Friday, 23 May 2014

Writing for Games at the DWF

'As games become more sophisticated, the skills a writer brings to the project are more important than ever, but what exactly does a games writer do? Is it about dialogue, or level design, or both? And what happens when the player is in control of the story?' Intrigued by the Dublin Writers Festival programme blurb, I booked myself in.


This was the first clue that I might be out of my depth here. It's how you write & (ampersand) in html, apparently; digital media was originally designed to do maths, so sometimes extra characters are  needed to get something linguistic, Rob Morgan, writer and narrative designer, explained, before going on to deliver his cogent and accessible presentation on writing for games.

Useful Game Writer concepts included:
  • Control: games are different from film and literature because they require player choices. The writer must consider how she can make the player feel part of the story. Morgan illustrated how this can be done by giving more choices to the player, but equally, by taking choices away as a means of making a point.


          Morgan also found out, when adapting from Harry Potter (his Develop Award-winning Wonderbook: Book             of Spells and its sequelBook of Potions, both produced in collaboration with JK Rowling) that dramatic
         irony can be a problem in games; because the player is in control, the tension doesn't work.
  • Identity: how to create characters the writer doesn't control; how to create characters the player identifies with.
  • Set up players' expectations: play around with them; create surprises.
As far as getting started, he suggested using software Story Nexus, or Inklewriter, or Twine.

Antony Johnston took the podium next, and he focused on the differences between writing for games, and writing in other media. There was a perception, he said, that games writing was closest to writing for an action movie (and that this perception was sometimes used as an excuse for games to cheesy, with a terrible narrative). Too often, he said, the words 'three act structure' are quoted. The problem with the analogy, according to Johnston, is in both length and structure, a movie lasting at most for three hours which, for action games, is very short. He counted what he termed 'playable scenes' in well-known action movies and came up with 12. Therefore, modelling games after movie narrative structure is a 'terrible idea.'

Novels didn't fare much better. In a 500 page novel, Johnston found 11 playable scenes. But games need more things to happen.

Comics (and tv), he felt, were much closer to games. They share visual abstractions, such as speech balloons, but they also share an episodic structure, one which can fit into a larger, over-arching structure; the episodes can make sense separately and together.

One of the audience questions was mine when I booked this event: What if you have a story that would suit a game? And the answer, alas: It almost never happens (and if it does, it's most likely to happen in the indie sector. One solution was to make the game yourself, and to buy in coding and art; the other: write the novel and make a successful movie first!

Antony Johnston @antonyjohnston
Rob Morgan @AboutThisLater

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