The Narrative Struggle
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Everyone thinks they can write, but not everyone can tell a story. Yet everyone does tell stories of one sort of another.
It’s a situation any games writer can often find themselves in and one where you often find yourself having to justify your existence. Which is a burden no one should have to carry, but here we are. Writers and narrative designers also have the additional requirement of fitting the narrative to the game. Rather than fitting the game to the narrative.
“I think the key divide between the interactive media and the narrative media is the difficulty in opening up an empathic pathway between the gamer and the character, as differentiated from the audience and the characters in a movie or a television show.” - Steven Spielberg
There’s a struggle that’s unique to narrative designers and writers when it comes to game development - getting across information that hasn’t been systematized.
UI designers, artists, gameplay designers, and really anyone who’s working on the systems of the game always has to be concerned with what they’re building conveys and how. But when that information isn’t included then it’s the job of writers in particular to get that across to the player. Writing is about conveying information to the audience. Not just the words themselves, but their meanings, impacts, implications, relations and that’s before you get to characters, plot, setting, and themes. Your words have a lot resting on them.
The problem is in getting all of that and more across to the player. Not to mention reminding them should they have just started the game after a break. And when you’ve got a game with heavy characterization or roleplaying, especially one that allows the player to make decisions in that regards then the writing has to do extra work. Enter Mass Effect.
As a game there’s a lot of dialogue, not to mention text to be presented to the player. The vast majority of it is accompanied by voice acting. But only when a particular line of dialogue is activated. Anything in the codex is automatically read when opened. But the dialogue is what’s key, because what was said by the characters in the dialogue and voice acting was not always what was presented by as the choice for the player to make.
Mass Effect’s dialogue wheel always presented a problem for the writers because of the limited space available to display all the options. They had to convey reams of dialogue the PC would say in only 20-30 characters. And there were plenty of times when what was shown was not the result. For example, "Don't try to study me," became "I'm not some artifact you can take back to your lab, doctor." That isn’t the only occurrence and it’s something that’s never totally been eliminated. Due in part to the fact that the tone, implications and other aspects of what’s said aren’t necessarily conveyed by the short description provided.
For roleplaying games, especially ones presenting choice and allowing players to play their own way - sounds like a Burger King ad - it’s vital that any choice clearly indicates all facets of it. Players don’t want to be misled, but to have things play as they expect. This is especially true when they’re setting the tone and developing the character they’re playing. Other roleplaying games certainly have more text or dialogue. The Pillars of Eternity games are prime examples. But they don’t use the dialogue wheel and instead list everything that can and will be said. Granted that’s only the first line and not any follow-ups.
Alright it’s time to get abstract, because we’re going to talk data and compression. Words, written or spoken, are after all a means of compressing data. The best way to explain it is with the meme “Ceci n’est pas one pipe” or “This is not a pipe.” Both the word pipe and a picture of a pipe are not pipes. They are representations of them. They are abstract compressions of what a real pipe is. Neither the word nor the image has all of the facets of a real pipe. Some such as the weight, smell, mass, size, taste, texture and even context have been lost in the compression from real object to abstraction.
That’s not to say that when we read the word pipe or see the image of one we don’t fill in some of those facets. But that’s a personal context which is not transferred to the abstracted object or the real object. It remains within us. The beauty of these abstractions is that we can connect disparate ones to build a more multi-faceted representation of the original. We can string words together to better describe something. We can paint finer details to add to our abstraction. It’s why a novel is the closest thing we have to telepathy.
Legos are the perfect example. They can make truly impressive representations of physical objects but they themselves are not those objects. Yet every brick we lay we’re defining it anew, though others won’t know of each brick inside a creation unless they take it apart. Taking things apart, examining them and putting them back together in an aspect of the novel and writing in general that doesn’t so readily lend itself to the visual arts. Unless of course it’s a static object. But where we don’t find static objects is in those affected by time.
We play with time as if it were an accordion. We compress it and stretch it out. It’s how we can have both One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Ulysses by James Joyce. Each is about a single day in a man’s life, but the first is 176 pages while the other is 730.
Games generally don’t have that ability given their real-time interactive nature. We have lots of ways to move through time in a game that go beyond the mechanical and draw from cinema and TV for their narrative effects.
But it’s games like Frozen Synapses and Dungeons & Dragons with their turn-based approach that provides the closest analogy to what we can do in a novel. A fight may take place over a scant few seconds, but playing out those seconds takes minutes if not hours. Combat is a unique aspect of games given how readily it’s used to resolve situations. Not just because it’s done quickly, or can be. But because it’s so binary. A player is either in combat or isn’t, an opponent is either dead or they aren’t. There’s little room for a gradient or spectrum beyond the amount of ammo one has or health remaining.
