Digital Storytelling: A Creator’s Guide to Interactive Entertainment (Carolyn Handler Miller)

Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 2.59.40 PM.pngDigital Storytelling: A Creator’s Guide to Interactive Entertainment. This book has gone through several editions, the most recent the third edition from 2014. Miller is interested in works that are digitally delivered, interactive, non-linear, narrative, with distinct characters, participatory and navigable. Each of her chapters ends with some idea-generating exercises to help you brainstorm about the topics she’s just raised.

Unlike many of the books I’ve been surveying recently, this one is not specifically focused on games or the game industry; instead, it’s looking from a storyteller’s perspective at how to deliver experiences for which the page of a book is not necessarily sufficient. That in itself gives it a rather different flavor: many games writing books are quick to identify the ways in which their game genres are constraining or limiting, or present “challenges”. By contrast, Digital Storytelling is about what interactivity can add to the writer’s toolkit. (I feel this very much myself, and feel the absence of these options when I’m working in a more linear medium.)

At the same time, the book is directed at readers who might be writers in linear media but have barely considered interactivity before, and therefore need to be taught canon and craft entirely from scratch. It also anticipates a different set of prejudices and concerns: the chapter on video games spends half a page on the concept of AI and considerably more space on issues like video game addictiveness and whether violence in games is a serious problem.

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Books on Worldbuilding

In this installment of my monthly writing-books review, I’m looking at a few different guides to worldbuilding. Several of these were designed for science fiction and fantasy novel authors, not for games writers, but some are useful in this territory as well.

koboldKobold Guide to Worldbuilding is indeed written by and for game designers — though sometimes about tabletop RPG design rather than video game design. Still, the tabletop context is relevant to video games.

As anthologized guides go, it’s more varied and less systematic than some. Some sections are essentially post mortems on past projects that might or might not prove particularly relevant to your own process. Others go into detail about the many different sub-flavors of heroic fantasy.

At some points, the contributors are even philosophically at odds. Contributor Monte Cook argues that game world design is fundamentally different from novel world design because you’re looking for enough setting material to drive dozens or hundreds of stories, not just to support a single one. (“…for an RPG, Middle-Earth doesn’t need Sauron; it needs five or six, all in different locales with different motives and goals…”) Later in the book, Wolfgang Baur disagrees, accusing Cook of Kitchen Sink Design.

Quite a lot of the content here is about why you need world-building — what it can accomplish, and how it contributes to genre and the generation of story possibilities — than the how. Steve Winter’s chapter even gets into the question of why monotheism isn’t a popular choice for RPG backgrounds even when so much of the rest is often loosely western medieval.

But there are how chapters as well. Jonathan Roberts makes a pitch for the value of a good map, but then also takes us through an illustrated step-by-step process for layering in geographical features, biomes, nations and smaller landmarks. Other chapters cover , topics as specific as “How to Design a Guild” and “Designing Mystery Cults.”

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Slay the Dragon: Writing Great Video Games (Giglio/Bryant)

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Slay the Dragon: Writing Great Video Games (2015). This book builds from the following thesis statement:

The story has to involve the player. The player has to want to do and see cool things in the game world… the game mechanics (such as dragon slaying) should enhance the story, and vice versa. They have to work in concert. We’ll guide you through the coming pages so you understand how to tell your story through gameplay in an integrated fashion. (26)

The book is aimed at film writers who want to get into games, at game writers who want to improve their skillsets, and at enthusiasts who are into narrative games in general. Helpfully, the authors provide an overview (33-35) of which chapters to read if you’re coming from a particular background. There are also quite a few exercises for the user of the book, starting with designing a narrative board game and moving up from there.

In contrast with Steve Ince’s take, Bryant and Giglio are optimistic about where story is going in games and excited about the possibilities. While AAA games and development processes get plenty of attention, that’s not their only point of interest. They call out successes in the independent game space (for instance profiling all the best narrative IGF nominees from 2014) and even in IF. (In the spirit of full disclosure: this blog gets a mention.)

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The Art of Dramatic Writing (Lajos Egri); also, games

Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 9.00.45 PMThe Art of Dramatic Writing is a book from the 1940s about how to write drama, preferably drama with a tragic bent. It’s also a book much referred-to in Lee Sheldon’s Character Development and Storytelling for Games, which is the reason I write about it now.

Egri has one central thesis that animates all his observations about craft, structure, and execution. This is appropriate, because his central thesis… is that a play should have a central thesis.

(Egri uses the word “premise” rather than thesis, but what he means is what we tend to call a thesis statement now, rather than a sitcom-style premise about starting conditions.)

These premises tend to be simple statements about cause and effect, and many of the examples he analyzes are demonstrating those effects in tragic form. For example:

Sacrificial love conquers hopelessness.

Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction.

Escape from reality leads to a day of reckoning.

He who digs a pit for others falls into it himself.

He adds,

You can arrive at your premise [or thesis] in any of a great many ways. You may start with an idea which you at once convert to a premise, or you may develop a situation first and see that it has potentialities which need only the right premise to give them meaning and suggest an end. (22, in the edition linked above)

Essentially everything else in the book is analysis and application of this idea. Characters should be constructed so as to make them proof-cases for the thesis. The environment of the story must set a stage for a conflict that will show the thesis playing out. Situations, plot, causality must all serve the thesis.

At first blush this might not seem particularly useful grounding for 21st-century interactive storytelling. That’s partly because of the time it comes from: its examples are all stage plays and all old; its ideas about characterization partake of the sexism, racism, and classism of its era. But also there are the structural considerations. Egri’s book emphasizes an idea of inevitability, a story construction in which everything works toward the main character making a decision that executes the thesis. On a naive reading, that might seem to be at odds with the whole concept of interactive story. From another perspective, Egri is describing the underpinnings of procedural rhetoric.

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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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