On Writing (For Video Games)

Imagine you have a new game idea. If you already have one, let's chat. You've got your gameplay squared away in a prototype build and it has promise. So, in this hypothetical or realistic scenario, you've filled a Game Design Document up with everything your game needs. But the story is missing and you keep thinking that you don't want to settle for something bland and just 'serviceable'. 

The idea of writing for video games should not seem foreign to anyone playing - or developing - them, but what are the best practices on approaching such a workload? To begin, it is important we cast aside any idea that writing for a game can be synonymous to writing a film or other storytelling medium. I'm not saying to ignore all the writing rules, mind you. I mean that to write for games is to write for games. If you tackle your project like a screenplay for an 80's action film, you are not writing a game, you are writing an 80's action screenplay.

But Johnny, I'm writing an 80's action game!

I understand the desire to mimic what can be seen as the most successful form of entertainment. But writing for games is fundamentally different to films. To think that borrowing from another medium wholeheartedly will make your story just as endearing and successful is to cheapen what video games do best: make the player feel a part of the world. Don't forget that video games that try to be movies end up being a bore to play, especially if you have them sit there for cutscenes that overstay their welcome.

So...I'm not writing an 80's action game?

No, you are! The devil is in the details, and your biggest strength is the final word in the question: "game". You have to realize that by saying "I'm writing a game" you are committing to putting pen to paper not for an engaging story, but an immersive playable experience. It's fine if you'd like a gruff action hero who lost it all to learn the value of friendship, but you have to remember that locking away his growth to unskippable - or skippable - cutscenes will result in players wanting to rush through a level to see the next event. You end up with a reward system of "Play this now, enjoy that later" that ruins the whole point of your project: you should be making a fun game.

Wait, what am I writing then?

Good question. The answer is you are not just writing a story. You are writing a story and a game. Let's look at your possibly-copyright-infringing action hero. You want to convey that his friends lead him through tough times, through moments of self-doubt and harrowing feats of firing pistols while leaping through the air. In a film, the action hero relies on the camera work and drama between characters to show you how the character is improving. Although these techniques may transition to games, we as developers have an extra tool in our kit: gameplay.

Alright! I designed a segment of gameplay that's like a homage to my favorite 80's action games.

Great! But that's not what we're going for here.

Hold on, you said...

Let's break this down. Take the following two examples for gameplay and we'll see what this is all about.

  1. Action Hero Samson takes down a battalion of grunts sent to kill him before he saves the president. His friends fight alongside him and our cutscenes show how badass the team can be.
  2. Action Hero Samson learns to command his friends' abilities to complement his play-style. They prove valuable in defeating the X number of grunts per level. Eventually, the crew kills the big baddie and saves the President.

Can you spot the difference? In scenario one, we have an action hero who mostly fights on his own until a scripted event says he doesn't. We are introduced to the idea that the player is a one-man army, but that undercuts our central theme that he is relying on his allies. Sure, his friends help him out in cutscenes, but we cheapen the story this way.

In scenario two, the friends become part of the gameplay. Placing a mechanic in the game to issue orders to your compatriots shows that the main characters can use their strengths to complete a level. Instead of telling the player how awesome and helpful the team is, their gameplay inclusion drives home the point we're trying to make with the story. This is key to understanding how to write for games.

Hold on a second. I've played games that were written like scenario one!

We're getting better as an industry, I swear! The problem with any video game project - including bigger triple-A productions - is making sure your gameplay reinforces the ideas in your story. Remember, we develop for an immersive medium that emphasizes the play aspect that separates us from film and books. If your story is locked away in missable or skippable scenes or the gameplay seems to contradict what you're trying to say, players will become annoyed or bothered.

But Johnny, I'm making an 80's action game! It doesn't say anything profound. Can't I just have shooting?

Not if your reading this blog about writing you can't! Listen, any story worth telling has some kind of message to pass along to the reader/player/viewer or else it becomes throwaway and not worth participating in. Not all games have to have a story, mind you. I'm not implying that Tetris should be about an oppressive regime controlling the workforce and expecting perfection out of the way they stack colored, oddly-shaped bricks. But if you want to include narrative about humans, it better well show some growth or change or regression for the avatars involved or you've wasted both the players' time and your own.

Nobody expects to be able to write The Odyssey of video games, but it doesn't hurt to have your story have a bit of weight behind it. Like we mentioned above, your 80's action game can be about the power of friendship. That's a Saturday Morning Cartoon storyline, but at least it's in there saying something about the character. We spend a ton of time leveling up and getting better gear for our RPG characters. We already love growth in games, so let's get some narrative growth in there too.

Okay, now you're making some sense. Care to share some examples?

Before I sat down to write this piece, I thought seriously about whether I wanted to include this section. It isn't cool to watch the little guy harp on the big budget productions raking in millions of dollars. I don't know if it'll come off that way - and I'm including indie examples of good and bad writing too - but I feel the need to preface this section with this warning ahead of time: The games I will be describing in the supposed 'good' or 'bad' categories below aren't necessarily binary examples. They all have strengths and weaknesses (unless otherwise stated) within them and I'm not saying you shouldn't play any of them or that your favorite game is a bad game.

