6 Things You Learn Writing Blockbuster Video Games
Writing video games is weird. You have to put together a plot, but you can't let it get in the way of the player shooting 12,000 zombies. It's a balancing act that's produced lots of beloved stories, but also lots that barely rise above the level of teenage fanfiction. So we talked to Jeffrey Yohalem, head writer of Assassin's Creed: Syndicate, Aassassin's Creed: Brotherhood, and Far Cry 3, and Walt Williams, head writer of the critically-acclaimed Spec Ops: The Line, to find out why the writing in blockbuster games doesn't seem to be getting any better. They told us ...
Game Writing Is Often Bad Because Of Sheer Volume
You know how in any game with combat, the bad guys are constantly yammering at you and/or their comrades ("There he is! Get him!") with the same few mindless phrases over and over? Those are called "combat lines" and writers hate them most of all:
"Combat lines are the worst," says Williams. "Think about anytime you've played a game and an enemy shouted something that actually gave you a piece of information you could react to. That never happens. They're random noise to make combat feel active ... and then you have to write so many. There are not 10 ways to say, 'Cover me, I'm reloading.' It's one of the reasons there can be so much bad writing in games -- we try to come up with unique ways to say things that do not have unique ways to be said."
"So who votes for 'Go go go go GO!' and who wants 'Go go GOOOOOOOO!'?"
And then there are things like street dialogue. That's the stuff you hear random civilians say in Grand Theft Auto moments before you run them over. "If they're too interesting, you get annoyed," says Jeffrey Yohalem. "You laugh the first time, but you start to hate it quickly. The lines have to be forgettable, but also real. It's exhausting. I had two characters do a Waiting For Godot conversation about how nothing ever changes, because you just run out of stuff to talk about."
The graphics department can relate, as they constantly run out of stuff for people to wear.
The point is that if you've ever rolled your eyes at a piece of video game dialogue, or muted the TV after hearing the same generic side character's line for the 500th time ("I used to be an adventurer like you. Then I took an arrow in the knee"), you might be tempted to call the game's writing "lazy." But you have to stop and appreciate the sheer scale of the task here.
Yohalem estimated that a game's story script is about four times the length of a movie screenplay, and that's the easy part. On top of that and the piles of inane dialogue above, lots of games now include huge databases of supplementary info, so hardcore fans can delve into lore that the average player will ignore completely. "The menus and databases are more than a thousand pages. It takes the same amount of time as the script." Flip through a book you plucked off a corpse in Skyrim? Skimmed a memo in Deus Ex that someone conveniently left their password in? Someone had to write that shit.
You can thank them for creating both Dragonborn and Dragonporn.
Oh, and sometimes they're abruptly told to write a bunch of nonsense. As Williams explains, "Things would get tossed my way when extra writing was needed at the last minute. One Friday afternoon, the producer on The Darkness II said they needed someone to write descriptions for 30 collectibles by Monday. They had art (a tomahawk, an Aztec knife, etc.). They were random objects the developer thought looked cool. They needed someone to write a 250-word backstory for each relic, and make sure they all combined to tell the story of that spanned all of human history. In two days."
That can be frustrating, but it can also be a rare opportunity to run wild. "We ended up with pick-ups such as the shrunken head of Pope John XII, a reliquary containing what was purported to be the foreskin of Christ but is in fact the foreskin of a guy named Miles from South Hammingtonshire, and the infamous Black Thumb, an evil thumbscrew that may or may not have ripped its way across the English countryside in 1631. That's what it can be like to write games. Sometimes a team comes up with a list of unrelated things they think are cool, and it will be up to the writer to make it all fit together."
There Are (Dumb) Reasons Every Game Tells The Same Story
Every Call Of Duty is about saving the world from evil foreigners. Every Metroid is about Samus losing all her powers and having to slowly get them back. Mario Kart games are for some reason always about winning go-kart races. As Yohalem explains, there's a reason for the repetition:
"You need to teach the player every time. The amount of scenes it takes to teach all the gameplay is the length of the game. So every single Assassin's Creed, you start with a character who's not an assassin, becomes one, and learn all the skills. So the story follows a structure that's identical. And that attaches easily to certain ideas. If it's a game about shooting people, who can you be? You can be a spy, a space marine, then you start to run out of options."
Luckily, DLCs exist for when writers wake up months later at 3 a.m. thinking, "Fuck, I forgot! Clowns and Mexican wrestlers shoot people too!"
Yeah, that's the other thing -- in an industry in which much of the audience is still all about shooting hundreds of nameless dudes in the face, there are only so many directions you can take it if you don't want the protagonist to look like a psychopath. As Williams says, "Zombies, Nazis, and demons are the perfect enemies. You don't have to give a reason to mow them down, because everyone already knows they're evil. If you're fighting normal humans, you have to go almost cartoony. The 2013 Tomb Raider game was great, but to let Lara brutally kill guys with bows and spears, they had to be really evil. Otherwise, the player's level of brutality wouldn't be heroic."
