No matter what type of game you’re working on, for a writer the iterative process needs to start with some kind of relatively simple story overview to ensure they are beginning the development path in the right way.
This might well stem from an initial meeting with the design team in which ideas are thrown about, in keeping with the main aims of the game’s style and gameplay mechanics. It may begin with a brief from the project lead based on initial ideas they already have. Whatever the trigger, this initial overview should be seen as the starting point of the whole process.
This first layer of detail is likely going to be just a small number of pages that define an overview of the main story ideas along with notes on the main characters. This should be presented with the gameplay in mind to ensure that everything sits within the scope of the project.
The first, very brief, synopsis should also be included in this high level overview, which should take into account any plans for branching storylines and/or multiple endings if appropriate.
It can be very tempting to let your creativity run away with you and deliver much more than you need at this stage, but it’s really best to hold back and put this into the stages that follow.
We must write characters the player will want to play.
Player characters like Lara Croft, Master Chief, Geralt, etc. didn’t get to be popular by accident – they were created and written with the player in mind. The very best characters you could ever come up with might count for nothing if they are not fun to play and interesting to follow.
Admittedly, you might argue that good, playable characters fall into the realm of game design, but that’s only partly true. If you want the characters’ story to connect to the gameplay in a cohesive manner, the writing of them must overlap their design throughout the whole development process.
Just as screenwriters must write characters the viewer will want to watch, game writers should help make game characters vibrant by giving life to them beyond their gameplay attributes alone.
Finding the right balance is tricky, of course. A writer shouldn’t “steal” the character away from its gameplay. If the attributes and associated mechanics are those of a cold-hearted assassin, the writer’s task is to make the character interesting while supporting that style of gameplay.
If the writing reinforces the character properties and enhances the experience in the process, the player’s actions in driving the game towards its goal will become so much more rewarding.
If you play and enjoy plenty of games, especially a great variety of them, you should have no trouble thinking like a player. You are a player, after all. Sometimes, though, in the throes of creativity we can fail to remember this. Our minds may think differently when we’re trying to put together exciting stories with rich characters.
Many creative people are very good at working on multiple projects in parallel to one-another and compartmentalise their minds in order to do so. For a writer, the style and characters from one project won’t work in others because they simply don’t belong in those worlds.
However, if a compartment barrier exists between the creative aspect of your mind and that devoted to playing games, then it needs to become more fluid. That way your game-playing experiences can feed into the way you approach your game writing. Your gameplay likes, dislikes, frustrations and achievements should then guide your writing hand in a positive manner.
Of course, we also need to be careful that this doesn’t lead us into the trap of copying the way other game stories are written. While our game playing experience needs to feed into the way we think like a player when writing, we must always strive to ensure our writing is original and of a high quality.
In many ways, the player can be thought of as the protagonist. And it applies whether you write for first person or third person games.
A game’s story doesn’t move forward without the actions of the player, which gives the player a protagonist’s connectivity to the twists and turns of the plot, the conflict with other characters and the motivation to overcome obstacles along the way.
Yes, the stories and the choices they contain may well be pre-defined, written and recorded, but if they are crafted well the suspension of disbelief will encourage the player to feel that they are in the middle of saving the world or instrumental in solving the murder mystery.
Unlike a film or TV show, where the story and actions of the protagonist are delivered to the viewer, the writer must ensure that the story is every bit as exciting and engaging as those other media at the same time as delivering it through the way the player interacts with the game.
The fundamentals of storytelling are the same in all media, but games take a different mind-set to embrace the full role of the player and how that person fits into the telling of your tale.
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.
It may seem that I’m stating the obvious, but sometimes we have to do this in order to make sure we keep as much as possible in mind when writing for games. Even reminders of the things we know, understand and use in our work on a daily basis will benefit from a little repetition. It also helps us establish common ground when discussing game writing.
In spite of this statement, I’m sure we’ve all played games where the story seems “bolted on”, which can be really frustrating for anyone playing a game who cares about the story as well as the gameplay.
This might arise from the story being something of an after-thought and the writer being brought in very late in the development process. Even the most talented writer in the world can only do so much in a situation like this.
Another reason might be that the writer and design team don’t work together as well as they should. Creative differences can arise for all sorts of reasons but professionals should find a way to work through these differences for the good of the project.
A story that works with the gameplay – through the characters, forward momentum and shared game and story objectives – gives a full and rewarding experience to the player.
It’s not a difficult concept to grasp – a writer should be brought onto a game project as early as possible and the writer should then work with the team, keeping gameplay uppermost in mind as they develop the story.
Not all game stories are interactive, either fully or partially, but all of them have to fit into the interactive nature of games. Even a totally non-interactive story with no player agency is often moved forward by the actions of the player – solving a complex puzzle, storming the bunker or rescuing the prince for example.
What this means in basic terms is that, unlike in most other media, the writer has no control over the pacing of the story, particularly when some players will progress through the game much faster than others.
When a story itself has interactive elements – from changing the order in which the story unfolds to complex outcomes – not only the pacing is affected but the emotional responses to the unfolding narrative become tied in to the interactions of the player.
The game writer must therefore appreciate interactivity in everything they create for the projects they work on. Nothing happens in a game without input from the player, no matter how varied that might be over a wide range of games.
Interactivity is a vital ingredient in what defines a game.
I once had a conversation with a member of the design team on one project in which he was describing a puzzle he’d just created. “This will stump the player,” he said, rather proudly. So I had to explain that our roles as developers weren’t to beat the players but to engage them.
Game development should never be seen as Developer vs Player. We should never see the process as Us and Them. Providing interactive entertainment through puzzles and other gameplay should be seen as a co-operative endeavour where, through the right approach to creation, the game delivers the right balance of challenge and reward.
Although much of this falls into the realm of game design, writing is often closely tied to the design and must support the unspoken “contract” between the developer and player. Clues and information can be subtle or add to the mystery, but the writer should be careful to avoid the murky confusion that can arise from too much obscurity.
We don’t want to lead the player by the hand, but we shouldn’t lead him down the wrong path without good reason. Our goal should be that the player is one of “us”, they simply have a very different role than the rest of the team.
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.