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Book Excerpt and Review - Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames

In today's Gamasutra feature, we reproduce the first chapter of Charles River Media's 'Game Writing: Narrative Skills For Videogames,' and follow it up with a review of the book's entirety by Gamasutra regular Brad Kane.

Chapter 1: Introduction to Game

Narrative

What is game narrative? It’s a question that developers, writers, reviewers, and publishers have been trying to answer for years with only limited success. Like many other things in this still-young industry, narrative is an area where definitions are still being stretched, formulated, and tried on for size. It is crucial, however, to formalize a definition of game narrative before attempting to create one. Otherwise, you’re trying to hit a moving target with an entire development team waiting for you to make the perfect shot, with a limited chance of success.

To begin with, it is helpful to define what we mean by narrative, which is itself a term replete with ambiguity. For the purpose of this book, we define narrative as the methods by which the story materials are communicated to the audience. We’ll return to this definition and pursue it in more depth in a later chapter. Some game genres are more narrative-friendly, by definition, than others. A multiplayer strategy experience such as Battlefield 1942 (Digital Illusions, 2002) doesn’t have or even need much of a narrative. The game takes a familiar context (World War II) and situation (here’s a battle—go win it) and turns the players loose. Fighting games are also light on narrative. After the central conceit of beating the snot out of the other guy—whomever or whatever he may be—has been established, the narrative exists simply to string the series of bouts together toward the ultimate goal.

On the other hand, some genres of game are heavily dependent on narrative. Adventure games are almost entirely narrative-driven, and platformers and First Person Shooters (FPSs) often have strong narrative components as well. Computer Role Playing Games (cRPGs) are yet another category that depends almost entirely on narrative—the play experience through the game corresponds precisely to the character growth through the course of the narrative. To put it another way, without narrative, Sora, the protagonist of Kingdom Hearts (Square, 2002), stays on the island, sparring with his friends and eating fruit forever. It may be an idyllic existence, but is really fun to play?

The greatest mistake that is made in defining game narrative is the attempt to reduce it to story and story alone. Story is a good start for the narrative, but if story were all there were, then we would be discussing fiction, not games. The story is a launching point for the narrative, not the narrative in toto. By the same token, elements cannot be excised from the narrative as a whole simply because they don’t appear to fit in at first blush. Backstory may often be viewed as nothing more than content to splash on a Web page to create buzz, but a good, coherent backstory may be necessary to support and contextualize the narrative as a whole. Which game feels like it has a stronger narrative, a generic fantasy hack ’n’ slash or one derived from The Lord of the Rings? The answer to this, unlike the question of what is narrative, is comparatively obvious.

Ultimately, narrative comes down to one simple question: What happens? That
is the heart of game narrative—what happens in the game? What story do the players create through their actions as they advance through the challenges, decisions,
and rewards laid out for them by the development team? All the other questions—
what is the world like, who are the characters, why is the player doing this—are secondary to that essential query. Understand what happens, and you understand
narrative. Understand how to create a good answer for that question, and you understand how to create good game narrative.

Numerous techniques underpin this quest to create a narrative, including—cut scenes, character, dialogue, and more. All of these are useful tools for creating the overall construct of the narrative, but they cannot and should not be confused with the narrative itself. They’re part of the process, not the process itself.


DEFINITION OF TERMS

To explore the meaning of game narrative, let’s consider the definitions of some basic terminology.

Story

In the context of game development, story is often confused with design. The story is what happens, the flow of the game that can be separated from the game mechanics and retold as a narrative. For example, the story in Grim Fandango (LucasArts, 1998) can be summed up as “The adventures of a travel agent for the dead named Manny, who uncovers corruption in the afterlife and sets out to do something about it.” The story in Godzilla: Save the Earth (Pipeworks Software, 2001) can be described as “Aliens come to earth to steal Godzilla’s DNA, and he fights a bunch of monsters in order to stop them.” Of the two, Grim Fandango’s story takes considerably longer to tell, but they both serve essentially the same purpose.

