Character Development and Storytelling for Games (Lee Sheldon)

Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 5.24.18 PM.pngIn an essay on Tom Bissell years ago, I took a not-very-contextualized swipe at this book, as follows:

The latest book on the pile is Lee Sheldon’s Character Development and Storytelling for Games, which is apparently designed for those game writers who have never written anything before and came in from some other part of the production team.

Sheldon’s book dutifully describes many, many basic aspects of story-building; offers an introductory view of plot structures for video games, while deftly avoiding any really hard problems or really interesting solutions; and takes care to remind the reader every few pages of Sheldon’s credentials not only as a professional writer but as the sort of person who has shared a limo with Dick Clark… It is the mental-nutrition equivalent of buttered macaroni…

That was way more of a cheap shot than it needed to be, and I’ve felt a bit guilty about it since. In the unlikely event that Mr Sheldon is tracking my opinion of his work, I apologize for being so flippant.

As I reread the 2004 edition on my ongoing survey of game writing books, I do still have some related criticisms, but I would phrase them more gently and admit more virtues in the project. There’s also a fair share of material that is likely to be helpful to beginners, as well as observations that go a bit deeper. It’s also perfectly readable from moment to moment. I just find that the rate of new revelations per chapter is significantly lower than I would prefer.

This book offers summary introductions to Aristotle, Homer, Aristophanes, Chaucer, Coleridge, Flaubert, Dickens, Jung, Joseph Campbell, Ayn Rand, and dozens of others. There is a multi-page recapitulation of the structure of The Odyssey (276-279) and then several pages each also for The Canterbury Tales and Don Quixote de la Mancha. This is not to say Sheldon is committed only to teaching would-be game writers the western literary canon, because the book also features countless examples from novels, movies and television and video games from text adventures on through 2004. (There’s a second edition dated 2013; I would imagine it’s been updated a bit.) All sorts of classic and semi-classic quotes turn up, from the most celebrated scene in Glengarry Glen Ross to bon mots from Tiger Woods.

Elsewhere, Sheldon extensively quotes and adapts from Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing, so much so that I was prompted to go back and reread Egri as context for Sheldon. (My read of how Egri applies to games is rather different from Sheldon’s, but that’s substance for a different post later.)

In pages 206-209, Sheldon offers an explanation of the concept of an “obligatory scene,” a concept referring to the one piece of the play that must happen (often the dramatic climax). This concept was popularized (probably) by French critics in the 19th century and dismissed again by Egri in the first half of the 20th. Sheldon’s exposition of the “obligatory scene” features quotes or examples from Inherit the WindDark Side of the MoonGodfather IITo Kill a Mockingbird, William Faulkner, HeatRunaway Jury, Towering Inferno, and Rocky. (This is not an exhaustive list.) The segment is also illustrated with two photos and a block quote of dialogue.

The gist of this section is that, although Egri doesn’t have much time for “obligatory scenes” as a concept, Sheldon finds some merit in the antiquated notion. He wishes to convince us that, if we make an implicit contract with the audience, we should deliver on it. That is the point of four pages.

And I agree! But I feel that the section could have started with that observation, which barely needs any justification at all, and then perhaps moved on to any further thoughts Sheldon might have about the craft of setting up and delivering on such contracts.

With so much going on, there isn’t really scope for nuanced critique of any of the countless samples Sheldon uses, and no need for the citations he does provide — as when Sheldon references Albert Lord’s The Singer of Tales purely in order to make the long-accepted point that Homer belonged to a bardic tradition. (Though Sheldon calls him Alfred Lord, possibly by mental attraction to Tennyson.)

The deployment of references instead of critical development contributes to the impression of namedropping, about which I was perhaps less than polite on the first reading.

He’s similarly painstaking and lengthy at explaining concepts such as quests and rewards. His chapter on editing begins with two pages of anecdotes about his own writing speed.

A good portion of Sheldon’s advice overlaps heavily with standard game-writing guidance in the many other books I’ve reviewed here. He also subscribes to some generalizations about what games are capable of handling, narratively, that I hope are not entirely true:

What about an idea makes it suitable for a game? Games are an action medium, not a cerebral one… Another key point, which I bring up throughout the book, is that games don’t do complex stories well. (156)

In other places, though, Sheldon calls out what he considers overly basic and mechanistic approaches to writing, such as the sort of template recommended by Dille and Platten:

If our choices are good enough, the character will be three-dimensional even with surprisingly few characteristics. A rich character is not an overly explained character. You don’t create a Scarlet O’Hara with three physical characteristics (raven hair, sparkling eyes, 18-inch waist), two sociological characteristics (southern belle, spoiled rotten), and four psychological characteristics (haughty, flirtatious, determined, brave). The lists are as mechanical as the numbers are meaningless… (116)

Sheldon also is willing to delve into systemic questions at times. This is to his credit, and more than one finds in some of the other books on game writing. But it doesn’t always get very far into what would be useful here.

Under relationships, for instance, he reports on the NPC attitude system designed for The Gryphon Tapestry, in which every character would rate the player on a -6 to 6 score on six different axes (love, admiration, trust, loyalty, respect, like). This explanation, including charts showing the numerical scales, occupies pages 143-148, but does not particularly address how attitudes affected NPC behavior or dialogue; balance of gameplay as it depended on these numbers; normalization of scores and how players were typically distributed over these ranges.

There are some not-wrong thoughts here about the development of character and the history of storytelling practice in western civilization. I just wish the book had been rigorously edited to maybe half or a third its current length. And as a classicist, I wince when he comes out with things like this:

It is through [Aristotle] that we are introduced to the concept of the Deus ex Machina, the ‘God Machine’, that is today trotted out to describe a fortuitous (to the author) plot twist that wraps up the final action in a story. We may frown on it, but in Aristotle’s day of course, it was a perfectly respectable plot device given that most stories were set in motion by those hands-on gods atop Mt. Olympus.

“God Machine” is not the translation of deus ex machina; if we want to be needlessly pedantic, that is not the terminology Aristotle used, as he was writing in Greek; in context, this referred to an actual piece of stage machinery that carried the actor playing a god. None of which makes Sheldon wrong about how the term is used now or the reasons why it is generally a bad thing in modern plots. But these slightly-off explanations started to get to me after a while.

2 thoughts on “Character Development and Storytelling for Games (Lee Sheldon)”

  1. I have a copy of this book from back when it was first published, though I haven’t read through it recently. I originally picked it up because of the useful algorithms it detailed, like some semi-random ways to sort lists of items weighted by how recently each item had last been seen. I’m still using some of those in modified forms today.

    I don’t remember the more qualitative side of things it discussed. I should probably take a look at it again.

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