Bugging the Writer

My time at this year’s Global Game Jam brought to light some lessons about game development. I’ve worked as a QA at BioWare on Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Inquisition, and I know full well how many things get thrown on the chopping block in the twilight hours of development. I also know about how unexpected features get thrown in at the last second, to the chagrin of QA teams everywhere.

But there’s a big difference between a tester’s perspective and a creator’s.

I discussed my experiences at the game jam in my last post, and how I found myself in the position of artist, animator, and co-writer. Having little to no experience creating art for a game, and even less experience with animating such art, I had my hands full. I had to create the hero character, the villain character, four enemy types, variant versions of the hero and villain, animate the lot of them, and make title screen of the game, all within 48 consecutive hours.

And I did it. To my surprise. I even had the opportunity to edit and re-write the opening and ending cutscenes for the game. Scenes that would never make it into the final project.

Between bugs and time constraints, we couldn’t hook up the cutscenes without everything breaking. All we could do was submit our last working build, which didn’t have the scenes.

Why was the player sending monsters at the hero if the name of the game was “Don’t Kill the Hero”? What was the goal? Who were the guards, and why couldn’t you send more monsters while the guards were on screen? Who’s to say!

The writers. The writers are supposed to say. But we couldn’t. So the game had to work on its own.

As much as I love game narratives, they are rarely at the level of film, let alone literature. There are many reasons why that is, all of which I’d like to explore in the future, but for now let’s talk about one of the biggest reasons game narratives don’t stack up to linear media:

Bugs.

Bugs that aren’t even necessarily related to the narrative. Issues with one system can daisy-chain to the rest. And the systems that take priority are typically the ones that affect gameplay rather than story. After all, they’re games. Not books. Not movies. If there’s a bug that breaks the story but fixing it breaks the gameplay, the developers will leave the story-breaking bug in every time.

Time constraints are, of course, a part of the problem too, but even books and films have time constraints. Publishers and studios don’t let their money-making projects stay in development until they’re guaranteed perfect. Who has the money for that? Who even wants to work on the same project for more than a couple years? So books wind up a little less polished. Movies wind up with deleted scenes or sloppy CGI. But neither books nor movies get rid of their stories and hope for the best. Because it doesn’t matter how good a cover looks or how pretty your actors are, if there’s no story–no characters or dialog–there’s no money coming back.

Yes, even this CGI-fest had a story.

But games don’t make money with their stories–usuallySome do–your epic RPGs, or puzzle adventure games (think Telltale’s The Walking Dead). But even in those cases, there are players who care more about getting gear and solving puzzles than what the characters are talking about.

So when a game runs into development problems, and levels need to get cut, and animations don’t work, and enemy types drop from ten to five, the stories that explained them and hooked them together have to go too. The editing process isn’t always smooth–sometimes it can’t be changed at all. So you end up with very disjointed cutscenes and dialog that don’t seem to fit what’s actually happening in-game.

It becomes a loop–the narrative is left broken so the game can be fixed, so games become known for having bad stories, so nobody buys games for the writing, so developers prioritize gameplay, so narrative is left broken and etc.

Here’s the thing. Game stories are getting better all the time. Twenty years ago, it was assumed a game wouldn’t have a story outside of an instruction manual. These days? Just about every big game has a story that plays into the gameplay. And most of the time, the games would be worse without the story to go with it. Would we care about a silent Nathan Drake hunting treasures with no motivation? Would we bother fighting darkspawn if the world and the lives of our companions weren’t at stake? If the gameplay was strong enough, then maybe. But games are the only medium that truly allows us to embody our characters. To explore worlds at our own pace. To speak with characters the way we would speak–or at least closer to it.

Is he still lovable?

It’s a powerful narrative tool–and one that is easily broken. But with time, players will expect more pieces of those broken narratives to be put back in place.

I just hope developers can find the time to do it.

At the game jam, my team certainly didn’t. And that’s a feeling every game writer has to be able to survive. The writing is a part of the game, a piece of the whole. We just have to make sure that when all the pieces fall apart, the core of the story remains told.

– H.

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