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Tracing the evolution of game writing, from  System Shock  to  Tacoma

Tracing the evolution of game writing, from System Shock to Tacoma

November 22, 2016 | By Alex Wawro

November 22, 2016 | By Alex Wawro
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More: Console/PC, Indie, Design

"We just looked at each other one day and said 'We have no idea how to do a believable conversation in a game. We just have no clue. So what do we do about that?' And that was when the decision was made to kill everybody on Citadel Station."

- Veteran game dev Warren Spector remembers a conversation with Doug Church during development of System Shock, in a new story on Glixel.

The art and business of making games has changed radically over the past few decades, and now Glixel has collected some thoughts from a few devs around the industry about how, precisely, the craft of writing for games has evolved in that time.

The resulting feature is an intriguing read for devs who struggle with the work of integrating believable dialogue and narratives into their games. Moreover, it sheds light on how much -- and in some ways, how little -- game writing has changed since the '90s.

For example, veteran game maker Warren Spector recalls how Looking Glass and Origin Systems' influential 1994 game System Shock wound up taking place on a space station devoid of people because the dev team couldn't figure out how to create believable in-game dialogues. Thus, everyone was killed off and the station was strewn with recorded notes -- including the now-cliche message written on a wall in blood.

"The story was communicated through video logs and emails and things scrawled on the walls, so players actually constructed the story based on what you found when you found it," Spector said. "It actually worked really well. It was really powerful for me."

It worked so well, in fact, that it helped inspire a generation of game makers to pepper their virtual worlds with audio logs, conspicuous notes, and computers brimming with readable email -- even as many of the technical barriers to creating believable characters and conversations in games have crumbled.

Similar environmental storytelling techniques have been used to good effect by Fullbright, developer of Gone Home and the upcoming Tacoma (also set in a seemingly deserted space spation.) Speaking to Glixel, Fullbright's Steve Gaynor suggests the way small studios like his now wield the same sorts of storytelling tools Looking Glass employed in the '90s is deft enough to influence how stories are crafted in big-budget game studios, by teams with the resources to do things like intricately mo-capped conversations and big, flashy action scenes.

"I feel like stuff like Gone Home has started to influence stuff like Uncharted 4," said Gaynor. "That game has a lot more, I don't know, quiet moments than [Uncharted3. I think that stuff has to filter up, but it means there's a lot more dependencies if you want to do something great with story."

The full feature, which includes further comments from Gaynor and Spector as well as Fullbright's Karla Zimonja and some of the Gears of War 4 dev team, is worth reading over on Glixel. If nothing else, it may give you new appreciation for Excel as a game-writing tool.

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