Writing for Video Game Genres: from FPS to RPG (Wendy Despain)

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I’ve mentioned this book before; it’s been around for a while, published 2009. Writing for Video Game Genres is (as the name might suggest) divided up into chapters by genre, with contributions by writers experienced in different areas.

As the introduction explains, it’s not a book about how to write in general, or even a guide to getting started in games; it’s meant to provide a deeper dive into the specific challenges associated with various genres, which are often very unlike each other. That said, these chapters are often rather introductory: genre-specific observations, certainly, but likely to be most useful to people who are first considering engaging with that genre, or who want an overview of areas where they haven’t worked before.

The book includes a section on parser interactive fiction, written by J. Robinson Wheeler. Some of the other genres covered are what we might think of game genres (MMOs, sports games, action games, adventure games, platformers, casual games, alternate reality games, serious games…); some are book genres (science fiction/fantasy, horror); and some are focused on particular platforms (handheld, mobile). These days, I’d probably expect to see an additional chapter on writing for augmented and/or virtual reality (and perhaps less about ARGs).

Several of the chapters lay out the challenges unique to their own genres: the fact that a MMO can’t focus on a single protagonist and has to take place in a persistent, many-year-long world, together with the difficulty of holding to a consistent tone in a game world that is written by many different authors over the course of years. The way an action-adventure may struggle to deliver story during a fight sequence where the player is distracted. The fact that audiences may not even expect or be looking for a story in a platformer, and that it’s often tricky to put a narrative frame around the “broken” worlds that constitute platformer settings. The often faceless, voiceless protagonist of first person shooters, and the storytelling limits imposed thereby. And (a running theme throughout) that pace is hard to control in almost all of these genres.

Some chapters also offer a bit of a canon overview for their particular field — obviously, necessarily, this canon stops at the book’s publication and therefore is now a few years out of date, but this gives a useful sense of what to play and/or YouTube to get a sense of that genre’s history.

Daniel Erickson’s chapter on RPG writing focuses on choice — writing good choices and delivering consequence — and many of these observations apply to interactive fiction as well, especially IF in the Choice of Games style. The chapter on adventure games (Lee Sheldon) gets into the pairing of stories and puzzles, and might be of most relevance to parser IF fans.

Meanwhile, Maurice Suckling’s chapter on sports games does a deep dive on the game Don King Presents Prizefighter, covering the “misogynistic-sounding girlfriend game” in which the player banters with women, trying to get one to come home. The narrative framing does entirely treat women as prizes to be won, which perhaps takes it out of being merely misogynistic-sounding, but the structure and issues raised in this minigame are not a million miles from issues in dating sims and similar work.

Personally, I found the book most illuminating about the genres I have least experience with. I would recommend this book most if you’re looking to add breadth (rather than depth) to your knowledge of games writing, or if you’re looking for early-stage guidance on a genre that’s been established for a few years.

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