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More than Design (Part 2: Writing)

What does Jenga have to do with making a game's plot stronger? What can we learn from a heap of slowly decaying "E.T." cartridges? Games and narrative can do some great things when instead of just crashing into each other, they manage to fuse together.

I’ve been put slightly on hold in discussing this topic.  My entire life fell away for a week or so as I prepared for a pending interview.  In the wake of said interview, a return to normalcy is called for.  Thus, as I play the waiting game, life must go on.

On that note, I provide a discussion of the links between game design and game writing.  There are two different branches I’d like to cover on this subject, but mainly, I’ll be talking about narrative design.  What narrative design tools can be useful in setting up a game design?  What are some ways to help a game and story merge together at the most basic level?

Getting the Idea Across
When I refer to “writing” in the context of this topic, I’m not referring so much to general writing skills, but more to narrative design.  It’s important to note early on, though, that writing skills are nothing to dismiss when talking about game design.  Game designers, almost by definition, must have well-developed writing skills.  Just as the blueprint for a building is laid out visually, the blueprint for a game is laid out verbally.  Design documentation must make sense to anyone who needs to read it.  (FYI: “Anyone who needs to read it” means “everyone”.)  It’s not just a matter of being able to describe what needs to be done, but being able to do it clearly. 

It’s easy to think of a game design document as a technical schematic or outline, but proper knowledge and use of grammar is the key to ensuring clarity.  Whether or not an idea is clear means nothing if the language used to convey that idea is unclear.  Incidentally, it will be easier for the team’s inevitable Grammar Nazis to focus on the game if they aren’t constantly focusing on the fact that you’re using apostrophes to pluralize words.  (This is a personal pet peeve, and I would ask that you stop doing it.  Thank you.)

Writing for the purpose of designing a game deals with more than simple usage, however.  A bit of dramatic creative flair is also important in conveying a creative idea.  A design document isn’t just a blueprint, but is, in a way, the story of how the game works.  An understanding of creative writing is useful in allowing you to recognize what you need and what overcomplicates matters.  This helps to make your statements more concise, which should also help to make your ideas easier for everyone else to comprehend.  Creative writing is also useful in the pitching process.  The better you make your game look, the more likely it is to be picked up by a publisher.

A Very Old Problem
In getting back to the subject of narrative design as it relates to game design, there’s something I’ll say first: I’m clearly not the first one to think about this topic.  Right off the top of my head, I can think of at least three lectures at GDC ’11 dealing with the relationship between game narratives and player actions, and it was a point repeatedly brought up in the three Writer’s Roundtable sessions.  There seems to be a burgeoning interest in finding new ways to more seamlessly blend story with gameplay, and I’d like to throw my two cents into the mix.

The worlds of narrative and gameplay have always had a bit of trouble mingling with each other.  For proof, you don’t need to look any farther than the massive array of games licensed from major blockbuster movies.  The recipe for these games is often simple – take a big-budget Hollywood picture, transfer its basic plot and characters to a video game, throw in some generic game mechanics, then cook at 375 degrees for…oh, about two years.  As long as the movie is successful, the game is likely to sell fairly well.  Despite years of weak review scores and a number of infamously bad games, this has been a pretty typical practice for a long time.  It’s a problem that outdates me and my 24 years; the lesson from that massive pile of discarded E.T. cartridges evidently hasn’t quite taken hold.

Now, I’ll be honest…the way in which many of these games are developed doesn’t allow for considerable experimentation.  Movie-based games are typically released alongside their Hollywood originals.  As a result, these games must be developed as the movie is being developed.  Information isn’t as fully available as it needs to be, and the time with which to deal with that information is cut short.  Given the pressures involved, it’s understandable that these games would take on that cookie-cutter feel.

Consequently, though, you don’t get a large number of memorable games coming out of the woodworks through this process.  Those that are remembered are often remembered for absurdly poor gameplay.  Their mechanics have little to do with the plot of the movie, resulting in games that serve as mere advertising tools.  “Generic Mission-Based Action-Adventure Game presents its latest expansion: Summer Blockbuster.  A new version of GMBAAG, now featuring your favorite characters from the new hit movie, Summer Blockbuster.  (Now in theaters!  Go see it!)”  When it comes to the movie game, perhaps the process needs to change before any real progress can be made.

Merging Game and Narrative
Regardless, a video game based upon an existing narrative can find ways to capture the same elements that make that narrative enjoyable.  At the same time, the designer can gain some degree of control over the narrative, resulting in some compromise on both sides of the field.  Game designers are, in a way, narrative designers as well.  Whereas game writers are generally charged with dictating the creation of explicit narrative, game designers dictate the creation of implicit narrative.  This is an issue I’ve discussed before, but I’d like to add another point to the topic through this new discussion: game designers have the power to blend narrative and game mechanics by actually transforming explicit narrative into implicit narrative.

