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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Discussion

17 comments
Distinctive_Fin
Distinctive_Fin

To a certain extent, I agree with the article. But it all depends on what type of game you are making. The Mario Series needs nothing more than bare bones story, but the Metroid (especially Prime) Series is deeply rooted in great lore. So if you are making or playing Angry Birds, then no big deal. Just add a minute or two of half baked animation to show some hungry green pigs stealing eggs. If however, you are picking up Gears of War, then the previous story idea just won't work.

killerkrish1983
killerkrish1983

Nice article...insightful....would have had fun if I had attended it.... :(

-Shadowbinded-
-Shadowbinded-

@giocher @Stoopid_Fool I was just enjoying your discussion (sarcasm right here, lol), but I will have to add that people can become addicted to games. It's not the same as a drug addiction, but it is still an addiction. There are far too many kids nowadays that would rather get home after school and play COD from 3pm till midnight instead of spending time with friends. There have been a few studies on this that have been widely criticized. And just like a drug addiction and most other kinds of addictions, it's not just the individual's problem. In this example, the parents are also responsible in supporting other activities. I suppose, though, that what he means in the comparison is that the story writers are just as addicted to their pencils (or text editors) as drug addicts are to their drugs.

Black_Pander
Black_Pander

@Bungus101 I think they're talking about the opening as a standalone piece of writing. if you just looked at the opening for GTAIII and GTAIV they think that you'd enjoy GTAIII more. although you do have a point, GTAIV is a better planned opening.

Stoopid_Fool
Stoopid_Fool

I didn't realize he wa jokin so that's my bad but still an addiction to drugs is on a physical and mental level as where video games is just a hobby that is for fun, where there isn't really an addiction, I can stop playing video games anytime and be just fine. There is no withdrawal after you stop playing video games as when you stop doing drugs there is a huge effect and withdrawal. So for me I just don't think that video games are 'addicting' and so I didn't see the similarity or get the joke.

giocher
giocher

@Stoopid_Fool: the main similarity is the fact the both his games and drugs are incredibly addictive, that's what I thought he was referring when I read that bit. Anyway if you wanted to know exactly what he was talking about you just had to click on the link and you would have find out that: first of all, he was joking; second he was referring to how a game designer's work is to " stimulate player's hormones, endorphins, and neurotransmitters" which is basically the same thing a drug dealer do. But again he was joking about that so no need to take it too seriously

Stoopid_Fool
Stoopid_Fool

@giocher The fact that this guy has created these big video games has nothing to do with drug dealing or him being able to compare the two without being criticized. I don't know why you would think that this guy can compare drugs to games and not be criticized when the two have zero similarities. I mean there isn't anything that the two have in common so like I said before, his comparison is one of the worst I've heard before. What similarities do you think he is referring to when he makes that comparison?

giocher
giocher

@Stoopid_Fool: Will Wright is only one of the most important game designer of the whole history of videogames... he created SimCity, SimEarth, SimAnt, The Sims and Spore, and judging from those game he created and how they affect the audience, he is probably the best (and maybe the only one) who can truly compare games to drugs without being criticized...

ParisSun
ParisSun

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. The main reason why gaming will never be elevated into the higher arts. If developers put more effort into an engaging story, people would be less likely to sell their games back to the used market.

ChewieOnIce
ChewieOnIce

Interesting article. Wish I'd been there.

Bungus101
Bungus101

Saying that GTA 3's opening is better because it is a higher conflict opener is kind of foolish, one might point out that GTA 4's opening allows for a stronger build in plot, allowing for momentum to add up and making the overall experience stronger/more meaningful.

Drakillion
Drakillion

Sounds fun. I wish I could attends this.

Stoopid_Fool
Stoopid_Fool

"...or hear Will Wright compare game design to drug dealing" I don't know who that guy is but that's one of the worst comparisons I've ever heard. Drug dealing is vastly different than anything involving video games.

GamingForLives
GamingForLives

Great Article...... i forgot how Awesome L4D's introductory trailer was....:D

fend_oblivion
fend_oblivion

Great article. Damn, some people have all the luck! :D

timmy0001
timmy0001

It's unfortunate that storyline isn't more critical to the overall game design. It would be nice if developers would come up with a fun way to play a game, and then use some talented creative writers to come up with killer storylines. The guy who specializes in laying the foundation for building a house wouldn't try to draw the plans for the whole house, so a game programmer shouldn't expect to come up with an engaging story as well as a professional writer.