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Writers Guild Nominate Top Games of 08; I Tell You Why They're Wrong

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Adrian Hatwell
Adrian Hatwell
Fallout 3 from Bethesda

Of all the self-aggrandising, bloated Hollywood award events of the season my favourite is the relatively humble Writers Guild of America Awards. This year while most of the glitzy shindigs turn their gaze to dead jesters and tragic orphaned game show winners, the Writers Guild of America are the only ones giving Video Games their creative dues with a Videogame Writing Award category.


The Award debuted last year with a selection of picks that pretty much baffled everyone, including the likes of Crash of the Titans, The Witcher, and The Simpsons Game. While heavy hitters of the year like Bioshock and fan-favourite Sam & Max were left out in the cold the selection at least indicated a willingness to go beyond hype of AAA releases. A fact cemented by the year's winner, a quiet (but deserving) PSP release by the name of Dead Head Fred.


This year's list of nominees is no less varied, ranging from one of 2008's biggest releases to a relatively obscure downloadable title. Take a gander:



Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3 (EA). Writer: Haris Orkin. Story Producer: Mical Pedriana.


Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble! (Mousechief). Writing: Keith Nemitz. Additional Writing: Adrianne Ambrose.


Fallout 3 (Bethesda). Lead Writer: Emil Pagliarulo. Quest Writing: Erik J. Caponi, Brian Chapin, Jon Paul Duvall, Kurt Kuhlmann, Alan Nanes, Bruce Nesmith, and Fred Zeleny. Additional Quest Writing: Nate Ellis, William Killeen, Mark Nelson, and Justin McSweeney.


Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (LucasArts). Writers: Haden Blackman, Shawn Pitman, John Stafford and Cameron Suey.


Tomb Raider: Underworld
(Eidos). Story: Eric Lindstrom and Toby Guard. Screenplay: Eric Lindstrom.



It's a peculiar list but of the games I've played, regardless of their overall success, most of the writing has indeed been impressive. As far as representing the best the year had to offer, however, I find the list to be lacking. This is most likely due to the fact that in order to be in the running for the award you must actually be a member of The Writers Guild (or recently have applied) and you must submit your game's script for consideration. Granted it's not a huge barrier to entry, The Writers Guild fee is fairly nominal, but it's entirely possible that the games one expects to see on such a list (the likes of Grand Theft Auto or Metal Gear Solid) simply weren't contenders. Unfortunately there's no statistics available as to how many scripts were submitted.


Still, lets work with what we have. My experience with Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3 has been brief, but I liked what I saw. Over its three iterations the Red Alert series has slowly morphed from a grounded imagining of a war between the Soviets and the Allies (here including Germany) in a world where WWII never took place, to a completely over-the-top parody of itself. Red Alert 3 blends cold war-era propaganda with golden age SF imaginings to create a kitschy, Chuck Jones-esque design that swipes hilariously at the all-too-serious, macho war gaming we geeks are so prone to obsess over.


Having not played the game to anything near completion I can't really comment on the overall effect of the narrative, but on a micro level the production design was top notch, so that nomination meets with tentative approval.


Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble! Is easily my favourite on the list, a wonderful casual game by independent developers Mousechief. Set in the 1920's at a fictional American High School, the game puts players in charge of a gang of rebellious schoolgirls looking to cause trouble and playfully break free from the repressive social restraints of the time. The title imitates a board game aesthetic, with tokens moved around and cards drawn to activate events.


Again, I can't comment on the narrative as a whole as I've only played the demo download, but the first episode was absolutely charming. The girls are charismatic, witty, and fun, and the high jinks they get up to (represented in basic mini-games) are addictively simple. I'm so glad this tiny game made the list alongside the other blockbusters; I recommend you all at least try it out.


Fallout 3 is probably the safe bet. Hugely hyped, critically acclaimed, ambitious, and a strong seller, the game has topped many a 'best of' list, and a win for writing certainly wouldn’t be out of place on its mantle.


Wow, this is getting embarrassing, but I haven't finished Fallout 3 yet either, so once again I can't judge the story as a finished product. The reason I haven't finished yet, however, is because there's just so much packed into this game. Most of my time has been spent away from the game's main quest, instead exploring the almost overwhelming amount of side-quests and distractions that the post-apocalyptic America has to offer.


The game clearly has something it wants to say about its country of origin, though I suspect gamers will all take away different interpretations of what that may be. This is largely because that's how things are supposed to go, authorial intent long ago lost it's title as the be all, end all of meaning in art. This holds even truer for video games, however, because we don't yet have the complete set of critical tools that come with the study of literature or film. We are still groping around for a way of deriving meaning from video games, of assessing things like writing in video games on a level other than simple comparison with books or film. That is why it's so nice to see the guild recognising gaming this way, but also why awards like these are so problematic for this young medium.


That aside, Fallout 3 deserves its nod. The game has much more to say than most titles, and on volume of content alone the game should be recognised as an achievement.


Guess what? I haven't played all the way through Star Wars: The Force Unleashed yet. I can't say I was particularly gripped by the beginning of the story however, and when the game mechanics also failed to compel I dropped the title into my (ever growing) 'to get back to' pile. I doubt I will. I have heard rumblings about fans being rather more satisfied with the story here than other games in the franchise, so there's a slim chance it deserves its spot. I'm going to go ahead and throw out a completely unfounded 'probably not' though.


Finally, a game that I haven't played halfway through, in fact I haven't played Tomb Raider: Underworld at all. That's not going to stop me from judging it though. I've played all of the other games in the Tomb Raider series and writing has never once stuck out as a priority to the creators. It’s usually just some simple Indiana Jones-esque premise mixed in with a little James Bond gunplay. I've heard Underworld is probably the best game in the series thus far, so I must get around to playing it, but I don’t believe the story has been the thrust of that argument. Lump this in with The Force Unleashed -- I'm sure the writing is fine, but I would be surprised if it truly deserved a spot in the top five.


There you have it, despite having played none of them to completion, I give you my wholly unsubstantiated opinion on The Writers Guild's picks for best video game writing of 2008. Forgetting whether or not there are more deserving games that didn't make the cut, it's a good step forward for acceptance of video games as an artistic medium to be seen in such company.


The Winner will be announced at the awards ceremony on February 9th; my money is on Fallout, but I'll be rooting for Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble!

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