Scrawl of Duty

Novelists and journalists are defecting to the video-game industry

Attendance was low for a recent showcase at concert promoter Todd “P” Patrick’s pop-up video-games gallery near Grand Central Terminal. The event felt like a transplanted loft party, decorated with papier-mâché furniture and cabinets with experimental video games from Babycastles, an indie arcade in Ridgewood, Queens. The cabinets attracted more attention than some of the music acts; a handful of visitors loitered around them discussing a recent New York Times article about the alcoholic energy drink Four Loko. A musician probably put it best during his rap show–cum-performance-art piece when he shrieked over the looped music coming from his hacked Gameboy: “Homeboy Todd running a teen center in this bitch!”

During the set, Patrick opened one of the cabinets and fixed one of the games that had gone on the fritz. “We all fix them when they die because they die a lot,” he said. The games are pleasing to look at and subversive to play—Super Mario by way of Captain Beefheart. In one, you earn points by dying. Patrick said they were like four-track labors of love compared to the output of major video-game companies’ corporate labels. For him, the music acts were a secondary concern: He’d opened the space to spotlight the alternative takes on what he considers a dominant cultural force.

“You want to write a novel? Who’s going to read it? A bunch of people in grad school? Fuck that,” Patrick said. “Everybody plays video games.”

Or, at least, enough do to make it a $40 billion-a-year industry. And, as Faulkner and Fitzgerald made their attempts in Hollywood, more and more journalists and fiction writers are making the shift to writing video games. Motivated by money, a passion for the medium or a combination of both, prose writers want in.

“I’d been a journalist for 14 years,” N’Gai Croal said. “I had accomplished most of what I’d wanted to accomplish. I wrote cover stories, I’d written lots of features, I had this blog, I’d been on TV. It felt like there were structural changes affecting journalism, and going to another outlet would be a bit like same shit, different day. I felt like it was time to do something different; it was time to not be a journalist. The main thing to consider was, did I want to try to write games?”

In March 2009, he took a buyout at Newsweek, where he ran a games blog that, being tethered to a general-interest magazine, allowed him to cover the industry as he saw fit, escaping much of the minutia found in most gaming news outlets.

Upon leaving Newsweek, he started a consulting company called Hit Detection that offers guidance to developers, from story design to level sequence to music, with an emphasis on offering critiques early enough in the process that major changes can be made. One example he gave was a European company that came to him with the idea of making a game with a freedom fighter for a main character. Citing the fact that it’s been a long time since our own revolution, Croal suggested that the hero instead be an outlaw, a character much more likely to resonate with American audiences.

Business has been good for Croal, partially because the industry is so badly in need of such guidance. Nicholson Baker’s recent essay on his own sampling of video games for The New Yorker served as an entertaining reminder that the story lines in most games will seem absurd to anyone not used to the very low standards for the medium in that department.

“I always say that the games industry makes Hollywood look like avant-garde poetry publishers,” journalist and fiction writer Tom Bissell said.

“The games industry, both creatively and economically, is not sure how to deal with writers,” said Austin Grossman, who wrote his novel Soon I Will Be Invincible (Pantheon, 2007) after many years as a video-games consultant and writer, years he called the equivalent to a Master of Fine Arts program for the way they tempered his writing. “For a lot of companies, it’s not worthwhile to keep a writer on staff, so they strictly hire freelancers. And they don’t actually know who to hire, so it’s totally slapdash. Culturally, they don’t have the right person’s phone number.”

Though he happens to be that right person, he still receives work offers from people who have only read his book and are not aware of his experience in the field. His résumé includes a Tomb Raider. But as it is with all freelance gigs, it’s good work if you can get it.

“In the lit biz, I’m, to quote Ron Burgundy, I’m kind of a big deal,” said Bissell, who’s also had a hard time entering the field. “But in video games, no one cares.” Though that’s changing in Bissell’s case. He was just named to Game Developer magazine’s power list and recently spoke about video-game design at Drew University in New Jersey.

Much of what is referred to as “writing” in video games pertains to the script, what characters say during the game or in the noninteractive portions known as “cutscenes,” and this is the sort of work that Bissell has so far snagged. His latest book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter (Pantheon, 2010), is a critical look at the games he feels make an argument for their artistic merit, and he met his games-writing partner in the process of writing it. Together, they fixed the dialogue on an upcoming reboot of a well-known classic game coming to downloadable console services, doing what they could for a game that was largely finished.

