I’ve been attending the Game Developers Conference Online in Austin for a number of years now. It’s possibly my favourite game industry event for a number of reasons: all the happy reunions and hobnobbing of the main GDC but on a less gruelling schedule (as in, I actually have time to eat meals!), more time for conversation with the friends and colleagues I only see a few times a year, more space to digest the talks and trends. Plus, they have some fine bars in Austin, let me tell you.
GDC Online is also home to the Game Narrative Summit, which brings some of my favourite folks in the industry into one room for a few days of thoughtful presentations and dialogue on writing in games. I like the writers not just because they’re friendly and make interesting conversation – nor because I was also invited to present last year – but ?because I respect the enormity of the challenges they face in their work.
It has, of course, been decreed that videogames are to be the 21st century’s ?Great Storytelling Medium. This is our ?oft-brandished goal, and while a lot of that mandate is wrapped up in the ache for legitimacy and respect that gamers and game developers have felt for years, it’s certainly plausible. We all believe that games are On ?To Something, or else we wouldn’t be here.
We came because of a deep yet hard-to-define love, because of our memories of the times games moved us, the places they took us and with whom. And though those stirring moments are obfuscated amid our knowledge of great big design problems, primitive user interfaces and the ever-present urge to reach a wider audience, most of us harbour the belief that one day all of those problems will be resolved, that the sense of promise that led us to devote our lives to games will flourish. Games aren’t “there yet”, people say, but they will be, at some point in the future, once we figure all this stuff out.
It’s to game writers that this cumbersome mantle ultimately falls, now more than ever. The long hardware cycle has created ?a glorious plateau where there’s leisure to explore subtle evolutions in tech and design. Games look perfect. Developers have nailed the formula. This is our High Classical period, and we are carving subtle details into architectures we have mastered. If society still doesn’t ‘get’ videogames, if audiences are still frustrated with a holiday season full of war clichés, if dialogue is still clunky and sexist, ?it must be the fault of writers. Masterful gameplay with dumb story? Blame the writers.
Here’s the funny thing: attend the Game Narrative Summit and you'll meet people who care deeply about storytelling. They would probably take issue with generic bombshells who have their bodysuits unzipped to their hips, with legions of fist-bumping marines, with obtuse dragon-explicating lorebooks and insular spaceship topographies. They attend events with the firm commitment of people who understand it’s their mandate to buck clichés.
The writers I’ve met possess a similar breed of retiring shyness, of self-diminishment, peculiar to those who are accustomed to feeling misunderstood and irrelevant – the mien that those who’ve grown since childhood eager to see games ascend to the storytelling throne would immediately identify and recognise. They share the same odd coupling of passion and impotence, as if ?to shout: ‘There is something we care a lot about, and the machinery that would lead us there is proving hostile and inflexible’.
Writers are quick to declare their respect for the primacy of design. All who’ve tried to work in the sphere that crafts narrative for games have been taught from day one to honour that primacy. Let the designers craft their brilliant machinery, let the writers comprehend it and work within its constraints. It’s like they’ve been told a thousand times that the adults’ table is not for them. The weird standoff between designers and writers is often declared, widely recognised, and yet potential solutions are half-acknowledged and poorly understood. Everyone knows they need to work better together, but it isn’t happening.
This year at GDC Online I saw much made of the widening audience, the perma-integration of games and game mechanics with the social media that many people use every day. All humans play, and now nearly all humans in the developed world are online, ?and thus it follows that ‘online’ is a frontier already won for videogames, there to be taken. And barriers still stand?
The Game Narrative Summit hosted brilliant creatives dearly hoping to use the opportunities in a stable console arena ?and a wild new online frontier alike to finally progress the agenda. Other sessions held ?forth on engagement strategy, community management, monetisation tactics and everything but how to integrate storytelling.
It’s possible that our wish to see games become a ‘great storytelling medium’ is just ?a thing we say when our in-laws don’t understand why we bang our heads against electronic toys again and again. But if it’s not, the integration between writers and designers must accelerate. Because both parties have been doing their jobs so well that it would be ?a shame if they couldn’t do them together.
Illustration: Marsh Davies