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The Case for Writers as Game Designers

A look at three of the top video game writer-designers who have revolutionized the industry by creating titles with gripping narratives AND innovative gameplay.

The Case for Writers as Game Designers

Writers, by their very nature, are often a difficult species to categorize. After all, given the sheer numbers of mediums, styles, genres and formats, the term “writer” could mean anything from best-selling novelist, to greeting card scribe, to the nameless copywriter penning the instructions on the back of your shampoo bottle. Nowhere is the unquantifiable nature of writers more evident than in the countless wordsmiths currently working in the video game industry. Yes, writers have now become an integral part of the game development process, a role as equally important as programmer, animator, concept artist or producer. Yet the uncertain nature of being a writer remains, with game scribes being classified as everything from screenwriter and narrative designer, to dialogue scripter and interactive storyteller. The truth is there really isn’t any given template for what a game writer does with tasks ranging from developing branching storylines for a triple-A shooter to creating snappy dialogue for a casual match-three puzzle game.

Despite the wide range and scope of game writing however, there remains two standard methods for integrating writers into the game development process: either writers are in-house staffers (a system employed by companies such as BioWare and Valve) or they are contracted out to work on individual projects (as is the case with freelance writer and Gears of War scribe Susan O’Connor). The narrative itself, however, while a key component of development, still remains largely disconnected from the overall process of game design. Typically, writers (whether on staff or on contract) are brought in during or after the design planning stages and as a result narratives are usually adjusted to accommodate gameplay rather than the other way around. That’s not to say this process is necessarily a bad thing mind you, for while the writer obviously doesn’t have complete control over a game’s design, at the end of the day game writers still fill a vital role in creating increasingly more complex and satisfying interactive narratives.

Yet while writers often remain outside or only partially involved in the game design process, there is also a new breed of individuals working in the industry who not only have the skills to develop meaningful interactive narratives, but are also responsible for leading the game design process. This notion isn’t nearly as far fetched as it sounds and if one looks back over the recent history of the industry, there is indeed a precedent for game writer-designers. Perhaps the most well known example of this rare hybrid is the uber-talented Tim Schafer, creator of the critically acclaimed Psychonauts and the upcoming Brütal Legend. Schafer cut his teeth as a programmer with Lucas Arts, but as a one of the chief designers on the now legendary 1990 adventure game The Secret of Monkey Island, Schafer was writing both code and his now signature blend of over the top comedic dialogue. It’s a role he repeated again when he became lead designer on titles including Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango and the critically-acclaimed (if not necessarily best-selling) Psychonauts, all of which showcase Schafer’s talents as a writer and game designer.

 

Tim Schafer - Writer-Designer of Psychonauts

Conversely, while Schafer started out as a programmer who turned his hand to writing, the opposite holds true for the talented Marc Laidlaw, one of Valve’s top designer-writers and part of the team behind the groundbreaking Half-Life series. Laidlaw got his start as a novelist penning the bestselling Dad's Nuke and The 37th Mandala. It wasn’t until he was eventually hired on by Valve, however, that Laidlaw began to learn the fundamentals of game design and would eventually go on to work as both a writer and designer on Half-Life and its subsequent sequel and episodes, all of which have been praised by fans and critics alike for the series' seamless innovations in terms of both design and storytelling.

It’s a similar approach to game design that we also find in the outspoken and talented Ken Levine. As one of 2K Games’ seniors designers, Levine also has an impressive number of games to his credit, chief among them BioShock; a game which Levine oversaw as lead designer in addition to developing the story and writing the majority of the script (with the aforementioned Susan O’Connor lending a hand). It goes without saying that BioShock was both a critical and financial blockbuster and was lauded for both its dynamic use of emergent gameplay and its ambitious alternate reality narrative steeped in dystopian imagery and the philosophical underpinnings of Ayn Rand. 

 

BioShock

 

What Schafer, Laidlaw and Levine all bring to the table is a unified sense of design and narrative, something few (if any) other games have been able to achieve. After all, a game’s design and its story are clearly the two most crucial elements to creating a successful title.  It’s no coincidence then that Psychonauts, Half-Life and BioShock are hailed as some of the most innovative titles of all time, with all three titles featuring design and narratives that work flawlessly and in complete tandem with one another. In fact, one can’t help but wonder if these games would have achieved the same level of success if there had not been the guiding force of a writer-designer steering the project through the long process.  

Obviously, many writers coming into the video game industry have an assorted range of backgrounds that may make becoming a designer a difficult proposition. It’s also clear that not everyone has the ability, drive or talent to take on multiple development roles as Schafer, Laidlaw and Levine have done. To be a writer-designer (at least, to be a good one) requires not only an understanding of the fundamentals of story, pacing, dialogue and character development, but also a solid technological grasp of the tools and process of game development and design.

In the end of course, games are also not made in isolation and require an entire team of individuals to contribute to the often chaotic and complex process of taking a game from concept to shipped title. Yet it’s also clear that having a unified vision from a lead writer-designer can create a game that transcends what we’ve come to know and love about the medium. It all comes down to a simple equation: a good writer is a good writer and a good designer is a good designer. Period. And if someone is capable of creating a game that can captivate us with its design and its storytelling, well then, ultimately it doesn’t really matter whether they call themselves a writer or a designer or something in between. After all, as the Bard himself once wrote: “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”...Of course, if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d probably also be writing and designing the kind of kick-ass games that would give even Schafer, Laidlaw and Levine a run for their money…

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