Graphical improvements have only made that harder, because human enemies look like real humans now. "The more games look realistic, the more fucked-up it is that we're killing so many people. So either you go with zombies or you make the human villains baby-eaters. It's tricky finding a way to justify what the player is doing."
And of course, they're boxed in by genre due to the same cold business logic that gives us a dozen superhero movies every summer. "We make the games we know how to make. We're ingrained in the generic, repetitive nature of the medium. And we're in a graphical arms race. Every game has to be bigger and look better, and that means more people and time and money." To give you an idea, 2005's Call Of Duty cost $14.5 million to make, while 2009's Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 cost $200 million. Gambling on something new and bold that might bomb can bankrupt a studio.
"I don't care if the Christ statue is all the way over there; I want to see realistic stone textures."
The Writing Is Often Slapped Together To Fit The Game They're Already Making
Every creative person has to find their spot on the sliding scale of exposure versus control. You may have total authority over your blog, but only a few people want to read your erotic Yoshi fanfiction. Video games are on the opposite end -- you get giant budgets, but you're going to get a lot dictated to you. As Yohalem explains:
"You can enter into a game with dictates from marketing. 'This game is going to be called Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood.' So how do we adapt to that? For Far Cry 3, we had a couple of maps, character sketches, and an island setting from R&D. We build from ruins of previous ideas or dictates that come out of nowhere."
"I want a big blob of green surrounded by blue on my desk, and I want it yesterday!"
Did you catch that? An Assassin's Creed game started with a title handed down from marketing, and they worked backward from there -- although Jeffrey did make it clear that it was a creative challenge he enjoyed. So, unlike previous games in the series where you play a lone wolf, Brotherhood's about building a team. And then everyone -- level designer, art director, etc. -- has a new feature they want to include, whether that's a gameplay mechanic or a setting. It's the writer's job to combine what everyone wants into a coherent story ... somehow.
Or as coherent as "chills with Leonardo da Vinci because reasons" can possibly be.
And remember that they have many of the same limitations as film, in that not all scenes/settings cost the same to make. "If I say I want the final level in a volcano," says Yohalem, "the art director will say, 'Okay, but then you're going to have a level set in a parking garage. If you really want that volcano, you find a way to make that parking garage awesome.'"
A "find your car without sounding the alarm like a jackass" subquest would easily tack on 30 hours of gameplay.
That's why games like Halo mix stunning battlefields with repetitive hallways -- there's only so much time and money for big moments. You've got to decide what you're willing to fight for, and what you're willing to let go. "When I was younger, I was known to ... I'd yell," says Williams. "Not in a mean way, but ... on Spec Ops, I wanted birds to be shootable. There were birds all over the game, and I said, 'It's going to look really cheap if the birds can't be shot.' The animation team was like, 'Oh, we don't have time, blah blah blah.' I was tired, I was cranky, I cut them off and threw my hands up and said, 'Whatever! Who cares about the birds!' and stormed off. A few minutes later, an animator came over and said, 'Um, the birds will be shootable by the end of the day.' And I was like, 'Oh, thanks!'"
Without fun escapism like avicide, chemical-burning a terrified mother and child right where they stand would be too depressing.
Corporate Makes Inexplicable Demands
If you've ever written anything in your life, check out this description of the game editing process from Yohalem and try not to break out in a cold sweat:
"Sometimes they put your script onscreen and go through every line to make sure it matches the level design, objective, or budget. You have to read it out loud, they're timing it, and you have all these people watching. And then you're editing in real time. 'Make this line funnier!' It's so stressful. I'd ask for a two-minute break to rewrite, and many times they'd say, 'No, come up with it now.'"
And then you have to pull "We been made!" out of the emergency bag of cliches, and no one's happy.
And then they're constantly fighting with departments who aren't thinking of the game in terms of story. If you've played Far Cry 3, you know it ends with a choice between abandoning your new warrior lifestyle to save your friend, and killing your friend and embracing a life of violence. The choice defines the character, and it's the culmination of the entire story arc ... but Yohalem had to fight for it:
"There was talk about cutting the multiple endings, meaning the player's choice to be a hero would have been compromised. I didn't back down. The endings stayed, but with the compromise that the player was given a direct choice. It was supposed to be that 'Press A to Kill' appeared, and only if players let the timer run out would they get the other ending, but since the multiple endings were expensive, we had to display the choice (Press A to Kill and B to Save)."
But then, as Williams explained, sometimes you lose. "There's a scene in Spec Ops where Walker falls out of a building and slides down the side, barely dodging huge pieces of debris. He flies off into a gorge, and barely manages to grab a pipe. It doesn't fit with the rest of the game. This was the first cutscene made, very early in production. It was meant as a visual benchmark. Some of us wanted to cut it because it felt like a fun action movie scene and the game's tone had moved far away from that, but a 'Higher-Up' decreed that it needed to stay because he thought it was cool. It's something that made it in simply because we were forced to keep it."
