Who writes video games? Fifteen years ago the answer wasn't obvious - with the odd exception it was usually a mix of coders, artists, marketing people and executives. Just not writers.
In these gradually enlightening times, that's starting to change. And not just in the indie scene.
Take Tomb Raider, the gritty big-budget reboot of the legendary Lara Croft character, which has won rave reviews and looks set to storm the charts.
Developers Crystal Dynamics didn't just hire renowned games writer Rhianna Pratchett to lead its narrative team - it put Lara's story at the heart of the game. 'Tomb Raider' rebuilds the franchise from the ground up, casting Lara as a young inexperienced historian thrown into a world of deadly adventure, and forced to survive in brutal circumstances. The result looks set to transform an ailing icon into a next-generation superstar.
So why is story-telling in games coming into what Tomb Raider's original co-creator and gaming luminary Ian Livingstone calls a "second golden age"?
And how can the industry's senior figures attract a new generation of writers to tell stories on its next-generation consoles?
We spoke to Ian Livingtone and Rhianna Pratchett to find out.
The full interview (lightly edited for space) is below. Here are some of the highlights:
- Low-budget games can tell great stories: "Look at Journey, it tells a beautiful story very simply. That's wonderful to see because it uses the tools so well."
- How to attract new talent to games: "There are certainly a lot of opportunities in games that young people are not aware of, young women in particular..."
- Balancing narrative with gameplay: "Sometimes the needs of narrative don't always win through. Sometimes it's gameplay that does..."
- The future of games: "The medium is still very young. If you look at it in terms of the film industry, we're only in the 1930s..."
- Golden Age? "You could almost say the second golden age of gaming is happening right now..."
We're still at the start of games as a medium in some ways. Have video gamers played their (sign) 'Citizen Kane', yet? A story in games which will last 40 years, or more?
RP: It's difficult because of the tech involved in games. It can be difficult to play a game that is 10 years old, let alone 40. I think we're still pushing the medium as far as story-telling is going.
When I started in the industry people weren't really talking about storytelling in games. It was done but it was behind the scenes, games writers weren't talking about it that much. Now there is a lot more focus on dialogue and narrative, what we're doing right and wrong, how writers should be used.
Is that depth of narrative always required?
RP: It's about finding the right tools for the job. It isn't about shoving traditional narratives in, it's about using the medium to tell the story and not just text or cut-scenes, but environmental and secondary devices, like diaries, documents, letters. Also things like level dialogue - Lara talks a lot as she goes along in the game, she examines the environment. Even her animations can be used to explain character.
But you can do a lot with something quite simple - if you look at Journey, it tells a beautiful story very simply. That's wonderful to see because it uses the tools so well.
Do indie games lend themselves to different types of stories?
RP: I really enjoyed The Walking Dead, whether it's considered an indie game or not I'm not really sure, but that was one that for me pushed story-telling and used the game mechanics very well.
IL: I think story is important in any entertainment experience. The horsepower of console machines allows richer storytelling which in years gone-by wasn't always available. So it's great to be able to bring great story-tellers like Rhianna on board to help craft a new way of engaging with consumers.
On the indie side I think it's great to see the opportunity for people to express themselves in new and original ways. The medium is still very young. If you look at it in terms of the film industry, we're only in the 1930s and yet we've achieved so much in such a relatively short period, the games industry is bigger than most other entertainment industries. It's $50 billion a year, and will rise to $90 billion by 2015, so it's a fantastic career opportunity, if only people knew about it.
There's work being done to encourage coders and young people into making games, including by yourselves. But could more be done to do the same to get artists and writers into games?
RP: There are certainly a lot of opportunities in games that young people are not aware of, young women in particular. That's something that I'm trying to work with various organisations like Lady Geek and Bafta to create initiatives to help young women look at games as an opportunity… It's really about the industry getting involved with schools and giving them information about what careers are out there.
Above: 'Tomb Raider' head writer Rhianna Pratchett
Have you been pleased by the positive reaction to 'Tomb Raider'?
RP: I don't think you ever know what to expect. It's always a nerve-wracking experience when the reviews come out and the game hits the shelves. I poured two and half years of my life into Tomb Raider and you're always on the edge of your seat. But as you say it's been received pretty well and we're already getting feedback from players enjoying the game.
Ian, also on the reaction to the game - does it feel as though the series has been in a sense 'reborn'?
IL: Lara Croft has survived the test of time. The first Tomb Raider appeared in 1996 and has there have been many sequels since. Crystal Dynamics has looked very closely at today's audience to make sure the franchise was relevant. At the same time we looked at the success of the reboots of Batman and James Bond and thought it might be an appropriate time to look at Tomb Raider in a similar manner.
At the same time many fans around the world were writing in requests to know more about the young Lara. Therefore it was a brave and bold decision I think to go for the origin story to make this Tomb Raider a prequel rather than a sequel while still playing to the three core components of a Tomb Raider game - exploration and adventure, coupled with puzzle solving albeit environmental puzzles in this instance, and combat.
Writing a game is a team effort, but how would Tomb Raider have differed if it had just been your vision?
RP: I think my vision is pretty close to the one we've got. Obviously working with games you're always working within boundaries and limitations so you're balancing the need for gameplay and the need for narrative, and for the game to be fun and absorbing.
Sometimes the needs of narrative don't always win through. Sometimes it's gameplay that does, and we're working on a game so you have to expect that. But it's been a very rewarding experience being part of rebooting and reimagining someone like Lara Croft.
There's a new generation of consoles on the way, and a lot of speculation about them. Are you confident that there are new kinds of stories that can be told with the huge firepower of the new generation?
IL: It seems to me that every iteration of technology allows amazing new things to happen on screen… It's always great that the games industry evolves quicker than other entertainment industries because of advances in technology. There are always challenges but also opportunities…
Everyone is carrying a smartphone around in their pocket which is games-enabled, there are hundreds of millions of people playing games on Facebook. There are more opportunities for new types of content, created by new creative entrepreneurs to reach global audiences via high-speed broadband. You could almost say the second golden age of gaming is happening right now.
RP: For me it's less about the tech but more about the ideas. Things like the better integration of writers and narrative professionals into the games industry, and getting them in earlier in the process.
Are there also dangers in that developers get their hands on a bunch of new tech toys and narrative takes a back seat again?
RP: Oh gosh I hope not! It has been quite an uphill battle so far. I'd hate to reach the summit of one mountain peak to see another one beyond it.
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