It's an industry which appeals mainly to 18-35 year old males, has a huge following all around the world and has even made it into the movies (though most of them have been atrocious). It's quite often categorised and chastised as being of no social value, frequently violent and based upon preposterous, simplistic concepts, or cliched genres with elves, orcs, aliens, super heroes and ice cold killers.
It's not really taken seriously, it's certainly not art and there's something a little shameful about admitting to still enjoying it if you're a grown up.
Not another rant about games for a change - but comics.
Link to image.
At the end of last year, SG.biz bumped into Gordon Rennie. Author and comics writer for 2000AD and Warhammer. Gordon recently took a step into the games world, thanks to his involvement in the script for Rebellion's Rogue Trooper, which was published last year, as well as couple of other projects which, being games, never actually happened in the way they were supposed to.
Gordon is an interesting guy, with a lot to say about the world of comics, the state of writing in the games industry and the general state of the 'arts' in Scotland.
We took time off from our hurly-burly schedule of gallery openings (him) and trawling dubious RSS feeds (us) and spoke to him about it all...
Hi Gordon, OK, let's ask the obvious first question for a games site. How
did you first get involved in writing for videogames?
Someone at Lost Boys Games - now Guerilla - really liked this nasty future war comic strip called Glimmer Rats that I'd written, and tracked me down on the interweb thingy to ask me if I was interested in working on the script for Killzone, which was still in early development then. That experience ended slightly unhappily - I was one of the thousands crushed beneath the wheels of the Killzone juggernaut as it slowly inched its way along the road to completion - but I did get to hang out in Amsterdam, meet Rutger Hauer and get a peek behind the curtain at the surprisingly half-arsed way some games are put together.
does writing for games differ from writing in other, non-interactive
media? Are there any problems in particular which are unique to
You're not master of your own domain in games writing - i.e. it's very much a team effort, and you have to be responsive to the developer's wishes. In that respect, it's not much different from writing film screenplays - the more money's at stake, the greater the number of people whose input you're obliged to listen to - although the technical limitations of what you can and can't do are different, and that’s something you have to learn about quickly. In comics, I can blithely write a scene where a thousand dinosaurs come running over a hill, and the artist can get on with drawing it, because comics have an unlimited special effects budget. If I write the same thing in a film screenplay, the producer has a fit and wants to know how we’re going to pay for that. If I write it into a games script, the art department hunt me down and kill me because they’re the ones have to design and build all the models for it.
you found the industry responsive to professional writers within the
You’re joking, right? Regular articles in places like Edge might regularly decry the lack of professional writing or scripting in the industry, and publishers and developers might join in the public hand-wringing about the quality of games narrative or dialogue, but when it comes to them putting their hands into their pockets to remedy the situation, it can be a different story. When you approach developers looking for freelance writing work, you’re often met with total indifference or polite astonishment, as if the idea of hiring a professional writer on their games has never occurred to them before. Look at the games industry recruitment sites and see that ads for writer vacancies are as rare as hen’s teeth. The latest Edge had a careers supplement to coincide with the London Games Fair; pages and pages of features looking at every kind of job skill involved in games development. Well, except for writing, of course. Despite what’s said in public, it simply doesn’t seem to be something many companies value.
games do you consider to have great writing?
I thought Resident Evil 4 had a pretty good narrative, especially in the way the unlocked Ada missions wove in and out of the main plot, adding to your appreciation of the game. I think the GTA games make some great use of incidental humour - something too many of their copycat imitators completely miss on - although some of the dialogue makes you want to stick pins in your eyes, and there's too many cut-scenes that can best be described as "various unpleasant people shouting at each other".
games industry has a reputation for poor writing in games. Do you
think this is fair?
Pretty much, since very few games are written by writers. If you want a plumbing job done, you call a plumber. In the games industry, when you need plot, dialogue and characterisation done, who do you get to do it? Why, a level designer, mission scripter or a pal of the producer’s, of course.
I was playing a game recently, which I won't name - okay, it was Gangs of London on the PSP - and you'd swear the dialogue was written as an afterthought by whoever was around the office that day, possibly even the guy that delivers the sandwiches.
It's crazy. Development budgets for games reach into six or even seven figures, and yet it's a major hassle for a lot of developers to spend a couple more grand to bring in one more professional to do the same kind of professional job that the other very talented people working on the game are doing. I don't kid myself on that I can do mission scripting or level design so why do these guys think they can do what I've been doing for a living for fifteen years?
there any comics or character you'd like to see make the jump into a
Sticking close to home, I think there's a lot of IP potential in the 2000AD stable of characters. Rebellion's initial Dredd game was a misfire, but Rogue Trooper benifited from the learning curve on Dredd - hiring a professional writer being part of that curve, and paid off by getting them a Best Screenplay BAFTA nomination - and from having more love and attention lavished on it. Classic series like Strontium Dog, Nemesis the Warlock, ABC Warriors, Robohunter and perhaps more recent ones like Nicolai Dante and Sinister-Dexter could all make great games, having distinct, visually-interesting lead characters and an immense amount of backstory and strongly-realised fictional universe concepts to draw on. There's a lot of sly or black humour - always a 2000AD trademark - in them all as well, which I think games need more of.
you think there’s any scope for movement in the other direction -
games or character moving into comics?
