TVG.TRIPLETAP - The Art of Storytelling #1 Feature

As part of a new feature series which aims to break open the often complex world of gaming, TVG takes a look at the finer aspects of story writing...

The writing of a videogame is possibly the most under sung element of its development. When a games journalist sits down to tally up the scores of their review, they will most commonly consider the gameplay, longevity, graphics, originality and sound (roughly in that order) of the title. By the conventions of games judgement, the aspects of storytelling are often left as an afterthought, and will rarely be directly considered in the score that the game eventually receives.

If you look at the most iconic plot based games of the last few years, one thing that a lot of them have in common is engaging dialogue, a stimulating story and interesting characters. Take GTA: San Andreas, for example: When CJ is jiving on about "yay" or "hennessy", you never feel as if the lines are written by a guy from the suburbs who's trying to be street. Likewise, the supporting roles of characters such as Big Smoke and Ryder move the plot along nicely, culminating in the twist where they betray CJ and Groove Street. Other characters such as the corrupt cop Tenpenny, and the conspiratorial government agent Mike Toreno, are voice-acted to suit their roles perfectly (Samuel L. Jackson and James Woods respectively).

It is elements such as these that lift San Andreas above and beyond the grey goo of average sandbox games. Such other titles may get elements such as gameplay and graphics spot-on, but just don't have that extra something. Of last year's top titles, Call of Duty 4 makes itself more than just another shooter in precisely the same way. Sure, its gameplay is the same brilliance that we've come to expect from the Infinity Ward guys, but the added bonus of a great storyline is the icing on the cake. With characters such as the Tom Clancy homage, Captain Price, and his engaging flashback segment, uses of colloquial military phrases in the dialogue such as "FUBAR", "Hoorah" and "FNG", all set in a bleak 'not too distant future' which is both engaging and convincing throughout, CoD4 manages to suck players into the game world that little bit more than other competent shooters on the market.

The Line-up

In light of this, we at TVG decided to sing in the game writer's corner and interview a representative mix of writers who have both worked, and are working on some of the industry's triple A titles. In 1997, David Cage founded his own games studio called Quantic Dream, which is based in Paris. Since then, the studio has released cult classics such as Omikron: The Nomad Soul, Fahrenheit (now available as an Xbox Original on Live) and its current game under development, Heavy Rain. David essentially heads-up all levels of production at Quantic Dream from writing and directing, to the design of all Quantic Dream games. He refers to his role in games development at the company as an "Enlightened Dictatorship," which he kindly explained for us:

"In short, there is one and only one person at the head of the project, and he has all powers in all fields. This is only possible if 1) he is a reasonable person, understanding production, technical and marketing constraints, and is able to make consistent decisions, 2) he is able to listen to his team and proves that he makes decisions only in the interest of the project, not to reinforce his own ego, 3) he can communicate his passion and enthusiasm for the project around him (autonomous dictators are probably the worst thing that can happen to a project)."

Rhianna Pratchett is a freelance games writer who cut her teeth as a games journalist. Daughter of the fantasy writer Terry Pratchett, Rhianna has written the scripts for games such as Overlord and Heavenly Sword - she is currently working on DICE's most recent project, Mirror's Edge. With writing in her blood, and as a member of the Writer's Guild of Great Britain, Rhianna lives and breathes her work. Here she describes where her inspiration comes from:

"It's really what can loosely be called 'Stuff that's in my head' - an amalgamation of what I've learned from being a voracious reader and watcher (of films and people) all my life. This is how most writers operate. It's instinctive and somewhat ethereal. I think some people are disappointed when we don't say things like 'Ah yes, I use Whipplethwaite's third law of narrative!'"

Last, but by no means least is Rob Yescombe, who currently presides at Free Radical Design where he's involved in writing at all levels from the script and narrative skeleton, to games manuals, AI strings, side characters and pitches to publishers. As Free Radical's In-house Writer, Rob is currently working on all three of the studio's projects (Haze, Timesplitters 4 and an unnamed LucasArts project), and tells us a little bit about why games writing appealed to him in the first place.

"The thing that really attracted me to working in games is that, as a writer, I was given the license to go off and cast/direct my actors. For a writer in movies and TV, that's a little bit more difficult. So that, to me, was one of the big things about being in this position at Free Radical."

A Long And Winding Road

Rob Yescombe had a particularly odd path into the games writing trade. He started writing at the tender age of 18 and promptly got a job in India working for a cable TV channel. Rob then wrote a sitcom that was nominated for a TAPS (Training and Performance Showcase) Award. Free Radical then contacted TAPS when they were trying to find an In-house Writer for the studio: "TAPS got in touch with me and said "Do you want to write a game?" And I sure did," reminisces Rob.

Rhianna Pratchett offers further insight into games writers across the industry. "Some writers do come from the development side - usually designers or producers. This can work really well if the person has a flair for writing and understands how to communicate story well through both traditional and game-specific means.

"The best way to get into games writing is to network as much as possible," she continues. "There are loads of game events all over the country and they are great ways of getting in touch with developers and making a few contacts. The industry is still relatively small enough that you can approach the developers of games you particularly admire and ask them if they are looking for writers and perhaps send in some samples. That's worked for me a couple of times."