Character

Characters are the actors (or in the case of player characters, avatars) who exist in the game world and perform the in-game actions. Lara Croft is a character. So is the loathsome Morag from Neverwinter Nights (BioWare, 2002), the friendly henchhippo Murray from Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus (Sucker Punch, 2002), and the gabby but not terribly bright guards from Far Cry (Crytek, 2004). Every character in a game should be designed to serve a purpose. Lara Croft is someone you want to be as you move through the world, whereas the guards are enemies to shoot and sources of information to eavesdrop on. The character or characters the player controls are sometimes referred to as player characters (PCs), although the term avatar is becoming standard. Everyone else in the world is referred to as NPCs (non-player characters), or occasionally as AI (artificial intelligence), although this technically refers to the algorithms controlling their behavior rather than the characters themselves.

Setting

The setting defines the world that the action of the game takes place in, including character races, languages, laws of physics and metaphysics (do you have spells, blasters, or both?), and pretty much everything else necessary to define the game world. For an overtly “realistic” game such as Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell (Ubisoft, 2002), much of the setting goes without explanation, as we all have a pretty good idea of the real world. For a steampunk extravaganza such as Arcanum: Of Steam-works & Magick Obscura (Troika Games, 2001), the equation expands to include something much broader because a world of dwarves, zeppelins, and tech needs more detailed and specific explanation for players to feel comfortable in this more esoteric setting.

Backstory

Backstory is the history leading up to the events of the game, the explanation of what has produced the situation that will be played through. Related to setting, it can be defined as “who did what to whom, and what does the player have to do in order to fix it?” The backstory of Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield (Ubisoft, 2003) includes World War II bank looting, the deportation of an elderly businessman from his home in South America, and the fascist Ustache regime. None of these are things that the player will interact with directly in the game, but they frame the game’s narrative and action, giving the player the information he needs to immerse himself in the fiction and move forward with the action.

Cut Scenes

Cut scenes refer to in-game movies—sections of noninteractive footage that the player watches. Some are prerendered for a high level of visual polish, whereas others are produced with the in-game engine to provide visual continuity. Either way, cut scenes refer to events or conversations that the player sits back and watches with (usually) no interaction. They can be used to reward the player with a spectacular visual, provide an opportunity for conversation or exposition that would get lost in gameplay, or contain events—such as the death of a character, the pillaging of the main characters’ equipment, or a villain’s escape—that can’t be left up to chance. At best, the player can look around during a cut scene, but more often than not, they have a theatrical presentation the player watches.

When many cut scenes are collected together, the result is a noninteractive sequence known as a cinematic. Game introductory sequences are generally cinematics, as they provide a perfect opportunity to explain setting and backstory before the player needs to use any of the information.

Scripted Events

A scripted event is a part of the game where control of some aspect is taken away from the player. Although related to cut scenes, they are distinctly different both in how they are made and how they are experienced. A single scripted event can be as simple as quickly pulling the camera angle around to show a looming surveillance camera (also known as a camera case) or as complicated as setting up a sequence of events involving multiple NPCs to illustrate a game point. Stealth games frequently use the former technique. Half-Life 2 (Valve, 2004) made good use of the latter, letting the life-or-death struggles of NPCs in the game world illustrate environmental perils to the player vividly.

In-Game Artifacts

In-game artifacts are rather self-explanatory; they are objects in the game world that serve to advance the narrative. They can roughly be defined as narrative that the character, not the player, finds. Frequently, in-game artifacts take the form of documents of one sort or another—diaries, letters, books, and the like. By reading these, the player gains valuable information about what’s going on and the world the player’s moving through. The answering machine message the player overhears in Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne (Remedy, 2003) is another example, as are the radio broadcasts in Far Cry and the emails Sam Fisher hacks into in Splinter Cell.

