What is game narrative? It’s a question that developers, writers, reviewers, and publishers have been trying to answer for years with only limited success. Like many other things in this still-young industry, narrative is an area where definitions are still being stretched, formulated, and tried on for size. It is crucial, however, to formalize a definition of game narrative before attempting to create one. Otherwise, you’re trying to hit a moving target with an entire development team waiting for you to make the perfect shot, with a limited chance of success.
To begin with, it is helpful to define what we mean by narrative, which is itself a term replete with ambiguity. For the purpose of this book, we define narrative as the methods by which the story materials are communicated to the audience. We’ll return to this definition and pursue it in more depth in a later chapter. Some game genres are more narrative-friendly, by definition, than others. A multiplayer strategy experience such as Battlefield 1942 (Digital Illusions, 2002) doesn’t have or even need much of a narrative. The game takes a familiar context (World War II) and situation (here’s a battle—go win it) and turns the players loose. Fighting games are also light on narrative. After the central conceit of beating the snot out of the other guy—whomever or whatever he may be—has been established, the narrative exists simply to string the series of bouts together toward the ultimate goal.
On the other hand, some genres of game are heavily dependent on narrative. Adventure games are almost entirely narrative-driven, and platformers and First Person Shooters (FPSs) often have strong narrative components as well. Computer Role Playing Games (cRPGs) are yet another category that depends almost entirely on narrative—the play experience through the game corresponds precisely to the character growth through the course of the narrative. To put it another way, without narrative, Sora, the protagonist of Kingdom Hearts (Square, 2002), stays on the island, sparring with his friends and eating fruit forever. It may be an idyllic existence, but is really fun to play?
The greatest mistake that is made in defining game narrative is the attempt to reduce it to story and story alone. Story is a good start for the narrative, but if story were all there were, then we would be discussing fiction, not games. The story is a launching point for the narrative, not the narrative in toto. By the same token, elements cannot be excised from the narrative as a whole simply because they don’t appear to fit in at first blush. Backstory may often be viewed as nothing more than content to splash on a Web page to create buzz, but a good, coherent backstory may be necessary to support and contextualize the narrative as a whole. Which game feels like it has a stronger narrative, a generic fantasy hack ’n’ slash or one derived from The Lord of the Rings? The answer to this, unlike the question of what is narrative, is comparatively obvious.
Ultimately, narrative comes down to one simple question: What happens? That
is the heart of game narrative—what happens in the game? What story do the players create through their actions as they advance through the challenges, decisions,
and rewards laid out for them by the development team? All the other questions—
what is the world like, who are the characters, why is the player doing this—are secondary to that essential query. Understand what happens, and you understand
narrative. Understand how to create a good answer for that question, and you understand how to create good game narrative.
Numerous techniques underpin this quest to create a narrative, including—cut scenes, character, dialogue, and more. All of these are useful tools for creating the overall construct of the narrative, but they cannot and should not be confused with the narrative itself. They’re part of the process, not the process itself.
To explore the meaning of game narrative, let’s consider the definitions of some basic terminology.
In the context of game development, story is often confused with design. The story is what happens, the flow of the game that can be separated from the game mechanics and retold as a narrative. For example, the story in Grim Fandango (LucasArts, 1998) can be summed up as “The adventures of a travel agent for the dead named Manny, who uncovers corruption in the afterlife and sets out to do something about it.” The story in Godzilla: Save the Earth (Pipeworks Software, 2001) can be described as “Aliens come to earth to steal Godzilla’s DNA, and he fights a bunch of monsters in order to stop them.” Of the two, Grim Fandango’s story takes considerably longer to tell, but they both serve essentially the same purpose.
Characters are the actors (or in the case of player characters, avatars) who exist in the game world and perform the in-game actions. Lara Croft is a character. So is the loathsome Morag from Neverwinter Nights (BioWare, 2002), the friendly henchhippo Murray from Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus (Sucker Punch, 2002), and the gabby but not terribly bright guards from Far Cry (Crytek, 2004). Every character in a game should be designed to serve a purpose. Lara Croft is someone you want to be as you move through the world, whereas the guards are enemies to shoot and sources of information to eavesdrop on. The character or characters the player controls are sometimes referred to as player characters (PCs), although the term avatar is becoming standard. Everyone else in the world is referred to as NPCs (non-player characters), or occasionally as AI (artificial intelligence), although this technically refers to the algorithms controlling their behavior rather than the characters themselves.
The setting defines the world that the action of the game takes place in, including character races, languages, laws of physics and metaphysics (do you have spells, blasters, or both?), and pretty much everything else necessary to define the game world. For an overtly “realistic” game such as Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell (Ubisoft, 2002), much of the setting goes without explanation, as we all have a pretty good idea of the real world. For a steampunk extravaganza such as Arcanum: Of Steam-works & Magick Obscura (Troika Games, 2001), the equation expands to include something much broader because a world of dwarves, zeppelins, and tech needs more detailed and specific explanation for players to feel comfortable in this more esoteric setting.
Backstory is the history leading up to the events of the game, the explanation of what has produced the situation that will be played through. Related to setting, it can be defined as “who did what to whom, and what does the player have to do in order to fix it?” The backstory of Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield (Ubisoft, 2003) includes World War II bank looting, the deportation of an elderly businessman from his home in South America, and the fascist Ustache regime. None of these are things that the player will interact with directly in the game, but they frame the game’s narrative and action, giving the player the information he needs to immerse himself in the fiction and move forward with the action.
Cut scenes refer to in-game movies—sections of noninteractive footage that the player watches. Some are prerendered for a high level of visual polish, whereas others are produced with the in-game engine to provide visual continuity. Either way, cut scenes refer to events or conversations that the player sits back and watches with (usually) no interaction. They can be used to reward the player with a spectacular visual, provide an opportunity for conversation or exposition that would get lost in gameplay, or contain events—such as the death of a character, the pillaging of the main characters’ equipment, or a villain’s escape—that can’t be left up to chance. At best, the player can look around during a cut scene, but more often than not, they have a theatrical presentation the player watches.
When many cut scenes are collected together, the result is a noninteractive sequence known as a cinematic. Game introductory sequences are generally cinematics, as they provide a perfect opportunity to explain setting and backstory before the player needs to use any of the information.
