Character Development and Storytelling for Games (Lee Sheldon)

Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 5.24.18 PM.pngIn an essay on Tom Bissell years ago, I took a not-very-contextualized swipe at this book, as follows:

The latest book on the pile is Lee Sheldon’s Character Development and Storytelling for Games, which is apparently designed for those game writers who have never written anything before and came in from some other part of the production team.

Sheldon’s book dutifully describes many, many basic aspects of story-building; offers an introductory view of plot structures for video games, while deftly avoiding any really hard problems or really interesting solutions; and takes care to remind the reader every few pages of Sheldon’s credentials not only as a professional writer but as the sort of person who has shared a limo with Dick Clark… It is the mental-nutrition equivalent of buttered macaroni…

That was way more of a cheap shot than it needed to be, and I’ve felt a bit guilty about it since. In the unlikely event that Mr Sheldon is tracking my opinion of his work, I apologize for being so flippant.

As I reread the 2004 edition on my ongoing survey of game writing books, I do still have some related criticisms, but I would phrase them more gently and admit more virtues in the project. There’s also a fair share of material that is likely to be helpful to beginners, as well as observations that go a bit deeper. It’s also perfectly readable from moment to moment. I just find that the rate of new revelations per chapter is significantly lower than I would prefer.

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Game Narrative Toolbox (Heussner/Finley/Hepler/Lemay)

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The Game Narrative Toolbox is designed to guide readers to become professional narrative designers — perhaps a seemingly slight difference from game writers, but this approach includes a certain amount of level design and mechanical design in the purview of the narrative designer, as opposed to simply producing words.

The book is structured as a textbook, with exercises at the end of each chapter, and lots of examples, images, and sidebars.(Indeed, I found the layout a little distracting; there are often several things going on on any particular page, in a way that often made me feel slightly anxious I might miss a part of what I was supposed to be reading because I’d forgotten to go back to the beginning of a multi-page sidebar. I am pretty sure this has to do with quirks in my own reading style, however.)

This is not to say that the book is unstructured. A lot of thought has clearly gone into making it useful for someone to use while self-training and transitioning to a job search. The exercises are designed to gradually build up the user’s portfolio of samples, taking the writer from a relative novice to someone with sample dialogue, narrative structure diagrams, and even practice resume/cover letter content. Meanwhile, the chapters follow the lifespan of development: preproduction planning, development of world and story and characters, writing the main content, and troubleshooting.

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Interactive Storytelling: Techniques for 21st Century Fiction (Andrew Glassner)

Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 2.36.51 PM.pngInteractive Storytelling: Techniques for 21st Century Fiction (Andrew Glassner, 2004). Glassner’s book is rather more effort to read than most of the other guides to interactive story I’ve covered so far: it’s hundreds of pages longer, and in a somewhat more pedantic style. It begins with two long chunks on the nature of story and the nature of games.

He begins the section on stories by introducing many standard concepts of writing from scratch: character, plot, scenes. Conflict and stakes. Three-act structures and inciting incidents. The monomyth, again (though mercifully he admits that it is not necessary to use and is not the guarantee of a good story). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Viewpoint and dialogue. At the end of this section — about a hundred pages, much of it consisting of example narrations from film and other sources — Glassner proposes a “Story Contract,” which he will use throughout the rest of the book to make value judgments. The contract contains the following clauses:

  • The author is responsible for the psychological integrity of the main characters.
  • The author is responsible for the sequencing and timing of major plot events.
  • The audience must allow itself to be emotionally involved.

 

Glassner later uses this contract to evaluate various works and forms of interactive story (about which more below), so baking in what the author is “responsible” for gives him a way to dismiss a lot of techniques in existing work. In many other respects, the story segment is largely a not very edited overview of basic writing advice.

