Slay the Dragon: Writing Great Video Games (Giglio/Bryant)

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Slay the Dragon: Writing Great Video Games (2015). This book builds from the following thesis statement:

The story has to involve the player. The player has to want to do and see cool things in the game world… the game mechanics (such as dragon slaying) should enhance the story, and vice versa. They have to work in concert. We’ll guide you through the coming pages so you understand how to tell your story through gameplay in an integrated fashion. (26)

The book is aimed at film writers who want to get into games, at game writers who want to improve their skillsets, and at enthusiasts who are into narrative games in general. Helpfully, the authors provide an overview (33-35) of which chapters to read if you’re coming from a particular background. There are also quite a few exercises for the user of the book, starting with designing a narrative board game and moving up from there.

In contrast with Steve Ince’s take, Bryant and Giglio are optimistic about where story is going in games and excited about the possibilities. While AAA games and development processes get plenty of attention, that’s not their only point of interest. They call out successes in the independent game space (for instance profiling all the best narrative IGF nominees from 2014) and even in IF. (In the spirit of full disclosure: this blog gets a mention.)

They see the primary problem of narrative agency as not “how do we handle all these branches” — a real, but technical issue — and rather as “how do we make this meaningful”:

We do know that good branching narrative uses player choices to shape their experience in a meaningful way — one that resonates with the theme of the work or which evokes a emotional response. If you recall, however fondly, reading back and forth in the old Choose Your Own Adventure books was fun, but not necessarily meaningful. It had the feeling of opening all the boxes in an advent calendar all at once. It didn’t matter what the rules were, you just wanted to see what was in there.

The style of this book is quick and breezy: it wants to provide lots of resources without wasting your time, and it grounds its points in specific examples. Lists are common: lists of canonical games, lists of game mechanics or websites to follow or gameplay styles. At times it is so accessible that it feels like the observations might be a bit shallow — but in fact there’s good meat here. People who already know the basics of game design and story structure can skip ahead to the later chapters, which start to get into more depth.

Where some game writing books feel like a lecture series, this one feels more like a series of workshops, designed to get you launched on activities. Each chapter is short enough that one could easily read it in a lunch break or during evening down-time, then spend an hour or two on the associated exercises. (Compare Game Narrative Toolbox, which looks to coach the reader through a portfolio’s worth of small projects.) They’re pretty grounded exercises, while leaving enough room for creativity. Exercise 07.3, about brainstorming a story from mechanics, is not much different from one I’ve run several times myself with students. Elsewhere, they give some instructions about how to get started with (among others) inklewriter or Twine, as a way to get one’s hand in writing interactive stories.

At the same time, Bryant and Giglio aren’t typically prescribing a single formula for good writing: they acknowledge and describe several different narrative structures, for instance, that could be useful in thinking through game designs from short pieces to on-going Telltale-style episodic work. They also have some guidance about how level design mirrors story design, dialogue writing and planning tools, approaches to writing for MMOs, the challenge of creating barks, and so on.

There’s more that could be said in a more intermediate-to-advanced text on narrative design, but for people in the beginning-to-intermediate stages, this is one of the better craft books available. It’s optimistic, readable, fun, inclusive about a wide range of game styles, without putting down other game writers or game writing books. There’s an excellent ratio of useful insights to reading time.  If you’re seriously studying from it, go ahead and do some of the exercises — they’re good.

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