I was recently fortunate enough to attend a ‘Writing for Games’ event organised by Screen Yorkshire and Game Republic in association with BAFTA. Here is a rough write-up of everything discussed.
(While I have tried to attribute what was said to who said it there may be inaccuracies. More importantly, however, was what was discussed, as each speaker offered valuable insight from their own perspectives.)
Leading the talk was Jamie Sefton from Game Republic and the panel speakers were as follows:
John Dennis, Design Manager at Team 17. The guys behind Worms and Alien Breed and upcoming Alien Breed Evolution.
Charles Cecil, Founder of Revolution. The company responsible for the Broken Sword games and Beneath a Steel Sky.
Marek Bolton, Director at The Mustard Corporation. A company that works with a variety of big name developers to deliver all manner of writing needs; from basic instruction-writing to dialogue right through to script-polishing and full narratives.
Andy Walsh, a freelance writer (as well as director) who has worked on Prince of Persia (2008), Heavenly Sword and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix as well as new release Risen.
Foreword: Before we start I would like to point out that there will be some SPOILERS discussed later in this piece. The games in question being Fable II and Final Fantasy VII. While they’re clearly marked so certain people reading will be able to skip them, they may be missing out on some insightful discussion. Also, you haven’t played Fable II or even heard about Final Fantasy VII’s most talked about moment? COME ON!
Writing for games – what is it?
To get things started Jamie Sefton asked the panel to voice what they felt is expected of writers working in the game industry.
Charles Cecil, coming from an adventure game background, said he felt that good stories succeeded by creating empathy, by forming a bond with the audience and taking them on a journey. It was at this point Marek Bolton joined in, agreeing that as well as that a videogame story had to motivate the player. The story is a vehicle. Games, by nature of design, can get repetitive so a story lends logic and progression to your actions.
Andy Walsh stressed that you’re not just writing your dream game, a lot of the time you might not even be writing a full game. As with most other writing jobs you’re delivering a product. Marek mentioned that his company weren’t always there from the start; they could be brought in, like some Hollywood writers, to do rewrites or helping with dialogue.
The games industry
Since games are such a young medium in comparison to others the panel felt that a lot of design and writing comes from pure gut instinct. There is a certain pioneering spirit to game development that still exists today and there is perhaps more freedom than other industries (not necessarily for writers, but games companies or directors). But, inversely, this isn’t always a good thing since the craft is less refined. Marek felt some writers can be too drawn to melodrama; where they’re setting up situations without any emotional investment such as writing in characters two minutes before they die (or characters we don’t care about).
The games market, like most other industries now, has become very competitive. Writers really have to want this job. Going back to the ‘not writing your dream game’: it’s not a hobby. Andy Walsh, having worked on Emmerdale Farm, has an idea of the ‘jobbing writer’. Having spoken to Emmerdale (and other television) scriptwriters myself I know that they are given the basic plot points for a given episode (as decided by a separate team of plot writers) and then write within those boundaries. The same goes for any soap or long-running series. There is not always such room for freedom with many creative elements coming together, on any piece of entertainment.
So, while there is still the opportunity to ‘make it big’ and create your own dream games a lot of people will find themselves a little more restricted. For every Tim Schafer, Quentin Tarantino or J.J. Abrams there are plenty of writers plugging away on more run-of-the-mill fare. That’s not to say it’s not fun! Just don’t get your hopes up too much, budding writers…
Writing for games – things to keep in mind
Although writers might not always have complete autonomy on any given project, that’s not to say that they don’t get to write full narratives. The panel had some words of wisdom regarding their approach and experience.
Charles feels first and foremost that gameplay is key. Games are not like film or television and that the key difference is interactivity. As already stated, story is a vehicle to keep the player going. Some games don’t even require complex characterisation or plots. John Dennis brought up examples like Worms or Lemmings; Worms may have the most basic of story but it gives a context to your actions while Lemmings has no real story whatsoever. Marek felt it important to point out that both games have a lot of ‘character’ though. As for classic games like Tetris, Pong or Breakout; they are instantly recognisable and very popular games yet contain no driving plot or discernable personality.
It’s clear that the type of game and its audience are very important things to consider when it comes to writing. Andy wanted to point out that there is a definite distinction between player experience and player story. What he meant was that while you can lead the player on a journey they will still come away with their own experiences as well. The latter coming from player freedom. In Grand Theft Auto IV you’re given a city to roam around in; you could, theoretically, spend hours playing around without doing any of the narrative missions. The Sims is very open-ended and, while there can be set goals, the player is free to ‘progress’ as they wish. The most notable example however is the MMORPG, with World of Warcraft being the panel’s example. Here the player is given quests but beyond defeating Onyxia or rescuing whoever, what they get is the experience of playing with a group of people, serving their role within a group; be it, ‘tanking’ and taking the damage in place of weaker players, healing the ‘tanks’ or being the massive damage-dealer. Any one of these elements on their own in a single-player game would be mind-numbingly boring but the social aspect lends them a purpose.
