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Narrative Design and Videogame Writing for Screenwriters

In this article, game writer Sande Chen reports on NYU Game Center Professor Clara Fernandez-Vara's narrative design master class at the Writers Guild of America, East.
NYU Game Center Professor Clara Fernández-Vara was featured in THE BREAKERS series’ second event, "Narrative Design and Videogame Writing for Screenwriters." Presented by the Writers Guild of America, East's (WGAE) New Media Caucus, THE BREAKERS event series highlights revolutionary writers in the entertainment industry. The WGAE New Media Caucus is a community of professional writers who produce content for digital distribution such as webseries, video games, AR and other media.
 
Clara Fernández-Vara is a game scholar, designer, and writer who has worked on commercial and experimental games. Before joining the NYU Game Center, Clara spent six years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a researcher and game developer. She holds a Ph.D. in Digital Media from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a Masters in Comparative Media Studies from MIT. Her videogame work focuses on narrative design, and bridging games design and storytelling.
 
While Professor Fernández-Vara did indicate that some games, like the Uncharted and Metal Gear Solid series have filmic aspirations, she cautioned traditional screenwriters that they may need to cultivate new skills and knowledge in order to make the transition to videogame writing. They may need to think about how motivation, conflict, necessity, and structure change when a player can make choices and participate in the story.  In addition, narrative design, a related discipline, is not so much storytelling as it is story-building. Narrative design combines storytelling, systems thinking, and spatial design.
 
An example of indexical storytelling.
 
She pointed to environmental storytelling and indexical storytelling as examples of how game stories occupy a wider scope than just character lines and actions. Other differences include the use of silent protagonists and how player choices can alter character personalities.  Moreover, there are no set standards for game scripts. They may be written in Excel, programs like Chat Mapper, or even proprietary scripting tools.
 
Next, she gave examples of what a typical AAA writing test would be like, resources on game writing tools, and sites to learn more about games.  Although the game industry is interested in recruiting traditional Hollywood screenwriters, they will still need to understand audience interaction and meaningful decisions. Fernández-Vara’s talk provided an excellent overview of what screenwriters would need to do to develop the skills necessary for work in the game industry.
 
Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

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