As part of our coveted guide Three Strategies to Make Your Game a Winner, we explain why the games industry’s most valuable writers are the ones who understand game design and production.
Few writing courses teach storytelling for an interactive medium, let alone game mechanics and the nature of collaborating within a development team. It’s hard for aspiring games writers to know where to start.
Here are two key pieces of advice that our Story for Video Games tutors gave to recent participants.
What do you wish writers knew about gameplay?
I would start by stating that most of my background and general interest lies on the gameplay side of the story. I’m no writer. I learnt the storytelling by doing. Video game development is a ‘struggle’ between different departments who try to work together to reach a common ground, where the story, the gameplay, the art, the sound and the technology collide. It’s important that everyone understands each other. That they learn a ‘common language’.
Today, writers still tend to be seen as an addition, rather than central to the creative process. Slowly but surely, though, this is changing for the better. And, as a writer, being able to understand and discuss the constraints of the artist or the designer is important.
The most important elements when we talk about gameplay are the ‘verbs’, i.e. what actions are available to the player. If your game design is ‘the player can jump and shoot’, then telling a romantic story will be more difficult. It will only be through cut-scene that the plot can move forward. And in my opinion, that’s not such a good way to deliver it. So, either you talk with the designer to add ‘romantic mechanics’ (your love interest gives you a boost when she/he’s in your team) or you write a story about conflict in a setting where you need to jump.
In truth, it’s often not up to you (the writer) or to the designer. It comes down to the vision the Creative Director has for the project. Sometimes they don’t have any, so that’s extra hard! But, most of the time, they will be quite explicit about what they want.
What do you wish writers knew about player agency and choices?
It depends on the genre, so I’ll stick to interactive fiction ones that I know best. These are games that rely a lot on story and plotting.
The player doesn’t actually want choices – they want to feel a certain degree of control. Choices are there to make them feel like the story is listening and reacting to them. Too many choices are stressful – like a menu with hundreds of dishes – and each moment a player is forced to pause and make a choice you’re making them do intellectual work. You don’t want them fatigued, you want them to feel powerful.
Also, offering players a choice without giving them a reason to choose one over the other is something you should avoid. The most obvious example is offering two doors and saying: ‘Go left or go right.’
The player will shrug and pick at random as it doesn’t matter. Better would be to have two very different interesting things (or three or occasionally up to five, but not often as you’ll not be able to carry all the threads), making them really uncertain which sounds more interesting.
This article by Emily Short is written as though for novices, but it’s absolutely essential reading for even the most experienced game writer.
Finally, the most important thing for getting freelance work is having a playable portfolio. For something with branching plotlines and interactive fiction like Failbetter’s stuff, having a playable sample that shows you understand the nature of choice in games is pretty much essential. If not, we can’t take the risk – it’s a slow thing to teach.