Like Croal, he’s working to increase his involvement by getting into the process early. In addition to working on a project involving a major movie license, Bissell and his partner, Rob Auten—who, as a recent graduate of the Dartmouth English department, found himself writing the cutscenes for the widely praised Far Cry in 2003—have been shopping around a “comedy shooter,” complete with mission and design documents, which detail gameplay, and concept art. They’ve been kicking around the idea of asking Junot Diaz to voice the main character, because Bissell is fond of the nerd-friendly author’s performances at readings.

Though much of the work Bissell is doing has been done by outsiders before, his forays into the medium represent part of the reason for the burgeoning trend: the abandonment of screenwriters to take up the task. Not so long ago, screenwriters were viewed as the saviors of game writing to the people who write the checks in the industry because it seemed like a logical leap with their experience in popular entertainment. But with margins growing narrower, these days Hollywood writers are often seen as too expensive, and likely to turn in a 450-page cutscene.

“Game writing pays less than Hollywood writing. A lot less,” Croal said. “If you want a Frank Darabont, for instance, you need to pay Frank Darabont’s quote or you don’t get him. But the flip side is, if you can’t afford it, than maybe he’s not the best one suited and maybe you want someone who knows games better, maybe isn’t as big a name, but can deliver you 60 percent to 70 percent of what Darabont brings to the table in terms of dialogue and structure.” Every company pays differently, but where a scriptwriter could expect to receive $100,000 for the dialogue in a game a few years ago, these days that sum tends more toward the $20,000 to $10,000 range. Consulting jobs early in the design process, which amount to writing as much as anything else in video games, pay slightly below that, but given that the people making the shift are industry fanatics anyway, it’s a financial sweet spot for prose writers of the non-Hollywood variety.

Moreover, many see video games as closer to novels than movies anyway.

“I still read to look at how much better games need to be,” said Marc Laidlaw, a novelist and a writer at the video-game company Valve. “My models are still the really good writers, wanting that kind of level of storytelling that you’d find in a really good novel. Not movies so much. I think you learn a lot about writing dialogue and stuff from movies, but games just compare more closely to novels, I think because you immerse yourself in them and they take up a big part of your life for a very long time.”

Valve is a rarity in the industry, as its writing is done in-house by staff writers. The company also stands out in that literally all its games have been highly acclaimed, including the three-hour-long Portal, which Laidlaw likened to a short story, “totally self-contained, just a little shining gem,” though he didn’t personally do much work on it.

One journal for the video-game set is even getting into the business of designing games itself. Electric Literature is currently at work on a video game to be released via download for computers, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in the fall of next year. The quarterly’s past efforts have included YouTube videos inspired by Michael Cunningham and Lydia Davis stories from the magazine, and a short story posted to Twitter by Rick Moody over three days. Andy Hunter, editor-in-chief for the journal, was hesitant to reveal the video game’s author. She had to be persuaded to translate her work, originally written as a play, to the video-game format. He said the journal has hired a team of coders and designers to maintain fidelity in adapting the script for virtual players in a licensed video-game engine. The play is interactive and told from multiple perspectives, but he was insistent that it’s not something you can “win.”

“We first started calling it virtual theater. But it’s become more. We haven’t named it,” he said. “We should really name it.”

Hunter has said that he hopes the game will be distributed for free, though that may be subject to change. Microsoft, which makes and regulates the Xbox, has had public spats with companies over its reluctance to give away software for free, with Valve most notably.

Needless to say, the video game won’t be killing the novel anytime soon. At least, not by stealing away all its writers.

David Amsden blames Bissell for introducing him to video games, and while the young novelist holds the No. 6 worldwide ranking in the Madden football online leaderboard, he harbors no desire to write video games.

“There’s definitely a part of me, when I play Mass Effect 2, that says, ‘God, I could do that way better.’ I could also probably do it in an afternoon,” Amsden said. “But it’s such a collaborative effort and there’s so much money involved. I kind of like what I do now, which is that I sit around alone in my house playing with a Microsoft Word file. And eventually I hand that in to someone and it gets printed.”