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Game Writing 68

Posted by samzenpus
from the more-capes-and-spaceships dept.
Aeonite writes "Billed as the 'first complete guide to writing for games', Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames provides an excellent overview of the ins-and-outs of writing for the videogame industry. As might be expected from a publication of the IGDA's Game Writers' Special Interest Group, the book is dense with information, addressing everything from high-level narrative theory to the specifics of dialogue engine design and game localization." Read the rest of Aeonite's review.
Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames
author Chris Mark Bateman
pages 336
publisher Thomson Delmar Learning
rating 9
reviewer Aeonite
ISBN 1584504900
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.
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Game Writing

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  • by stoolpigeon (454276) * <bittercode@gmail> on Wednesday January 31, 2007 @04:33PM (#17832190) Homepage Journal
    It is almost 20 bucks cheaper at Amazon [amazon.com]. It has a four star average review there.
     
        (that's an associates link. if that is a problem, don't click on it.)
  • by ivan256 (17499) on Wednesday January 31, 2007 @04:37PM (#17832246)
    Billed as the 'first complete guide to writing for games', Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames [...]

    That's funny.. The copy of "Borland Turbo C++ 3.0 Games" that I bought in 1993 claims right on the cover to be a "Complete guide to writing video games [...]".
  • by Anonymous Coward
    I can't believe anybody would specialize in this. Based on the games I've played this could be the perfect career choice for writers who lack any and all basic literacy skills (eg: slashdot editors). Another 10 years and the RAMBO script is going to be hailed as Shakespearian.
    • by Miniluv (165290) on Wednesday January 31, 2007 @05:51PM (#17833684) Homepage
      How shocking that the majority of anything is crap. The majority of books written are crap, as are the majority of television shows and movies. At least in my opinion. Hell, the majority of SHAKESPEARE is crap. He wrote a dozen fantastic plays, one hundred and fifty odd brilliant sonnets, and a whole heaping pile of cow shit smeared on parchment.

      Also, don't knock the original Rambo. Just because the subsequent movies were over the top action flicks with little merit aside from their entertainment value does not mean that the original movie was not a solid screenplay as well as a solid film. It is easy to forget today that Rambo really broadened the action genre, allowing for a developing embrace of the anti-hero who transitions to actual hero by virtue of bucking the system. It also explored the treatment of a segment of the American population when they returned home from an unpopular conflict with personal demons that we as a society demanded they lock away.
    • Perhaps the point of specializing in game writing is to raise standards and introduce literary skills into a field that lacks them.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Sciros (986030)
      I wholeheartedly agree. The quality of game storylines and dialogue is currently a couple of notches below that of DC/Marvel monthly comics, which is quite pathetic. Even the generally-agreed-upon-being-great story and dialogue of Baldur's Gate 2, when compared to more traditional forms of literature, simply isn't very good.

      Games do have issues to deal with that make things hard for writers -- pacing, interactivity, multiple plot progressions, etc. But I do think that when there are *professionals* in the
      • by _|()|\| (159991)
        The quality of game storylines and dialogue is currently a couple of notches below that of DC/Marvel monthly comics, which is quite pathetic.

        I'm not ready to award a Pulitzer to a comic book yet, but I would say that Bruce Jones (Incredible Hulk) and Brian Michael Bendis (Ultimate Spider-Man, Alias, Powers) have done some good work for Marvel lately. Having picked up some of the Marvel compilations on CD-ROM, I have to say that the new generation has far surpassed Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

    • by MrDomino (799876)
      Now, that's not entirely fair. Deus Ex, for instance, had an amazing story written by some [nuwen.net] brilliant [sheldonpacotti.com] people [7crows.com].
  • "Game Documentation Writing"

    Read the manual for a game released in the past couple of years? They typically consist of 20-30 pages of three things:

    How to install the game (duh)
    How the main menu works
    How the main game screen works

    If you're lucky, it might tell you a few things like information on specific weapons or units. But maybe not all of them.

    How about giving me a comprehensive list of hotkeys? Or an explanation of all the features of online play? Do you think maybe you could mention something about po
    • by Skadet (528657)
      Don't forget the epilepsy warnings, repetitive stress warnings, ergonomic tips, very long legal disclaimer, and credits!

      Oh wait, how do you actually *play* the game? That's not what a manual's for!
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by SlimSpida (850632)
      I worked on Company of Heroes. For several reasons (localization, print lead times) publishers need to lock down manuals several months before the game goes gold. Since games often go through changes right up the very end, the manual will often be outdated by the time the game ships, and plenty of critical information ends up in the readme, or worse, a patch.
      • by PFI_Optix (936301)
        They left out crucial information on playing as Germans. The *only* way to learn how that faction works is to start up a skirmish and experiment with it.
  • by creimer (824291) on Wednesday January 31, 2007 @04:52PM (#17832540) Homepage
    On how to translate Japanese into really bad English [wikipedia.org] successfully the first time.
  • by stoolpigeon (454276) <bittercode@gmail> on Wednesday January 31, 2007 @04:55PM (#17832596) Homepage Journal
    Whereas Hollywood has a fairly standard screenplay format that's fairly easy to work with,
     
    that's why so many movies suck.
     
