TGC '10: Writing for Videogames Is Harder Than it Seems

TGC '10: Writing for Videogames Is Harder Than it Seems

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Writing for videogames isn't as simple as putting pen to paper. It requires a methodology and exactness that Rafael Chandler has down to a science.

If you want to learn about videogame writing, Rafael Chandler is the guy you want to talk to. He's worked on multiple scripts in games such as SOCOM and Ghost Recon 2, has written a book titled the "The Game Writing Handbook," and authored many articles at GamaSutra. Standing in an Iron Maiden t-shirt and jeans, Chandler opened his talk at Triangle Game Conference 2010 with an explanation of the "HOSEF principle," a technique that he employs whenever he first sits down to write a script.

When Chandler was in kindergarten, his teacher had a thick Southern accent reminiscent of Gone With The Wind. During a round of the Hokey Pokey, Chandler remembers his teacher singing "Put your 'hosef' in, put your 'hosef' out." To the teacher, this translated to "jump in the middle of the circle," but to Chandler and the rest of the class, it simply meant "stick out your groin." The lesson is simple: it doesn't matter if the teacher (or writer) knows what they are talking about, it only matters if the audience does.

Videogame writers, of course, also need to write a decent plot line, design compelling characters and create believable settings. However, there's another level involved in the process beyond creative brainstorming. Often, writers are not the only ones who will need to see or work with a script. Voice actors, artists, designers and producers will all use the script at some point, and it will need to be as easy and understandable for them as it is for the original writer. Writers will need to include directions and notes that can help each person working with the script accurately flesh out the scene that the writer envisioned. For instance, when directing a voice actor, Chandler explains that you will want to note what emotion each line of dialogue is supposed to convey, or how the main character feels about the other characters in the scene. The more detailed the description, the more accurate the scene will be.

After game launch, during what Chandler prefers to call "postpartum production," the entire team - including the writers - should take part in a positive, focused and impartial meeting to evaluate what went right, what went wrong, and what needs to be changed.

Overall, videogame writers need to be writing for more than themselves: they must consider their audience, their team and the real head honchos to impress: the gatekeepers, otherwise known as the people who decide whether or not to give your game money.

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Lauren Admire:
and has written a book titled the "The Game Writing Handbook."

Excellent. Game script writing is the job I want to go into, so I'll definitely check this book out. It should have some useful information.

And it has a five star review from Karen Traviss at Amazon. This is madness.

Seems like sound advice, if a little obvious. Still, I'll check into that book he wrote, as I plan on being a writer myself, and if I just so happen to choose that media to write for, a few tips couldn't hurt.

To be honest, those games didnt really have ground breaking writng behind them.

I think, if anyone, the people from Bioware might be the ones who would take the crown with this. I would love to see what they would write about it

Although, advice given there does make sense

Chandler's points pretty much explain why taking in a writer from another field (IE a novelist or scriptwriter) doesn't necessarily make for a well-written game.

Video game writing isn't any harder then writing for a Tv series or writing a novel, its all writing. If your writing sucks it sucks, it doesn't matter if change your script from a screen-write to a sitcom drama, if it sucks it sucks. I'm tired of hearing excuses about why video writing sucks, or why video game stories suck, stop making excuses and give me results. Bioware has the right idea, GTA4 script writing is incredible good as well. Don't give me reasons about why writing video game scrips are hard, stop complaining and do your job. I would kill to write for Bioware, so don't complain.

Jaredin:
To be honest, those games didnt really have ground breaking writng behind them.

I think, if anyone, the people from Bioware might be the ones who would take the crown with this. I would love to see what they would write about it

Although, advice given there does make sense

Bioware's writing can be really good at some points, but at other points it makes me cringe. I think GTA IV might have been the only game I ever played where none of the dialog seemed forced, although a lot of it was... well, very GTA.

If you want to see good writing in games you really don't have to go any further than Planescape: Torment.

And I have to agree with the posts that say the named games don't have groundbreaking writing, and I'll raise you with saying that none of this guy's games do. It's not to say its horrid writing (it isn't, just run of the mill) but this doesn't seem like a guy whose a wizened master whom should be passing down his knowledge or something.

I would think that,beyond branching storypaths,writing for videogames wouldn't be too different from writing a screen/stageplay (or puppet show),only in this case,the audience-actors take stage directions from the instructions manual and in-game prompts (perhaps in a HUD)rather than the script.

Caiti Voltaire:
If you want to see good writing in games you really don't have to go any further than Planescape: Torment.

And I have to agree with the posts that say the named games don't have groundbreaking writing, and I'll raise you with saying that none of this guy's games do. It's not to say its horrid writing (it isn't, just run of the mill) but this doesn't seem like a guy whose a wizened master whom should be passing down his knowledge or something.

Maybe the best game writing is effective because it doesn't get in the way of the gameplay? That's what I gathered from this guy being chosen to give advice.

It's funny how several of these articles mention how developers need to look at games from the players' perspective, not their own perspective. Is this some kind of big news in the gaming world? If so, they're a little late to the party. In web design and application design I learned stuff like that almost before I learned to write my first line of code. I always assumed that the designers and developers of pretty much any kind of consumer product started out from their target audience's perspective, and it's hard to believe that's not the case for video games...

Hurr Durr Derp:
It's funny how several of these articles mention how developers need to look at games from the players' perspective, not their own perspective. Is this some kind of big news in the gaming world? If so, they're a little late to the party. In web design and application design I learned stuff like that almost before I learned to write my first line of code. I always assumed that the designers and developers of pretty much any kind of consumer product started out from their target audience's perspective, and it's hard to believe that's not the case for video games...

I don't know... Take this from a novice game designer: the "player element" can be a terrifying thing to approach at first. The idea that the player is taking part in your game, that someone you don't even know is an integral part of the experience... it's daunting, maybe more so than the "audience element" in other media.

Not to say that professional game developers don't have a handle on that, but the point is that it's one of those things where it seems like it should be obvious, but isn't.

...So they need to write them as if they are writing plays?

@ scnj: Thanks! I hope that you find the book useful. While it doesn't address the creative aspects of storytelling (there are many other excellent books on that subject), it does cover the nuts-and-bolts aspects of game writing from a production standpoint. My intent was to create a technical manual that would introduce the reader to the applicable game development processes. With any luck, it will help you in your endeavors. Good luck with your game writing career!

@ Generator: The write-up of my presentation, while excellent, didn't cover all of the material presented in my hour-long lecture. This makes sense, as the article would have been ridiculously long as a consequence. For example, I discussed franchise restrictions (the parameters that game writers must follow when they're working on an established IP or brand), the stages of game production (as they impact the writer), document formatting, technical writing, presenting narrative materials to the other developers on the team, casting and directing voice actors, and testing narrative content. For more information, you can check out some of the articles I wrote for Gamasutra here: http://www.game-writing.com/articles.html .

@ boholikeu: Agreed. It's difficult to transition from a passive medium to an interactive one without some understanding of the way that games work. Hopefully, the more that game writers talk about the process of development, the more writers in general will be able to participate in this interesting field.

@ elricik: An intriguing point, but not directly relevant. My goal with the presentation was to inform aspiring writers of some techniques that will permit them to do their jobs more effectively, as game writing consists of more than merely writing dialogue. The presentation didn't actually indicate that the job is a difficult one; it merely explained the various challenges that writers encounter, and it provided concrete examples of solutions that can be employed to mitigate problems.

@ TexaNigerian: It's a little more complex than that. While the process of writing dialogue may be comparable to writing a play or a puppet show (um, I guess), there are many other factors to take into consideration while writing a video game, such as working with programmers and artists, collaborating with designers and directors, giving and receiving feedback, casting and directing voice actors, taking direction from numerous sources (designers, directors, managers, marketing personnel, and publishers), and producing cinematic sequences. Furthermore, a game writer must deliver content to specifications, and the content must pass through several layers of approval prior to the casting and recording process.

@ Lauren: Thanks for writing this up, Lauren! I hope that you enjoyed the session. I had a lot of fun, and the attendees had some terrific questions. This year's conference was even better than the first one, and I'm really looking forward to TGC '11.

Best regards,
Rafael

Lauren Admire:

If you want to learn about videogame writing, Rafael Chandler is the guy you want to talk to.

Chris Avellone?

Hmm. I do want to go into video game design after college. Perhaps I should check this book out...

@ Heart of Darkness: It's twenty-odd bucks in most places, but Amazon's got a couple used for about fifteen. FWIW, I've got a new book coming out in a few weeks called Fundamentals of Game Development, which is an overview of the game development process. Sorry, I know it's kind of gauche to shill like this, but if you're interested, ping me and I'll tell you more about the books.

In fact, if you're going to focus on design (instead of writing), I can probably recommend a few other books that you'd want to check out (as my Game Writing Handbook is focused primarily on narrative).

Good story-writing for a game goes hand in hand with the gameplay. They are mutually inclusive. You need good gameplay to advance the plot in a video game and you need a good story to advance the gameplay.

Best stories:
Planescape Torment
Star Control 2
Ultima 5
Baldurs Gate 1 & 2
Deus Ex
System Shock 1 & 2

With Planescape having the distinction of being the only game that made me break down and cry.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. SoC has almost no text, but the deepest, most immersive atmosphere of any "modern" game. That should be held up an as an example of how to "write" a game without tons of spoken dialog, text files, or ham-fisted "audio logs" left lying around.

Edited to say, before you write any video games you should be a dungeon master for a while. That will get you used to writing an compelling yet open story and compensate for player dickishness.

@ rembrandtqeinstein: That's an interesting notion. I've been a DM (or GM, or Director, or Keeper, or Hollyhock God, or whatever) for about 25 years. Never really thought of it as preparation for a career in game writing, but I can see the connection.

I take it you've done some DMing?

This is true of any writing really, it doesn't really go into what (if anything) differentiates video game writing from writing in other types of media.

Rack:

Lauren Admire:

If you want to learn about videogame writing, Rafael Chandler is the guy you want to talk to.

Chris Avellone?

I'm sorry to say this so bluntly, but. . .NO. Given the choice (considering the debaucle that was KOTOR II), I'd take Rafeal's writing advice over that of Mr. Avellone any day.

"Overall, videogame writers need to be writing for more than themselves: they must consider their audience, their team and the real head honchos to impress: the gatekeepers, otherwise known as the people who decide whether or not to give your game money."

This seems odd to me. Now, I don't really understand "game writing" as such, nor have I ever attempted to delve into the creative processes behind it, but I have studied literature, and this is counter to everything I've learnt. First off, it seems to me an admission that the artistic takes a backseat to the finansial; a cardinal sin.

Now, I get that getting a game released requires a certain mass appeal, which, invariably, requires a certain level of stupidity. But surely, there is room for something beyond the mass appeal? The greatest pieces of writing were not written for a market, they were written for the writers, and they are the pieces of art that endures. Group writing excludes the possibility of the same level of focused vision, but exoterism can still have depth.

I don't know what I'm getting at, but this post, at some point, magically morphed itself into a senseless rant... Shameless commercialism just rubs me the wrong way, I suppose. As to the secret of writing a good, timeless story, Kurt Vonnegut said it better than I ever could:

"Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia."

@MatsVS--I understand what you're saying, but you are making a very big assumption that needs to be addressed: You are assuming that the roles of "artist" and "craftsman" are mutually exclusive.

Writers can be artists, true, but we also need to be craftsman. At the end of the day, if we're doing this for a living, we have to create a product and get it sold. Rafael's talk wasn't about the artistic angle of game writing; there were plenty of people talking about that already. His talk was meant to outline the game writing process from idea to completion, and to show the differences between the processes when it come to writing for different parts of the entertainment industry.

He never said you should write what's profitable rather than write what you believe in. Anyone who has ever heard him give one of these talks or played a game he's worked on knows that he believes very strongly in writing about what you know and like. But as I said, there were (and are) plenty of people who talk about that particular aspect of game writing, so he decided to talk about something else. (Or that's what I gather when I attend his talks, anyway.)

Rafael Chandler:
@ rembrandtqeinstein: That's an interesting notion. I've been a DM (or GM, or Director, or Keeper, or Hollyhock God, or whatever) for about 25 years. Never really thought of it as preparation for a career in game writing, but I can see the connection.

I take it you've done some DMing?

I wore the DM hat in first and 2nd edition in highschool, but Marvel Super Heroes was always my favorite PNP rpg as unbalanced as the rules were.

My biggest DM session was when 3rd edition first came out, and I introduced 3 new players and 3 veteran players to the system. It was awesome fun but too much work to DM "right". I think that campaign lasted about 9 months before it became too hard to get 7 people together for one evening a week in meatspace.

My bible is Ray Winninger's Dungeoncraft Essays helpfully archived here http://www.darkshire.net/jhkim/rpg/dnd/dungeoncraft/

Particularly the sections on secrets and foreshadowing. And how to add mysteries in the beginning of the campaign that the DM doesn't have a solution to, but one comes up later in gameplay and it all looks planned out.

widowspeak:

Rack:

Lauren Admire:

If you want to learn about videogame writing, Rafael Chandler is the guy you want to talk to.

Chris Avellone?

I'm sorry to say this so bluntly, but. . .NO. Given the choice (considering the debaucle that was KOTOR II), I'd take Rafeal's writing advice over that of Mr. Avellone any day.

Play Planescape Torment. Kotor II was rushed through development unfinished in order to hit an Xmas deadline so it's not really a fair point of comparison.

@Rack--I've been game testing for nearly 4 years, and I've seen 6-month development cycle games with better story than that one. I'm not just talking from a consumer standpoint when I talk about how much I disliked KOTOR II. However, I shall take your suggestion into advisement and see about Planescape Torment. Thank you. :)

SOCOM and Ghost Recon? Sorry, but since I really do want to be a respected game writer, I'll wait till Hideo Kojima or one of the Final Fantasy writers puts out a book.

@ rembrandtqeinstein: Nice. Thanks for the link! I'll definitely check it out. FWIW, in my spare time, I design tabletop RPGS: http://www.neoplasticpress.com. My rules system, Disciple-12, is ranked pretty high on RPG.net (don't know if that actually means anything to anybody, but I was pretty elated when I hit #15).

@ Rack @ widowspeak: Chris Avellone is a great guy. Big fan of his work. I interviewed him for my book, and it was a terrific experience. In particular, I really appreciated his insights into writing for licensed properties.

@ MatsVS: One person's "cardinal sin" is another person's occupation, I suppose. The study of literature, while quite interesting (I majored in English Lit myself) doesn't necessarily afford one a good understanding of creative writing in the workplace. Try studying the craft of screenwriting for TV or movies, and you'll have a better grasp of what game writing is like. While "stupidity" isn't really a virtue in any of the aforementioned fields, the ability to work within established parameters does tend to separate working writers from aspiring writers. In other words, don't write to please just one person; instead, try to open a window and make love to a couple million. You never know, you might like it.

@ widowspeak: Thanks for the kind words! I see that you were at my presentation. Don't know if we got a chance to talk afterwards, but I'm glad you found it useful. And yes, as you point out, I generally focus on the nuts-and-bolts aspects of game writing, because those are the elements that aspiring writers usually know the least about. While I could talk at length about the creative process, I don't see the point, because much ink has already been spilled on the subect -- but try to find a book or lecture that tells you exactly what it's like to work as a professional game writer, and there's just not that much info out there.

Naturally, I would love to work on a story-driven fantasy RPG, or a horror game, so that I might flex a different set of creative muscles, but I am quite grateful to have worked on so many high-profile tactical shooters, and I try to share as much as I can about the game development process with anyone who is interested in learning. Everywhere I've lectured, the audience reception has always been positive, so I reckon I'll keep at it until people stop showing up and asking questions.

As you noted, I feel that I ought to write what I believe in (to the extent that the situation permits). Like I said in the lecture, I think that even when taking direction from producers, designers, directors, marketing personnel, and publishers, a writer can nonetheless infuse the narrative with a part of his or her soul. I'm very excited about SOCOM 4 and the untitled sci-fi shooter that I'm working on, as they're both story-driven, and I've made a real effort to connect with the stories and characters on an emotional level. Hopefully, this will result in a good reception for both games later this year. We'll see...

scnj:

Lauren Admire:
and has written a book titled the "The Game Writing Handbook."

Excellent. Game script writing is the job I want to go into, so I'll definitely check this book out. It should have some useful information.

And it has a five star review from Karen Traviss at Amazon. This is madness.

So this is an advertisement, much like the "slashvertisements" we see all the time on /.

But yeah, I'd agree, writing for a game would be harder. A film or a book is not interactive (choose your own adventure notwithstanding); you write it how you want it to be. Games add a level of complexity from just the interactive angle...then factor in graphics, marketing, gameplay options, etc.

@ case_orange: When I saw the term "slashvertisement," the first thing I thought of was... something else. It was a coffee-spray moment. Then I googled it and I relaxed a little.

For what it's worth, though I appreciate scnj's enthusiasm for my book, I fear that he's thinking of a different one. My book got a four-star review (not five-star), and it was from someone other than Karen Traviss.

Your list of complicating factors (graphics, marketing, gameplay options) is a great one. You've clearly given this some thought. And you're dead right.

 

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