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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More on Frankenstein Wars

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The premise of The Frankenstein Wars is that the protagonists are involved in a republican war using Frankenstein’s technology to resurrect the dead, creating stitched-together “Lazarans” — not zombies. The Lazarans have a memory of what came before, but sometimes are wearing someone else’s arms and legs: this is a scenario more like extensive organ donation than anything else. Together, they’re fighting against Charles X of France, the last of the Bourbon kings, who in our timeline was ousted in the July Revolution of 1830.

As protagonists, you control two brothers, the sons of Henri Clerval in Frankenstein. Other characters both real and fictional come in as well: Frankenstein’s monster (fictional, we trust); Byron’s brilliant daughter, Ada Lovelace (real, but heavily mythologized here); Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel (fictional); assorted real French political figures. There was something a bit League of Extraordinary Gentlemen about all this, albeit a few decades earlier. The Byron connection is a little twisty given that Byron was friends with the Shelleys, and Mary Shelley had the original idea for Frankenstein while on a trip to Lake Geneva with Byron (and others) in the summer of 1816; so any narrative universe that contains Byron would seem like it ought to include Mary Shelley was well. Mercifully, the story doesn’t wink at the reader about this, just takes it as a baseline fact and rolls on.

It’s not at all necessary to know the relevant history to play. It’s not even particularly necessary to be deeply familiar with Frankenstein, though it’s maybe worth noting that the original idea for the story came from Dave Morris, who did a Frankenstein project with inkle. The actual writing is by Paul Gresty (author of The ORPHEUS Ruse and Metahuman, Inc for Choice of Games).

There are a number of clever or unusual things going on with the interface, and even if it weren’t for its other merits, the game would be worth a look on those grounds alone.

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Ladykiller in a Bind (Christine Love/Love Conquers All)

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Ladykiller in a Bind is an erotic visual novel by Christine Love and co, released last year; it won the IGF Narrative category. Consequently, there’s already quite a lot of commentary about it, especially around its handling of queerness and kink; a late-game scene with dubious consent that bothered some players and that Love ultimately wound up replacing; about mechanics that do not make sex the end goal in itself. Andrew Plotkin wrote up his take on it, and the genre of visual novels in general, as part of his IGF Narrative judging overview.

Plenty of interactive erotica exists — and there’s plenty of demand for it, too, as witness the fact that people searching for interactive sex stories form a sizable portion of my daily blog traffic. They’re probably mostly disappointed, but perhaps this entry will console them a little?

But relatively little of what I’ve encountered is as well-written as Ladykiller in a Bind, particularly when it comes to characterization. As Olivia Wood points out, sex scenes avoid being embarrassing by having something to say beyond “here is a peek at the author’s fantasies.” Ladykiller does that. It uses its sex scenes to communicate who the characters are, and shape their relationships with the protagonist; to talk about honesty, fairness, emotional manipulation, self-image, power exchange, and consent. And sometimes the sex conversation feeds back into dialogue about other things:

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The story is very much a fantasy, with a cast of super-attractive, wealthy, popular just-barely-18-year-olds. And the framing plot is ridiculous: the protagonist is a girl cross-dressing as her twin brother and hoping that none of his friends, enemies, and exes on the ship will notice. Nonetheless, the sex scenes detail emotional states that are relatively rarely shown in media. I don’t just mean the BDSM aspects here, either. There’s a storyline about a character who is relatively inexperienced and also doubts her own attractiveness, who gradually alters what she wants to consent to as she becomes more confident, and this played out quite plausibly.

That’s not to say the game is, or is trying to be, an encyclopedia of all possible sex formats. There are some places it didn’t go, at least during any of my playthroughs: the BDSM scenes I saw delved deeper into the bondage and submission aspects than into the masochism side, for instance. And, unsurprisingly, the scenarios skew towards issues that arise early in a relationship or for relatively inexperienced partners. At one point the older Maid does comment on the comparative immaturity of all the characters — an acknowledgement that would have felt like a lampshade, except that of course these characters are immature. They haven’t had time to become anything else.

But never mind about sex. Let’s talk about conversation mechanics.

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Spring Thing 2017: Balefires Burning

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Balefires Burning is a Twine story about a girl nearing the age of initiation in a village that practices witchcraft. She is in love with a young man who, though not a blood relative, is off-limits for other reasons of clan tradition. The text (as shown) is formatted like poetry, which initially felt a bit self-important, especially when I encountered dialogue arranged that way. This put me off the first time I tried the piece.

On a second try, I got used to the format as I read, and came to see it as representing the narrator’s ritual-inflected perspective on the world, where everything that happens is keyed into traditional practices and calendars. Meanwhile, the writing also accomplishes quite a bit else with its space — communicating the protagonist’s problem, introducing half a dozen or so additional characters, getting us familiar with the setting, suggesting the natural beauty of this world.

The piece feels very influenced by young adult genre fiction (and I notice the game is tagged as “teen fiction”). I found myself wishing for just a bit more edge to the fantasy in a couple of respects.

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All Hope Abandon (Eric Eve)

allhopecoverI’ve been meaning to catch up with All Hope Abandon for years now: back in 2005 when it came out, it pulled down a number of XYZZY nominations (Best Game, Best Story, Best Setting, Best NPCs, Best Individual Puzzle, Best Individual NPC). It’s one of a handful of religiously-themed IF works reputed not to be especially preachy. Eric Eve is a theologian, and his story starts out with the protagonist listening to a stultifying lecture on the relation of the gospels to one another and to the historical Jesus.

From there, the protagonist experiences an ambiguous health event and moves to a surreal allegorical hell-scape. Hell, when you get there, is in the process of being “demythologized,” thanks to trends in theological scholarship. A demon is taking down the lettering over the gate.

Some of the game incorporates lessons about Biblical scholarship into the gameplay proper. The hell section features, among other things, a puzzle on the methods of criticism used to guess which gospel elements likely came from Jewish tradition or backdated early Christian tradition, and which might reflect historical truth. THINK often provides some genuine insights into the current situation, unusually for IF. And much of the game’s setting concerns a contrast between the old way of understanding spirituality — a landscape of angels and demons and lashing chaotic seas — and a more modern way, which is portrayed as even darker and gloomier, mechanized and full of warfare. (There are also other puzzles that are more standard text adventure fare, like trying to find some ink to refill a pen.)

It’s harder — or at least it was harder for me — to say that there’s a consistent message behind all this. I have various thoughts about this, but they’re pretty spoilery, so I will put them after the break. Continue reading