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A Practical Guide to Game Writing
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A Practical Guide to Game Writing

October 13, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[In this detailed Gamasutra feature, veteran game writer McDevitt (Assassin's Creed: Bloodlines, Where the Wild Things Are) outlines useful processes for collaboration between design, production and writing staff, from pre-production through production of a game.]

Video game writers are a frequently misunderstood sort. Even in the most ideal situations, we are often relegated to the status of mortar to the designers' bricks, slipping between the cracks to paste fun moments of gameplay together with a few lines of snappy, expository dialog.

Writers can be further marginalized by a lingering sense among our team members that we want nothing more than to stuff our games full of melodramatic, Metal Gear-sized cutscenes, burdened by a cast of dozens sputtering flowery lines from our 450 page script.

I'd like to steer us clear of this idea, one likely sustained by the apparent misconception that writing is fundamentally about arranging words into meaningful strings.

Clearly this isn't the case, but somehow a large contingent of the game industry has institutionalized this attitude anyway, and its effects can be found in an upsetting number of games released in the past few decades.

Just count the uneasy puns and strained moralizing spilling from your favorite avatar's mouth -- when a writer is hired to write a game, and is subsequently barred from having input into its pacing, its setting, the motivations of its characters, and its mood and tone, writers resort to the only weapons they have left: wry witticisms and declarative pop-philosophy.

The spirit of collaboration games are supposed to embody often seems well outside the writer's reach.

But the truth is, we don't want to hijack your game with pointless soliloquies, and we don't want to write a posturing Hollywood-style epic. Game writers simply want to help designers craft an immersive, interactive narrative experience. With or without dialog, with or without characters, we simply want the game to start somewhere interesting, climb its way over a few emotional peaks, and end somewhere even more interesting. We're good at that sort of thing too.

Not all games require a narrative arc, of course, but it's a rather common feature of quite a few mainstream console titles, and these days if an actual writer is going to pen the script of one of these games -- as opposed to the lead designer or the producer -- some Very Important People probably have a Very High Opinion of the property.

But this doesn't happen as frequently as you might think. Consider yourself blessed if you have actually seen a game writer in the wild, for they remain one of those elusive, added-expense luxuries that many game producers -- their eyes always on their margins -- believe they can do without. And in many cases, it humbles me to say, they're right.

The average game-playing public will suffer a deluge of poor storytelling if a game is knock-down, drag-out fun. But a great story with terrible gameplay will die a fast and lonely death on the shelf. I respect and support this pecking order. Gameplay must come first -- this is the golden rule.

However, if some form of narrative happens to play a design-critical role in your proposed game, it is vitally important to treat it exactly as you would any other design element, not as a separate discipline. So if your team has taken that bold extra step to build a narrative-driven game, there are a number of precautions you can take to accommodate the writer and prevent the story (and your writer) from getting buried beneath endless revisions of your GDD.

First and foremost among these is to make one simple conceptual change: treat your writer as an associate designer. Involve her in the design process from the outset. Even if she is not an experienced technical designer, a good writer can be instrumental in helping inspire unique moment-to-moment experiences that provide gameplay variety while integrating seamlessly into the narrative. Again, writing is not just about clever sentences -- it can also be about narrative shape, motivation, and pacing, i.e. what you do, why you do, and when you do.

Most of my favorite narrative-driven games contain very little dialog in them at all -- Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Flashback, Out of this World -- but even these titles are "written" in the sense that they have a clear set of emotional shifts, tonal changes, and meaningful moment-to-moment events that compound into emotional pay-offs.

When writers and designers band together and discuss a game's story, characters, dramatic set-pieces, and settings in parallel with ideas about the game mechanics and levels, the team will begin to find exciting and creative ways of conjoining the two disciplines into a more unified experience.

Unfortunately, this synergy can be difficult to find, especially in the trenches of third-party development where the average dev cycle is less than a year. When schedules are tight, producers and designers often maintain a slight distance from writers, imagining we are off "doing our thing" while they do theirs.

But our thing is their thing too. Writing is design. We are both building a world from scratch, after all. So if you empower a writer to absorb and occasionally contribute design ideas, she will carry on with a solid understanding of how the narrative elements contribute to (or detract from) the overall game experience.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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