A scripted event is a part of the game where control of some aspect is taken away from the player. Although related to cut scenes, they are distinctly different both in how they are made and how they are experienced. A single scripted event can be as simple as quickly pulling the camera angle around to show a looming surveillance camera (also known as a camera case) or as complicated as setting up a sequence of events involving multiple NPCs to illustrate a game point. Stealth games frequently use the former technique. Half-Life 2 (Valve, 2004) made good use of the latter, letting the life-or-death struggles of NPCs in the game world illustrate environmental perils to the player vividly.
In-game artifacts are rather self-explanatory; they are objects in the game world that serve to advance the narrative. They can roughly be defined as narrative that the character, not the player, finds. Frequently, in-game artifacts take the form of documents of one sort or another—diaries, letters, books, and the like. By reading these, the player gains valuable information about what’s going on and the world the player’s moving through. The answering machine message the player overhears in Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne (Remedy, 2003) is another example, as are the radio broadcasts in Far Cry and the emails Sam Fisher hacks into in Splinter Cell.
In-game documents are not the only way for artifacts to move the game narrative along; sometimes an object has symbolic significance. An example is the Tsortese Falchion in Discworld Noir (Perfect Entertainment, 1999) around which the plot of the game revolves. Players have seen their avatar slain in the opening cinematic with this very weapon, so when it is discovered during the course of the game, it has especial significance. It cannot be used as a weapon or a useful item for solving puzzles and exists in the game solely for its symbolic value.
On the most basic level, narrative strings together the events of the game, providing a framework and what can alternately be called a justification, a reason, or an excuse for the gameplay encounters. At its best, narrative pulls the player forward through the experience, creating the desire to achieve the hero’s goals and, more importantly, see what happens next. At its worst, narrative merely sets up the situation and turns the players loose to do as they see fit. It achieves these goals through three important techniques: immersion, reward, and identification.
The term immersion is frequently heard in the context of games, although it is seldom defined. In general terms, immersion refers to the state of mind where a person is completely absorbed in what they are doing. It has been related to the psychological state of “flow” [Csikszentmihalyi91] and also to the notion of suspension of disbelief [Coleridge1817]; to some extent, the term covers both of these otherwise unrelated notions. The important thing is, when players are immersed in a game, the real world ceases to exist, and the game world becomes their reality.
Narrative provides context for game events, and a sufficiently believable context provides immersion. At their most basic level, most First Person Shooters (FPSs) are the same. Move the targeting reticule onscreen, press a button, and hit the target—that’s the center of the gameplay. Yet the genre has produced wildly divergent games, from the gore-spattered action of Doom (id, 1993) to the gritty historical realism of Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 (Gearbox, 2005) to the gloom-shadowed fantasy of Thief: The Dark Project (Looking Glass, 1998). The distinctions between these games lie partly in the differences in game mechanics but also in their significantly distinct narrative content. The story provides a way to believe in those mechanics and to give the player a reason to accept the need to perform them.
For example, in Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon (Red Storm, 2001), the player guns down innumerable enemies in a broadly realistic fashion. However, the narrative explains who these enemies are (Russian ultranationalists intent on doing bad things to Eastern Europe), who the player is pretending to be (American soldiers fighting aggression), and what he’s supposed to do (shoot the bad guys). All of this combines to immerse the player in the fantasy and to tell him it’s appropriate and reasonable to do some serious damage to the hostile AI. The narrative contextualizes the situation and the player objectives—“move and shoot” becomes “secure the downed aircraft,” and “stay in one location for a certain length of time without getting shot” becomes “hold Red Square against the last desperate effort of the enemy troops.” Because the action is now attached to the fantasy the narrative presents, it’s a more appealing goal and something the player is more interested in achieving— and willing to work harder to obtain.
Narrative can also serve as a reward to the player. The narrative events can be revealed gradually, delivered as rewards for achieving in-game goals. When this has been done frequently enough inside the same game, the player will expect to receive another chunk of narrative after winning a boss fight or overcoming a particularly tough challenge.
For example, in God of War (SCE Studio Santa Monica, 2005), the backstory is revealed gradually as play progresses. After players clear out a chapter, they receive another chunk of backstory explaining how the protagonist, Kratos, came to be in such dire straits (that is, engaged in the action of the game) in the first place. These lengthy cut scenes give players no in-game advantage. They give no extra powers, no hints as to how to defeat enemies or unlock hidden advantages. Instead, they just give narrative information—who Kratos is, why he is so obsessed with killing Ares, and how he came to be in the middle of a war between the Olympian gods in the first place. They are rewards, pure and simple, each chapter ending with a cliffhanger that exists to pull the player forward through the gameplay to the next one. In principle, these cliff-hangers drive players to want to know what happens next and thus motivate them to continue to persevere with the game.
The third major role that narrative serves is that of identification. It lays everything out for the player, telling him what’s what, who’s who, and what the state of the world around him is. By doing so, it gives the players context for their actions, and this in turn provides justification for game actions: when a game asks you to shoot things, it’s helpful to know that the things you are shooting are dangerous terrorists, flesh-eating zombies, mutated lawyers, or something else that you have little or no moral qualms about dispatching into digital oblivion. By laying out clearly what the elements of the world are, the narrative establishes the players’ place in it and the actions they are expected to take as a result. The players, in turn, can take those actions in confidence, knowing it’s what they’re supposed to do, instead of asking “Why am I doing this?”
The narrative provides identification in another sense as well, namely the sense of kinship and desire to become the central character. Players are invited to identify directly with a game protagonist (even more so than when they are invited to identify with the protagonist of a film or novel) because they will actually get to influence or control the game’s lead role. The course of a game narrative should be designed, in general, to make the fantasy of being the lead character more appealing, and to make the lead character more sympathetic. Giving the protagonist a chance to act heroically, behave admirably (in whatever sense of the word you choose), and achieve ever-more impressive victories might be the key to making the player want to be—and therefore want to play—that protagonist.
Videogame writing is unlike any other form of writing. There is some relation to screenplay writing, some relation to writing fiction, some technical writing, and other elements both diverse and esoteric. Furthermore, the expectations of what will be delivered in a videogame script change more rapidly than in other media, because of changes originating in advanced technology and corresponding changes in audience expectations.
