March 20

Next update DELAYED until April 17

The last entry of my “On Writing” series…

I know this update is a few days late. No excuse, really. We had various friends and family visiting over the past few weeks, but there were several days where we weren’t hosting guests that I could have used to get the update out. But I just didn’t.

This is a real potential problem for freelancers. There are always reasons to not write; it’s up to you to find a reason to write. I’ll admit – I’m driven by external deadlines. If I have a publisher or someone else waiting on my stuff, I will get it done. The closer I get to the deadline, the more productive I become. But when I don’t have those deadlines, I tend to procrastinate.

Some folks have said “just set yourself a deadline, then” but it doesn’t work that way. A deadline that only you care about isn’t a real deadline; I need the onus of having an outside agency waiting on me. That’s why this blog update is frequently late. (I realize there are people waiting on this blog each update, but they don’t actually pay me, so I don’t feel obligated to them. Maybe that makes me an asshole; so be it.)

Eventually the guilt of not updating this blog gets to me, and I get off my ass and do it. Which is where I am now – so let’s get started!

I’ve been talking for the past several updates about writing in general; and last update I looked at writing for video games vs writing for novels. Some of what I’m about to say may sound like I’m bashing games, but that isn’t the case. The video game industry is still very young. Film has been around for over 100 years; books and plays much, much longer. But interactive narrative of the type in BioWare video games only became widely known in the last 20-30 years or so. It’s a younger art form, so it lacks some of the maturity and depth of traditional writing forms.

The techniques to leverage the gaming experience to tell the best story possible are still evolving; writers are still struggling with the best ways to tap into the full potential of games… a process made even more difficult by the ever changing technology of the industry. That doesn’t mean narrative in games is worse, but it is more raw. And it has both advantages and disadvantages over traditional media.

 I’ve already discussed scope (video games are MUCH larger and have more content) and I’ve discussed the collaborative vs individual nature of each (games you work with a team; novels you sink or swim all on your own). But there’s one more major difference, especially with BioWare style games: point of view.

In a novel, you almost always have either first or third person point of view. Writers can mix and match, of course, but all of these tend to put the reader into a passive role. In a book you are the audience, watching the events happen. You might feel a kinship with the characters, and you get insights into who they are and why they do it that help develop sympathy. But you are always a passive participant; you never drive the story.

Games are different. In a BioWare narrative we effectively have a second person point of view; everything that is happening is happening to YOU, the player. (Or rather, to the character representing you, but let’s not get into semantics.) More importantly, as the narrative progresses YOU get to influence it in various ways. Some of these ways are subtle: you help determine the style in the conversation choices you make – are you heroic, a badass rebel, a wise cracking joker? Other choices are more direct: you might decide which faction to join, or whether to work with or against a character. You might decide if the central protagonist (YOU) is good or evil, which makes a very different kind of story. You even get to make plot and story choices that can ultimately save or kill off major characters.

This may seem obvious, but it has a profound and far reaching effect on how the writer must approach things. As before, I’m not saying one form is better than the other: novels are better at some things, games are better at others. There is always a give and take. But I think if you want to write for games (or even just in traditional media) it’s important to understand these differences.

First, letting a player influence the narrative makes everything more complicated. You can guide and direct the players, and try to keep the story moving in a few very basic directions. But a BioWare style game forces a writer to give up some control of the story. Players don’t always pick what we expect them to… or want them to. That makes it much more difficult to craft a very intricate and involved story. You can’t have too many twists and turns in the plot, because players may not go in the direction you need to make those twists seem logical.

Actually, let’s talk about twists for just a second. In any kind of writing, if you as an author include some kind of surprise or twist that NOBODY sees coming, then you have FAILED! The best twists are those that flow organically from the story; they have foreshadowing and they tie into the themes. On a second run, any audience that has seen the twist should be able to notice things that make them go “aha – they were telegraphing this all along!”. This can be very subtle, but no matter how subtle there will be a handful of folks who see it coming before it arrives. The only way to make a twist catch everyone off guard is to have it come with no warning or foreshadowing at all… and that will almost always feel wrong, or forced, or unnatural.

I’m also going to say right now that I feel like too many works (books, games, films, TV shows) feel like they NEED some shocking twist. Often the twist is used as a way to try and create drama and interest in an otherwise weak project. You don’t need twists to keep an audience engaged. I do think you need to keep bringing in new information or progressing the plot/characters in new or unexpected ways… but I don’t think these all have to be “you didn’t see that coming!” type surprises. I don’t even like the term “twist” – I prefer reveal. A reveal can be something major (Vader was Luke’s father!) or it can be something more subtle (Han and Leia are falling in love; Luke’s power as a Jedi is growing). Both have their place; just don’t become over-reliant on shocking twists… or you get a lazy mess that nobody can really understand. (cough Lost cough).

