I recently had the pleasure of accompanying Mark Estdale in giving a talk to a group of students at the Drama Centre in London about game writing and performance. Mark is long-time friend, runs a voice recording studio called OM and has a huge number of games under his belt. We’re both firmly of the opinion that strong writing coupled with powerful performances by skilled actors can really lift a game production to a higher level.
Even more recently, I was invited to speak on a panel about game writing at the London Screenwriters’ Festival, which was a great honour and the festival was a wonderful experience. Not only did I meet old friends, make new ones and talk with some inspiring people, I had a crystallisation of thoughts that have been going around my head for some time and which tied into the whole writing and performance ideas that Mark and I have discussed on numerous occasions.
One of the frustrations of speaking on a panel like the one at LSWF is that it can be hard to explain about the process of game writing if people in the audience have no idea how games are developed, which is to be expected of anyone outside the games industry. Even with the spread of experience on the panel (myself, Andy Walsh, Ed Stern, Antony Johnston and Tim Clague, the moderator), it was a bit of a struggle because of one fundamental aspect of game writing – there is no one, specific role for a writer. Even if a writer gets a handle on the way he or she fits into the development process at one studio, there’s a good chance that the next studio with which a writer works will do things completely differently, have their own formats for scripts and structure their workflow in a unique way.
Some of this is down to the fact that styles of games are so varied and increasingly so with each passing year. Developers are looking for new gameplay ideas all the time and it’s often not just the writer’s role that’s difficult to pin down but also the role of the animator, the location artist, the engine programmer, the designer, etc. Ultimately, a writer must work with each studio in turn to define their role on a project to project basis.
In some ways, it’s a good thing that the definition of a writer’s role is so difficult. Not only does it mean that writers making a living from games have great variety in available to them, it also means that a writer who can work with the development team in a positive way can make a huge contribution through the application of their skills and experience. Providing, of course, that they understand the game’s vision and respect that at all times. There is nothing that puts more dread into a development studio than someone who comes in from outside the industry with the idea that games need “fixing”.
The LSWF panel went very well and the response from the audience, both during the session and afterward, was excellent. Thoughtful questions are not only useful to other audience members when answered, but also give me a chance to re-asses my own thoughts if it’s an aspect of the process I haven’t given a lot of thought to recently.
For instance, there was a moment when we were talking about the game characters, that we felt the need to emphasise that a writer can’t rely on the visual acting of the characters to get across powerful meanings because their on-screen representation often isn’t subtle enough or doesn’t have the range of body language to act in the way a traditional screenwriter might expect of their actors. Things like conflicting emotions and subtext must be delivered through the strength of the written lines and the performance of the actors. If this is done “on the cheap” the whole, powerful vision of the game can be drastically undermined, reviews affected and sales figures reduced.
In these respects, game dialogue and performance has a lot on common with radio dialogue. I’m not suggesting that story and structure should be approached in the same way as a radio drama, but the writing and recording of the actor lines need to have the same kind of gravitas.
While there are a lot of difference between games and radio drama – games are still a visual medium, after all – the reliance on a strong vocal performance is vital to both and as a result the game writer must think in those terms when approaching a game’s scripts.
Of course, there are games which have huge budgets and are beginning to explore the realm of full performance with facial and body acting, but this is a long way from having universal availability and in many instances games are designed in a stylised way where such depth of animated performance would be inappropriate.
Therefore, to think in terms of a radio voice and create dialogue with that uppermost in the mind is a valuable approach to the task. Imagine the richness available to you if you concentrate on the performance of the lines.
Having spent time crafting the lines a writer will hopefully have a hand in the casting and recording for the game.
When I worked with Mark and OM on so Blonde, I wanted a bit of a different voice for the pirate villain, One-Eye. The traditional pirate voice is fun but a little over-used and certainly doesn’t always put over the under-stated menace I wanted. The beauty of working with a good actor and director is that the voice can be explored and we ended up using Dan Russle, who gave us a great voice with a touch of Richard Burton about it. The voice was such a great contrast to the main character, too.
When all the recording is done and you see the characters come to life with these great actor performances, you breathe a great sigh of relief. I owe an awful lot to good casting and good performance.