In-game documents are not the only way for artifacts to move the game narrative along; sometimes an object has symbolic significance. An example is the Tsortese Falchion in Discworld Noir (Perfect Entertainment, 1999) around which the plot of the game revolves. Players have seen their avatar slain in the opening cinematic with this very weapon, so when it is discovered during the course of the game, it has especial significance. It cannot be used as a weapon or a useful item for solving puzzles and exists in the game solely for its symbolic value.


WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF GAME NARRATIVE?

On the most basic level, narrative strings together the events of the game, providing a framework and what can alternately be called a justification, a reason, or an excuse for the gameplay encounters. At its best, narrative pulls the player forward through the experience, creating the desire to achieve the hero’s goals and, more importantly, see what happens next. At its worst, narrative merely sets up the situation and turns the players loose to do as they see fit. It achieves these goals through three important techniques: immersion, reward, and identification.

Immersion

The term immersion is frequently heard in the context of games, although it is seldom defined. In general terms, immersion refers to the state of mind where a person is completely absorbed in what they are doing. It has been related to the psychological state of “flow” [Csikszentmihalyi91] and also to the notion of suspension of disbelief [Coleridge1817]; to some extent, the term covers both of these otherwise unrelated notions. The important thing is, when players are immersed in a game, the real world ceases to exist, and the game world becomes their reality.

Narrative provides context for game events, and a sufficiently believable context provides immersion. At their most basic level, most First Person Shooters (FPSs) are the same. Move the targeting reticule onscreen, press a button, and hit the target—that’s the center of the gameplay. Yet the genre has produced wildly divergent games, from the gore-spattered action of Doom (id, 1993) to the gritty historical realism of Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 (Gearbox, 2005) to the gloom-shadowed fantasy of Thief: The Dark Project (Looking Glass, 1998). The distinctions between these games lie partly in the differences in game mechanics but also in their significantly distinct narrative content. The story provides a way to believe in those mechanics and to give the player a reason to accept the need to perform them.

For example, in Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon (Red Storm, 2001), the player guns down innumerable enemies in a broadly realistic fashion. However, the narrative explains who these enemies are (Russian ultranationalists intent on doing bad things to Eastern Europe), who the player is pretending to be (American soldiers fighting aggression), and what he’s supposed to do (shoot the bad guys). All of this combines to immerse the player in the fantasy and to tell him it’s appropriate and reasonable to do some serious damage to the hostile AI. The narrative contextualizes the situation and the player objectives—“move and shoot” becomes “secure the downed aircraft,” and “stay in one location for a certain length of time without getting shot” becomes “hold Red Square against the last desperate effort of the enemy troops.” Because the action is now attached to the fantasy the narrative presents, it’s a more appealing goal and something the player is more interested in achieving— and willing to work harder to obtain.

Reward

Narrative can also serve as a reward to the player. The narrative events can be revealed gradually, delivered as rewards for achieving in-game goals. When this has been done frequently enough inside the same game, the player will expect to receive another chunk of narrative after winning a boss fight or overcoming a particularly tough challenge.

For example, in God of War (SCE Studio Santa Monica, 2005), the backstory is revealed gradually as play progresses. After players clear out a chapter, they receive another chunk of backstory explaining how the protagonist, Kratos, came to be in such dire straits (that is, engaged in the action of the game) in the first place. These lengthy cut scenes give players no in-game advantage. They give no extra powers, no hints as to how to defeat enemies or unlock hidden advantages. Instead, they just give narrative information—who Kratos is, why he is so obsessed with killing Ares, and how he came to be in the middle of a war between the Olympian gods in the first place. They are rewards, pure and simple, each chapter ending with a cliffhanger that exists to pull the player forward through the gameplay to the next one. In principle, these cliff-hangers drive players to want to know what happens next and thus motivate them to continue to persevere with the game.

