The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design (Dille/Platten)

Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 1.02.03 PM.pngThe Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design (Flint Dille and John Zuur Platten). This one is a few years old — first printing 2007, it looks like — but it’s still selling healthily on Amazon. Dille and Platten are pragmatic about what they do: commercial work for which they’re hired and which require a number of soft skills beyond simply being able to write. In the introduction, they describe themselves as craftsmen rather than artists — a point about which I actually have some sympathy — and a good bit of the book consists of introducing the essential facts about how video games are made. (Or were made in 2007, at any rate. But there’s a lot here that’s still true.)

In contrast with Skolnick’s book, Dille and Platten dive right in to narrative structure questions in an early chapter: they talk about “limited branching” and “critical path” structures that would correspond with gauntlet or friendly-gauntlet structures; “funneling narrative” which is essentially branch-and-bottleneck; and “open-ended,” which seems to mean “a story in which the designer hasn’t really planned for CYOA structure at all and the result is a time cave or an unfinishable mess.” They also include “nodal” stories where short stories or quests are organized around in-game locations.

In other places, they’re (like Skolnick) providing standard writing advice you’d find in any how-to-write-a-novel guide, translated into game contexts: the need for (and types of) conflict, establishing and raising stakes; the gameplay version of “show don’t tell,” which is “play don’t show”. In fact it probably pairs pretty well with Skolnick’s book; each covers a slightly different part of this arena.

From there, much of the rest of the book is about process: processes that support concept development, processes of communication, processes of getting hired and getting paid.

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Nocked! True Tales of Robin Hood (Andrew Schneider)

title screen.jpgOut today for iOS is Nocked, a Robin Hood adventure story by Andrew Schneider, which ran a successful Kickstarter back in December. Here’s the blurb:

Rob from the rich and give to the poor, cross swords with the Sheriff of Nottingham, and above all, lead Sherwood through the turning of the seasons and into a new age.

By your actions, gain gold, renown, followers, and even a measure of grace. Then spend those resources to fortify your forest home, accomplish special missions, and change the course of Sherwood’s destiny. Will you save your plundered gold to rebuild the walls of your home, or send it to the poor and dispossessed to increase your renown and attract Merry Men to your cause? And what of the rising bounty on your head?

Consider your choices carefully, for the consequences of your actions are not always readily apparent. For better or ill, in ways both small and large, you will change the course of history.


In story terms, Nocked! shares some of the features of a Choice of Games piece: it starts at the beginning of Robin’s career as an outlaw and allows the player to build up his (or her) resources and personality, then play out subsequent adventures. And rather like a Choice of Games work, Nocked! advertises itself on the strength of its size and massively branching narrative: more than 400K words! Five distinct backstory options! Fifty possible endings!

iPhone Nocked Knight Screen

Note the “Remaining Daylight: Sunset” feature at the bottom of the screen.

The “true tales” subtitle or title extension might seem to suggest that this is going to be a particularly historically accurate rendition of Robin Hood. It’s… really not. Early in your adventures you may encounter a unicorn, a talking wolf, the Sheriff of Nottingham’s mystically enormous hounds, and/or a lesson in archery-related spell-casting. Likewise, the game lets you be the long-lost heir to the throne of England whether or not you’re male (and there are other male contenders; this isn’t a Queen Elizabeth kind of situation).

Gold, men, and renown accrue when you do useful or clever things (or, like, steal stuff); you can then spend these again to get out of problematic situations. Meanwhile, certain chapters of the story have their own special timing stats: for instance, you can be wandering in the woods and have an indicator at the bottom of the screen of how much daylight time you have remaining — a reminder of your current limits and constraints.

All this makes sense to a degree, though I found myself bothered by the use of Robin’s men as an expendable stat, especially given how freely the resource is given out in play. One of the very first actions I took gained me something like 55 men; another action took away 80 again. Maybe this makes sense as a representation of how frequently the player is expected to be deploying manpower, but it felt dissonant with the fiction when it happened — partly because it’s hard to imagine suddenly accruing 50-odd followers without significant effort, and partly because the protagonist’s easy-come, easy-go attitude to said followers made it hard to believe in him as a legendary leader.

The storytelling is packed with event — battles, fires, chases, magic lessons, unicorn sightings, ambushes in narrow ravines, misplaced royalty — and the writing is rather less concerned with developing a coherent personality for the protagonist. The prose style is sometimes actively clunky:

A horse with a sparkling horn that rises from its forehead grazes on a nearby hilltop.

It’s not mostly quite so awkward about its noun phrases, nor so Lisa Frank in its imagery — I’ve cherrypicked. But I did sometimes feel that the whole thing was creaking a bit under the strain of those 400,000 words, which perhaps did not have time to be thoroughly edited.

What you get in exchange is a huge amount of narrative consequence for your choices. I played a good bit, but I haven’t talked much about the plot because I can’t be sure that your plot experience will be anything like mine.

Nocked! is built in an engine that brings Twine to mobile (not, I should add, the only such engine — there are other commercial IF games that are Twine under the skin). This variant displays mostly text, but with a strip of illustration at the top to establish setting, and a menu / status bar area at the bottom. I thought this worked pretty well, while keeping the majority of the screen for the text.

Mailbag: Choice of Aesthetics

A while back, you alluded to the aesthetic preferences cultivated by Choice Of Games and their writers.  Is this written down or codified somewhere?  Is there a critical discussion?   Have you written about it?

