Yes, but what is your game *about*? 5

I’ve been meaning to write about this since I got back from ECCC, and I guess this is my first opportunity. I spent most of the time at the con hiding behind the Angry Robot table and trying to convince passersby to buy some books. Which isn’t a problem, I assure you. I don’t really like crowds, so I’d rather be safely barricaded from them via a table. That’s why I only go to ComicCon-type events when I have to.

This time was a little different because we had several people come over to the table and introduce themselves. They didn’t want to buy any books, but specifically wanted to make contacts with writers because they were looking to hire some. So at each of these, my ears perked up. I’m a writer, after all, and I do like money. (And I have done writing for games, by the way, just saying.)

But most of the conversations went the same, kind of weird way. I’ve got a game, the person would say. It’s going to be a match three game with a social aspect and microtransactions and loot boxes and replayability, and we want women in their 30s to play it. Or variations on that, which were basically a laundry list of mechanics, mostly whatever game mechanics are currently making people their money.

Okay, but what is the game about? And that was pretty much where the conversation ran aground. Most of the people who talked to us didn’t have an idea of even the broad genre the story for their game would fit in, let alone a vague outline of what that story might be. Like, I don’t know, whatever ladies in their 30s are into.

I get that there are pressures to game design as far as profitability, and mechanics are a big part of that. But listening to a lot of these really random-sounding lists of mechanics, I spent a lot of time wondering what the hell kind of story they expected to be able to wrap around all those moving parts. Definitely not a story that was going to make much sense, in many cases.

Maybe it’s a symptom of the idea that writing is somehow “easy” and only needs to be an afterthought when it comes to crafting a game. Like it’s just wrapping paper over the mechanics that you’re going to use to extract the maximum amount of money from your audience. But if you want a narrative that’s going to compel people to, say, get attached to their favorite characters so much that they’ll throw wads of money your way, you need to at least know what kind of story you’re trying to tell. The best games I’ve ever played, while they haven’t necessarily been the most well-written on a dialog level, kept me coming back because they knew what they were and they knew what kind of story they wanted to tell, and the mechanics worked with that. If you have a story, or hell, just a genre and theme you’re passionate about, it comes through.

It bothers me and makes me sad, both as a writer and a gamer, that story seems to be treated as some kind of necessary evil, and writers an unfortunate expense that must be paid to thinly wallpaper over your game mechanics.

5 thoughts on “Yes, but what is your game *about*?

  1. Reply Lilith Mar 20,2018 03:06

    It’s interesting to me that people just approached you with a pitch, but no real plan. I think you might be right that they may have either seen the writing bit as easy, or that they couldn’t have cared less about the story as long as the fancy game mechanics showed through.

    I’m a huge fan of games with a strong story line that I can sink my teeth into. It’s actually my driving force behind all of my gaming. For example I play and replay Dragon Age (all of them) over and over…but the only reason I’ve ever touched COD is because that’s where my friends were hanging out, and social interaction was a pressing need at the moment.

    Is it okay if I ask which games you wrote for? I’m curious, and always looking for another fun story to play through.

    Anyway, thanks for your time. And I do really enjoy you blog posts, even if I never comment. They give me a glimpse into so many things I would otherwise never have any idea existed.

    • Reply Alex Mar 31,2018 16:33

      I wrote episodes for Six to Start’s Superhero Workout game, which is more of a straightforward script rather than something with a branching narrative. I’ve also written some races for their Racelink project. The Superhero Workout game had fitness elements that dictated how the scripting would work, but even before that the company had an extremely strong idea of what the game should be about, what tone it should have, who the characters were, etc. Which made it a real pleasure to write for.

  2. Reply Morgan Hazelwood Mar 20,2018 10:23

    I mean, it’s true that you can write almost any game plot and tailor it to appeal to women. I’m glad that games are starting to do that. But, really? Did they think complete creative control (at least initially) would make finding writers easier?

    Or are they ‘concept guys!’ who rely on others to do the hard work for their great ideas while they reap the cash?

  3. Reply JohnD Mar 31,2018 10:47

    Given the success of Michael Bay’s films, maybe video games don’t need to be about anything (other than blowing crap up and making the user pay for it, a little at a time).

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