      Microsoft Excel is one of the more useful tools when writing for games; one would not generally associate spreadsheets with narrative flow.
     
    that's why so many games suck
    • by Korvar (937226)
      At the risk of giving a serious reply to a funny post, the "fairly standard screenplay format" in Hollywood refers to the physical format - the typeface, character spacing, specific formatting for different sections (dialogue, character names, action description, location specifiers) and so forth. A sort of standardisation of information delivery protocols, if you will. This means that an aspiring screenwriter will know how they are meant to present their stories; presumably this is contrasted with the ga
  • Developers always spend a lot of time worrying about the technical aspects of Game Writing. In fact, coding is the easy part. Storytelling, the art of making us care about the game play and become engaged in the story, is the central problem. Although developers spend most of their time learning how to make cool graphics, they should learn how to tell a good story.

    For example, Gather.com is running a novel writing contest right now. First prize is $5,000.00 and publication by Simon & Schuster. The cent

    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Although developers spend most of their time learning how to make cool graphics, they should learn how to tell a good story.

      No, it is the developers job to present a good story well. Just like a director to a movie. But it is not their job to write the story. That is the writers job. Except if you are one of those indie game developers where you pretty much do both.
    • "Developers always spend a lot of time worrying about the technical aspects of Game Writing. In fact, coding is the easy part. Storytelling, the art of making us care about the game play and become engaged in the story, is the central problem."

      I would say gameplay is the most important aspect of a game. You can have a wonderful story, but that doesn't mean it's going to make a great game. Even if you think storytelling is the most important part, that doesn't make coding "the easy part". It may be true tha
    • by guaigean (867316) on Wednesday January 31, 2007 @05:40PM (#17833478)
      Developers always spend a lot of time worrying about the technical aspects of Game Writing. In fact, coding is the easy part.

      Do you have any idea how arrogant that statement is? Not to be a troll, but I can't count the number of times Liberal Art majors in College tried to act holier than thou because they experienced the "symbolism" of a story, and felt it was so much more important than science or math.

      Yes, I realize that storytelling is important to games as well, but don't try to act like "coding is the easy part". Most people don't even stop to read the text in these games, particularly MMORPG's. More realistically, people tend to care about their level, their gear, and how quickly they can kill another player. Don't try to marginalize the skill and dedication of programmer's just because you FEEL that the story is harder to write than the code.
      • I've won several awards for my Neverwinter Nights modules [adamandjamie.com]. These were all coded and written almost completely by myself. In all honesty, both the writing and the coding are equally challenging for me, in different ways. I'm a long-time programmer, so I can whip up some code pretty easily, though debugging and understanding the inner mysteries of the game engine is often challenging. Being able to consistently write good dialog and maintain focus on key plot themes can also be quite difficult.

        For me,
      • guaigean, I have been a software developer for around 11 years. I make my living writing code. When you make code, you are solving a problem whose outline and parameters are defined. You are "solving" a problem. Writing code is not that hard. In writing the story, the parameters are not decided. You must create both the problem and its solution. Creative work such as writing is infinitely more complex than writing code. And I'm not some foofy English major. I know code. I'm not talking about theme b
    • Although developers spend most of their time learning how to make cool graphics, they should learn how to tell a good story.
      In most games nowadays, except for small development shops, the two tasks are done by different people. Cool graphics are made by developers (engine coders) and artists. Telling a good story is done by game designers and dialogue writers.
      • Telling a good story is done by game designers and dialogue writers.
        I should perhaps amend that to, "telling a story is done by game designers and dialogue writers". Telling a good story in a game is done by no one (usually).
    • by Xenoliths (966439)
      If I had points I'd give you some for your generally great post. However, I thought the 5 act structure was imposed on Shakespeare's plays by later publishers. The excellent book by Mark Rose, Shakespearean Design, reveals a more sophisticated structure in the plays that is obscured by the (somewhat arbirtrary) 5 act demarcation. I'd go into an example, but I don't have the book next to me... I think its the finest book I've ever read about Shakespeare and also on dramaturgy and dramatic structures... a
      • I read a book called "Shakespeare's Plots" and that's where my information came from. I will agree that Shakespeare did not ever say his plots were designed like that. We inferred it. I also think there will in infiite set of variations on the topic as we, in essence, dissect the workings of Shakespeare's brain.