Game writing has very real expectations, limitations, and codes that are unique to the medium. Screenplays, novels, and short stories all present a single path through the material; all are media that are received passively by the reader. Videogames, on the other hand, are all about player choice and action. This is extremely rare in other media.
Tabletop RPGs (whose influence on modern videogames cannot be underestimated) involve player choice, but they’re written to be open experiences, offering plot hooks and possibilities so the players and gamemasters (the player in charge of the narrative and mechanics of the game) can run with the possibilities. The players construct the narrative experience in an ad hoc fashion.
In a videogame, the narrative experience must be completely defined in advance. The players will chart their way through the game, each making their own decisions so that no two players have an identical experience. It is vitally important that game writing takes into account anything and everything the player might decide to do in the world. Videogame writing is a closed system wherein the writing must lead the player to stay within the confines of the anticipated action. Everything in the world is already in the world, and there’s no gamemaster who can insert content or improvise on the fly. This means a videogame script must be both flexible enough to cover the player’s likely actions and sufficiently constrained to be less than infinite in scope.
There are simple and clear differentiations between game writing and other forms. Traditional scriptwriting involves a single narrative that doesn’t allow for choice or variance. In addition, there’s the question of scale—television dramas run at approximately 44 minutes per show whereas films are generally between 90 minutes and 3 hours. Games risk being pilloried for being too short if they clock in at fewer than 10 hours. The basic structure of scriptwriting may be applicable to game narrative, but it’s not an exact fit.
Fiction writing is just as straightforward, and offers the author the opportunity to change narrative viewpoint without asking the programmers if that feature is available. Fiction also makes the protagonist the center of the action, not the player, and doesn’t have to deal with interactive elements.
Tabletop RPG writing might be the closest to videogame writing, but even then there are major differences. RPGs are about open-ended experience and adjusting things on the fly, whereas videogame writing is a closed experience, focused on keeping the player satisfied with the options and actions available.
That being said, being able to draw on techniques from these types of writing is invaluable, as all of them can and do inform game writing. Writing dialogue and cut scenes is a process that draws heavily on traditional scriptwriting. Establishing setting and creating in-game artifacts, as well as basic storytelling techniques, can be drawn from traditional fiction. And an understanding of writing to support the game experience, not to mention working with mechanical limitations and world building, is a natural derivative of tabletop RPG work. But videogame writing is all of these and none of them, and anyone relying too heavily on another medium’s techniques as a panacea will doubtless run into difficulties sooner or later.
There are some areas of parallel with other media. When film screenwriters write a script, they know that the director, cinematographer, set builders, prop makers, wardrobe, actors, stunt people, and effects personnel will help realize the script. Similarly, when game writers compose a script, they know the producers, concept artists, modelers, animators, programmers, game designers, and voice actors will have to find ways to integrate the script into the game. In many ways, game writing is sometimes geared as much toward ease of implementation as anything else. This means writing to expected length and count, getting across key game information to the player, and making sure the writing matches the design, assets, and implementation possibilities.
Another parallel with other media is the importance of the audience. Games are not the writers’ story; they are the players’ stories. Writers are producing something for the players to inhabit and call their own, which is sometimes difficult to implement. The temptation is always there to take the narrative by the horns and ride it in the direction the writer thinks it should go. Doing so, however, railroads the player and may seriously diminish the game experience—a problematic situation of which some players can be all too keenly aware. Even heavily scripted, linear games such as Call of Duty (Infinity Ward, 2003) place the player experience front and center, using writing to reinforce the notion that the player is the protagonist in the unfolding story and not a spectator.
The expectation in game writing is that the player will firstly be the center of the experience and secondly have a good time. Creating a brilliant narrative wherein the NPCs fight all the big battles and the player watches from the sidelines might defeat this purpose. It makes players simultaneously into audience and voyeur when they signed up for the starring role. Or to put it another way, do you want to play Sly Cooper or his turtle buddy Bentley, sitting back home and watching the action onscreen?
The same holds true for the flip side of the equation. Making the player the center of a miserable narrative is the sort of attention most people would rather do without. There’s a reason nobody’s lining up to do a game based upon the book of Job, and it has a lot to do with the fact that Job’s not a fun person to be. The narrative must support the desired fantasy of the game, or else it risks defeating itself.
However, having said that the player is expected to be the center of the experience does not automatically equate to the player being at the center of the plot in the beginning. For instance, a game may be set at the fringes of a major event in the game world, but the story focuses on events that at first seem trivial and perfunctory. Usually, however, this is a ruse to misdirect the player, and the trivialities will eventually coincide with the larger events, thrusting the player into the center of events. This happens, for instance, in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (Nintendo, 2002). The player’s initial motivation for action is rescuing Link’s sister. Only later does it transpire that Link is a more significant player in world events than at first it seems.
With all these points in mind—the similarities and differences from other media, the unique requirements of a narrative that is both flexible and constrained, and the central role of the player—the pragmatics of game writing are that it often involves writing many consecutive variations on the same theme. Almost every writer working in videogames has had to deal with a task such as writing hundreds of variations of a line like “Arrgh! He shot me!” (This sort of task is so common, that short interjections such as this have even picked up their own term: barks.) This micro-scale scripting is neither glamorous work, nor rewarding, but it is a necessary task writers must tackle to fully implement a game narrative.
Having looked at how game writing is both similar to and distinct from writing in other media, we are ready to look at some of the central tenets of game writing. Chiefly, the basics of writing for a game involves:
When writing for games, it’s absolutely essential that the gameplay and the writing remain closely tied to one another. Some core elements of traditional writing— lengthy exposition, internal monologue, switching character perspectives—can be utterly deadly to gameplay if not handled carefully. The players wants to play, they (generally) want to keep playing continuously, and they don’t want to be given the impression that they are merely escorting the main character through a predefined set of actions.
Consider the Splinter Cell series of games. One of the techniques used to remind the player of his next objective is, in fact, internal monologue. Sam Fisher often gets short reminders to himself that he needs to disarm a bomb, take out a particular enemy, and the like. What he does not get are lengthy ruminations on the nature of his relationship with his formerly estranged daughter, X-rated musings about his sexy krav maga instructor, or a detailed economic assessment of the geopolitical situation in which he finds himself. The narrative technique (internal monologue) is used to support the gameplay (going off and achieving objectives) and not derailing it (subjecting the player to the writer’s deathless prose).