Okay, back to books vs games. If you write a book or screenplay, you can carefully layer in all the foreshadowing and clues necessary to make each reveal work properly. In a BioWare style player-driven narrative, however, you can’t always be sure when – or even if – players will see these clues. You can work your ass off to try and cover every story path and decisions players will make to be sure they see what must be seen, but it’s a lot of work and you can’t do it that often.

We did it for the big reveal in KOTOR, and I spent many weeks making sure players couldn’t miss the ground work we put in. And then, just to make sure they remembered all the cool stuff I worked so hard on, we recapped it with flashbacks in the Revan revelation cutscene (SPOILERS, obviously). But it simply wouldn’t be possible to do this multiple times in a game. The end result is that the narrative for a game has to be simpler and more linear than other media.

This may seem like I’m contradicting myself from before: I spent a lot of time talking about how much content games have compared to books or movies. But we aren’t talking size; we’re talking complexity and subtlety. There are some things you just can’t pull off as well in a game as you can in a book. In the book you control ALL the information; you guide the reader down a very precise and carefully chosen path. What they know and when they know it – and the context of that knowledge – is entirely in your hands. You can build and layer bits of information on top of each other over and over, creating a magnificent tapestry that will amaze your audience with how brilliantly it all fits together.

In a game, that’s a recipe for disaster. You don’t know where or when or even if players are going to get certain information. You can control most of it, but if the players have any input into the story (as they do in BioWare games) you can’t control ALL of it. That means you have to sacrifice some of the complexity to make sure the story will work for all players.

There’s another element to this, as well. Modern games have a very cinematic quality to them: most of the story is delivered through cutscenes, dialog and action on the screen rather than text. So it would be reasonable to assume that the same techniques screenwriters use to convey story and character would work in a game. But though there are many similarities, that isn’t always the case, because of the active role of the player. In a movie or TV show, the audience has one job – pay attention to what’s on the screen: look, listen and learn. But in a game, players have many jobs. They aren’t focused exclusively on learning the story: they’re also fighting enemies, and exploring new areas on the map, and trying new equipment and powers. Sometimes they are replaying areas over and over to gain special items or easter egg abilities. They aren’t just sitting back and taking everything in; they’re also reacting to everything that happens. This draws focus and attention away from the story.

Many of the techniques used in film to convey subtle character or story foreshadowing will be missed by the vast majority of players. You can always include them as cool little bonuses for the small segment of the audience that catches it; or they can be neat little bonuses for players who replay something multiple times to notice. But you can’t rely on them to build your story the same way you could in a film or TV show. If you want players to know something, you have to be more overt and direct in telling them. In screenwriting, great pains are taken to avoid being too “on the nose” with something, and good writers try to avoid over-exposition. In games, I think writers need to err in the opposite direction, or players will get lost. Unfortunately, many writers don’t understand this, which is why many games have convoluted plots that don’t seem to make much sense. (This isn’t limited to games, of course, but it does seem to be pretty common in the industry.)

It may seem like games are at an inherent disadvantage in telling a story because of this, but they do have a huge upside that no other media gets. Because the audience is active rather than passive, every emotional experience in a game resonates much more powerfully. As a writer, you get more bang for your buck in games. Players are more emotionally invested in the story because it affects them directly; it’s an incredibly powerful effect. In a well written game, a relationship between the player and another character will have a much stronger impact than a similar relationship between the protagonist and another character  in a movie.  Every setback, every victory, every tragedy and every triumph hit with greater emotional force because the player is partly responsible for them. The story usually has to be more direct and overt to work, but it doesn’t have to have the same complexity or emotional depth and layers as other media to get the same impact.

The analogy I like to use is playing a sport versus watching professional sports. Let’s use golf, since I’m a golf addict. I don’t golf as well as the professional golfers on TV. When I watch them, I marvel at their skill – they have achieved a level I will never reach. I get enjoyment from watching them hit incredible shots and record amazing scores. But when I’m playing golf, instead of watching it, everything is amplified. I get more satisfaction from shooting 77 than I do from watching a professional shoot 65. Empirically, my golf is worse than theirs, but I personally get more enjoyment and entertainment from it.

Actually, it’s more fair to say that the enjoyment of each experience is different, rather than better. The experience of observing something you love (cheering on your basketball team, attending a rock concert, going to an art museum, enjoying the story in a book or movie) is very distinct from the experience of participating in a similar activity (playing 3-on-3, jamming with friends, taking brush to canvas to express yourself, playing a story-driven game). The act of playing a video game fundamentally changes the role of the audience, which fundamentally changes the story experience in ways writers need to be aware of.

Okay, that’s about it. Like I said earlier, it may sound like I was bashing games, but I honestly don’t believe traditional narrative forms are inherently superior to narrative in games. They each have their pros and cons.

Hope you enjoyed this rather long series of posts on writing. Next update I’ll be talking more about the coming spring and summer: what projects I’m working on, what is being released and which Cons and events I’ll be trying to attend. Later.

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