“Why did you become a writer?”
I get this question a lot. Maybe you do, too.
How do you answer it?
Maybe like me you think to yourself, “When was I NOT a writer?”
A lot of us fall in love with stories and storytelling as kids, and it stays with us all our lives. And if we’re writers, one of the first things that we fall in love with is words. We scribble words in our journals, we marvel over words we read in books. Sometimes we love the words so much we have to read them out loud, alone in our rooms, just to hear the music.
Sometimes we love the words so much we turn them into art and hang them on our studio's wall, like this quote from Kurt Vonnegut (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater):
You may have some words tattooed on your body right now. Words are magic!
So what happens when we start writing for games?
Maybe we think to ourselves, “Players read books and watch movies, right? Clearly they love words too, so let’s give them lots of words!”
Or at the very least we think, “Well they hired me to be a writer, and writers write words, so I better give ‘em those words.”
In testing, we watch players ignore, even skip, all the cutscenes -
We watch them talk over (or tune out) all the in-game dialog -
And we wonder where we went wrong.
The problem: players ignore story
It’s tempting to think the problem lies in our writing. But remember: we’re talking about games here. And games are all about doing stuff and taking action. The player’s brain is lit up, actively scheming and strategizing and figuring out the game.
When our story comes along - in words - often it’s interrupting the player. And so the player tunes it out.
Instead of using more words to explain, how about I share a video, instead?
What did you think?
That video is a must-watch for any game developer - and ESPECIALLY any game writer.
Here’s the technical definition for what’s going on there:
“Inattentional blindness: the failure to notice a fully-visible, but unexpected object because attention was engaged on another task, event, or object.”
This is a superpower, frankly. It allows us to do things like drive a car or focus in a noisy cafe.
It also means that players have an incredible ability to tune out the story when they’re busy playing the game. And if they’ve started ignoring the story during gameplay, they’re more likely to skip the cutscenes, too.
So does this mean we can never use words to tell stories in games? I would never in a million years say that. We need sparkling dialog and beautiful prose. We just need to understand our audience, and meet them where they’re at, so that when the words finally do come along, they’re ready - even eager - to listen.
The human brain is amazingly powerful. Why fight it? Let’s just work with it, instead.
The solution: Meet them where they're at
The key is to come up with your narrative - and then bake it into the areas of the game where the player is actually paying close attention.
Let’s take this idea for a test drive.
When you first start playing a game, what do you pay attention to?
You’re probably interested in the control scheme, most likely, since you’ve got to learn it in order to play the game.
Once you’ve got a handle on that, you’re ready to look around. So your attention shifts to the environment, since that’s where the trouble and the treasure lies.
And during these first minutes of gameplay, we may have other elements, like music or UI. And maybe there’s bits of dialog and character interactions here and there, as well.
These can ALL be storytelling tools, if we use them!
You can use this time for world-building all around the player. You can design interactions between NPCs to make the world feel alive even if the player hasn’t started engaging yet. You can use music and color schemes to create a feeling of menace. When the player initiates an encounter with an NPC, the dialog that triggers can all be about building atmosphere, rather than actually explaining anything to the player. You can use a video conceit to introduce story elements as background noise, foreshadowing what’s to come without asking for the player’s full attention.
Want to see all these ideas in action? Check out the first five minutes of Half-Life 2.
There’s not a lot of writing in this scene - but there is a WHOLE LOT of storytelling going on.
Some writers get paid by the word. Not game writers! The less words we use, the better. At least at first. Once you’ve drawn the player into your world - once the player is bought in and WANTS to go deeper - that’s when we can start bringing in plot points and proper conversations and storytelling magic.
We need the player’s attention. Our job is to earn it.
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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.