In the section on games, Glassner also offers quite a bit of review. Like late 90s IF theory, he distinguishes puzzles from toys (this is something that we talked about quite a lot back then). Here, again, he offers a bunch of broad background: types of games, game loops, participation vs spectating, the nature of rules; the uses of scoring; the types of resources that can be included in game design, and the ways resources are deployed. He also gets into individual vs. team sports, competition and cooperation, applications of chance, some basic game theory chestnuts like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and a section on terminology from Go.

All of this discussion is on the more abstract end and includes examples from sports and board games as well as computer games; it’s by no means focused purely on executing a AAA first-person shooter experience, and much of his game typology is not focused on the video game industry.

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Interactive Storytelling for Video Games (Josiah Lebowitz/Chris Klug)

Screen Shot 2017-06-14 at 9.36.06 AM.pngLast seen on this blog because Chris Crawford panned itInteractive Storytelling for Video Games: A Player-Centered Approach for Creating Memorable Character and Stories.The main body text is written by Josiah Lebowitz, but with interleaved commentary and examples written by Chris Klug.

This book is aimed at relative beginners, starting with a chapter on video game history and then three more chapters on basics of story in general (a point it has in common with a few other how-to-write-games books I’ve surveyed in the past). Each chapter ends, in textbook fashion, with a short list of questions for the student to ponder for later.

And, inevitably, there is a detailed breakdown of the hero’s journey, the references to Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, the examples from Star Wars. However, despite Crawford’s shade, they’re pretty up front about recognizing when they’re talking about standard tropes and clichés, and discussing them as such with the reader, as well as recognizing how those elements are most commonly applied in games. Klug makes a pitch for why the Refusal of the Call phase of the monomyth is important — something I would agree with (though grudgingly, since I wish people were in general less hung up on mapping every game to this formula). (See also Skolnick’s remarks on the Refusal of the Call.)

In some places, though, Interactive Storytelling for Video Games does get pretty dogmatic about things that I would like to hope are flexible. For instance:

…video games tend to focus on fighting and strategy, exploration, puzzle solving, or some combination of the three. These types of external conflicts are far easier to portray in a game-like fashion than the more internal emotional conflicts that are often the focus of things like romance and sitcoms. Therefore, a “proper” game story needs to support a large amount of external conflict. (44)

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Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames (ed. Chris Bateman)

Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames is an anthology collection from 2007.

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The list of contributors and subeditors includes a lot of familiar names: Richard Dansky, one of the major organizing forces at GDC Narrative summits; Rhianna Pratchett writing on the topic of video game player demographics and representation; Wendy Despain, who has edited at least two other game writing texts I’m aware of… actually, I’m going to stop listing, because almost everyone associated with this book is someone I’ve heard of before in some capacity, and it would just get awkward to go through the whole list. It’s pedigreed, is what I’m saying; and the group in question is professional game writers with a lot of cumulative experience in writing for AAA and AA games, industry contributors rather than primarily indies.

I’m actually on my second copy of this book: I bought it once before and then lost it, I think possibly in the process of a transatlantic move, and then got another copy of it for the purposes of this review survey. I remembered it being one of the more effective of its kind, even if it dates from a decade ago.

Several of the other books I’m looking at in this overview spend most or all of their time on basics of narrative in general, serving up standard Hollywood screenwriting instructions with a side of game examples, or else talking about the process of working as a game writer in a studio. Both of those topics are covered here, but rather more briefly. Stephen Jacobs covers The Basics of Narrative, dutifully running through the Hero’s Journey, the screenwriting advice of Syd Field, and the example of Star Wars and a few other hints from Aristotle’s Poetics. Refreshingly, Jacobs doesn’t treat either Joseph Campbell or Field with undue reverence, but points out that these are useful tools at most.

On the business of studio-based writing, there are some notes on that general topic in Richard Dansky’s introductory chapter; Ed Kuehnel and Matt Entin discuss approaches for getting team signoff and collecting appropriate phased feedback in their chapter, Writing Comedy for Videogames.

