IncGamers Network

Are games the best medium for storytelling?

Concluding our interview with Gears of War 3 writer Karen Traviss, we chat about the general perception of a ‘videogame story’ and how both the industry and writers can go about ‘improving’ it.
If you missed part one of our interview with Traviss, in which we talk about how it was to work with Epic Games, her experience with the final game and why she took the project in the first place, then check out Telling the Story of Gears 3.
IncGamers: Given your involvement in this game, have you been tempted to get more closely involved with the design aspects of videogames?
Karen Traviss: Well, I was pretty closely involved in every level of Gears 3. I was working with the level designers and spent a lot of time with Epic working on the voiceovers, the [motion capture] and with the concept artists.
I would like to do more work on games. I like working on them, but it’s a case of fitting them in because it takes two years of very intensive work. At the moment I’ve got to spend about a year catching up on the novels I haven’t written yet because my publishers to starting to ask about them [laughs].
IncGamers: What’s your favourite medium to work in?
Traviss: If there was a league table, I would say that I like doings comics the most, because I find it’s a natural medium for me, and then I like doing games second and novels third. Then again, I’m novelist and that’s my bread and butter…  
Games are more fun because I’m a visual processor; to me they’re like the ultimate movie. There’s so much risk involved with them because you don’t know what the player to going to do, so you’ve got to be right at the top of your game to able to do them while also telling a story. Somehow, even when people skip cut-scenes or bits of the level, they’ve still got to come out of a level understanding the story and feeling the emotional pull of it.
It’s the most demanding thing you can and I like a big challenge.

IncGamers: The story of a videogame is often overlooked, both by fans of the medium and by outside observers, as being brash, crude and unworthy of deconstruction. Do you think there will ever be a time when the writer of a game is heralded to same extent as novelists or screenwriters for cinema?
Traviss: I think it’s an interesting question. There was a wonderful programme Charlie Brooker did about games where he interviewed Graham Linehan who wrote Father Ted. Linehan is a very keen gamer.
Graham made a good point saying something like “games have been around for thirty years, we’ve got amazing technology and we need to make the stories catch up.” I think that Gears is one of those stories, this has grown up. Some parts of the industry still think that story comes at the expense of gameplay, but it doesn’t.
You need the story. For example, if you’ve got a character that’s a spider, you don’t put him in a level full of snakes because there’s no tension in that. It’s very simple. Gameplay has to be relevant to the story otherwise what people are playing is just utterly random. You can’t just blow things up for no reason; you’ve got to be hyped up to blow them up for a reason.
IncGamers: How does the industry as a whole go about improving its story elements?
Traviss: If games want to take on more successful writers like me, games companies have to understand that they need to use those writers for who and what they are. I am a military fiction writer coming to Gears which is military fiction.
For a writer though, it’s a gamble taking two years out of their career to do a game. I was writing books at the same time but doing a game pretty well sucks you dry because it’s such a complex industry. Also, I’m not the kind of person who just hands in a script and says goodbye; I was there to the bitter end, until it got to the technical stages where I could no longer add anything.
Generally, the industry should expect more from its writers and the writers should understand that the story matters and that it’s not there just to design levels from. Games don’t all have to be Dostoevsky. Games are rather like books, you can have cookery books, you can have a joke book, you can have anything you want. If you want the equivalent of War and Peace then you’ve got to bring the story up front. 

IncGamers: What can writers do to help that process?
Traviss: Writers need to understand that games have needs that novels don’t. There have been writers that have said foolish things about how games are crap and that they’re going to change them. Of course, they then crash and burned because they haven’t understood that it’s not that simple.
It’s like playing a 3-dimensition chess game with 300 people working on it – everyone has to compromise. That’s very different from writing a novel and there aren’t very many people that can do both.
If games take writers more seriously, and if writers understand that games have ‘real’ constraints that are not creative, they’re physical, I think then we’ll have some sort of golden era that is really engaging. I believe in games as the best medium for storytelling.
IncGamers: What’s the perfect situation for somebody writing a game?
Traviss: The perfect situation would be to sit down with the games company and ask them what kind of gameplay they want to use, what they want to showcase, what their physics are like. Then I’ll build them a story around those things.
In the real world that doesn’t happen, of course. Everyone is on this crazy, rolling, over-lapping time thing and everyone is fitting in where they best can. Epic are pretty well leading the way in terms of taking the story seriously, though.
IncGamers: If there is to be another Gears of War game, would you be up for being involved?
Traviss: It’s all about the timing. I love Epic to death and I love Gears to death, but if I’m already in the middle of something I couldn’t drop… So, I could never say if I will do it. Willingness to do it is not the same as being available to do it.
Gears of War 3 review here.  


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