This is a (rough) transcript of a talk delivered at Nottingham Writers’ Studio on Friday 6th November 2015. For completeness, I’ve incorporated some of the questions that were asked at the end into the main text.
Comparing Apples to Oranges
Why Playing, Reading & Writing Games Is Useful To Writers
Before I tell you that, I should talk about my own experience and background regarding games and writing. I did a Creative Writing MA at Nottingham Trent University, where I was mentored throughout my dissertation by the late, great Graham Joyce. At the time, he was working on Doom 4 and encouraged me to think about games writing as a career possibility. I was lucky enough that a small independent studio in Nottingham was looking for someone with a writing background, so while I worked primarily as a producer for them, I was responsible for all aspects of writing from coming up with basic concepts and storylines to writing dialogue for use in game and in promotional videos to marketing copy of various kinds. After that, I went freelance and worked on various indie games projects where I was able to really get stuck in to the business of writing full quests and scripts.
The writer’s job in a games studio is varied and unconventional, but as one of the few creative industries that’s growing rather than struggling, I think it’s essential for writers to embrace it.
So I want to talk to you about how games and books have more similarities than you might imagine, and how you can begin to hone your games writing, or just use some of its techniques and ideas to improve your own writing and increase engagement with your audience.
You’ll note that I’ve said playing, reading and writing games. ‘Reading’ games may seem like an odd term to use, but you’ll see why when I explain some of the games further.
Some Common Misconceptions
“Games don’t have any writing in them!”
When I handed in my notice at my retail job and said I was going to write for videogames, that’s pretty much what my boss said to me. “Players make their own stories!” And I can see why you’d think that if you’d not played many games, or only played a certain type. In fact, there’s still something of that attitude within the industry itself – the misguided notion that story will just happen given enough characters and settings. But you know from writing your own stories that that isn’t really true. It takes work to have a good story and even though the player may not follow all the story cues you’ve left them in the way you want or expect, if the pieces aren’t there for a good story, then even the best player won’t have a good experience.
“Games writing is bad!”
There’s some truth in that, particularly when it comes to big blockbusters (Triple A, as they’re called in games parlance). There are reasons for that, some of which are solvable, others which are largely unavoidable. This includes the fact that many games are upwards of 100 hours long, which makes sustaining a story difficult; the fact that large games may be written by huge teams of writers, some of whom may never meet or see each other’s writing contributions; and the fact that the story may be consumed in a disjointed order, with fragments missing. But there are examples of excellent writing in various games. It’s just rarer for them to be consistently well-written throughout for the various reasons I’ve already mentioned. And, as in all creative industries, there’s a wealth of incredible indie material that doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. I’ll talk more about good examples for you to check out later.
“Writers [of conventional fiction] can’t write for games!”
There does seem to be an attitude in games that you can’t write for games unless you’ve written for games, and I agree with that up to a point. You have to play, understand and respect games in order to be able to write them well. You wouldn’t try to write a book without having read one. (I hope!) But the idea that games writing is something only those from within the industry can understand is simply untrue, especially with the wealth of game creation programs available for free now. (More on those later too.) I think this unwillingness to look outside of the industry for talent is also part of the reason games writing is often bad.
“Only scriptwriters can write for games!”
This arises from the fact that games writers need to have a really solid understanding of structure. There are certainly games where it works well. Naughty Dog are a developer who make very cinematic games with big set pieces and dramatic cut scenes and the benefits of using screenwriters there are obvious. But for non-linear games, I’ve never really understood the avoidance of novelists, because it’s likely a postmodernist writer, for example, would be more likely to have experience conveying meaning through unusual forms than someone who’s primarily written for film or TV.
So, that has you convinced, right? Books and games are one and the same? Well, of course they aren’t, but there are more similarities than you might think, and therefore more transferable skills. I should probably mention at this point that much of this presentation was made in response to the work of Ernest Adams, a games developer and scholar who has done a lot of excellent work on stories in games, so check him out if you want deeper readings of some of this (although be aware I disagree with him on various things!). In all of these examples, the writer’s role within them will be different in books to games largely because game-making is usually collaborative and conventional writing is usually solitary. However, the basic skills and concepts employed remain the same.
Adams had this idea that needing to quickly introduce a player to a world they know nothing about is unique to games. But of course this is true of novels. The Knife of Never Letting Go introduces the world and characters very swiftly in its first line: “The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.” This introduces us to a fantastical world where dogs can talk, conveys the voice of the narrator and implies at least some of what will follow – this is a story about the narrator and his dog.
As mentioned above – aside from solitude vs collaboration, very little difference.
This may be even more crucial in games, but you must ensure in both games and novels that the world you create is consistent and characters don’t violate rules you’ve established early on. For example, if you have a character who is afraid of heights who ends the novel by climbing a mountain and you don’t mention their fear during that climb, your readers aren’t going to think much of that. In games, you have to think about this more, because you may not have a storyline where said vertiginous character climbs the mountain, but you may have an accessible side-quest where the player may take the opportunity to do so, so you’d have to be prepared for that and ensure that appropriate dialogue was triggered if they took up that quest.
To be truly successful as an author, you have to accept that when your book is out in the world, people may not interpret it as you intended. This is not their fault, and if you try to blame your readers, you’re deluding yourself. This is doubly true in games (but possibly also doubly hard to accept.)
This is another point Adams thought was unique to games, but I think isn’t. His argument is that in games, players expect to be able to win and if you deny them that option via narrative, they won’t like the ending. I don’t think games do that well, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. Readers don’t expect their favourite character to ‘win’ but they expect a satisfying conclusion with everything resolved. If a character’s death achieves nothing, they will be just as annoyed as players. If a character in a novel were just to die a few pages from the end and be replaced by another character who then finishes the story for them (as essentially happens in Red Dead Redemption) you’d probably be annoyed with the book!
