Matthew S. Burns is no stranger to game development. He’s done production work on Destiny, several Halo games, and many Call of Duty games. He’s also released four games independently. One of his most interesting releases is The Writer Will Do Something, a biting look at the world of writing games for AAA studios.
Burns did not draw from just one source to create the game—his work has been primarily in production rather than writing, and he credits a friend who still works in AAA development for some inspiration. It does, however, say something interesting about games like Destiny, which have been criticized for their lack of story, and how that seeming oversight might have come about.
The Complicated World of Game Development
It’s easy to think of game development as a group of people working together to produce a product that people will enjoy. And while that’s true to an extent, there are a lot more cogs in the machine than people might expect.
What The Writer Will Do Something does is show you those cogs and, more importantly, show you the points of disconnection for these moving parts. In a AAA studio, you have teams working on different projects—the audio team and the graphics team, for example—and, while there is certain to be some interaction between the two, it’s not going to be as consistent as it would be at a tiny indie studio. That leads to disconnect, which ultimately leads to sacrifice.
Instead of placing the blame on one team or another, The Writer Will Do Something shows us the way that a few minor issues can amount to a larger problem. It’s not about who fails in writing games; it’s about how and when—in the case of the game in The Writer Will Do Something, that failure comes far earlier than you might expect.
Writing Games Are Often About Fixing Mistakes
Let’s think about Destiny, for example. It’s not that The Writer Will Do Something was inspired entirely by Burns’ experience working on Destiny, but rather that Burns’ game can tell us a lot about what happened with Destiny.
The game opens by telling the player that the game they’re working on, ShatterGate, is sixth months from shipping and has been poorly received by outside consultants. At a staff meeting, the team debates who is responsible for the game’s poor reception and what can be done to fix it.
Like any Twine game, there is a variety of paths to take. But what it comes down to is that the writer of ShatterGate is expected to pick up the pieces of a disjointed story with clichéd mechanics that don’t match the tone and then weave it all together into a cohesive whole. Unfortunately, it’s also too late to rewrite dialog because the main actor is elsewhere and recasting is not an option—in short, the game isn’t going to work and there’s no way to fix the underlying issues that make it so.
But still, it comes down to the writer. Destiny‘s reviews often cite the lack of cohesive story and a shallow world as reasons why the game didn’t live up to hype. It would be easy to blame the writer for that, but, as Burns’ game points out, writing games isn’t just writing a plot and setting it free into the world; it’s a mix of writing, rewriting, editing, cutting, pasting, and hoping that it all fits together in the end.
Many devs would love to have a deeper and more connected story, and the same was likely true of the team that works on Destiny. But, as Burns points out in a blog entry from 2012, he has “sat in such meetings, too, where creative leads became excited for how they would somehow attain a deeper level of unvarnished truth than previous war-themed games were able to achieve.” Though he’s speaking specifically of war games—and of the infamous “No Russian” mission in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 in particular—the aspiration for deeply affecting story doesn’t always match up with game mechanics.
Writing Games That Resist Good Writing
And it’s more than that, too. Returning to Destiny, this is a game with pretty conventional mechanics—shoot, kill, repeat. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, as the gameplay was actually the most celebrated aspect of Destiny, but in The Writer Will Do Something, the team discusses the nature of choice in gaming. A team member offers Dark Souls up as an example of choice and freedom that doesn’t rely on branching narratives, but it is immediately criticized for its failure to live up to more viable games like ShatterGate.
What works about Dark Souls is that the combat is almost as impenetrable as the story; it’s only through time, effort, and patience that you’ll understand it. And this is another point that Burns discusses in a blog entry. In another 2012 blog, he discusses the dissonance of having tons of combat with a good story. He writes, ” the experience [of playing the Uncharted series] implies two completely different worlds. One is where Nathan Drake is an affable hero, and the other is where Drake murders hundreds of fellow human beings and feels nothing. Though the developers took care to paint over the seams where they could, even the cleverest narrative design couldn’t change how completely incongruous that really is, on a basic, fundamental level.”
Combine that with less-than-ideal turnover at Bungie, especially as outlined in a Reddit thread by a now-deleted poster, and you have an interesting picture of where the game went wrong.
Too many ideas, a lack of clear vision, and massive revisions too close to deadline meant things don’t work out, exactly as the narrator of The Writer Will Do Something expects. And while we have to take these experiences with a grain of salt, Burns paints an interesting and vivid picture of the world of writing games, the responsibility it holds, and the difficulty of treading a line between pleasing story and gameplay in a AAA game with an enormous budget.