Writing for Games: Theory & Practice (Hannah Nicklin)

Cover art for Writing for Games, showing an adventurer setting off towards a distant landscape.

Writing for Games: Theory & Practice is a new book from Hannah Nicklin, focused very specifically on the writing rather than the narrative design aspects of the field.

If the difference feels fuzzy to you, you’re not alone: many indie game roles require writers/designers to do a bit of both of those things. There’s a lot of industry conversation about determining what exactly is the difference, how we define roles in studios, what it means specifically to be a “technical narrative designer” or a “narrative systems designer”, etc.

Nicklin lays out the distinction as a difference between “storytelling through design” – what is being told through the game’s structures, ordering, roleplay, etc. – and “storytelling through words”, which includes not only dialogue but also any incidental text.

The book is also aimed at writers building indie games rather than big AAA projects, for the very sensible reasons that indie games are more of an entry point than AAA, and that they afford more freedom to work on different aspects of storytelling.

Overall, the book is readable, well-grounded, and full of practical advice and useful references. There’s enough introductory material that someone who hasn’t worked in games at all before can get started; Nicklin describes the book as representing what she might say to a mentee if she worked with them over the course of a year, and that feels about right. (It also describes the authorial voice throughout: the content is presented as advice offered to a junior, rather than, say, as a presentation of advanced methods described by one peer to another.)

Even for more experienced practitioners, though, there are a number of specific suggestions about methods – things you might like to add to your own toolkit, even if you already have a pretty developed craft.

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Subcutanean (Aaron Reed)

Most of my first-Tuesday-of-the-month posts cover books about craft, writing, or game design in some way. This is an exception, though: recently I had a chance to read Aaron Reed’s horror novel Subcutanean. It tells the story of a young man who discovers his basement is much larger, deeper, stranger, and more branching than any basement has a right to be. It’s also written with a generative text process that means no two copies are alike.

As a premise, “basement is bigger than it should be” might not seem to be that horrifying. But in this case, it genuinely is. I don’t want to spoil the story, but I was surprised at how effectively Aaron made what might seem a fairly passive menace into something really threatening.

From about a third of the way into the book, I was hooked in a way that rarely happens to me these days — that kind of MUST READ NEXT PAGE attention that makes you put off going to get a glass of water for two or three hours on end because the spell just hasn’t broken yet.

I also found it interesting as a project in novel-length generative text. It’s different from a lot of generative projects in that it feels human-written from end to end. There is no point where I found myself thinking, “oh yes, this was made by a grammar.” That’s because it largely is human-written, and then machine-elaborated, or machine-varied. The alternate forms of a sentence are all things that Aaron explicitly planned for; it’s the combinations of forms that he might not have anticipated.

At which point, you might think, well, why do a generative text at all? If it doesn’t feel like it was made by a machine in some way (and I’ve talked about the aesthetics of intentionally mechanical-feeling text), and if it doesn’t need to be instantly generated or arbitrarily long, then what is the point?

The point, at least in Subcutanean, is the divergence. My copy isn’t your copy; it’s different in all sorts of ways; and that chimes with the core conceit of the story. This is a novel about the unknowable proliferation of motives and outcomes; about the fact that the same set of events might have many different interpersonal explanations, or lead to many different consequences; that the same people might follow dissimilar trajectories.

At the end of the copy I read, there is a page that describes differences between my Subcutanean and some other versions. Some of those differences were significant, suggesting major plot points that could have gone another way. When I finished my version of the book, I was immediately curious to try other variants, to try to get a sense of what the whole plot possibility space would look like. But even if I ordered another copy, or two copies, or more, I’d never fully map that potential space. Knowing the story’s territory cannot be completely mapped brings a provocative uncertainty into the realm of static text that I generally associate only with interactive stories. Which is a perfect for the book’s themes.

Broken Places & Outer Spaces (Nnedi Okorafor)

Broken Places & Outer Spaces is a book about creativity and the personal voice that comes from really difficult things in life; from what Okorafor refers to as “the Breaking.”

In it, she talks about an operation that left her partially paralyzed; about the process of learning to walk again, about learning to write as a result of that, and about the changed abilities that she has lived with ever since; about the integration of her Nigerian heritage into her science fiction writing; about her vision of Africanfuturism; about her embrace of the cyborg as a symbol of a potential self that is both less and more than human.

As the TED symbol might suggest, it’s an inspirational piece rather than one dedicated primarily to craft. I’ve come to regard the TED brand a little the way I regard the Papyrus font: it’s not inherently terrible from the outset, but too many exposures have made me wary of the style — polished, digestible, self-consciously heartwarming.

Nonetheless, I very much liked this particular piece. In particular, the idea of the cyborg self resonates: the idea that one is either currently broken, or currently unequal to the tasks ahead, and therefore it’s necessary to become someone else. And not just to grow gently toward the sun, or to undergo some natural process of evolution, but to take responsibility for crafting oneself, to put time and effort, technique and willpower into redesigning oneself.

Hamlet’s Hit Points (Robin D. Laws)

Hamlet’s Hit Points breaks down classic storylines into structures that can be deployed in tabletop (and sometimes digital) RPGs.

Hamlet’s Hit Points has been recommended to me a number of times by people with experience in RPGs, narrative, or systems design. Since I’ve recently been thinking and writing more about the stats-and-point-assignment aspects of narrative design, I came back to the recommendation this month. (It’s available as a physical book from various places including Amazon, but for various reasons I’m linking to Amazon less. You can get the book as downloadable content for $8 from DriveThruRPG, so that’s what I’ve linked.)

Hamlet’s Hit Points starts by acknowledging the influence of Hollywood writing guides of the kind I’ve sometimes covered here, and then offers its own kind of structural analysis of story beats, intended to cover both conventional narratives and RPGs. (The book is focused on tabletop RPGs with a human game master.)

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The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (H. Porter Abbott) – Chapters 10-14

The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative is a book I’ve been chewing on now for several months, since it raises a number of issues about how to describe and think about narration but doesn’t (except occasionally and briefly) attempt to apply those terms or concepts to interactive literature. So this series has become less anything resembling a review than a set of responses and observations; although I am still trying to summarize the contents just enough that someone who might not want to read the whole book could come away with a clear sense of its subject matter and purpose.

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The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (H. Porter Abbott) – Chapters 7-9


The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative approaches stories from a very different perspective than most of the game writing, novel writing, and screenplay writing books I’ve covered here before; instead, it’s an academic approach to describing what narrative is, based in the field of narratology.

Last month I looked at the first six chapters; now I’m returning to it. As before, I generally found myself reading this overview with an eye to how interactive media tend to compare, since Abbott only examines hypertext to a limited degree, and other interactive narrative very little at all.

Continue reading “The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (H. Porter Abbott) – Chapters 7-9”