The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

June 2006

by Terry Borst

filed 1 February 06 Copyright ©2005 alt.screenwriters

The script for the videogame Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic II runs 495,000 words. By contrast, a feature-length screenplay will run 20-30,000 words. Clearly, scripting a videogame means more than just writing “You’re dead!” or “You’ve won” in creative and different ways.

The first true videogame screenplays were written more than a decade ago, and those pioneer game scriptwriters (many of whom were WGA members) were more or less inventing the craft.

Now, with more than a decade of videogame scriptwriting behind us, it’s not surprising that examinations of the craft — as well as the marketplace — can be undertaken. Hence, the hosting of the first annual Game Writers Conference in Austin, Texas at the end of October 2005: where hundreds of working game writers, game producers, game execs, and would-be game writers all gathered to discuss the state-of-the-art in writing for the Third Screen.

Susan O’Connor, organizer of the conference and herself a game scriptwriter, says “The event was born out of an intense desire to talk shop with other game writers. Game writers have no venue for discussing problems or sharing ideas. And this is a brand-new storytelling medium: we need to be talking to one another.”

Interestingly, O’Connor’s own career experience reflects the fact that videogame developers like Microsoft, Electronic Arts and Bioware are now staffing for script writers in the same way that they staff for programmers, 3D modelers, and level designers. As conference panelist Harvey Smith (game designer for Midway Studios) admitted: “There’s no question that games have become a storytelling medium.”

Put another way: America’s storytellers, who have been film writers and television writers in the last century, are now also game writers. And as film/TV writers collaborated with directors of photography, set designers, and editors to realize story worlds, so game writers are now collaborating with programmers, level designers and modelers to achieve the same.

Many speakers at the Game Writers Conference spoke to techniques and strategies employed to make story immersive and interactive for single-player and multi-player audiences. As might be expected, a very specific vocabulary has evolved. Traditional scriptwriters talk about setups and payoffs, inciting incidents, ticking clocks, whammies, and so on; here, game scriptwriters talk about leveling, gating, AI barks, progress meters, boss monsters, guidance, and topology.

Notes O’Connor: “It was really a pleasure to sit in a room filled with people who all spoke the same creative language.”

If the simple mantra for traditional scriptwriters is “Show, don’t tell”, the mantra for game scriptwriters is “Do, don’t show.” But just like mise en scene, montage, character action and behavior are all tools for creating a story, so too can interactive functionality (navigation, engagement, inventory collection, etc.) be used to further theme, emotion, and immersiveness in the game.

“You can draw a parallel with [early] screenwriters, who struggled to articulate radical ideas like ‘the closeup’ and ‘the cut’,” says O’Connor. “Hal Barwood talked about ‘character development through power-ups’ in his presentation. That’s a totally foreign concept to most film and TV writers.”

Just a few years ago, film and TV writers could enter game writing without an expectation that they were “gamers.” Now, however, a writer needs to know the history and grammar of game-storytelling in order to effectively script for the medium. Just as it would be foolish for a sitcom writer to work on a project without knowledge of I Love Lucy, All In The Family, and Seinfeld, so too must a game writer know titles such as Halo, Half-Life, Splinter Cell, Final Fantasy, Black And White, Tomb Raider, God Of War, and more.

To confirm this, several conference panels touched on the problems that game execs and producers had encountered in hiring Hollywood screenwriting talent onto game scripts: where traditional “name” screenwriters, who weren’t gamers, had a difficult time “getting” interactivity, and understanding the strengths and limitations of the newer medium. “Slumming” didn’t work: successful crossover writers knew the medium and loved working in it.

“Filmgoers submit to the experience,” observes O’Connor. “Game players want to dominate.” To accommodate this, “game writers are forced to collaborate with their audience. It’s actually really liberating, once you embrace that fact.”

Though Hollywood and the game biz have partially converged, culture clash issues still remain. During the conference, game execs and producers expressed their antipathy towards finding game writers via literary agents. Consequently, despite the claim of many agencies that they now have “new media divisions,” the screenwriter expecting his agent to open doors for him in videogames is almost sure to be disappointed.

Nature abhors a vacuum, however, and so companies like Blindlight have begun to broker a consortium of Hollywood voice acting, musical, and writing talent to game developers. Time will tell whether this is a backwards or forwards development for script writers — but this emerging transaction market suggests a different model for the securing of creative assignments.

While a surprising number of Writers Guild members were spotted in Austin for the 3-day event, the confab also revealed that a cadre of game-only script writers now exists. With the WGA actively offering New Media Caucus membership to these writers, it’s tempting to think of analogies to the early days of television, and the emergence of a new type of screenwriter who could eventually constitute a substantial segment of the Guild.

In the short term, the Game Writers Conference has declared itself an excellent networking opportunity for writers attracted to game scripting, and can only serve to raise the status for writers generating hundreds — and even thousands — of pages of moving image content.

A skeptic, of course, might wonder if game writing is just a matter of greater quantity, rather than a true creative endeavor. Can game writing ever dream of reaching the achievements of film and television writing?

Conference keynote speaker Marc Laidlaw — science-fiction novelist and writer of the HALF-LIFE game franchise — believes it can: “Games are creating new narrative territory, where the challenge is creating a world worth saving, and where the world continues beyond the boundary of any map … Games offer a hypermodern strategy for storytelling.”

O’Connor also believes in the power of the game platform: “Games have the potential to have more emotional impact than any other medium ever invented.”

If Laidlaw and O’Connor are right, then the questions raised at the Conference are bound to get even more interesting in the years to come.

Written by tborst

February 1, 2006 at 4:36 am

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