What does a games writer do, exactly? What is a writer's job? If we're talking about a writer on a movie or the author of a book, it's easy for us to figure out on our own what exactly that person is doing. But when we look at the writer of a video game, things become a bit more cloudy.
As you might expect, the key responsibility for a games writer is to write. Doing so fills a gap within a game's production that, quite frankly, others cannot fill. But that does not mean the writer is the Big Mind behind a game. Writing for games, I have been told over and over as I've been talking with games writers, a collaboration. "It always is on games," Haris Orkin, a writer on Dead Island: Riptide, recently told me.
"It's a collaboration on movies and plays as well but even more so for games in a way, because the world is being built by other people… You have to work with game designers, level designers, the artists; it's really a collaboration between all of it, because the story is told by every part of the game, as much by the level design and the art as it is by writing. The dialogue in a way is the least important part of telling a story; you don't really need that necessarily to tell a story in a game."
Jill Murray, the recent Writers Guild of America award winner for her work on Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, is a novelist in addition to working at Ubisoft. (Read Kotaku's interview with her about the game.) I asked her about the contrast between going from books, which are generally the result of a single person's vision, to games.
Murray echoed Orkin's comments, and emphasized that the final product, at least in her experience, is the outcome of many minds contributing many ideas.
Far Cry 3's Yohalem: " "In my mind the gameplay has to be the story of the game."
"The difference is that video games are entirely collaborative, and you have to—you get to work with designers, world artists," she said, "and all of these people bring so much personal experience and so much technical experience that the game is the combined result of many visions, even if there is a creative director or producer making the final decisions. The game is really the result of all of these people coming together."
But Murray is far from resentful that she is not the main attraction on a game project. The experience of working on a game, she said, is fulfilling in its own ways.
"While you might get to have 100-percent control over your novel, you're also 100-percent sitting by yourself in like your ugliest sweatpants or at the cafe where they know you too well for too long. And the first thing I really enjoyed was going to the studio. It gives me pleasure to go there and be with my colleagues and to know the other writers. I really enjoy that community."
Christopher Schlerf, lead writer on Halo 4, was initially on his own in crafting that game's story, but later he became the core component in what he called a "narrative team."
While he was the designated "writer guy," the group was filled with folks from every section of the development team to help him put it all together. Collaborating in that way is what made it all work, he said.
"It started out as basically just me, and then we brought on Armando Troisi as narrative director from the Mass Effect series... Armando is a really good foil. He is very much about the implementation: how do we get it in-game in an interesting playable way? We also brought on a writer named Brian Reed, who has done some of the comics for us as well. From there we've grown; we've added two narrative designers to the team. We've brought in a producer. And as we go forward we're going to be growing that group.
"I think [creating the narrative team] really was the turning point for elevating the Halo 4 story from simply being a story told to being a story played."
Ubisoft's Jeffrey Yohalem is a bit unique. He claimed significant ownership of Far Cry 3's vision, probably moreso than the other writers I spoke with would on their titles."I think that the story and what the game is trying to say was definitely a very intense," he said. "[It] involved collaboration between me and Patrick Plourde, who is creative director. I think that we really guided the curation of the game" He admitted that even in a game that has close to a singular vision there are other forces contributing. "At the same time, our director has certain things he wants to highlight, and the game designer has certain things that he wants to highlight. The level designers have certain things. And I made sure that those things worked within the meaning that we were trying to convey."
Orkin, who works on a freelance basis, says the function of a writer is multifaceted, but ultimately the writer is the glue that turns a game into a coherent whole, similar to what Yohalem described.
Dead Island's Orkin: "Games are the most complicated medium to write for, partly because we're still figuring out how to do it."
"Since games are driven so much by gameplay and level design, part of the challenge of being a game writer is making the story work even when the gameplay or levels change or if there is something that is added to the game which would be really fun to play but might not make total sense in the story. You have to try to make it make sense. That's really one of the big parts of a game writer's job, I think, making sure the narrative still works even when things in the game work against the narrative."
One might think that this deference to gameplay might frustrate the writers, but those to whom I spoke declined to express dissatisfaction with the process when prodded, instead opting to look at the bright side, as Murray did. "I may get sometimes a little bit annoyed by it, but I really love the arguments I get to have and the things I get to fight for," she said. "It feels really wild. It pleases me to get up and argue about diversity or the meaning of mechanics or what happens when you change a scene."
Some game writers are just writers, and some have other jobs in game production as well. Yohalem has other duties and says his philosophy on writing a game is informed by his additional responsibilities.
"My case is different than a lot of writers, because I'm in the core team. So myself and like seven other people, we design the game," Yohalem told me. "In my mind the gameplay has to be the story of the game. I participate in the design of that, but also the point is to deliver a meaning. It's to deliver our artistic intentions—you're curating an experience with players. It's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, but you wanna put together the right puzzle that says something meaningful."
Orkin would say that putting the puzzle together is more complicated than it sounds.
In comparing writing for games with his experiences with other media, he says he has come to realize that the process of creating a game, as a writer, is different every time you do it. And that developers are still sort of feeling their way around the writing process.
"I've written plays and movies and I've written TV, and they're all basically linear. Of those three, plays are, to me, the most difficult. But of all four of them, games are the most complicated medium to write for, partly because we're still figuring out how to do it. Every game has a new architecture and structure, and so you have to rethink how to do it each time. For me it makes it really challenging and fun, but it's also difficult because you don't know how well a game is going to work until you finish building it."
Phil Owen is a freelance entertainment journalist whose work you might have seen at IGN, GameFront, Appolicious and many, many other places. You can follow him on Twitter at @philrowen.