Write 'Til You Drop

In this post, our lead writer and designer Austin Gunsauley muses on what he has learned about script writing over the past few months.

Write ‘Til You Drop

by Austin Gunsauley

Three months ago, I sat down at my desk and had a wonderful moment of rare, absolute certainty.  Smiling alone, I looked over the virtual universe I had already created and thought: “I am going to write hundreds of pages worth of scripting and dialogue for a video game by myself”.  At this point I should have broken into hysterical laughter, thrown everything I’d already written away, and gone back to enjoying my free time. I failed to do this. In fact, I decided to do the complete opposite.

What I am about to describe to you, my captive audience, are the consequences of this fateful decision.

The first thing you should know is that the idea of writing a full-length script for anything by yourself is already a monumental undertaking;  it is the kind of project that takes aspiring writers months, if not years, to realize fully. 

The second thing you should know is that when you decide you are going to create a script for a video game in particular, an extra layer of complexity is added to the writing.  Unlike a movie or a TV show, game scripts do not have the luxury of proceeding upon a completely linear trajectory.  Game scripts must be flexible and account for factors introduced by the player through the framework of interactivity involved in this medium.   

Sometimes, accounting for the actions of a video game player in your writing is as simple as adding additional lines of dialogue to guide players past moments of uncertainty. Other times, in works with greater degrees of player agency, you must account for branching “trees” of dialogue based off what the player has chosen to say to a particular character. 

Writing for a video game thus often requires that the author create more dialogue than they would otherwise need in a more traditional medium, regardless of the style of game being built.   It also requires a special level of planning from authors, who must be able to make their scripts cover all possible avenues the player might travel, without sacrificing the legibility of a traditionally linear script.

I am writing a script for a video game by myself.  It offers a large degree of player agency and is not for a short or linear video game, because that is not what we are making with Armour on the Wastes.   To add grease to the fire, the script has to be completed in time for us to make our target release next summer. 

Consequently, as you may imagine, the project stretching before me is just a tiny bit crazy.  A little bit insane.  The kind of project that could drive a man mad.

Luckily, I am nothing if not determined.   I have already made great progress thus far.   AOTW’s story possesses three acts, and after a month of work we are nearly through the first act of the storyline – in the form of a rough draft, of course.   What follows are a few observations that I have made as I have fallen irreversibly farther into the darkened well that is scriptwriting.  Perhaps these observations will be of interest to you.

1.  If you are creating a new universe to base your story on, it’s important to flesh your setting out before you start writing your next masterpiece.  I can’t tell you how many times my “story bible” has saved me whilst writing the script for AOTW.  Not only does having a detailed universe help lend your story the feel of a real place and time beyond your characters, but it also keeps your facts consistent so that you’re not making things up as you go.

2.  Take on your project one step at a time if you want to stay sane.  If you’re producing something long or intimidating, it helps to focus on small segments.  Set a single task for the day that you can accomplish, and don’t think about the larger picture again until it’s time to go back to strategic planning – likely after you’ve finished your rough draft.   This approach is especially helpful if you’re running your project like we’re running ours; working in segments helps break paralysis if you’re only able to work on it in your free time, and if you are trying to balance your writing against other concerns such as a full time job,social life, and girlfriend.

3. Let the characters speak for themselves.  Generally speaking, railroading characters down a path they “should” go down is a bad idea.  If it seems like you have to force a conversation to take a particular turn in your script, maybe you should ask yourself why that’s the case, and why the characters you’ve created aren’t naturally gravitating toward that outcome.  You might even want to ask yourself why you can’t go with a different outcome entirely.  Besides, some of the most rewarding parts of writing a story are when the characters take on their own personalities and become real people, rather than simple archetypes or life descriptions.  You’ll miss out on that if you plan your story too rigidly.

4. When dealing with non-linearity, tackle a single linear path first.  You don’t even know how these characters interact yet, so writing down multiple options for their responses is only going to muddy the waters before you’ve even started swimming.  My personal advice is to start down a single linear path, as I am currently doing with AOTW’s script.  Once you’ve gotten a handle on one way the story might run, from start to finish, it will be easier to come up with alternative pathways later on.

5. No matter what, put words on paper. Don’t waste time on revisions until you’ve written a complete first draft. Then go back and pick your writing apart to make it a stronger work.

Even if you’re not writing in your free time, these observations should give you some degree of understanding about how I am choosing to go about my work on this team.   Because I am the only writer on the team, it is crucial for me to make sure I deliver on my promises to my colleagues– if I don’t, nobody else will step in to fill that gap. 

At the same time, being the main script writer and designer for this project is oddly freeing.   You’ve surely gathered that there is a great deal of responsibility involved, but there is also a fantastic opportunity for expression and to put something meaningful into the world.   The work of a video game writer is oddly personal and it is very much an opportunity to pour my heart and soul into something meaningful.  At the end of the day, when the game is released and you have the chance to witness the events that unfold in the universe of AOTW, you’re going to see this dedication reflected back at you.

Hopefully soon --- I’ll actually be able to tell you something about that universe.

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