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Game Writing From The Inside Out

March 18, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

[In a Gamasutra-exclusive analysis, Krawczyk and O'Connor, writers for the God Of War series and Far Cry 2/Gears Of War respectively, discuss how writers and designers can collaborate smoothly and successfully.]

What does it take to create a story for a game? A lot of work, for one thing -- from the concept phase right through to the final draft. The process usually begins with the creative director or lead designer. At some point, a writer is brought on board. It's a collaborative process -- and it can be a rocky one as well.

For one thing, not all games need stories. When push comes to shove and development time runs out, story can fall by the wayside. It can become a serious PR effort, internally, just to get the story work bumped up on the list of priorities.

And there are plenty of challenges for the team to resolve -- system complexities, time & resource constraints, and communication gaffes.

So if story development in games is both hard and nonessential, why do so many studios make the effort?

Because even at their worst, stories can enhance gameplay. They provide context. What would players rather shoot -- a wall, or a Nazi?

At their best, stories transform gameplay -- and gameplay transforms story. Stories help us make sense of the world; games bring stories to life in a completely new way. Immersion and agency create brand-new possibilities for storytelling. Gameplay gives us freedom; story gives us meaning.

So why do so many writers and designers get bogged down in 10-car pileups when they work together? They have the same goal, after all: create a compelling experience for the end user. The trouble begins when they approach the same problem from opposite directions.

A game writer looks for brief moments -- cutscene or otherwise -- when she can take control of the game so that she can create throughlines, pacing, conflicts, character development, plot twists and thematic meaning.

A game designer looks for ways to give control -- not to the writer, but to the player.

Both the writer and the designer are right. Stories benefit from structure, and players love their freedom.

How can teams resolve this conflict so that writers and designers can collaborate successfully? We can start by rethinking our assumptions about how stories work - and what players expect.

The heavy lifting in story development happens at the very beginning of the process, months before a single line of dialog is written. In this article, we revisit the basic building bocks of story and look at ways we can arrange them in new ways to build a compelling, player-centric experience.

If the golden age of game narrative really is right around the corner -- and we think it is -- then writers and designers have the opportunity to redefine how stories are told, by looking at old problems in new ways.

It's in this spirit that we are asking, "What if?"

What if we didn't build the story around the player?

Most game stories revolve around the player character. This makes sense -- sort of. Players are the stars of the show. They make things happen. It seems logical to make them the focal point of every event.

But this approach also creates problems. The designer can find his options limited by the story's logic. The team has to struggle to find ways to present the story events without interrupting the game. And regardless of the quality of the final product, there will always be players that resist the story, or subvert it, or ignore it altogether.

So what do you do if your goal is to create a compelling story that involves the player? One option is make a distinction, right out of the gate, between the game's story and the player's narrative.

What does that mean? "Story" is the sequence of events that take place in the game - the main character overcoming obstacles in pursuit of his goal. "Narrative" is the player's unique experience of that story -- the player controlling his character and/or the game world as he sees fit.

(These terms are not perfect or precise. Better terms will probably emerge eventually, as the industry grows.)

Who defines the narrative? The designer -- by creating the world and its rulesets; the ways in which the player comes to understand the game.

Who defines the story? The writer -- by creating themes, characters and plots; the ways in which the story comes together in the end - the way the game comes to understand itself.

This is a subtle distinction; story and narrative are tightly intertwined. But it can be a useful starting place, for both the designer and the writer.


Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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