no reason. The Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and King of Fighters franchises are about bored rich guys who throw a big party for people to beat each other up. The overwhelming majority of first-person shooters published between 1993 and 2010, from Doom to System Shock to Halo, are about alien invasions (and the ones that aren't are almost invariably World War II without any of the politics or drama). Even story-heavy RPGs like the Elder Scrolls and Final Fantasy series are more often than not willing to mix and match from a smog of Tolkien fantasy tropes, like the quest for a set of Holy McGuffins or the apocalypse-obsessed antagonist who is evil for the sake of being evil, than attempt to try anything new or interesting with plot and characterization.

The conventional wisdom is that gamers simply do not like to read. Sure, it'd be nice to have someone who knows what she's doing to write the text, rather than let your lead programmer do it and end up with something embarrassing like "WHAT IS A MAN? A MISERABLE LITTLE PILE OF SECRETS!" But is it worth the expense? You might as well hire a guy who does nothing but comb through the code and insert bugs.

I was pleased to discover at a IGDA Writers Group meeting at GDC 2007 that that's not really what contemporary game writers do. Certainly, game writers are often tasked with penning item descriptions, dialogue, in-game books, and other bits of flavor text intended to make a game more immersive--and that's what most folks associate with the job. But a game writer's true talents, if tapped wisely by the studio, are not in her ability to churn out text assets for backstory but in her understanding of the craft of narrative.

Writers are, by trade, experts in mood and tension, characterization and world-building, pacing and context. They know the best moment to ambush a player with a swarm of alien parasites, the most agonizing choice to give a would-be prince at a quest branch, the funniest inappropriate joke for your tank commanders to make in the heat of combat, the most striking place to find an idyllic human kindergarten aboard what you thought what was an invading alien warship.

A skilled writer means the difference between a crumbling platform and the end of an empire, an expendable AI NPC and a well-loved friend, a hard boss battle and a cathartic struggle for resolution--she can make the most badass, heavily armed player tremble at the sight of a little girl's shadow. She can be the difference between making your game a fun afternoon and an experience your players (and, pragmatically, your reviewers) think about all day. What a writer brings to the table, more than anything, is a unique ability to make a game feel like more than a game.

Text? Sure, game writers do that. But the best game writing I've ever seen, in Half-Life 2's "We Don't Go To Ravenholm" level, has almost no words at all. (Play it, and you'll know what I mean. White. Knuckled. Terror.)

The element of agency, that much-discussed "interactivity," makes video gaming an incredibly visceral medium, far more than passive media like film or television. In this sense a game writer is less like a novelist than a screenwriter or playwright. Her creative control is extremely limited: typically she doesn't have control over the premise, the plot, the setting, the character designs, or the visual appearance of anything in the game. What she does is provide a context in which it all fits together, a crucial part of that escapist feeling, that much-vaunted player immersion, that designers so covet and gamers so crave. In the right hands, in the right game, that quality can make the difference between a decent game and an unforgettable masterpiece--and for the fraction of the cost of another artist.

Of course, this is still an extremely rare and specialized profession. The skills necessary to do it well don't really translate from anything else, and the unique mix of technical and creative talents necessary to do the job is pretty uncommon. I mean, gee. How many people do you know out there a) have a strong technical background, b) are trained storytellers, and c) have a deep understanding of video game narrative? Needle in a haystack, I tell you. ;]

So the opportunity to meet one of these rare, strange creatures--in person, no less! At home! Not behind a desk!--was not something I was going to pass up.

Oh man. I really had no clue what was coming, did I.

I don't really know what I was expecting when we pulled into Diana's driveway. What does a game writer look like, anyway? The only game writers I'd ever met were at GDC, and a good number of those were just starting out. Up until that point I'd seen most of the people I knew in the industry, Cormac excepted, through a professional veneer of company-branded polo shirts and smug expressions, and stereotypes of writers and game industry people tend to be mutually exclusive. And people like me, who get excited about interactive media the way I do and read about it and study it from a literary perspective--I've met maybe two, Natalie Greenberg and Alex Boland, neither of whom are any farther down that path than I am.

This Diana character was a blank spot. Would she be a pot-smoking MFA postdoc with a baby in one arm and a Nintendo DS cozy in another? A crazy but wise sci-fi granny like Ursula LeGuin? A reformed former Quakewhore with red streaks in her hair and the complete works of Donna Haraway on her kitchen bookshelf? So many questions I wanted to ask, so many conversations I wanted to have. I was prepared to be surprised, I was prepared to be disappointed, I was prepared for anything at all, lest it be a glimpse of my own future. Mostly I was just excited to be having a taste of the completely unpredictable.

What I wasn't prepared for, banging through a tightly knit screen door and into a small, cozy kitchen, was her. It was her.

Clad in a stained apron, cradling a pan of vegan cupcakes between a mighty pair of handmade pot holders. Those intense nutella-brown eyes. Those intelligent curly-bracket eyebrows. That rich, dark hair, spilling in crescents around her face. It was impossible. It was unmistakable. There's no way it could've. I had crossed a continent. I had crossed a continent and three interminable years. It couldn't. No. Yes. It was. Down to the last detail. It was undeniably her.

"You must be Kevin," she said, in an all-too-familiar voice I had last heard but weeks before. If my nonplussed expression startled her, it did not show. And then she said, I swear she actually said this: "I've been expecting you."

It was Anna L.

Plus ten years.

(continued in part two)
Tags: cupertino saga, epiphany, games, work
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