I once read someplace here on the worldwide web that game writers are an often misunderstood sort. I read that we can be underutilized by designers, sometimes looked down upon by team members in other departments for fear of what we’d do with our dreaded cutscenes, etc etc etc. There is a point to be made that so many of the newbie writers on professional development teams know nothing about game development, that they stride in proud from the realms of a novelist, a screenwriter, or a comic writer, and think they’re ready to take over the whole development world. Oh, if only they knew better.
Indeed, in my early days as a fledgling game writer (which are actually still ongoing, lulz,) I think I learned the reason for just why this is, why so many writers (not designers) of so many experience levels couldn’t quite tell ya the specifics of what makes a good game story and what doesn’t. The answer: a lack of information.
Not to hate on other articles and outlets, but I feel that so many of them fail to touch upon the good, nitty-gritty, important details that all aspiring game writers crave. I’m definitely still searching for all of those answers myself, but I think it’s high time that I share some of the precious chunks of knowledge that designers and directors from all over the internet have been trying to beat and pound and force through my thick skull for over half a year now.
Choose Your Words Wisely
The worrisome look on Lee’s face when he comforts Clementine is not unique to Telltale’s The Walking Dead. No, it is the face a game writer makes on a daily basis, for in no other medium does a storyteller need to cut it down to bare essentials more so than in video games.
“But Dylan,” I can hear you asking now, “whatever do you mean?!” Well, let me introduce a concept that I call “the word count dilemma”. Whether the piece in question be a novella, (which is apparently the fancy term for a really short novel,) a novel (also known as a phat novella,) or a movie script, the average reader’s word count is about…
130 words per minute
Not a very huge number. 130 words when grouped up together seem small, and they most certainly are. Depending on how writing-heavy your team wants to go, you may end up with a story that’s 20,000 words long, (the same as a movie script,) or The Witcher 3’s absolutely monstrous 400,000 on paper, and that’s fine. But, very few people are going to be reading your story, aren’t they? What are most people going to be doing? Watching it unfold during gameplay. So what’s the problem?
Well, a very famous Youtube channel dedicated to game development known as Extra Credits (which I highly recommend every aspiring dev pays very close attention to,) once talked of this very same concept. The creators behind this wonderful channel couldn’t find a de facto study to determine the average WPM of most story-driven games, so they decided to experiment on their own. What was their average? The answer may surprise you…
16 words per minute
(The Extra Credits video on that can be found here.)
Isn’t that interesting?! Mind boggling?! INSANE?! It most definitely is! It is all of those things and so much more! Thus, it is important that every single line of dialogue is kept down to an absolute bare minimum. No fluff. No flowery descriptiveness. Just quick, dirty, and right to the point. The definitive litmus is making sure that every word matters and has some sort of relevance to the plot, the characters, the world, and the story.
Funnily enough, this is actually a very old concept in storytelling, and I bet that if you’re a seasoned writer, you’ve heard of it before: “Chekhov’s Gun“. Chekhov was a playwright and novelist who lived in the olden, pre-soviet Russian Empire. He had a saying: “If there’s a gun on the wall, it simply must be shot.” Simply put, how many of those lines are meaningful, and how many of them are meaningless? How many of them actually need to stay, and how many can be removed? If you can tell a good story that trims down on as many words as possible, you’re well on your way to gripping gamers with the gratuitous gift of good game storytelling. (How’s that for alliteration?)
You Are The Game’s B*tch
This is a different rodeo, cowboy. In a book, comic, or movie, things are much more “controlled”. The audience can’t do much other than watch and pay attention, so as long as your story’s good, it’s nice and peachy in the hood.
But this is a game.
Your audience members are not just audience members, but players. They can move, jump, sprint, kill, exploit bugs, travel to places you may never have intended for them to go, and do things (terrible, terrible things) you would have never wanted for them to do! Thus the plot can be totally turned on it’s head.
Hell, they make videos about all the crazy feats of brainstorming, planning, and testing that game developers have to go through just to save the players from…. (wait for it)…..
As such, you need to take all the things (ALL OF THEM) that the player can do that would interfere with your story into consideration. Not only this, but you need to build a story that’s still believable, even when the game’s mechanics come into question. Do you have a cutscene in which a character is killed by a single bullet? If so, would the player be similarly one-shotted if put in the same circumstance outside of a cutscene, or would they be able to absorb those bullets like a sponge absorbs all the tears that you’re shedding because you didn’t find this article sooner? A good game story does not work against these mechanics and player-based variables, but works hand-in-hand with them. As such, the GDD or Game Design Document, the physical blueprints of your game and all it’s features, should become your new best friend, and don’t be afraid to consult your resident designer.
This is a Game, Not a Movie
It had to be said. Unless you’re making the next Heavy Rain with your very own Shaun-screaming protagonist, you need to put the gameplay first. The player shouldn’t be made to sit through several minutes of dialogue, cutscenes, or quicktime events. They need to have a good story, of course, but the greater bulk of their time needs to be spent doings like engaging in combat, traveling across the world, moving through levels, stealthing around enemies, etc.
As a game writer myself, I spent several days bouncing ideas off another fellow game writer as we jointly constructed what we felt was the best possible plotline for a game like the one we were making. The characters had deep motivations, interesting dialogue and interactions, etc etc etc. But what did the director say when he saw our work? “The story’s great, but in real time, I could play through all of this in under two hours. This is an open world game, and two hours is nothing.”
