As examined in the earlier posts, game writing is a component of a whole. It takes a lot of work from many different people to craft a narrative, and collaboration with the other members of your design team is crucial if a game is to have any hope of becoming a satisfying ludic experience. As such, there are a few things required of you before the writing begins. The Pitch Generally, this is the first thing to nail down. Your pitch should be a summary of the plot point of your proposed story, and its just as nerve wracking as it sounds. Sometimes you don’t have a lot of time to write these. Sometimes this is the only thing written by you that your other team members will read. The pitch is crucially important, but also need to be delivered in as succinct a way as possible. Important LocationsIn video games, place is often more important than character. Get together with your teammates and flesh out the world and its quirky areas. If the writer, designers, and artists band together to nail down the scope of the game’s environments, and get a rough idea of how much is needed and how much is feasible, the narrative will be all the more powerful. Detailed Outline Now that the other members have some idea of where the game is going, now is the time to write a detailed outline of the plot. Be as thorough as possible to avoid confusion. Include descriptions of settings, quests or other objectives, etc. This outline will probably change of the course of development, but its important to have a firm foundation to start with. Characters Finally, right? This part is pretty self explanatory. Make a list of the characters you need. Who are they? Which ones are important movers of the story and which ones are just run of the mill NPCs? How does each of your characters contribute to the narrative? Ask yourself questions like these when making your list. As a background for this post, I read a very helpful Gamasutra article called “A Practical Guide to Game Writing” By Darby Mcdevitt. Very helpful.
The title to this post may very well leave you with a few questions. What do these games have in common? Why are they being compared? What the hell is “Revengeance”? Let me assure you, all of these are valid questions. These games actually differ heavily in terms of design philosophy, despite both of them being third person action-adventure games. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is the ninth canonical installment in the Metal Gear franchise, and features Raiden, a cybernetically altered man on a mission of revenge. Or vengeance. or Both!Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is whats known as a character-action game, in much the same tradition as Devil May Cry, or Bayonetta. The character action genre is most well known for its high octane action and incredibly satisfying combat. In short, these are games that put you in the shoes of someone who is unequivocally awesome, and then turns you loose to fight either weak minions or equally impressive bosses. In minion encounters, the strengths of your character can really shine through, and the titanic boss encounters can play out like an enormous struggle of two super-powered demigods. As a result of the incredible focus on gameplay, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, as well as many other Metal Gear games, is unsatisfying in narrative. They are marred with plot holes that need to be retconned at a later date, or are turned into vehicles for, no joke, 20 minute long cutscenes. Dark Souls exists on the extreme opposite side of the character action game. It is slow, plodding, and tough as nails. The aim of this game is not to deliver incredible action, or instant gratification. The satisfaction of Dark Souls comes through hard work, dying and respawning over and over again until you get it right. Your character doesn’t necessarily become more powerful, but as a player, you learn a detailed proficiency of how to play. Much like the gameplay, the story of Dark Souls is never handed to you. There are two cutscenes in the entire game, and only one of them gives any sort of clarity. The story is story subtly told that, to this day, it is up for debate. Every iteration of the story revolve around reading item description, or examining the landscape, or asking questions at every turn. Where am I? Why am I here? If this sounds familiar, its because From Software, the studio responsible for Dark Souls, are masters of environmental storytelling. This is not a game that comes as easy as Metal Gear Rising, and it doesn’t have as many visual rewards or payoffs. And yet the unfolding nature of both the story and gameplay reveal an incredibly compelling narrative, and one that proves the power of an environmental story.
