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  • How To Remove The Frustration Of Reading In Games

    [01.13.22]
    - Jack Yarwood
  • Working on games featuring a lot of text can be challenging.

    Regardless of whether you're making a role-playing game, a visual novel, or a text-based adventure, you're constantly trying to convince players that what they're reading is important or worthwhile. And while you may presume a strong story or premise is enough to get your readers' attention, unfortunately, that alone often isn't enough.

    Think about it: when was the last time you put aside some elaborately-written piece of lore in a game in favor of finding an abridged version online or skipped through lines of perfectly okay dialogue in order to try and save yourself some time?

    It doesn't take much to lose a player's interest, and that is why strong editing, clever narrative design and intuitive UI is so important. There are a number of ways to make text in games more approachable, from cutting down on the amount of words you have on-screen at any given time to experimenting with different types of presentation.

    To find out how different developers approach text in their games, Game Developer spoke to staff at Failbetter Games, 3-Fold Games, and Inkle. They told us more about the unique challenges they face as interactive storytellers, the designs that have influenced them over the years, and the importance of removing unnecessary barriers to reading.

    Weighing the cost/benefit of reading

    When it comes to narrative studios, Inkle, in particular, has gained popularity for its excellent adventure games: from adaptations of existing source material like Sorcery and 80 Days to original projects like Overboard and Heaven's Vault. But, although critics and players have been fond of Inkle's output over the years, its creative director Jon Ingold says this wasn't always the case.

    "When we [first] started, we heard a lot of people like, ‘Oh, people don't read in games, they don't like reading in games,'" Ingold recalls. "And we were [questioning], ‘Is that really true?' And I don't think it's true at all. The presentation is hugely important. The editing is hugely important. Also, people read all the time. The idea people don't read is wrong. People just need the right format that suits the mood that they're in and then they'll read happily."

    overboard2.jpg
    Overboard by Inkle

    This is where Ingold highlights Twitter as an influence. There are people who struggle to read books, but who spend hours reading on the social media platform every day. Ingold says that what this ultimately comes down to is the automatic cost/benefit analysis of the reader. If you think about investing time into reading 300 pages of a book, the cost is typically very high and the benefit is hard to determine, whereas if you refresh your Twitter feed there's always bound to be something to read that's interesting, and if not, you can simply press refresh right away and try your chances again.

    Ingold applies this theory to explain why so many people avoid reading lore panels in AAA games. In games like The Witcher, for instance, players can read additional essays about the world that do little to enhance the overall experience, if you're not already invested. As a result, most will likely skip over them in favor of advancing the plot.

    "We're quite cynical about it," says Ingold. "We have this sense that if you give people at least half an excuse not to read something then they won't. Because they're playing a game and it's complicated and there's half a million things going on. And they just want to simplify it down to what they need to do to actually make progress in this game."

    This isn't a problem that's exclusive to triple-A games. You can also see something similar in interactive fiction too. As Ingold notes, it's not uncommon for readers, when presented with a block of text and a set of choices, to simply play the options without reading anything that preceded them. So, in order to get around this, developers need to constantly ensure their writing is brief, expressive, and gives a greater understanding of the choices being offered.

    Inkle's adaptation of 80 Days is a great example of this. Here Meg Jayanth's script explores complex ideas around culture and empire, but the text is always delivered in short snippets that are easy to understand, or 100 words or less. At this length, the player almost reads the text by accident, while in the process of planning, reflecting, or thinking about their next move.

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