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Bar-sur-Loup Provence France

Game writing: Back to the basics

I am working on a (potential) article about beginning game writing, but in trimming the article an awful lot of thoughts are ending up on the cutting room floor.  I'll drop some of those into my blog from time to time, because writing these things out helps me to better understand the process of game writing and what I have learned.

The problem for a fiction writer is that writing games is like writing a story, but without the story part.

I jest. It's actually like writing a story, but without exposition, setting, internal dialogue, description -- it's writing a story when you can't say a thing about what's going on in the protagonist's brain, because the protagonist is the player. They have to know what's going on anyway, and you yank their chair-shaped butts right through the fourth wall if you dare to actually stop and tell them.

Everything happens through what the player sees, what the player chooses to do, and what dialogue the player hears and/or selects. Those are the only colors left out of the fiction writer's entire palette for creating the story -- visual setting, action, and dialogue. Three damn fine ones, admittedly, but they make it a real exercise to develop an entire picture without using all the others tools that a fiction writer usually relies on.

It's even worse, actually, because all you can do is hint at what the action should be; leave a trail of breadcrumbs that the player will hopefully want to follow.  The more you make him follow a given path, the less he feels like he's playing the game and the more he feels like the game is playing him.

And that's really the big difference.  You can't say what your protagonist is going to do, only the player can say that.  You can lead him by the nose, but the heavier the hand is that guides the player's actions, the less immersive and interesting the story becomes.  If things go that way you get what I think of as "dramatic rupture" -- it's not the player's story any more because the player doesn't feel like they made it happen.  Instead, the player feels like it's someone else's story and they're just along for the ride.

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Jeff: You're describing script writing! Except the part abour the trail of breadcrumbs. There is foreshadowing and stuff, but no breadcrumbs.

Good to hear from you.
That makes a lot of sense, Debbie. Having only done cutscene-type scriptwriting I'm hardly an expert, but there a lot of similarities.

The one thing that makes games different from both books and movies is the agency / action factor; that's the one that tends to keep me awake at night.

What if the player doesn't do what he's supposed to? Or feels that the next gameplay action is nonsensical for his protagonist? There are a lot of annoying questions like this that the game writer has to struggle with.
Ugh. Having to try to anticipate what the 'audience' is going to do or think would be mind-numbing. But on the other hand, it seems a little like fun. As long as it doesn't keep you awake at night! :)
Bar-sur-Loup Provence France

December 2011

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