What goes into writing for a game without a linear narrative? A lot, say Valve and Madden veterans, who explain the keys to writing for games which will be played again and again.
Games need writing. We often think of game writing as exclusively related to storytelling, rooted in Aristotelean maxims of time, place, and prescribed resolutions, which makes it hard to see the value of writing in games without a single player story mode. But for many games the art of embellishing play with writing has helped add depth and drama to systems that might otherwise have seemed pointlessly repetitive or cyclical. Even without a single story to tell, writing can be an essential creative tool for games that would rather be about fun and competition than allegories and plot twists.
Valve's Dota 2 is an ideal balance of written characterizations and lore, which merge with a system of competing against other players in perpetuity. The Madden series has made particular but effective use of writing for years, adding small bits of contextual flourish to a dropped pass or a missed career mode goal. Valve's Left 4 Dead games merged an infinitely replayable multiplayer shooter with lush interpersonal drama written into each level.
In these cases writing is less storytelling than a tool that enables players to tell their own stories, using the context and plotted consequence chains planned for them. They represent a model for dramatic interaction that can be applied to many different games. The point is not to weave a particular story but to characterize the available choices and consequences for players in a way that takes them beyond simple mechanism, something as applicable to multiplayer shooters as it is brain trainers and exercise games.
Filling in the Faces on the Game Pieces
Valve's Dota 2 has many of the same elements of a traditional story game, yet they're left in an unassembled state. It doesn't aim to tell any one particular story but instead dramatizes and deepens the player's experience within each round with artfully deployed writing.
"I don't feel that Dota 2 is a narrative game in any sense -- not even in an open sense," Valve's Marc Laidlaw said. "It doesn't feel like a narrative to me because there is no possibility of development. It starts and ends the same way every time, with only two possible outcomes, although the various ways of reaching those endings are infinite. We might compose some bits of narrative around it, such as the comic, 'Tales From the Secret Shop,' but no sort of recognizably narrative thinking goes into the way we write dialog."
"We do try to identify a moment or turning point in a hero's background that would have been the key moment that thrust them into the spotlight and made a hero of them. But that moment is always somewhere in the hero's background. We assume the big personality-shaping crisis for each individual hero is somewhere in their past. The game itself is more of a crisis for the entire world and every hero in it, it's less of an individual's story."
According to Laidlaw, 95 percent of the energy spent on writing Dota 2 went to dialog, a process which begins by working with the game artists to understand the visual design and broad personality types of each hero.
"One of the tough parts was coming up with a few hundred lines for each character when each hero has only one or two major traits," Laidlaw said. "Initially this led to a heavy reliance on -- ahem -- well, some would call them puns, others would call them motifs. In a lot of cases, these themes were our lifeline -- they were the only thing we had to work with when it came to distinguishing one hero from another."
"Over time we have gotten better at making our dialog thematic without making it simply groan-inducing. This is the result of both practice and of growing confidence in the role of lore, and how much of that can inform the moment to moment responses a hero can make to player clicks. What surprised me a little is that it has gotten easier to write dialog for the same repetitive categories of responses; you would think that after 90 heroes, it would be impossible to find more ways of saying, 'Onward!' or 'I go!' But in fact we usually have enough new ideas that we almost never feel compelled to repeat old ones."
Dialogue in round-based games like Dota 2 can also cue the player to how they're performing. "Feedback is the core of a good experience, and the way in which you provide that depends upon the hero," Laidlaw said. "Some heroes can easily turn and address the player without breaking out of character; others are too serious, too much a part of the world, to do something silly like that, but they still have ways of letting the player know their decisions are meaningful."
The RTS game Majesty was an especially helpful reference point for Valve in modeling just how iconic dialogue can enhance gameplay. For a while Laidlaw wondered if they might actually hurt the overall experience by adding too much dialog. "I was worried that having too many lines per character would dilute the impact, and make it less likely that any one line would become iconic," he admitted.
"This turned out to be less of a concern because so many people play Dota 2, for so many hours, and in so many possible combinations of characters, that even its great variety effectively gets ground down to a small set for any one individual. Each fan can still connect to a few favorite iconic lines, even if they're different for everyone."
Having announcers in the game also adds an element where players can control their own preferences for how chatty the game will be. "We are starting to add custom announcers to the mix, and because these voices sit somewhere above the world of the game, they have the chance to address the player directly -- as well as talking down to the heroes in the game," Laidlaw said. "We're just starting to play with that, and we are already seeing fans creating their own announcers. I think we will see a lot of fan-made announcers talking directly to the player. It seems to be something people want."
Approaching the development of the game's written elements in this way provided a natural opportunity for Valve to involve series fans into the development process. "The toughest part is working with a set of characters with whom the Dota community has such a long and lasting relationship already," Laidlaw explained.
"We are simultaneously creating and recreating characters. The fans love and appreciate and even demand originality, at the same time that they want clear and faithful connections to the heroes they loved in DotA 1. In some cases this is fairly easy to achieve, in other cases it is just impossible. At this point we have started erring on the side of creating our own universe, but it took us a while to feel confident in doing that, and that the fans were truly open to this."