Scrawl of Duty: Novelists and Journos Defect to Video Game Industry

THAT WORK WAS done by the company’s newer hires–the last three consisted of two journalists and a comedy writer–but Mr. Laidlaw was the first writer at Valve, joining the company in 1997 after a professional life previously occupied by temp jobs, freelance journalism and genre fiction. Three of his novels appear in the main character’s locker in Valve’s debut game Half-Life.

“It took me a while to realize that the things I was afraid had been done to death hadn’t been done at all,” he said of his time on Half-Life. “It’d been done in books and movies but not really in a game.”

As the company’s first writer, he found himself missing his coworkers’ references because he was older than most of his compatriots and hadn’t played as many games as they had. Today, it seems more likely that a writer looking to make such a career shift would be well versed in the medium.

Jamin Brophy-Warren quit his job as an arts writer for The Wall Street Journal to found the journal Kill Screen, which styles itself as an n+1 for the video game set and debuted its second issue this month. He’s president of the publication and was heartened by a recent demographic survey of his readers.

“They would play games five to eight hours a week but they were going to movies once a month. They would buy books once a month; their favorite magazine was The New Yorker or Wired. Their favorite television network was HBO,” Mr. Brophy-Warren said. “By any standard, if you do not know that they are video game players, you would qualify them as cultural elites.”

Another journal is even getting into the video game business itself. Electric Literature is currently at work on a video game to be released via download for computers, Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 in the fall of next year. The quarterly’s past efforts have included YouTube videos inspired by Michael Cunningham and Lydia Davis stories from the magazine, and a short story posted to Twitter by Rick Moody over three days. Andy Hunter, editor in chief for the journal, was hesitant to reveal the video game’s author. She had to be persuaded to translate her work, originally written as a play, to the video game format. He said the journal has hired a team of coders and designers to maintain fidelity in adapting the script for virtual players in a licensed video game engine (which engine was also under wraps). The play is interactive and told from multiple perspectives, but he was insistent that it’s not something you can “win.”

“We first started calling it virtual theater. But it’s become more. We haven’t named it,” he said. “We should really name it.”

Mr. Hunter has said that he hopes the game will be distributed for free, though that may be subject to change. Microsoft, which makes and regulates the Xbox, has had public spats with companies over its reluctance to give away software for free, with Valve most notably.

Needless to say, the video game won’t be killing the novel anytime soon. At least, not by stealing away all its writers.

David Amsden blames Mr. Bissell for introducing him to video games, and while the young novelist holds the No. 6 worldwide ranking in the Madden football online leaderboard, he harbors no desire to write video games.

“There’s definitely a part of me, when I play Mass Effect 2, that says, ‘God, I could do that way better.’ I could also probably do it in an afternoon,” Mr. Amsden said. “But it’s such a collaborative effort and there’s so much money involved. I kind of like what I do now, which is that I sit around alone in my house playing with a Microsoft Word file. And eventually I hand that in to someone and it gets printed.”

dduray@observer.com