There’s a lot of advice and material codified for people who are actually working for them, on their website. An obvious starting point would be their three-part series about how they judge good games: 1 2 3

It’s also probably worth looking at their ideas about structure, which covers branch-and-bottleneck (or what they call “stack of bushes”) design, delayed consequence, and stats deployment. Endgames specifically are covered in this post.

Sam Ashwell’s review of Cannonfire Concerto talks about how that work does/does not align with Choice of norms, and there are a few other (admittedly fairly offhand) observations in his review of Hollywood Visionary.

Overall, I’d characterize their preferences like this:

  • a highly customizable protagonist who at a bare minimum can be any gender and romance any gender, but who might also embody many other possible variations
  • a tendency towards bildungsroman, so that the protagonist’s definition can be incorporated into the storytelling, and because the whole brand was inspired by the game Alter Ego; many of their works start with an education and training period
  • less focus on prose style: their structure allows for more verbose writing between choices than inkle or Failbetter, and the undercharacterization of protagonists often precludes using a strong narrative viewpoint
  • an emphasis on plot consequence (you did this and as a result the company failed) over internal or emotional consequence
  • a tendency (though not an absolute rule) in favor of interchangeable characters
  • riffing on core conventions of existing genres (though this is something where they’ve matured over the years, I think — but early pieces sometimes felt focused on “what if we took this standard trope set and then explored the consequence trees possible within it”)

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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IF Comp open, and the Colossal Fund

ifcompIt is the time of year when IF Comp opens intents for new entries — meaning that if you’re an author and want to release a game as part of the October/November competition, you may now sign up.

This year, there’s a new feature: an organized initiative to fundraise prize money, together with running costs for the IF Technology Foundation. In past years, cash prizes for the comp have depended on the generosity of individual donors; usually they’ve ranged from $250-$400 as a top prize down to $15 or so, and usually there’s only been enough for the top-placing authors to receive any financial reward for participating. (The supply of other interesting prizes typically lasts quite a lot further down the list — but those aren’t all equally useful to the potential winners.)

Given that Comp placement tends to feel a little bit arbitrary, and authors are sometimes separated only by a very small score difference, it feels a little unfair to have a really steep drop-off in rewards. And often really novel or experimental work places not in the top three (that position tends to go more to crowd-pleasers), but somewhere in the top 15-20.

The fundraiser aims to help address some of those issues. The money raised will be distributed to the top 2/3 of authors, with a minimum prize of $10. If the fundraiser reaches its target, the top prize will be over $300, but the drop-off will be pretty shallow, with prizes above $100 for everyone down to 19th place. (The math of this is… highly specific. If you’re curious, check out the explanatory blog post.)

And what about the percentage donated to the IFTF? That goes to IFTF running costs. The IF Technology Foundation supports infrastructure for both the comp itself and the IF Archive, as well as sponsoring initiatives to improve accessibility in IF tools, and assisting to provide resources for Twine.

End of June Link Assortment


July 1, IF Comp 2017 opens for intents-to-enter.

The British Library is running an Interactive Fiction Summer School as a weeklong course in July, with multiple instructors from a variety of different interactive narrative backgrounds. More information can be found at the British Library’s website.

First round voting in the XYZZY Awards for 2016 is open through July 4. If you liked some games that came out last year, you may vote to nominate that work now; the second round of voting will choose between the nominees. You may nominate up to two games in each category; you may not vote for your own work. There are no special requirements to be eligible to vote, though you should read the rules (as always).

July 19, the London IF Meetup gets together to talk about writing IF for money.

IntroComp is under new management but is still running this year, an opportunity to share the opening section of an IF piece with players and get feedback. Intents to enter are accepted through end of day today, with the intros themselves to be due July 31. This year for the first time the comp accepts an excerpt that might come from somewhere other than the beginning of the game.

August 14-17, Cape Cod, MA is the Foundation of Digital Games conference, including a workshop in procedural content generation. The PCG workshop has a theme this year:

What do our generators say about the underlying systems we have designed and the designers who create them?  Our theme aims to explore the biases inherent in PCG and the potential with which to subvert it.

Registration will continue to be available through August, but the ticket price goes up to “late registration” rates on July 4, so participants will save $100 by booking before that deadline.

New Releases

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Sub-Q has Footnotes in Ashes, a new piece by Jeremy M. Gottwig about grief and loss; the memories keep intruding on the main text through clickable footnote links.

Articles and More-than-Articles

This article describes the recovery of original Magnetic Scrolls data, with a lot of careful manipulation of the original backup tapes.

Oliver Lee Bateman writes for the Paris Review about the proportion of story in games.

Aaron Reed’s dissertation is now available online. Entitled “CHANGEFUL TALES: DESIGN-DRIVEN APPROACHES TOWARD MORE EXPRESSIVE STORYGAMES,” it looks at a range of approaches in his own work and other people’s, including highly procedural projects like Façade, Prom Week, Redshirt, Siboot, and Versu; “sculpture fiction,” which would include quality-based narrative approaches such as StoryNexus but also Aaron’s own 18 Cadence and Ice-Bound Concordance; and collaborative storygames, both tabletop and digital, including attention to the work of Dietrich Squinkifer.


Chris Crawford has written an Encounter Editor to go with his prototype Storytron project; he very much hopes that people will use it to contribute content to his story world. I wrote more about this earlier in the month, and Crawford himself replied to that post.

Bruno Dias has released a major upgrade to Improv, his procedural text engine.


This is a few months old, but here’s Chris Klimas introducing Twine for novices, and also giving a little background on interactive fiction.


Here are some recommendations of escape room games you can play at home, as opposed to the kind you have to go out to visit.