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A Beginner’s Guide to Writing for Games

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on July 31, 2010

Meet Leanne C Taylor, games writer and lecturer on interactive narrative.

This is Part One of a two part piece on writing for computer games. The second part will be posted on Tuesday.

A beginner’s guide to writing for games

Writing for computer games is my preferred way of making a living.  There, I said it.  I teach, to improve computer game stories when I’m eventually brought onto a project, because cultivating future co-workers with a strong understanding of story is always a good first step.  I don’t have the patience to write novels, nor the interest in writing screenplays.  What I do have an interest in, is working in a team, and in allowing someone else to take my ideas and run with them to new and wonderful places.  This is why I love computer games.

Working on a game, you have to liaise with the game and level designers, to understand the mission structure and overall story outline.  You may also have to work with the modellers, animators, texture artists and programmers if you want to request specific features – once those features have made it from the bottom to the top of the ‘things we’d like to include’ list.  Because, really, that’s what writing is in games : something we’d like to include.

Pre-production Cycle

Let me start at the beginning.  Many games come from a simple idea.  That simple idea can be “What story are we following?” or it could be “This mechanic I created is really fun – how can we use it?”  Neither of these is the wrong way to start a game.  There are no wrong ways to begin.  What’s important is that the game has begun the pre-production cycle.  You’re on your way.

This is when all the planning takes place.  Ideally, the designers and writers would be working together at this stage to flesh out the main story arc, so level environments are easier to pin down, e.g. if someone wants to make an ice planet, how does it fit into the grand scheme of things?  Should it be level 2 or level 16?  How does it fit with the player’s motivation?

This is an important element to remember about writing for games : motivation is not just about the characters within the story.  You have to motivate the player, too.  Ideally, game mechanics being fun and level design drawing the player onward, they should want to continue anyway, but putting what they’re doing into perspective is the writer’s job.  Making them want to kill person X instead of person Y, or making them feel bad (or good!) for having to choose, are all tasks of the writer.  This means you have an invisible character, one that always needs motivating.  How you do that is something I’ll get to in a moment.

Production Cycle

After the pre-production cycle comes the production cycle (surprise!), when the game actually starts to take shape.  The coders, animators, designers et al will be working their butts off to make a playable prototype – essentially a very simple version of the game that’s usually made up of white boxes moving around inside another white box.  Unsurprisingly, this is called ‘white-boxing’.  Meanwhile, the writer may be working away with the designers to plan out the cinematics – the small movies that play during important moments of the game – and come up with ideas for the main missions.

Toward the end of the production cycle – usually about one to one and a half years of solid work – is where the writer comes back in.  Some companies have writers on-staff who stick with one game through the game’s entire lifecycle.  Smaller companies simply can’t afford the expense, which is why some games writers credit themselves as ‘Writer/Designer’ or, as in my case, only work freelance.  The last 3-6 months of the game are crucial in terms of adding dialogue and sorting out mission motivations.  If the main cinematics have been outsourced, they’re usually done by now, and set in stone, so it’s the writer’s job to make the cinematics make sense in context with the game.

Yes, you read that right.  In the year or so since writing the cinematics and agreeing on the overall storyline, many things will have changed.  The mechanics of what the player does, the level order, or even the entire tone of the game itself could have undergone a massive overhaul.  That’s fine.  As an example, one of the projects I worked on had a complete script, from start to end.  It was in the final draft stages and, I thought, almost a wrap.  Then the production schedule took a hit, and half of the levels had to be cut.  This meant that I now had to take my complete story, truncate it, move pieces around, try to salvage my favourite parts, and make something new and just as exciting from the pieces of the old that had already been finalised.  I didn’t mind.  It was a challenge, and it certainly wasn’t anyone’s fault.  90% of writing is rewriting, and nowhere is that more true than in writing for games.

Tuesday: Dialogue in Games and Game Experience

For more of Leanne see her blog.

See her Game Design Aspect of the Month Article in the ‘ International Game Developer’s Association Perspectives Newsletter’ Page 9.

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