Blood, Sweat and Dialogue Trees: How Games Writing Has Evolved

Every video game talks, from the twee-est indie darling to the gruffest arena shooter. No matter how trite the words that comes from your next enemy’s mouth might be, they didn’t just emerge from the ether. They’re the product of blood, sweat, and an imprecise process improvised over decades, just like pretty much every aspect of the modern video game. And yet the role of games writers – the people who toil for years behind the scenes to produce page after page of text that many players don’t even bother to read or listen to – remains one of the most embattled and thankless, even as their importance grows.

Tom Bissell is one of those writers. But just five years ago, as an acclaimed critic, he wrote Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, a collection of personal essays about art, life and video games. In the first chapter, he praises games’ ever-increasing mechanical complexity while excoriating their lack of development in storytelling. “Games have grown immensely sophisticated in any number of ways while at the same time remaining stubbornly attached to aspects of traditional narrative for which they have shown little feeling,” Bissell wrote. When faced with these words, the Bissell of 2016 can’t help but laugh.

“Around 2008 to 2009 when I was working on Extra Lives, all I did was play video games and think, ‘I can write better than this shit!'” Bissell says over the phone. Speaking along with Gears producer Rod Fergusson, he talks at a moderate pace, often pausing to collect his thoughts. Bissell is better known today for his video game credits, which include Gears of War 4, Battlefield: Hardline, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and Uncharted 4.

“Here’s the interesting thing: every single person I know who crossed over from writing about video games to writing video games has had that belief rudely shattered in the first month of the job. It’s way harder than you can imagine, it’s way more stressful than you can imagine.”

In many ways, Gears can be seen as the purest distillation of the very same “traditional narrative video games” that Bissell took to task in his work: a story of heads stomped into crimson chunks by massive jackboots, of chainsaw bayonets revving and roaring as they cut a bloody path through rows and rows of monster men. It’s engaging enough stuff, but it doesn’t exactly embody what Bissell calls “searing, war-is-hell realism.” But to hear Fergusson and Bissell tell it, even tales of archetypical characters blasting their way from point A to point B involve considerable challenges.

“The difficulty all has to do with the fact that you’re writing a story completely out of order,” says Bissell. “You have very little awareness of what the gameplay leading up to it and coming out of it is going to be. There aren’t even levels yet. You’re writing scenes that are planted in the middle of this completely unknown ether.”

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