But the majority of the book is about topics unique to the confluence of story and game, not introducing the industry. In chapter 3, Writing for Games, Richard Boon introduces concepts like progress structure (how the game controls access to story beats), pacing, agency, and funneling (how the game guides the player back towards elements of the critical path). Though the terminology doesn’t always precisely line up with the terminology used in the IF community, these are all familiar concepts; and they lay the groundwork for a lot of the craft advice that comes later in the book.

In chapter 4, Mary DeMarle talks about Nonlinear Game Narrative and the inherent challenges of giving the player significant freedom; a basic coverage of linear, branching, and branch-and-bottleneck structures; and the difference between high-level plot and moment-to-moment experience of a story. She doesn’t hold out a lot of hope for significant plot variety, remarking

When attempting to construct stories for nonlinear games, the general goal is to integrate linear stories into nonlinear gameplay (accepting for the time being that nonlinear stories are expensive propositions…) (79)

Much of her other advice is likely to feel familiar, though: guidance about layering detail into different aspects of a gameplay experience; the focus on bringing critical details into unavoidable moments (like cinematics and unavoidable choice moments), while relegating less important details to environmental storytelling; methods of identifying which bits of your story could possibly be told in any sequence.

Chapter 5 sees Chris Bateman on directing the player:

In a game world, freedom can be seen as the capacity players possess to step away from the set path and define their own play and their own implicit story. At the furthest extreme of freedom, the player may be afforded so much autonomy that a conventional narrative can no longer be supported, and the role of the game writer ceases to be involved in story construction, but in a more complicated game design exercise beyond the scope of this chapter. (86)

In other words, Bateman breaks this chapter off right about where Chris Crawford would want to get started — on the construction of complex storytelling worlds in which authorial intention is abstracted into rules rather than presented through specific guaranteed plot beats.

Andrew Walsh’s chapter 6, on game characters, strikes a good balance between conventional narrative advice and acknowledging the special role of characters in games; Richard Dansky’s chapter (7) on cut scenes contains a range of observations that would apply to cut sequences in textual IF as well as in conventional video games.

Chapter 9 covers Writing for Licenses, looking a little bit at the business considerations that come into such a project, but also delving into how to be true to an intellectual property’s world, tone, and characters — a set of observations equally applicable to interactive fanfiction.

Some of the later chapters get into comparatively technical topics, such as preparing for localization, or Ernest Adams’ chapter on Interchangeable Dialogue Content. This chapter looks at how to write for voiceover that’s meant to be stitched together, for instance to produce dynamic audio of a sports commentary where different players’ names and score numbers might need to be swapped in.

At the high end, audio techniques have come along somewhat since this book was written. But not everyone has access to the latest cutting-edge technology in this space, and for others, the recommendations are instructive. Moreover, Adams’ description of how to prepare to write this kind of dialogue is also arguably relevant to the domain of procedural text generation in general:

To study the speech space of a sports game, you should do two things: listen to real sports matches and read the game’s rule book for events that the commentators should talk about… You will soon spot general categories of commentary that include interchangeable content… Try to find, or create, a category for every sentence spoken. If your word processor offers a highlight feature, assign a different color to each category, and then highlight every sentence that belongs in that category with the appropriate color. This will enable you to go back through the transcript quickly to find all the sentences that discuss related material and see how they vary from one another.

Finally, chapter 14, again by Chris Bateman, covers Dialogue Engines, a topic especially close to my heart. He divides these up into three categories: event-driven, where lines of dialogue are served in response to events in the game world; topic-driven, where the player has some ability to select areas of interest, e.g. by showing off topical items in an adventure game; and dialogue trees.

