Perth Writers Festival: Games Writers Square Off in the Octagon

The Octagon Theatre, that is, where the Perth Writers Festival held the Game Changers sessions featuring a strong line up of modern video game writers.

(Yes, that’s a terrible intro. But I can’t think of another one, despite much effort. I’M SORRY.)

It's four people on a panel with a large blue screen overhead

Session 3’s panel (from left to right): Hex, Clint Hocking, Jill Murray, Steve Gaynor

From the outside, it was an odd fit. The rest of the Writers Festival contained professional authors, politicians (current and former), journalists and actors, all who more traditionally slot into these kind of events. Video game ‘writers’ at a Writers Festival? But Game Changers brought a different kind of audience and a different vibe.

Looking at the people walking around the Festival events, the audience who wasn’t going to Game Changers was, well, old. Lots of people 50 and over, 60 and over. The audience at the Game Changers sessions was much, much younger and much more diverse – there were teenagers, young boys and girls, parents (who may or may not have been there against their will), young adults and so on, none of whom would have been seen at any other of the Writer sessions. The Writers Festival took a risk and ended up gathering an audience brought together by their shared love of video games.

Or, if you were ten or under, your shared love of Bajo and Hex.

GG Well Played

Hex and Bajo sign autographs for their young fans.

Hex and Bajo, complete with a line of young fans (and their mothers). (Image sourced from: myself)

On a cognitive level, I’m aware that Bajo (Steven O’Donnell) and Hex (Stephanie Bendixsen) are popular with young gamers. They host the ABC’s Good Game show (and Good Game: Spawn Point, more aimed at younger kids, plus other associated Good Game content) and are the most visible games reviewers in Australia.

I didn’t get HOW popular they are until I saw a stage get rushed by children eager just to gush at them. These kids would sit through an hour of someone they’d never heard of talking about games they hadn’t played (e.g. Dan Pinchbeck and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs) just for a chance to say hello and talk about Minecraft with Bajo / Hex.

Bajo and Hex took it in stride, talking to the children they reasonably could between sessions and then having the longest line for photos at the meet’n’greet section at the end. They are honestly great ambassadors for Australian gaming. Hex had to deal with the only moron questioner of the day, who started his time at the microphone with a “Girl you so fine!” comment that she easily brushed off and moved on from. (The audience muttered darkly in response; the questioner recognised the room had turned against him.)

They were there to host the event, during which they also did a solid job of asking questions of each writer and then managing the Q&A time for each session. My only complaint was that because Hex was off doing filmed interviews with the writers during Bajo’s sessions there was a bit of repetition in the panel questions (which Hex thought might happen and apologised for up front). Which is a very minor complaint in what was otherwise great session management over a long day.

(My only real complaint in how the day was run was giving a Festival volunteer who looked like they would rather be anywhere else, and walked like they had two bad knees, the responsibility for running the Q&A microphone up and down the Octagon Theatre stairs. Indifferent Microphone Man was changed for Active Microphone Woman for the last session and it reduced a lot of question waiting time.)

The Sessions

Whether by chance or choice the Perth Writers Festival picked up an impressive spread of games writers. There was a great mix of AAA experience, indie passion and gaming innovation across the four sessions, featuring at various times:

  • Clint Hocking – Far Cry 2, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory
  • Jill Murray – Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
  • Guy Gadney – The Suspect, Sherlock: The Network
  • Dan Pinchbeck – Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, Everybody’s Gone To the Rapture
  • Steve Gaynor – Gone Home, Bioshock 2
  • Dan Golding – Australian game critic
A blurry picture of four people on a stage.

The panel at the first session (from right to left): Bajo, Clint Hocking, Jill Murray, Guy Gadney (Image sourced from: myself)

Each session lasted for an hour, with 30 minutes of panel discussion and 30 minutes of questions. Although there were different topics for each session, it felt like there wasn’t a lot of difference in the discussion and a lot of common points were touched on. Things like the collaborative nature of games writing, the issue of gameplay versus narrative versus player and the difficulties of game development whether you were AAA or indie popped up more than once.

