Evan Skolnick, producer and editorial director for Vicarious Visions, clearly believes that game developers need a good grounding in the fundamentals of fiction before they're ready to challenge Hollywood. For the first hour of his day-long tutorial, he offered up an effective but basic introduction to writing, including pulling examples from well-known films and games.
Fundamentals Before Specifics
According to Skolnick, approximately 80% of the fundamentals for writing for any creative medium -- film, games, TV, comics -- are the same. The other 20%, he suggests, are specific to the medium. Rather than concentrate on the 20% (as he suggests most workshops at GDC will) he wanted to concentrate on the 80% . "I'll be really clear about it. [This tutorial is] aimed at game designers or people trying to break in who want to learn the basics of game fiction writing," Skolnick said.
"For every medium there are conventions, challenges and pitfalls... new conventions, traps to avoid. Games have them, of course. In my opinion 80% of good game writing is just good writing. That last 20% can be difficult to solve. When you go to the rest of the talks on writing, they'll be [focused on that last 20%]. It's challenging, there are lots of pitfalls with game writing, such as authorial intent versus player agency..."
"Gameplay is king, writing is not."
Before launching into his discussion proper, Skolnick offered this advice: "Video games are a product where the buyer didn't buy to read something -- they may not even want a story. You have to accept certain realities when writing in this business. You're not the next Hemingway, but even if you are, this isn't the place to show it. Your job is to write tight, efficient, serviceable story content. You are not the main attraction.
"The first thing to decide is, how much story does your game actually need?" Adapting an idea from Ernest Adams and Andrew Rolling's On Game Design, he suggested this continuum:
First person shooters
"The amount of story content you put in is generally how much the player will tolerate, and if you break those expectations, you do that at your peril."
As an example, Skolnick showed the opening cinematic from Grand Theft Auto III. He then broke down the timeline: 1:30 credits, 2:45 cutscene 1, 10 seconds for the transition to gameplay. Discussing the events, Skolnick noted, "The prisoner transfer breakout on the bridge -- it establishes three important things: the main character, a felon, not named; the Liberty City environment; and the bridge damage, which relates to player progression later on. It delivers only what you need to know at that time. Your required viewing time 2:55 seconds, and you're into the game. Quite reasonable. Now it's time to bring up the whipping boy -- Metal Gear Solid 2." Unfortunately, technical issues prevented a dissection of the notoriously story-heavy Hideo Kojima work.
Films as an Example
Using films as an example, because "movies are our culture's main shared storytelling experience, for better or for worse," Skolnick leapt into discussions of the classic three act structure, delineating the acts and plot points of films before turning to the audience to suggest examples. At this point the class became a classic creative writing workshop at a basic level, so if you're interested in pursuing the ideas presented here, you could easily find some books to read. What Skolnick did note that is worth emphasizing is that the structure of games, with a series of levels building toward a climactic final boss encounter, maps very well to the classic act structure of continual conflicts.
After discussing act structure, Skolnick moved into the Monomyth as presented by Joseph Campbell in Hero With A Thousand Faces and more latterly, Christopher Vogler in The Writer's Journey, which he recommended as popular with Hollywood writers. These offer character archetypes that map well against the act structure.