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Writing in Games: The Trinity of Plot, Character Motivation and Theme

In this article I explore one possible way of approaching the ever thorny issue of 'the writing' in games.

It’s a platitude to state that the interactive nature of games makes them distinct from virtually every other medium. It is, however, also a very useful platitude, because it emphasises that we can only successfully approach writing for a game when we factor in how it has to interact with the rest of a game’s components, both thematically and technically. So saying, the question I wanted briefly explore here is simply, ‘how do you write well for games?’ Here I’m going to focus chiefly on those games where a story component – in its broadest sense – is involved to some extent, even in those games that have a heavier emphasis on mechanics rather than narrative and world-building. My comments are obviously going to be less relevant for things like racing games, e-sports games and casual mobile games, and more appropriate for games with a story mode or a campaign to them.

First, of course, it would be useful to break down what we mean precisely in terms of the writing in a game. ‘Writing’ covers a variety of things; from the plot, to the dialogue, to voice-stabs, to the item descriptions and flavour texts and so on and so forth. I’m going to limit myself here to three core concepts; plot, theme, and character motivation. I’ll deal with what each of these are in turn, and I want to suggest that perhaps a good way of dealing with these features is to order them into a hierarchy and tackle them sequentially, with ‘theme’ at the top, ‘character motivation’ in the middle, and actual plot at the bottom. All three come under the general rubric of the ‘writing’ in a game, in the sense of a game’s narrative and tone, although it’s really in the areas of plot, and to a certain extent character motivation, that things like dialogue and character interaction come in.

Theme

It may seem strange that I should prioritise theme over plot, since it may seem more intuitive to think that the theme would emerge from a game’s plot as a story unfolds. In actual practice, though, placing theme over plot seems fairly intuitive from a technical and developmental perspective. I remember watching a fascinating interview with Ken Levine, the creative director of Bioshock, where he talked about how the game evolved into the eventual product we know today. What was so interesting was that the actual story itself – one of the most heavily praised areas of the game for its moral and philosophical dimensions – came exceedingly late in production. Rather, Bioshock started out as several disparate elements. Firstly, there was the idea for a game mechanic that centred around a drone gathering a vital resource, a protector guarding that drone, and a harvester trying to get said resource, which would later become the Little Sisters, the Big Daddy’s and the other inhabitants of rapture, including the player, respectively. Secondly, Levine wanted to work on a sequel to cyberpunk cult-classic System Shock 2, which he’d worked on in the 1990’s.

 Over the next several years, the location, aesthetics, and above all the plot itself would all undergo massive changes; at one point it was set on a space station, at another in an underground war bunker. The project went through a number of iterations, until at last Levine settled on something involving Art Deco and Ayn Rand’s Objectivist theory of free will and laissez-faire capitalism.

What’s important to note is that the plot itself – that is, the characters of Andrew Ryan, Atlas and Jack, their journey and interactions with each other and the world they inhabited– only developed after the initial broad concepts had been come together.

The point of this discussion is twofold. First off, it gives us an example of what we mean when we talk of a central ‘theme’, and how it’s distinct from the actual written plot. Theme is simply what the core experience of a game is, what it’s ‘about’, and this doesn’t necessarily have to be a narrative device. Secondly, it’s useful in illustrating the flexibility of theme when compared to plot. It is highly likely that had Levine and his team started out with a fixed idea of what the story should be it would not have resulted in the Bioshock we know, which, as we have seen, only came about through the evolution of a number of concepts.

More importantly is the technical aspect of this idea. I’ve listened to a number of talks by designers who have convincingly stated that from the actual perspective of making a product itself, focusing on a theme whilst keeping the story flexible is highly desirable. Writing a plot is far easier than designing the assets necessary to execute it, and sticking rigidly to a story and designing a game around it creates two problems. The first is the money and time cost of inflexibility; Levine encountered numerous financial issues in getting the game off the ground, and had a fully fleshed-out plot – with fixed characters, settings and story – been the core principle of design, then it is likely that this would have resulted in prohibitive expenses each time another aspect of the game had to be changed to accommodate it during the development cycle. More likely still, the game probably wouldn’t have been made at all if it hadn’t been able to adapt to something more palatable to consumers and publishers.

The second, but related point, is that when constraints come up and corners have to be cut in a game, plot is probably going to be the first thing to go; writing and story are much less of a strain on the budget than nearly all other design elements. Hence starting out with a plot may result in a story that’s weaker in the long run. Sticking to a theme, by contrast, allows a designer to keep in mind at all times the minimum viable product – how much of a story a game can afford to tell – by keeping features and story focused against a benchmark of whether it serves the theme or not.

