Writing for Video Games (Steve Ince)

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Writing for Video Games by Steve Ince came out in 2006. It’s primarily directed at a skilled writer from other media who is considering a move to video games, so it includes a bunch of introductory material about how games are different and what game genres exist (2006-inflected and a bit simplified). Elsewhere, he introduces concepts like story bibles and character profiles, and warns about the challenges of working with a large team. For people seeking these tips about how to work functionally in a game industry team, though, I’d recommend more recent resources like Evan Skolnick’s Video Game Storytelling.

I’m not sure that, if I were a novelist encountering this book, I would be terribly encouraged by the prospect of moving into games writing. Ince warns the prospective writer that interactive narrative is always secondary to gameplay in all types of game, and also indicates that typical games aren’t very well written.

On narrative structure, he tends to be a bit absolutist — that branching narrative is “impossible to create” as “the resources needed to offer all these possibilities would be beyond the budget of even the largest game”. He does suggest some of the traditional alternatives, but the usual narrative structure resources (Ashwell on CYOA, Salience/QBN discussion) cover more territory.

The discussion of dialogue similarly focuses on the need to use variables and if-conditions, fairly basic concepts without a dive into the more systematic ways of handling this kind of information. This probably is helpful if the writer has never had to think about branching and dependencies before — and Ince does elsewhere talk about things like avoiding repeated dialogue, not reusing your punchlines in a comedy, etc. — but it’s not the place to look for guidance in new ways to design and organize interactive dialogue.

Ince also has a tendency to withdraw into general advice (meet your deadlines, make your story and gameplay line up, talk frequently to the development team, listen to the testers). This advice is typically correct but a bit basic.

Overall: not a terrible set of guidelines for its intended audience, but it’s brief, introductory, and now a bit dated (hardly its fault — I’m the one who decided to make as comprehensive a survey as I could).

Guest Review: Three Games from IFComp

The following reviews are from an anonymous-by-request friend who played a number of games from IFComp, had a good time with the judging, but didn’t have a good venue for posting his own responses. I invited him to share some reviews of his favorites here. His background is mostly in film and theatre rather than interactive media, and he was drawn to several of the choice-based games. Without further ado…

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Disclaimer: I know Emily Short, but I’m not a game designer or programmer.  Neither I nor anyone I know (that I’m aware of) has games entered into this competition.  

This was my first time reviewing anything from IF Comp, so I’m looking at it from the standpoint of a relative newcomer.  As such, my opinions are obviously my own, not Emily Short’s.

There are quite a few games in this year’s competition – seventy-seven in total –  of which I played about thirty.  What really leapt out at me was the sheer variety of gameplay experience.  Let’s Rob a Bank, for instance, was stupidly fun but over so quickly that I felt I hadn’t really gotten the full value until I’d played it multiple times (which I was happy to do.)  On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cannery Vale, with its sophisticated interface and immersive story, was much more involved, and was a standout as far as shaping the player’s adventure.

Here are three I really liked, in no particular order:

 

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To be honest, I wasn’t really expecting much with this one, based solely on my reaction to reading the blurb.  (Blurbs can be tricky.  Sometimes they’ll capture the basic premise of a piece, but they won’t communicate the tone.  This was the case here.)  Animalia’s description mentioned it was a 30-minute game.  I figured it would be a simple, paint-by-numbers animal adventure…

…so I was completely unprepared for Waddell’s off-the-wall humor and the remarkable variation of storylines contained inside. 

Animalia kicks off with an emergency gathering of woodland creatures.  The annual offering to the Forest God has backfired, putting the forest at risk for human incursion.  During the opening chaos we learn that the animals’ offering was, in fact, a nine-year-old human child (!) named Charlie.  It seems like this ritual is all fairly routine for the cuddly little murderers, but this time their child sacrifice has been getting obnoxious texts from his worried mother, who has tracked his GPS location.  Now the entire forest is in an uproar over the inevitable search-and-rescue that will bring a deluge of humans.

The critters’ solution to this disaster?  Stage an elaborate cover-up, obviously.

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Restless

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So I released a new game! Here’s its blurb:

You’ve been haunting old Mrs Fagles for decades. Now she’s sold the house, and the new owner’s moved in. Sylvie’s broke, bad at plumbing, and anxious about everything.  And with a living, breathing, fretting roommate, how are you supposed to rest in peace?

Drink blood. Set fires. Tell lies. Give advice, loan out a wedding dress, reclaim your true name.  Remix your dialogue options to reflect your mood or dig deeper into the topics that interest you.

I mentioned this briefly in yesterday’s link round up, but I wanted to give a little more background on it than a link round up typically allows for.

Restless is a game written for ECTOCOMP, a venerable Halloween-themed IF competition. There are six endings, if you’re counting — though some of those endings mean different things depending on how you get to them.

It’s a purely conversation game. As in a lot of choice-based games, you have up to three options, and you can pick one. But in contrast to the typical dialogue situation, you can do something about it if you don’t like your current menu. Click a mood, and your options will shift to reflect that new attitude. Turn on moods individually or in combinations. Discover conversation topics and you can set your dialogue to explore those too.

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End of October Link Assortment

IF Comp judging is wrapping up — if you’d like to judge or review games, now is your chance to check that out and submit your votes.  Voting ends November 15.

RestlessMouseShot.pngECTOCOMP is also live — the annual Halloween IF jam, with separate sections for games depending on whether they took longer than four hours to develop. Atypically, I entered this year: Restless is a ghost story using Character Engine, allowing the player to remix their dialogue with different moods and topics of conversation. Tea-Powered Games provided the art and Unity UI.