What is important, then, is continually asking: “how does this support the game?” Does it reward the player, advance the action, provide depth without slowing the pace or otherwise move the player forward? If the answer is yes, then the gameplay has been kept in the writing. If the answer is no, if the reason something is in the script is to show off how incredibly cool it is, then the gameplay has been lost, and the writing is extraneous. No matter how wonderful a writer’s exposition of dwarven tiddlywinks rituals might be (unless there’s a key element of gameplay that hinges on a dwarf literally losing his marbles), it should generally be saved for the promotional materials, tie-in novels, or projects that are personal to the writer. Many players won’t want to hear it.
As with every rule, there are exceptions. Certain adventure games, for example, have escaped criticism for their verbosity. Because the classic adventure is in many ways closely tied to the novel in terms of the narrative form employed, it is perhaps more acceptable for these games to indulge in additional exposition—especially if it can be organized so that the players can explore it at their leisure. Being able to find a book in the library on dwarven tiddlywinks is a different proposition from forcing the player to listen to a character drone on about the subject. This is especially true when adapting a game from a license, which is, in itself, relatively verbose. The same issues can apply to a cRPG, especially when the details of the setting must be conveyed to the player by some means—player knowledge and character knowledge is often mismatched, an issue that must be addressed. (Only so many games can use amnesia to sidestep this problem.)
Different game types support different techniques for advancing the narrative. The cRPG Neverwinter Nights, for example, uses many approaches: dialogue with NPCs, in-game artifact texts, character advancement, and cut scenes, just to name a few. Horror-shooter Cold Fear (Darkworks, 2005), on the other hand, sticks primarily to cut scenes and in-game artifacts to inform the player. This choice should be made deliberately based upon the goals of the game. Neverwinter Nights is an open, exploration-based experience wherein the player is encouraged to go everywhere and do everything, and where the player is rewarded for exploring. If the player does not go into the cave, they do not meet the friendly dragon that can provide assistance. If the player doesn’t read the in-game artifact book, they do not learn an interesting fact about the face of ancient lizard-beings that are trying to take over the world.
Cold Fear, on the other hand, is a claustrophobic, tightly controlled experience punctuated by sudden violence. In-game artifacts are kept short and sweet to reinforce the feeling that the player could be ambushed at any moment, and are done in a format that reinforces the decaying, monster-ridden setting. Conversations are limited to cut scenes to prevent slowing of the pace or the possibility of interruption by enemies.
In both cases, the narrative interacts with the central thrust of the game, taking its shape from and reinforcing the game. Trying to shove a lengthy conversation tree into a horror-shooter would be frustrating for the player who feels taken out of the action, whereas removing long conversations from a cRPG could be equally annoying to a player who wants to explore the world and its background.
There is no single thing that can be described as game writing. A videogame, after all, is a wildly complex combination of code, art, sound, and myriad other elements, all of which combine to make a game. As such, writing is used in plenty of ways to help produce the game, in tasks ranging from the big-picture creative to detailed and technical.
The most glamorous part of game writing is creating the story. Coming up with what happens is what many people view as the core of the writers’ art and task, and in many cases, story gets inextricably intertwined with core design.
Dialogue is what’s said in the game. Superficially similar to a film script, dialogue lists the lines that are played in-game. These are generally created in conjunction with the game designer, who outlines what dialogue is needed, and the sound engineer, who establishes the technical constraints.
Dialogue is not written in a vacuum. For financial and technical reasons, word and line counts are carefully controlled. Because it’s not a script that will be filmed, dialogue also needs to be written with context. The entire cast won’t be in the recording studio trading lines back and forth. Usually, one actor at a time records his or her lines, which means every line needs to be established in terms of tone, mood, location in the game, and purpose. (As ever, there are exceptions, and dual recording sessions are not uncommon.) Writing dialogue is, in the end, a much more complicated process than just composing the dialogue.
game writer’s task can extend outside of the game itself. World bibles,
character descriptions, teaser fiction, and other similar texts are all
potentially important. They’re useful as reference to the team—for
example, the character artists need to
know ahead of time if the dwarves in the game are derived from Celtic culture,
Norse, or something entirely different to avoid embarrassing and expensive mix-ups. This material can also be used for marketing, put up on the game Web site to promote interest, and otherwise promote the game even if it never makes it into the game itself.
The scripts for cut scenes and scripted events need to be created by writers in conjunction with the rest of the team. Contrary to popular belief, there are limits to what can be created with CGI, and those limits are frequently found in the schedule and the budget. The cut scenes need to balance the needs of the narrative on one end and the availability of resources on the other. As such, cut scene writing is often iterative, with the phrase “we can’t do that” scribbled in the margins by someone else on the team.
Numerous other tasks are involved in generating the writing for a game narrative. In-game artifacts need to be generated with an eye toward the game’s central idioms—there are no emails in World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2004), for example, and no elvish ballads in Doom 3 (id, 2004). Game manuals often support the narrative, with expository or in-character sections serving to help create the world for the player.
The act of story creation is the most important creative task game writers face, as the story simultaneously makes up the bulk of the narrative and arranges all the game elements. The story describes what happens, when it happens, what order it happens in, and what results. As such, the game story needs to be crafted in careful collaboration with the rest of the team and the game designers in particular. It must be built in conjunction with the aims of the design and the vision, in awareness of the limitations of the engine and assets, and with the understanding that it is a game story, not a novel or a movie.
In many ways, creating a game story is about creating opportunities and effects. The opportunities are for gameplay, moments in the story where the player takes heroic control and succeeds in action. The effects are chiefly those experienced by the player: moments of emotional intensity. The story, then, must be created with more than its artistic component in mind. It also needs to serve as a framework for gameplay to be hung upon, and a road map to reward and catharsis. No game writer can afford to lose sight of this.
The story arc is essentially the curve described by the intensity of the action. In story terms, the action rises, growing more and more intense, until the climax, at which point it starts to drop off and the reader gets rewarded with the denouement. In gaming, the challenges, fights, and puzzles get more and more intense until the climax, which is often rendered as a boss fight. After this, the player is rewarded with denouement and, possibly, power ups. Crafting the story arc maps the narrative to the design and the level of challenge to the player contained within.
