By Christina Legler
In Slay the Dragon, Robert Denton Bryant and Keith Giglio lay to rest a few misconceptions aspiring game writers and players alike often have about game writing: gameplay and narrative, they argue, must work cooperatively in a video game. As Slay the Dragon clarifies, there is a certain gap between these two elements of the video game that gamers do not understand about writing, and writers do not understand about gaming.
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Christina Legler: To start, how did you get into video game writing? I understand that both of you have been involved in film and screenwriting, and you both hold MFAs in film and television. How did your backgrounds and professional experiences lead you to game writing?
Robert Denton Bryant: I’ve actually never held the title “game writer,” although I hope to someday. I've been writing all my life . . .
—that’s what got me interested in screenwriting and filmmaking—but I entered the games industry as a tester and then moved up as a lead tester, quality assurance manager, producer, executive producer, and studio director. Along the way I filled in there and there, worked with developers and writers, and saw that very often game designers have an awkward relationship with narrative. When I hired Keith to write a big virtual world game I was exec producing, we experienced that awkward relationship first-hand. And that gave rise to Slay the Dragon.
Keith Giglio: I went with Bob to E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, one year. The room was filled with monitors displaying the new AAA video games . . .
. . . The “trailers” for these games were fascinating. I was instantly taken with the new arena for narrative storytelling. Years later, during the WGA strike, I needed a job and was lucky to land one working for Bob. My assignment was to help turn a toy company’s intellectual property (toys, dollars) into video game content. It was like putting together a puzzle. I had all these assets (setting and characters) designed, but no story.
CL: In an early chapter of Slay the Dragon, you, Bob, relate a tale of when you had an awesome idea for a He-Man video game while working for Mattel that did not fly because your story idea exceeded programming limitations. How did you both handle this transition into game writing when you realized that the limits of game development affect storytelling?
RDB: I think it was much less about programming limitations; everything I wanted to do in that game was do-able in 3D game engines at the time. The problem was scope (my pitch was epic), and, more specifically, I was much more enamored with telling a story than with creating an experience for the player. I had that humbling moment that every writer has when they start talking to game developers. It’s That Moment When you realize that in a game it’s not the writer’s story that matters; it’s the player’s story.
KG: I like a current trend in movies and television of “breadcrumb” storytelling. The audience has to piece together narrative by things they see or hear in the game narrative. Information is there for you to gather and deduce what the narrative or backstory might be. You can see this type of storytelling cropping up in more Hollywood content. A Quiet Place is basically a survival game. No one is telling us about the aliens, we can figure it out by what we see on the walls. Then of course there is Ready Player One, which feels like a video game come to life. Spielberg really knows how to push the tropes.
CL: Game writing is a collaborative effort, something that we as writers of short stories, novels, essays, and poetry may not understand or like. How does working on a collaborative team of developers and writers for a video game compare to, say, co-writing a book with a friend, such as Slay the Dragon? Where is creativity compromised?
KG: By the designers and game producers who do not involve a game writer early in the process. Look at the new God of War. It was rebooted for story. Video game writers are guns for hire unless they are brand name. Engineers know how to code; animators know how to draw and design and bring sketches to life. These are skills which no writer has. But everyone who works on a game thinks they are a writer, because they have played games. They figure if they can write a sentence, they are writers. Sadly, not true. So creativity is compromised by lack of narrative education on the part of the game makers. Game creators like Ken Levine and David Jaffe are literate in screenwriting and narrative structure. This shows in their creation. I remember writing something for the toy company and was told that scene didn’t work because the level was already designed and we did not have enough polygons. Polygons? They didn’t have enough story!
CL: And, if I may humbly add to that list of mastermind game creators, Neil Druckmann! If these creative geniuses, who not only develop but write as well, were involved in the process from start to finish, we would end up with games that are a more even mixture of story and gameplay/development. If, of course, story matters to them, or if story is the objective.
RDB: Most definitely. We discuss Neil and [The] Last of Us extensively in the book. It’s funny—I misread the question as “when is creativity compressed.” I think the short answer is that creativity is compromised the moment you ask a third party to mediate between you and the audience whose money you want. If you’re not expecting any money from anyone, ever, you can have virtually unlimited creative freedom. If you can sell directly to your audience, ditto, although you have to be mindful of their expectations if you want them to continue buying your work. But if you want a studio to buy your script, or a publisher to finance and distribute your game, there will be collaboration, and some of it may be brutal. This is not always a bad thing. I think limits and boundaries—set by formats, genres, budgets, partner expectations, audience expectations, or your own eagerness for a challenge—can force any artist to grow creatively by turning them into problem solvers.
