For those of us of a certain age (which is to say, those of us old enough to remember typewriters, buy music on vinyl in a non-ironic way, and have fond memories of non-CGI Transformers), the image of the lone writer holds a romantic appeal – one that’s definitely echoed in the wider audience. The idea of a solitary wordsmith – locked in a room with only a typewriter and a blank page – plays to a certain fantasy of the artist, and for some forms of writing there’s some merit to it.
But even the most supposedly solitary forms of literary expression, be they novels or short stories or naughty limericks that include the word “Nantucket,” aren’t entirely solo efforts. There are editors involved. First readers. Copy editors. You get the idea. And that’s for forms that involve no other asset besides the words.
And believe me, it’s a good thing to get those other folks involved.
Most writers, in their more candid moments, will simultaneously admit to being their own worst critics and getting so wrapped up in what the writing should be that they can’t edit it properly. Having other eyes on your work is a tremendous help. Good readers and editors will mercilessly uncover the weak spots and the cheats in your narrative, will relentlessly expose places where you got stylistically lazy, and call out the places where you shortchanged the reader.
Also, if you’re lucky, they’ll catch the typos.
The trick is, of course, finding readers and editors who can do that for you, who can read what you’ve written and provide feedback that is not only not yours, but also actively useful.
Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to games.
Don’t Go It AloneFor a long time, most game writers were solitary creatures, whether they wanted to be or not. The role of narrative in game design wasn’t necessarily highly regarded, and a dedicated writer was viewed as a luxury. The idea of two – or more – on a single project was mind-blowing in its extravagance.
Good readers and editors will mercilessly uncover the weak spots and the cheats in your narrative [Digression: At the first Game Writers Conference, now the Game Narrative Summit, I walked into the conference room before Marc Laidlaw’s opening talk and my first thought as I scanned the room was My God, I’m not alone. Every other person I’ve talked to who was there that day has told me roughly the same story, often using the same words.]
Which meant that when a writer wanted feedback on something they were doing, they weren’t getting it from writers.
Now wait a minute, I can hear you saying. Most of the people who are going to play the game aren’t writers, so feedback from writers is kind of key there, Spartacus. And yes, that’s true – knowing that things are or aren’t working for an audience is vitally important. If a reader hates the protagonist, it doesn’t matter if they’ve memorized Strunk and White or not; that feedback is useful.
What that feedback is not, is directed, which means it’s not necessarily phrased in a way that makes it actionable. I don’t like the main character is feedback; there’s a serious disconnect between the way you position your protagonist’s backstory and her diction in the dialog you’ve written is actionable.
Let’s rewind a bit. Imagine you’re an artist and you’re showing someone your work. Their response, quite reasonably, is that they don’t like it and something’s wrong with the way the sky looks. Now, this is useful feedback insofar as it A)suggests that the project needs more work and B)calls out a rough area that could use some improvement. However, what that feedback is lacking is technical criticism, using the language of the visual arts. There’s nothing there about composition, about color, about tools – in short, it’s not couched in the professional context that would allow the artist to use it as a clearer roadmap to iteration and improvement.
And just like art, or engineering, or any other discipline within game development, writing has its own professional and technical language. Here is where the romantic notion of creation-exclusively-through-inspiration breaks down; writing is first and foremost a craft, requiring sweat and iteration and technical skill.
Like any other craft, it has techniques and best practices and standards, and the people best equipped to give feedback that addresses the needs of the craft are – wait for it – other writers. They do the job, they speak the language. And just as artists get valuable feedback from other artists, and engineers get better feedback on their code from other engineers, some of the most directed, useful feedback a writer can get will come from another writer.
[This assumes, of course, that the writer in question is good at critique and isn’t a jerk. But for the sake of continued employment of all concerned, we’ll assume both.]
I’ll confess, the first time I was put in the harness long-term with another writer (while working on Splinter Cell: Double Agent), it was a weird feeling. I’d gotten used to working alone, to the point where I wasn’t sure how to interact. I’m fairly certain Taras Stasiuk, the other writer in question, felt something similar. This was something new and different and challenging. (Which is writerese for What if they don’t like my stuff?)
Then something weird happened. I passed Taras some of my stuff. He passed me some of his. He sent back comments on mine, which were very useful, and I sent him a few on his. I didn’t agree with all of his notes, but we discussed the places where we disagreed, which made me lay out why I’d made those choices and what they implied, and that led to some new discussions about where the characters were coming from, and before you knew it A)we had a great working dynamic and – this is the important part – B)the work was better. And I’ve relished having other writers to work with ever since.
Writing is first and foremost a craft, requiring sweat and iteration and technical skillThis is, of course, old hat to folks who’ve worked in TV writers’ rooms or found that mythical beast, the useful writers’ group. But for too many writers out there, there isn’t or hasn’t been a professional peer they could turn to. That means learning to rely only on themselves, to set up perimeters around their work, and – after too many rounds of being told I would have done it this way, and you should totally add a few dinosaurs – learning to view feedback as not necessarily in the work’s best interest. Those are hard habits to break.
They’re worth breaking, though, and that ultimately circles us around to the original premise, namely, that the best resource you have as a writer in games is other writers. Specifically, other writers who know and understand the sort of work you’re doing and who can give you the targeted feedback that will allow you to improve specific aspects of that work. So if you’re lucky enough to be on a team, or in a studio with multiple writers, then the best thing you can do is use them. Share your work, and let them share theirs with you.
Because they’re the ones in the best position to give you specific feedback you can use to make your own writing better.