Video Game Writers are… wait, that should be obvious…

They’re writers, too. I think writers need to start playing more video games—things like Half-Life 2, where the storyline is integral to the play.

In fact, video games are a particularly challenging kind of storytelling—one that is interactive, and you must be able to deal with multiple branches of possibilities. Most normal writers do encounter points in their writing where the story could branch off one way or another, so we choose the “right” way and continue linearly. But what if we had gone the other way, and it’s just as valid?

Okay, now try keeping track of both branches and develop each.

Now try having the branches cross at some point of commonality.

Got enough plates? Now try doing that with multiple branches, each of which can branch.

Think about that when you see another one of those video game reviews that say “My god, the storytelling was a blast!” And these days, since we’ve run out of how interestingly water can be animated, story is taking center stage. Video game writing is gaining more respect now, inside and outside the industry, but it still has a ways to go.

Some links about video game writing.

Ficlets Blog – Video (Games) Killed the Lit’ry Star, by John Scalzi.
If you do not know who Scalzi is, go educate thyself.

Oh noes! Video games are killing our children’s desire to read! We’re all gonna die!

Eh. Not seeing it myself.

ars technica – Why writing in games matters: Part I – Advancing the art of storytelling

The problem with writing in games is that we point out when it’s terrible, but we don’t praise it enough when it’s good. Consider Half-Life 2.

ars technica – Why writing in games matters: Part II – challenges of interactive storytelling

Writing for games is too often attempted as a linear exercise, which might be okay for an utterly linear game like Gears of War, but typically falls down the moment the game offers choices or branches, as the writing then has to adapt to cover emergent situations—not an easy thing to do. Throwing a film writer or novelist at a game architecture encounters this problem, especially when the person isn’t an experienced gamer or doesn’t play many open-world or RPG titles.

ars technica – Why writing in games matters: Part III – creating character with Susan O’Connor

Susan O’Connor has worked on many titles, from big blockbusters like Gears of War and Bioshock to more casual games like Shrek 2 and Finding Nemo. It’s an impressive list that really spans age groups and gender gaps. In 2005, she founded the Game Writers Conference to get writers together and start sharing ideas about their work and the industry as a whole. O’Connor has been in the trenches for a long time trying to make sure that something interesting is being said in these games. After all, when the characters open their mouth, it’s often her words that are coming out.

Paul Hyman – Video games’ write stuff

Not so long ago, games weren’t written so much as they were constructed — by programmers and artists.

Now, however, when all next-generation games tend to look and sound terrific, savvy publishers are saying that great writing is a neat way to differentiate your title from the others.

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2 thoughts on “Video Game Writers are… wait, that should be obvious…

  1. Do you think that video games with storylines are, in some ways, an evolution from the Choose Your Own Adventure stories that used to be, and maybe still are, popular among pre-teens?

  2. Definitely. In fact, video game storytelling started off in the text dungeon game stories, which were quite a bit like Choose Your Own Adventure—turn left here, do you fight the dwarves? You do, did you have the shovel? You don’t? ‘k, die now.The limitations of the text-based Choose Your Own Adventure books is that it was difficult to deal with multiple branches and conditionals; you might have a lamp, but what if you got the lamp and the candle but not the bell? With text, you’d have to write a passage assuming lamp, another assuming lamp and candle, another assuming lamp/candle/bell, another assuming lamp/bell…. Of course, your good CYOA author made it so that there was only two such possibilities available.CYOA mostly died out because it couldn’t provide complex experiences…. you couldn’t choose five different paths to walk, for instance, all with your own choice of turnings. By necessity, CYOA books had to limit the choices. Before computers, the only way to have a more in-depth experience was through role-playing games, where an intelligent (presumably) human could create turns and twists on demand, and the players could be very creative in their solutions.Later on, computer versions of Choose Your Own Adventure came into play. Now a player could make more choices of their own, because the computer can keep track of what has happened and deal with it in more complex, logical ways than a book could. Just being able to say “You walk into the cave.”if (have_lamp) { “You see glittering treasure on the floor.” saw_treasure = true} else if (have_rope and rope is magic) { “You fall, but your magic rope pays out and saves you with a jerk!”} else { “You fall, and die.”}is very powerful, and easier to manipulate and change than writing different text for each possible case.For a while, interactive fiction was semi-popular entertainment through the Infocom stories, which were written in a language that allowed writes to construct pathways, rooms, objects the player could pick up, and logic points similar to the above. For more on Infocom stories, see http://www.cs.uwo.ca/Infocom/ .Eventually, Infocom died out for two reasons. The first was its purely text format; when video game graphics came into play, even primitive ones, of course the visuals became popular. Mind you, a lot of people still preferred text because it could still be more evocative than 8-bit. When the primitive gave way to cartoons and 3D graphics, Infocom’s coffin was sealed. There is no way Infocom could ever compete with games like Myst and its brethren. The second reason Infocom died out was due to the advent of the ‘net in the form of MUDs and MUCKs, the text versions of today’s World of Warcraft. Those environments are ever-changing, and there were real people you could talk and interact with. The very good Infocom story is hard to find, because interactive storytelling is so hard. Whereas real people are by their nature unpredictable.But because MUDs and their MMORPG descendents are less controlled experiences, the storytelling quality goes downhill. The addiction to such things are fed by fighting and leveling for most people, and by object and environment creation for the rest. Your most valuable experiences in places like LambdaMOO or, these days, Second Life, are usually created by focused users. There are even the equivalent of Infocom and Myst-style stories that are constructed within such places, as well as the equivalent of RPGs.(A lot of MUSHs are, in fact, text software to conduct remote RPGs through.)Where was I… oh yes… At some point fighting and rendering became really important, because they are lowest common denominator in a sense. Most people will enjoy them and they are, when it comes to storytelling, easy because they involve no storytelling. Creative, yes, in very difficult ways; storytelling, no. But we should still thank this phase, because what it did was increase flexibility even more, to the point where users can now do ANYTHING and the world around them is now realistic enough to induce some serious reality issues in the truly addicted.The lessons of Myst, which was mainstream popular, were lost for a while. But even so, the games that get the most kudos are the ones that have good storytelling—there’s reasons why Twilight Princess was such a hit, and they are rooted in environment creation, characters, and storyline. I want to underline environment creation several times, because one thing that MUDs/MMORPGs do is allow infinite exploration of a fictional world, which people frankly really like to do. That’s why mileau works like Lord of the Rings are so popular, and why world-building is a valued skill in science fiction and fantasy. That, of course, is just flexibility, and gives video game writers a lot of headaches.:ponder:Storytelling has always been popular in video game user base. It’s just that new ways of rendering things “real” or creating new controls, those became the flashy bits. The really difficult bits. The ones you had to pay really skilled people the most money to do. As with all budgets and schedules, what’s left? You need the foundations first. It’s only now, when most graphics and controller issues have been laid aside and most lessons learned (although unfortuantely not by all game companies…) that storytelling is starting to get some decent planning and budget.Of course, we must still apply the 99% crap rule, but still, the pie is bigger these days.Half Life 3 astonished me. As improvements over Half Life 2, the game now has separate “episode” modules that you can buy that continue the story of the main character. That’s almost true interactive entertainment.Plus it’s a way towards addiction. Addiction = double plus good. And that is truly why story is important in any venture.:)

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