Next update DELAYED to March 20
Part 5 of my “On Writing” series.
So far in this series of posts on writing, I’ve focused mostly on background: when I knew I wanted to be a writer, how I developed those skills and when and where I got my big breaks. Today, I’m going to focus more on the writing itself. Specifically, the difference between writing for games and writing for novels.
I suspect most of you are already familiar with my CV, but just in case I’m going to do a quick recap. (Plus, I like to brag about my work!) Since 2000 I’ve written and published 11 fantasy or sci-fi novels (2 Forgotten Realms books, 5 Star Wars novels, 3 Mass Effect novels and the first book in my Chaos Born trilogy), with number 12 – The Scorched Earth - coming out this summer. Over that same time frame, I’ve also been a writer on nine video games and their expansion packs (most notably KOTOR, Mass Effect 1 &2, and SWTOR). So I don’t feel any false modesty in saying that if anyone is an expert on both novels and games, it’s me.
However, I will point out that when I talk about my video game writing, I am referring exclusively to BioWare games. That means CRPGs with branching dialog and complex story lines that help drive the plot and player forward: a very specific and unique style of story telling. There are other companies out there that make this type of game, and some of them do it very well. But again I feel no sense of shame in declaring that nobody does it better than BioWare.
So, with that out of the way, let’s start talking about how writing for games and novels compares. I’m not going to dwell too much on the elements of good writing and story-telling: strong characters, a compelling narrative, etc. Those kinds of basics are a given. I’m going to focus on some of the more technical aspects. And the most obvious one is size.
A novel probably runs around 75,000 to 300,000 words. That’s a lot of content, but it’s nothing compared to the numbers of a BioWare game. Baldur’s Gate 2 - a game many still hold up as one of the greatest CRPGs ever made – had over 2 million words of text. So it’s at least 10 times the size of most novels, right? Actually, that’s underselling the size of the game. Because in a novel much of your word count goes into description: locations, characters, monsters and even combat and other action scenes need to be described to the reader. But in a game, that isn’t necessary. Pictures and images get all that across to the audience, so all those words are really just dialog and story. In fact, I’d estimate that a game like BG2 had enough story content to fill at least 50 novels when you factor all that other content in.
Of course, you might not see all that content when you play the game the first time (or the second, or the tenth…). As I mentioned earlier, BioWare games have branching dialog and stories – what happens depends on what choices the player makes. Depending who you side with or how you resolve a specific conflict, entire sections of the game might change. The most famous example in BG2 happens just after you rescue one of your companions from a magical prison. There are two ways to try and escape: through a magic portal, or by catching a ride with an untrustworthy pirate. If you join the pirate, his ship sinks and you find yourself caught up in a civil war in an undersea city… but you ONLY see this if you take his ship. Otherwise, this part of the story never happens and you never even know it’s there!
Admittedly, that kind of design mentality has fallen out of favor in the past decade. As games have become more expensive to make, the cost of content is too high to have entire levels be purely optional for players in a story-driven game. But the premise is still the same: the branching dialog multiplies the story content of a BioWare game by 2-3 times (at least).
But even if the games were more linear, the sheer size of them would still dwarf most books. I know, because I made the mistake early in my career of trying to write a novelization of Throne of Bhaal, the expansion pack sequel to BG2. Throne of Bhaal was only a fraction the size of the original BG2, and it was still way too much to try and put into a single book. For starters, in the game you got to pick your companions from a group of 17 different characters you had met in BG2. (And these weren’t 17 similar, virtually interchangeable characters, like Tolkien’s dwarves… each one of these was a different race and gender with his or her own background.) It’s impossible to do justice to that many characters in a single book, so as an author I had to trim that number down… and of course many fans were upset when I cut their personal favorite!
The story itself was also way too much to handle. In the game, players go through five very different areas to encounter 5 Children of Bhaal that they must defeat. In each area we had the time to build up the main antagonist through a series of smaller events that pushed the story forward. I didn’t have that luxury in the novel, though. Basically, I had to jump straight to the “boss fight” in each level, once again cutting a lot of what fans loved about the original story.