Identification

The third major role that narrative serves is that of identification. It lays everything out for the player, telling him what’s what, who’s who, and what the state of the world around him is. By doing so, it gives the players context for their actions, and this in turn provides justification for game actions: when a game asks you to shoot things, it’s helpful to know that the things you are shooting are dangerous terrorists, flesh-eating zombies, mutated lawyers, or something else that you have little or no moral qualms about dispatching into digital oblivion. By laying out clearly what the elements of the world are, the narrative establishes the players’ place in it and the actions they are expected to take as a result. The players, in turn, can take those actions in confidence, knowing it’s what they’re supposed to do, instead of asking “Why am I doing this?”

The narrative provides identification in another sense as well, namely the sense of kinship and desire to become the central character. Players are invited to identify directly with a game protagonist (even more so than when they are invited to identify with the protagonist of a film or novel) because they will actually get to influence or control the game’s lead role. The course of a game narrative should be designed, in general, to make the fantasy of being the lead character more appealing, and to make the lead character more sympathetic. Giving the protagonist a chance to act heroically, behave admirably (in whatever sense of the word you choose), and achieve ever-more impressive victories might be the key to making the player want to be—and therefore want to play—that protagonist.


WHAT MAKES GAME WRITING UNIQUE?

Videogame writing is unlike any other form of writing. There is some relation to screenplay writing, some relation to writing fiction, some technical writing, and other elements both diverse and esoteric. Furthermore, the expectations of what will be delivered in a videogame script change more rapidly than in other media, because of changes originating in advanced technology and corresponding changes in audience expectations.

Game writing has very real expectations, limitations, and codes that are unique to the medium. Screenplays, novels, and short stories all present a single path through the material; all are media that are received passively by the reader. Videogames, on the other hand, are all about player choice and action. This is extremely rare in other media.

Tabletop RPGs (whose influence on modern videogames cannot be underestimated) involve player choice, but they’re written to be open experiences, offering plot hooks and possibilities so the players and gamemasters (the player in charge of the narrative and mechanics of the game) can run with the possibilities. The players construct the narrative experience in an ad hoc fashion.

In a videogame, the narrative experience must be completely defined in advance. The players will chart their way through the game, each making their own decisions so that no two players have an identical experience. It is vitally important that game writing takes into account anything and everything the player might decide to do in the world. Videogame writing is a closed system wherein the writing must lead the player to stay within the confines of the anticipated action. Everything in the world is already in the world, and there’s no gamemaster who can insert content or improvise on the fly. This means a videogame script must be both flexible enough to cover the player’s likely actions and sufficiently constrained to be less than infinite in scope.

Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames

There are simple and clear differentiations between game writing and other forms. Traditional scriptwriting involves a single narrative that doesn’t allow for choice or variance. In addition, there’s the question of scale—television dramas run at approximately 44 minutes per show whereas films are generally between 90 minutes and 3 hours. Games risk being pilloried for being too short if they clock in at fewer than 10 hours. The basic structure of scriptwriting may be applicable to game narrative, but it’s not an exact fit.

Fiction writing is just as straightforward, and offers the author the opportunity to change narrative viewpoint without asking the programmers if that feature is available. Fiction also makes the protagonist the center of the action, not the player, and doesn’t have to deal with interactive elements.

Tabletop RPG writing might be the closest to videogame writing, but even then there are major differences. RPGs are about open-ended experience and adjusting things on the fly, whereas videogame writing is a closed experience, focused on keeping the player satisfied with the options and actions available.

That being said, being able to draw on techniques from these types of writing is invaluable, as all of them can and do inform game writing. Writing dialogue and cut scenes is a process that draws heavily on traditional scriptwriting. Establishing setting and creating in-game artifacts, as well as basic storytelling techniques, can be drawn from traditional fiction. And an understanding of writing to support the game experience, not to mention working with mechanical limitations and world building, is a natural derivative of tabletop RPG work. But videogame writing is all of these and none of them, and anyone relying too heavily on another medium’s techniques as a panacea will doubtless run into difficulties sooner or later.

