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.)

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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.

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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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Interactive Fiction (ML Ronn)

Screen Shot 2017-06-03 at 8.36.21 PM.pngThe full title of this is Interactive Fiction: How to Engage Readers and Push the Boundaries of Storytelling (ML Ronn), and I read it as part of the same research that led me to read Deb Potter’s guide.

(Throughout the below, I’ll refer to Ronn as “he” because Ronn mentions using the pen name Michael in places, despite the gender non-specific initials on the cover.)

Ronn’s book makes an entertaining diptych to Deb Potter’s piece, since he starts out in the introduction by vehemently rejecting a lot of the things Potter embraces: writing for children, leaving protagonists blank, deploying frequent deaths, and the use of the second person POV in general.

Ronn claims it’s flatly impossible to tell a good or characterful story in 2nd person POV; there are plenty of counter-examples in the IF canon but instead I’ll take the opportunity to recommend some Jennifer Egan. To be fair, however, I think he’s really railing against AFGNCAAPs rather than second person.

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Writing Interactive Fiction (Deb Potter)

Screen Shot 2017-06-03 at 6.55.20 PM.pngWith the reappearance of IF as a commercial art form, there’s also been a rise in books out there to guide would-be writers in the form.

Deb Potter writes for the You Say Which Way series, which is to say pretty much straight CYOA. She has released Writing Interactive Fiction to teach others how to do the same, in a breezy and accessible style. Potter does not assume the reader has a great deal of pre-existing experience in the space, and starts out exploring basic concepts like choice and consequence, explaining why your basic left-or-right choice is usually such a bore, and suggesting that authors should give readers some warning before an instant death. She also comes down against using IF for moral preaching.

But there are a few places where her suggestions either depart from what I’d tend to consider received wisdom in the IF community, or introduce new terminology. In particular, she talks a lot about how to help the player build a mental model of the structure of the CYOA, and how to draw attention towards (or away from) choices that they might want/not want to replay.

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Procedural Generation in Game Design

Screen Shot 2017-06-08 at 7.10.14 AM.pngProcedural Generation in Game Design is out! Kate Compton of Tracery fame writes about generative art toys; Mike Cook (PROCJAM, Games by Angelina) writes about ethical generation and also about the procedural generation of game rules; Harry Tuffs (A House of Many Doors) writes about procedural poetry generation. Jason Grinblat and Brian Bucklew (Caves of Qud) each have a chapter. Gillian Smith (Threadsteading, plus lots of cool research) writes about evaluating and understanding what’s been generated. Ben Kybertas (Kitfox Games) covers procedural story and plot generation.

The whole volume is edited by Tanya X Short (Moon Hunters) and Tarn Adams (Dwarf Fortress). And I am leaving out a lot of cool people and chapters here, but you can check out the full table of contents on the website.

My contribution — drawing on experiences from Versu, my character-based parser IF, and assorted other projects — is a chapter on characters: how generating dialogue and performances can help realize an authored character; approaches to generating characters; considerations about what is even interesting to auto-generate.

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And in a related update to a previous post: I’m happy to say that the PROCJAM Kickstarter has succeeded and has now put out a call for artists to make art packs for procedural work, together with a call for tutorial authors. If their funding goes even higher, they’ll be able to commission two art packs; translate the tutorials they build into additional languages; and hit some other cool stretch goals.

Interactive Digital Narrative: Theory

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 1.12.24 PM.pngThis is part two of an overview of Interactive Digital Narrative: History, Theory, and Practice. See my earlier post for coverage of the book’s history section (and one practice chapter that I took out of order because it felt like it fit better that way).

This time we’re looking at the theory section, which addresses academic approaches to interactive narrative (including the question of what interactive narrative even is).

Again, the section begins with a brief overview from the volume editors, and this provides a fair sketch of the academic debates of the last couple of decades, together with a bibliography of a number of foundational pieces in this space. I might also have listed Jesper Juul’s half-real here, as it provides a readable and persuasive cap to the narratology vs ludology debate.

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