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'Don't be predictable': Gary Whitta reflects on writing for games

'Don't be predictable': Gary Whitta reflects on writing for games

February 19, 2018 | By Alan Bradley

February 19, 2018 | By Alan Bradley
More: Indie, Design

Gary Whitta is a man of many talents.

From a career in publishing and games journalism, notably as the editor-in-chief of PC Gamer magazine, Whitta transitioned to the creative side of entertainment, penning a number of high profile films, comics, books, and games.

Whitta’s impressive (and numerous) credits include standouts like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Telltale’s video game adaptation of The Walking Dead, and the comic series Oliver, which casts Dickens’ eponymous protagonist as a post-apocalyptic superhero.

Writers who work in games may be curious to know that while he’s written for a tremendous number of mediums and genres, Whitta admits a preference for the collaborative nature of writing for TV -- and for games.

“I think film will always be my first language, so to speak,” Whitta says. “It’s the form I’m most experienced and comfortable with it. But in branching out into writing books and television and games and comics my eyes have really been opened to the different possibilities offered by other forms. Of them all I think I prefer television and interactive as the story breaking process is team-based and a lot of fun. Batting around ideas with a bunch of smart writers is some of the most fun you can have as a writer in this business, and you learn a lot.”

"Create characters we can care about"

Regardless of medium, Whitta’s creative process is much the same. “Know what you’re trying to communicate thematically,” he says, “create characters we can care about, be mindful of structure, don’t be predictable, try to surprise as much as possible.”

"The only real power you have is the power to persuade others that the idea you’re championing is the right one."

But with each new format came a new set of rules and structures, new contingencies and demands. Whitta says that expanding into different mediums taught him valuable lessons that could applied across all of them.

“Writing for half-hour television (with Star Wars Rebels) was a crash course in concision and efficiency in storytelling, which are worthwhile skills in any storytelling medium," he adds. 

"Having 120-ish pages to tell a complete story feels like such a luxury when suddenly asked to do the same thing in just 20-25 pages. It really forces you to do discipline yourself, to cut absolutely everything that isn’t necessary, so do and say more with less, to enter a scene as late as possible and to exit it as early as possible. And you really have to hit your mark because commercial television is locked down to the second in terms of runtime, as opposed to almost every other medium where length is more flexible.”

After the rigid structure of episodic TV, writing a book was a much more freeform (and relaxed) experience.

“I really enjoyed writing my novel, as a screenwriter it’s a breath of fresh air to write something that is actually going to be the finished product as opposed to just the theoretical blueprint for a finished product, which is all a screenplay ever really is,” Whitta says. “The finished film, if you’re lucky enough to get it made, may bear some resemblance to your script and to what you intended to convey when writing it, or it may not. I’ve had both experiences, and as a writer you’re largely powerless to effect that outcome.”

But for Whitta, the most promising field moving forward is games: a medium still in its infancy but with vast untapped potential. He recommends it for writers “looking to tell non-conventional stories and experiment with different narrative techniques. It’s also potentially the best opportunity to really create engagement by continuing to melt away the wall between storyteller and audience. In a good interactive story the audience feels like the story is happening to and around them, rather than simply watching the story happen to someone else. I have no doubt that it’s the medium where the most potentially interesting stories will be told over the coming generation.”

It’s not surprising, then, that a medium with so much room for growth and at such a foundational level of development would be rife with difficulties and challenges. Introducing player agency makes crafting realistic, consistent characters much harder than it is in mediums where the author has more control.

Telltale Games' The Walking Dead (2012)

“If you play any standard choiced-based branching game it’s usually possible to get really silly and create wild character ‘mood swings’ that go way outside the norms of logical and consistent character behavior," says Whitta. 

"You can be a paragon of virtue one minute and a total asshole the next. I think that’s something that we’ll evolve beyond as we come to better understand how to meld player agency with curated storytelling — the player will still be able to inform character choices and the outcome of both scenes and the overall story, but I think we will see more work being done behind the scenes with the narrative engine to adapt to cumulative player choices and, for example, generate bespoke third-act consequences that are an accurate reflection of the kind of character the player has been shaping through their choices.”

And writing for games is technically much different than any other sort of writing. Instead of a single, linear script or narrative, a game might demand a massive network of possible outcomes, which means exponentially more text.

“Branching experiences are just a nightmare to write,” Whitta admits. “They can be a lot of fun as they allow writers to execute multiple versions of scenes and see them all potentially play out based on player choice, but the sheer volume of material needed to flesh out all the possible variations of scenes and stories, and ensuring that each combination is as narratively and logically legitimate as any other is tremendously mind-bending work."

"On the first season of The Walking Dead I wrote the first draft of my episode in a fairly standard screenplay form, as the familiarity of that form allowed me to write the way I was most comfortable with,” he continues, but even a simplified approach left him with a bulging 500-page document, roughly the size of four feature-length screen plays.

“And then I had to rewrite the entire thing into Telltale’s proprietary story tool which looks like an incredibly complex flowchart and is very off-putting at first, but as you get used to it you start to realize it’s actually the best way to visualize and track a multi-dimensional story.”

"Recognize when a particular idea of yours is not getting traction and...carefully consider what hills you are willing to die on — because as a writer for hire on a project your death is the most likely outcome if you pick the wrong battle."

Unlike film or television, where the basic format of a script has long been standardized, writing for games means to some extent making it up as you go and hoping the pieces all fit together in the final product. 

“it’s the medium that places the most demands on the writer since the story has to work within a much more complex and demanding overall framework, story is not always the sole driver of the experience as it is in other media,” Whitta explains. “The actual form of the writing can be radically different depending on the storytelling approach the game is taking. In the ‘traditional’ approach of telling a story through linear, non-interactive cinematics parceled out between gameplay, that’s not so far removed from writing film and television, but with the caveat that you’re writing a story designed to be consumed in short chunks spread out over many hours, so understanding how a story like that should be paced is important."

It’s much more complex, however, when trying to tell a story that’s influenced in large part by player decisions. And while on the surface the idea of player agency in game worlds seems very appealing, Whitta is cautious about the idea of giving players primary control over storytelling.

Giving the client the kitchen they want

“Whether that’s actually a goal worth striving for is still an ongoing discussion; we have to think very carefully about how much authorship of a story it’s desirable to cede to the player,” he warns. “Even in a theoretical interactive story where the player could branch the narrative in very granular ways and develop potentially limitless combinations of stories there needs to be a lot of curation and guidance on the part of the actual storyteller.”

And telling stories in worlds as culturally important and established as Star Wars or The Walking Dead comes with its own set of obstacles and frustrations.

“I’ve been very lucky in that the teams at Telltale Games and Lucasfilm are both extremely collaborative and inclusive in their creative processes. At the same time you’re always very aware of the fact that this is someone else’s sandbox, and you’re just privileged to have been invited to come play in it.”

Whitta compares the process to being a contractor renovating someone’s home; he can pitch his vision, but the final decision is out of his hands.

“At the end of the day it’s their kitchen, they’re paying for it, and so it’s my job to find the line between fighting for the ideas that I think would be best and giving the client the kitchen they want," he concludes. 

"The only real power you have is the power to persuade others that the idea you’re championing is the right one. Or, just as often, to recognize when a particular idea of yours is not getting traction and to carefully consider what hills you are willing to die on — because as a writer for hire on a project, your death is the most likely outcome if you pick the wrong battle."

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