And he was right. So incredibly right. Our in-game conversations were too long and needed to be cut down to the bare essentials. In our open world game, whenever the player characters reached a certain point in the quest and had to travel a long distance, we’d have a time skip when we should have instead been giving the players a quest marker and getting them to physically walk to their next destination. As such, we had to revise our plotline.
You need to tell a good story, but the story needs to work specifically for the format of a game. Even better, if you can set things up in such a way to where a player who doesn’t care all too much about a story can easily skip it and move on to the next level while also still making that story an essential part of the experience, then you’re absolutely golden. In conclusion, it turns out that, when people want to play a game, they don’t want to watch a movie; they want to play a game.
The Cutscene Controversy
This is a very shaky topic for a lot of game developers, but simply put, there’s a controversy revolving around cutscenes. I don’t have a definitive answer on how this should be addressed, but I feel all aspiring game writers should be aware of the debate. Long story short, some people have no problems with cutscenes and think they enhance the experience, some people think cutscenes should only be used in certain circumstances, (like when the player is made to feel helpless,) and others feel that cutscenes shouldn’t be used at all.
To elaborate, is often said that cutscenes are lazy because everything in your game should be done through gameplay in some shape or form. The player should be able to interact with the world because it’s better for engagement, not sit and watch a small movie.
On the other side of the coin, games like The Last of Us have cutscenes that span that, when put together in a single Youtube video, span the length of a whole movie. The Last of Us, despite this, is often regarded as having of one of the greatest stories a game has ever told. Never have I heard anyone complain of it’s cutscenes, just like I’ve never heard anyone complain of the cutscenes in Final Fantasy or Mass Effect. Heck, many of my friends (game developers and standard gamers alike,) hated the way how Bethesda overhauled the dialogue system for Fallout 4, but liked the way how it was made to be more like an interactive cutscene that happens in live action.
I’m not about to take a side in this debate, but I personally think the question of when to use a cutscene varies dependent upon the situation and needs to be a factor of Chekhov’s Gun, as we discussed earlier, more than anything else. If it’s necessary or helps in some way, use it. If it isn’t, scrap it. Only keep what’s necessary.
Extra Credits made three excellent videos on the subject which I recommend any aspiring game writer gives a good watch. One that makes a case for the good that can be done with cutscenes, one that talks about how they are an often underutilized tool, and one that discusses why Skyrim’s opening cutscene is no bueno.
A Gameplay Narrative vs. A Narrative in a Game
Probably the most challenging thing a game’s story can ever hope to achieve is a good game narrative, and this is something that’s done by more than just a game writer. When you read a novel, the words set a scene. If you’re stuck in a sewer, the floor is wet, the smell is rancid, and the world is cramped and dark. It’s not just a location, it’s a psychological experience. As such, your game needs to be doing the same thing, and this “game narrative” of sorts should play out through every aspect of your game, be it art, writing, design, SFX, etc, and it really boils down to a much more intense version of a common point in storytelling: show, don’t tell.
In The Last of Us, the world feels bleak and hopeless, but why? It’s not just the characters, who each have their own personal struggles and hard times dealing with life after the apocalypse, shaken to their cores by their losses. No, it plays out in every aspect of the gamer’s experience.
The art was modeled after Chernobyl, so the post-apocalypse looks so real in-game because it was modeled after an actual post-apocalyptic setting. We know that there is a lack of resources because every crafting component is rare (especially on higher difficulties) and so too is ammunition. You have to be very careful and strategic about how you engage your opponents, and more importantly, you have to take the path of least resistance (which usually means stealth). The clickers are terrifying outside of their raw appearance because of their grotesque movement animations, the creepy, creepy, CREEPY clicking sound they make, and their propensity to one-shot the player if they get too close (and the player doesn’t have the shiv master perk).
So why does this matter? Well, you may not have full control over all these elements if you’re just a writer, but you need to observe and work with them. Your story needs to work with the art, the design, sound, everything. It should be a part of a nice, cohesive bundle, and if your story’s standing out too much, you’re SOL bud.
Of all the videos I’ve seen on the internet, none explain this concept more thoroughly than this one on Youtube which compares Thief: The Dark Project to it’s contemporary cousin. Definitely worth a watch.
It’s Still Storytelling
And finally, this is the moment we (mainly just I) have been waiting for. This is the #1 thing that gets under my skin about most of the articles I read which talk about game writing. They give your strategies on how to tell a story, but not specifically for a game. As such, I’m no better typing in “how to tell a story” in Google’s infamous search bar.
Even if you execute on all the elements above, you need to have a refined understanding of just what a good story is before you can write one. You need to be able to take feedback, to understand concepts like character motivations, believability, relatability, and plot vs. story. The sad truth of the matter is that you’re not going to learn those things by writing specifically for games.
So what do you do? Pick another medium. Try comics, screenplays, novels, or anything that’s fun. Learn the ins and outs of whatever medium you choose, experiment with it, and never let yourself fall into a comfort zone. Always push the boundaries and always keep learning. Then, when you’re done, you will not only seem like someone that a studio will seriously consider taking on, but you’ll be more than ready to tackle all of the prior elements listed above. Storytelling is it’s own skill, and a wise man once said, it’s a practiced one.
(Wow, the tone of this article shifted somewhere midway. Dunno how that happened, lol.)
Dylan Russell has worked in over 10 different creative projects and as a game writer in over 5 different fan development studios.