Pacing in a narrative is as much a function of asset as it is of story. A story comprised solely of endless melee quickly grows dull, as does a game built from nothing but endless waves of enemies. Pacing is the art of spreading out the action to appropriate moments, saving it for when the player is ready, and pulling back when the player is likely to have had enough.
In story terms, this means introducing enemies or obstacles when the player is ready for them and not before, and providing revelations and rewards sufficient to keep the player encouraged.
The climax is the big showdown. Because of their length, videogame stories often have a series of multiple, rising climaxes that culminate in the game’s ultimate challenge. In general terms, everything in the game story needs to lead to this moment, when the player must use everything he has learned through the course of the game in order to triumph.
The onus falls on writers to make climactic scenes worthwhile. The villain (if the narrative calls for such a character) needs to be sufficiently threatening, evil, and villainous that it does indeed feel like the ultimate challenge. The threat must be sufficiently intense in its potential emotional impact to leave little doubt that this is the culmination of the story. In other words, the stakes need to be high enough that the players will feel they have accomplished something by winning—something other than just making it to the end of the game. And, of course, all the narrative threads, and all the clues and hints and revelations must lead naturally to the final encounter.
Often, a game story climax offers few opportunities for actual writing. The player is too busy playing. The trick can be letting the player make the final leap to what must happen, sliding effortlessly into the desired outcome and borne forward on the story’s momentum. The climax should feel like the character has been working relentlessly toward this moment, just as the player has been. Conversely, a game climax that is detached from the story, bringing in a new enemy with no connection to the previous story, can weaken or destroy a game’s effect entirely.
Character in conjunction with events moves the narrative forward. This means that the characters need to be created with the needs of the narrative in mind. On one level, that means making a protagonist whom the player is willing to inhabit throughout the story—someone who presents an appealing fantasy and an interesting persona. On another, the characters need to be designed with their role in the narrative in mind. A love interest, for example, needs to be lovable, and worth rescuing when he or she inevitably gets into trouble. This is how character moves the plot, by helping to create context and motivation for the player action. Creating strong characters allows the narrative to drive forward naturally.
A game character’s needs are dependent on said character’s role. Minor characters need very few things—a look, a tone, a place in the world, and sometimes, a bit of information to pass on. Returning to Far Cry, the guards have a look (guys with guns), a tone (dumb and sadistic, but talkative), a place in the world (they’re working for the bad guy as muscle, and therefore will shoot you), and occasionally, some info they can deliver.
More important characters have bigger roles and thus need more information. The longer they’re going to be on stage, the more the player will see of them, and thus the more substance they need to have. This necessitates building those characters from the ground up, often putting together vast amounts of detail that the player will never see to make the stuff that the player does see logical and consistent. Jack Carver (the protagonist in Far Cry) never has his backstory appear onscreen— the player never finds out where he came from, why he’s captaining a boat in the middle of nowhere, or where he got his god-awful Hawaiian shirt. But the writer and the team need to know. They need to know where he’s from, so his dialogue can have appropriate phrasing and colloquialism, and so that translators can export this into other languages. They need to know his age and build, so they can construct appropriate models and motion sets. They need to know what he’s done, so appropriate tidbits and references can be dropped into his dialogue. And all of these things show up onscreen for the player, enabling the character to perform his role.
Finally, characters need the traits that make them appealing to the player so that they can serve their roles in the narrative. Much of the action in Far Cry consists of the player trying to rescue, catch up with, or otherwise help out the character of Val. The player feels no resentment at doing this because he wants to rescue Val. Her character traits—attractive, funny, appreciative, brave—(in principle) encourage the player to want to move forward with the action when the narrative says, “Save Val.”
Character is vital in creating
the framework of the narrative. The world is not worth saving if
there’s nobody in it you want to save. Character can intensify the
sense of immersion—you’re working to save people (or elves, or talking
animals), not collections of polygons and voice cues. Perhaps most
importantly, character drives interaction—in other words, “who” sets
the framework for “how,” and in many cases, “why.” Garrett (the
protagonist in Thief) is a rogue, a character trait that simultaneously
helps define his actions and goals and provides a justification for why
it would be unsuitable for the player to rush into a situation
prematurely. Miku in Fatal Frame (Tecmo, 2001) has no reason to be in
the abandoned mansion except for character. She’s searching for her
brother, and that characterization is enough to drive her—and the
Whereas new videogames have a freedom to create new characters, for many games, this is not a luxury that can be afforded. Many of the titles produced by the games industry each year are either derived from outside properties—such as the Star Wars films—or exist as sequels in an existing series—such as Resident Evil 4 (Capcom, 2004), Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny (Origin, 1988), or King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow (Sierra, 1992). Whether the franchise originates inside or outside of games, the issues facing a game in a licensed or franchise context are quite specific.
Because franchise characters have already been established, either in previous iterations of the franchise or in the outside medium that spawned them, there are limits on what can be done to those characters. Particularly in a character-driven franchise such as Batman, the character is the franchise. Any damage or alteration to the character alters everything hinging on the character—comic books, movies, toys, action figures, and more.
Even if the subject is a game character
without an outside existence, there are still concerns; for example, if
you shatter Mario’s femur in one game, he’s going to have a heck of a
time jumping in the next one. As such, the writer is a caretaker of
the franchise, understanding the parameters of the work and ensuring that the
character if handed off to the next game in good shape.
The flip side is that franchise characters come with expectations—catchphrases and identifiers, history, and backstory that the fans know and expect to see again. Duke Nukem can’t suddenly become a pipe-smoking scholar of the later works of Jane Austen; the franchise demands that he be a square-jawed, rootin’-tootin’ killing machine who spouts the phrase, “Suck it down” at every opportunity. Writers who ignore or bypass essentials such as these aren’t doing their job. Part of the writing role is respecting and understanding what has gone before, because if what had gone before didn’t work, there wouldn’t be a title for the writer to work on.
Whether a game features original characters or characters from a franchise, the role of the characters remains the same: they are the vehicle for the narrative, the means by which it progresses and the focus of the story. Without characters, there can be no story. This is as true in games as it is in any other media.
Immersion is arguably the ultimate goal of videogames. Immersion is making players forget that they’re sitting on their couch twiddling joysticks with their thumbs, and instead making them believe they’re mowing down Nazis, leaping from platform to platform over boiling space sludge, or exploring a mansion full of masticating mutants. Good writing can be a vital support for this hoped-for experience.
