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This is Part Two of a three-part series exploring writers across video games. Since the start of the year, we've spoken to over a dozen writers of varied disciplines to learn the ins and outs of what it's like to write for video games in the modern era.
"A writer's job is basically putting out fires every single day," Will Porter, one of the writers behind No Man's Sky (pre-patch) and Alien: Isolation tells me over coffee during this year's Game Developers Conference. "Everyone always assumes that like the end product is just the straight line. [...] [When] it's basically an ever-moving puzzle board, then someone shouts 'stop!' and you just have to hope that everything is in the right place." He likens writing for games, big budget ones at least, more to being a puzzle designer; the steward of spreadsheets.
It's March 2018 and we're both at the world's largest annual games conference, which had 28,000 attendees this year. In this downtown San Francisco park outside of the conference, there's probably only a hundred-ish industry people around—at least, I assume that many judging from the amount of GDC badges dangling from park goers' necks. Most, I imagine, are writers in their own ways, whether it's words or code as their language of choice. As a former journalist, Porter's used to our candid, in between the hustle and bustle type of conversation. And our topic is refreshing for both of us: writing in video games, and all the drama and misunderstanding that surrounds it.
Contrary to most other mediums, writing for video games is a discipline with many moving parts. There's the perks and downsides of collaboration. There's production hiccups and "narrative paramedic" gigs. There's not being taken as seriously as designers and programmers. It's, like Porter tells me, a helluva lot of spreadsheets. Then there's the good moments too: the ways games stand apart from literature, film, and whatever else. As with games, there's agency. But contrary to a once often-perpetrated belief, stories aren't something that can just be tacked on willy nilly either.
9-1-1, We Need a (Narrative) Paramedic
In the 2015 Twine game The Writer Will Do Something, you find yourself in the midst of an intense meeting at a game studio. Development on your triple-A title isn't going well. Your boss is looking to pin the blame on someone. You realize your coworkers are quick to throw you, the writer, under the bus for its shortcomings, even when you haven't been properly supported in the entire development process. As the writer you're the least respected, the lowest on the totem pole, the person taken the least seriously of all. It being a choose your own adventure-style game, your responses to accusations are entirely up to you: you can be combative, apologetic, or somewhere in between.
Penned by games writers Tom Bissell and Matthew S. Burns, this fictionalized experience is not uncommon, as I've been told by many in the industry over the past six months. Though dramatized for the sake of an interactive fiction game, the reality rung true: sometimes writers have a hard time getting appreciated in their work. Sometimes even being listened to is a chore.
A common phrase tossed around the industry is "narrative paramedic," said to be coined by Rhianna Pratchett. The narrative paramedic, as described to me first by Porter, is when a games writer is put onto a project relatively late in the development cycle and is tasked with patching up all the holes—at least, the holes that can be dressed up with a little bit of narrative finesse. "Like you can't rebuild the whole level, you can't just reorder levels," Porter says. "But you can just put in a little narrative twist on it so the player just doesn't just start asking the questions that they would be [because of] the latest flare-up in the production department."
When I bring up this topic with Pratchett herself about a month later, she laughs it off. Pratchett, who has worked on everything from Rise of the Tomb Raider to the upcoming television adaptation The Watch, started it as a joke among friends "many many many years ago," along with the silly phrase "story robot." At one point, she even passed out badges with the phrases. They may have been poking fun at the industry's treatment of writers, but there was always a hint of sad truth behind the goof. She's unfortunately no stranger to paramedic jobs over the years.
"Mirror's Edge was probably my biggest example of a narrative paramedic job because the whole game had been designed with no narrative in mind," says Pratchett. "Aesthetics, the world, the character, the movements had all been put together along with the levels without anyone really thinking 'Why? Why does this world look like that, why does this character move like this, what's this all about?' And there was very little thinking about the narrative glue that holds [it all] together."
"A writer's job is basically putting out fires every single day." - Will Porter
Pratchett faced a difficult task: Working backwards from traditional mediums' storytelling efforts by taking a visually and mechanically unique game, and somehow weaving a story through it. Her experience was the norm for a lot of writers in the triple-A space throughout the 2000s. Pratchett muses that Mirror's Edge's world was full of such detail already that at the very least, she had a solid foundation to work with. "Because there wasn't really a lot of time, certainly not as much that was needed, the story could have been a lot more had I been brought onboard near the start," Pratchett says. "And the mechanics and the story could have come together at the same time, rather than the mechanics and the levels being designed and then a story kind of being squeezed into the gaps."
