Winning players' attention with game writing
A panel of experienced game-writers offered advice on how to hook a player into a game’s story within its first five minutes at GDC today.
"I prefer the documentary method," said Chris Avellone, creative director of Obsidian Entertainment who worked on Fallout 2, Knights of the Old Republic 2 and, most recently, FTL: Advanced Edition. He explained that this technique involves introducing a raft of "crazy questions" during the first five minutes of gameplay. "Hopefully the player will be interested enough in discovering the answers to those questions to keep their interest and keep playing."
Toiya Kristen Finley, a member of the IGDA’s Game Writing executive board urged writers to consider environmental storytelling when attempting to snag their interest. "Think about what the player is going to be interacting with in those opening moments," she said. "There are lots of techniques for things you can introduce through environmental storytelling." She gave the example of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons as a game that uses the environment to distinguish its two protagonists via the different ways in which they are able to interact with the game’s objects.
Vander Caballero, creator of the affecting indie game Papo & Yo, a game about living in the shadow of his father’s addictions as a child, said that the storytelling of the mechanics themselves is important to consider: "Set up the rules and expectations as quickly as possible," he said. "These rules are comforting and allow the player to understand what the game is -- without this you risk losing them. If you do this well then your player will begin role-playing as the character, almost imperceptibly."
The panel also explored the fundamental differences between writing novels and writing games. "Games are made by a group of people and are therefore driven by the relationships that exist between designers and other people on the team," explained Jill Murray, director of narrative design at Ubisoft Quebec, who won a 2013 Writer’s Guild Award for her work on Assassin’s Creed III Liberation. "In fact, it rarely feels like writing as so much of the job is spending time in meetings, discussing. It’s deeply different to the solitude of writing a novel. The writer’s job on a game is usually to bring together all of the disparate elements of the game into something that had a broad meaning."
Avellone agreed with Murray, pointing out that the player is also a collaborator in the delivery of a game’s story. "A game is all about individual stories you’re telling, everything from cutscenes to individual non-player character dialogue to item descriptions," he said. "You don’t have control over the narrative as the player is able to make choices on what they see and read. Mostly I find that game-writing is far more compartmentalized."