Also, I'll avoid spoilers below.

With that out of the way, let's talk about Metal Gear Solid. The Metal Gear Solid series has its share of great writing alongside confusing scenes of ridiculous dialogue, but I'm not delving that deep into it today. That would require a whole article series, probably one for each game. No, what I want to say is that Metal Gear Solid manages to tie its narrative and gameplay...sometimes. Didn't expect that from a huge fan, did you?

In Metal Gear Solid (1998), the entire game can be beaten without killing a soul through gameplay, however the player will be chastised for enjoying killing. Granted, the first time through the game, the player most likely will not be skilled enough to avoid killing altogether. On the other hand, it seems unfair for the game to accuse you of something it doesn't know you've done for sure. This accusation is targeted directly at Solid Snake - protagonist and soldier - so the case can be made that the player is not the recipient of this guilt trip. But, that means there is a disconnect between gameplay and story, which, as stated, is a great immersion breaker.

Moving on to a more recent title, Bioshock Infinite (2013) showed us exactly how far a story can disconnect from gameplay. Although an enjoyable title, Infinite suffered from the narrative telling us that the lead, Booker DeWitt, is trying to move past his violent history in the Civil War to gameplay showing us how much of a mass murderer he is. It is difficult to turn a shooter - especially when it is a part of a series - into another genre. Fans expected Infinite to play like, but better than Bioshock (2007) and Bioshock 2 (2010).  But by choosing this narrative thread, Irrational Games ended up disconnecting their gameplay from the story they wanted to tell.

Remaining in the realm of first-person shooters, the very unpopular Haze (2008) actually gives us a good example of a cohesion between its plot elements and its shooty-bits.

Woah, woah, woah. Haze? Really?

Just a moment, please! Don't unleash the hounds on me yet. Haze stars a gruff dudebro in a gruff dudebro army fighting rebels in South America. To fight the rebels, their command issues out a drug called Haze, which promises to increase adrenaline levels and make killing 'fun'. Now why did I pick such a game? Well, get the dogs off and I'll tell you. First, Haze commits to its cohesion by showing you the effects of the drug at the game's start. When playing for the "good guys", it may seem like the game is dated in mechanics and presentation, as each bullet into an enemy results in little effect. They simply stop shooting you and keel over. No pain, no screaming. Nothing. However, after the first few chapters of the game, the main character finds out that Haze is slowly killing the soldiers using it. In addition, the drug had been keeping the soldiers from realizing the true extent of their brutality to the rebels.

Haze does this by changing up its gameplay system to show you a more horrifying side to your actions. When the drug wears off for our hero, enemies fired upon begin to scream, emit blood particles, and plead for death as they fall to the ground. I know this game gets a bit of flack for promising to be the "next Halo" when it released, but I implore every burgeoning game writer to play it for at least until this plot twist is introduced.

Now, I want to talk about why indie game have more leeway in better writing.

I thought this wasn't going to become an indie-versus-AAA article?

That's still true. But I think it's important to note that I mean this only temporarily. The issue I see in big production titles is the lack of an ability to explore other genres than what's popular. It makes sense, however. Studios want to ensure that their large budgets are recouped, so they create games they know people want to play. This is not a bad thing, and this isn't always the case. In fact, looking at the marketplace shows some new titles escaping the bigger studios that prove chances can be taken. However, we're not quite at the point where I would say a majority of players will choose a Journey over a Modern Warfare 5.

But I digress. Let's chat about Papers, Please (2013), where you play as a border control guard deciding whether migrants should be or can be allowed into your country. Papers, Please uses a brand new type of gameplay - document investigation - to properly give the player that immersive factor of living the life of a border guard. Don't let my attempt to describe it dissuade you; it's quite a lot of fun. Papers, Please's narrative and gameplay are symbiotic. Without the narrative framing, the gameplay would be bland. And without this new form of gameplay, its narrative of an oppressive border would be undercut by other attempts at genre. Would a shooter work for Papers, Please? No. A racing game, sports game, tactics RPG? No, no, and no.

You're over-explaining!

That I am! Listen, the fact of the matter is I can throw game examples out to you all day and the end result would be you never finish this article. In order to truly understand how to write for games, you have to play the hell out of them. Grab good games and bad games in equal measure and see how they stack up to this new quality expectation for video game writing. Writing for games is no big secret. The fact is other forms of narrative media became stronger through practice by individuals learning to develop their stories to fit the way their stories are told.

The video game industry is about forty years old now, and it is still the youngest entertainment industry of them all. We're past our infancy state, but we are still learning. The trick, if you believe there is one, lies in following four simple steps:

  1. Find out what you what to say.
  2. Marry your narrative to gameplay elements.
  3. Make your game.

It's up to you to fill out what comes in between. I believe you can do it. Why not give it a try?

- Johnny Toxin


For the next part in Johnny Toxin writing series, click here.