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Opinion: Feel Lucky, Punk? The Game Writing Fallout

Think the reaction to Adam Maxwell's game writing article was over? Not so - Kelly Wand, the writer on the Dirty Harry game discussed in <a href="http://www.gamasutra.com/php

Kelly Wand

March 26, 2008

7 Min Read

[Think the reaction to Adam Maxwell's game writing article was over? Not so - Kelly Wand, the writer on the Dirty Harry game discussed in the original opinion piece, has penned a Gamasutra editorial explaining Harry's (mis)conception and why game writers matter.] “A man’s got to know his limitations.” – Clint Eastwood as “Dirty” Harry Callahan For the record, I like Adam Maxwell. As the writer in question to whom he refers in his piece (“The Case Against etc.”), I found our work relationship on Dirty Harry consistently constructive, courteous and professional. We got along. Ironically (perhaps mistakenly), I gathered that he liked my actual contributions, so while his solitary focus on our collaboration as the “most compelling fact behind avoiding writers [sic]” came as a bit of a surprise, I’m reasonably, maybe naively, sure that he’s speaking from the heart and not just nursing bitter memories of a grandiosely ill-starred production. He was an oasis of sanity. Usually in this biz, it’s egos that sink projects. I never got that vibe from Adam, and I think he’d agree that I too was always about the material. So even though he’s chosen to reference the experience as proof that writing in games is irrelevant to their success or quality, I genuinely believe he’s speaking from the heart. I’ve heard this attitude before, from designers, producers, journalists, even other writer types. And every time I find it a remarkably revealing insight as to just how derisively they view the creative process in general and the legacy of electronic entertainment in particular. It’s indifference to mediocrity, usually posed as a loaded “either-or” analogy. We writers face this a lot; it’s a hazard of the trade. But it does get to us. Many of you are probably too young to remember, but one time there was even a nationwide “strike” over the net financial value of professionally composed sentences. And ultimately even the richest accountants in all the land were somewhat swayed that words matter at least a little – economically, anyway. Which puts them all ahead of Adam. Record-Straightening 101 Adam seems to imply that having “3-4 hour” story meetings every week denied him the ability to focus on his myriad loftier more technical chores, and thus the game was never finished as a direct result of my time-consuming intrusions. First off, these sessions rarely lasted longer than an hour, unless you count lunch, which I often skipped because I was usually up all night writing. A lot. In fact, page-per-day-wise, Harry was the most grueling wringer I've ever worked on. Nevertheless, I nailed every deadline, draft after draft, all of it vetted and re-vetted by multiple production companies and the devs themselves, writing and rewriting for six months until everything fizzled out and now there is a totally different game in development that we are not working on. Not once during that entire interval did I ever manage to see a single playable build or even a finished level, after over a year and a half of development. Granted, I’m no designer but maybe, just maybe, the technical bog was tangentially related to the Collective having a higher turnover rate than a slaughterhouse kill-floor; I rarely saw the same level designer twice. But let’s even give Adam his four hours a week. Is that more time and effort than he’d have spent with a quote-unquote designer covering story issues? Or than he’d have ideally devoted to writing it all himself? (For the record, he is an obscenely fast typist.) Design, Writing Not Synonymous Maybe so, since he considers writing too inconsequential to begrudge even that much. The crux of his piece is that writing is an inferior discipline to game design (itself a far more amorphous skillset) because writing is “inherently linear” and game design “isn’t.” But form follows function, in writing, in design, in everything. Any game story – hell, any game, is to some degree linear, and to the degree that it’s not, the writing needn’t be either. Even pseudo-free-roamers like BioShock, MMOs with level caps, every dialogue tree ever, every quest log entry – everything ends, one way or another, sooner or later. Writing, Adam observes, is limited by having to rely on “sequences of events.” As opposed to gameplay? Adam also appears to frequently conflate design and writing, as if the two were synonymous. Every vocation has its own elite based on excellence of performance, from writing, coding, voice acting and lighting to musical composition, unit balancing and map architecture. Yet he states unequivocally that he’d rather hire a designer than a writer, since the designer can also write, while the writer will never be a competent designer. Isn’t the reverse then also true? And by that logic, should film studios only hire writers who are also competent cinematographers, actors, and set designers? Would Adam have passed over a talented voice actor who wasn’t also an accomplished programmer? The Thoughtless Are Rarely Wordless As some posters have already noted, every game is its own beast. Some are more literary by their natures than others, and to marvelous effect -- Planescape: Torment and Portal featured writing that vastly and directly enhanced the playing experience; Lumines maybe not so much. But what doesn’t appear to trouble Adam at all is that no one inside or out of the industry takes the writing in games seriously. It’s universally considered puerile juvenilia, largely because the majority of it was dashed off by designers who consider themselves writers (based solely on their game-, blog-, or talkback-post-writing credentials). Adam, like Roger Ebert, is mistaking a quality control problem for an innate flaw of the medium. I’ve heard (and believe) tons of depressing horror stories about arrogant and/or stupid writers for hire who make us all look bad. Writing must serve the game, as it should always serve the material for which it’s intended. Adam’s free to disallow writers from his hiring practices; for my part, the desire to improve the literary cachet of electronic entertainment, to make games more emotionally resonant and smarter, is often the loneliest feeling in the world. What I find especially ironic about Dirty Harry forming the basis of Adam’s thesis is that that project in particular was such a stacked deck, it makes an unusually poor example for even his salient points. Dirty Harry featured a slew of A-list actors like Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Laurence Fishburne… inked long before Adam or I came aboard as pinch-hitters - a once-in-a-lifetime cast of veteran Hollywood acting talent. And while Adam will likely agree that star power rarely makes for better games, there's ample evidence that it does help sell them. Laying blame for that whole cycle exclusively at the doorstep of the last writer to step up to the plate is kind of like blaming polar bears for global warming. Conclusion: Where The Ideas Came From Finally, consider the “Dirty Harry” character for just a moment. After Clint’s steely sneer and the distinctive roar of his Magnum, his most recognizable trademark? The lines. Hilariously blunt, poetic, iconic catch-phrases that have been co-opted by Presidents and remain immortalized in the public consciousness even decades later. “Go ahead, make my day.” “Feel lucky, punk?” Writers, not game designers, came up with those. Supposedly a writer himself, Adam condemns game writing for offering little in the way of nutritive value. What he doesn’t seem to realize that it was never intended as food. It’s the salt. [Kelly Wand has served as writer or creative consultant on numerous games for a miscellany of companies, among them “Dirty Harry,” “300: March to Glory,” “Over The Hedge,” and “Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust.” He reviewed games for Computer Games Magazine and a truncated version of his former column Random Incoherence currently runs in Total PC Gaming Magazine.]

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