Another important thing that needs considering is weaving gameplay and story together. Many writers may look to Hollywood methods, perhaps taking note of Christopher Vogler’s update of Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ whereby many tales fit a set narrative structure that audiences have come to know (or not) and appreciate. The panel don’t feel this is the best approach. Games are generally designed with a difficulty curve in place and trying to set it to the ‘hero’s journey’ could upset the balance. Although, speaking personally, I’ve noticed that Gears of War 2 almost ‘rewards’ the player in a way during the last section. Instead of the toughest boss being last, as tradition dictates, you are given a relatively simple mission which involves blasting through hundreds of enemies with ease (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here). This seems like the gameplay equivalent to a narrative winding down after the final hardship has been faced even if the game’s actual story has become what would be a films’ hectic climactic action sequence (which it actually is as well). All this serves to emphasise that there is certainly a disconnect between the narrative and the player’s experience.
This is not to say films can’t teach writers valuable lessons, as Charles already stated: a story needs empathy; and the ‘hero’s journey’ is easily identifiable for audiences. It’s just that Andy and Marek agree there is a tendency to go towards what they term ‘Hollywood moments’, whereas writers could be learning from everywhere rather than just imitating blockbuster films. This harks back to the idea of melodrama. In this department, Marek has a few key (and possibly controversial) examples of this. Firstly, there is Hideo Kojima and Metal Gear Solid 4 (his distaste is actually shared strongly by Charles and perhaps the rest of the panel, bar Andy, ‘it’s for its audience’, he says). This is a game he feels has too many cutscenes and too much clumsy unnatural exposition; it is trying too hard to be a Western game (actually a design decision with regards to gameplay and control too) and conform to a Hollywood blockbuster mould, much to its detriment. Second to face his well-reasoned wrath was Fable II. A game that, being designed around folklore, pretty much treats the hero’s journey as gospel; the game calls you a ‘Hero’ at nearly every turn and tasks you with finding other ‘Heroes’. Marek’s big gripe was the moment where SPOILER! SPOILER! HUGE SPOILER ALERT! your dog and, if you have one, family (who you probably aren’t that attached to) are killed. At this point he felt the game was just trying too hard. He knew, as probably everyone following the game before release did, that Peter Molyneux had stated how he wanted players to cry but it just felt too forced. And seriously, has anyone actually cried because of a videogame story? Actually, save that thought for the next spoiler section… HUGE SPOILER END.
Here, Andy chimed in with Final Fantasy VII as an example of how a hard-hitting emotional moment is done right. HUGE (UNNECESSARY?) SPOILER ALERT! When Aeris dies it leaves a much greater impact on the player simply because she was more present in the gameplay and story. She was very much a ‘gameplay tool’ as Andy put it; she served very distinct functions and became an almost necessary asset to your party. She was the one that would heal you (look after you, you could say, like Elika in Prince of Persia) which also fed into the idea of her as a romantic interest. Your dog in Fable II could be said to be a ‘tool’ as well but it doesn’t greatly assist you in combat nor take a big role in the story. ‘It doesn‘t do much beyond sniff out condoms buried in the ground’ as Andy puts it. HUGE SPOILERS END.
And finally, the worst thing a writer (or pretty much any creative professional) has to keep in mind: limitations (even if this can sometimes actually be a good creative force). As we already know, games are products. They have a lot of money put into them, they have deadlines, they have all sorts of creative elements coming together; this, of course, affects the writer too. First off, John told how publishers will sometimes go to a developer with the type of game (futuristic shooter, fantasy game, survival horror etc.) they want or even provide a narrative; Andy even mentioned how a publisher had told him to include multiple endings when drafting a story. Both him and Charles find it preposterous that a good cohesive story allows for such radically different endings; something a lot of professional writers will agree with.
But, along with what a publisher may request, other elements to the game can affect the story. John mentioned how with Alien Breed Evolution even the level design can take the story in a new direction (although he wasn’t specific, it looks like the game is a downloadable title and so memory constraints could’ve been a factor). While writing in, say, a billion explosions wouldn’t affect the budget the same way it would for a film (there are a distinct lack of games with a billion explosions though, especially simultaneously…) the writing can affect a lot down the pipeline. As the development cycle goes on, the game is acquiring more rigid assets; things that just can’t be changed. This is where the similarities to film production come in. During a film there are only certain locations or actors available at certain times; this may not cause problems at first, since a filming schedule is usually planned beforehand, but any delays can affect the production. And, worst comes to worst, there may be a need for reshoots (something any director or producer will try desperately to avoid) which will also eat into the original budget. A game’s production may not suffer from problems with locations but if it has voice talent (especially big name stars) that can be particularly costly, and these voice actors again may only be available at certain times. It’s also very costly for a team to completely scrap all their levels and artwork or even game engine and start over. Charles points out the obvious solution is to have someone oversee both elements, something a lot of developers do, but there are still situations where this is not happening. He feels this is because some game directors don’t actually understand all these fundamentals they’ve discussed.
I would like to take this opportunity to once again thank all involved in organising this free event and all the panel members for being both very entertaining and open on all matters regarding games writing. They have at least inspired this editor to write some more on the topic of story-telling in games (and look for a job writing for games).