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  • The Law of the Land for Game Writing

    [04.01.08]
    - James Portnow
  •  One question I'm asked all the time is: What do I have to do to become a game writer? Well, at last I'm going to tell you. Are you ready for it? You're sure? Okay!

    To become a game writer you must be good at writing for games.

    I'm glad that's settled.

    Oh ... were you looking for a little more than that? I guess you're persistent and curious -- that's a start. I'll tell you what I know.

    Breaking into the Biz
    This article isn't going to tell you how to make it as a game writer. Right now there are very few available positions for writers, and they're highly sought. You'll have to find your own way in. All I can do is to arm you with some of the tools that can help make you a better game writer.

    Writing vs. Game Writing
    The first thing you need to know is that writing prose and writing for games are two very different skills. The second thing you ought to know is that script writing and writing for games are two very different skills. Once you know that, you should nevertheless polish your traditional writing skills. If you can't put a sentence together, you can't write for games.

    The key difference between writing for a traditional medium and writing for games is understanding the concept of agency. In most written works, the author has all the agency. This means the author controls exactly what happens. The author has complete autonomy over the outcome of every situation.

    In games, the agency is shared by the player and the author together. The player can't exceed the bounds of what has been created for him, but he can choose when, how, and in what context he will experience it.

    If you don't understand and accept this distinction, you might write great stories, but you'll write bad games. I've seen many attempts by game auteurs to force their players to experience their vision exactly how it was "meant to be experienced." Don't go down that road. It only leads to disaster.

    Interactivity
    Like any other element of game design, interactivity is the key to good writing. The writing itself should either be interactive or contextualize the player's interactions in the game world.

    I nteractive writing can be anything from a chatter system in a first-person shooter to dialogue of the NPCs in an open world RPG or MMORPG, which changes based on what the player has done and whom he or she has talked to. For an example of a chatter system, play a little bit of IO-Interactive's Kane & Lynch or EA's Army of Two. Within a few minutes you'll probably have had enough of their loathsome characters' inane babble, but at least you'll know what a chatter system is.

    Contextual dialogue is another fantastic form of interactive writing. NPCs in Oblivion or World of Warcraft, or even any of the Final Fantasy games, will demonstrate character dialogue that adapts dynamically to what the player has done. Mass Effect provides an excellent modern example, but I encourage anyone who wants to be an RPG game writer to go back and play any of the games by Black Isle Studios (Fallout, Baldur's Gate).

    The true test of a game writer is whether she uses non-interactive writing to contextualize a player's interactions within the game world. What does this mean?

    Let's look at some examples.

    BioShock
    Spoiler alert. If you haven't played BioShock and you've read this far into this article, you really should just bookmark this page, close your browser, and go play it.

    BioShock is about a philosophy called objectivism created by Ayn Rand. BioShock is a jaw dropping achievement in game writing because 2K Games and the game's writers used the written word to change first-person shooter gameplay into an exploration of that philosophy. How did they do this? They did it by being continually conscious of the player's core interactions while they were crafting their story.

    In BioShock, like most first-person shooters, the player does two things: shoot people and explore a space. The difference is in BioShock the team at 2K used the writing to make the player continually aware of the differences between the current state of Rapture and its former glory. They took "shooting people" and used it to make the player aware that the crazed savages who they were fighting in the hallways were the same refined and civilized people whose diaries they could pick up and listen to throughout the game. The 2K team took "exploring a space" and made it a window into a world and used that world as a commentary on the philosophy of objectivism.

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