In parser IF terms, Bateman’s categories would break down like this:

  • NPC who randomly comments on your actions, as in A Day for Fresh Sushi: Event-driven
  • >TALK TO FRED: character-based topic-driven system, where the situation determines how Fred will respond
  • ASK/TELL dialogue such as >ASK BOB ABOUT THE PINEAPPLE: token-based topic-driven system
  • Menu-driven dialogue 1) “Bob, where is the pineapple? What did you do with the pineapple, Bob?” : dialogue trees

There’s no real equivalent in his categories for some of the hybrid topic/choice systems in play in parser IF — for instance the methods used in Threaded Conversation or in Eric Eve’s TADS 3 libraries, where the system can prompt the player with possible questions to ask but there is a model of topical relation between subject matter. Which is reasonable enough, as that kind of dialogue is not common in industry games and was not even all that well worked out in IF at the time the book was published.

Bateman concludes by talking a bit about attaching conditions and cases to dialogue lines, touching a bit on text substitution and branching options, but not particularly getting into salience models for dialogue selection, for instance. (Though, again, this book came out well before Elan Ruskin’s dynamic dialogue speech at GDC 2012: please note that I’m not criticizing the absence here, just pointing out an area where the book might not go as far as readers in 2017 might want.)

*

Of the books on professional games writing I’ve encountered, this is possibly the best, and definitely in the top three. Most of my specific nitpicks about its content boil down to “in 2007, the authors did not talk about developments that occurred in 2012 or later,” which is fair enough. It won’t teach unusual narrative models or cutting-edge approaches to AI-driven dialogue, and it’s not mostly that invested in talking about what makes for a powerful choice (something of an obsession point for IF craft writing).

But the book does go into the known-and-proven aspects of video game writing in a lot of detail, while keeping an open mind towards more experimental or future-facing possibilities. It’s also been very well edited, so that it feels coherent and joined-up despite pulling together the work of many contributors; and the tone is consistently helpful and informative but not condescending.

*

Finally, a few other books of possible interest that I’m not covering here in full.

Professional Techniques for Video Game Writing (ed. Wendy Despain) and Writing for Video Game Genres: From FPS to RPG (ed. Wendy Despain) are both collections of chapters from a range of experienced game writers, and I found some chapters more interesting or useful than others. The book on genres is arranged around the specific challenges of writing for particular game styles. Uniquely among the volumes in this list, it specifically acknowledges writing for interactive fiction as a relevant topic, with a chapter on parser IF contributed by J. Robinson Wheeler. It is, admittedly, from a somewhat earlier era of IF, and it doesn’t really speak to the current commercial landscape; it’s more likely to be interesting to you if you’re also in the market for, say, the IF Theory Reader.

Again: if you’re interested in paid work in IF writing, or hiring IF writers, that will be the subject of the July 19 London IF meetup.

Video Game Storytelling (Evan Skolnick)

As part of my prep for the London IF Meetup July 19 (all about writing IF for money), and building on the earlier reviews of books about writing interactive fiction specifically, I thought I’d profile a couple of books that talk about game writing in an industry context — starting with this one:

Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 12.14.03 PM.pngVideo Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques (Evan Skolnick). Skolnick is a veteran in this industry and frequently does narrative workshops at GDC to bring people up to speed. (Full disclosure: I’ve met the author a few times at GDC.)

The book is a fast, breezy read and assumes essentially no narrative experience. Using examples from popular games and movies, Skolnick starts with a chapter on “stories need conflict,” then moves on to three-act structure, the concept of the inciting incident, the monomyth, the need for villains to have coherent motives, how to avoid basing your plot on too many coincidences, and so on.

After introducing all of these ideas, he then shifts to his “In the Trenches” section, which is about how to actually work on a team with other game designers, translate story into level design, and so on.

The subtitle is telling; this book is not just (or perhaps even primarily) for writers, but for people who need to work with writers or have enough writerly craft to understand what’s going on with the story aspect of their game. And I confess I have a love-hate relationship with that whole project: it’s definitely useful to educate the industry about good writing practices and drum up support from other departments. At the same time, I’ve had a lot of conversations with game developers who have read just one or two books about narrative in their lives and have embraced some particular scheme to the point where they have a hard time with any other approach to craft or aesthetics. The monomyth has its points, but I admit I kind of groan inwardly at game parties when someone uses the phrase “hero’s journey.”

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