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As much as a talent for storytelling, any successful game writer must have a raft of supplementary skills, from being able to enthuse other team members about story, to working sympathetically with producers, to being a flexible and willing editor.
This was the message delivered by a panel of veteran game writers at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco today in a session titled "Everything’s On Fire And No One Knows What To Do."
Writers are the “most important part of any team,” quipped Colin McComb, who currently works at 3lb Games LLC and worked on the Fallout and Wasteland series. “But we rely on the help of artists, programmers and QA. It’s our job to bring these people into the story, so that they feel empowered, supported and as enthused by the story as much as we are. We need their feedback and to feel their involvement. If they’re not involved in the process, we might as well be writing novels, and that’s a lot less fun.”
inXile Entertainment’s Gavin Jurgens-Fyhrie, a writer on the recently-launched PlayStation 4 game, Horizon: Zero Dawn, agreed with McComb’s assertion, but argued that bringing team members from other disciplines on board often requires a clarification of terms up front.
“At every place that I’ve worked someone on the team has said to me: ‘I don’t like game story’,” he said. What they usually mean by this, he explained, is that they don’t like cinematics -- those passive snippets of in-game movie.
"What I try to establish on a team is that there’s a difference between cinematics and game writing,” he said. Game writing, he argued, is not about cinematics as much as it is building the bridge between what the designers intended to communicate, and the stories that the players are telling themselves.
Carving out this space between the explicit and the implicit storytelling is crucial to drawing team-members as well as players into the story-writing process, said Leanne Taylor-Giles, a scriptwriter at Ubisoft Montreal.
“Fifty percent of story is told in the player’s head,” she said. “A part of the process is leaving the gaps that allow players to tell themselves the story themselves – ambiguity, that allows players to interpret what’s going on. It’s a collaborative process.”
Veteran freelance game writer Chris Avellone, who worked on Prey and System Shock urged game writers to speak to the QA department, and encourage them to provide feedback on story-related bugs, as well as the technical ones which they are used to surveying.
“QA team members have often been training to not mention narrative bugs,” he said. “QA should be trained to point out bad [voiceover] or things that don’t make sense in the story. If a QA team member doesn’t understand how a character got from one place to another then that is as valid a game bug as anything.”
One of the key skills that needs to be fostered by any game writer is the ability to be flexible with story elements as a project develops, the panel argued. Many game projects undergo re-scoping during the development process. In this situation, it’s “important to ask why things are changing,” advised Avellone. “Sometimes people on a team have looked at things for so long that they start getting bored, so [they] think it needs to change for the sake of making a change. I always advise that we bring a focus tester in at that point."
Sometimes, however, changes must be made, not through boredom, but through necessity. In these cases, when writing for RPGs, Avellone revealed that he tries to write critical plot lines with moving non-player characters. This way, if a particular location is cut from the game, the plot line can be relocated without issue.
McComb agreed with Avellone’s advice. “Develop a critical path document," he said. "The chances are good that your game will get re-scoped. We are all ambitious storytellers, and ambition is the enemy of reality. See it as an opportunity, one that allows you to re-examine, re-pace and condense things into more compact, more easily digestible plot lines. We are writers and we tend to write long.”
Taylor-Giles agreed on this point. “I like re-scoping as it helps focus us on edits that perhaps we didn’t realize we needed," she said.