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Spring Thing 2019 is now officially open.  The deadline to submit intent to enter is March 1, 2019; for the game itself, the deadline is March 31.  Further details are at the competition’s home site.

November 3 is the next SF Bay IF Meetup.

November 10-11AdventureX will return, this time at the British Library. AdventureX is a conference focused on narrative rich games, whether those are mobile or desktop, text-based or graphical; it’s grown significantly in size and professionalism over the last couple of years. (Incidentally, they’ve published their exhibitor list and it’s pretty sweet.)

November 13 is the upcoming Boston IF Meetup.

The IGDA Foundation is now accepting 2019 GDC scholarship applications for aspiring and current game designers.  The opportunity for IGDA Scholars, IGDA Velocity, and IGDA Next Gen recipients will be open until November 30.

December 2 is the deadline for entering the Russian Language IF competition KRIL.

December 5-8 in Dublin is the next ICIDS, the international conference on interactive digital storytelling.

From Now – February 24, 2019, the Victoria and Albert Museum is featuring an exhibit on contemporary video games.

And then a few other things that are well in advance:

February 8-9 of 2019, is Beyond the Console, a two-day conference on gender and narrative games, organized by Karlien Van den Beukel (a co-organizer of the Oxford/London IF Meetup). I will also be there, and there will be a keynote game by Porpentine, and a keynote talk from Hannah Wood. The call for papers runs through November 26.

NarraScope is a recently-announced conference for IF and narrative games to be held in Cambridge, MA June 14-16 of 2019. Here’s how they describe it:

NarraScope is a new games conference that will support interactive narrative, adventure games, and interactive fiction by bringing together writers, developers, and players.

The Electronic Literature Organization Conference and Media Arts Festival, July 15-17, 2019 will be in Cork & the call for submissions is posted: elo2019.ucc.ie/cfp/ The theme: Peripheries.

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Choice of Magics (Kevin Gold / Choice of Games)

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Choice of Magics is work from the author of Choice of Robots, one of Choice of Games’ most successful commercial projects. Choice of Robots was appealing to players for a number of reasons, especially the scope of the possibilities available to you and the sheer size of the project. It delivered a sense of narrative agency that a lot of Choice of Games’ audience really responded to. (Gold also wrote Choice of Alexandria, a smaller and more constrained story.)

Choice of Magics is in a similar mold to Choice of Robots: very large, at over half a million words, with room to customize your style of magic and confront different final challenges depending on how your story has developed so far. The story positions itself at that scale, too — the very first page lays out an absolute mass of background information about the current and previous state of the world, which most fantasy novels would be more likely to introduce gradually over the initial chapter or so.

The game also gives you the option of explicitly noting whenever you’re gaining and losing stats, right inline with the rest of the narration. And the stats page has been enhanced, with some special icons and more content than the average CoG stats page, including a journal of major plot points you’ve encountered — again, to help the reader track the game’s extensive machinery.

This foregrounding of mechanics carries through into the rest of the fiction as well. The story needs to rapidly introduce the five major schools of magic, so it runs you through an adventure scenario that teaches you about each in sequence, surprisingly rapidly.

Several of the world-building choices are quite tropey, which makes them generic but easy to communicate to the player in a hurry: there was a lost ancient civilization, they knew various magics, the magics are currently outlawed but you find your way to the ancient academy where you can recover tools and documents which are written in a muddle of Latin, Greek, and old versions of romance languages — played more for humor than for cultural resonance. At the same time, these ancients were also not so very different from modern people and had magical pseudo-airplanes and microwaves. It’s not quite the Great Underground Empire, but it has something of the same flavor.

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Mailbag: AI Research on Dialogue and Story Generation

I’m curious: do you follow much research that happens in stories and dialog these days? In the world of machine learning research, there’s much less in dialog and stories than other areas (e.g. image generation/recognition or translation), but once in a while, you come across some interesting work, e.g. Hierarchical Neural Story Generation (by some folks in Facebook AI).

For some years now I’ve followed work coming out of the UCSC Expressive Intelligence Studio; work done at Georgia Tech around crowdsourced narrative generation; game industry applications introduced or covered at the GDC AI Summit (though it is rarer to see extensive story-generation work here). I’ve also served on the program committees for ICCC and ICIDS and a few FDG workshops; and am an associate editor on IEEE Transactions on Games focused on interactive storytelling applications. Here (1, 2, 3) is my multi-part post covering the book Interactive Digital Narrative in detail.

That’s not to say I see (or could see) everything that’s happening. I tend to focus on things that look most ready to be used in games, entertainment, or chatbot applications — especially those that are designed to support a partially human-authored experience. I also divide my available “research” time between academic work and hands on experiments in areas that interest me.

So with that perspective in mind:

  • I’m not attempting a comprehensive literature review here! That would be huge. This coverage cherrypicks items
  • I will go pretty lightly on the technical detail since the typical readership of this blog may not be that interested, but I’ll try to provide summary and example information that explains why a given item is interesting in my opinion, and then link back to the original research for people who want the deeper dive
  • I’ll actually start by summarizing a bit the paper the questioner linked
  • Even with cherrypicking, there is a lot to say here and I am breaking it out over multiple posts

That Initial Paper

For other readers: the linked article in this question is about using a large dataset pulled from Reddit’s WritingPrompts board and a machine learning model that draws on multiple techniques (convolutional seq2seq, gated self-attention). After training, the system is able to take short prompts and create a paragraph or so of story that relates to the prompt. Several of the sample output sections are quite cool:

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But they are generating surface text rather than plot, and the evidence suggests that they would not be able to produce a coherent long-term plot. Just within this dialogue section, we’re talking about a tablet-virus-monster object, and we’ve got a couple of random scientist characters.

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