Monday, April 14, 2014

Depending On How You Write...

"I am sharing my views on how I would go about writing for video games. This is to the best of my knowledge and this is my most sincere way of looking at the writing process, so if any professionals reading this are wondering about certain things, you know how to contact me."
-Steven Vitte

Many of us in the free world happen to be writers, whether we are aspiring writers who are just looking for their first break of any sort (I'd point to myself) or we are established writers who have plenty of experience writing in various media forms, knowing exactly what certain audiences and businesses want. We write for various purposes and we mainly write because we love to write. We developed the passion to write a long time ago because we suddenly got the feeling that we wanted to tell a story. Of course, it takes more than just the willingness to go out there and tell a story to people. It can't be the only thing that we can hang our hats on in this day and age. 
Writing for video games is a much different process than writing for other forms of media, such as comic books, movies, television shows or basic writing in novels. There are a few variables in video game writing that separate this media form from the others and it should be easy for people to notice. The key thing about writing for video games is that it is a flexible process that relates and caters to the interactivity of its audience. That's right. The fans of video games are involved with the product that developers are making, so with that in mind, it is the job of a writer to make sure that the story he or she is writing is appropriate for the video game platform. Let's specify some more.

1) When you write, give the gamers options. The element of CHOICE must be present.

This is something that I have learned the hard way with some of my projects. I mean, I have always known this to be the case but for whatever reason I would wander away from this point and start imagining my scripts as just stories and not as much as video game experiences. That is a no-no if you want a video game script to be presentable to those who know what they are talking about. A video game experience should be an experience that can be expressed in a variety of ways. This can be done if the element of CHOICE (I'm intentionally capitalizing the entire word) is present. While some games are indeed of the linear variety, even some of these linear games that go in a straight line give you varying options that you can choose from. These options will bring you to the same conclusion to continue the linear gameplay, but they will give you different views on how to progress. 

Games that are nonlinear are specially made for heavy amounts of options for the gamer. Especially in worlds where you are free to roam and do just about anything you please, such as engaging in collectathon sequences, playing around in a cluster of platforms or searching for cleverly hidden secrets, the writer would be wise to keep all these factors in mind when he or she writes to bridge gameplay gaps. You are writing a scene, yes, but you are also writing a daily experience for the character that is receiving the focus. You are writing a prelude that gets the character to the flashy scene. You are writing the aftermath of the scene, the consequences that follow whatever choice the gamer made as that character. The writer has to be mindful of this. 

Without the element of choice, the gameplay experience for the gamer becomes more flat and that isn't a good thing. As a writer, you want to keep the gamer thinking, you want to provide the gamer with a variety of choices, and most importantly, you want to keep giving the gamer reasons to care about what is going on around the character he or she is controlling. 

2) When you write, be bold and daring when the time calls for it.

Notice how I say when the time calls for it. I don't recommend that a writer gets bold and daring with his or her storytelling every five seconds. You don't want to pack too much in such a short window of time. If you throw everything and the kitchen sink into the fold early on in the process, then chances are you might not have the writing ammunition for later... when the time calls for it. The sudden surprise and joy that a gamer gets from experiencing twists and turns in a game might go away towards the middle and ending of a game if the foundation of the writing weakens.

What I am basically saying is that a writer has to learn how to pace himself or herself when it comes to pulling out the surprises in video game storytelling. You want to be able to save your special gems of surprise for certain parts of the game and you want to make sure that you don't just give surprises away with hints in the dialogue or in actions. A writer should try the best that he or she can in covering the bases. For example, when the pressure mounts for certain characters and when the tension builds towards certain conflicts that are effecting characters, a writer has to know when to pull the rug out from under the gamer, but in a good way, of course.

A script that isn't bold nor daring at all makes for an underwhelming environment in the game's world depending on what the game is. If the game's environment is supposed to be that of an exciting thrill ride of an adventure, then write it out to be just that. A gamer didn't come to play your adventure game only to listen to dialogue that would be better suited for something like a Puzzle game or an educational training game. 

The gameplay of this adventure game will obviously help and will get the most attention, but one fraction of the entire experience is, whether some of us want to admit it or not, is the storytelling in the game. You play through the challenging levels, you clear them, and you are treated to interesting and thought provoking dialogue in cutscenes that will keep you curious as to what is going on in the story. You just have to give your audience something that they can lean on and think about while they continue to play.

3) Define the roles of the characters involved.

Whether it is out in the open or hidden beneath layers, a writer must be able to define the roles of the characters that are involved in the video game story. Whatever characters are given to the writer from the lead officials of the project, the writer is given the task of familiarizing the audience with the characters that are on screen. We need to know what these characters are about and why they are doing what they are doing. With the only exception of a Role Playing Game, the writer pretty much has to secure an identity for the character when the dialogue gets out, and it's how that dialogue is conveyed to the audience is what will make or break the character as far as general appeal goes.