If you want a bit more detail about the problems of writing a BioWare novelization, check out the Throne of Bhaal entry near the bottom of my NOVELS page. But the basic point is that the story of a BioWare game is TOO BIG to fit into a novel. That’s why I won’t ever write a KOTOR novel (unless they drive the money truck up to my front door…). It just wouldn’t work – too many characters to work in, too many planets to go to, and too much story to fit on the page.
Don’t get me wrong – I do think there is a lot of value in writing books that have some connection to BioWare games. The Mass Effect novels, Revan and Annihilation all help flesh out some of the characters you meet in the games, and they help bring the respective settings to life in greater detail. But the novels focus on smaller, more personal stories than the games – I had to narrow the focus to make it work. (This is where novels really shine; they allow you to dig down deeper into a handful of characters and get inside their heads in a way you just can’t with games… but I’ll talk about this point more later on.)
So, we’ve established that games are big. Too big for one writer. Which is why all BioWare games have a writing team – anywhere from 4-10+ full time writers who work together to craft the story. That’s another big difference between novels and games. Writing a novel, at least for me, is a very personal and individual process. Writing a game is a collaborative effort: it’s a group process. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but they are quite different.
With a novel, the author has complete creative control. You don’t have to answer to anyone, and you never have to compromise. Sounds great, right? Not always. For one thing, writing novels can be a lonely endeavor – there’s no sense of kinship or camaraderie. And the fact that you can do whatever you want whenever you want doesn’t always give you the best work. If you share your ideas with other writers, often you will have to work harder to make those ideas GOOD before they will be accepted. You also get the feedback and input from the rest of the group, and many times you’ll find they come up with suggestions that make a good idea into a great idea (or stop a bad idea from taking root and dragging the story down).
The trade-off, of course, is the loss of creative control. Sometimes you will have an idea you love, but nobody else buys into it. Or maybe it doesn’t fit with what the rest of the writing team is doing. Or maybe it’s too similar to something somebody else is working on. That’s the price you have to pay – sometimes the group makes your work better, and sometimes you have to sacrifice something for the greater good.
But it’s not just the writers who you need to collaborate with. Every conversation in a BioWare game is going to have many more elements than just the words you came up with. First, you need level designers to create the setting for your story. Then you need an artist to come up with a face, body and style for your character. Next, you need animators and cinematic designers to give your characters life and movement so they feel real. Finally, you need a voice actor to add the performance that puts the whole thing over the top.
At BioWare, the writers were involved in this entire process. We worked closely with all the other departments – giving our input and feedback on their work, and taking their suggestions and feedback and incorporating it into ours. I’m not going to lie – sometimes it felt inefficient and frustrating. There were days when I swore the other members of the team were actively sabotaging the writers. (They weren’t, but that’s what it felt like at the time.) And often deadlines, a lack of resources and technical limitations in other departments forced us to scale back or change part of the story.
Other times, however, the input from the other departments took something we had done as writers and made it AMAZING! Two examples. The first is HK-47, the beloved assassin droid from KOTOR. I was the lead writer on KOTOR, but David Gaider wrote HK. And when I first read the dialog, I wasn’t impressed. It seemed corny and lame, and I was already thinking of ways to do some emergency rewrites to try and salvage anything out of this mess. I was still thinking this when I went to LA to record the first voice over sessions for the game. The actor we’d hired to play HK-47 was gentleman named Kris Tabori, and he had a very interesting take on the character. As soon as I heard his metallic, deadpan delivery everything clicked. Suddenly I “got it”, and the true genius of what Dave had written slapped me upside the head. But I wasn’t able to see it from the writing alone: we needed that amazing performance to make it work.
The second example is one of my own pieces of writing: the Sovereign speech from the original Mass Effect. I was happy with what I had written, but when I saw the final product – the animations, the music, the voice, the effects – I was actually stunned at how powerful the scene was. This was a critical moment in the story, and I honestly don’t think the Reapers would have been as terrifying if it wasn’t for the way all the elements beyond the writing came together.
Okay, so now we all know that games are really big and you have to play well with others to make them work. There’s more, of course, but I think I’ll save that for the next update.