GDC 2011: Day 2 Better Game Writing in a Day

Day 2 of GDC continued the Summits & Tutorials tradition of being more cool stuff that’s not immediately valuable to an aspiring game artist. This session was all about Game Writing and Narrative Design, hosted by the lead writer on Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2. The session was navigated via a 234-page powerpoint that I’m still going back over, so I’m mostly transcribing and contextualizing the notes that I took to augment that presentation.

Much of the session was reiterating basic story structure with things like 3-Act Storytelling and the Hero’s Journey, and then relating that back to games. After all, the vast majority of good writing is founded in generalized rules with only a little bit of it being genre- or medium-specific.

The most important takeaways were that “story is conflict,” and, in games “Story is Gameplay’s bitch.”

It’s important to keep in mind how much story your game actually needs. A puzzle game needs little or no story, but an RPG needs a lot of story, with other genres falling in between those two extremes and the MGS series being out somewhere beyond RPGs…

Some important rules and tools:

The classic rule of “Show, don’t tell” becomes “Do, don’t show” in games. Whenever possible, avoid showing the player something cool when you could have them do it themselves.

Generally, the viewer needs less exposition than you want to give them. Game audiences aren’t stupid, and they can figure things out for themselves. Giving them too much exposition just gums up the works, or, as we came to call it during the session “chokes the baby.”

It’s perfectly acceptable (in fact a very good idea) to slowly dole out exposition on a purely need-to-know basis.

Chekhov’s Gun, which I hope you know as the rule that “If you place a gun on the stage in Act 1, it must be fired by Act 3,” should be innocuous. A Chekhov’s Gun should not telegraph its future significance so that it can still be a surprise when it’s fired. By the time it’s used, the audience should half-forget that it was there in the first place. It should be showed off early, when tension is low, because if you have to establish how it works when you actually need it, it will feel like a Deus ex Machina.

Abilities in cutscenes should never contradict abilities in-game. I should be able to do all the cool stuff I see in a cutscene, and I should never be screaming at the TV for my character to use the cool ability I’ve been using at a time when it would be pertinent to do so in a cutscene.

Cutscenes are a good opportunity for a lot of subtle foreshadowing. The experiment we did was to watch the opening cutscene of Bioshock, from the plane crash to Jack leaving the Bathysphere, and, for those of us who knew the game, to keep track of every instance of foreshadowing in those first couple minutes. Hint: There was a lot! Many of the key mechanics were hinted at (such as the Plasmid ads). There were plenty of story foreshadowing moments, like Atlas asking if you would kindly grab the radio. The one that blew my mind the most though was realizing that Andrew Ryan’s infamous line about the scientist “not being constrained by petty morality”, the artist “not fearing the censor” and the “great not being constrained by the weak” was foreshadowing the three major bosses in the game.

Believability is the product of consistent, fully realized worlds, characters, and events. Avoid coincidences whenever possible, although, sometimes they will be unavoidable. Hopefully the unavoidable ones are small and easily dismissed, like the R5 unit blowing up in A New Hope so that Luke can find R2’s message (though I still cling to the notion that that droid happened to have lots of midichlorians in the oil between his grears). Too big of a coincidence, and you’ve got a deus ex machina on your hands.

“You don’t want the audience to feel the writer’s hand, firstly, because it’s disgusting…”

Bigger is not always better. Any conflict can feel huge if it means a lot to a sympathetic character.

Villains are important, also tricky. They’re the source of the main conflict. A good villain is more than a match for the hero, and we need to see them as a viable threat. The hero needs to overcome the villain’s henchmen before he can even get to the villain. Most importantly, the villain considers himself a hero, not a villain. He needs clear, believable motivation beyond simply “he’s evil” or “he’s crazy.” A good exercise is to try summarizing the story from the villain’s point of view. Without changing the overall plot, convince yourself that the villain believes he’s heroic. It’ll make a stronger characterization.

Story is conflict. Characters change over the course of the story, and they will often change physically to reflect changes in their personality/philosophy. For example, Saavik lets her hair down at the end of Wrath of Khan.

Humor extends the length of a story because humor demands specificity. You can’t just say “car,” you need to specify “Oldsmobile,” or the joke won’t connect.

Editing is the time when you make your story lean. Do this by referencing scripts to see how the pros handle tight dialogue-writing, especially scripts for movie adaptations of novels. Those have to be cut way down while still maintaining the meaning.

Lastly, the only real way to become a Narrative Designer (aka, the guy who corrals the writer[s], largely dictates the direction of the story, and advocates for the story to the producers, artists, programmers, and other designers) is to get hired as a Game or Level Designer, know a thing or two about writing (having written in the past is apparently a good way to do this), and then volunteer when your fellow designers are shying away from story duties.

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