So how can this be done?  How can the explicit narrative of a story be transformed into the implicit narrative of a game mechanic?  When working with an existing narrative, it’s about finding a way to identify the elements of that narrative that make it interesting and enjoyable.  By determining what makes a story enjoyable, an effort can then be made to capture those elements in a game mechanic.  This goes for working from an existing license or from a new IP.  What draws people to the story?  Is it plot-based or character-based?  Is it a story of suspense and intrigue?  Does it feature an eccentric and clever main character? 

Perhaps you have a plot-driven narrative featuring a greatly suspenseful story.  The suspense element is what ties the narrative together and keeps driving the audience forward.  How can that suspense be captured in a game mechanic so that the game, too, can work along with the story to drive the player forward?  Initial thoughts might lead you to think, “That’s easy.  We’ll use dark, quiet atmospheres and perhaps a few random encounters.  That way, players will be kept in a tense state, always with the feeling that something could jump out at any time.”  While this setting (properly executed) would be suspenseful indeed, it still isn’t really demonstrating suspense through its mechanics, but more through its aesthetic environment.

A more mechanics-based approach could be found by examining a game with no elements of artwork present at all.  It contains no elaborate AI scripting, no enemies to face, and no setting.  It’s a game so primitive, it’s made entirely of wood.  Neatly sanded wood, but wood all the same.  It’s a little game called “Jenga”.

Yes, good old “Jenga”.  It’s a classic, and it also happens to be one of the most suspenseful games around.  It begins so simply – there are a vast many options to choose from, and only an extreme lack of skill would prevent you from achieving success.  Thus, the game moves on.  As pieces are slowly removed from the tower, options begin to dwindle.  Every new move demands increasing strategy and great care.  With each successful advance, the risk of failure multiplies.  Will this be the block that topples the tower?  No.  Will this be the block?  No, but that was VERY close.  The tower is extremely unsteady now.  Sweat begins to form on your brow.  All of your concentration is poured into preventing your hand from making any sudden movements.  The block comes out, and a slight wobble follows.  For a brief moment, it looks as though the wobble will correct itself.  Before you can move to place your block on the top, however, the wobble develops into a full tilt.  There’s no stopping it now.  You’re doomed.

As the tower collapses, your heart sinks.  Yet, strangely enough, you feel as though a huge weight has been lifted.

So, how does this all relate back to the narrative?  Just think…what if you could use the suspense of that “Jenga” mechanic to convey the suspense of your game’s plot?  Instead of the narrative telling the player what is suspenseful and why, you allow the game that honor.  Players become active participants in producing the very suspense they will experience.  The mood is now conveyed through player actions.  Use those actions to help tell the story, coupled with the aforementioned aesthetic effects, and you’ll have the faint of heart in the hospital in no time.

All of this is just one example.  I find it to be quite a fun challenge to attempt to portray character traits through a mechanic, as well.  Is the main character the nervous type, realistically cautious, or carelessly daring?  Each trait can merit a different type of mechanic.  Is the character slow-witted and easily confused, or a genius three steps ahead of the average person?  How might you demonstrate these facts through the way the character interacts with the player and the game world?  Such questions may be useful to keep in mind if you’re looking to mix a clever narrative with a clever game.

Progression, Pacing, and Timing
Finally, it’s worth noting that while your game most certainly doesn’t need to follow a literary or cinematic structure, it’s useful to understand the process of building a story as you move forward in the development of game mechanics.  The fields of narrative design and game design actually have a lot in common when it comes to structures of progression. 

Difficulty curves often follow the layout of a plot’s action structure.  Just as a story features stages of rising action, climax, and falling action, so too does a game typically feature an increasing level of difficulty and complexity leading up to a final climax, generally the most difficult part of any game.  Designers can also look to non-interactive stories to develop effective timing and pacing.  Right from the start, you can develop a clearer sense of how fast in-game actions and reactions might be (character movement speeds, for example), when particular events should occur (when to create sudden danger, or creating a moment of relaxation following a complex sequence), and how long it should take to move through an area.  A better understanding of these principles can help to stave off player boredom and add to a sense of believability, helping to sell the player on becoming more immersed in your game.

Final Thoughts
With that, I’ve come to the end of another thrilling lecture on game design as I see it.  Now, I feel I should mention that while this discussion has been about what game designers should know about narrative design, the opposite is where greater need for knowledge lies.  Game writers have much more responsibility to learn about and understand the various game development disciplines than those disciplines need to understand about game writing.  After all, it should be about creating a great game, not a great story.  However, with narrative increasingly serving as a vital element in video games, it’s important for game designers to work with that narrative to generate the most effective combination of gameplay and story possible.  It shouldn’t be left only to game writers to make the narrative fit the game; as the game builders, designers have a responsibility to work with game writers to find the best solution.

In the end, that’s what all game development comes down to: collaboration.  That’s what this series is all about.

As always, thanks for joining me.  Next up in the More than Design series is the relationship between the designer and a role for which I have the utmost respect.  Knowledge of this field is the most sought-after prize in all of game development.  Some say these people were born in vacuum tubes deep within the bowels of IBM as part of a CIA experiment, and that they can place a semicolon on a computer screen through thought alone.

All we know is, they’re called programmers.

Thank you.  That is all.

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