Crash Course in Games Writing

There's more to the Game Developers Conference than technology demos and postmortems. We signed up for the conference's tutorial track to take a crash course in games writing.

There are many things you can do at the Game Developers Conference. You can do things like see Retro Studios dissect its work on Donkey Kong Country Returns or hear Will Wright compare game design to drug dealing. However, there's a lot more to the show than seminars with the biggest names in gaming; there are also tutorial sessions, where developers can get schooled on such skills as level design, usability, and writing. This year, we decided to attend a class called "Learn Better Game Writing in a Day," taught by LucasArts' Evan Skolnick. After all, why not learn a bit about an area of development so frequently bemoaned by critics?

The tutorial itself was surprisingly well attended; it was at full capacity at about 250 people. We grouped together around tables; our team included people involved in social and mobile gaming, as well as one guy who was just looking to break into the games industry. We were all involved in writing in some capacity in our jobs, but none of us had been professionally trained in the art.

The day was broken down into lessons, exercises, and even some movie viewing, as Skolnick got us to collectively ponder what he called "modern geek classics," which were movies that everyone in the room had likely seen. The most important takeaway from the session was the importance of conflict in our stories; without it, you have nothing. Fortunately for games writers, gameplay itself is conflict, so we were starting with a good base.

However, it wasn't all good news for the aspiring game writers in the room. Skolnick was keen to put potential games writers in their place. He showed a slide that simply said, "You are not the next Hemingway." Unlike writers in movies and literature, the story isn't king--it is gameplay. In fact, Skolnick compared being a game writer to being a rodeo bull rider. He said the goal is often less about steering things where you want them to go and more about just hanging on for dear life, trying to avoid being gored.

Our tutor claimed that it's important to remember that you're a smaller piece of the overall puzzle, sitting alongside art, audio, and programming departments under a producer or creative director. "I get people telling me they have a great story for a game," said Skolnick. "That's like going to a movie studio and saying I have a great soundtrack." The key for any successful games writer is to work with all of these different departments to make sure that the story comes through in all different departments, from the people creating the environments and characters to the ones delivering the dialogue.

Also key for the games writer to understand is the genre you are writing in and how much story the audience will, in his words, "tolerate." Puzzle games, for example, usually don't require any story, but as you move through strategy, first-person shooters, action platforming games, and up to role-playing games, the audience tolerance goes up. Skolnick then joked that there was a whole other level off the end of the scale, reserved especially for Metal Gear Solid 2.

Your job as a games story writer boils down to this: You need to write tight, effective, well-integrated story content. The words "story content" and not just "dialogue" were an important distinction here. The majority of the day was spent wrapping our heads around the basics of storytelling, such as Aristotle's three-act structure, character archetypes, and finally, at the very end of the day, dialogue.

The way that we learned this through the day was via a number of group exercises and discussion. We compared GTAIII's intro to GTAIV's intro (GTAIII is better, in terms of conflict). We dissected famous movies, such as Star Wars, Toy Story, and on our table, The Incredibles. The lunch break was spent watching the first 45 minutes of The Terminator and observing how director and screenwriter James Cameron drip-feeds information about the story to the audience slowly; it's not until halfway through the movie that we understand how it all fits together.

In conclusion, the session was worthwhile, both in terms of learning and networking. All of the attendees were genuinely engaged, arguing passionately over whether characters fit one archetype over another and questioning how well-established storytelling techniques can be applied to or broken in video games. And, we all gained an appreciation of why this stuff is important. As Skolnick says, "We live this stuff, we breathe this stuff, and so does your audience."

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