A bit more on game writing

September 6, 2012


I just came across this podcast which continues the discussion of video game writing I posted previously. Ken Levine (Irrational Games) and Amy Hennig (Naughty Dog) are both Creative Directors and writers, so the conversation is a relevant one. The podcast can be found here.

Some interesting aspects they mention in there:

  • Writing is one of the more ‘flexible’ aspects of game development. It’s one of the easiest (see: cheapest) things to change for a game.
  • Iteration is the name of the game for game writers. Much like game mechanics and other aspects of games require iteration and testing before they find their best application, the story and writing is changing constantly (a concept VERY different from Film and Television, but maybe not so different from Literature).
  • As a writer, you have to constantly evaluate what you’re writing and make sure it is ‘best for the game’. You have to be objective and cut things that you love, but may not be essential or suitable for the game.
  • Both Amy and Ken are not fans of writing lots of backstory/bios. Because their jobs involve so much more than simply writing, they simply don’t have the time to develop prose that won’t end up in the game itself. Amy mentions she sometimes writes something as if she was explaining it to someone else as a way of solidifying and making sense of the idea.
  • Ken cites a reference to Star Wars, where people wanted a prequel to “explain how things got to where they were” in the original trilogy by creating a prequel trilogy. He suggests that while you are interested in backstory, when you get it you are often disappointed. Going backwards to uncover how all those things started is, as Amy put it, more a dissection than a living exploration of story.
  • Looking for feedback is tricky for a writer/designer, because often the player doesn’t know what they want until they experience it. Players often want repeats of previous experiences, so it’s tricky to gauge how new experiences will be received by players.
  • Never call a writer “lazy”. As Amy describes it, even people developing a crappy game go into it ‘with their heart on their sleeve’, working their ass off. Ken sees “lazy” more as risk-adverse.
  • Don’t ever write/design games to demographics! It’s much better to aim at developing a good, cohesive story, which in-and-of-itself will appeal universally to all demographics.
  • “Stories are about what characters want and the changes they go through”. Both Ken and Amy agree that character-driven stories are the best way to approach story in general, as the characters (more than the lore) are what people will connect and bond with.

Personally, I can identify with the approach of drawing up a “roadmap” of a story, but not completely fleshing everything out. I do enjoy writing backstory/rough bios, and I think it is relevant (to help capture the tone, and help others when developing the game), but the concept of iteration and fluidity of story development is essential. Too many things (least of which is your own views) change over the course of development of a game, particularly if development takes years.

The writer is often so central to the process in literature, and (in the initial development) in film and television. But in games, more than any other, you have to be willing to “do the best for the game” and cut things you love. A game writer seems to be someone who is a “great adapter”: be able to work and rework things to make the best experience, under a pile of constraints (deadlines, budgets, scope, game mechanics, and other restrictions). If you can overcome the personal attachment to your work, and are comfortable with the constant edits of iterative game development, you will be able to succeed as a game writer.