Today we’re answering more reader questions. Hooray! (And we have a gift for you at the end of this article.)
Kyra asks: “How do we judge game writing to be good or not? How is that different from screenplays?”
We’d have an easier time answering this question if we could study game scripts. That would be awesome!
It’s hard to believe that we don’t have a huge library of game scripts out there in the world somewhere.
Game scripts: Top Secret
So why doesn’t this magical library exist?
A few reasons.
For one thing, studios are VERY SECRETIVE about their material - even after the game ships. Everything stays under lock and key for as long as possible.
Some of the bigger studios create proprietary scriptwriting software for their narrative department. This means there’s no way to read those scripts unless you have access to that software, too. (They’re pretty careful about disabling pdf exports!)
But, even if you could read a pdf export of a game script, that wouldn’t be a huge help. Game scripts aren’t supposed to work on their own. They're designed to work within the context of the game. That means the scripts only tell part of the story - the rest comes through visuals, music, game mechanics, and so on.
The few times that studios do release their material, they edit it way, WAY down.
Here’s a quote from the introduction to The Spider-Man Script Book:
“When putting together the game script for publication, we had to do some editing. The final word count for all the writing in Marvel’s Spider-Man was roughly 500,000 words. This book contains only about 68,000 words. So how did we choose what to include?
“This script represents what we call the “golden path” story. In other words, if you played through the game and just followed the main objectives, your experience would roughly follow the script in this book.
"What we did not include is much of the “open-world” work we did: crimes, side missions, research stations, backpacks, and other collectibles.
"We also didn’t include many of the phone calls Peter took while swinging around the city. And while we all loved Christos Gage’s alter ego J. Jonah Jameson, we couldn’t find room for all his podcasts here.
And there are thousands of “emergent” dialogue lines not included. These are things Spider-Man and his enemies would say during combat and certain context-sensitive events, such as when enemies are about to fire their weapons or when Spidey defeats the final enemy in an encounter.
"While all this writing is critical to the player experience, we chose to leave it out…because otherwise, you’d need a forklift to move this book.”
So OK! Clearly game scripts are hard to come by.
But there’s some good news, which is you are surrounded by examples of game scripts you can study…they’re just inside the games that you play.
Game writers play games
You can start thinking of your game collection as your game-writing library. All those writers and narrative designers are sharing their work with you. They're inviting you to learn everything you can.
Here’s the short answer to Kyra’s question: We know if a game script works if it works on US, the player. Does it draw us in? Does it make us feel closer to the characters? Does it affect us? If so, then it’s working.
Here are three specific ways game scripts get the job done.
Good scripts feel connected to the game's world
Have you ever watched actors rehearse? They practice blocking and moving around in the space, sometimes improvising lines as they go. It's part of their process for bringing the story to life.
In game development, we don't have that luxury. Everything is virtual. We write our lines at our desk, weeks before they go into the game. And yet, we need our dialogue to feel like it’s alive, happening right there in the moment.
When it works - when technology and dialogue can come together to deliver the right line at the right time - the game comes to life in a new way.
One of the best examples of this kind of writing is Hades from Supergiant Games. We feel like Zagreus is going through it, minute by minute. He's right there with us.
Good scripts bring characters to life
We've all played games where the NPCs sound more like information kiosks than humans. But more and more often, you can find games where the characters have minds of their own. This is where the work of a game writer can really shine.
Here's Parvati in The Outer Worlds, doing her best to stop the player from making a terrible mistake.
Good scripts draw the player into the game
As game writers, we're not telling a story so much as we're creating an experience for the player. The story (and game) doesn't come to life until the player jumps in. So a great game script leaves players saying, "I have to play this game." It makes players want to dive in headfirst.
Here's a classic example: the original BioShock.
I hope these examples spark your imagination. Your script is next!
A free scriptwriting tool for you
Want to learn how to write a great script for games? We're here to help. We've created an easy 5-step guide you can use to write scripts that your team (and players) will love.
Just click the button 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.