Developing and adding final details to both the overall story and to the section breakdowns, in line with the design team’s work, is where the whole project’s narrative will begin to shine. It is also where problems and narrative bugs can crop up – particularly the kind that are hard to track down – so be sure to approach these final tasks in a thorough way.
Completing the story and design details is important before embarking on the final version of the dialogue. Only then will you know that everything is in place and ready for those well-crafted lines the characters will speak.
In many ways, the actual dialogue lines are a little superfluous until this stage of the game’s writing, but it’s likely that most of it will have been written by now, even if only in a first draft stage, depending on how you like to work. Editing and polishing the dialogue takes it to a final stage and ready for the voice actors.
QA testing may throw up problems that can only be fixed by editing the work, but that is the nature of game development. Hopefully, if you have been diligent in your approach to all your writing work, such edits and fixes will be relatively minor.
Note: The previous four points are a simplified version of the iteration process and there are likely to be (many) more stages than this, depending on how a team works. Each stage will also likely have its own iterative approach on a smaller scale as specific details are discussed, refined and agreed. Each could have its own iteration pyramid, so to speak.
The level of quality in writing dialogue should never vary, of course, but different genres have different needs where the amount of dialogue and style is concerned.
Dialogue in an action game shouldn’t slow down the action unnecessarily. Brisk and to the point always works best here. At the same time, we should always be mindful of the characters and make sure our tight lines don’t end up sounding the same for all of them.
A game with lots of character interaction that involves some kind of investigation will, by its very nature, generate a need for plenty of dialogue. But this shouldn’t be seen as an excuse to overload the game with far more lines than are necessary. Yes, you should explore the nature of each NPC but this can and should be done in the answers they give to questions from the player character. Rambling or pointless responses may be okay now and again if they are intriguing or humorous, but the player is likely to lose interest if every character is like this.
Some games, of course, have no need for dialogue and the writer, who may be brought in to establish the shape of the story and other writing tasks, should never try to force it in where it’s not needed.
The above is a simplification of things, but it shows that dialogue writing will vary quite a lot. It’s up to the individual writer to work out the needs of the game they are working on and the genre in which it fits.
Dialogue works best in a game when conversations are fully interactive.
Too often we see the player character interact with a non-player-character (NPC) and the latter simply gives up information too easily, often without being specifically asked and usually in a kind of small monologue.
In situations of this kind, there is no drama between the characters because the player doesn’t have to work for the information on offer. Without such drama, conversations become dull and the player will develop no interest in what the characters have to say.
Sometimes the situation is even worse and the player character simply has to approach near to an NPC for that person to begin talking. Too often, they also give up information no one would really reveal to a stranger, such as, “The King hasn’t been seen for weeks.” Such things undermine any character believability.
When the player decides the direction of a conversation through questions and subject choices and the conversation expands or contracts based on the information revealed, they become much more invested in the conversation and the characters involved.
Conversations should be as much a part of a game’s interaction as all aspects of the gameplay mechanics in order to maximise the experience it delivers.
Interactivity can affect story both directly and indirectly.
An indirect interaction relates to the gameplay and the choices the player makes through their gameplay actions, their style of gameplay or the order in which they take on missions. The story may then be affected as a knock-on result of these actions and choices. For instance, you may have achieved your goal but it resulted in too many civilian casualties.
In the case of indirect interaction, the writer must work closely with the game design team in order to understand key gameplay outcomes that may affect different story elements.
A direct interaction comes about when the player is making specific story-related decisions. Did a character you spoke to lie? What or where does a clue point to? Do I support my boss or go it alone?
There are some who think that a directly interactive story is simply about giving the player story choices at every twist and turn, which can create an ever-branching narrative that may run away with itself and lead to an enormous number of possible endings. A writer can quickly become overwhelmed if they don’t keep some kind of control over this, which can be achieved through a sensible management of the way choices are made and the consequences that follow.
When you understand how interactivity affects the story, you are able to build genuine engaging stories that deliver a quality experience.
Interactivity is a powerful aspect of games that can make them stand apart from other media, but it can also lead to the idea that the latter are therefore passive. This is both a very negative view of other forms of storytelling and quite wrong.
While other media may not be interactive in the way that games are, they always strive to be highly engaging, particularly in the way they make the reader/viewer/listener empathise with the characters, connect with the drama and create a desire to see the story through to completion.
This high degree of involvement can be very powerful because it makes us connect in an entirely different way to the more up-front interaction of games – we engage with our emotions.
That’s not to say our emotions are not a part of why we love playing games, but sometimes the range of emotions can be rather limited in comparison.
What this means for game writing is that those who wish to tell engaging, interactive narratives can learn valuable lessons from these other media. Dismissing them as passive can be a serious misjudgement and lead to missing very valuable learning resources.
Care must be taken, though, to learn these lessons and apply them to games in a way that makes the most of the interactivity.
As a writer it’s easy to think that the work you do has little direct connection to the work of the rest of the team. Even those who do appreciate the way games are made don’t always relate in the most beneficial way.
Understanding game design, specifically, is vital to a writer delivering the work that enhances the player’s interactive experience. From the moment-to-moment gameplay mechanics to the interface that conveys the story and character progressions, knowledge of these design aspects will feed into how you see the narrative and how it should unfold on the actions of the player.
I’m not trying to say that you should become a game designer or understand all the fine details, but an insight into game design will help you appreciate the narrative limitations and structures that various game styles place on the writer. And when you understand the parameters you must work within, you can work with the design team to deliver the narrative in the most creative way possible.
If, for example, you learn there will be no detailed facial expressions or even any voice acting, the way you approach the game’s dialogue will likely be very different to the way you’d do so if those things were incorporated.
It’s very easy to look at the writer’s part in the development of a game, especially if it’s a particularly narrative-heavy one like an adventure or a role playing game, and see its importance as greater than it might be. Many other media require a writer to start the creative process but games are very different in this respect.
In games, there is nothing more important than gameplay and it’s vital that you realise this. Without gameplay you wouldn’t have a game and a writer might as well be writing for those other media.
Clearly, writing is important in game development, just as art, animation, programming and design are, but if none of these elements support the gameplay in the way they should, the gameplay is in danger of being undermined and the player will not enjoy the best experience possible.
Stories, characters, dialogue and so forth should all be developed and written with half a mind on the gameplay at all times. Your well-crafted lines should never contradict the gameplay mechanics or the gameplay abilities of the characters.