There are often two categories of writers: on-site and off-site. On-site is typically reserved for the narrative designers, the head honchos left to oversee how everything fits into the game design and ensure it's cohesive. For a lot of games writers on big budget projects, they're off-site. Pratchett's seen a greater push in recent years of big blockbuster studios favoring on-site writers, and getting them into the game development process as early as possible. On Tomb Raider, Pratchett says the experience was a mixture of both on- and off-site writers, with the first game having a far smaller team of just herself as an off-site writer and the team's on-site narrative designer. On Rise of the Tomb Raider, the writing team bloomed upwards, and consequently lost the "less polished, kind of raw" vibe of the first game.
Writer Meg Jayanth, known mostly for her work on the critically acclaimed interactive fiction adventure 80 Days, also did some writing on Guerrilla Games' Horizon Zero Dawn. Jayanth contributed writing for the collectibles, atmospheric dialogue, and other light worldbuilding touches. Jayanth's type of work that she did on Horizon isn't out of the ordinary, especially for triple-A open world games. "With Horizon—or any larger game where you're part of a team—you're contributing to a wider world. In some ways you're more limited, but in others it's a more freeing experience," Jayanth writes to me over email. "There are other writers to bounce ideas off, to collaborate with, to catch your mistakes and inspire you. But it's also harder to completely radically shift creative direction because there are so many people working on the game—being flexible is one of the real advantages of working with a smaller team."
Seeing what's valued in today's era of video games, it might be easy to jump to the conclusion that in terms of narrative paramedics, the problem's fixed. Pratchett, on the other hand, isn't so quick to jump to that conclusion though. "I can't really tell whether it's a little better than it was, or it's just a little better than it was for me, in terms of I don't tend to take those gigs anymore," says Pratchett. "I prefer to take gigs where the developers [are] going to give me more space to work or they have a very definite idea of what they need and I can see if that sort of fits in with my aesthetic. There is still these narrative paramedic things out there and by and large writers, in general, are not hired soon enough in the process and I think that is one thing that all game writers would probably agree on."
When Writing is Valued
Elsewhere up in northern California, there's at least a lone game studio who did the opposite, bringing in its writers into the development process from the get-go. That studio is Hangar 13, the team behind the open world game Mafia 3, which was critically acclaimed for its story. It takes place in New Bordeaux (a fictionalized New Orleans), and stars Lincoln Clay, an orphan raised by the local black mob who returns home from serving in the Vietnam War to find nothing but tragedy and betrayal. It's a classic pulpy revenge tale, but it accomplishes itself through its immense attention to detail—the sort of detail that wouldn't be possible if it didn't have a focus on its narrative, and the importance of it, from day one.
It's thanks in part to having a studio head with a narrative background, a Hangar 13 representative pipes in to tell me during an interview, noting studio founder Haden Blackman's history with miscellaneous Star Wars titles before directing Mafia 3. Narrative director Bill Harms credits himself as one of the first 20 employees at Hangar 13, adding that the narrative department was present from the very beginning. "I will say that I've been doing this for almost 14 years now and I think the narrative paramedics thing, it really depends on where you're working and where you come in on the project," says Harms. "So I've definitely worked on games where I was the quote unquote narrative paramedic, where it was, 'hey the game comes out in six months and we kind of have a story but not really can you write one?' That was not the case with Mafia 3."
Senior writer Ed Fowler and Harms attribute the success of Mafia 3's narrative to the team being brought on from the start, and working closely with the designers and off-site contributing writers the entire time. One example of this came in formulating the game's opening. "Originally it was very linear. It was Lincoln arrives home, he does some stuff, they rob the Federal Reserve, he gets betrayed, he goes on his murderous rampage. But it was myself and some other designers and for whatever reason we just had this Spidey sense in the back of our heads that it wasn't working and that was it was too long. It wasn't as good as it could be," Harms says. Then a designer on staff suggested an idea that clicked, even though it sounded, as Harms notes, crazy. "We were like, 'no dude just throw it in,' and he did and that actually was the core of his design was going to move through time, [having] little flashbacks and things like that. That's actually what we ended up doing, but if we weren't all working together trying to solve that problem, we wouldn't have had that outcome."
Of course, narrative paramedic situations aren't gone forever; having high-minded stories in games is still relatively new, considering even just the past decade where it's crystallized into focus. As Meg Jayanth tells me, it's a medium that's changing all the time; faster than any one person or entire studio can really keep up with.
"Working on one game doesn't not mean that you're automatically prepared to work on any other game—there's such a broad spread of experiences that we file away under 'game,'" she says. "We're still such a new and growing medium that a games writer is, in some senses, inventing their job as they go along."