When writing for video games, you encounter no shortage of metaphors. Perhaps given the usual subject matter of most games, it's not surprising that battle is one of the more common ones. We're "in the trenches" together, and our leads are our generals. In one company, I received a rare glimpse into my teammates' perception of me through a meme from the Lord of the Rings films. In the meme, Aragorn stands, sword in hand, before the gates of Mordor, shouting a battle cry to the armies of Gondor as they ready to storm the gates. In the film, Aragorn shouts "For Frodo!" In the meme my teammates had generated, the caption read, "For Rebecca and [Another Lead's Name]."
It's a flattering image, if you don't think about it too deeply. But I find myself sitting uneasily with it. Who are we battling, in this creative pursuit of video game making? And why does the metaphor of battle often feel so apt? We're supposed to be in the business of making things, yet a battle implies destruction--a winner, a loser, a side that gets to dominate and another side driven from the field, beaten into surrender or submission. In my experience, the imagined enemy has ranged from the publisher, to other departments, to even the player.
In another company, my role entailed managing and mentoring writing leads. They talked, often, of going into meetings with the other leads on their teams and trying to fight for their vision of the game. When the disagreement was something minor they'd talk of "picking their battles." I made a point of challenging this language; if you see a battle, you will get one, I warned. This is creative, collaborative work; the other departments are just as much your partners as your own team.
They took the warning to heart, but it wasn't enough to change the metaphor. It's not just that our metaphors shape our reality; our realities shape our metaphors. And those metaphors spoke to real rifts, real issues of distrust and of vying for dominance and authority between different creative departments. Who should lead? Who gets the final call?
Another company I worked at was sure they'd solved the problem. "We can't put the cart before the horse," they said, by which they meant that writing should always come at the very end, after all the content was designed and built. This was in reaction to experiences they'd had at still another company, where they felt that writing drove too much of the process, to the detriment of good design.
At first blush, it makes a certain kind of sense: games are complex mechanical affairs. For the vast majority of games, the primary goal is to provide fun for the player, after all, and a story that's nailed down too early can become inflexible when a mechanic doesn't work out as planned. Say you want to build a game about being a clown in the circus, and the story calls for extensive use of a juggling mechanic, but players hate it. What do you do then? Throw out the story or forge ahead with the mechanic?
This is a made-up story and a false dilemma. Most games aren't trying to build innovative new juggling mechanics. Look at the content in the vast majority of action and RPG games produced today and they take the same basic form: use the core mechanics of stealth and combat to a) loot the objective b) kill the main enemy c) reach the location. Rinse and repeat.
Meanwhile, the most mechanically innovative games available tend also to be the most story-driven. What Remains of Edith Finch introduces a new mechanic for each of its chapters. Untethered by the need to turn each mechanic into a infinitely repeatable game-sustaining loop, it can be that paradoxically rare thing in video games--playful. Many more examples spring to mind: Papers, Please mechanically reproduces both the mind-numbing drudgery and harrowing inhumanity of being a tool of an autocratic bureaucracy; Strange Horticulture evokes a pastoral gothic out of the novel mechanic of identifying plants; The Curse of the Golden Idol weaves an engrossing pulply story of how men's greed and ambitions form the seed of their undoing through a series of static scenes, thanks to its ingenious deduction mechanic.
Play a game like Horizon Forbidden West and you can be assured that every quest will end the same way: you will fight something. Maybe it will be a large machine, or maybe it will be a group of machines. Likewise, in every level of Unpacking sees you unpacking personal items to move into a new space. But it takes a storyteller's hand--a narrative designer/writer's hand--to infuse meaning into that repetitive act, and into the friction that results when an object doesn't quite fit.
That company had it wrong, then, you might conclude. Narrative is the horse, and gameplay design is the cart.
Ah, but that's the metaphorical trap. If we assume that there is a cart and there is a horse, then we naturally assume positions must be reversed. We remain stuck within a framework in which one is the force and the other is the cargo.
But throw out the metaphor and what remains is reality; something infinitely more complicated. Metaphors, however clarifying and appealing they are, can't make the decisions for us. The solutions we're left with are more prosaic: clearly defined roles and responsibilities; an established process for making and documenting decisions; pillars that can be used as guidance and a gut check when navigating competing priorities; and above all, humility.
There is no cart; there is no horse. Just as there's no battlefield. There's a game that we are all in the act of bringing into being together. We see different parts of it, but our success depends on the whole. Perhaps it's most like building a house. The plan must have a strong foundation, good structure, space for plumbing and electricity, for windows and insulation and everything that brings the house up to code, and no less significantly, it must be aesthetically appealing both within and without.
It's not the perfect metaphor, but no metaphor is. It works as far as it goes, and no further. Try it out, and if it doesn't work, feel free to discard it and find a better one.