The line between writing for Hollywood and writing for video games is becoming ever more blurred as technology pushes the boundaries of both mediums. Game developer and Writers’ Program instructor Robert Bryant recently had time for an interview to discuss his upcoming four-day course in “narrative design” and all things gaming.
Writers’ Program: To start, how did you begin your career in video games?
Robert Bryant: I had been working for years in various jobs in the linear entertainment industry (you may know it as “Hollywood”). I was between screenplays, tired of working a day job at a real estate consulting firm, and decided to chuck it, take a big pay cut, and start on the ground floor of the video game industry working as a game tester at Mattel. Things just sort of exploded from there, and just five years later I was studio director at a console publisher, able to greenlight my own game concepts.
Wp’: How does your professional experience tie in to your course?
RB: My course at UCLA Extension grew out of a game development problem. I was leading a team working on a massively-multiplayer online (MMO) game, which needs a ton of writing. I hired screenwriter and former Extension instructor Keith Giglio, whom I’d known and collaborated with for years, to help me out. He was a games player and I thought our experience in reading and breaking story on each other’s scripts would give me a shortcut in developing the world and characters for the game. It didn’t. What we got was a shortcut to identifying the fact that there is so little scholarship or training for traditional writers to work in games or for game developers to learn the basics of character and story structure. So we developed our first game writing course to help fill that void, and it’s sort of snowballed from there.
Wp’: We’re currently living in what has to be the most exciting time ever for game developers. Home consoles are producing the best graphics, the TV market is expanding into 3-D, mobile devices now operate on dual-core processors, the list goes on and on. What are your thoughts on the present and future state of gaming?
RB: Part of what’s so exciting about this moment in time is that we live in the Golden Age of the Indie Game, and barriers to entry for game creators have never been lower. Software packages like Game Salad are designed for non-programmers to be able to craft and publish their own games in a very user-friendly environment. Games like Braid, Minecraft, Limbo, Super Meat Boy and even Angry Birds all came from small—sometimes one-person—teams working outside the traditional publisher-funding model. On the technology front, I think it’s great that the hardware seems to have plateaued. What more do we want from a PlayStation 4 or an Xbox 720? Smell-o-vision? Visible nose hair? The fact that developers have had some time to adapt to the current leading edge of technology has allowed them the time to create some truly great game experiences that rely on story and gameplay, and not just eye-poking graphics. In the last several years we’ve had BioShock, Heavy Rain, Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire, Mass Effect, Assassin’s Creed and even World of WarCraft take game story, and the craft of narrative design, to very exciting new places. I feel like game writing is at last reaching its pimply, voice-cracking adolescence and we’re getting some tantalizing glimpses as to how it might eventually mature.
Wp’: How has the role of the writer evolved in the video game medium as games have become more cinematic?
RB: The term “cinematic” makes me a little queasy. In game development, a cinematic is a part of the game that you watch, not play. But if by “cinematic” you mean “linear and movie-like,” then in some cases the role of a game writer is becoming very similar to that of a screenwriter, in that you’re crafting a passive narrative experience for the player. If by cinematic you mean “grand and epic in scale,” then the answer is that writers are becoming more and more integrated with the game’s design team, so that—in the best games—they’re involved very early in the creative process in order to stitch story into the gameplay. My current favorite example of this is the opening level of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, where the player finds himself hanging upside down strapped in a passenger rail car that’s dangling over a snowy cliff high in the mountains. It’s a very “cinematic” opening, but it’s also very interactive and gets the player working toward a clear goal from the first moments.
Wp’: Are there any advantages to being a writer that can write across multiple platforms (like games, film and TV)?
RB: Probably, but at the end of the day it’s about what you can bring to the table. If your story or characters are less than memorable, simply calling yourself a “transmedia writer” won’t help you. I think it’s best if writers pay their dues and learn one medium intimately, before they adapt those skills to a new medium. For example, even though I consider myself a very seasoned writer, I’m only now trying my hand at my first love—comic books.
Wp’: What is it you hope your students will take away from your Writers Studio course in February?
RB: I hope that in the course of the four days they can take their stories and turn them into compelling game concepts, or that they can take their gameplay ideas and create interesting worlds and characters to deepen the player’s experience. Plus, I’m told there’s free coffee.
Jeff Bonnett is the Program Assistant for Screenwriting (Onsite & Online). Contact him at email@example.com or (310) 206-1542.