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GDC Online: Improving Game Stories With Concise Writing, More Writer Input

In a GDC Online talk today, comics and games writer Antony Johnston argued that our medium would benefit from more concise stories and more input from writers throughout the development process.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare's Lord Polonius said "brevity is the soul of wit." That ideal of conciseness made up a large portion of a GDC Online talk today by Antony Johnston, an experienced comics writer who has worked on Daredevil, Wolverine and Wasteland. He also has experience writing for games at Sega and Electronic Arts, including extensive work on the action horror game Dead Space and the 2008 comic book prequel to the game. For Johnston, bridging the gap between comics and video games -- two long-time obsessions of his -- is natural. "Writing for both media isn't as different as you might think," he said. For instance, comics and video games are both interactive, he explained. "You have to fill in the gaps" between a comic's panels. "You do it dozens of times every minute when you read a comic." That ability -- being able to trust that the reader can fill in the gaps -- is a skill that game writers should hone in order to make scripts and scenes more concise, Johnston said. "Experience with comics will instill this economy-first thinking," he said. He conveyed this "economy-first thinking" by showing the opening scene for Remedy and Microsoft's Alan Wake, a video game about a writer. Johnston then converted the intro's scenes to panels and pages, and copied the dialog verbatim as if it were a comic book. He pointed out certain redundancies -- such how the intro explains that a man hit by Wake's speeding car was dead, or two different scenes that showed the speeding car -- and cut them out of the comic version. What started out as five pages with four panels each turned into four pages. He did the same with a scene from Mass Effect, pointing out that the edits don't necessarily make the scenes better, but the cuts show that writers and developers can preserve a game's style using less time and resources. "Thinking like a comics writer can help you conceive that [brevity]," he said. "...Anything that you can do to help train your brain while banging away at scripts will help you." But just how much of this editing power is in a writer's hands? The development process for many games does not include writers from the beginning, and writers often don't have much say in changes that can or should be made to a script. Johnston wants to see that change. He said that there are three key changes that the game industry has to make, any one of which can raise the quality of narrative. First, he said, "I strongly believe that it should be standard for writers to be at [voice-over] sessions," so they can make necessary rewrites. Johnston argued that nobody knows the script better than the writers. While Hollywood productions often don't include the writers on the set of a movie, he said that the practice of excluding writers from the rest of the video game production process makes "no sense." He also said that development teams need to have more willingness to make big iterative changes in order to accommodate better narrative. It can be pricey, but the end quality would speak for itself, Johnston said. And the person making those big iterative changes to a game's story should be the original writer on the project. An attendee watching the talk chuckled at that notion. "I know, a man can dream," Johnston said. "...Things are getting better all the time, but there's still a lot of work to do."

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