I’ve started looking into games about writing, because that’s what I’m essentially going to be creating after all. The first one I had a look at in detail was The Writer Will Do Something by Matthew Burns.
TWWDS was of particular interest to me (although not necessarily my studies!) because it’s a game about the experience of writing for video games. There were a lot of familiar conversations in my initial playthrough. The assumption that a story can be tacked on after the fact. The assumption that if reviewers and test players are saying the story isn’t good, it’s the fault of the writer, and not because the story was tacked on as an afterthought. The idea that writing is somehow simultaneously ‘easy’ and of no real value, while also being the thing that can save the game.
The game explicitly states “It’s not really important how you ended up the lead writer” and I can’t decide if this is a (conscious or unconscious) reflection of this attitude, or simply a way of avoiding lengthy backstory. There’s also the irony surrounding the player-character’s disdain for this attitude in their superiors while also showing similar disdain for someone else’s art by failing to even look at the first two installments of the game.
The game takes place at a development meeting, and through the meeting’s attendees, depicts several of the key stances on creativity and narrative in game development. Art Director Erika represents the “Hollywood” attitude – the idea that games should be huge, audience-pleasing spectaculars full of glossy visuals. Level Designer Shawn represents an indie or academic view, prizing creative vision over all else, ignoring commercial concerns and audience alienation. Troy represents pure commercial interests – he’s neither in favour of or against creativity and narrative, he merely wants to get a successful product out the door. Mike represents a ‘hardcore gamer’, uninterested in any form of narrative or character-development, he’s totally focussed on weapons and scores. Creative director Josh represents the overall tension between creativity and commercialism, and between narrative and gameplay – the constant need for compromise in order to balance gameplay and player agency against story and player experience.
Through his descriptions of the attendees, Burns shows the physical and mental toll the triple A industry takes on its staff. The introduction of corporate representative Drew shows the real reason behind this – the restrictions placed on the team due to (an apparently arbitrary) decision by someone technically outside of the company.
I actually found TWWDS a difficult play in many ways. I’ve experienced much of what is portrayed and I’ve only ever worked on small titles. People presume to tell writers what is and what isn’t possible in ways that occur to a far lesser degree with coders or artists. If a coder says a particular system is impossible, they’ll be pushed for alternatives, but it’s unlikely they’ll be told they are wrong. Ditto for an artist saying that an asset must have its resolution lowered in order to fit the scene’s memory budget. But if a writer says two particular concepts don’t work well together, or a certain character is unrealistic, they’ll generally be told, “Well, that’s your job to sort out” and then given a ton of completely unworkable solutions as if they’re fried gold.
This frustration, this sense of helplessness and hopelessness and impossible deadlines for total narrative about-faces is perfectly conveyed when the player character is asked for their thoughts on how to improve the story. The page gradually fills with lengthy, detailed options, but if the player takes the time to actually read and consider them, Josh interrupts them before they can select an option, and their chance to make a difference is lost. Even if they leap in and plump for an option without having properly read it, the other meeting attendees ignore their input and continue as if they haven’t selected anything.
Burns demonstrates Triple A’s issues or contradictions obliquely, before commenting on them directly to underline his point. For example, the awkward desire many games have to reflect real world issues and events (“Afghanistan”) while refusing to give them anything more than a surface glance, and refusing to acknowledge the inherent frivilousness of their overall design: “You’d very much like to know… how anyone could write ‘convincing’ combat dialogue for a game in which you punch the heads off of enemies frozen in place by their ice grenades.”
The cyclical nature of the ending, with everything much as it began, shows the cyclical nature of triple A, both in terms of having to constantly churn out material, and making the same mistakes over and over. I found this discussion of it particularly interesting: Those who had been involved in games development (or other forms of team-based creation) understood and appreciated it. Those who hadn’t thought it was an unrealistic portrayal, or didn’t make sense.The final comment on the page was… well, staggering to me – the idea of needing feedback on when to click to turn the page!
Oh, and Burns worked on COD, Halo and Destiny. The fact that Destiny is a Halo-like MMORPG and one of the game’s endings has the game (a sequel) being shelved and developed into an MMORPG makes you wonder…