We write about heroes who are squeaky clean and keep themselves upright. We write about heroes who have rough edges to them and somewhat questionable traits. We write about morally ambiguous anti-heroes who either can't decide what they want to be or what their true goals are. We write about comedic villains who are easy to laugh at because of the blunders they make and we write about serious villains who can't be taken lightly or else they will divide and conquer without mercy. There we go. Establishing an identity, folks.

4) Don't be all over the place. Relate to the gameplay mechanics.

Writing for video games isn't a complex science, but it can be somewhat like a jigsaw puzzle if the variables aren't touched on enough.  The most basic blunder that you can make as a writer would be to go into so many directions that you lose count. You take a concept for a video game story and move it in one direction, but then after a few scenes you change direction. After the first boss, you change course again and go into a completely different territory. By the middle of the story, the core concept of the game's story starts looking like a mess. Once we get near the end of the story, we don't know what to think. If you think that this is the winning method for getting your point across as a game writer, then you are sadly mistaken.

Interesting and exciting moments that happen within the core gameplay need to be taken into account as a game writer. Knowing what the characters in the game do for actions makes for a big step moved forward for the writer. Tying the writing around the gameplay mechanics is very much critical because the writer can get a better feeling of what he or she is working with. The writer can better relate to what the character he or she writes for is. For example, if a writer is hired to work on a project that is like Ratchet and Clank, then the writer should know that Ratchet collects bolts because bolts are the currency for his games. The writer should know that Ratchet is about using all sorts of gadgets and gizmos to get by in levels. The writer should know that Clank is a much needed source of help for Ratchet when things get shaky. Simply put, write around this. Don't write away from it. Highlight the universe of Ratchet and Clank and bring it to life.

5) Have a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, etc.

When working alongside a team of game developers, the writer will usually get to hear plenty of comments from the rest of the team. Sometimes the comments will be flattering, and other times not so much. As a writer, be prepared to hear a ton of feedback from your teammates and be prepared to roll with the punches should anything go off the railroad tracks, so to speak. I suggest that you have a Plan A initially, but soon you must come up with Plans B, C, D, E and so on in case your teammates and higher ups tell you to revise the script.

The business of writing for video games can get really rough if you aren't prepared to accept criticism. Don't take whatever criticism you get as personal. Keep in mind that this is a business. Revisions will always be made no matter how much quality there was in the writer's initial draft of the script. The quality won't matter if the rest of the development team feels that key changes need to be made. If changes do need to be made, don't question it. Whatever feelings you may have about earlier script drafts, don't rock the boat as a writer. You are only one part of a team and not the whole team.

Be willing to work with your teammates and properly communicate with them. If anything, be willing to reach out to your higher ups and ask them straight up what it is you need to be doing when writing. Once you get a clear idea of what you need to be doing, then you just need to press on and get the job done. Don't make it harder than what it really is. Always try to the best of your ability to reach a conclusion with any problems and move froward from them. If you need to add a certain detail to one part of the story, then do it. If you need to take any details out because they're not necessary, then do that.

This is from what I, a guy from the middle of nowhere, gather from the game writing process.

I have read plenty of gaming articles about the business of game development and I have read a few books on game development, and the picture has been made pretty clear to me as how a writer is viewed in the development team. In some cases, you as a writer are at the mercy of the higher ups. It's a sad reality that we have faced throughout the years and in some cases I do feel like the writer of a team should be given some sort of respect and should be allowed to retain some sort of dignity. However, business is business and it's a tidal wave that doesn't wait for anyone to get away from.  Sometimes you just have to bite your tongue, so to speak, and roll with it.

A writer in general has to be imaginative and he or she has to be willing to get creative with story elements. Applying this to video games is no exception. A bright mind should be used for the writing process and that mind has to think ahead. In your head you are building blocks on top of each other and you are constantly checking to see if this imaginary tower called a script is standing upright and not crooked. You can piece together how a story stands on its own two feet and you can target which points of the story should include those shocking moments.

If anyone out there is willing to disagree with me on this list, then feel free to chime in.


  1. Great article!
    I'm writing my first game, a visual novel, so the first three items are greatly important. The "game" part in a visual novel is the choice, and I need to decide if the player will get many of them, or just the important ones. Also, these choices can't be something that the main character would not do.
    About being bold when time calls for it, I love it.

    1. Hello Vinicius! Thanks for reading my article and I'm very glad you liked it! Feel free to spread the word to others about the Gaming Journalist Gazette!