The Law of the Land for Game Writing

By James Portnow [04.01.08]

 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.

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.

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.

 Call of Duty 4
Rapture is a little hard to wrap up in 200 words; let's go for something simpler. In Call of Duty 4, there's a moment when you have to shoot a group of sleeping soldiers. From that moment on, you have to ask yourself, "Is this right?"

Part of the reason this is so effective is because of the context. If this had happened in some other game it might not have had the same jarring effect on the player, but because the writers understood the mindset with which players approach a Call of Duty game, they were able to use this technique to great effect. If you are writing for a franchise or licensed IP, it's important that you keep in mind the player's expectations for that franchise or IP. Understanding the fantasy that players expect to engage in when they step into your world will allow you to play with that fantasy and create more expressive and interesting games.

Ace Combat 4
This one's a little older, but I think it's a must-play for writers. During the gameplay of Ace Combat 4, you play a fighter pilot who's in battle against an aggressive, militaristic nation. During the interstitial cut scenes, you watch the story of a young boy living on the other side of the war. Every bomb you drop in that game becomes a question about the meaning of the phrase "just war."

Cheap Tricks
I have a few tips on how to keep game writing focused on game play.

First, ask questions; don't make statements. If you structure your story around a question that the player can come to his or her own conclusions about, you won't write yourself into a corner. This allows your game to be less rigidly linear and lets the story be incorporated into the interaction, where anything can happen, rather than simply taking place during the cut scenes.

Second, the very act of playing a game is a form of exploration. Exploit this. The best way to do so is to establish some form of mystery for the player to explore and uncover. Think about how many games begin with an amnesiac protagonist or a mysterious plot to end the world. Think about the number of games in which the nature of reality itself comes into question and the player has to discover what's real and what's not. By creating some form of mystery, you invite your players to explore and dig deeper. That is to say, you invite them to keep playing your game.

Do, Don't Show
"Show, don't tell" is a phrase any freshman English major has heard a thousand times. It simply means, "Cut down on the exposition." This is especially true for games.

Exposition is simply plot-dump. It's the beginning of Star Wars or the moment the James Bond villain decides to tell James Bond the details of his master plan. This doesn't mean the exposition has to be done poorly (think Hamlet's father's ghost, or the opening of Richard III) or that it is always bad, but it does tend to break up the action. The real problem with exposition is that it is used to express facts and inform the audience, not develop characters.

In video games, we tend to rely on exposition. Why? Because it's fast. The scrolling text at the beginning of Star Wars saves us all from having to watch an extra hour of footage. This is great, but it's also risky. In a movie the exposition can be surrounded with two hours of character development but in a game, the writers usually don't have that luxury -- the cut scene they're writing ends in 30 to 60 seconds.

How do we solve this problem? By adopting a new mantra: "Do, don't show." Actions are expressive. Anything that can be encapsulated in an action that the player performs rather than expository text buys the writers extra space to develop the characters and provide a good story.

Games are all about action. As a game writer, you should work closely with the designers to design your story around the actions in the game. What abilities characters have should reflect their personalities. What missions the player takes on should define the plot. The type of space that best fits the action should define the setting. If you do this, you'll find that you have much more room to express the story you want to express rather than being stuck continuously expositing to justify the action.

Binary Choice
I just want offer one last warning. Avoid binary choices.

Good stories rarely involve choosing between extremes. It's tempting to offer the player such choices because they are easy to invent and seem interactive, but in the end they'll detract from the game. Even great games suffer from succumbing to this temptation. Be it the Mass Effect bars or the choice to save/consume the little sisters in BioShock, these systems detract from otherwise exemplary games.

Why do some game writers choose to use binary choices? It's very easy to turn yes/no choices into a game system. But don't do it. You'll be better for it in the end.

Focus on your core interactions. Make them make sense and be meaningful within the context of your story, and you'll be fine. If you walk away with anything from all this, walk away with that.

James Portnow is a game designer, formerly at Activision, and the CCO of Divide by Zero Inc. He received his master's degree in Entertainment Technology from Carnegie Mellon University. Email him at [email protected].

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