Story (Robert McKee) and the Expectation Gap in Interactive Story

McKeeStory is one of a handful of screenwriting books that turn up constantly in the bibliography of game writing books. McKee himself gives courses — I’ve never been, but I hear they’re very good shows, whether or not they’re good advice. It’s advised at least as often as Save the Cat, and possibly more so.

It is also, I think, more applicable to non-cinema writing than Save the Cat: McKee is interested in structure, and he has a lot of formulaic rules to suggest, but he cares about content as well. At one point he has a speech about the need for emotional truth, and how this can only come from within the author.

There are aspects of the book that aren’t entirely to my taste. In support of his points, McKee often spends quite a while reprinting classic screenplays — he’s particularly enamored of Chinatown — with his own commentary interspersed. I did not generally find his comments to be that much more instructive than the original dialogue, undisturbed. And even when he’s not giving verbatim chunks of screenplay, he spends an awful lot of time summarizing the events of various movies you’ve probably seen. He’s also a bit grandiose with his rhetoric about the great imaginative work of writing.

Then, too, quite a lot of his advice belongs to the “add an appropriate amount of salt” school of recipe writing — warning that too little or too much of something will be bad, but offering no heuristics.

All the same, there is a lot of basic vocabulary about how plots are assembled and how scenes are designed, which this book introduces as well as or better than many another. Personally, I’d be inclined to go for e.g. Wonderbook instead, if you want an introduction to basic structure vocabulary, and you’re not specifically writing screenplays. For most purposes, Wonderbook is more varied and goes deeper than Story.

There are, however, a couple of points — the ideas of expectation gap and of internal subconscious conflict — where I think it’s interesting how those concepts carry over to interactive work.

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Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget (Stant Litore)

Characters.jpgWrite Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget is actually the first in Stant Litore’s writing series, though I looked at the one on worldbuilding first. It is even slimmer — about a hundred pages in a relatively small-format paperback — and makes for a fast read.

Though very different in form, shape, and style, it reminded me a bit of Lajos Egri’s approach. Litore asks us first about our character’s core strength, a characteristic that will enable them to face down some difficult situation and overcome it. Everything else — both their problems and the solutions to those problems — flow from that strength; just as in Egri’s view of drama, every situation and characterization has to flow from demonstrating the narrative premise.

As in Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget, Litore provides a series of linked exercises for the reader, focused on brainstorming outward from these issues. After the initial task of looking at core strengths, he goes on to build up the reader’s skill in observation. There are exercises on noticing and recording physical sensations associated with emotion, and on developing dialogue style. Ultimately, Litore covers some of the same territory you might see in a more checklist-like approach to building a character bible, but the way he develops the priorities is important. It starts with the things that are likely to matter the most in creating a compelling story, and then allows the details to hang from those.

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Save the Cat (Blake Snyder)

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Save the Cat is one of those screenwriting books, like Robert McKee’s Story, that you can’t help running into if you’re looking at writing advice at all. The title refers to the idea that you must establish your protagonist in a movie with some sympathetic action. There are a lot of musts in this book. Snyder is telling you specifically how to write a three-act, 110-page movie script that fits a Hollywood formula of a few years back — down to which pages of the script should feature major events and reversals; how many beats should appear within each act; and how the hero should be feeling at the midpoint of the movie.

He explains that the heroes ought to be in their 20s at the latest because Men Under 25 are the most coveted viewing demographic. He does not overtly say they should be white, but that assumption is I think implicit. The book is a few years old; after Black Panther and Get Out and Crazy Rich Asians and so on, perhaps Snyder would now have something different to say about representation.

In any case, the book is largely about formula — and a formula much more genre-bound than my nemesis The Hero’s Journey. Snyder has very little to say about theme, other than to acknowledge that you probably should have one and mention it early in your screenplay. He has not much to say, either, about developing characters or about representing personal truths. He doesn’t very much care what the substance of your work might be. This book is about how to package it, how to make it accessible to audiences in a format that is familiar to them and that will help them quickly understand the emotional landscape.

So if this is mainly formula for a different medium and different market from games, does it have anything to offer?

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Writing for Video Games (Steve Ince)

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Writing for Video Games by Steve Ince came out in 2006. It’s primarily directed at a skilled writer from other media who is considering a move to video games, so it includes a bunch of introductory material about how games are different and what game genres exist (2006-inflected and a bit simplified). Elsewhere, he introduces concepts like story bibles and character profiles, and warns about the challenges of working with a large team. For people seeking these tips about how to work functionally in a game industry team, though, I’d recommend more recent resources like Evan Skolnick’s Video Game Storytelling.

