GDC: Evan Skolnick Asks Game Writers To 'Make It Snappier'
Writing is one of the less discussed bits of game development; Vicarious Visions producer Evan Skolnick has been doing his best to redress the balance. Whereas last year's session dealt with dialogue, this year Skolnick chose to discuss general structure.
Skolnick's background is in comic books, and indeed much of his game industry work has been on comic book movie licenses; his methods are generally simple, direct, and accessible to an entry-level audience.
Up front Skolnick cautioned that the session was not for professional writers, but neither was it a debate on the essence of video game narrative, or a tutorial on "how to make players cry". Rather, it was a by-the-book overview was for game industry veterans – programmers, producers – with little experience in the mechanics of storytelling.
About eighty percent of the lecture, by Skolnick's measurement, was general theory – mostly in application to screenwriting, one of the more well-trodden corners of plot analysis. The last twenty percent attempted to draw parallels between that theory and familiar game structure.
Furthermore, Skolnick suggested, the closest parallels between film and video games were probably found not in the critical darlings and more at the top of the box office – in particular, what he dubbed the "geek classics": the likes of Terminator and The Matrix. The number of Matrix parallels were, in fact, rivaled only by Star Wars references.
Skolnick went over the typical chestnuts about cutscenes getting in the way of gameplay, and showing rather than telling. To demonstrate, he compared the opening sequences to Grand Theft Auto III – a straightforward setup for a highly simple premise – and ludological whipping boy Metal Gear Solid 2, a game that exists almost solely to poke fun at traditional game narrative.
Whereas GTAIII sets the player off after just under three minutes of exposition, MGS2 intentionally pummels the player with cutscene after CODEC sequence, dumping a hilarious amount of useless information, for nearly thirteen full minutes. When the player is set free, the release is so abrupt that it does not immediately sink in that gameplay has begun.
"So," Skolnick dramatized. "Holy. F**king. Sh*t." He observed that, although he could have skipped the cutscenes at any moment, doing so would have meant missing potentially important story information – and yet very little of the information provided was indeed necessary, leaving the player bowled over and defeated before the game had even started. This was "very frustrating – so don't do it."
His first big point was "Get over yourself" - that a video game audience is potentially hostile, and that nobody buys a video game intending to read. "You're not the next Hemingway," Skolnick cautioned.
Videogame writing serves to further game play - anything further is a distraction. Depending on the type of game, the player may expect more or less story. The idea is to meet the audience expectation, then move on.
From this point, Skolnick moved into a series of audience participation exercises, while he discussed the three-act structure, Joseph Campbell, and the old scriptwriting application Dramatica. "What is story?" Skolnick asked - the correct answer was "conflict".
He then sketched out Aristotle's three acts (the middle – act 2 – being twice the length of the beginning or the end), and mapped over it the rising and falling tension, modulated by the revelation of archetypal plot points.
Plot point one, the hero accepts the challenge and moves into act 2; plot point two, the hero overcomes fear or adversity, putting him on the road to accomplishing his goal and dragging him into act 3. Syd Field further breaks up the second act along a midpoint - this is the structure more typically followed by modern movies.
Skolnick asked the audience to pick three favorite films and tell him the first pivotal plot point. The only really solid answer was in relation to the red and blue pills in The Matrix, delighting Skolnick with the postmodern signposting. Of course, Skolnick advised, although this structure still applies to most stories, it is perhaps overly simplistic and difficult to always apply with precision.
Next up was the "Monomyth", or Hero's Journey – Joseph Campbell's blend of the above theory with Jungian archetypes, with the intent to create a psychological template for all elements of storytelling.
The going premise is that the sum of all the characters in a given tale represents a complete human personality. Through the hero's journey, he takes on aspects of all of the other characters' personalities, in order to become a more whole person.
Of all the archetypes – Mentor, Threshold Guardian, Herald, Shapeshifter, Shadow, Trickster – Skolnick suggested that the only one that really made sense as a player character was the hero, as the hero is typically defined by personal growth. He drew possible parallels between the other archetypes and typical game functions, though some fit better than others.
Skolnick then went on to relate each step of the "hero's journey" to game design. Again, some of the parallels were more considered than others. Skolnick lumped the first two legs of the journey – normally around a third of a traditional narrative – into the opening cutscene (as opposed to relating it to Link's acquiring of his sword, or Gordon Freeman's donning of his power suit and crowbar).
He bypassed the "refusal of the call" segment of the journey as there would be little point in the player refusing to play. By Skolnick's estimation, the typical video game is almost entirely an Act 2, with the other two acts reserved mostly for cutscene-related decoration.
Skolnick again cautioned not to follow the structure too slavishly - rules are only ever guidelines. The purpose of any of these structures is not to dictate, they are only ever descriptive, and thus are mostly useful as a form of generalized advice, in the event that a script feels out of whack. The writer who understands storytelling can ignore classical structures all he likes - a novice is best suited by a mentor.
Wrapping up before lunch, Skolnick went over seeding, planting, and foreshadowing plot events. Rather than dumping everything at the beginning – a typical mistake of beginning writers – simply give the audience what it needs to know, when it is useful or interesting to do so. Providing barely enough information can, in fact, increase drama and audience interest, leaving them curious for more.