The Game of Love Got Called Off Due To Rain

Good Evening, Mackaholics,

Sorry for the late entry, gang. I was expecting to do some recording today, and spent the morning prepping for it, and didn’t give myself enough time to write a post. I also didn’t get up as early as usual, due I suspect to allergy issues, which is another factor in the lateness of posting.

Anyway, since no recording has gotten done, and since the only work I have done today is correcting most of the chords in the Dinner Date music sheet, I figure I can make time to post now. I didn’t have a topic until just a little while ago, when I read an article on writing in games. The main article referred to two others, one talking about the great writing in the upcoming Lara Croft reboot, and the other a commentary on the idea that the state of writing in games like the Lara Croft franchise, amongst most other (according to the commentator) is highly inadequate. The main article takes exception with this point, and, for reasons of my own, I disagree as well.

Writing for games isn’t anything like writing for more passive mediums, and though there are similarities with screenwriting and even graphic novel writing, the process is not really the same, and ironically enough, neither are the goals. Oh sure,in the main, they’re just trying to tell stories, the same as every other writer. But there’s this elitist attitude that I’ve heard expressed a number of times over the years, that somehow, because the medium works differently and the results aren’t the same as they are with a one-and-a-half-to-two hour movie or twenty-to-fifty hour book, that somehow, the writing isn’t as good, and that, ergo, the writers aren’t really writers and don’t deserve to be called such. This, my friends, is bullshit.

Okay, I’ll grant you, the stories told in a number of classic video games are pretty goofy and don’t really hold up to too much scrutiny, if you’re fussy about levels of excitement, empathy and catharsis. The Rules of Drama have to work differently than they do in printed prose, and in the way they work for television and the stage, for that matter. There are some basic tenets that are about how humans think and comprehend, but a lot of the quality and challenge of writing strong interactivity in a game forces the writer to throw a lot of stuff about pacing and authorial direction out the window. A good interactive story doesn’t have the same criterion as a good novel, and even the rules for good novel writing are pretty subjective. It’s nice to know the rules so you know how to break them, but from medium to medium, the rules are vastly different, and the title “Writer” takes on a completely different function and toolset.

Let’s look at the Rules of Drama and see if we can make sense of how they apply to interactivity, shall we? Oh wait, we can’t. You see, in order to do that, we have to take several years of college/university education in literature, theatre and writing. This takes time and money, and, interestingly enough, you don’t need to do it. Not to be a writer. Anyone who says otherwise is selling you something. Seriously. Writing requires an imagination and an ability to string words and ideas together to form a narrative. Schooling can teach you the mechanics, if there are any that apply to the specific field you are approaching, but again, a writer’s only real requirements are imagination and word wrangling. Go to school learn bigger words, more words, more poetic words. But unless you plan on only ever writing exactly what you were taught to write, the lessons are highly useless, and might even inhibit you ability to write.

Keep in mind, I’m not talking about academic writing, which requires PhDs and all the rest just to get your MS read, let alone published. Non-fiction usually requires at least a recognized or supposed degree of expertise in a specific topic before folks will seriously consider you for print.

But we’re talking about drama here, and drama, though something that is learned, isn’t something you need a diploma to do right. That’s just the establishment talking. You have my permission to ignore them at your leisure.

So if there are no rules, then how does Drama work? Well, we could discuss tools like pacing and dialogue, but those are just tools, and they’re adjustable to suit style, genre and medium. Let’s start with the framework stuff that seemingly every story needs just to be called a story. You need three things: Setting, Event and Pathos. There are other things you need to write, but these are the three things you need to have a Story.

Setting is both Location and Back Story, and can sometimes imply the likelihood of Event, so you may need to do some world building if you’re not telling stories about your local neighbourhood or one you wish you had grown up in. In any case, your target objectives here are to make your setting interesting and believable without letting the setting take over the story. It’s a balancing act, and Balance is a key tool in writing (as in life). We’ll discuss that more in a bit.