What’s in it for me?
Okay, fine, so there are similarities between books and games. Why should you care? Firstly, it’s easier than ever to make and release your own text based games.
My experience is that people are far more willing to play a game you’ve made than read a blog or a short story, so if you’d like to try out characters or a scenario and see how readers respond, this is a good way of finding out. Also people are often more willing to feedback, because they don’t perceive it as a story as such (for the reasons I’ve mentioned already!)
Games can be a handy promotional tool, particularly for YA writers. Invite readers into the world of your novel with a brief introductory game. This doesn’t have to mean extra work – use it as an opportunity to hotseat your characters or give yourself a fuller picture of your world.
Games often use second person and it’s good to try now and again because it gets you thinking in a different way – how much to reveal about the character, for instance – how much to leave up to the reader/player to imagine for themselves. Play-testing your own games before you release them provides a much easier way of judging your own work. It’s far easier to say if a game is satisfying than a piece of prose you’ve written, because there’s a greater separation between writing and playing than there is between writing and reading. Finally, returning to a prose project after struggling on a game project makes the prose project seem far easier. You’re no longer dealing with multiple endings and reader-dependent choices. So moving between the two modes of writing can help unblock you if you get stuck.
You’re unlikely to immediately land a permanent job at a big studio, but smaller indies are often looking for reasonably priced freelancers. (And they’re used to paying 3D artists & coders, so their idea of reasonable is probably higher than a lot of employers!)
So – time to do your research!
A beautiful, poetic piece about attempting to live in a culture that glorifies death. It encourages players to draw symbols on their skin as they play in order to feel part of the fantasy world established in the game. All of Porpentine’s hypertexts pieces are lyrical, ethereal works that combine bodyshock horror with magical beauty. She’s also a games developer, so she does more complex stuff than some of us might be capable of, but her games are definitely worth looking to for inspiration.
Lynnea Glasser makes fantastic games that often riff on popular culture, particularly science fiction. Coloratura is (and this is only a partial spoiler) The Abyss told from the alien’s perspective. It’s more ‘gamey’ than Porpentine’s stuff because you have to collect things to progress and learn to understand the alien’s colour-based language, but it’s still wholly text-based. She also has a really beautiful interactive novelette called Creatures Such As We, which is basically about the development of the Mass Effect trilogy. Again, it’s closer to being a game proper than Porpentine’s work, as there’s a relationship system very similar to the one actually used in Mass Effect (which is perhaps unsurprising as she worked on it.) Her website is also an invaluable resource for anyone thinking about writing this kinda thing.
Okay, so technically speaking Telltale isn’t a particularly small or indie studio, but they don’t do big, blockbuster releases. Their titles are relatively small, episodic downloadable games based on books, TV and films. They’re something of an anomaly, because they create Point & Click Games (a genre that had pretty much fallen completely out of fashion) that are tie-ins (a genre that is generally… crap) and yet they’ve been wildly popular. My example here is The Wolf Among Us which is based on the Fables series of graphic novels, but all of their games involve great story and nail-biting decision-making.
Hatoful Boyfriend is a visual novel, a genre very popular in Japan, but more cult over here. Like many story-based games, it’s a dating sim, but unlike most dating sims, your romantic choices are all sentient pigeons. It’s mad and brilliant.
Mass Effect is an incredible space epic. As you’d expect from what is essentially a 90 hour interactive movie, it has its weak moments, but overall it’s a beautiful experience full of humour, sadness and romance. There was a huge outcry over its ending, but I think that’s testament to how good it is overall, because Deus Ex: Human Revolution had virtually the same ending and literally nobody cared.
War games in general and COD in particular are not known for their stories, but MW3 manages to inject some sense of the loss and sacrifice of war into its storyline, in what could otherwise have been a very run of the mill experience. I never played COD because I lack the patience necessary for first person games and dislike the disembodied sensation the format offers – I like to see a character onscreen and know “that is me!” However, I watched my husband play and found myself drawn into the story due to the characterisation of the various soldiers that share the narrative. When one of them dies, it packs a real emotional punch and gives greater meaning to the thousands of enemies that have been gunned down up until that point.
Make Your Own Games!
Creates a visual representation of your branching story. Link boxes by putting their titles in square brackets. Branching stories is simple and you can also add in conditions and inventory items. Eg. [Give $key] and then in another box if player has [$key] then X OR “You don’t have the key!”. Release your creation for free afterwards on Itch.io!
List commands within your text. ChoiceScript allows you a greater number of commands than Twine, for example, allowing players to select a name for their character, that the game will then reference whenever you type the command. You can also do this for gender, descriptive details, anything you can imagine really. It also offers the ability to track more stats (more like D&D) so you can give the player health and dexterity and adjust them according to the choices they make and have a default ‘death screen’ that will pop up automatically if their health reaches 0. As you play through your game, CS will notify you of where bugs are (the name of the file and the line) and it’s generally fairly commonsense as to what you’ve done once you look at them, but should you need more help, CS has extensive user forums. Release for free on their site, or for a more exclusive release, host the files via a fileshare site like dropbox or googledrive.
Finished games, even without any art added in, look beautiful. You can switch between a twine-like view and a CS-like view as you create. The design interface is online, so you can edit from anywhere and don’t have to do any downloading or uploading to test (which you do in the other two). The only downside I’ve found is it’s harder to find errors in it than in the others, but I haven’t spent as much time practising it as with the others, so it may become clearer as you move along. The other slight problem I found is as the others have been around far longer, there are a lot more fan-made resources relating to their usage. However, that’s bound to change too, because Inklewriter have already had a hugely successful mobile game called 80 Days, which you should play!