Have you ever found a game or a book or a movie that really does it for you? That feels like it was made just for you?
One of my favorite teachers described what it’s like to fall in love with someone’s work. You see your favorite book in a store or your favorite game in Steam and you go a little crazy inside. “You get so excited!” she said. “It’s like you just want to make out with it! You want to French that book!!!”
Come on: is she wrong? A great game (or book or movie) does take on a life of its own in our hearts. Every time I even hear the words Katamari Damacy, I laugh. And don't get me started on Indiana Jones. When we all saw “Love You” on that girl's eyelids, I was like SAME, LADY. SAME.
Speak their (love) language
What's the best way to reach your audience? Well, it depends on the medium.
Let’s take TV as an example. TV shows connect with viewers through dialog - and a lot of it. Have you ever noticed that you can follow the action on a show, even when you’re in the other room? That’s by design. Most people watch TV at home. And when you're at home, you're not always looking at the screen. You're making dinner, chasing the dog, living your life. And the shows live alongside you, keeping you connected to their story through words.
Then there's movies. For decades, audiences sat in the dark, staring at a 40-foot screen. So films could use more than words to get an audience’s blood pumping. Movies had images. They had sexy actors. They had big explosions. Can you think of major moments in movies when nobody said a word - but the scene knocked you out anyway? How about Heath Ledger’s Joker walking out of the hospital? Or Frodo silently bidding farewell to Samwise? I bet you can think of a few other examples that broke your heart (in a good way).
Mechanics, verbs, gameplay...a rose by any other name would still be Action.
Players pay attention to the action - because they’re driving the action. That’s where their eyes are, that’s where their heart is too.
And for writers, the goal is to meet them there.
Find ways to tie your story to gameplay moments, and players will love you for it.
(Easier said than done, I know...but that's what this blog is all about - looking for ways to solve that problem, one post at a time.)
Keep things fresh
Relationships can get stale. So can games. Those things can go on for 20, 40, even 60 hours. Are you ready to listen to the same random bits of dialog over and over again, for 60 hours? No you are not. Nobody is.
During the development of one of the Uncharted games, the writers were working on the script. They invited a couple of designers on the team to play through a level - and give each other shit while they were doing it.
A few days later, the game's voice actors came in to play the same level - and ad-lib all their dialog.
For the actors, this was their first chance to play the game. So for them, everything was fresh and new, and their ad-libs reflected that. And because they were trained actors, they stayed in character the whole time.
The team took the two scripts, mashed them together, and sent everything off to the recording studio. The rest is (superfun) history.
I don’t know if that story is true. But don’t you WANT it to be true? It’s such a great example of lightning in a bottle. It's a way to take what is literally a programmed, mechanical experience and make it feel like it's actually happening. Because for the designers and the actors, it was.
(And if you’re thinking “Wait, if the designers and actors came up with all the lines, what the hell did the writers do?” The answer is: plenty! We'll talk more about that in a future post.)
Share those feelings
That doesn't mean “tell them how you feel.” It means: underplay your avatar’s reactions, so that the player can bring their own emotions into the mix.
When characters overact - when they lay it on thick, when they sob and wail and freak out - an audience’s reaction is usually to back away slowly. Drama queens can be exhausting, y'all. (Unless they’re on RuPaul’s Drag Race in which case they’re PERFECT don’t @ me)
This technique is not limited to games. For example, in Gladiator, Russell Crowe’s character was never bloodthirsty, never blinded by rage. He may have been angry, but at the end of the day he was a Stoic soldier, doing his duty by Caesar and his family. It was the people in the coliseum screaming for blood. (Some of the people in the movie theater were screaming for blood, too.)
Games make us feel things. Stories make us feel things. Feelings are powerful. They move people into taking action, like (for example) finding the courage to ask someone on a date. And as we said earlier, action is what it's all about.
Thanks for reading. See you next week.
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Susan’s first job as a game writer was for “a slumber party game - for girls!” She’s gone on to work on over 25 projects, including award-winning titles in the BioShock, Far Cry and Tomb Raider franchises. Titles in her portfolio have sold over 30 million copies and generated over $500 million in sales. She is an adjunct professor at UT Austin, where she teaches a course on writing for games. A long time ago, she founded the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. Now, she partners with studios, publishers, and writers to help teams ship great games with great stories. She is dedicated to supporting creatives in the games industry so that they can do their best work.