And the award for best video game writing is ...


Awards for the best video game writing? Isn't that an oxymoron? Aren't video games about jumping, shooting, running, shooting, and -- more shooting?

Not according to the Writers Guild of America which, this Thursday -- despite the strike -- intends to single out one game as worthy of a  2008 Writers Guild Award. It's a first for the WGA, having been spearheaded by the Guild's New Media Caucus "to encourage storytelling excellence in video games, to improve the status of writers, and to begin to encourage uniform standards" within the gaming industry.

The award is the brainchild of Micah Wright and Jay Lender, writing partners who have created numerous video games together, including "Shadow Ops: Red Mercury" for Atari and "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" for Warner Bros. Interactive. They believe that the attraction of quality graphics in games is on the wane and that character, dialog, and plot are widely expected to be the next "killer feature" in games.

"Sadly, on the eve of this revolution, the vast majority of game writers currently receive far less in compensation than their film and TV counterparts for similar work," says Wright. "They receive no minimums, no guaranteed credit, no profit participation, no benefits of any kind, and TV and film writers can look forward to the same as many of them migrate to the games industry. Given the fact that the domestic games industry made more money last year than theatrical film distribution, this may be the next major battlefield for WGA member writers."

Unfortunately, says Wright, there is little understanding in the public mind -- or even the game industry itself -- of the unique contribution of writers to the game development process.

"We are most often seen as 'dialoggers,' afterthoughts to the process," he adds. "As evidence of this, game industry awards, which cite writing or story, are handed out exclusively to publishers or to designers; they receive credit in the public mind for our work even when their contribution to story is negligible."

So the "Best Videogame Writing" award was born, with five nominees in the initial go-'round: "Crash of the Titans" by Christopher Mitchell, "Dead Head Fred" by Dave Ellis and Adam Cogan, "The Simpsons Game" by lead writer Matt Selman and others, "The Witcher" by lead story designer Artur Ganszyniec and others, and "World in Conflict," by Christofe Emgard and others.

But the list of nominees generated an almost-instantaneous storm of negative reaction from the gaming press who wondered aloud what happened to higher-profile and widely praised games like "Halo 3," "Mass Effect," "BioShock," and "Half-Life 2."

Writer Flint Dille -- who, together with his writing partner John Zuur Platten, just released their book "The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design" -- recalls much debate during the birthing of the writing award.

"We needed to figure out how we were going to do this," he says, "and one thing we decided was that we needed to get away from a 'hit game-hit script' mentality. In other words, we weren't necessarily going to nominate games simply because they had huge sales. Similarly, were we going to give the award for most innovative storytelling, for highest quality of writing, for breakthroughs in format? Selecting just five nominees was no trivial matter, I assure you."

Fortunately for the judges, the rules severely limited the number of games in the competition. First of all, the rules were announced just a month and a half before submissions were due late last year. Secondly, only games that were submitted by the writer or by their publisher or developer were considered. And, lastly, games needed to contain a credit line for the writer.

As a result, fewer than 30 games were entered, says Wright. "It's unfortunate that a lot of writers got shut out because the credits in many games don't include them. But that's kind of essential in this competition and it's one of the reasons we created the award in the first place."

Next year will be a different story, Wright hopes, given the fact that the entire games industry will be aware of the awards and will make it a point to submit their best-written titles.

But getting game writers the recognition they deserve has been a high hurdle indeed, according to Evan Skolnick, a veteran game writer and the editorial director at Activision's Vicarious Visions studio.

"Writing hasn't been an area of focused attention in the games industry but we're beginning to see a correction," he explains. "It's very different from movies and TV. Everything in those industries hinges on the quality of the writing. It's very hard to save a bad script with good direction or good acting. But, in gaming, a great game with a poor story will be forgiven. A poor game with a great story will not be forgotten. The writing and the narrative aren't the main attraction in games; they are in a support role to the gameplay."

Last year, Skolnick taught a day-long seminar called "Learn Better Game Writing in a Day" at the Game Developers Conference and he will repeat that tutorial at this year's GDC in two weeks (Feb. 18-22).

He observes that there are many writers in other media who are trying to make the transition to game writing, and while there are similarities, the skillsets are very different.

"In some ways a video game can appear to be similar to a movie on the surface; the cut scenes look very much like little movies," he says. "But games are an interactive form and the player wants control in a game ... as opposed to a moviegoer who just sits back and lets the filmmaker take them where they will.

"When writers bounce back and forth between media, they need to be very cognizant of the differences," he says. "It may look easy, but I consider it a recipe for trouble."

Paul "The Game Master" Hyman is the former editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He has covered the games industry for more than a dozen years. His columns for The Hollywood Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.
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