CL: I understand that you both teach or have taught game writing at universities. What does such a class entail?
RDB: We got started teaching game writing because of the arguments we would have working on our game together. It was obvious that this creative tension between storytelling and game design was worth exploring in a class. Keith had already been teaching screenwriting through The Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension, so he suggested we pitch a game writing class so that we could present this problem to students and have them tell us how to resolve it. Students in The Writers’ Program were, typically, writers and not game developers, so we found that we had to spend a little time getting them ramped up on basics of game design. In the same way, when our students are mostly game developers, we have to focus a little more on such writerly topics as characters and story structure. The more writers understand gameplay, and game designers understand the emotional journey of a character, the more involving the games they create will be.
KG: Gamers are the original Netflix “bingers.” The kids who take any video game writing course know every game and game characters. They are a passionate group.
CL: In Slay the Dragon, you explain that story depends upon gameplay rather than the other way around. Do you believe that with games like The Last of Us (which focuses heavily on character and story), storytelling is becoming more important in games than it used to be?
KG: Yes and no. I think sadly games have moved to more cooperative play and less you-are-the-hero games. Also with the rise of mobile gaming, there is little or no room for narrative.
RDB: I think any time you talk about “games” as a monolithic, homogenous medium, you’re in danger of running off the tracks.
CL: Good point, because not all games follow the same formula or fit into one big, encompassing genre.
RDB: Exactly. I get frustrated when folks, even players, make sweeping generalizations about “all games” that would be laughed down if they were similarly broad generalizations about “all movies.” Games are a giant, complex, diverse medium. You can point to tens of thousands of recent, popular, and profitable games in which storytelling occupies a very marginal space, if at all, and that’s okay. There’s not much storytelling in Fortnight’s Battle Royale mode, beyond its crazy Hunger Games-like premise, yet it’s one of the hottest games right now. What’s also clear, though, is that for those players who are looking for involving stories, the number of choices have never been better, ranging from indie games like Firewatch and Kentucky Route Zero to story-driven triple-A games like the new God of War.
CL: I would argue that video games have become more “mainstream” nowadays than they were decades ago. By this, I mean that people who play games now don’t necessarily identify as gamers, but simply as people who occasionally play games. Do you agree with this?
RDB: What we know now about the medium, that it took several generations to understand, is that a substantial number of game players play games for life. When they have kids, they’re more understanding about letting their kids play games themselves. Both daughters and sons—every year, the number of women who play video games gets closer to 50 percent of the total audience. Plus, the fact that in the smartphone era, millions of people have a powerful video game device in their purses or pockets, means that games are available almost anywhere, at any time. We’ve come light years from when we were small kids and you had to go somewhere where there was a food-truck-sized computer, or to an amusement arcade, to play a video game. But I think you need look no further than the fact that lifelong video game player Steven Spielberg just released Ready Player One, with a strong third-act message about putting down the controller. The medium of the video game is absolutely within our cultural mainstream—and has been for some time.
KG: All about the tech. But it’s been a while since World of Warcraft pulled so many people into the world. Interesting, that as mobile games exploded, table-top narrative games have resurged. Dungeons and Dragons? Wizard? Create your own fun.
CL: And now for a sort of meta-question: What do you think about an interview with a game writer, about game writing, in a literary magazine? In what ways do game writing and literary writing intersect or differ?
KG: In literary fiction, a writer can spend many pages getting into the mind of the character, so the reader gains empathy to the character or situation. If you wait that long in video games, you’re going to have a very bored player. Games are more like genre fiction. Every chapter/level ends with a turning point and the narrative surges forward. My favorite book last year was Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders. To me, it was the Citizen Kane of literary fiction. A game changer. Celebrate the differences between all writing platforms.
RDB: I think it’s awesome, and quite humbling, to be talking to you in a literary magazine. If we define literature as “narrative art,” I think it’s very easy to consider the best story-driven games rising to fit that. In the book we point to Bioshock as a prime example of a game that works not only as a harrowing adventure tale, but also as a thoughtful meditation on the relationship between game designer and player. It’s pretty meta itself.
Robert Denton Bryant is the Director of Video Game Development at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. He has also taught game writing and narrative design at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. He holds an MFA in Cinema-Television Production from the University of Southern California.
Keith Giglio has written and produced for a number of feature films and television movies, from Disney’s Tarzan to A Cinderella Story. Presently, he teaches screenwriting and video game writing at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University in New York. He holds an MFA in Film and Television from New York University.
Christina Legler is a graduate student in Fresno State’s MFA Fiction Program. She has been playing video games since the age of four, when a next-door neighbor made the mistake of allowing her to play Sonic: The Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis.