Writing for Games Panel Recap

A huge group of industry veterans discuss why story is important in games and some of the surprises they faced when they first started.

Who Was There: A huge group of star writers made up this panel, including Chris Avellone (Knights of the Old Republic), Neal Hallford (Betrayal at Krondor), Wynne McLaughlin (Star Wars: The Old Republic), Anne Toole (The Witcher), Haris Orkin (Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3), John Zuur Platten (Ghostbusters: The Video Game), and Dave Grossman (The Secret of Monkey Island). It was moderated by Jana Hallford.

What They Talked About: After each of the writers briefly introduced themselves and discussed their careers, they moved on to discuss why story in games is important. Chris started off--interestingly enough--by saying that he was probably the wrong person to begin with as he didn't always believe it was. After some jeers from most everyone in the room, he went on to clarify himself by saying that it's important to set up the context behind a game, but that otherwise he didn't feel story was super important. Neil took the opposite stance and followed up by describing an old typewriter in an antique shop and saying that it was on sale for $3,000. Normally, that would be a rip-off, but what if you found out it was the typewriter that Stephen King wrote The Stand on? Wouldn't it be more important then? "Story increases the value and perception of the world," he concluded.

Anne said that story should never be forced upon the player and that the writer's goal should be to make the gameplay itself tell the story. According to her, the old writer's adage of "show, don't tell" becomes "do, don't show" within an interactive medium. Haris mentioned that every successful story has strong characters that the audience can enjoy, and he reiterated the idea that the story should tie in to the gameplay. Dave finished with the idea that story is so important because it's what ultimately makes the game memorable and relevant.

The next question that Jana asked was if there was anything unexpected about game writing. Most everyone mentioned that writing their dialogue in Microsoft Excel was a huge surprise to them at first, though many were surprised by other things as well. Chris was shocked at just how many details there were to track in the business, especially when it came to doing voice work--if a voice actor improvised on any of his lines, for example, it could mean a ton of work rewriting things further in the story. A huge surprise for John was how much work has to be done scaling back a story because a level is cut, or otherwise dealing with last-minute changes. He said that for Ghostbusters, he had worked on three drafts without Bill Murray's character because he just wasn't attached at the time, but thanks to a coincidental run-in with Dan Aykroyd, things changed and he had to be inserted.

Anne was often surprised at how a writer could be called into a project that's 90 percent done and asked to create a story when they've already finalized art assets. She went on to say that she actually enjoys it because it's a challenge; though, the fact that there isn't really time for the rest of the team to ask for a second draft or significant rewrites makes her job easier too. Dave mentioned that one of his great surprises was the course his career took. "I didn't plan to write games for kids," he said, "Ron Gilbert just sort of talked me into it one day."

Best Audience Question: What sort of education should someone interested in writing for games look for? "Did you ever see that movie Wargames? That was my education," said Neil to laughter. The group went on to say that though there are a lot of schools now that teach design, a lot of it you've just got to learn yourself. They recommend looking into some of the books out there, such as The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design, and they also suggested making modules in Neverwinter Nights. Finally, Anne added that it can't hurt to learn programming.

Weirdest Audience Question: One audience member said that games are the medium closest to the epic poems of the past and asked if any of the writers drew parallels between themselves and the famous bards of the ancient world. "I will now!" said Anne. The group went on to say that a hundred years in the future, all entertainment would be expected to be interactive and that there are certainly writers out there today that would be remembered for what they've done, though they neglected to name names.

The Takeaway: If you're serious about writing for games, the trick according to this panel is to practice and to expand your horizons. The general concensus was that a working knowledge of design is important, as it would integrate you into the team better and give you more control over your worlds. Chris in particular emphasized that you should be trying to make games in your free time, as that will help give you the experience you need to succeed.

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Discussion

31 comments
Kuroi_Ryu
Kuroi_Ryu

@Mandalore_15: I'm sure that understanding how things work in the programming side of things would help you communicate with the programming members of the team about how you want the story to work with the game. Not to mention that they'd probably like you better if you understood what they were doing and could relate to their work better.

d3nyd
d3nyd

What a fantastic, albeit short article. Even this small bit is a lot of help to me. My dream job is to be a story writer for games (I'd give anything for a shot to write for Mass Effect 2 or 3), and this tells me a lot of what I wanted to know. I wish Gamespot did more articles on writers and story.

Sonic_Wolfe
Sonic_Wolfe

Two words, Final Fantasy. Wait, no, add two more..Mass Effect.

Ellcrys
Ellcrys

I was involved for a short time on writing stories for a game that never got going. (long story) It was fun and interesting and the panel has covered a lot. I don't have programming but I don't see where it would hurt to understand the makings of the game and design part. It would help to know if some of characters could be like you write about them or if it is going to need a bit of story altering. I loved the challenge and given the time to just loose yourself in the story as it unfolds. Writing is not the hard part. Writing a good story and building a characters life is.

Mandalore_15
Mandalore_15

I've got to say, the need to learn to program in order to write games seems a bit above-board, and in my opinion a waste of time. For a start, if you're witing a linear game, it's a bit of a useless skill-set; you'd write the dialogue and cut-scenes, other people realise them. In terms of games with branching storylines, well, people have been writing game-books and pen-and-paper RPGs for decades before the first real branching storyline game. Where does the need for programming ability come into it?

Little_Socrates
Little_Socrates

@krakowwak0001 But what of the epic mythology of Asteroids that is so vital it needs to be translated into the upcoming picture? XD Great panel. I wonder what they think of designing table-top games as experience for video game writing.

houtx1836
houtx1836

Great analogy with the typewriter. It would have been nice to see some video of this.

krakowwak0001
krakowwak0001

It's a marvel just much games have changed in the last 20yrs. or so(especially for consoles). At one time older games did not rely on story in order to be successful from Astroids, Pac-man, Super Mario, Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros,Gauntlet, and Metroid. Though most of these titles started in the arcades, they translated into console gaming without a hitch and did very well without much of a story at all. But as gamers grew up and more sophisticated so did the desire for more deeper, in-depth games( which is why I believe the gap between hard-core gamers and Nintendo grew wider). But I for one am very happy with the strides that gaming has made and hopes it continues especially in the story and gameplay area. Though games look better nowadays,alot of them lack the substance of the older games.

claykenobi
claykenobi

Story and great characters are very important for me. It's what separates classics that you will always remember to just another run and gun or platform adventure..

TheoleDominion
TheoleDominion

It's a marvel just much games have changed in the last 20yrs. or so(especially for consoles). At one time older games did not rely on story in order to be successful from Astroids, Pac-man, Super Mario, Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros,Gauntlet, and Metroid. Though most of these titles started in the arcades, they translated into console gaming without a hitch and did very well without much of a story at all. But as gamers grew up and more sophisticated so did the desire for more deeper, in-depth games( which is why I believe the gap between hard-core gamers and Nintendo grew wider). But I for one am very happy with the strides that gaming has made and hopes it continues especially in the story and gameplay area. Though games look better nowadays,alot of them lack the substance of the older games.

Psy_m_on
Psy_m_on

hmmm, well i think i depends on the game you play ==> Jak and daxter great game because of story Dynasty warriors Great game but not so much cut scenes or any getting-closer-with-the-character movies. and i can go on and on and on

furionpride
furionpride

I agree that story is extremely important, the creativity in modern games rivals most motion pictures.

ChidoriBoyU
ChidoriBoyU

imagine if there was a shin megami tensei writer or the kingdom hearts writer or the world ends with you writer they would've dominated the panel lol but the topic was so true honestly i play for the story it gives me purpose it tells me why i'm playing a game with a bad story there is no great games, stories are the base of the games

mellow09
mellow09

I had written a good ol' long piece about writing, writing in games, the gaming medium, and the Socratic method to respond to you, Bloodmist. But obviously I didn't go with that, instead I say this. I probably get into a bit of a frenzy when writing is being discussed, and get a bit unnerved when the people discussing it are creating things that are stories, and jsut that (I'll disregard quality because that doesn't matter). And I could go on from here discussing the different ways to write, and purpose and all that jazz but I had reread the article and I'll say this: Ann seems reasonable (PS I haven't played The Witcher or Betrayal. Don't give me fluffy dogs because the other games have shoddy stories . . . ah here I go). The purpose of this panel is to educate, and I naturally go toward 'how to write, and what to write.' That group did well to answer the questions asked, and fulfill the purpose. And of course I absolutely stand by what I had previously said, which was not an argument, because sir, I don't argue with the wind.

