A Copywriter’s Blog

This is the second in a two part series about writing in video games. The first part is here.

In Part 1, I spent a lot of time discussing the differences between a story told by word of mouth, shown on a screen, and recorded in a book. (This post will be much easier to comprehend then that drunken walkabout through my mind.) Here are 3 tactics to stop writing in 8-bit:

Change The Story In The Middle
I played Dungeons and Dragons for about 9 years, and often “ran” the adventures. D&D is the pinnacle of interactive storytelling- not just the actions of the characters, but the entire world is realized and manipulated by the players. And one of the best things about it is that it’s completely open: if people become bored, or something unexpected occurs, the Dungeon Master is able to adapt the game on the fly.

This is something that sounds great in theory, but was never satisfactorily implemented in a video game until Valve released Left4Dead.

If you don’t know, L4D is four players struggling to survive a zombie apocalypse. But the geniuses at Steam included a “5th player” in the game- an AI called “The Director”. It’s The Director’s job to consider the pacing of the game, so it never becomes too hard or too easy. It is, in effect, a Dungeon Master. If the players are low on health, the game waits before releasing more enemies, giving the players a better chance of survival. If they’re doing well, The Director throws more and tougher baddies at them. It lets you limp on until you see the end in sight. Then it throws every baddie in the game at you while you scream for your mother and sprint the last 100 feet in a bid for safety. It solves some of the problems outlined in the Street Fighter example of Part 1. The solution isn’t in the written dialogue, it’s in the narrative hidden within the game mechanics. Valve named it “procedural narrative”.

Let The Player Do It
Another thing about the characters in L4D- they hardly had any story at all. Just instance dialogue that sometimes hinted at their relationships to each other, or their former lives.

This is a piece of brilliance that can also be traced back to D&D- the characters’ stories are written by the players. A bit of old advertising wisdom is that you can never show something as perfect as what people will think up in their own minds. Just plant the seed, and let them imagine what things look like. The same goes for story.

Look at Portal (Valve again)- a game in which the protagonist never speaks at all. The player was able to imprint whatever personality they wanted onto that hero. She was an angry bitch, she was a sarcastic survivor, she was a terrified experimental subject. She was a blank slate onto which the player could project whatever backstory and emotions they desired.

The trick with this style of writing is to make sure you create a world varied enough that it forces a player to adapt and evolve their character. That way, not only do they create a personality, but events cause them to evolve it over time.

For example, when I played the original Mega Man, I decided he was an embattled cyborg with self-doubt who was fighting against incredible odds. Once I beat a few bosses, he was a confident special agent who had the means to really take Wiley down. A cool, almost James Bond-ish cyborg who walked in and blew up the right baddie with exactly the right weapon.

You can’t tell me that’s right or wrong. It’s a story I evolved as the game progressed, thanks to the mechanics inherent in Mega Man’s gameplay.

Tell The Story Again, Differently
The previous techniques are actually advice on how to write less in games, and why I think that’s a good idea. The third suggestion is pretty much the opposite, and because he’s a super genius on par with Wile E Coyote, I’ll just quote Tom’s explanation:

The one game that springs to mind as an exemplary case of telling a story in a way no other medium could is my old favourite Masq. [...] it offers two uniquely video game experiences.

The first time through, it’s a story that responds to you. It’s only multiple choice, but the choices are extremely multiple, and you genuinely do drive the story to an extent I’ve seen nowhere else. (Though I’m sure plenty of text adventures and simple graphic adventures like this compare favourably).

The second occurs after you’ve played it a few times, and you’re really just experimenting. You get to know the characters in a way linear fiction can’t allow: you get to ask, “What would they have done if…” Dozens and dozens of times. It wouldn’t be remarkable, except that there are fascinating quirks to some of Masq’s characters that only become clear when you know them from multiple playthroughs.

For those that haven’t played it, Masq is exactly like those choose-your-own-adventure books. If those books had compelling plots, good writing, and took into consideration the time you spent choosing between options. So in that sense it’s entirely unlike them.

Replayability, or the exploration of “what if” scenarios in a single story, is something games are uniquely suited to. And I think it’s a damn good platform to base some game storytelling on.

From a narrative standpoint, your story will-in all likelihood- not be told well, or even completely, on a single play-through. But if you give them a reason to, players will keep exploring your story/world at their own pace. In the process, they’ll understand more and more of the total tale your game has to tell.

Looking at these approaches as a whole, I think what I’m really suggesting is that we talk less when writing for video games. Rather than try to lead players through a story by the hand, we need to find ways to creatively give up that control, to make final narrative is all the stronger. It’s about creating tools that let players create the story they want to experience, the same way you create tools that let them create the style of play they’re most comfortable with.

I’ve become interested in game design and writing lately, but I’m completely inexperienced. These are my thoughts on the topic, and while I believe they’re valid, they are far less informed than I’d like them to be. If you disagree, if you have suggestions on material I should read or games I should play, do tell me in the comments.

If you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go pwn some zombies.

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