The Best Writing Can Happen By Accident
The villain of Spec Ops is Colonel John Konrad. The game is reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, which is based on Heart Of Darkness by Joseph Conrad ("I happened to have a copy of Heart Of Darkness on my desk," says Williams, "and thought 'Ehhh ... I'll just call him Conrad for now. But I'll spell it with a K!'"). Lots of gamers and critics got that reference and appreciated it -- there's definitely an audience for games that are a little bit smarter than your average simulated shooting rampage. But then writers will get a little too clever.
"I wanted to establish Konrad as a cultured man," says Williams. "So I had him quote the poet Charles Simic -- 'Everything is teetering on the edge of everything.' To the best of my knowledge, not a single person got the reference. In fact, if you Google those words, most of the results are about Spec Ops, including one called 'The 50 Best Video Game Quotes of All Time!' which is an absolute travesty."
Shakespeare must feel the same way about how nobody credits him for "It's-a me, Mario!"
Other decisions are, well, not quite as well thought-out: "A good name says something about the character. So I put it to the team: 'Who is our main character?' And no one said anything. So out of frustration I'm like, 'Well, I guess he walks a lot, so we'll call him Walker.' I forced the point, thinking that someone would come back with something better. No response. So Walker went down, and it never changed. People find things and read into them and say, 'Oh wow, you've put a lot of thought into this. There's a lot of subtext and metaphor here,' and you just go, 'Uh, yes. I totally did that on purpose and not by accident. I am a god.'"
Yep, 'Ugh' totally expresses the sad resignation of a soldier facing the horrors of war, not Williams on hour 17 of a 19-hour workday.
Not to take anything away from Williams' work, but he makes it sound like game creation looks a lot like a junior high student slapping together their science project at the last minute. But that chaos can lead to brilliance. Note: The following contains spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line.
The game became a critical darling partly because it contains several mindfuck plot twists involving an unreliable narrator who can't trust that what he's seeing is real. Well, the biggest one was the result of a begrudging gameplay compromise. The game starts with a flash-forward to a helicopter chase. The chase had been suggested three years before release as a way of starting with a big action sequence. Then the game was rewritten to start slow, and the chase got killed in the name of story. But ...
"When we were doing the final voice recording, I got an email saying my boss had decreed the game would start with the chase. I knew he'd timed it so I would be too busy to fight it. I was unbelievably pissed. I decided the chase wouldn't be a flash-forward. The player would secretly die when the chopper crashed, and everything after would be a 'life flashing before your eyes' hallucination. I jotted down five quick lines, fed them to my actors, and recorded them immediately. That's all I had time to do. But it changed the narrative. Suddenly, a straightforward story about a soldier losing his mind became the tale of a man reliving his greatest failures as he dies alone. For something done entirely out of anger and as a knee-jerk response, I'm pretty proud of how it turned out."
Writing For Blockbuster Games Is Only Getting Harder
Better graphics, bigger budgets, more famous voice actors ... if you're a video game storyteller by trade, this has to be the golden age, right? Like, even considering the corporate restrictions at play, doesn't the sheer amount of available tools make up for it? Well, that's the thing -- the more elaborate the technology, the harder it is to do the most important writing task of all: editing out the bad stuff.
As Williams explains, "Back in the day it was just text and simple animation, and it was easy to change. Now, convincing someone to change is a massive undertaking. They don't have the budget, they don't have the time. You end up rewriting finished scenes in a way that the new words will match the lip-sync of the previous lines."
"I can't make this work, someone get the Bad Lip Reading guy."
Yeah, bigger budgets also mean that when work is done, it's done -- regardless of how little sense it makes later. It costs too much to scrap it. So then it comes down to the writers to try to figure out how to shoehorn in a scene that no longer fits:
"At one point , you come across two men. The antagonist explains that both men have committed crimes worthy of a death sentence. It's up to the player to decide guilt. But when we changed the story so that Konrad is in fact dead and Walker is secretly insane, suddenly this made no sense. We wanted to cut it, but one of our bosses felt the scene worked so well that it couldn't be cut, regardless of whether it made sense. So we just had to accept it. This boss was literally the only person who felt it should stay. Even Nolan North, during recording, was like, 'You guys are going to fix this, right?' The only workaround I could come up with was having Walker hallucinate the entire scene, which isn't revealed until the end. But, it was . Walker goes comatose and hallucinates himself in a 'moral choice.' The player takes part in this tense moment, but what's really happening is the player character is standing there staring at corpses while his squad mates yell at him."
But then when it comes time for the really crucial scenes at the end that tie the plot together, they may find out there's no money left. "At the end of Spec Ops, the whole big climatic scene where you find out ... we had no budget." Williams had to slap the scene together out of preexisting footage, like if in Star Wars VIII they ran out of money and had to reuse the lightsaber battle from VII with a different background.
"That entire scene was done with motion capture from other scenes. I'm like 'We need this,' they're like 'Uh, we have no time or money,' so I said, 'Send me the files, I don't care if they've been used, we can just point the camera from a different angle and slap a different character model on it and no one will realize they've seen this before.' It's a weird way to reuse footage. It's a constant struggle."
Honestly, we're now kind of surprised that good games get made at all.
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