Video games have been around for a long time. While the transformation from vacuum-tube mainframes powering tic-tac-toe at Atomic age exhibitions to the Japanese cartridge consoles that defined the Millennial childhood is as fascinating a technology saga as they come, the 21st century has been gaming’s true watershed moment.
Video games have exploded into one of the world’s most popular (and lucrative) forms of entertainment, bolstered by mass consumer adoption, cultural ubiquity, and a redefining of what kind of experience a game can provide. Modern ‘AAA’ titles (the video game equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster) have harnessed huge budgets and ever-increasing technological horsepower to create games that are truly in the mold of a tentpole cinematic experience: they have dazzling visuals, lifelike environments, and rich storytelling.
…we really don’t have a frame of reference for looking at game writing, so we have to borrow one from the movies, and it doesn’t quite fit right. – Richard Dansky, Game Writer (via Gamasutra)
The above image compares the scripts for 2001’s Grand Theft Auto 3 (on the left) to 2008’s Grand Theft Auto 4. The workflow behind this kind of storytelling is perhaps gaming’s most opaque aspect: it’s easy to imagine programmers, designers, and graphic artists plying their trade, but where does the writer come in? How do you set out to create a script for something as sprawling and dynamic as a Grand Theft Auto?
In this illuminating four part Forbes interview between tech writer Kevin Murnane and industry veteran George Ziets, the curtain gets lifted. Ziets was a writer and designer on the recently released Torment: Tides of Numenera, a spiritual sequel to a beloved 1990s RPG that is still held as a gold standard for writing and story development in video games.
The interview is a must-read for anyone who’s ever wondered how grand, technically dense interactive narratives get conceptualized and written. While some aspects of the process may seem familiar to those who’ve spent time in the worlds of screenwriting or film & video production, others are definitively unique (and frankly, a little intimidating). Here are some of our takeaways:
The Writers Are Legion
Most game development efforts outside of the low-scale indie realm do not rely on the efforts of a single writer. Ziets describes a hierarchical structure where one writer takes the role of a “narrative lead” who supervises multiple writers tasked with creating material for specific game aspects. This methodology is reminiscent of television writing, and allows for unique voices to take ownership over parts of the gaming experience without muddling the overarching narrative vision.
Additionally, a factotum element is often at play in the studio: like Ziets, writers are not always solely writers – they can wear multiple hats across the development process, harmonizing theory and practice and further contributing to a cohesive experience.
Design Defines The Script
At their core, games are highly sophisticated pieces of engineering. While a general idea of what kind of story will drive the experience might exist at the outset of development, the initial focus is about building designs and mechanics that work. According to Ziets, writers are sometimes brought on to create stories for games that are otherwise complete. In his words, “We’re not telling the writer’s story. We’re telling the player’s story.”
Pre-Production Is Dynamic
Directly or indirectly, virtually everything within a game is interacted with by the player, and all of these elements (characters, locations, items, set pieces, etc…) need narrative flavor created for them. Ziets describes the pre-production process for game writers as painstaking but unpredictable. Things are brainstormed and re-brainstormed in an organic creative process that produces a monumental amount of material. That material needs to be ready for revision at any time.
Further to the previous point, a game is something that constantly changes. Making disparate, highly technical puzzle pieces function as a whole is a daunting task that requires a great deal of trial, error, and refinement. Playtests reveal bugs, concepts prove to be incongruous or unachievable, and budgetary restrictions or time crunches leave things on the drawing board. One of the most important jobs for a game writer is to know their story intimately, so that they can patch the holes that the development process can punch in the narrative without sacrificing the overall cohesion or logic of the experience.
Collaboration Rules The Day
“Great ideas come from every department,” Ziets says. Not only do the writers work with each other, they work closely with all hands involved. Everyone on a development team shares the common mission of making the most engaging experience possible. Without consistent collaboration, coordination, and mutual discussion, you end up with a product that isn’t fluid – and more than likely, a product that isn’t fun. What’s the point of a game that isn’t fun?
The lack of a real tool for approaching game writing from both a narrative and design perspective is something that we’ve heard a lot of from game developers. This is something we’re aiming to change.
We’re creating something that will allow teams to seamlessly collaborate on writing and designing interactive experiences – accessible, adaptable, and ready to integrate into the game development toolchain. Want to know more? Click here and prepare to get excited.