This means that game writing needs to support the core experience in idiom, word, and phrase. It needs to avoid seams that provide a jagged end to suspension of disbelief, and remain consistent in usage and tone. It also needs to focus on the fact that the game is, after all, a game, and bend all its efforts toward supporting, not overwhelming, the game experience.
The core unique factor of game writing is the role of the audience. The player lives the game much more intensely than most readers “live” the book. The player’s actions have direct and immediately visible consequence, with reward or punishment as a result.
Game writing, then, needs to focus on maximizing the player’s experience and supporting the player’s role as protagonist in the narrative. The best writing in the world is worthless if the player never encounters it. It’s worse than no good if the writing calls attention to itself, instead of the player, or it jerks the player out of the game’s fantasy by disrupting the narrative flow.
Because the audience for the game is actively participating in the narrative flow, the narrative has to be built around the concept of audience buy-in. Players need to be fully committed to the game fantasy, whether that is to win World War II or tackle the ravening orcish hordes with sword in hand. They must also have enough information to make rewarding and appropriate choices in the context of the game world and to use those choices to drive forward through the narrative. In other words, the narrative needs to be constructed with the notion that the player will do, not observe; will act, not listen.
Because game writing is not quite like any other kind of writing, writers working in this field face unique problems that other writers may never experience. First, some time-honored dramatic and rhetorical techniques have no place in games. These techniques are not inherently bad, but the demands of the gaming experience don’t leave room for them. Stichomythia (single lines are spoken by alternate speakers) might work fabulously in Shakespearean plays, but outside of the Monkey Island series (LucasArts, 1990) there’s precious little use for it in games. As such, the writer must always be asking: “How will this play?” Just because something works in a novel doesn’t mean that it’s appropriate for a player-driven experience. A lengthy, tense conversation fraught with emotional violence is superb in a Harold Pinter drama, but what does the player potentially do during that time? Sit and watch? Press buttons to skip the voice-over and just read the text? Let the whole thing play out and go get a drink? Whatever the players decide to do, they are not playing, and that can be deadly to a game.
Each technique, therefore, needs to be reevaluated in terms of what it does for the player and what the player does with it. Just as not every play adapts to a film, not every writing technique is suitable to every media.
A specific example of this with particular relevance to games is forced failure. This classic reverse in prose writing refers to the sudden circumstance whereby the hero is betrayed or walks into a trap, is subdued, and has all of his possessions taken from him. The hero then proceeds to get free somehow and, using only found objects and his native cunning, finds a way to defeat the villain.
For a film or novel character, this can work well. But think about what it means for a game player. In a very real sense, what this structure does is stop the player’s advance, penalize the player for reaching a certain point in the game, punish the player for succeeding, and most likely frustrate the player, who having previously taken joy in all of their achievements has now found that these have suddenly been stripped away. How would you feel, after all, if it were your hard-earned magic sword that someone removed from your inventory during a cut scene?
This is an example of a forced failure. Forced failures are a technique for channeling the narrative down a certain path regardless, and sometimes in spite of, player action. This type of outcome can be handled much more gracefully in prose than in games. The novelist can describe the escape of the villain, for example, as happening amidst a hail of bullets, but videogame players instead see multiple rounds bouncing off a suddenly invincible target that will doubtless reemerge later to torment them.
Forced failures are perfect examples of instances when narrative trumps game-play, diminishing the player experience. As such, it’s generally best to construct a narrative free from such cases, to prevent the player from growing frustrated. The best narrative twist will fall flat in a game if it causes the players to throw down their controllers in disgust.
Furthermore, gameplay generally includes its own cycle of failure and success as the players make their own mistakes and pay the attached price—losing “lives” or having to start again back at a checkpoint or previously saved position in the game. Writers should not forget this aspect of the success/failure experience for the players of many games and should avoid compounding any frustrations inherent to the gameplay with frustrations that originate in the narrative.
Conversely, the writer’s arsenal contains numerous weapons for assisting the player within the bounds of the narrative. Consider the opening sequence of Halo: Combat Evolved (Bungee, 2001). Within the fiction that the ship’s crew is testing out the Master Chief’s reactions and kit, the game cleverly instructs the player in how to perform all the basic game functions and thus, advance through the story-line. More heavy-handed examples can include everything from having an NPC shout out an enemy weakness to subtle suggestions from teammates that, just maybe, left is the way to go in this instance. As the narrative is directed toward the player experience, it only makes sense that elements within the narrative guide the player toward the optimum experience as well.
Writers do not create videogames. At best, they help shape the vision, provide important elements in game creation, and help to create the assets that make up the game itself. They generally do not program, create levels or character models, wrangle animations, or tag map locations with sound files. Rather, the writer is just one part of the development team—an important part, and one whose contribution should not be undervalued, but a part nonetheless.
In games development, the writer’s role is not to lead the team any more than the writers take the lead in film or TV production. Writers work within the team, using words to craft and support their vision and labors. Writers who put together a story and then expect the rest of the team to implement their grand epic with verve and style are in for a disappointment. Writers who work with the team, crafting a story that takes advantage of the feature set and art assets and shows them off to good effect, are a lot more likely to be pleased with the end result.
Ultimately, writers fulfill multiple roles on game development teams, depending on the demands of the project. Everything from crafting the story to coaching the voice actors during recording sessions can land on a writer’s plate, with the expectation that this role within the team will be picked up and carried forward to meet the project’s needs. The trick, therefore, is to recognize that the writer’s place is as part of the team, not something outside, beside, and certainly neither above nor below it.
The producer on a game project is the person in charge of the development process. They are sometimes like a film director, in that they are also the vision-keeper for the project, but more commonly they are facilitators whose task is to ensure that the game is delivered on time and to a professional standard.
The producer is often the writer’s key point of contact, especially if the writer is working externally and therefore not in the same building as the development team. Clear, complete, and frequent communication is absolutely vital. If the producer doesn’t know the writer’s concerns, issues, and potential problems, then these issues can’t be resolved, and the game as a whole can potentially be put at risk.
A common misconception is that game writing and game design are the same discipline. Much of this results from the difficulty in expressing the role of the game designer to people outside of the games industry. Whereas the game writer’s role is chiefly to guide, develop, and script the narrative of the game, the game designer’s role is to guide, develop, and document the gameplay—a task that generally requires a diverse set of skills that can range from conceiving or expanding broad concepts at the highest level of abstraction, to wrangling mathematics or applying psychology at the most pragmatic end of a game’s design.