Stories, relationships between people and characters, don’t work in such a black and white manner. Yes there can be those binaries, but by and large the most interesting ones give us gradients. Han Solo is a prime example. In a universe that presents as black and white yet is anything but. Remember there are outlaws, rebels, slavers, drug dealers, assassins, crime bosses and more. Sure Luke may be all good and Vader all evil, but Han straddles the middle. He shoots first but saves the day.
Stories also let characters move about that spectrum through an infinite number of actions. Simplifying those into a select few, repeatable verbs is a struggle when it comes to creating a game.
Writing allows for nuance. What’s possible in terms of that nuance takes more in a visual medium that isn’t using real humans. Take the kiss from The Last of Us Part II, at an earlier point in history and with lesser technology all of the emotions and actions flitting across the characters’ faces wouldn’t be possible.
Even with performance capture the story, the nuance, the details are being filtered multiple times by the actors, editors, and technology. So what’s been written is never what appears for the player. Nuance though really shows through in the verbs available to players. The reason most games stick to pre-defined dialogue is because of all the possibilities it presents, which gets outside the scope of what’s meant to be possible in the game. Or simply doesn’t serve the story being told.
As Austin Walker wrote regarding Red Dead Redemption II, "because RDR2 wants me to know that Arthur’s first instinct isn’t violence, hitting L2 doesn’t aim down his gun’s sight (introducing more friction (!), since that’s what so many other games in the genre do), and instead it locks onto someone or something in the world allowing me to speak or interact with them. In doing so, that mechanic actually responds to a complaint about (non-RPG) open worlds for years: Stop making games where all I can do is hurt things.”
Currently it seems to take large productions to offer a significant range of actions for a player to do or let alone dialogue options. And that’s before you get to a game that has systemic interactions like Prey or Dishonored.
Writing a game is frustrating in comparison to writing for other mediums. Not only are you affected by the game’s budget, but its production time and set of verbs. Those three aspects will inevitably dictate more of the story than even the genre of the game or the characters. I’ve spoken about this before on the episode Break The Loop, to the effect that a character, a story is always going to be limited by the choice of verbs available. So what can be said, what can be done with verbs that result in violence is just going to be more violence.
A number of the Citzen Abel games by Blendo Games, in particular Thirty Flights of Loving and Gravity Bone, actually reverse this paradigm with the only verbs available to the player being non-violent ones. All of the violence is saved for NPCs and in-game cinematics. Walking-sims tend to avoid violence of this sort all together. Of course, Paratopic does have a moment of it but used to great effect. Tacoma and Firewatch, two games I haven’t spoken about in a while sadly, imply a certain amount of violence but never show it or make it actionable on the player’s part.
Compounding these issues is marketing. Part of selling a game, making it successful, is sharing the story. And what shares well isn’t always the story you want to write or tell. It’s something that all game developers have to take into account, but so do those working in other mediums. If you’re creating for the market it’s not merely writing what is currently popular and trying to chase a trend only to fail. It’s understanding what works, what doesn’t and what’s been overused.
From a sales standpoint it can be looking at something as simple as the genre. In books fantasy out sells science fiction. The main argument there is the fantasy is easier to understand, since everyone knows how to swing a sword. But the technology in science fiction needs to be explained. The obvious counter point to that is the Disney properties - Marvel and Star Wars. Both incorporate a level of science fiction with fantasy and mesh them well.
Selling those stories is just a matter of highlighting the good versus evil nature of them. It takes more than that, but for writers that may be all you need to know. Simple stories, whether they’re told in a complex manner or not, are an easy pitch. If you’re an indie developer then these are things you need to think about and take part in, especially as a writer. If you’re not an indie then chances are the company you work for expects you to be part of the marketing efforts regardless.
And you don’t necessarily want to repeat the failures of Halo 5 and it’s Hunt The Truth campaign. The latter was a really interesting story that was quite successful and set up the game as being about something it ultimately wasn’t. Had marketing and the writing and development team been more involved than maybe it wouldn’t have happened. Playing Halo 5 you do get the sense that levels and as a result story elements are missing, having presumably been cut before the game went gold.
Throughout this entire discussion I’ve been talking about the struggle writers have with others on the team or with the technology. But there’s one aspect we haven’t addressed - the players.
Players will do what you least expect and always have motivations their own. Writing for that, keeping them informed... that’s a perpetual struggle. Narrative and game designers can probably affect this more than writers, but it is ultimately our job to provide justification for what we’re doing.
The reasons of the player character should as closely as possible align with those of the player. Yet that’s not always possible, especially in open world games. It’s a conceivable argument for why Red Dead Redemption 2 is so strict during story missions, limiting the options keeps players aligned with the character. Breath of the Wild as Mark Brown of Game Maker’s Toolkit points out in his review of Red Dead Redemption 2 that “Breath of the Wild blurred the line between the main and side quests, and built an entire chemistry system to play with.”
Of course as writers we’re going to have to work with the tools and resources the rest of the team provides. We can’t necessarily go in expecting or demanding certain considerations be made for the sake of our stories. But the constraints we’re provided make writing stories for games all the more interesting.