Writing for Video Games Skills

 

How do you write a script for a video game? And how does writing for games differ from conventional story-telling? Game narration writer PAUL DUNN answers these key questions.

 

Telling a great story isn’t that hard. Once upon a time there was a beginning. Suddenly
something went wrong. It took great effort and heroic struggle to overcome it, and at least one
person lived happily ever after.

But what if your hero doesn’t want to slay the dragon? What if your merry band of explorers
decide to raze the village rather than rest in it? What if they run right into the battle without
hearing the ballad of the dethroned king? Or slay the alien champion before you’ve told them
how significant this confrontation is?

 

What makes writing for video games unique?

When writing for a game, player agency—the freedom a player has to make choices and act
according to their own agenda—is the wildcard that a narrative designer needs to keep in mind.
Chances are high that a player will miss a significant speech as they rush around pillaging the
monster’s lair, or skip right over your carefully crafted text. They may never stop to talk to the
cop at the front desk, or read the display on the starship’s main console.

 

So how are you expected to get the story told?

Like any author, a game writer needs a diverse and well-stocked toolkit, but they also need a
keen understanding that the protagonist will have the last word in what they do or don’t engage
with. A game writer doesn’t have the luxury of a single, linear narrative. Instead they must
create a jigsaw of elements that can be pieced together into a cohesive picture, even if some of
them are never found.

This means that dialogue, while helpful, can’t carry a game story any more than it can carry a
novel. Telling everything is boring, and in a game there’s no guarantee that the player will even
talk to your carefully created character! The same goes for rich tomes full of lore. Sure, they are
handy to have, but you can’t expect the average player to wade through fifteen pages of text
when there are aliens to shoot or criminals to track.


The player’s freedom to explore can work in the writer’s favour though. Flavour texts on items
and objects give you a plethora of opportunities to hint at deeper meanings and wider worlds.
Who was the creator of that gadget, and why did they leave that note on it? When did the
magical sword get lost, and why has it come to light now? Each question prods the player to
assemble more of the story themselves and widens their sense of the world they have entered.

 

More tools in the game writer’s toolbox

Even the visuals play a part in expanding the player’s sense of what is going on and what part
they have to play. There’s no guarantee, perhaps, that the hero will walk down this corridor, but
the general claustrophobic confines of the spaceship (or vast emptiness of the desert) still say
something about the setting and what transpires within it. Audio cues, music and lighting all
contribute to atmosphere, giving the few words the player might encounter a rich context to take
root in.

Writing for a video game is a balancing act, forever juggling a sense of story with opportunities
for our heroes to go their own way. By scattering pieces of narrative like a jigsaw to be collected
and assembled, the game writer can still tell a great story and let players discover it on their own
terms.

 

About the Author

Paul Dunn is passionate about games and the stories they tell. From those early days when he would sit watching his Commodore 64 load Elite from a cassette tape, he was hooked on the way gaming could open up entire worlds and spin fantastic stories that he could participate in. While the hardware has changed, his love of these immersive and interactive stories hasn’t waned.

Paul came into the gaming industry from a communications background. Working previously with a not-for-profit organisation, his writing invited Kiwis to see the wider world through fresh eyes. Whether it was crafting articles about those making a difference off-shore or sketching impromptu scripts while on the ground somewhere in South Asia, he was driven by the power of stories and the way they draw us in.

Paul has a BA in Media Studies from Massey University and is currently a Narrative Designer for Scarlet City Studios in Auckland, New Zealand. He tutors the Writing for Video Games Course at NZ Writers College.

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