Tuesday, November 14, 2006

'Writing for Videogames' by Steve Ince

One of the more interesting things that I got to do this year was to work with members of the UK Games Industry. This opportunity came about because of involvement with the Narrative Laboratory for the Creative Industries (NLab). I got to interview a number of insightful individuals such as Michael Powell of De Montfort University, Jolyon Webb (who was working for Codemasters at the time) and Toby Barnes of Pixel-Lab. I also got to take part in a one day seminar at which Ernest Adams was the keynote speaker. These contacts were made all the more interesting because there a number of writers involved in the project, such as Kate Pullinger, who had experience of developing narratives with a wide variety of technologies, including print.

One of the most interesting things to arise out of this meeting of talents was the realization that the Games Industry was crying out for the abilities demonstrated by (for want of a better term) ‘conventional’ authors. Almost all of the representatives of the Games World felt their industry and their art form could benefit from writers skilled in producing affective as well effective dialogue, characters and scenarios. However, it was clear, from the frank but generous contributions made by the contributors to the panel that there was a gap (both in terms of skills and awareness) between these kinds of writers and the industry. There was also the issue of where to get started and how a writer (or their agent) might tackle the task of getting a foot in the door. I was pleased to read, therefore, that the games producer and designer Steve Ince had produced a book called ‘Writing for Video Games’.

One of the most interesting things about this book is where it is positioned in the market. I think that it is a smart move that A & C Black have placed this book in their catalogue with practical texts aimed at ‘conventional’ writers. I believe that this will give the book an audience that might not, in the first instance, order a game book from New Riders. Similarly, it is written as an introduction and this allows it to be quite user-friendly which will be re-assuring for anyone like me who is simply dipping their toe into the industry to test the waters. There are no tech-minotaurs lurking in this labyrinth.

However, there are, of course, pitfalls associated with generalised introductions. This book tries to cover masses of territory and sometimes trips over its own ambition. The author, for example, squares up to the Sisyphean task of describing the genres of contemporary games but then gets into a bit of knot with his own cataloguing method. Ince argues that game genres are defined by “the style of play”. He then starts classifying by describing about action, adventure and fighting games. However, he rather trips over his own definition by separating out children’s games as genre and then arguing that “games aimed specifically at children are usually games that would fit other genres which have been adapted to appeal to the target audience.” Personally I would have preferred less classification and simple sidebar to a text such as ‘Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Games Design’ which tackles this thorny issue in a design context.

What I really liked about this book was it conveys a real sense of what it like to be a writer in an industry that is not particularly writer-centric. Ince, for example, observes that “a writer could be invited to join a project at virtually any point in its development.” This might make the Games Industry sound unattractive to a creative writer used to working on their own projects. But I basically believe it is better to approach these kinds of writing opportunity with the rosy-tinted glasses left in the desk drawer. I don’t think that a writer used to advertising or TV industries would, however, find this kind of working experience entirely alien. Being a word-slinger for hire can offer its own rewards.

This book, by design, has little to say about the craft of writing. It leaves the art of dialogue and narrative to other texts. This means that it will not be your only purchase if you are a less-experienced writer looking to break into Games. However, it does cover some of the nuts and bolts of applying writing skills to games designs. My favourite chapter in this book dealt with dialogue and logic. It felt to me that this was the meat of the task and I would have liked to have more on this subject.

If I had to make one quibble with this book it is with its bibliography, which seems to be singularly lacking in design texts. It is, however, quite possible to supplement this text with Rollings and Adams. It might also wise to take in Chris Crawford on Games Design, as Crawford provides a truly unique introduction to the Games Industry. However, this text more than makes up for its lack of books with its website recommendations which will provide bed-time browsing for many a year to come.

Happy reading!


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