|Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames|
|author||Chris Mark Bateman|
|publisher||Thomson Delmar Learning|
|summary||an excellent overview of the ins-and-outs of writing for the videogame industry|
When I see that a movie has multiple writers involved, I get a little nervous. It's usually a bad sign, generally indicating that the narrative will be somewhat piecemeal and uneven. As this book has 13 writers and a half-dozen additional subeditors, I was likewise nervous, but I was happy to discover that although each chapter has a different emphasis, the general tone remains steady throughout the book. There's a little more fluff up front, and a little more crunch in the back, but taken as a whole the book maintains a coherent focus. These 13 voices speak in harmony, and adequately cover both the creative and technical aspects of writing for games without any noticeable bumps.
The preface by Chris Bateman explains that a book on videogame writing is difficult to write, as many areas of the industry are still ill-defined. Whereas Hollywood has a fairly standard screenplay format that's fairly easy to work with, the videogame industry offers no single script format, due to the different requirements of different genres and different companies. Personal experience has taught me, for instance, that Microsoft Excel is one of the more useful tools when writing for games; one would not generally associate spreadsheets with narrative flow.
The chief complaint here is that there are no clear examples of great game narratives, with the industry's shining stars falling somewhat below the highest standards of work in other media. My interpretation of this is that Half-Life 2 is less Godfather 2, and more Escape From L.A. — good enough, but not great. According to Bateman, chief culprits for the lack of artistic polish may include the fact that the game industry is so young (compared to radio, television, and movies) and the lack of artistic freedom within the industry.
Worth calling out here is an example of where the industry seems to be falling short. At one point, the book discusses the concept of 'forced failure' in games, and why it's a narrative tactic to be avoided. A good example of this (my own, not the book's) is near the end of the original Half-Life game, which sees Gordon Freeman captured, stripped of all his gear, and dumped in a trash compactor, with the player unable to do anything but watch. Yet Half-Life won numerous Game of the Year awards, and is still considered by many to be one of the best games of all time. The point is not that Half-Life is a bad game for using 'forced failure', but rather that it could have been a a better game if it hadn't resorted to that tactic. In other words, even good games can do better, and this book is a first step towards achieving that goal, by way of establishing a 'coherent narrative language' for games.
The book itself is divided into 14 chapters. The first three can be roughly clustered into a category called Game Narrative, as they all focus on higher-level narrative theory. Chapter 1 provides an overall introduction, defining story, character, and other such terms before delving into what makes game writing unique (as compared to other media) and how a writer uses the tools provided (dialogue, cutscenes, etc.). Chapter 2 covers the Basics of Narrative, including Aristotle's Poetics, Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey, Freytag's Pyramid, Syd Field's Screenplay model, and the other sorts of things we English majors learn in school in lieu of math and science. Extensive discussion of Star Wars: Episode IV and how it maps to these models is provided, along with some coverage of Jungian and Campbellian Archetypes. Chapter 3 is an overview of what's involved with writing for games, covering the difference between narrative and story, types of narrative, pacing, structure, and the concept of player agency.
The next four chapters of the book contain less high-level theory and more specific application. The first two cover the path the character takes through the game, with Chapter 4 being an exploration of Nonlinear Game Narrative (branching structure, parallel paths, and how to merge story and game) and Chapter 5 discussing how to keep the player on track (breadcrumbing, funneling, the "edge of the world", etc.). Chapter 6 covers Game Characters (including types of protagonists, antagonists, and NPCs, and the traits and characteristics thereof), and Chapter 7 deals with the specifics of cutscenes and scripted events, and the dangers of removing player control.
Chapters 8 through 10 see the camera zooming out a bit more to cover the broader concepts of Writing Comedy for Videogames, Writing for Licenses, and The Needs of the Audience, respectively. Of the three, the last is the crunchiest, covering specific demographic data and the issues of gender, ethnicity and disability as they relate to a game audience.
The final four chapters cover issues specific to videogame writing, and as a whole generally focus on dialogue. The short Chapter 11 deals with Localization issues (translation, lip synching, cultural differences), with Chapter 12 covering Voice Actors more generally, including: a discussion of context, inflection, and emotion; the need to be at the recording session; and other technical considerations. Chapter 13 deals with Interchangeable Dialogue Content, and covers stitching, dialogue driven by game events, and the problems associated with simultaneity, interruptions and inflections. Chapter 14 closes the book on a crunchy note, covering Dialogue Engines in some detail, with many examples of the codelike format involved (dynamic elements, if-then statements, cases and states).
Although it probably goes without saying, this is obviously a book by writers, for writers. The book is very heavy with text, featuring only a very few charts and icons to break up the copy, so as far as layout and flow there's little to complain about aside from some minor inconsistencies, such as the little 'Note' icons which appear in Chapter 3 and nowhere else. Though dense with information, it's fairly easy to find your way around, as the book features an 8-page glossary, 6-page index and a perhaps too-detailed 9-page table of contents. Also worth noting is the copyediting; aside from some very sporadic typographical issues, the book gets an A+ for editing (with Chapter 2 perhaps only an A). Overall, it's hardly worth mentioning, which is always a good thing when it comes to typos.
My biggest complaint with the book is what's not covered. For instance, examples from real games, is billed as a main feature on the back cover, but there could have been more of them, especially with regards to more current games. This is not to say that they're not in there, but certain chapters (particularly those in the book's first third) would have benefited from less Star Wars and more Knights of the Old Republic. It's helpful to be aware of the high-level theory, but this is after all a book about game writing, so more examples from relevant games would be welcome.
I also found myself wishing that the book had devoted a chapter to breaking into the field of videogame writing. Books on other aspects of game design and development typically include such information: I have several on my desk right now that discuss how to create a portfolio and land a job as a Level Designer or Game Designer. Do videogame writers simply spring from the head of Zeus, ready for battle? With this information in place, the book would be a more useful tool to everyone from the pro writer to the complete novice; as it stands, the book is much more helpful to those already in the field. However, wishing that the book covered job entry is, I admit, somewhat akin to wishing that a book on carpentry also included a chapter on lumberjacking. Relevant, but not to be faulted for its absence.
As a whole, the book does what it sets out to accomplish, and provides a good overview of the issues involved in writing for videogames. It's a must-have for anyone in the videogame industry, or anyone who wishes to be.
You can purchase Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.