Event is obviously the answer to the question you ask several times a day: What happened? Often times, most folks talking about writing are really focussed on this part, and for good reason: most folks will learn more about a person, place or thing if they see them reacting to an event, rather than just observing or listening to them. Events are what writers generally cut their teeth on, learning how to define and describe an event, maybe working in a bit of characterisation and location detail for verisimilitude, but in the main, the focus is on making stuff happen.

Pathos is what you get by introducing characters and make them react convincingly to event and setting. You can’t really have a story without it. Your characters don’t have to be humans. They don’t even have to be Earth creatures. You can tell a story from any point of view you care to try, if you can wrap your brain around their thought processes. The point of pathos is to make people give a shit about what happens in your story. If you tell a story about an unfeeling, unthinking thing doing nothing in the middle of nowhere, people will almost certainly walk out and demand their money back. That is the definition of a Bad Story. However, they also might walk out if your character does something in the middle of someplace interesting, but you give your audience no explanation as to why. Why characters do things is very, VERY big with us monkeys. We like to know why a thing happens. It teaches us things, or makes us think more clearly about a lesson we only think we know, or at very least it confirms what we already know about Why Things Happen. We love that. That’s a reason to follow your story. That we give a shit about. We don’t always like the people in a story, though it helps, but we always need to know why they did a thing, so we can at least decide if we care about what happens to them or not.

That’s all there is to it, gang. Seriously. You didn’t need to go to college to learn that, did you? You already knew it, though perhaps you hadn’t seen it laid out for you like this. You’re welcome. You can pay me back by buying one of my books someday.

The key thing about Story is that it’s about us making narrative sense of events taking place in a specific setting. You can’t do it without some sentient creature to observe and possibly interact within the framework of the story you have laid out. You need an audience, and even if your only audience is you, the audience still needs to believe that it really could happen like that under those circumstances. If your first audience, i.e. You don’t think it could really happen like that, nobody else will either, believe me.

So, where does that leave our argument about game writers? Well, the argument that they aren’t writers is a crock, as I’ve said, because any monkey can tell a story, so long as they have the three things I showed you. Where we get into trouble is, do those three items make a Good Story. The answer is, maybe. Naturally, there’s more to it.

First and foremost, you may have to recognize who your audience is, and decide what features you can invest into your story in order to achieve pathos for your audience. The easiest way to do this is to write about things you already know people care about, like whatever is in the news or whatever your friends and family are prone to talk about when they should be eating, sleeping or working. Anything at all that appeals to at least one person is fodder for storytelling.

Where games run into trouble is, because folks are so focussed on having something to do when they play games, they get cranky if you try telling them too much story. Where non-gaming audiences object to stories in games is when they fail to take on a recognizable shape, because most folks don’t really think too much about storytelling as a pursuit, and don’t really know that there’s more to it than Beginnings Middles and Ends. It’s like the dogs playing poker: I may not know Art, but I know what I like.

One of the skills a storyteller has to develop, which can’t really be taught, is to listen to that voice in the back of your head that tells you when something that interests your friends and loved ones will or will not make for a good story. This runs counter to just about everything I just told you, but it’s the only part of the process that defines you as a storyteller. It’s called ‘taste’, and without it, you risk the unpardonable sin of being a boor. It’s HIGHLY subjective, however, and mostly comes down to your convictions and skills as a storyteller. Tell about the time you saw an alien face on your toast if you want, but by goodness SELL IT! Make me believe it. Make me care.

Teachers might be able to help you with this by suggesting strategies or philosophies to investigate, but no text book can give you this skill. And you don’t have to be one kind of write or another to learn this all-important skill. In fact, it’s the one skill you need to develop before you set pen to paper, if you can help it. Stephen King famously said that it takes writing about a million words to becoming a professional author, and I’m sure there are similar ideas about being a playwright, television writer, screenwriter or anything else that isn’t technical, academic or product oriented. What that says is the same thing you’ve probably heard about getting to Carnegie Hall: Practice, man, Practice. But you’ll waste those million words if you don’t develop the ability to tell a cool story from an annoying or boring one.