Many games have been written and designed by the same individual; the author of this chapter fulfilled the role of writer-designer for Anne McCaffrey’s Freedom: First Resistance (Red Storm, 2000), and many of the other authors in this volume have similarly served in this unique dual role. The reason for this comparatively common confluence between the role of game writer and that of game designer is in part due to the fact that both roles require one to be a competent wordsmith. Additionally, the vision of the game and of its narrative can be so intertwined that it made sense to have both jobs done by one team member. As projects have grown ever more complex, however, the demands on both design and writing have grown immensely, and it is now generally considered preferable to separate the tasks, not to mention extremely common to employ multiple designers and writers on a single game.
The writer and the designer, then, need to coexist and recognize their respective roles. The designer needs to communicate the vision and proposed design of the game to the writer and offer feedback on the writers’ efforts to make sure they’re congruent with the needs of the game as a whole. The writer needs to contribute to he vision and understand that writing is an aspect of the development process, not necessarily the engine that drives the design.
The writer has no choice but to work within the constraints of the game’s capabilities. Anyone who writes scenes that cannot be supported in the game’s engine will rapidly find themselves in conflict with the programming team. Writers who have a good relationship with the programming team (or teams) can discuss the story’s needs versus the rigors of the technology, communicating what the needs of the narrative might be and, in return, gaining useful and practical knowledge of the boundaries within which the story must be developed.
Additionally, the writer needs to produce work in a form that is easy for the programmers to deal with. This means writing text blocks that fit within their on-screen fields, producing deliverables on time for localization, making sure dialogue can be produced within a logical file naming system, and more. It is the programmers’ technology that ultimately presents the writer’s work to the world. As such, programmers must communicate how the writers’ content is to be presented while the writer must understand how to present his work and do so accordingly.
Writing and visual art have relatively sparse interaction, intersecting most frequently in specific instances such as character design, in-game artifact manufacture, and cut scenes. Both are creative disciplines, and the key to the writer’s interaction with artists is communication. The better the communication of the needs of the story, scene, or character to the artists, the more likely the end result will match what was originally envisioned (and also what is required by the needs of the game-play or narrative). At the same time, the writer needs to remain open to the artists’ creativity, and incorporate worthwhile new elements that the artists generate into the story, character design, and other written aspects of the game.
There is much to be said for allowing the writer to adjust the game script after the artist has rendered the scenes. Not every game schedule affords such luxury— sometimes the dialogue must be recorded early for reasons as varied as synchronization with cut scenes to limited availability of specific voice actors (often an issue in games licensed from TV or film).
The writer, encouraged by the design, can put literally anything on the page—armadas of cloud galleons, katana-wielding robot ninjas with 16 arms apiece, cute little kids that don’t immediately send hard-core gamers screaming into the night. All of these are possible in the imagination and with the written word. When these ideas meet the practical limitations of the game’s physics engine, however, they can become problematic.
For example, the animation system used for Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six (Red Storm, 1998) was predicated entirely on character skeletons with two arms, two legs, and an upright stance. That meant, among other things, no dogs. No policemen on horses. The only characters available were people. This automatically created certain restrictions on the writing for the game, and had repercussions that echoed down multiple levels of decision making. So it goes for literally everything a game engine can or cannot do—it empowers or restricts the writing, and the writer must learn what the boundaries are, help establish them if possible, and ultimately learn to work within them.
This leads to the obvious and recurring game development question: “Can it be done?” This can mean many different things. Can the engine support it? Are there enough models to produce the crowd scene? Do we have enough time to render it out properly? Do we have enough money to afford the production time on all the assets this will require? All these questions and more need to be taken into account by the writer. The first draft can sometimes shoot for the moon, but subsequent drafts need to be trimmed and adjusted based on what the game, the team, and the budget can do.
Often this means scaling back to achievable aims and getting a good estimate of what can and cannot be done before the first word gets written. A producer who allows a writer to script completely undoable cut scenes is doing no one any favors. The writers’ time is wasted and so is the money paid them for the useless draft. The artists creating the assets need to wait longer to receive the materials they’ll be working from, crunching their deadlines. The engineers are forced to go through the script, hacking out bits that are suddenly revealed as unattainable, potentially creating hard feelings. Scaling the writing to the capabilities of the team from the get-go makes more sense and allows the writer to focus more tightly on the task at hand. All the resource limitations—time, money, and technical—need to be explored and laid out as soon as possible to provide the greatest benefit to the entire team.
As a game project progresses, adaptation and revision are unavoidable. Precisely because a game is a team endeavor, writers cannot become too emotionally invested in their work. After all, someone else’s work might force it to change. Writers should be prepared to modify as needed. If a level space simply isn’t working and must be excised from the game, the writer is tasked with providing the narrative glue to close the gap seamlessly. If a feature is unworkable, any dialogue or story hinging on it needs to come out and, if necessary, be replaced. As such, writers needs to be flexible and, at times, staunchly practical, prepared for the parameters that have been established to shift around them. Game development is still an inexact science, and the game will necessarily change throughout its development cycle. Writers need to be prepared to meet these changes and revise their work as a result.
As well as covering for necessary changes caused by the innate friction of the development process, writers need to be prepared to adapt their work for the team. After all, it’s the team that puts the writer’s work onscreen. To do so well, it helps to have the team firmly behind the writer’s content and contributions. This is sometimes termed as getting buy-in from the team and is arguably essential if a project is going to excel rather than achieve adequate results. If the team is excited over the writing, if they think it’s cool or shows off the team’s work to great advantage, they’ll be more excited about what it means for their own work. Conversely, if the team is not buying it, then the end result is often endless argument, resentment, and potentially even less-than-optimal implementation. To get the team’s buy-in is to invite the team into the process. Canvassing ideas from the team, letting the team members see the work in progress, and showing off the cool parts of the writing all go a long way toward getting the team on board. Genuine discussion of team suggestions or concerns also helps tremendously, as the team members are quick to recognize when they’re being humored or ignored. Writers should know that it’s always better to have the team on your side, than against you. Give them reasons to be on your side and continue to provide reasons for them to stay there, and the result can only be an improvement in the final outcome of the development process.
