The (script) doctor is in
How to tell when your story is in trouble - and what to do about it
In Pulp Fiction, Harvey Keitel was The Wolf. He was a man that knew how to get things done.
Here he is introducing himself, both to Jimmie (Quentin Tarantino) and to the audience:
The Wolf: You’re…Jimmie, right? This is your house?Jimmie: Sure is.The Wolf: I’m Winston Wolfe. I solve problems.Jimmie: Good, we got one.
The Wolf: So I heard. May I come in?
The problems The Wolf solves are pretty specific - and pretty gruesome. But he’s very good at what he does.
Sometimes, you need someone in your corner who knows how to solve your problems.
Because even hitmen can find themselves in over their head.
Writing teams can get in over their proverbial heads, too.
Because game development is hectic. Things are always changing. And it’s a contact sport. Design and programming and animation and story all affect each other.
And sometimes the script takes a punch, or a body blow, or a bullet to the leg, and suddenly there’s blood everywhere and people are screaming and
SOMEBODY’S GOTTA DO SOMETHING
That’s when you call somebody who knows how to solve problems - specifically, YOUR problems.
Someone who’s going to say something like,
“Let's get down to brass tacks, gentlemen. If I was informed correctly, the clock is ticking.”
If you suspect your script is in big trouble, here are some symptoms to look for.
Your player and your avatar aren’t listening to each other
The player - the person who you never see or talk to, the person who plays the game months after you finished working on it - is the most important character in your story. What they want matters. And what they want is to play the game / finish the game / beat the game.
So the avatar needs to want to beat the game, too.
Not literally, of course - the avatar doesn’t know it’s living inside a game. But “avatar’s goal in the story” and “player’s goal in the game” need to be connected.
If they don’t - if the avatar wants to flee the island while the player wants to stay and kick everybody’s ass on the island - then the player is going to start ignoring everything the avatar says.
(And players have an incredible talent for turning people out. More on that in a minute.)
Diagnosis: If the player and avatar are misaligned, player deafness may occur.
All your characters are boring as hell
OK, that’s blunt. But I’m being blunt to make a point. As The Wolf would say,
“If I'm curt with you it's because time is a factor. I think fast, I talk fast and I need you guys to act fast if you wanna get out of this.”
You’ve got to look at your script and ask - do *I* even care about these characters? If the writer doesn’t care, nobody else will either. As The Wolf said near the end of the movie,
“Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.”
There’s one sure way to make characters interesting - and that’s to give them goals of their own.
Everybody in life wants something, after all, even if it’s just a glass of water. What do your characters want? They don’t exist just to give the player directions. They need thoughts and hopes and dreams of their own.
I've worked on projects where playtesters REALLY didn't like the characters - at all. When we changed them up, and gave them a better sense of purpose, playtesting results improved overnight.
Characters who are interested are characters who are interesting.
(For more on how to create convincing characters, click here.)
Diagnosis: if none of the characters are pursing goals of their own, your player is a risk of slipping into a boredom coma.
Your script has dialog in it
Have you got a whole bunch of blah-blah-blah in your game's script?
That's great for a movie, where you’ve got a captive audience, sitting in the dark, starring at a 40-foot screen where actors are delivering Tarantino-quality zingers.
But here’s what usually happens in a game:
(Usually, not always. There are no absolutes in games, and that ^^^ isn't true 100% of the time. Telltale Games, for example, used a lot of dialog. But they had minimal gameplay, so the player had a lot of mental bandwidth for the story. There is usually an inverse relationship between gameplay and story. In the case of a game like The Walking Dead, gameplay would all but stop so that characters could have a bit of an exchange. And Telltale Games were KNOWN for story, so that's what players were looking for. But the exceptions prove the rule.)
For the most part, when you’re delivering a story to the player, you can’t assume they’re hearing a single word anybody says.
Test this theory! Watch your friends play. Watch playthroughs online. Watch yourself play. Are players quiet and passive and paying close attention to the words? Or are they problem-solving and trash-talking and having fun?
You can still write dialog - but you've got to have a backup plan for delivering story to the player. Multiple modes of delivery.
Yes, my fellow writers: it sucks. I love dialog too. But it’s a gravity problem. Meaning, gravity can be a drag when you’re falling off a ladder, but there’s nothing you can do to change it. It’s a situation, a circumstance, a fact of life.
Better to just face facts and come up with a better plan.
You know what works better than dialog in a game? Pretty much anything else.
If you want to tell a story, tell it through the environment. Tell it through gameplay mechanics. Tell it through music, through animation, through user interface. ANYTHING but dialog.
Writers, write that story. And then find ways for the player to live that story. Do, don't show. Don't rely on dialog to get the job done.
If your script’s in trouble - I mean BIG trouble - don’t lose hope. There’s always a solution. It may not be pretty, but it'll work.
And then the Wolf will drink some of your coffee, look impressed, turn to you and say:
He’s not worried. He’s got this.
And now so do you.
Now it's your turn. Have you ever faced storytelling problems on a project? How did you fix them? 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.
We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!