The Advanced Game Narrative Toolbox (ed. Tobias Heussner)

advancedgamenarrativeThe Advanced Game Narrative Toolbox is a brand-new followup to The Game Narrative Toolbox, which I covered previously. The “advanced” bit means that the book doesn’t re-cover all the same ground already found in game writing books. The authors suggest that if you are entirely new to game literacy and writing advice, you should go to the first book in the series, to Skolnick’s Video Game Storytelling, and/or to McKee’s Story.

Where the first book walked the reader through steps for building a basic portfolio of game design documents and related materials, The Advanced Game Narrative Toolbox is more topic-driven, each chapter written by a different author (with just a couple of repeats).

The topics cover a range of craft, commercial, and cultural considerations. Many (but not all) of the chapters end with a suggested exercise for the reader, as they did in the first book; but the feel here is less of a core syllabus and more of a set of electives you might pick to round out your understanding.

Many of the chapters approach their subject by defining process: what are the steps that you would take to go about a given task, what considerations should you apply, who else needs to be involved, what could go wrong, and how will you know when you’re done? So, for instance, a chapter is more likely to say (I paraphrase) “next, make a map that shows where each step of the quest will occur in the game world,” and less likely to dive into deep analysis of different possible map designs and how they will affect player experience. Typically, that process guidance is really useful, especially as it comes paired with lists of references if you need more technique training, but you should be aware which you’re getting.

The book is expensive. I bought it as soon as I heard of it, and I’m glad I did, but I flinched at checkout. Price is not typically something the authors can control, but it means I talk later in the review about how to tell whether you’re likely to get enough value from it to justify the price. That’s not meant to reflect on the book’s quality: it’s good, no question. If you get a chance to pick up a used copy for $15, just buy it.

The first chapter topics fall into the category I called “rhetoric” in my narrative self-training post, looking at best practices for handling subject matter that has often proved tricky in games. Tanya DePass of I Need Diverse Games writes on what authentic diversity means and how people can approach writing characters of different backgrounds. Heidi McDonald covers portrayals of romance and sexuality, the concept of “playersexuality” (NPCs who are attracted to whatever gender the protagonist happens to be), depictions of queerness, and the difference between romances that are developed via mechanics and those that evolve over the course of the story.

Next, the book covers the relationship between video games and other media. Two chapters on adaptation talk about how to turn a book or a movie into a game (or vice versa). There’s also a chapter on storytelling board games (from Alexander Bevier), which is fun, though this is a topic that could easily expand into a lot more space than the book gives it.

There’s a world-building chapter from Danny Wadeson, and while there are lots of resources on world-building in general, this chapter is tightly focused on how the problem works in video games specifically, looking at examples such as the weapon flavor texts in Destiny. (This chapter also name-drops Heaven’s Vault.)

Brian Kindregan provides a fairly long and meaty chapter on how and when to use cutscenes, whether pre-rendered or in-game, with tips on how and when to provide exposition, and how to handle drafts and feedback. This chapter feels like it would be especially relevant if you’ve come up primarily in smaller indie or text-based games and are looking to make the jump into writing for a AAA project.

There are two chapters from Tobias Heussner (also the editor of the whole volume), one on learning enough about scripting, art, and level layout to communicate your ideas to colleagues and, if necessary, help implement them in your game; and another on mission and quest design. These two chapters pair well, because they address how you might tie your narrative content together with the game’s physical space and difficulty progression, and then make sure that vision is shared and can be carried out by the rest of the team.

The final chapters touch on aspects of writing as a process — how to plan and organize one’s work — and as a profession, including two excellent chapters on editing and freelance writing by Toiya Kristen Finley. These are sensible and specific, and explain things that are often hard to pick up unless you happen to have access to a community of other game writers — which many people starting out haven’t yet cultivated.

In the freelancing chapter, Finley talks about what to look for in a contract, how to gauge your own experience level, what to charge, how to vet clients and use freelancing sites, how many jobs you should chase at a time, what you need to know from a job description, and how to write a query letter, complete with a sample letter to work from. This stuff is gold. I could really have benefitted from knowing all this when I started my freelance career.

Meanwhile, the story editing chapter gets into a similar level of detail about a role that is even less discussed than freelance writing. Here Finley lays out the differences between developmental edits and copyedits, how to give feedback, how to edit dialogue that’s going to be voice-acted vs dialogue that isn’t, and how to develop a style guide (along with reasons that style guide might different from styles for a different type of publication).

There’s even a section specifically on how to do diversity consulting well. I’ve never seen anyone offer tips on how to approach doing this before. (Admittedly, since I’m not myself positioned to do diversity consulting, I also haven’t sought guidance — but it hasn’t appeared in any of the myriad other game writing books I’ve read.)

If you’re starting a freelance career in writing or editing, these chapters probably make the book worth buying on their own, and I say that with full acknowledgement that it’s not a cheap book.

Overall, it’s a solid book, with good advice from very experienced practitioners. That said, most of the chapters are relatively short. If you’re weighing the price/value question, I’d say go for it if Toiya Finley’s chapters are likely to be directly relevant to your career, or if you anticipate that you’d use more than one of the other chapters. If you’ve written for other types of game but are now transitioning to your first AAA or MMORPG job, you might also find it worthwhile, especially the chapters from Heussner and Kindregan.

If on the other hand you’re not doing narrative design for pay, or if your interest in advanced narrative design focuses on the marriage of narrative and mechanics and you really want to read about that in depth, then it may not be what you’re looking for.

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