Video Game Storytelling (Evan Skolnick)

As part of my prep for the London IF Meetup July 19 (all about writing IF for money), and building on the earlier reviews of books about writing interactive fiction specifically, I thought I’d profile a couple of books that talk about game writing in an industry context — starting with this one:

Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 12.14.03 PM.pngVideo Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques (Evan Skolnick). Skolnick is a veteran in this industry and frequently does narrative workshops at GDC to bring people up to speed. (Full disclosure: I’ve met the author a few times at GDC.)

The book is a fast, breezy read and assumes essentially no narrative experience. Using examples from popular games and movies, Skolnick starts with a chapter on “stories need conflict,” then moves on to three-act structure, the concept of the inciting incident, the monomyth, the need for villains to have coherent motives, how to avoid basing your plot on too many coincidences, and so on.

After introducing all of these ideas, he then shifts to his “In the Trenches” section, which is about how to actually work on a team with other game designers, translate story into level design, and so on.

The subtitle is telling; this book is not just (or perhaps even primarily) for writers, but for people who need to work with writers or have enough writerly craft to understand what’s going on with the story aspect of their game. And I confess I have a love-hate relationship with that whole project: it’s definitely useful to educate the industry about good writing practices and drum up support from other departments. At the same time, I’ve had a lot of conversations with game developers who have read just one or two books about narrative in their lives and have embraced some particular scheme to the point where they have a hard time with any other approach to craft or aesthetics. The monomyth has its points, but I admit I kind of groan inwardly at game parties when someone uses the phrase “hero’s journey.”

Saying this starts from basics is not to suggest that the book lacks good observations. Skolnick does a useful discussion particularly about how many of these standard structures map or fail to map to AAA games, like:

  • why so many games lack a meaningful first act, and what’s to be gained by giving them one;
  • why the Refusal of the Call in the monomyth is rarely replicated in games, because from a player’s perspective it amounts to “do you want to play this game you just bought Y/N?”*
  • why the dialogue-heavy expositional opening of Metal Gear Solid 2 is so egregiously bad (in a fair-minded and even somewhat tactful take-down)

Given that the Refusal of the Call is partly about establishing the stakes of the call and the protagonist’s view of themselves, there are actually ways of doing some of the same things in interactive narrative — for instance, by turning acceptance into a confirmation-required choice, or offering a reflective choice about why the protagonist is going ahead with this obviously foolhardy mission. But form of the choice should almost never be “If you want to go home rather than having an adventure, turn to page 355.”

So this is all solid material; if it starts from the basics for a non-writerly audience, it also explains those lucidly, offers plenty of detailed examples, puts some nuance around its claims, isn’t egocentric or dismissive of others’ work, and is based on plenty of experience both writing for and playing games.

At the same time, there’s relatively little about many of the things I would consider fundamental to a discussion of interactive narrative: the design and presentation of choice, managing narrative structure, telling story through exploration, leveraging complicity, supporting or constraining the player’s narrative agency, and so on.

There is some coverage of agency and freedom in the chapter “Overall Game Design,” but those aspects not treated as core to the storytelling. For me the deployment of structure and player agency are part of the story’s rhetoric, not just an implementation issue.

Along the same lines, Skolnick treats dialogue entirely as a method of exposition, rather than a locus of gameplay itself. Though I do strongly agree with this take:

Any line of dialogue that survives the editing process should convey at least one of the previously listed forms of exposition [plot, character, emotion, gameplay] — ideally, two or more — while at the same time flowing smoothly and being interesting, entertaining, and natural-sounding.

Skolnick follows that by advising that “the art and craft of writing dialogue is best left to a professional writer,” which a) I completely understand as a piece of advice from a professional writer but which b) is a little gate-keeper-y for this blog. I have definitely seen a lot of terrible dialogue contributed to projects by people who are not writers and have never given much thought to what good writing should look like — sometimes level or quest designers who tend to think of writing as a purely functional substance like wallpaper paste.

So I’d say less “hands off the dialogue if you’re not a professional” and something more like “writing dialogue well is a skill; if you aren’t aware of it as a skill, then perhaps turn to someone who is.”

It’s also fair to say that I read a lot of amateur dialogue where the writer doesn’t seem to know why those lines are present in the story and has just meandered a bit on-page. And often if a chunk of dialogue is boring, it’s because that dialogue is not doing enough at once, and could often be improved if the author had more character or emotional content to add to it.

In any case, this is a solid intro to traditional Hollywood-style writing advice from within the context of games. Most working game writers presumably already know all this. However, if you’re not already familiar with that type of advice, it will probably do you more good to start with Skolnick’s overview than to read it without the interactive context. Just please don’t become too obsessed with the monomyth stuff.

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