BloodMist
BloodMist

mellow09, are you friggin kiddin me?Have you even PLAYED The Witcher, which is an action RPG, BTW?That game alone completely destroys your "bottom of the barrel in storyline" argument.

isaacmj
isaacmj

Story is the reason Perfect Dark and Half Life are the best shooters ever made, the reason why I've beaten Resident Evil 4 five times with no regrets and the reason why no real gamer ignores the existence of Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Even a game like World of Goo wouldn't be that good without a context. Even a punishing game with a bad control like Metal Gear Solid 2 can become a real hit with a great story. Long live the writers who encouraged me to play games through their worlds of fantasy and legends.

DrunkGrizzly
DrunkGrizzly

Gameplay and graphics aside, story is the most compelling part of a game. A story immerses the player. For instance, why would I reinstall and play Throne of Bhaal with it's outdated graphics? I want to re-experience intrigues of the story. Who could ask for more?

winter_knights
winter_knights

this was a good story. i've been thinking of going into game design

swamptick
swamptick

This was a very cool read. I like hearing stuff like this from people who give us good stories.

-Saigo-
-Saigo-

"A game without a story is like a body without a soul!" Saigo Dang this was a good write up--wish I could have been there in person though. Thanks for posting it though Gamespot ^_^.

Kai0nTheMoon
Kai0nTheMoon

I miss the days when story overshadowed online play as a games main focal point. The gaming extent of a lot of people I know consists of playing a shooter online. They shoot someone. That person respawns, and shoots them. Rinse, and repeat about 100x a night. It's really quite boring and moronic. Most of the guys having their pissing contests in Halo and COD's have never experienced a Chrono Trigger; have never gotten goosebumps from a Final Fantasy, or felt the cold chill of a Silent Hill , or the pride of crushing the Zerg or even just the plain fun of games like the Oddworld series. Yet they call themselves gamers. Yes, online shooters have their place, but I feel that this huge market of people who yearn for that, and only that, are a stain on the industry. They should start expanding their minds and their experiences, and start paying respect where respect is due. Hats off to the writers and other creative minds at work who help keep the gaming industry every bit as immersive and exciting, if not more so at times, than the cinema industry. You have each achieved more in a single game than other programmers could achieve with a thousand boring online shooter map packs.

Agent_24
Agent_24

That's why the Freespace games are awesome, because of the story. Of course everything else helps too :D

StillFreeTagger
StillFreeTagger

That's why people should care about the single-player experience with a good story instead of the online multiplayer where you get to insult people for nothing! coughcoughhalocoughcough

Pete5506
Pete5506

A game needs a good story

pakhair
pakhair

In my opinion, I don't like a game without story, I think story is very very important, The characters should be living & the universe should engulf u, In this way we never forget those games............

mellow09
mellow09

If you look at the list of games these writers work on you'll notice an odd trend, action adventure games. And that's frankly odd, its odd to have a panel of writing experts who work at the bottom of the storyline barrel. That's a shame, because these guys aren't going to give you much in the way of technique and craft, and there are droves of children out there intent of being writers of games (none of which who'd have been inspired by a KOTOR game), yet, all you'll get from these guys is obvious facts like you should go into design if you want to write [for games]. Really, I'd have liked to see some fantastic writers in that forum, guys who've got something intelligent to say, that may inspire someone out there. Something like, go read "where the wild things are" because that's so similar to the guardian, or mention little tidbits about manipulating the player into caring or being invested. With the right people this conference could have been pretty fun, too bad.

BloodMist
BloodMist

I've always enjoyed games that make quality storylines and characters a high priority far more than ones that don't.

iceberg82
iceberg82

a game without a story is just a sandbox. And sandboxes can lose their fun quickly. The best story telling experiences i've experienced was Half Life series, Gothic series, FF7, Psychonauts, and Curse of Monkey Treasure Island.