There were some memorable points to the day. Dan Pinchbeck mentioned that his studio had received a lot of hate mail for their games and had considered developing a Kickstarter promising never to release another title if they were fully funded. Jill Murray talked about how having her passport confiscated in Ethiopia meant that she couldn’t research her planned book, which indirectly led her to a job writing dialogue for Your Shape: Fitness Evolved 2012. Murray also raised an important point unique to video games that she’s sometimes able to fix a writing issue by having the animation director talk to the art director.

Session 2 was when they got a big still slide above the four people sitting on stage.

Session 2’s panel (from right to left): Bajo, Dan Golding, Dan Pinchbeck, Steve Gaynor (Image sourced from: myself)

Steve Gaynor memorably summed up Bioshock: Infinite as “a floating city full of magical racists”. Guy Gadney appeared most interested in where interactive mobile titles can take gaming forward. Clint Hocking was a bit different to the other writers, seeing his role in creating game systems where players could make their own stories.  Also, there are several words that Hocking doesn’t like to use to describe games, one of them being “fun”.  There was also a split between panelists about whether cut scenes were a good or bad thing.

(For those interested, I attempted to livetweet the most interesting parts of the discussion – and some editorial-ising – as it occurred.)

In some ways, the discussion was very general – good if this was your first time hearing about how the games writing ‘sausage’ is made, but a bit generic if you’d spent time reading Gamasutra articles on similar topics. Entertaining, certainly, but not uniquely informative. It may well have been that the audience make up, with a lot of young, eager faces, saw the panelists stay within pretty safe boundaries, even when questions were raised about gender representation within games and how writers should deal with difficult social topics like slavery. Also, having half of each session devoted to audience questions meant that the topics could vary wildly – it’s hard for in-depth discussion of video games writing to occur when someone asks if video games these days are too easy.

The last session of the day was STILL just four people sitting on a stage. Talk about sequilitis!

Session 4’s panel (from left to right): Hex, Dan Golding, Dan Pinchbeck, Guy Gadney (Image sourced from: myself)

I was disappointed that Dan Golding’s comment about not caring about definitions – “if you say it’s a game, then it’s a game” – went unchallenged. It often seems like games critics want to set the lowest bar possible for video games to jump, just in case they end up excluding something that becomes popular or end up the target of vocal fans. It’s not a simple issue, but when the dedicated games critic appears not to care about categorical boundaries while writers object to using the word “fun” to describe a game then there’s clearly some gaps that need covering.

Overall the Game Changers sessions were very solid and enjoyable. It’s rare that such gaming talent would grace Perth all at once; let’s hope this doesn’t end up being the only time such an event occurs.

Session Recordings

I’ve recorded audio of the four sessions. There may be some muttering from me (because normal people do that, honest) or occasional slightly swear-wordy comments from people in the audience around me. All audio should be taken as is – I’ve checked that the recordings work, but I can’t guarantee quality at all points in the session.

Also, I missed the intro for three of these four sessions because remembering to press the record button is hard.

Session 1: The Writer and the Game featuring Bajo, Jill Murray, Clint Hocking and Guy Gadney

Session 2: What the Player Wants featuring Bajo, Dan Pinchbeck, Steve Gaynor and Dan Golding

Session 3: Character and Story featuring Hex, Steve Gaynor, Jill Murray and Clint Hocking

Session 4: What’s In Store? featuring Hex, Dan Pinchbeck, Guy Gadney and Dan Golding

Other Viewpoints, Should My Own Be Inadequate

Other people have written up their experiences on the day.

Get Yer Tickets!

A slightly blurry shot showing the crowd at Session 4, I think.

The numbers of people in the session weren’t bad, but you can see the number of empty seats. And this was in one of the afternoon sessions too. (Image supplied by: me)

If Perth Festival does run one of these events again, I hope they make ticket purchasing clearer. The official website told me that several sessions had their “Allocation Exhausted. Tickets may become available at a later time.“, but I was able to buy tickets to all sessions on the day about 30 minutes before it started.

I’m guessing that the website allocation was exhausted and not the door sales, but I almost didn’t go to the event because I thought I wouldn’t get in. Each session still had about 25% – 30% of seats empty. Either a lot of people paid but didn’t attend, or tickets were more available than the website let on.

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