These Words Are Broken – We Need New Ones

As I dive more and more into transmedia and video game design, something has been bothering me. It started building my head when I was on the “Narrative Design” track at GDC Online, and has been growing ever since. In a nutshell, the problem is this:

“Writing” is only a small portion of what writers actually do these days.

Sure, I could get semantic on this point – technically what writers do nowadays is typing instead of writing manuscripts out by hand – but even the more liberal interpretation is becoming awkward. The idea of the professional who does nothing but sit at a typewriter or computer, churn out a manuscript or Word document, send it in, get paid, and move on to the next one is increasingly inaccurate. Now freelance writers need to know skills like blogging and marketing and networking, and that’s aside from other non-writing skills like research and editing that have been part of the craft for over a century now. It’s not uncommon for writers to have to learn things like HTML or audio recording or how to be interviewed in order to supplement their careers. But even then, while there might be a decreasing percentage of sitting at the computer and typing out stuff for people to read, it’s still a significant percentage for the purely prose writer.

What about transmedia? Is responding to Twitter messages as your character writing? Is posting a picture online writing? Is editing a youtube video writing? Technically it’s not, but as pure prose becomes one portion of a transmedia story, other skills supplement and support the overall narrative. For example, when I worked on Whitechapel, I did an audio recording and edit of each episode after I wrote it out. The act of recording and editing would always lead me to make minor changes to the text before I published it online, so recording audio, while itself not writing, was still an invaluable part of the writing process for me on that project. I’m also seeing this as I work on video games. Where I place an asset in the game is just as much a part of the story as the dialogue or text blurbs I write. In fact, I’m finding that I’m spending much of my actual writing time creating documents that are primarily for internal use. And that’s not new – a couple of times at GDC Online I heard people say things to the effect that “your best writing will be things that only your team sees.”

The interactivity of both transmedia and video games throws another wrench into the whole “writing” angle. Instead of crafting an experience for an audience to consume, you’re crafting an experience for the audience to take and enhance, modify, destroy, or ignore as they feel inclined. This isn’t new, either – RPG writers have been dealing with it for a long time as well. Many people seem to focus on the game-crafting aspect instead of the fiction-crafting aspect, and stick to verbs like “design” and “develop” instead.1

As narrative becomes more and more important to interactive media, however, is this adequate? On the one hand, I’ve been able to accept that I am a designer who uses his writing skills to help his designs, but when people asking what I do for a living, I invariably answer that I’m a writer. In my head, writing is more than a skill – it is who I am. But I also don’t see the separation between writing with a word processor, writing in my journal, or “writing” with three-dimensional virtual assets. In my head, I’m using the same skills I learned as a writer to tell stories in different media.

And maybe that’s the answer. I’m a writer. Someone else is a video director. A third person is a level designer. But in the end, we’re all storytellers. We use the language of stories in our various media and skill sets to bring to life a convincing experience for our audience, just like we did when we huddled around a fire and listened to people tell us about the gods. From that perspective, we haven’t really changed all that much, really. Maybe I’m just a 21st century storyteller. But no, that doesn’t quite work either, as there are formalized oral storytellers in the world. One of them that I met in Austin even works officially as a storyteller for Motorola, of all places. There are contests and podcasts and organizations for people telling stories to each other in the original oral tradition. While I respect and appreciate that tradition, telling oral stories off-the-cuff or without a script is something that I actually don’t do all that well.2

Maybe there isn’t a good word for what we do. Maybe we’ll be stuck with titles like “transmedia producer” and “content designer” for years to come yet. It bothers me, though, because the more you specify these words, the greater the chance that we’ll stop realizing that we’re all doing the same thing, and we’ll lose the chance to learn from each other and understand the value and impact of our interconnected-but-distinct skill sets. Or maybe it’ll become so broad that people will start to expect that every writer can also edit a podcast or shoot a good video, and each creative specialist will start to lose ground to jacks-of-all-trades.

Whatever happens, I’m sure that when it comes, we’ll have a word for it that everyone hates.

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  1. And just look at my own titles – I’m a “developer” for White Wolf and a “designer” for CCP.
  2. As anyone who has listened to my podcasts can tell you.