An Inside Look: Writing for Video Games

A column article by: Amelia Ramstead

I recently had the opportunity to attend an event presented by a local writing group. The focus of the event was on writing for video games. I practically broke my mouse signing up for the event, because ZOMG WRITING FOR VIDEO GAMES BEST JOB EVARRRRR!!!!!!!11111 (ahem) but also because I was hoping for some interesting insights.

The speakers at the event were Mark Schuldt of Outer Orbit Games, an up-and-coming board game company; John Sutherland of VidGameStory; and Hal Milton, design director at Griptonite Games. The first two speakers focused primarily on different types of storytelling and how it works in video games, while Hal had some good information about how the industry is changing and how to break into it (hint: it may involve being unemployed… a lot). As both a player and a writer, I found the information quite interesting.

How Story Works

Mark introduced the concept of narrative spectrums. He explained that two different spectrums exist when telling stories through games: low narrative vs. high narrative and overt narrative vs. visceral narrative.

On the low vs. high spectrum, games exist that have no narrative whatsoever. These would include card games like solitaire and poker, primarily relying on statistics and chance. In the video gaming world, puzzle games with no story behind them, like Bejeweled, are good examples.

* Low narrative games include board games like chess and go. These are essentially war strategy games, but we can see the beginnings of character development in chess, with knights and pawns having different moves. Examples of low narrative video games include Angry Birds or World of Tanks. A basic scenario is given, but little to no actual storyline is included.

* High narrative games are games with a great deal of storytelling behind them. The games may have elaborate mythologies and lore detail. Often these games are accompanied by novel and even movie franchises. Dungeons and Dragons is an example of this type of game. Most RPG video games have high narrative. Some examples that quite possibly take it to the extreme are World of Warcraft and any of the Star Wars games.

The other spectrum is overt vs. visceral.

* Overt narrative is the type of story that is fed to you by the game master or read in the rules. When you receive a rule book for a game that reads more like a novel, you are getting a game with a high level of overt narrative. Again, Dungeons and Dragons is a good example of a game with lots of overt narrative. In the hands of a bad GM, the entire game is a story being read to the players and someone occasionally gets to swing a sword. Video games that rely on a lot of cinematics to lead you by the nose through the story, like DragonAge, Halo or God of War are examples of overt narrative.

* Visceral narrative is the story that you feel and experience while playing the game. While overt narrative tells you the story, almost like a movie, visceral narrative requires you to live the story. Visceral narrative also relies on the concept of tension-- something that is necessary for a game to become truly great. Tension is at the heart of all storytelling. Without tension, you have no story. You can also have games with similar overt stories but completely different visceral experiences. The example given by Mark is that of Halo and Resident Evil. While both stories involve a singularly qualified hero dumped with a massive arsenal into a world where things have gone horribly wrong, Resident Evil takes the visceral experience up to another level. In Halo, you have the same abilities at any time, regardless of how damaged you are. In Resident Evil, as you become injured, you slow down and you lose abilities. This ratchets up the tension, creating two very different gameplay experiences.

No, Really, This Is Relevant

Good gameplay writers and designers are looking to create emotional tension in their players. This may present as frustration, suspicion, friendly animosity and uncertainty. Obviously you can overdo this and turn people away from your game. But on the other hand, how many times have you screamed and cursed at a game, thrown the controller against the wall, vowed never to play again, and then found yourself right back at it an hour later, because you were hooked on the darn story? (I refuse to answer this question as it may be incriminating….)

Games vs. Movies

John took a look at some the different forms of storytelling that exist and how, while each can effectively tell a story, each has its own very unique qualities.

Novels are entirely verbal creations. Yet the best ones allow us to paint pictures in our heads. Of course, comic books and graphic novels do us the favor of painting those pictures for us, but they still rely on words to tell a coherent and intriguing story.

Movies are almost entirely a visual storytelling experience. While some movies rely more heavily on snappy dialogue (films by Kevin Smith come to mind), most movies are told through cinematography and close-ups, creating tension through imagery.

Many writers have a hard time transitioning from novels or screenplays to video games. Often people who are just getting started tend to think of video games as a "movie you play." While primarily a visual medium, video games are also a completely immersive experience. Game designers and writers have to think in terms of cinematic vs. interactive.

Cinematics in video games certainly have their place. They can be used to create tension, adjust the pacing and even provide a needed break from intense action. In Crimson Skies, cinematics are a break from the stress and attention needed to constantly fly a plane. A different approach was taken in Half Life 2. In this game an opening cinematic sets the tone. The rest of the story is told entirely through the game play, which was effective enough to drive the conflict and keep the player moving forward.

The Turning Point of the Gaming Industry

Hal talked about where the gaming industry currently is and why. About four years ago, the industry focused almost entirely on console and handheld games. Currently, the focus has shifted to games for Facebook and mobile devices. The market is huge and constantly growing and the profits are staggering.

Game designers are asking themselves why they should spend $20 million dollars on a console game that is statistically more likely to fail instead of simply creating cheap clones of already successful games that are practically guaranteed money makers. If this thought doesn’t send a chill through your heart, you should probably make sure you haven’t recently been bitten by a zombie.

Farmville cost less than $10 million to make and it pulls in about $600,000 per day. Think about this for a minute. The other fact about these "free" games that I find particularly worrisome is that most of them are tracking every movement you make through analytics. They are tracking how often you play the game, how you interact with others through the game, which actions you take and pretty much everything else you can imagine. Currently the only major game publisher not involved in Facebook and mobile games is Activision.

Still Want to Write for Games?

Technical writers are ideal for video game writing. Why? They have the ability to take two very different sets of data and compile them and make it accessible for both the experts and the general public. One of the unique aspects of video game design is that the writing is not structured or linear. It’s delivered in bits and pieces. Hal referred to video game story as "structured data sets, played in a specific order." Often the writing needed for video games is presented in a spreadsheet format with pre-titled rows. This writing will include dialogue, flavor text, items and much more.

What qualities should a budding game writer possess?

* The ability to let go of ego and be willing to deal with people who have backgrounds in programming, management and marketing

* The understanding that full-time work is nearly impossible to find

* Willingness to accept a wide variance in pay in an industry with no standardization

* The ability to adapt and change the lingo as needed to work with both the audience and the client

* The ability to speak humanly and evoke emotion with a very limited palette

* A love of games

Amelia Ramstead has been playing games since her family first received an Atari 2600, lo these many years ago. She continues to play, primarily on PC these days. An avid World of Warcraft player, Amelia writes about WoW topics for her blog and as a guest poster on WoW Insider. Especially interested in how gamer culture reflects in family dynamics, Amelia herself has two kids, one of whom has two WoW characters and can barely keep his nose out of his DS. Amelia is excited to join the staff of Comics Bulletin and is looking forward to the chance to converse with others on one of her favorite topics! Find Amelia on Steam as ameeramstead.

Community Discussion