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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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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Stats and Narrator Viewpoint

coglogo2.pngI’ve written a few times before about handling stats in ChoiceScript games, and making particular choices available. But in writing my own WIP, I also wanted to make sure that the story felt distinctly different if the player gave the protagonist a different personality — not just in terms of which choices they were able to make (or make successfully), but also in terms of the inner narrative.

With that in mind, I set for myself the following (silly) goal: when I ran randomtest, after the very first segment of play, none of the narrative output should be repeated across more than 4000 of the randomized playthroughs. That means that

  • many plot beats are reached only on 1/3 playthroughs (or fewer)
  • those plot beats that do occur every playthrough are narrated in at least three different ways, depending on the player’s stats and relationships

This speaks more to the fiction than to the mechanics, but the aim was to make the moment-to-moment texture of the story feel malleable, not just the plot structure.

This was also a good time to do more with the extreme ends of my choice spectrum: as discussed previously, I wanted to give some acknowledgement to players who managed to work their way into the top (or bottom) 10-15% of particular stat ranges, because that demonstrated a commitment to playing a particular way and should probably be understood as representing more deliberate agency than other approaches. So a lot of my alternate narration is designed to capture those high-end or low-end variations in how people view the world.

As I’ve often found before, it often enriches an interactive fiction to approach that story with some mechanical disciplines in mind.

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Mailbag: High-Agency Narrative Systems

Today’s mailbag entry (at the request of the submitter, anonymized and edited a little) gets into the question of how to create salience and quality-based narratives and other similar games, given that typically one has to build one’s own.

What I keep getting drawn toward on a personal level is your work–and other people’s work too–on procedural narrative generation. I have enough knowledge of coding to understand states and modeling systems and when to move from one to another on a conceptual level, but at this point I could not make one in any language or engine. I think this is something I would like to learn to do more of...

Obviously I’ll need to learn a language from the ground up. That’s fine. I suppose I’m asking what would be most helpful to focus on–not just in terms of C# or Ruby or Python–but other skills as well… most of my questions/interests are about event generation, procedural chains of causality, etc.

Further discussion with the asker indicated they are talking about the kind of quality-based and salience-based narrative systems I wrote about in the article Beyond Branching; this RockPaperShotgun column about Alcyone also gets into some detail about the state of play in this space.

Systems like this can achieve a combination of player freedom and agency that is hard to reach in CYOA or any other node-based system (I would include ChoiceScript here): there are often dozens of viable choices available.

Meanwhile, because you’re not tied to a specific simulation concept (like the standard parser IF world model), you can adjust the qualities of your QBN to the particular needs of this work. Track your protagonist’s health, her interest in opera, her sense of humor, her tolerance for pain; track her relationships with each of a dozen friends, or a dozen aspects of her relationship with one friend.

On the other hand, the tooling and the design abstractions in this space are not nearly as advanced as they are for parser IF or CYOA/hypertext/stats-based IF, so if you want to work with it, you probably have to build your own.

That’s a topic that could take a number of articles, and there isn’t as much writing in this space to point to as in the parser space.

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Mailbag: Writing for Versu

g_ending_2@craigtimpany writesYou’ve covered Versu’s architecture, but I’m curious what that was like to write for… In particular I’ve been wondering how very non linear tools affect a writer’s flow.

For those just joining, Craig is asking about Versu, a system focused on agent-driven narrative. Versu and the games made with it are no longer available, but there’s information available about the system, including several papers at the Versu website, and past posts of mine here about the conversation system and about what it was like to convert Galatea to the Versu format.

During the first portion of its development, Versu content was driven through Praxis, the language that specified social practices and truths about the world state. Praxis is very powerful and allows the user extremely detailed control over what is true about the world, and what all the agents want; and the baseline implementation of conversational practices, among others, were written in Praxis. However, writing extensive dialogue in Praxis was essentially wrapping conversational elements in code — a high-friction way to compose, and one that discouraged revision. To address that, we developed a DSL called Prompter. I am not going to re-describe here everything about how that worked, since the attached papers go into detail.

But the core point to know is that, within Prompter, one wrote scenes. Each scene could have some opening text; some parameters about what was allowed to happen in that scene (e.g., “no one dies in this scene, but Veronius is allowed to have sex”); a body of dialogue that can be spoken only in that scene and nowhere else; and then one or more ways that the scene can end.

Using that information, the system would follow its own rules about how conversation and social actions could chain into one another, improvising a particular performance around the scene parameters the writer had set on the page.

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