There are some areas of parallel with other media. When film screenwriters write a script, they know that the director, cinematographer, set builders, prop makers, wardrobe, actors, stunt people, and effects personnel will help realize the script. Similarly, when game writers compose a script, they know the producers, concept artists, modelers, animators, programmers, game designers, and voice actors will have to find ways to integrate the script into the game. In many ways, game writing is sometimes geared as much toward ease of implementation as anything else. This means writing to expected length and count, getting across key game information to the player, and making sure the writing matches the design, assets, and implementation possibilities.

Another parallel with other media is the importance of the audience. Games are not the writers’ story; they are the players’ stories. Writers are producing something for the players to inhabit and call their own, which is sometimes difficult to implement. The temptation is always there to take the narrative by the horns and ride it in the direction the writer thinks it should go. Doing so, however, railroads the player and may seriously diminish the game experience—a problematic situation of which some players can be all too keenly aware. Even heavily scripted, linear games such as Call of Duty (Infinity Ward, 2003) place the player experience front and center, using writing to reinforce the notion that the player is the protagonist in the unfolding story and not a spectator.

The expectation in game writing is that the player will firstly be the center of the experience and secondly have a good time. Creating a brilliant narrative wherein the NPCs fight all the big battles and the player watches from the sidelines might defeat this purpose. It makes players simultaneously into audience and voyeur when they signed up for the starring role. Or to put it another way, do you want to play Sly Cooper or his turtle buddy Bentley, sitting back home and watching the action onscreen?


The same holds true for the flip side of the equation. Making the player the center of a miserable narrative is the sort of attention most people would rather do without. There’s a reason nobody’s lining up to do a game based upon the book of Job, and it has a lot to do with the fact that Job’s not a fun person to be. The narrative must support the desired fantasy of the game, or else it risks defeating itself.

However, having said that the player is expected to be the center of the experience does not automatically equate to the player being at the center of the plot in the beginning. For instance, a game may be set at the fringes of a major event in the game world, but the story focuses on events that at first seem trivial and perfunctory. Usually, however, this is a ruse to misdirect the player, and the trivialities will eventually coincide with the larger events, thrusting the player into the center of events. This happens, for instance, in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (Nintendo, 2002). The player’s initial motivation for action is rescuing Link’s sister. Only later does it transpire that Link is a more significant player in world events than at first it seems.

With all these points in mind—the similarities and differences from other media, the unique requirements of a narrative that is both flexible and constrained, and the central role of the player—the pragmatics of game writing are that it often involves writing many consecutive variations on the same theme. Almost every writer working in videogames has had to deal with a task such as writing hundreds of variations of a line like “Arrgh! He shot me!” (This sort of task is so common, that short interjections such as this have even picked up their own term: barks.) This micro-scale scripting is neither glamorous work, nor rewarding, but it is a necessary task writers must tackle to fully implement a game narrative.

WHAT ARE THE BASICS OF GAME WRITING?

Having looked at how game writing is both similar to and distinct from writing in other media, we are ready to look at some of the central tenets of game writing. Chiefly, the basics of writing for a game involves:

  • Ensuring that the writing relates to the gameplay
  • Properly using the narrative tools the game provides
  • Keeping Gameplay in the Writing

When writing for games, it’s absolutely essential that the gameplay and the writing remain closely tied to one another. Some core elements of traditional writing— lengthy exposition, internal monologue, switching character perspectives—can be utterly deadly to gameplay if not handled carefully. The players wants to play, they (generally) want to keep playing continuously, and they don’t want to be given the impression that they are merely escorting the main character through a predefined set of actions.

Consider the Splinter Cell series of games. One of the techniques used to remind the player of his next objective is, in fact, internal monologue. Sam Fisher often gets short reminders to himself that he needs to disarm a bomb, take out a particular enemy, and the like. What he does not get are lengthy ruminations on the nature of his relationship with his formerly estranged daughter, X-rated musings about his sexy krav maga instructor, or a detailed economic assessment of the geopolitical situation in which he finds himself. The narrative technique (internal monologue) is used to support the gameplay (going off and achieving objectives) and not derailing it (subjecting the player to the writer’s deathless prose).

