Gears of War writer Tom Bissell was interviewed by a writer at the New Yorker and they talked about video games in culture and what it’s like to write for games. The interview happened because the writer saw a video (below) on writing for the heroes of the game.
I’m a fan of the New Yorker (I even have books about the magazine), so I love the fact that they ask questions that feel just so New Yorker.
Right? And if games become a thing like, “Oh! They tell really good stories in these now!” Oh my god, there will be a total stampede.
Sure, but now that I’ve worked on a few games, I’ve grappled with the degree to which games are not really a writer’s medium. Film’s not really a writer’s medium, either. Good writing certainly doesn’t hurt, but it’s not the thing that saves the day. I’ve been quietly lobbying for games that are smart and intelligent, even if they’re about blowing lots of shit up. At the same time, though, pure storytelling is never going to be the thing that games do better than anything. Games are primarily about a connection between the player, the game world, and the central mechanic of the game. They’re about creating a space for the player to engage with that mechanic and have the world react in a way that feels interesting and absorbing but also creates a sense of agency. So writing, in games, is about creating mood and establishing a basic sense of intent. The player has some vague notion of what the intent of the so-called author is, but the power of authorship is ultimately for the player to seize for him or herself. This goes for any kind of game. I think good game writing is a process of getting out of the player’s way. You give him or her just enough to work with narratively, but ultimately you let the player tell his or her own story.
One part of the interview stuck out to me and it’s Bissell’s take on writing for games in a nutshell:
Indeed. The point is that there’s no such thing, really, as “video-game storytelling.” Different kinds of games have different kinds of storytelling methods. Writing Gears has more in common with action-movie screenwriting than writing something like Skyrim does. But what’s interesting about writing a game like Gears is that there’s just so much procedural dialogue you wind up having to write. By that I mean dialogue that’s totally dependent on what the player’s doing: shooting, killing, blowing stuff up, reloading, taking cover, all of that.