You don’t have to write for James Patterson’s audience, or Dan Brown’s of Maeve Binchey’s, but you need to develop your own sense of what will be a good story to tell, and what kinds of stories you have it in you to really sell. Your authorial voice will only develop if you continue to write thigns that interest and amaze you, but you do need to consider who you’re writing for. Maybe don’t think about writing for an audience of millions. Think about an audience of one. Probably the person you dedicated the book to. That’s a big enough audience to tell you if you’re being interesting or boring.

You might want to avoid writing for an audience of one who reads books for a living, however. That’s just asking for heartbreak. 😉

Again, how does that affect writing for games? Well, games have their own challenges, not least of which is, they have to leave things open enough for the audience (i.e. The Player) at least the illusion of ‘agency’: the feeling of freedom of choice, and the near-constant awareness that what you do has consequences that you can understand. If you do something in a game because the internal story logic says it’s supposed to be like that, but you know that there’s another, better way to do it, you’re going to at least be irritated, and at worst you’re going to toss the game in the microwave and watch the disc crackle and spark, or shatter into a dozen pieces when you fling it at the wall. Game writers have to be more aware of what the audience is likely to think than any other sort of writer there is, save perhaps advertising copy writers. Anticipation and preparation and buckets of sweat and patience are needed to write a convincing and thoroughly engrossing game, and if it doesn’t work for everyone, well, that’s just how the world is.

One of the catches of writing for games is, it takes longer to build up that million words, so it takes a long time to really excel at your craft, if you ever do, and unlike with novel or short story writing, you can’t see the final results or share them with friends unless they are built into a game, and most games take months if not years to develop. I don’t mean this to sound like an apology for bad game writers. I just think folks have to take into account how difficult is is to learn your craft on the job in an industry where your product takes years to go from the writing stage to the presentation stage. Even epic novel writers have a faster turnaround than that of most game writers. Practice, man, Practice.

The tools needed to develop a good game story are simple; the ability to develop them, not so much: the three aforementioned (Setting, Event and Pathos), plus one that sounds like Zen Buddhism: leave your ego at the door.

Seriously, if you think you’re some hot shit writer who knows the ins and outs of writing for any medium, you’re going to screw up when you write a game, because you are probably putting your authorial voice ahead of the needs of the gamer. If the game is going to run on rails anyway, that might almost pass muster, but no one is going to applaud your writing skills if there isn’t enough stuff for the Player to do without having their hands held or being constantly shoved towards the exit. You have to sacrifice your precious knowledge of how the story should go and simply present the options and the payoffs you know of for the Player to choose from. It’s a collaboration. Most writers have dabbled with collaborating with other authors, which requires trust and respect. But when you can’t see the face of your so-called collaborator, you need to be fairly egoless and just roll with the punches.

Write in bits and pieces, not detailed plot lines; make the bits really good; make sure you wrote enough bits that go together in interesting combinations; give the player lots of ways to stumble upon each bit; assemble your story out of elastic bands that can stretch and bend several ways; and make sure you wrote a handful of really good endings that make sense no matter what way you arrive at them. Each ending doesn’t have to be all endings to all people; that’s why you’re writing more than one. But you don’t want to write an individual ending for every eventuality, because most of them will be pale imitations of each other. Stick to the highlights; Let context fill in the gaps.

And if that’s not enough, drop the player hints or give them a score card, so they can see how well they are progressing. Personally, I never really cared for games that keep count of my progress, but I do like games that are programmed to assign values to my choices. What I really like is the IDEA of games that can calculate those point values, work up a formula of events to follow, and shape my experiences to suit my reactions. I think that’s where interactive storytelling needs to go, and when it gets there, we’ll be hearing a lot less of this ‘game writers suck’ crapola. Because nobody hates the story that they wrote unless they didn’t know what they were doing, and if you have an amateur collaborating with a pro, you’re bound to get it at least half right. Plus, your immersion into the story by virtue of the choices you make will give you more than enough catharsis to make up for lack of authorial control.

This is all stuff I’ve been saying for years, and I still believe it. It just might take a little longer to get there, but when we get there, watch out! It’ll change the whole world.


Don't be shy. Tell me what you really think, now.


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