Character Motivation

This leads us neatly onto the subject of character motivation, and I’m focusing here on the motivations of the protagonist the player controls rather than those of the supporting NPCs. To a certain extent character motivation and plot can be considered in tandem to one another, since obviously a plot can only develop alongside with and as a part of what the characters involved in it do, and vice versa. From the point of view of writing for games, however, I put character motivation above plot to emphasise how both, ultimately, should be geared towards serving the theme, which hopefully I’ll show in a minute.

The question is, how can we consider a character’s motivation as being distinct from the plot, and why is it important to do so? Perhaps the best way of thinking about it is to say that the protagonist’s motivation is what gives the player’s character (and so, by extension, the player) a reason to progress through the game, whilst the plot is the story that unfolds as the player does so. During the first minutes of gameplay in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, for example, it’s established that the brothers need to find a cure for their father’s illness. It could be said that this is both a motivation and a plot point, but if you think about games that start in medias res, like the first Amnesia game, the distinction becomes clearer. At the beginning of Amnesia you have very little information in the way of plot – where you are, who the protagonist is, what’s happened – but the game still gives you and a very clear motivation for progressing; you have to escape from the place you’re currently trapped in.

This isn’t to say that a player’s motivation doesn’t change as the plot progresses, but the overall aim usually remains consistent. In Timesplitters: Future Perfect the character you control throughout the story has one broadly defined motivation; destroy the eponymous time-travelling mutants. As you progress through the story you find out who was behind the creation of the timesplitters; your goal becomes to stop that person. But in this case you have a development of the story; whilst the main character’s motivation remains an overarching goal throughout the game.

I’ve gone through how we can think of plot and character motivation as separate, even if we can see that the distinction can be fuzzy at times. Now the question is why it’s useful from a technical perspective to distinguish between the two when approaching the game’s writing. You may have noticed that in all of the examples I’ve cited the main characters’ motivations have been pretty simple – find a cure, escape from a place, defeat the enemy. There’s a fairly fundamental reason for this, I think. When somebody plays a game, they’re playing that game, not just absorbing it passively. That means that their attention is going to mainly be concentrated on the moment-to-moment gameplay; so the overall reason the character has for progressing is going to need to be clear, and clarity usually means simplicity in this case. A game cannot afford, generally speaking, to have a character whose motivations are as idiosyncratic and multi-layered as that of a Hamlet or a Walter White.

This is very much the case where the gameplay-to-narrative focus is in favour of the former, but is even true of games that are primarily driven by the story, like Telltale’s Walking Dead Series or The Wolf Among Us. At the root of both these games is a very clear goal that justifies everything that goes on in the gameplay; survive the zombie apocalypse and solve a murder mystery. At any point a player is doing something, he knows automatically why he’s doing it. And we can see how this helps the theme; simple though these motivations are, they help emphasise the core of what each game is ‘about’ in its broadest sense.

A good example of a game that fails to emphasise the character’s motivation to progress is Silent Hill Origins. Here, the main protagonist finds himself embroiled in the goings on a haunted town and a supernatural cult, but it’s never really clearly explained why exactly the main character carries on instead of just fleeing. It was a problem because the Silent Hill series has always lived and died on the narrative experience each game creates, so Origins suffered as a whole to some extent because of this.

So what’s the advice from the perspective of writing? In short, it’s to make sure that when you’re establishing a reason for the main player to progress through the game, make sure it’s simple, and that it’s clearly communicated. This factor is made even more important by the technical aspects of development; as I mentioned earlier, creating the assets to convey story can be expensive in terms of time and resources, so from that standpoint alone setting up an overly-complicated motivation to progress may not be feasible. Keeping motivations simple doesn’t mean that the story as a whole has to be simplistic, however, or characters have to be one-dimensional. This brings us to the case of the plot.

Plot

One last distinction between character motivation and plot is that whilst the former should be simple, the latter can afford to be more complex. As we said, the plot of a game consists of the developments that occur as it progresses; the events that happen, the character interactions, and so forth.

Right off the bat, however, a plot is going to be constrained by the nature of the medium. First of all is the ever important issue of budget in terms of time and resources, which we covered in the section on theme. It may be that when trying to cover every event that’s going to happen in a proposed plot a team bites off more than is actually feasible, so that when deadlines loom sections have to be cut and the end product looks patched together and disjointed. Shadows of the Damned had a good example of this, where a boss fight that had been built up for the majority of the game ends up being a short 2D sidescroller section, very evidently because of budgetary constraints. So a plot – what’s going to happen in the game – is obviously limited in scope by how feasible it is to actually create these developments.

