Monday, May 3, 2010

Off to Elsewhere

This morning Mrs. JPG and I are off to a tropical island for a week's vacation. I may or may not be bringing two Mass Effect novels to read on the beach. What? Like you're one to judge.

Unlike most licensed-property tie-in books, I actually expect these to be good: they're by Drew Karpyshyn, senior writer for BioWare and lead writer on both Mass Effect games and Knights of the Old Republic.

I'll fully admit I was suckered into purchasing these by the little Easter egg in Mass Effect 2, where Shepard can buy e-books (or space-books, or whatever) by "the human writer Drew Karpyshyn" from one of the stores (on Omega, maybe?). Until I reached that point in the game, it had never occurred to me that there would be Mass Effect novels. Which is strange, because they still sell StarCraft and Diablo II novels at Barnes & Noble.

A few months ago I read Professional Techniques for Video Game Writing (thank you, awesome Minuteman Public Library system), which was an interesting look behind the scenes at the business of writing for games. The sheer number of types of writing that need to be done for a AAA title - dialogue, character sketches, story outlines, cutscene scripts, design docs, manuals, in-game tutorials, codex entries and supplemental artifacts - was pretty overwhelming. As were the logistics: most game writers are not in a great situation like Karpyshyn's, where they're part of a dedicated team with specific roles. Instead, they're often off-site consultants who are tasked with reading designers' minds and interpreting the vagaries of design docs to construct some kind of coherent narrative - without having direct access to the actual game itself as it is being built. And since gameplay always trumps story, they better have zero ego.

Given all that, it's kind of a miracle any big-name game has a coherent story. Let alone incredibly rich universes and characters like those of Mass Effect, Fallout, and BioShock.

I'm interested to see what Karpyshyn does with the Mass Effect universe in book form. I wonder if it's more or less challenging for him, and other game writers, to work in the more traditional format of a novel. It's either very liberating or very daunting, I suspect.

After an unfortunate trip a few years ago when all I had to read on the beach was The Scarlet Letter, I vowed to never again bring a book on vacation that would require the least bit of thought. Here's hoping Karpyshyn can prove that declaration wrongheaded. Because I tried Angels & Demons, and not thinking really, really sucks.

Have a great first week of May - see you back in the real world next Tuesday.

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