What is important, then, is continually asking: “how does this support the game?” Does it reward the player, advance the action, provide depth without slowing the pace or otherwise move the player forward? If the answer is yes, then the gameplay has been kept in the writing. If the answer is no, if the reason something is in the script is to show off how incredibly cool it is, then the gameplay has been lost, and the writing is extraneous. No matter how wonderful a writer’s exposition of dwarven tiddlywinks rituals might be (unless there’s a key element of gameplay that hinges on a dwarf literally losing his marbles), it should generally be saved for the promotional materials, tie-in novels, or projects that are personal to the writer. Many players won’t want to hear it.

As with every rule, there are exceptions. Certain adventure games, for example, have escaped criticism for their verbosity. Because the classic adventure is in many ways closely tied to the novel in terms of the narrative form employed, it is perhaps more acceptable for these games to indulge in additional exposition—especially if it can be organized so that the players can explore it at their leisure. Being able to find a book in the library on dwarven tiddlywinks is a different proposition from forcing the player to listen to a character drone on about the subject. This is especially true when adapting a game from a license, which is, in itself, relatively verbose. The same issues can apply to a cRPG, especially when the details of the setting must be conveyed to the player by some means—player knowledge and character knowledge is often mismatched, an issue that must be addressed. (Only so many games can use amnesia to sidestep this problem.)


Using the Tools the Game Provides

Different game types support different techniques for advancing the narrative. The cRPG Neverwinter Nights, for example, uses many approaches: dialogue with NPCs, in-game artifact texts, character advancement, and cut scenes, just to name a few. Horror-shooter Cold Fear (Darkworks, 2005), on the other hand, sticks primarily to cut scenes and in-game artifacts to inform the player. This choice should be made deliberately based upon the goals of the game. Neverwinter Nights is an open, exploration-based experience wherein the player is encouraged to go everywhere and do everything, and where the player is rewarded for exploring. If the player does not go into the cave, they do not meet the friendly dragon that can provide assistance. If the player doesn’t read the in-game artifact book, they do not learn an interesting fact about the face of ancient lizard-beings that are trying to take over the world.

Cold Fear, on the other hand, is a claustrophobic, tightly controlled experience punctuated by sudden violence. In-game artifacts are kept short and sweet to reinforce the feeling that the player could be ambushed at any moment, and are done in a format that reinforces the decaying, monster-ridden setting. Conversations are limited to cut scenes to prevent slowing of the pace or the possibility of interruption by enemies.

In both cases, the narrative interacts with the central thrust of the game, taking its shape from and reinforcing the game. Trying to shove a lengthy conversation tree into a horror-shooter would be frustrating for the player who feels taken out of the action, whereas removing long conversations from a cRPG could be equally annoying to a player who wants to explore the world and its background.

WHAT ARE THE TASKS INVOLVED?

There is no single thing that can be described as game writing. A videogame, after all, is a wildly complex combination of code, art, sound, and myriad other elements, all of which combine to make a game. As such, writing is used in plenty of ways to help produce the game, in tasks ranging from the big-picture creative to detailed and technical.

Story

The most glamorous part of game writing is creating the story. Coming up with what happens is what many people view as the core of the writers’ art and task, and in many cases, story gets inextricably intertwined with core design.

Dialogue

Dialogue is what’s said in the game. Superficially similar to a film script, dialogue lists the lines that are played in-game. These are generally created in conjunction with the game designer, who outlines what dialogue is needed, and the sound engineer, who establishes the technical constraints.

Dialogue is not written in a vacuum. For financial and technical reasons, word and line counts are carefully controlled. Because it’s not a script that will be filmed, dialogue also needs to be written with context. The entire cast won’t be in the recording studio trading lines back and forth.

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