The Underappreciation of Videogame Writers

Overlord Screenshot

Rhianna Pratchett, daughter of the late Sir Terry Pratchett, is a veteran of writing in the video game industry. I’ve enjoyed her work in many different titles over the years, from Beyond Divinity to Mirror’s Edge. She spoke about the Future of the Videogames Writer in a TED talk a while back, which is an interesting watch, and having done some game writing myself in the past I can echo many of her sentiments.

The first game in the Overlord series simply titled Overlord, released back in 2007 and is probably my favourite game that she has put her name to. If you’ve never heard of it then I’ll briefly explain, because the concept is a lot of fun. You play as an evil resurrected warrior in a dark fantasy world, controlling hordes of goblins in an effort to overthrow corrupted heroes of the realm, each one having succumbed to one of the seven deadly sins. The endearingly evil little goblins follow your commands, looting and fighting everything in their path in a pikmin-esque fashion. The game is dripping with parody and black comedy, with most of my favourite lines coming from Gnarl, the wise older goblin who serves as your personal advisor and narrator.

“Always a pleasure to have you around, Lord, but don’t you think you should be elsewhere, you know, doing your job?”

Codemasters, the publisher of the Overlord series, recently released a new installment named Overlord: Fellowship of Evil (official site), which Rhianna served as writer on, as she has with every Overlord game to date. Before hurtling through the checkout and adding the game to my steam library so I could lose myself in the satirical fantasy world, I thought I should show some restraint and check the reviews first.

I’m glad I did because unfortunately, the game hasn’t been received favourably. In fact it bombed. Badly.

But it seems to have nothing to do with the writing. If you read the negative reviews on the steam page (64% negative at the time of writing this), you’ll see the main gripe is that Codemasters completely changed the core gameplay from the preceding titles in the series. (Side note: I don’t think alienating your fan base will turn out to be a fantastic business decision).

I have no doubt that with someone as talented as Rhianna Pratchett on the project, the level of writing in that game is everything I would expect, complete with the dark comedy and laugh-out-loud moments of the previous titles. But there’s no way I’m going to wade through simplistic and tedious game design to get to it, and I don’t think anyone can be blamed for feeling the same way.

The whole affair makes me feel sympathy not only for Rhianna Pratchett, but for videogame writers in general. The medium of videogames lets you create some of the most fantastically immersive stories and unforgettable characters, but if the rest of the development team don’t deliver on the gameplay then it’s doubtful many people will even get to see any of the writer’s hard work.

As much as I would love to focus more on videogame writing, the more I learn about the industry the more my common sense tells me to run in the other direction.

© 2015, Gavin Zanker. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Photo by Niranjan licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

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