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The Many Functions of Game Writing

by Sande Chen on 10/19/16 10:00:00 am   Expert Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


[This article originally appeared on Game Design Aspect of the Month under the topic of Agency.]

Imagine you are immersed in a VR setting.  Would you stay rooted in the same place, as if you were watching a 3D movie?  Most likely, no.  You'd want to get up close, see the details, walk around and explore, and if you can, pick up objects and interact.  Instead of a viewer, you'd be a player, or at the least, an user.  As Hollywood embraces more and more VR narratives, its writers need to learn about agency because viewers will no longer be passive participants. 

Photo Credit: StoryForward NYC, Adorama

As I mentioned in my StoryForward NYC lecture last month, many of the challenges in writing for VR have already been explored in game writing.  Video games have rich, immersive worlds that allow for player interaction.  What does player agency mean for the writer?

First of all, the writer needs to surrender some control.  If there's a story, the player may experience the story in his or her own time.  The player may leave the game experience for a couple days and return.  This means that besides advancing the story, game writing has other functions, such as dishing out a reminder, or a redirect.  While this doesn't occur in films as much, recaps are a familiar part of the television experience.

How else does player agency affect game writing?

As with the game's sound effects and music, game writing very importantly helps to guide the player and give feedback.  Sometimes, sound effects aren't enough and more precise instruction is needed to let the player know how to progress through the story or use the controls.  There's a big virtual world out there and as creators, we need to guide the player towards the content.  Feedback is especially important during tutorials.

Game writing also provides contextual information on the player's progress in relationship to other players, even in a single-player game.  Achievements, badges, or titles are the signposts of progress that are shared across social communities.  In multiplayer games, these honors would be seen by everyone in the game and might be a source of bragging rights.

And that immersive world?  Game writing provides many of those details, not only with journals, mission logs, found objects, audiotapes, books of lore, etc., but also with descriptions of objects, powers, weapons, vehicles, factions, and everything else.  Many of these worlds bloomed when a game writer began the process of world building.  Players walk through cities and terrain, interacting with non-player characters, flora and fauna, and objects.  The level of detail can be astounding.

Writing for VR narratives probably has fewer requirements than game writing because generally, there aren't gameplay elements (as there would be in a VR game), but the issue of agency is still important.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

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