I don’t profess to be an expert in the history of games and gaming, but my personal experience from the late seventies onwards has shown me how interactivity is such a key part of what separates games from other entertainment media. It is also interesting to see how that interactivity has been refined and adapted to fit with advances in technology, particularly with the advent of various touch-screen devices.
Story-based games have grown and evolved, too, and today’s game writer should be aware of that evolution, rising from early text-based adventures to the multi-faceted rich fare we see today.
When compared to the wealth of work we see in other media, it’s easy to think that game writing and narrative are still in the early stages, but writers should realise that the interactive stories we tell have come a very long way already over the years.
Interactivity in games is a powerhouse that enables game writers to explore new ways of storytelling and we all need to embrace this without losing sight of what makes great stories, compelling characters and believable dialogue.
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.
If you ever think “it’s just a game” or “only a game” as if game projects are somehow lower than other forms of entertainment, then writing for games is likely not for you. Games are now a huge creative industry that adds significant revenue to the economy and you must always treat your work and the projects for which you write in the most professional manner possible.
Slip-shod work caused by a negative attitude to games as a whole or a project in particular will always be found out. Not only is it bad practice, it can seriously harm a writer’s professional reputation, something which our ongoing careers rely on very heavily.
This, of course, doesn’t just apply to the writing side of things. Indeed, why this entry is even here is because of an incident where an animator, working on a project with which I was involved, was picked up for some poor work. His response was, “So? It’s only a game.” Needless to say, his future with the company wasn’t a long one.
Writing to the maximum of your skills and abilities on every project will not only get you remembered, it will be far more rewarding for you, too.
Each studio is different and will likely have different structures in place to cover the management of a game’s development. Partly, this will be due to the size of the studio – a small, ten-person team will be completely different to a huge studio with more than a hundred staff working on multiple games.
However, sometimes internal structures grow as the studio grows and roles are created to fill gaps or manage an area of expertise that may not have existed ten years earlier.
The type of game being developed will likely throw up differences in structure, too. A high-end action game will have vastly different needs than a small-scale puzzle adventure and the structure will reflect that.
Some typical key roles in game development are: Director, Producer, Project Manager, Narrative Designer, Lead Writer, Lead Designer, Art/Creative Lead, Lead Artist, Lead Animator, Technical Lead, Implementation Lead, QA Lead and Audio Lead.
Some roles will likely overlap or go by other names. It’s handy to know who you, as a writer, will answer to, communicate with and receive feedback from.
Some writers like to keep themselves apart from the development process and some writers are kept apart from it by the people they have contact with, particularly if the writing role is a remote working one. But not knowing how the writer fits into the process can be detrimental to the project as a whole.
That’s not to say a writer should know the process in fine detail, because that can be distracting, but knowing the shape of the framework and how the writing is integrated into the development of the game can help your understanding of the big picture and how the characters, narrative and dialogue will fit into this in a cohesive manner.
Only when you learn how the development process works can you appreciate the complex nature of making games and why they often take so long. But you may also be able to work with the team in ways that enable the efficient integration of the writing.
It’s also pretty exciting to see how all these different parts contribute and make it all come together into something rewarding.
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.