I’m not sure that, if I were a novelist encountering this book, I would be terribly encouraged by the prospect of moving into games writing. Ince warns the prospective writer that interactive narrative is always secondary to gameplay in all types of game, and also indicates that typical games aren’t very well written.

On narrative structure, he tends to be a bit absolutist — that branching narrative is “impossible to create” as “the resources needed to offer all these possibilities would be beyond the budget of even the largest game”. He does suggest some of the traditional alternatives, but the usual narrative structure resources (Ashwell on CYOA, Salience/QBN discussion) cover more territory.

The discussion of dialogue similarly focuses on the need to use variables and if-conditions, fairly basic concepts without a dive into the more systematic ways of handling this kind of information. This probably is helpful if the writer has never had to think about branching and dependencies before — and Ince does elsewhere talk about things like avoiding repeated dialogue, not reusing your punchlines in a comedy, etc. — but it’s not the place to look for guidance in new ways to design and organize interactive dialogue.

Ince also has a tendency to withdraw into general advice (meet your deadlines, make your story and gameplay line up, talk frequently to the development team, listen to the testers). This advice is typically correct but a bit basic.

Overall: not a terrible set of guidelines for its intended audience, but it’s brief, introductory, and now a bit dated (hardly its fault — I’m the one who decided to make as comprehensive a survey as I could).

Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget (Stant Litore)

51v0a2EYVGL.jpgI’ve written already about some of the world building books I’ve worked with in the past. Stant Litore‘s Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget is relatively new — published late 2017. It’s not a game writing book specifically, but is meant for anyone in the speculative fiction space. It’s also quite compact, about a hundred and fifty pages, and meant to be used, with a sequence of exercises for the reader. More than that, even though it’s a book about world-building, it’s focused on the plot and character implications of what you’re doing:

This book treats worldbuilding as a process for conflict and exerting pressures on your characters. Unforgettable characters live unforgettable stories that are made necessary and possible by unforgettable worlds they are trying to survive and thrive in.

So though this is a book for writers and not for interactivity, it’s bringing in some of the same worldbuilding motives as a tabletop game like Downfall.

In addition, Litore immediately identifies two approaches to worldbuilding: the Tolkien approach, where you start at the ground level in some particular area. And he correctly points out that this is even more difficult than most people give credit for:

It is theoretically possible for you to create an unforgettable imaginary world in the same way that JRR Tolkien did if you have an advanced education or deep training in one particular field relevant to worldbuilding, plus an inquisitive mind that is always asking questions about how your area of expertise informs and is informed by others. For example, if you are a gifted economist, you might begin building a world from the ground up if you start by designing a unique and detailed, though fictional economy…  This kind of deep dive is rare because it requires more than just a “research phase” to inform a novel or screenplay. It relies on committed, dedicated expertise and conversation with other experts in that area of knowledge.

I found that pretty interesting because of my own interest in the idea of research art — but also a strong argument for why not all worldbuilding on all projects needs to go the Tolkien route. And certainly most of mine doesn’t.

Instead, Litore recommends the approach of inserting an importantly different detail in each of three areas: the physical conditions of a world and the requirements of surviving there; the biology and the creatures who live there; and the culture that persists there. He then devotes several chapters to unpacking each of these techniques.

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Video Game Writing From Macro to Micro (Marek Walton / Maurice Suckling)

videogamewritigVideo Game Writing from Macro to Micro. This book bills itself as “four books in one,” and this is not wrong. Part I covers a history of games with a focus on story and storytelling. Part II concerns day-to-day concerns of game writing as a career — the fact that Part II starts with briefs, contracts, non-disclosure agreements gives some idea of the granularity and the focus on the nuts and bolts of doing business as a freelance games writer. Part III, “Beyond the Basics,” backs out again and looks at the theoretical basis of the discipline — why should games have stories? — as well as craft considerations like how we fill a story world with dramatic potential. And Part IV, the briefest and most varied section, pulls together statements from working game writers about what their job is, how it functions, and what the lifestyle is like.

The summary in Part I goes from the 70s, with Colossal Cave, through a year or two ago, landing on Her Story and Until Dawn. It’s a good overview, though most titles get no more than a paragraph or two, and the book is mostly interested in setting up some sense of market context, genre, and the major strengths, innovations, or weaknesses of each title. It doesn’t particularly dig into individual games to take apart how they worked as instances of narrative design. People who are already pretty familiar with the game industry and game history may find this to be largely review.

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