Similarly to most forms of writing, games writing isn't exactly an easy area to get into. Very rarely will a studio openly advertise a writing opportunity and, when they do, they're sure to ask for examples of previous games that a writer has worked on. In other words, if you were thinking 'That game writing lark sounds like an easy gig, I'll get myself one of those jobs,' think again. Almost without exception, games writers either started off their careers within more conventional game studio positions, or have extensive credentials as writers prior to working on their first project.

It Begins

Once a writer has managed to land their first project, the hard work has only just begun. The experiences of Rhianna, Rob, and David differ widely concerning exactly where their writing fits into the production process. Of the three writers, David has the most control over the projects he works on and describes the process he goes through when putting a script together:

"It is the essence of our games, maybe even more than other genres. No production starts without a full and detailed script. A full script is about 2500 pages. It is basically the detailed description of the game second per second, including story, characters, dialogues, interfaces, game play, indications for sound, acting and directing.

"It usually takes me about nine to ten months to write it, and it's a full-time job," adds David. "When I write, I am totally absorbed in what I am doing, there is not one minute where I don't think about it, and I can become kind of weird... I usually work about sixteen hours a day, mostly at night, and I have major difficulties to think about anything else than my script. It is both an intense and interesting phase for me, but it is also quite tense, with always the fear not to be able to make it (this is quite present in my mind as I just finish one of these phases...)."

In the case of Rob at Free Radical, his workload will vary widely at different points in the production cycle. "Most of the people here have a consistent level of work. For me it's more like peaks and troughs, where you'll write a script and then see if it's what people are capable of doing, or if it's what they want to do."

His unique position at Free Radical also helps to streamline the design and writing processes, allowing them to mesh easily. "Because I'm there full-time it means that it doesn't have to be design and then the writing trying to catch up. The two can happen at the same time, so we can discuss things and figure out what might be good for the design."

"It's the same as any bunch of guys sitting around, throwing ideas at each other. I don't think for one second that I should be the only one throwing in story ideas and designers don't think that I can't throw in a design idea."

Rob's production cycle differs slightly from David's and one reason for this is the different genres that the two studios cater for. "I'll start off writing a main skeleton of the narrative which, in Haze, is about the same length of a movie; so it's about 100 pages. And, from there, each of the individual game units - the mini-missions that will make up a level, let's say - will require its own dialogue to go with it.

"There isn't necessarily a key to the over-arching narrative, so the main thing is to get the skeleton out first, record the cut-scenes - get them out of the way, then go on to applying the in-game dialogue to the game units that the designers are working on. From there, of course, you've also got to put in - you know when you're in a game and someone is shouting "move up!", "hold back!" or "fire!" and AI strings like that - these have to go in on top of that. So, in total, the script for Haze is just over 1,000 pages."

You Can't Have It All

Somewhat ironically, while Quantic Dream games such as Fahrenheit are far more cinematic than most games, the varying story-arcs that they employ make for scripts that differ from the linear path of a traditional screenplay. As an adventure game, Fahrenheit follows the paths of two NYPD cops and a protagonist who has unconsciously committed a murder. Their stories are followed in a similar style to that of a film, but the gamer is allowed to choose the decisions that each character takes and their path through the game's plot. While there is one main storyline throughout the game, players can move away from this central plot-line with tangential story-arcs. David coins the term "rubber band" storytelling for this form of plot development in a game.

"Multi-layered plotlines are a pure nightmare to write," admits David. "The writing of Fahrenheit has been incredibly difficult and painful for me, as I was writing a new format in its most complex dimension. My current project has been easier to write, which was a relief, as it means I start to have a better understanding of this specific form of interactive writing.

"Usually, I think about the overall story-arc of the story. I try to respect the usual storytelling structures (three acts/five turning points). Then I try to apply the same rule to each scene. My favourite structure uses quite short scenes (ten to fifteen minutes) to provide a fast pacing to the experience and be fast enough so the player never gets bored. Each scene starts with a hook, has three acts and two climaxes. It makes each scene structured like a short movie on its own.

"This is what I currently experiment with, but I will continue to try different narrative forms in the future, as exploration is a major part of my interest in interactive writing."

To give us a feel of the preparation that goes into a game like Fahrenheit, David recounts his research process prior to writing the game. "I spent a lot of time in New York before writing it and I was there almost every month for a year working on a separate project. I came back with my team and we walked for weeks in the streets with cameras and camcorders. We came back with gigs and gigs of videos and pictures. It was really important not to create a "New York seen from France", but a believable New York, even for people living there."

However, what a game like Fahrenheit gives you with one hand; it takes away with the other. While gamers are given a great deal of freedom regarding the path they sculpt through the game's story, they're also denied the same amount of interaction in terms of gameplay that you might find in other mainstream games. Indeed, the gameplay is pretty much limited to flicks of the right thumbstick. It's an aspect of plot-heavy games that Free Radical's Rob Yescombe sums up nicely:

"The more pace you want a story to have, by enlarge, the more interactivity you have to take away from the player. If you look at a game like Fahrenheit it had a great, punchy, fast story. But, in terms of it actually being a game; in terms of it being a fun game to play without the narrative, it was fairly minimal. And that's not to criticise it - I enjoyed it very much - but that's the problem you face."

Autor: Gwynne Dixon
Source: TVG
Language: English

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TVG.TRIPLETAP - The Art of Storytelling #1 Feature Thursday, January 17, 2008

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