There's already been a fairly piss-poor Tomb Raider comic series. Far more people already play games than read comics, so it would really be more of an exercise in bringing in extra license revenues than expanding brand awareness into other media. To be honest, I think licensed novels and novelisations – Halo, Resident Evil and World of Warcraft have already done this – are probably a better way to expand on the background of your game world and fill in the gaps in a game’s backstory. Something like GTA, with such a distinctive and popular game world, would be ideal for this. Imagine a series of slick, violent GTA pulp-crime novels, detailing Salvatore Leone’s rise to power, or what happened to Tommy Vercetti before he arrived in Vice City.
distribution systems such as Steam and Xbox Live promise to make
episodic gaming a distinct possibility. Do you see this as an
opportunity to perhaps move out of the basic 'plot' type writing into
MMORGs and episodic gaming are going to feature gameworlds that evolve the longer the player is involved in them – new games content is going to have to be continually created – new characters, plots and subplots, emerging backstory details etc – to keep the players engaged with the game, just in the same way that, say, soap operas or continuing TV series have to keep on generating new material for their audience. Someone’s going to have to create this stuff, and keep on creating it. It’s also not much different from writing a long-running continuing comic strip like Judge Dredd. From a writing or storytelling point of view, there’s a lot of potential there, with the narrative, reacting to what the players are doing in the gameworld, evolving in all sorts of unexpected directions.
would be your ideal job when writing for games?
A horror game. It’s the genre I like the most, and I’ve written a fair amount of horror stuff in comics and other mediums – and won a Borders Books Best Graphic Novel award for one of them – but so far nothing in the games biz.
your take on the state of the games industry in Scotland?
You don't need me to remind anyone that it's taken a severe kicking in the last few years. Real Time Worlds and the Rockstar North aside, it seems to have collapsed back into almost a cottage industry again. There seems to be a thriving mobile games industry here, with companies like Denki, but I'm afraid that sector of the industry generally flies below my radar, mobile gaming not yet requiring much in the way of professionally-constructed narrative.
you think the comics or games businesses are treated with the same
respect and understanding as other areas of the media (tv, movies and
books for example)?
Hey, if the games industry has a hard time gaining any real credibility as a creative medium – although the large amounts of cash it can generate commands a certain amount of growing, if grudging, respect – then you should try working in comics. Games are going through the same process that comics – and, before that, a host of other things, including early rock’n’roll – all went through. Dismissed as being for kids, and with no artistic merit, and then, as their popularity grows, comes the nannyish fretting that their creators are out to corrupt the minds and morals of children.
Luckily, things seem to be slowly changing. At the risk of being a BAFTA bore, I know from personal experience that BAFTA now acknowledging games alongside cinema and TV is a big step forward. The funding mandarins at Scottish Screen wouldn’t have been at all impressed if I had nominated for some mickey mouse games set of games industry awards, but the BAFTA thing definitely caught their attention. I mean, it almost makes games sound like a real, proper, grown-up creative industry.
do you think could be done to improve support for alternative media
such as comics and games in Scotland?
You mean through public funding channels? I've currently got a movie pitch grinding its way through the decision-making process at Scottish Screen, the idea being to scare some lottery cash out of them to pay for script development on a low-budget Scottish horror film. Scottish Screen's part of the Scottish Arts Council and we're getting a hard enough time asking them to put money into something as culturally unedifying as a horror film, so I can only imagine the reaction you'd get asking for money to publish a comic or develop a computer game.
I mean, comics and computer games - they're just violent rubbish aimed at children, aren’t they?
I really can't see it happening with comics - the UK comics industry is pretty much dead on its arse, and the news-stand readership for them just isn't there anymore - but you could probably build a decent case for scamming up some investment from Scottish Enterprise for games development, not as a creative endeavour but as supporting an industry that, UK-wide, now brings in more in export revenue than the British film industry.
But, then, I'm just a hack writer, so what the hell do I know?
McConnell is at home on a Friday night, with a pizza an Xbox game and
a stack of comics. What's he playing, what's he reading and what are
his pizza toppings?
He'll be reading Scottish dope humour comic Northern Lights, playing GTA - the most successful thing to come out of Edinburgh since Sean Connery, and at least Rockstar North are still actually resident in Scotland - and munching on a Meat Feast pizza with extra meat topping.
of your stories/character would you most like to see become a
I dunno. Maybe Caballistics, a guns’monsters occult conspiracy comic series I write, that’s already spun off into its own series of novels. Or White Trash, one of the first things I ever wrote, a violent and funny road movie story about a killcrazy psycho called ‘The King’ who’s on his way to Vegas for his gig comeback gig. How I still treasure the letter we received from the Elvis Presley estate’s lawyers about that one…
if anyone out there is looking for a good writer, who should they be
Why, a BAFTA-nominated one, of course.