Video Game Writing From Macro to Micro (Marek Walton / Maurice Suckling)

videogamewritigVideo Game Writing from Macro to Micro. This book bills itself as “four books in one,” and this is not wrong. Part I covers a history of games with a focus on story and storytelling. Part II concerns day-to-day concerns of game writing as a career — the fact that Part II starts with briefs, contracts, non-disclosure agreements gives some idea of the granularity and the focus on the nuts and bolts of doing business as a freelance games writer. Part III, “Beyond the Basics,” backs out again and looks at the theoretical basis of the discipline — why should games have stories? — as well as craft considerations like how we fill a story world with dramatic potential. And Part IV, the briefest and most varied section, pulls together statements from working game writers about what their job is, how it functions, and what the lifestyle is like.

The summary in Part I goes from the 70s, with Colossal Cave, through a year or two ago, landing on Her Story and Until Dawn. It’s a good overview, though most titles get no more than a paragraph or two, and the book is mostly interested in setting up some sense of market context, genre, and the major strengths, innovations, or weaknesses of each title. It doesn’t particularly dig into individual games to take apart how they worked as instances of narrative design. People who are already pretty familiar with the game industry and game history may find this to be largely review.

Part II, as mentioned, starts with the business angle, and it does a thorough job — taking the reader through a sample NDA, for instance, and explaining what the common terms are and what they mean. There’s certainly a need for this. I have a lot of conversations with authors taking professional games writing work for the first time where they need help figuring out which bits of their contract or NDA are common practice and which bits they can reasonably push back on.

As Part II goes on, it moves into topics like team size and composition, and then things we might consider craft, including narrative design — but this discussion starts with the constraints that you might be working with, and how to build a branching narrative that starts with a linear through-line and that can afford to lose some of its branches should the project need to be scoped down. The section on writing scripts takes the writer through standard script formats, screenplay terminology, and even an overview of standard dialogue tools from Google Docs to Twine to Articy:Draft and Chatmapper.

The section on environmental storytelling has useful questions for worldbuilding, and also lays out some basic principles, like “attach your most important information to items/locations/triggers on the player’s critical path” and “play/do, don’t show”. This entire section is one of the better discussions I’ve seen on this topic: what you should show the player, in what order, with what triggers; how you should design the layout of that information; and how you can productively work with a team in developing the idea.

A lot of this chapter could also be applied to parser-driven interactive fiction — that genre has similar concerns about laying out space and putting story elements in discoverable places — though as a primarily text-based medium, parser IF can also make use of narrative voice and dropped-in anecdotes about past events in a way that 3D games typically can’t.

Overall, Part II provides helpful guidance for people who are breaking into AA to AAA games and who need to become familiar with expectations in that space.

Part III takes a look at some bigger-picture questions: why have stories in games at all? What counts as plot vs story? What can game writers get from other media? The chapters here are more loosely linked than in Parts I and II, and it feels like a bit of a miscellany, introducing a variety of debates or possibilities to consider.

Part IV really evades summary since it’s a short quote collection.

So overall: a book strong on advice about how to meet format expectations in this industry, and with some good material around environmental storytelling and scripting.Mercifully, the book touches on the Hero’s Journey only lightly and peripherally rather than treating it as a core structure to be used in all games. There’s less here about managing a freelance career overall than in Dille and Platten; less about typical team roles on a AAA game than in Skolnick (though they do still talk about this). If you’re mainly looking for advanced narrative structure treatments — how to handle complex branching structures, experiments in procedural narrative and structures that go beyond branching — this is not for you at all, possibly because those structures are so much less prevalent in the AAA space.

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