3 game-writing techniques I learned the hard way
Have you always wanted to be a writer? Me too.
I spent years getting ready. I took creative-writing classes. I learned writing techniques, like how to build plots and create characters and write dialog. I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. (You too?)
When I got my first job writing for games, I was so excited to apply everything I’d learned. I was ready!
But then, like so many game writers before me, I found out how different game writing really IS.
At first, I thought I could use a lot of the writing techniques I had learned, studying novels and screenplays.
This was correct. It was also wrong.
Turns out the rules of storytelling still applied - but only if we bent them, twisted them, and turned them inside out in order to get them to work in a game.
None of this was obvious. Sometimes, it was counter intuitive. I couldn’t trust my instincts.
It was like I had been training for football, but suddenly I was playing professional soccer, instead.
And because there were hardly any courses or books out there on game writing, I had to learn through experimentation, testing, and screwing up. In public. In front of teammates and players alike.
Some lessons you learn the hard way, I guess.
As time went on, I spent a lot of time listening to other creatives, and learning from them, and studying the game stories they created. And I also spent a lot of time thinking hard about all of this. Thank you to all the writers and developers who have shared their insights with me along the way.
Here are three game-writing guidelines that have helped me. I hope they'll help you, too.
"Who's the protagonist?" is a trick question
Q: Who drives the gameplay?
A: The player.
Q: So then who’s the protagonist?
A: The player character, of course.
Intuitively, this makes sense. It FEELS right.
But when you build a story around the player, sometimes this happens:
Have you ever known a Chad? Have you ever BEEN a Chad?
I’ve been a Chad when I’m playing a game, that’s for sure.
And as a developer, when I put my stories in front of players, I felt like Queen Chrysalis, trying to get through to Pete Davidson.
What was going on?
To figure it out, I started paying a lot of attention to play testing. And I noticed that when players don’t engage with the story, there are usually a couple of reasons why:
1. Players play as themselves. They aren’t actors, getting into character before they pick up the controller. They just pick it up and go. (You can test this theory. Listen to your friend describe a game they recently played. Do they say “Man, you should have seen Master Chief last night?” Or do they say “Man, you should have seen ME last night”?)
2. Players know it’s a game. So when the queen says “Etheria is in mortal danger!” it’s tempting to squint a little and think, “Is it? Is it really?” In games, we don’t seem to have the same suspension of disbelief that we have with books or movies. Players might lose themselves in the world, or the gameplay, but they rarely lose themselves in the story.
So hm. What to do?
Maybe take a different approach altogether.
I stopped thinking so hard about the player character… and I started focusing on the non-player characters, instead.
Because NPCs don’t know it’s a game. To them, this story really IS life or death.
They are the actors in a game. They stay in character 24/7.
And once we gave those NPCs some storytelling love — once we started giving them an inner life — the world of the game suddenly felt a lot more interesting.
The player had plenty of freedom to play however he liked.
And the world had a cast of characters who were not just standing around, waiting to deliver exposition to Chad, but instead had hopes and dreams and fears of their own.
It was like finally putting the key into the ignition. The story engine came to life.
Designers have a lot of control over plot points (and that's a good thing)
In my writing classes, we would spend most of our time talking about two things: plot, and character.
So when I started working in games, I was very motivated to do a good job. And I thought doing a good job meant coming up with complicated, twisty plots, full of great setups and brilliant payoffs.
And then I’d go to design meetings and find out that things in the game had changed. A lot.
Levels had been cut. Characters had been added. Environments that had been in outer space were now underwater.
It was like trying to write a story from inside an amusement-park ride.
At first I didn’t understand what was going on. Are these designers trying to kill me?
What I finally realized (and eventually accepted) is that during game development, everything is up for grabs. The project changes as designers test and iterate and prototype and find the fun. And that means story has to change, too.
That’s not to say gameplay always breaks story. Development is a collaborative process. Sometimes the game changes to accommodate a key plot point or inciting incident.
But more often than not, game design shapes the plot.
And here’s why:
Gameplay comes first.
Have you ever gotten frustrated with a game, and quit before finishing it? Of course. We all have.
Even players that are loving the story will abandon the game if bad game design gets in the way.
A fun game with a bad story will probably do well, regardless. A bad game with a great story will most likely fail.
So when it comes to plot, writers shape the overall arc. But for moment-by-moment storytelling, and the plot events that unfold across the game, design often leads the way.
When gameplay and story move together, design is Fred Astaire. Story is Ginger Rogers, following along, dancing backwards and in high heels. (And looking gorgeous.)
When in doubt, hide the story from the player
Have you ever skipped a cinematic? Talked over in-game conversations between NPCs? Turned off the dialog completely so that you could just play the game in peace?
And I do this for a living!
The truth is, when you’re trying to play a game, sometimes the story gets in the way.
And when you’re trying to write a game, you can’t know for sure if the player is following the plot.
So what do we do? Force the player to pay attention, with unskippable cinematics and force-fed dialog?
No. Because then you’re not making a game, you’re making a movie.
So instead, try this:
Make the story itself a game.
Meaning: get the story out of the way. Hide it from the player. And invite them to find it for themselves.
Instead of spoon-feeding the narrative through tedious, exposition-filled cutscenes (that the player ignores), drop the player into the middle of the action and let her figure it out.
You’ve put a story into the game - but the player has to uncover it, like a detective, searching for clues hidden in the environment and the other characters.
It’s a different way to entertain your player. You’re pulling them towards the story, instead of pushing it into their face.
Players who don’t care about story will be happy to miss it. They’ll be busy running and jumping and playing. But players who DO love narrative will thrill to the challenge and feel a fierce sense of satisfaction once they've uncovered the full plot.
I’ve seen it happen, over and over again.
It’s like a magic trick.
I hope this was useful. Games have given us a new way to tell stories to each other. And, just like screenwriters from the 30s and 40s, who had to figure out how to write for film, we are in the process of cracking the game-writing code.
Now I'd love to hear from you. What's one of your favorite story-based games? Let us know in the comments below!
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.
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