Game narrative is infinitely more complicated than it might seem at first, both in its generation and in its execution. Unique in its demands and needs, it requires a combination of collaboration and artistic vision, storytelling technique, and technical awareness. Many of the traditional writing techniques will work for games, but just as many do not, or require significant modification to adapt to a scenario where the player, not the protagonist, is the star of the game.
Game writing is also the place where new ground is being broken in the field of narrative. Whether the fractured narration of Indigo Prophecy (Quantic Dream, 2005), the unreliable narrator—and narration device—of Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (Silicon Knights, 2002), or the experimental narrative seen in games such as Façade (Procedural Arts, 2005), the opportunities for creativity in game narrative are as breathtaking as the limitations are daunting.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
“Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames,” the first IGDA book to explore both the creative and technical aspects of writing for games is a triumphant collection of essays on the art and science of game writing. Penned by over a dozen prominent game writers, and edited by Chris Bateman (executive panel member of IGDA’s game writing wing), the book covers an array of writing-related topics and reflects a colorful diversity of complementary views.
The topics are all highly relevant to anyone involved in writing for games, and range from the principles of screenwriting to the use of cut scenes, to writing for licensed properties and working with dialogue engines. The net result is a solid presentation of both the conceptual framework underlying videogame narrative, and the specific skills with which compelling narrative must be created and integrated into a game. The book is a must-have for anyone endeavoring to work in this field.
Here’s a look at some of the topics covered in the book.
The book begins on familiar ground in “Introduction to Game Narrative,” by Richard Dansky, writer of UbiSoft’s Tom Clancy games. Dansky introduces the rudimentary concepts of narrative – e.g. story, character, and setting – and explores narrative as a combination of immersion, reward, and player identification.
He discusses elements of narrative common to many forms of writing – such as story arc, pacing, and characterization – as well as elements unique to gaming, including the use of scripted game events, the need to respect the player’s sense of character ownership, and the potential impact of interactivity – such as the dreaded “skip” button.
In “Writing for Games,” Richard Boon explores several categories of narrative, as well as the most common means for delivering these in an interactive medium. (His definition of “narrative techniques” includes everything from plain text and static images, to recorded dialogue, in-camera events, and cut scenes.) Boon also discusses several types of narrative structure for games, and presents a useful nine-stage template for the game writing process.
”Cut Scenes and Scripted Events,” also by Richard Dansky, examines the use of non-interactive storytelling methods within interactive games. The author discusses the benefits of taking control away from the player – advancing the story, providing a forum for presenting tutorial information, or just showcasing technology – as well as the many dangers, which include disrupting a game’s pacing, potentially drowning a player in information, and of course removing player choice.
Dansky also provides tips for using clear writing and technology choices technology to create manageable cut scenes and scripted game events.
In “Non-Linear Game Narrative,” Mary DeMarle (writer of Myst III) addresses the tricky balance of structure and freedom, manifesting as the interplay of narrative and gameplay. She suggests layering stories such that players keep control of low-level story choices while remaining guided by higher-levels of narrative, which themselves can be embedded within further layers of structure and freedom. She also discusses a myriad of techniques for embedding a story within a game.
Another very interesting discussion is Chris Bateman’s “Keeping the Player on Track,” in which Chris explores the ideas of the game spine and the golden path. The game spine is the set of events that is absolutely necessary for a game’s completion, while the golden path is the route through the game that most optimally reflects a player’s journey along the spine.
He presents the challenge of game writing as a combination of leaving “trails of breadcrumbs” which guide (without forcing) a player along various routes in the game, and “funneling” a player back from secondary events toward the game’s local or global golden path.
Luke Skywalker and the Hero’s Journey are the subject of “The Basics of Narrative” by Stephen Jacobs, which examines the deep archetypes of storytelling via the works of Aristotle, Joseph Campbell, Syd Field, and – yes – George Lucas.
In addition to detailing Luke’s growth from whiney desert brat to accomplished star pilot, the author explains the differences between threshold guardians, tricksters, shadows, and shapeshifters, and explores Aristotle’s six classical components of tragedy. (For the erudite reader: plot, character, theme, diction, pattern, and spectacle.)
There’s also a more down-to-earth discussion of the character creation process later in the book, in which Andrew Walsh explores several types of protagonists and antagonists, and presents core techniques for adding detail and complexity to both player characters and NPCs.
One very informative set of chapters covers specific considerations in writing for different groups and in different genres. In “Writing Comedy,” Ed Kuehnel and Matt Entin tackle the various uses of comedy in videogames, while in “Writing for Licenses” James Swallow discusses the benefits and challenges of writing for licensed franchises. Rhianna Pratchet explores specific considerations of writing for diverse audiences in “The Needs of the Audience,” and Tim Langdell analyzes the potential pitfalls of script localization in “Beware of the Localization.”
On the more technical side are a series of chapters that examine the bridge between a written script and its final expression within a game. In “Adding Magic,” Coray Seifert discusses considerations in writing for voice actors, and the process of finding and recording those actors in a way that maintains the integrity of a script. In “Interchangeable Dialogue Content,” Ernest Adams explores the benefits of stitching (in which short snippets of dialogue are sewn together to form apparently continuous segments of speech), and the impact that stitched dialogue can have on the writing process. And lastly, Chris Bateman finishes up the book with “Dialogue Engines,” an in-depth look at the various elements of the game dialogue engine.
The book is an overall gem, although it does have one notable shortcoming, namely that it’s rather short – less than 300 pages. This seems to prevent the lengthy list of authors from going into as great a depth on their topics as they otherwise might have, since many of these topics could easily take an entire book to explore in detail.
We’d also love to have seen more examples from actual games, to show aspiring game writers how the final result can take shape. Perhaps in the next edition we’ll find a CD-ROM bundled with the book, containing partial or complete game scripts from among the well-known games penned by the authors.
Yet overall, this is close to a magnum opus on game writing, and is bound to bring your writing skills up a notch one way or another. The topics are varied yet thematically linked, the information useful and pertinent to writers at all levels, and the impressive host of experienced game writers presents a multiplicity of views on writing for games.
So whether you’re an aspiring amateur or a seasoned professional, check out these wise words by successful game writers and gain deeper insight into the world of writing for videogames.
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