Editing in Video Games (A Discussion, Not a Manifesto)

We established in this post the ideal role an editor should play. Again, we’re ignoring line- and copyediting (improving the quality and consistency of individual lines of text, correcting grammar and typographical errors, etc.–vital tasks, but not today’s topic). Instead, let’s focus on high-level developmental editing functions, and work with these two assumptions:

A good editor can meaningfully improve the quality of a writer’s work. Even brilliant writers benefit from good editing and the critique of someone with a fresh perspective.

The skillset required to be a good editor is distinct (with some overlap) from the skillset required to be a good writer. Very few truly great writers are also truly great editors, and vice-versa. Such people exist, but–as with any profession–it’s difficult to achieve genuine mastery of two different skillsets.

With those points in mind, what’s the role of editing in the video game industry? Where do editors stand now, and where do we, as an industry, want to go?

Narrative Roles in Gaming

Writers have received increasing respect from the games industry over the last two decades. While many companies still have difficulty fully embedding writers in the production process, most at least acknowledge that a professional writer is needed to develop a polished and compelling story. The need for specialized interactive writers is better recognized, as well–companies are beginning to understand that a background in film or prose doesn’t, in itself, qualify a writer to write a video game (any more than a novelist can be assumed to have the skills to write a screenplay).

The concept of a “Narrative Designer” is also becoming more prominent. While different companies view the role differently, “narrative design” commonly refers to the art of holistic integration of narrative into a game. That is, working together with designers, artists, and other team members to ensure a cohesive narrative “feel.”

Writing in the video game industry still has a long way to go, but we’re fumbling our way there.

Editing, on the other hand, remains on the fringe. Line editors and copyeditors are reasonably common–outright errors in in-game messages and advertising copy are too blatantly embarrassing and unprofessional to consistently let slide–but positions for editors who aid in the development and production of narrative are scarce at best.

Where Editors Stand Now

Instead, the duties of a traditional editor are typically spread across multiple positions. The specifics depend upon the project and the company.

A Creative Director or Lead Designer may take on the responsibility of story oversight, attempting to ensure overall consistency of theme, approving plot structure, and so forth. This comes with its share of difficulties, as well–a project lead is unlikely to have the time to fully dedicate him- or herself to ensuring story quality or to work with a writer on smaller details. In addition, while a strong Creative Director is likely to have a strong overall sense of narrative, recognizing a problem is different from knowing how to solve that problem–which is ultimately the responsibility of the writer, of course, but expert support always improves the likelihood of a problem being solved quickly and efficiently.

Relying on a Creative Director or Lead Designer for editorial oversight can, of course, cause more substantial problems when the lead lacks an aptitude for narrative or, alternately, is intimately involved in the story design process. In the latter case, there’s no one left to view the narrative objectively–the Creative Director and writer are essentially collaborators editing their own work. Wonderful results are possible, of course, but the risk of problems going unspotted is much higher–it’s easy to develop blind spots when reviewing your own writing.

Alternatively, a Lead Writer or Narrative Designer may provide editorial oversight of a larger writing team. Many of a Narrative Designer’s responsibilities also echo editorial tasks from traditional media–working with other teams to make sure the project is served well overall. (Consider, for example, a comic book editor’s task of working with artists and letterers to a Narrative Designer’s task of working with System Designers and, well, artists.)

A Lead Writer or Narrative Designer should, in theory, also have a strong understanding of craft that can be applied when working with other writers on the team–but if the Lead Writer or Narrative Designer comes mainly from a writing background, he or she may lack the editorial skills needed to help impart that craft to others.

And again, we see more difficulties when the Lead Writer or Narrative Designer is responsible for writing significant amounts of content. Who edits the Lead Writer or Narrative Designer? Where’s the comprehensive oversight?

In some companies, some traditional editorial duties are also given to Quality Assurance. In certain respects, this can be a natural fit–at its best, QA is tasked with looking at both individual pieces of a game and the game as a whole, understanding what’s enjoyable for the audience and identifying where things go wrong. “Story QA” isn’t a bad way of describing part of an editor’s tasks. The difficulties here include hiring and developing skilled “story QA” analysts (whose skills may be meaningfully different from skills valued by the rest of QA) and ensuring that story QA feedback is taken seriously; remember that in many traditional editor / writer relationships, the editor has ultimate veto power over whether a story is fit for publication.

What’s the Answer?

Every company is different. Every project is different. But I believe that any company dedicated to improving the quality of its storytelling should at least consider whether and how editorial functions are being filled. Some companies may be well served by having an editor on-staff, while others may turn to other solutions–but these should be conscious choices, not defaults.

When considering editorial functions within a company, consider questions such as the following:

Should an editor be embedded within a game’s development team? Could an editor instead serve multiple projects within a company (and, if needed, oversee individual editors assigned to specific games?) Less narrative-driven projects require less editorial oversight, while dialogue- or branching-heavy projects may require more.

Can the roles of Narrative Designer and editor be merged? If so, should key writing and story development be done by a person other than the Narrative Designer (e.g., by splitting Narrative Designer from Lead Writer)?

Can an editor with a strong understanding of interactive narrative compensate for a writer’s inexperience with game writing? Or vice-versa? (My opinion: Maybe, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.)

How many writers will be working on a project? The more writers, the more need for someone to ensure consistency (of style, of voice, of quality) across the board, and the more useful it is to have someone who understands craft and critique.

Who does the person responsible for editorial oversight of the story report to? Is the person responsible for editorial oversight in a position to enforce story quality?

If editorial duties are effectively spread among other team members (Creative Director, producers, QA), will the required skills be part of hiring requirements for these roles in the future? Even if the current producer has a strong sense of story, is that something you want as a requirement?

Back to Business

While I’ve done my share of editing, I consider myself primarily a writer. I’m the last person to say that I need an editor to do high-quality work, and I like to think I can be trusted to produce strong stories and dialogue with minimal oversight. (After all, I’m not trying to talk myself out of jobs.) But it shouldn’t be controversial to say that a skilled editor can bring out the absolute best in a project–any more than it would be controversial to say that a talented QA or production team can improve a project immeasurably.

If we want game narratives to continue to improve, we need to learn from other media and find ways to raise the bar internally. We also need to find solutions unique to our own medium. We’re doing well, but we can do much better.

Storytelling is still a weakness in the video game world. Stronger editing may be one way to help turn it into a strength.

Anyone have a contrasting view they’d like to elaborate on at length? Get in touch and I’ll be happy to link or post it here.