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.
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.
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.
Your writing process should be as transparent as possible to the people on the team with which you have contact. They need to see your work in continual stages as it progresses.
Due to the nature of game development it’s almost impossible to deliver story and dialogue in a completed document without anyone having seen their development. Not only would it be difficult for the team to get their heads around such a massive document, how would the writer ensure that everything fits with the gameplay?
The only way to successfully deliver to the team, keep in synch with the game’s design and get approval for each part of your work is to progress through a series of iterations. Beginning with a broad outline of key points and characters, details should be added with each iteration, feeding back to the team with every one, until everything is complete.
Not only does this approach make it easier to develop the story – everyone can see the big story picture as it grows – it means that any changes based on feedback are easier to incorporate because less overall work has been done at each stage. Incorporating feedback into a huge, completed document would be a monumental task and difficult to collate.
Create a more detailed version based on the last one, show the team, incorporate feedback, get approval. Repeat until complete.
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.
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.
This can be split into two parts – the player character and the non-player characters, which are always very different beasts.
In many first person games, the nature of the player character is less defined, primarily because it is felt the player will see themselves as the character. Defining the character’s traits may well act against the player’s desire to feel in control. That’s not always the case, though, as games like Half-Life defined the player character pretty well.
In third person games, the player sees the character they play and it becomes easier to give them traits and a personality different to that of the player. The degree to which this will work will still be down to the expectations of the genre, with high action games offering fewer opportunities to explore the characters than a story-driven investigation.
NPCs have different roles in different genres. In many action games or strategy games, NPCs may well be nameless characters designed to offer more in the way of a busy feel or exist as “cannon fodder”, although I’m not a fan of very generic characters.
Whereas, if the game relies on the interactions between the player character and the NPCs, the latter may well be fleshed out with names, a small back-story and may even have their own agenda during any conversations.
Look at the genre you are working in and work out the character needs that apply.
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.
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.
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.