Story

201 Things – 37

It can be hard on any of us when a team member is dismissive of our work.  Not only does it hurt our feelings (no matter how much we pretend otherwise) it undermines the value of the writing tasks we undertake.

Over the years I’ve worked in the games industry, things have improved greatly for game writers, though there are still developers or individuals who don’t see the full worth of a writer.  And although there are still people who need to be informed of this, we mustn’t rail at them or berate them in any way.  We should be smarter in our approach.

You must ensure, therefore, that you are an important service provider and you deliver what the client wants.  This doesn’t just mean that you write the dialogue to the best of your ability, but also that you help create a game of richness and depth through the way that you approach the story.

An important contributor is more than simply delivering the work, it’s also about working well with other team members and ensuring the project is put above any individual issues.  It’s about valuing others’ contributions in the same way you’d want them to appreciate yours.

Most of all, be positive about the project and the team behind it.

201 Things – 35

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.

201 Things – 34

When the detailed story is complete and approved by the team, the next task is to develop further detail into a series of chapters, levels, missions or episodes (depending on how best they are defined). 

It may be that the team want to make the game feel as continuous as possible and want to move away from the idea of clearly defined “levels”.  However, that doesn’t mean there won’t be major story and gameplay objectives that define a series of key points during the game that will enable you to see how the larger story breaks down into further details.

Again, working closely with the design team is important to ensure each section works for both sides of the story/design coin.  Chapter objectives and obstacles ought to be completely in line with those of the gameplay.

In a serial TV drama, each episode may have its own story as well as adding to the overall story and this could be the case with the sections of the game.  This means that each could have a complex structure that requires further flow charts to be created.  The design team may also create maps and other diagrams, mostly for their own benefit, but these will also help the writer when visualising certain aspects.

As the level of detail ramps up, keep in mind the overall vision for the game and ensure that everything you create works towards that.

201 Things – 33

Building on the high level overview in a creative way is where a writer can stretch their writing muscles.  This is when the story begins to take real shape, the characters become fully developed, new ones added and where exciting conflict is developed.

This is also where the story objectives and obstacles should be tied into those relating to the gameplay.  Developing the detail of the story and plot should never be about the writer going off and concentrating on their own thing, but keeping in constant touch with the design team to ensure both are developed in sync.

The work involved in this step can be both invigorating and daunting.  Not only must the story work in its own right, it must work with the game design and must embrace the game’s interactivity.  The story should help the game deliver a great experience to the players.  The detail added at this stage needs to embrace this completely.

A huge help in keeping track of the story’s growth, particularly if it has branching aspects, is to develop a supporting flow chart.  This will enable you to see the shape of the interactive plot you create. 

Ideally, a tool would be used that not only enables you to create the flow chart but also runs through it as if you were playing the game.  Although not specific flow chart software, Twine can be very useful in many respects.  You can see the whole story as a kind of flow chart and play through it to test that your story works.

201 Things – 32

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.

201 Things – 31

The process of iteration is to start with ideas and thoughts that are low in detail and presented in ways that are easily understood.  Details will then be added with each iteration, gaining consensus and approval at each step.

One way to look at working with iteration is to imagine the process being like a pyramid where you start at the top with an idea that’s low in detail.  Then each layer down is larger because it has more detail until you get down to the base, which is where everything should be complete and the contents of your story are unshakeable.

The analogy does not relate to building a pyramid because then you’d start from the bottom and work your way up, so it’s more one of discovery and exploration.  You may begin with a clear idea of the shape of the pyramid – the game that you’re hoping to create – but you have no idea what the details will be that make up the insides.

So if you enter the pyramid at the top and explore one level at a time, as you finish each layer of greater detail – each iteration – the story becomes clearer, until you finally reach the bottom and know the story inside and out.

In a very real sense, you’re creating the interior of the pyramid as you explore the project’s ideas.  You’re defining the map with the work that you do.

201 Things – 29

The design team will develop the gameplay mechanics, decide the characters’ abilities and create everything relating to the gameplay objectives and obstacles.  This is no mean feat and how well a game plays is entirely down to the hard work they put into the creation, testing and adjustment of these elements.  Things are often changed, altered, removed or added to over the course of a project’s development as a direct result of ongoing play-testing and a writer must be aware of this.

Working closely with the design team is vital because any changes, from large scale alterations to small tweaks, may have an impact on the story and how it is delivered.

For instance, the design team may want to make a substantial change to the player character.  Originally designed as male, they want to be more inclusive and give the player the chance to choose the character’s gender.  Now the writer will need to ensure that the story and any dialogue written will be appropriate to this change.

It is not a one way street, of course.  The development of the story may well throw up narrative objectives that will work well as gameplay objectives, for example.  It will then be the turn of the design team to work these into the overall game design in a seamless way.

Working together will not only be beneficial to the game but if it’s done well will fire up the creativity on both sides.  But each party need to be open to the thoughts and ideas of the other.

201 Things – 26

In case you’re unaware, genre in games means something different than in other media.  Genres are things like first person shooters, real time strategy games, point and click adventures, racing games, etc.  The style of gameplay is the main differentiating factor, here, which is to be expected in a medium that revolves around it.

Naturally, because gameplay is different, this often leads to different story approaches and how it might be delivered to the player.  We want stories that support the style of game in order to give the most complete interactive experience.

A first person shooter, for example, may be mission based and as a result the main story beats may be shown at the completion of each mission with smaller beats occurring at key points during the mission.

With a point and click adventure, though, the story is often so tied into the ongoing gameplay, usually through some kind of investigation, that it is delivered to the player in an almost constant stream.  This is usually done through a combination of character interaction, exploring the environment and piecing together clues and information.

Clearly, understanding the story needs and delivery for each game you work on is a vital part of the game writing process and a writer must make their work fit these needs.  Don’t deliver a story that doesn’t fit the genre.

201 Things – 25

We should create stories and worlds in which the player feels alive and remains involved at all times.

The story worlds created for screenplays and novels are expected to support the characters and ideas in ways that are believable, consistent and don’t interrupt the suspension of disbelief.  Sometimes those worlds need to be big and bold, like our ideas, but other times a much simpler approach will help the story by giving it a clearer focus. Having the characters fit neatly within these worlds is an important part of engaging the viewer or reader, even when they might be at odds with that world.

Game worlds are even more important.  The player actively explores the game world as they work through the numerous options open to them and this world must keep them feeling involved.

However, game worlds aren’t there simply for the characters to exist within, they are worlds in which the player takes part in combat, investigation puzzle solving and so forth.  The stories support and enhance these things and give a richer experience to the player, involving them more completely.

Equally, the player must feel that the world has a consistency that makes sense in relation to the story and the gameplay.  No one wants a surprise thrust upon them that kills them unfairly or have the game expect them to solve a puzzle that relies on a mechanic they didn’t even know existed.

The same goes for the stories and worlds you create – be as unusual as you like but deliver a consistency that enables the player to feel like a vibrant part of your world.  Make sure the twists and turns, no matter how unexpected, are consistent with the game’s world and keep the player involved.

201 Things – 24

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.