I write for the challenge. That challenge exists in the gritty, grimy evolution of a piece towards its final iteration. When I get the reaction I am aiming for it makes the effort worthwhile. Game-writing is a technical and creative challenge and I have spent a decade mastering both.
Let me start by saying that I am somewhat of a chameleon as far as my writing style is concerned. The narrator is always someone specific in my mind; a character in and of themselves. Even when it’s a third-person narration I am aware that someone is holding the pen. I enjoy the metatextual game of writing from a specific character’s perspective. Letters, poems, reports and ultimatums tend to come with a fictional author and audience.
If I were to claim any influences, they would include Terry Pratchett, Jorge Luis Borges, Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, China Mieville, Edgar Allen Poe and Joe Abercrombie. They’re world-builders, and they also have a habit of playing with their narrators. Nevertheless, unlike them (to my knowledge) I have sought to specialize my craft towards game writing.
So, how can I justify that statement? I could start by saying that I’ve been playing videogames all my life, studying how the element of story is deployed. I have written pen-and-paper campaigns, fan-fiction, screenplays, and so forth. But there’s nothing unusual about that. I don’t just deal with the creative aspect of game writing; I implement it on the technical side as well. I’ve created mods and missions for games using the StarCraft 2 and Bioware’s Aurora engines. I have mapped out storylines with branching dialogue, learning and managing the burden of exponential growth. I have tackled the issues of narrative structure, tutorialization, pacing and iterative development in my projects.
Lessons I’ve learned
When I approach writing something for a game, such as a mission script, a character brief or a tutorial, these are the guiding principles I follow.
Say the least that will do the most.
Don’t test your audience’s patience.
Look for where you can tell story by saying nothing at all.
This usually takes the form of set-pieces where the story is told through action. Even if the action is triggered as a dialogue choice, doing instead of saying can make a story beat have greater impact. If you’re able to make the player understand that they have a choice in how they act at a crucial moment in the story, that moment can be much more memorable. This also speaks to the value of environmental storytelling, which engages the audience’s imagination and can have a much stronger impact.
Everything has to be earned.
If you want your players to be invested in a story, and/or care about a character, you can’t take shortcuts. You have to build the context of your story. You can show who a character is with a single line or a gesture, but you still have to lead your audience to empathize with them. Plan accordingly.
Everything has a cost.
As you’re mapping out the story you want to tell, you have to be aware that everything has to be implemented, and the more elements you have the more complex your project will be. That complexity, unavoidably, will come with a price: time. Everything takes time to build, test, and fix. Make sure that everything you’re going to show is worth that effort.
Doing the work
Before I start writing a script I build my pipelines. How am I going to render text? What kind of animation setup will I use? How will I deal with sequencing, timing and transitions? How am I going to transfer text from script to engine? What systems to I need to build from scratch? By having answers to those questions, I know the capabilities of my setup, and I can structure my storytelling around them. Sometimes I’ll find that, as I write, I want to attempt some presentation or action that I didn’t expect and I’ll have to re-engineer something along the way. In fact, I have found that to include that sort of revision in your planning is never a waste.
After defining my pipelines, I begin to write. I focus on a scene or a line I want to build up to then break down my goal into its elements. I write a few drafts of dialogue and situations, iterate on them, and settle on a final draft. This will include things like character briefs, history snippets, location descriptions and other supporting documentation. Ultimately, that final draft is the result of active exploration, which sometimes changes the final goal completely. By this point I’ll have circulated the draft around to my circle of friends and readers, doing a couple of revisions based on their feedback.
Branching dialogue adds complexity due to problems inherent in that type of writing. Defining the collapse points for the branches and the tracking variables is a big part of the problem. From a creative perspective, the real difficulty is defining the choice of voices that I’m offering to a player. Usually I try to take the Bioware example, offering choices that follow the paragon/renegade model. Developing those voices, and keeping them consistent, is the real nugget of that challenge.
The process begins again during implementation, this time more granular, as each element in a scene, a conversation or tutorial goes through the same kind of iteration. Does the scene flow properly? Does it need to be retimed? Does it accomplish the goal I had in mind? At the end of the day, probably half of the finalized script survives.
I’ve been fortunate enough to also work with a small group of people to produce VO for one of my games. That collaboration feeds into the revision process, adding a new stage of revisions.
At the end of the day, all of that effort is a refining process for the few minutes it takes to experience the content. And yet, there’s nothing more gratifying when it works, and works well.
All of this defines who I am as a writer. I am focused on games, and I have been through the gauntlet more than once. I’ve made the mistakes, and learned the lessons. Most of all, I can’t wait to do it again.