Learn three strategies you can use, right away, to bring story and gameplay together.
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Giving and receiving feedback: a field guide
In his book Show Your Work!, artist Austin Kleon talks about dealing with criticism. The name of the chapter? “Learn To Take A Punch.”
There’s plenty of rough, unhelpful criticism out in the world. (The internet: it’s the G.I.F.T. that keeps on giving!) Sometimes, the best strategy is just to tune it out.
But what about the times when you really need feedback? When you’re in the middle of project, and you know something’s not working, but you can’t seem to solve it?
That’s when a fresh pair of eyes can really help.
This isn’t about ignoring haters on the internet. This is about getting feedback on tender works-in-progress from people whose opinions you trust. It's the kind of feedback that makes your work better.
When you write for games, you have to stay in sync with the rest of the team. That means you’ve got to show your work early and often. You have to show work that’s half-baked. Work that you know isn’t good (yet). And you’ve got to be open to hearing what other people have to say about it.
Yes! It’s hard! It takes a lot of courage to put your work out there.
And it can be nerve-wracking to give feedback, too. Sometimes we don’t know what to say, we don’t know what’s going to help the writer and what’s going to shut them down. And it can be hard sometimes to even diagnose the problem. All this can leave reviewers feeling tongue-tied.
End result: the writer doesn’t get the help she needs, the reviewers don’t get the script they need, everybody is frustrated and sad.
This is a common problem. So common, in fact, that somebody came up with a solution.
Choreographer Liz Lerman has been using (and teaching) this process at studios and universities around the world for years. This is a slightly modified version of her approach.
I’ve seen it work time and time again with my students and writers. It makes the work better - and it protects the relationships, too.
Here’s how it works.
Step One: Give some love
In this first step, the readers focus ONLY on the positives - the parts of the story that are really working.
This doesn’t have to be big. In fact, small specific feedback is usually more helpful. Readers can focus on a character description, a moment in a playable sequence, a line of dialog. Anything goes.
And here’s the important part: the readers tell the writer how the work made them FEEL. “This line made me laugh.” “That guy on the radio gave me the creeps.” You get the idea. This is all about letting the writer know that people are responding - on an emotional level - to the work.
We don’t start with the good stuff just to be kind. We do it because writers tend to doubt themselves. We often don’t see what we’re naturally good at. We tend to focus on our struggles, and shrug at the stuff that comes easily. But if other people tell us - over and over again - what we’re good at, maybe we’ll start to believe it. If we can own our talents, we can build around that.
Let the writer know she writes great dialog. It’s the best way to get her to write MORE great dialog.
It's like giving someone a cookie. Nothing wrong with cookies.
Once the readers have shared their positive feedback, it’s time to move to the second step of the process.
Step Two: The writer asks questions
Whenever a writer is working on a project, she can usually divide it into three parts:
Guess which part keeps writers up at night?
What I love about Step Two is that it allows the writer to shine a bright light on the areas where she could use some help. She’s saying “Yes, please tell me what you think is going on on here, because I’m too close to it and I know it’s not working but I can’t see the solution, I could use your perspective.”
This gives the reviewers the green light to share their thoughts, to dig in, to ask questions of their own…anything to help the writer get unstuck.
And instead of getting defensive and angry, the writer usually feels relieved and grateful because YES, finally, she’s getting some help with this problem that has been driving her nuts!
(In Liz Lerman’s approach, the reviewers just answer the writer’s questions with Yes or No. But this is game development, which means everybody’s work is intertwined. Gotta talk it out.)
At the end of the day, it’s up to the writer to solve her storytelling problems. The feedback from Step Two can help make that happen.
Step Three: The reviewers ask questions
It’s tempting to make declarative statements like “This section isn’t working” or “this is too derivative of GTA.” But this approach can make writers defensive, ready to argue points. This can cause both sides to dig in and suddenly you’re not in a writer’s room, you’re in a court of law. No good.
Instead, frame feedback in the form of questions. This has a couple of benefits:
So for example instead of saying “This section isn’t working,” we stop and ask ourselves “WHY do I think this isn’t working?” And maybe we realize that we’re getting confused because one of the characters seems to have disappeared from the story. So you might say “So, what happened to that guy in the black coat?”
This can be the start of a useful conversation that can help the writer get some perspective on her work.
And this can also be a way to bring game play into the discussion. The designers can ask how the script will work with their mechanics or their systems or their maps — all elements of the game that are works-in-progress, just like the script. Questions can help broaden the writer’s perspective, and help her see her work through the designer’s eyes.
It takes A LOT courage to put yourself out there. But it’s worth the effort. Because there’s someone out there who’s been waiting to play the story that only you can tell.
And I want to share an amazing resource for any writers out there that are feeling brave and are ready for some feedback on their work: the Writers Special Interest Group is restarting Critiques! It's a group where game writers and narrative designers, from all over the world, can submit their work and regularly receive feedback from their peers. Awesome! You can learn more about it here.
And let me know: what tricks have YOU learned for giving (or receiving) feedback? 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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