Game Over is a radio play I wrote for BBC radio 4, commissioned and script-edited by Judith Kampfner and starring the phenomenal Sarah Elmaleh. It’s a story about trying to write a game about a particular topic, and the tug of different impulses that go into that process, and the ways it’s possible to screw up.
The play is available to listen to online at the moment, though in a few weeks it will become unavailable again.
Writing a radio play is a really different experience from writing for games. That’s part of the reason I took the job on — curiosity, and a desire to challenge myself in a different direction — but it still managed to surprise me. Some standout differences:
Story ownership. Radio, at least as done here, is a more collaborative medium than many small games and even some larger ones. Judith Kampfner had a very active role in shaping the script — not just in line-level edits, but in encouraging me to explore particular lines of thinking and talking over the themes and structure of the play.
Once that’s done, the actors have their own view of the characters, and become in a sense custodians of those characters. After a first read of the script, Sarah had some thoughts and feedback about how Chelsea would react to various situations. Eden Marryshow, who plays my protagonist’s partner Lee, did a phenomenal job of brightening the humor and chemistry in their relationship, through strong delivery and sometimes ad-libbing. Indeed, every actor contributed something to their character.
Audience. The listeners can’t be assumed to know about games or software development processes or jargon at all. I knew this, but still found myself startled by items that I had sort of assumed were at least somewhat self-explanatory, but that actually weren’t. (The wider world does not necessarily know what “QA” or even “Quality Assurance” means or what it involves. But it’s easy to forget things like this, or slip into assuming the audience will guess from context.) And naturally, the audience can’t be assumed to be familiar with any of the ongoing topics/issues in the games industry.
Storytelling toolkit. In games, I’m used to being able to compel the player’s attention to a particular moment by putting a choice there. If the player has to decide something, they have to pay attention. And a lot of the craft of interactive storytelling has to do with how you set up choices, how you pace their distribution through the story, how you signpost stakes and likely results.
Writing for radio, I felt like some joker had run off with about a third of my standard tools. Radio does, of course, offer other tools of its own — there’s a huge amount you can do with audio cues — but here I had to learn new possibilities, and also rely on Judith’s experience with the medium to point out what could be done.
Compactness. I’m used to editing down lines and descriptions, making a scene short enough to fit within a game. But even a short branching narrative typically has room for a lot of content once all the written scenes are taken together. I’m used to relying on that particularly when I have several different themes I want to bring into a story, and allowing different thematic arcs to occupy different branches or areas of the same narrative space. In radio, as in any other linear medium, there’s no room for all that.
The final version of the play edits out quite a bit of the original script — an entire subplot with the playtester Jared, for instance, and portions of a couple of different scenes, and some background on how Chelsea met Lee.
Setting establishment. Radio doesn’t show the setting or the faces of the people talking. You don’t get an opening room description, an establishing shot or a surrounding bit of game environment to work from — which means you have to situate every scene and let the listener know where it is and who’s there, using only the dialogue and sound effects. But (see “compactness” above) you don’t want to waste too much time on any of that without moving the plot forward at the same time.
And in answer to some questions I’ve gotten: yes, obviously, the opening scene owes much to the annual awards ceremony of the IGF. However, I’m not taking a shot at the IGF here — it’s just the context in which our characters meet. Harrison is not a specific indie game developer, either. This is not a snarky roman a clef about any particular people or companies or groups.