Every game begins with a treatment that’s a few pages long – so how do you distil a whole game into a couple of thousand words? Here, game designer Nick Dixon explains how to write a proper video game treatment and the importance of effectively combining narrative and gameplay.
Q – Hi Nick. Thanks for taking the time to chat. To start, how do you condense your fully imagined story into a treatment to submit? I’m finding it hard not to end up with dozens of pages.
Nick Dixon – It’s definitely a challenge – a story synopsis is the same. I remember not too long ago, when I was at Supermassive, they were looking at doing a new kind of cyberpunk, space opera story, and they got this guy to write a story treatment. I swear the story treatment was 43 pages long – I usually do it in about six pages maximum.
It was all over the place, and in the end they said they weren’t going to go with it, but they wanted me to pick out what I didn’t like. I had a three-metre section wall where I charted every single character, and why the writer had made some weird decisions or wrong decisions. Some of it was thematic, and some of it was bad plotting.
In the end, I re-wrote it, and they asked me to re-write it in the style of an Iain M. Banks science fiction story, which we did. We got the whole thing into five pages, and it made more sense out of it.
It’s hard, because you have to resist putting in such a big document. When you have only a few pages you’ll paraphrase, you’ll miss something out, and you’ll lack detail. I think you just have to trust that, as long as it doesn’t seem overly coincidental, you’re not lacking for suggested antagonists to take on villainous motive. You’ll join up the dots later. A game design document, in some ways, has the same high level. You’re missing all of the detail you’d normally put into it. You’ve just got to trust that you’re going to get that detail in there later. It’s okay to paraphrase.
If you can’t demonstrate what the player’s doing in between the moments where you’re telling the story, you’re probably lacking some of the necessary information that the development team is going to require in order to know whether what you’re creating is going to work. It’s a tough challenge, but it is a fun one.
Q – What comes first – story or gameplay?
ND – I started off getting into games by writing. I was asked to write the screenplay and do the history research for a Gladiator game. It just happened that when I came to the company, I could tell that they had this enormous game that had about two hundred characters and eighteen hours of cut-scenes, but no bloody gameplay!
There was nothing actually telling me what the player was doing or why they were doing it. I went in and wrote a three- to five-page treatment which brought the story into it, but also outlined what the gameplay was: What were the levels like? Where were you going? What were you doing? Why were you doing it?
I think in some ways, story and gameplay are both necessary within a pitch document or within a design document. You’re not necessarily going to write the gameplay first and then wrap the story into it, or write the story first and then wrap the gameplay into it. When you think about it, the story, the characterisation and the characters’ journeys are what drives you to complete the game.
In Ico, I want to know what’s going to happen to Ico and Yorda as they make their way through the castle. I want to know whether I’m going to defeat Walker, or why I’m going to defeat Walker and help the settlers in Ghost Recon Breakpoint. I want to know what’s happening to the individual characters in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. I want to know what’s going to happen to that US trooper. I want to know what’s going to happen to Ellie in the next The Last of Us episode.
I think in many ways you can’t divorce the story from the gameplay. They’re both integral, and you have to make decisions about both at the same time. In terms of gameplay, sometimes it’s hard to know whether you’ve got an eye for it or whether you haven’t.
Q – Does the same go for really narrative-focused games?
ND – Interactive drama is no less mechanically driven than Mario. I think you still need to understand the risk versus reward and what gambling elements the player’s going to take. Even if they’re risking the character’s story, they’re still taking risks, in a game sense.
They may not be strictly mechanical in the sense of, let’s say, a Deus Ex style game where you might add discrete mechanics together to get a different result. Let’s be specific. In something like Deus Ex or Thief: The Dark Project, there’s a game design way of thinking, which is ‘mechanic plus mechanic equals a setting’.
Very simply, if I’ve got a pool of oil and a flaming torch, and I’ve got an enemy and I’ve got a bow and arrow, what I can do is wait for the enemy to walk into the pool of oil, then I can shoot a flaming arrow into that pool of oil, it will set the pool of oil alight, and then it will set the enemy alight. That is mechanic plus mechanic equals the setting: Flaming arrow plus pool of oil equals enemy set alight. That’s strictly mechanical, but in some ways it’s no different from an interactive drama choice.
I see both gameplay and story as being interwoven, and I don’t think that you can separate the two. When you’re writing a game proposal, story and gameplay both need to be in there. I wouldn’t necessarily see game design as some great mystery, but I think that people can often see that it is. Some people in the industry, some artists or programmers, they wonder at the use of a game designer. I would argue that you need a game designer in the same way you need an architect for a building and a good chef for a good recipe. They are there to understand how ludology works. They have an innate understanding of how mechanics combine to create flow and balance.
If you play board games, you can take away the thing, the facade, then deconstruct the game down to its mechanical component parts. Then you can see how they relate to each other, and you can understand it on a deeper level. If I’m playing Fury of Dracula, I should be able to take Dracula out of the equation and just look at the board. Look at how you move your pieces around the board and how event cards add or subtract from your experience, how they randomize, how they create fixed points. That’s simple design.
I should then be able to layer an entirely new thing on top where you’re playing some other character – say, the Pink Panther – and you’re just trying to chase the Pink Panther around across that.
It’s the same deal in video games. In that sense, if Fury of Dracula is the story I’m in, and I can add that over the top of the mechanics, I can simply take it out and demonstrate the story outside of that. If you, as a designer, can understand how to abstract out of the plans, you can then start to understand design. If you play RPGs or board games, or you deconstruct games beyond your simple enjoyment of them and understand how they relate together, then there’s a good chance you can understand design enough to contribute.
Ultimately, the art of writing a story is still different from the art of designing a game. However, I find that story writers who understand game mechanics by deconstructing things like board games, RPGs and others should be able to relate to the design process. You just need to know what the cost of that is going to be. That’s a very long answer!
Q – I think the problem writers have is realising how interwoven story and gameplay are.
ND – One connects to the other, right? Ultimately, the story propels you forward through the game. Even Sea of Thieves, which has no apparent story whatsoever, is a story created by players. I have lots of memories of outdoing other players in the game world, kind of screwing them over through my mechanics in Sea of Thieves. I remember the time where I led this galleon on a chase halfway across the map, and they just got more and more mad as I led them on this merry chase in and around the island until they finally waved the white flag and gave up. That’s a story that I created.
Story – whether it’s player-constructed or delivered through a very story-heavy game – is absolutely necessary. I would say it’s the core. The gameplay is what you do in the realisation and enactment of that story, even if it’s in between the story beats, or it’s solidly part of the story as you go along, or giving you the choice to fit your own story. They’re inseparable. So, if your story writer understands how gameplay works, they deliver a story that is complementary to the gameplay and conducive to player momentum and carrying that forward.
Therefore, they also understand that the more story they create, the more expense they may be creating in-game, and that’s where having a good understanding of game design is equally important. I’d say to any writer: Don’t be afraid of game design. We play games all our lives.
I’ve been on Facebook for ten years. Facebook is a MMORPG. You make your persona, your character. It goes online. You get likes. It’s not me. It’s not the real me that sits on the toilet or ends up in a bad mood at the end of the day. It’s the bit of me that I want you to see, that I want you to give me likes for. It’s either that, or you get the other type of person who always puts depressing comments up, but they never really answer. Either way, it’s still a persona that you want them to see.
We play games all our life. As human beings we have an innate understanding of gameplay in our very DNA. Our education system is based around games. Life is based around games. You understand it. You just need to know that you understand it.