        Glad you liked the post. Please now go and vote for my novel at Gather.com

        The Butcher of Leningrad [gather.com]

        thank you,

        Tom

  • 1. Hire either Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, or Morgan Freeman to narrate
    2. ???
    3. Profit!
  • Too bad videogames are still limited by the versatility of their prewritten scripts. You either have to have a bunch of mute whores (GTA) or a lot of very obsessive task-oriented people NPCs. "I really think we should get back to the mission." "I hardly think this is a time to be fooling around." "Stop touching me!"
    • I admit it's been a long, long time since I've played any non-arcade style games so my comments may be obsolete, but the central puzzle of these adventure-style games seems to be to guess what the game designer was thinking at the time. Wouldn't it be great if you could solve problems in ways that the writers never anticipated? Or are there games that really allow that today and I just don't know about them?
      • We've strayed onto Level Design from Game Plot writing. I'll touch on both. Fortunately for the game writers, although solving problems in unique ways is becoming more mainstream, the script doesn't need to worry much about this. That's because the nature of the plot just needs to set up why your character needs to complete that goal. Oh, your princess is captured? Well you need to get into that castle and save her. The galactic counsel has been infiltrated by a Sith Lord? Well you'd better sneak thr
        • "if you could imagine a game with an infinite number of interactive elements (down to the chemical composition), you could claim there MUST be a solution to the problem, then the programmer's job would be done, and could just write your character to get locked in a solid steel room in a straight jacket, and say, "There's a way out, in theory."

          That's pretty much exactly what I imagined, but I'm sure it's not that easy to implement. Back "in the day", all we had to worry about was getting the big, fat pixels
          • Oh don't worry, I'm arguing that this is totally infeasible, and if anybody wanted to play a game that open-ended, they should turn to reality for their fix.
        • We've strayed onto Level Design from Game Plot writing.

          I disagree. Problems and solutions are narrative devices, hence part of the plot. To try to state that this is level design, not plot, is to suggest that the plot only exists in the cutscenes between levels.

          HAL.

          • I guess I was drawing a distinction between dialogue-requiring plot and puzzle-solving plot. Sure, a level can be full of lots of small puzzles, but they're mostly things like "get over there" where you might HEAR more DIALOGUE, that might tell you where you have to go next, thus justifying the next puzzle. The plot is then like the information-justified goal, and the gameplay is overcoming the obstacles imbetween.:

            I can't wait to get this book, they must touch on all of this.
    • by Skadet (528657)

      "I hardly think this is a time to be fooling around." "Stop touching me!"
      Huh, sounds strangely like a number of young ladies I used to date. . . .
  • 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

  • The problem with lots of games, but not all, is that the formula is either "Choose Your Own Adventure" oriented, where your actions have profound and unpredictable consequences, often with no rhyme or reason, or the story lines are fixed as you advance through the adventure, with too little interaction, just little movies. There has to be a better model.
  • by tfbastard (782237) on Wednesday January 31, 2007 @05:43PM (#17833532)
    An evil
    [ ] wizard
    [ ] dragon
    [ ] robot

    is threatening
    [ ] a princess
    [ ] a prince
    [ ] an island inhabited by ewok-esque creatures

    as the
    [ ] son
    [ ] daughter
    [ ] best man

    it is your duty to
    [ ] club everything in your path
    [ ] collect money
    [ ] get lost in dungeons
    [ ] all of the above
    • Don't forget. The main character has to either have amnesia, woken up from a coma, has been destined to be greater than what his/her upbringing by his foster parent would suggest, or has a "dark past."
  • Is says "videogames" right there in the book title, why was it dropped in the Slashdot headline? Last time I checked, you didn't need to consider voice actors for a typical card game. Videogames are a sub-set of games -- not the entire set!
    • by f_raze13 (982309)
      However, the only writing you need to do for a card game would be the instructions, so that's hardly worth mentioning.
      • by Kris_J (10111) *
        There's the cards as well. Not every card game uses a standard 52-card deck. Then there's a heap of graphical design, getting the cards printed and packaged (including writing and designing what's going to be on the box/packaging) and distributed, writing advertising copy, press releases. And contacting stores and chains to actually sell the thing. Display boxes don't design themselves either. Plus there's the potential for new rules with the existing cards. And I've probably missed at least a dozen o
  • As long as most people don't really care much either way, there's no incentive for game writing to rise above the level of a bad fantasy or sci-fi novel. You can sell a game on great gameplay or great graphics, but it's pretty tough to sell it on great writing alone.

    It doesn't help that the people who do seem to care about game writing tend to have rather indiscriminate taste. Every time someone says "the plot of Metal Gear Solid is better than any action movie" (or, worse, "Xenogears has a great story"),
  • I hope this book helps out the video game writing situation, but most video games still have better writing than the movie referenced in this post's title.

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