A game’s plot is also going to be constrained from a more conceptual point of view. One of, if not the, most fundamental aspects of a game is the concept of progression itself. Physical progression – the act of the player just going through a level – is at the root of nearly all the sorts of games we’re considering here, and a to a certain extent a game’s plot is restricted by and obliged to move along with the player’s progression. What this means from the perspective of a writer for a game is that, at a general level, he is going to have to think sequentially. ‘How’, he has to ask, ‘is development A going to lead to situation B, and how is B going to lead to C, and so on?’

By way of illustration, The Evil Within serves as an apt, if rather exaggerated, example of a plot that doesn’t progress in a game. The premise has your player being transported around various gruesome locales by a weird, reality bending presence, but the problem lies in the fact that with the exception of the beginning and ending chapters there’s really no plot to speak of. The levels are virtually unconnected to one another and neither the protagonists nor the NPC's go through any character arcs to speak of, resulting in a story whose connecting thread is so thin that the chapters could have been mixed around without much repercussion to the story as a whole. The chain of causality is obscure at best, and leaves the player feeling like they’re being buffeted around from one situation to another, with very little in the way of narrative development to back up their sense of geographic progression.

When faced by the dual constraints of budgetary focus and narrative progression, then, the question is how best to approach the plot in the context of writing and designing the game? Here, I mean ‘writing’ at both a macro and micro level. On a macro level, I’m talking about what happens, what’s going to occur in the game, and so on, whilst at a micro level, I mean the actual execution of the plot, particularly in things like character dialogue, narrative event moments and cutscenes, where you’ll see most of the writing proper.

As I’ve said before, the answer is that the plot, at both levels, should be measured against the yardstick of how well it serves a game’s theme. At a macro level, the writer should be asking, ‘how is whatever I want to happen going to help convey what the game is about?’ This both allows for a tighter focus of scope by giving a measure against which to extrude extraneous features and helps strengthen the experience overall.

Silent Hill 2 is an excellent example of plot developments done well. At the heart of the game is the theme of psychological horror; the examination of the darker aspects of the human psyche, and in particular the role of desire and death in our lives. The player encounters two characters that embody these facets – Angela Orosco and Eddie Dombrowski – the former a woman molested by her father, the latter a potential murderer. As a writer, we may ask ourselves; ‘why did the developers include these characters in the story? What purpose did they serve?’ The answer is that both of them provide mirror reflections to the main protagonist, James Sunderland, as he goes through his journey in the town. James is looking for his dead wife, and by meeting these characters we find exaggerated versions of the conflicted emotions he felt towards her. As we can see, by introducing the plot points of Angela and Eddie, the game has a vehicle through which it can explore its central theme as the player progresses.

This question of conveying the theme through the plot should also be addressed at the micro level as well. It’s worth bearing in mind that even in a narrative heavy game, the amount of words-per-minute in a game are substantially less than you’d find in a TV show or a movie, mostly for reasons of budget and player attention-span. That means that every line of dialogue a game has to spare is going to be precious, so it’s important that they’re put to good use. To take Bioshock again, we can look at the famous encounter with Andrew Ryan as an example of an especially good instance of theme-conveying dialogue. The central refrain of his speech are the words, ‘a man chooses, a slave obeys’, a line that he repeats several times. What’s so important about these words is that in one sentence the writer manages to link this single scene to the overarching theme of the game, namely, the concept of choice. Both your interactions with the Little Sisters – whether you spare or harvest them – and the Objectivist philosophy of personal autonomy – are deeply connected to this idea of choice, and formed the basic building blocks from which the rest of the game emerged from. So here the scene serves as a powerful vehicle for conveying the core experience of Bioshock.

Lastly, it goes without saying that character motivation and plot aren’t just going to have to be linked to the theme, but to each other as well. I think this is so obvious enough that it doesn’t need much detail, since it seems hard to imagine creating a game where the reason to progress has absolutely nothing to do with what occurs as you do so. An easy way to think about it is that if plot is the trials and tribulations that occur over the course of a journey, character motivation is the thing that sets the player and his character on that journey to start with.

I hope the above has covered the basic distinctions between theme, plot and character motivation, and how all three should interact, which brings us to our conclusion.

In summary

To wrap things up, I’ve hopefully shown that as a writer for a game you should ask yourself three broad questions. Firstly, you should ask yourself what, broadly speaking, the overall theme of your game is. This allows you to craft the rest of your writing and the rest of the game as a whole to focusing on this core experience. When you get to the case of the narrative for the game, I’d advise breaking this down into two separate but related segments. The question you should then ask yourself is; ‘what overarching reason am I going to give the player to explore this theme, and how am I going to ensure that it’s clearly conveyed?’ At the same time, you should be asking, ‘what’s going to happen between the player going between A and B? What events will unfold as the journey progresses?’ And with both character motivation and plot, you should always be seeking to ensure that they help convey the theme of the game to the player.

 

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