Magazine article Filmmaker

War of Words

Magazine article Filmmaker

War of Words

Article excerpt

Videogames have never been known for their great writing. With a few exceptions, the dialogue in games tends to be cringe inducing rather than awe-inspiring. Animated men making supposedly humorous asides after slaughtering a thousand zombies or enemy soldiers; cut scenes that reveal overly complicated plot lines that nobody really understands. Even games with aspirations beyond the cash register have stumbled more often than not when it comes to the subtleties of good writing.

Enter Tom Bissell. I've known Tom for years - he was part of a group of people I met when I first started writing about videogames in the early 2000s; part of a group who I was thrilled to learn were not only writers and editors and other assorted literary types, but also interested in videogames! This did not happen to me often, especially back then. Tom, whod made his reputation as an editor and then as a writer for places like Harper's and The Virginia Quarterly, stepped into the videogame arena with the essays collected in his book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, which got him headlines for writing frankly about his addiction to both Grand Theft Auto and cocaine. His most recent book is Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creations, a highbrow affair with a review in The New York Times Book Review and everything. In other words, Tom is both a serious writer and a serious gamer.

I was interested when Tom hooked up with Jonathan Blow - the industry's anointed genius auteur - to work on The Witness, Blow's followup to his indie breakthrough Braid. When I learned that Tom, with his writing partner Rob Auten, had been hired by Epic Games to write the next installment of Gears of War, the billion-dollar first-person-shooter franchise, I was more than interested. What a gig! What a partnership! What would happen when the epitome of mainstream blockbuster videogame fare teamed up with a writer like Tom?

I talked to Tom about all this recently. Lesson one, he said: writing for videogames is hard. "I used to believe that the big problem with games was that they were, quote, 'badly written,'" Tom said. "But I now realize that the reason they're so badly written is a much stranger question than I previously thought. It's a much harder problem to solve."

He learned this when he sat down to play the game after completing the first draft. "We played the game through with all this wonderful, smart writer-type writing, and it was just all bullshit. It didn't work. It was really garbage - and that's the point where I realized that this is way harder than I thought it would be. …

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