The Trap: If you are a writer, you are not used to being ignored. In non-interactive mediums, good writing is often the end-all-be-all for audience investment. But gaming is an interactive medium, a “lean forward” experience as opposed to a “lean back” one. The gameplay and mechanics are just as important to tell in the story as, say, dialogue and character development. And so we must focus on the narrative, not the writing of the game. It is dangerously easy to view the writing of a game as a separate entity from its other parts. Its tempting to fall back onto habit and simply write what you want to say. This leads to the tedious mantra of “action-cutscene-action-cutscene” that so many developers seem to follow. It is easy to tell a story, but much harder to craft an immersive narrative around and within a world. Here are some of the pitfalls that I experienced writing for The Studio. The Wall of Text:The old standby of quest giving NPCs. I used to write these when I was afraid of the environment in which the story was told. A lot of times, I would be brought on to projects that had, for the most part, already been designed. Instead of telling the story that I had in my head, I had to work around an already built setting. This is a fundamental part of game design, and as a writer, you just have to swallow your pride and abandon that awesome, amazing vision that you’ve already determined will make you a star. Holding on to a story that is impossible to work into the narrative of the world leads to things like blocks of text, where the NPCs drone on about your precious, precious lore, essentially boring the player out of the experience. The Expository Cutscene: You wouldn’t write a movie script in the same way you would write a novel. Why would you write a game in the same way you would write a movie script? The expository cutscene is the refuge of the writer who is either lazy, doesn’t know any better, or is faced with the all to frequent time crunch. Every time you use a cutscene, not only is a player forced out of your experience, but I’m pretty sure an angel loses its wings. The story of a game cannot be told through disconnected bits of gameplay strung together with these globs of raw exposition.
The First Assignment: It was the summer at the end of my sophomore year when I first got my unpaid internship at The Studio. I was ecstatic, of course. So ecstatic that I was able to overlook the fact that they would tactfully use the term “volunteer” when talking in official capacities of any kind, only allowing me the title of “intern” in casual conversation and on the forums. In order to understand the quirks of my job, you have to first understand the nature of my place of work. The Studio has many projects, mostly dealing with high fantasy or sci-fi, most of which are maintained on a system of weekly releases. This means that, in general, there is always something you should be doing. When The Studio brought me on, I was designated as the assistant writer for their MMO, which is a browser-based fantasy RPG done entirely in Flash. It was 2.5d and played somewhat like a point-and-click, and before I started being able to write weekly releases, I had to add items into the database. As there were always new releases, and thus, new items, data-basing quickly became the only thing I did, day in and day out. It was the closest thing to grunt work that they had for writers, and for the first month or two, that was my life. I would be sent these items and assign them a name and a description. After checking the linkages, I would save the files in the database, and off it went. Another piece of the world that was forever me. And in some small way, I found this work fulfilling. But in a much larger way, the work struck me as tedious and boring. All the same, it taught me something very important. Everything has a story, and those stories must be dependent on each other to form a cohesive and satisfying narrative. Environmental Storytelling:Let’s say you’re in-game on a quest. Along the way, you encounter a bandit with an axe. He drops this axe upon his death allowing you to pick it up. Any writer worth their salt can tell you what the axe looks like, but it is far more immersive to give the item a story based on its context. This context should be firmly established as soon as possible. Where are you right now? It is important that the player answer this question quickly and easily. The axe can be sharp and well maintained, but it takes on a very different persona if you’re in a forest full of felled trees as opposed to, say, a bandit stronghold. Now that a scene has been set, the next question to deal with is “Why”. Why are you here? This one doesn’t need to be answered quite as resolutely, and in fact, I am of the opinion that self-discovery of the answer can be another satisfying hook into the world. However, it is considered bad form to leave the player with no clues of any kind. It’s alright to drop them into a well-defined world, so long as there are some narrative branches to grab a hold of before they hit the ground. Let’s get back to the quest you’re supposed to be on. Whatever it may be, it should provide the player with some direction, but not enough to be overbearing and stifle the freedom of investigation. The Aftermath: At the end of my “internship”, I had gained enough trust for the powers that be at The Studio to write my own release. It was during this process that I learned another important lesson. No matter how clever you think your story is told, players have no obligation to explore subtlety. This would prove to be a larger problem then I had ever imagined.