Game Writing’s No Game: Why Interactive Writing Isn’t Simple – by Leon Lynn

In this post Leon explores how game writing is more complex and engaging than what is typically thought.

Video games perhaps aren’t the first things that come to your mind when you’re asked to think of art or literature. In fact, many people I speak to about games writing seem unaware or even surprised that games can, and today often do, carry a narrative and artistic depth similar to or even surpassing cinematic, prose and poetic work.

Having grown up with family in the games industry, and now working in it myself, I wanted to take this opportunity to break through this stereotype. Hopefully this article will show anyone yet to explore games a glimpse as to why I personally think you are missing out on the biggest explosion of narrative creativity since the invention of modern cinema. Especially since Surrey, this festival’s home, is home to a world-famous heritage of games and developers dating back to 1988 – check out https://guildford.games/timeline for more on that!

Before I go any further, I should quickly define the term “games writing”. Games writing is, at its most basic, the design and creation of a story which allows audiences some choice in how they experience the story. That’s still quite broad, so I’m going to focus on the games writing in blockbuster video games (called AAA games in the industry) for this article – though I would encourage you to explore the sheer creativity of the virtual independent development scene through portals like https://itch.io!  For reference, an oversimplified explanation of a “video game” is a piece of software on a computer of some kind which provides the audience (players) choices, such as what to say or where to go, through which they can impact a virtual world of some kind. 

With that out of the way, we can (briefly) discuss the art of writing for narrative games. The focus of storytelling in the gaming industry has been booming for the last twenty years or so, ever since the discovery that the medium’s unique and immersive feature of player agency could be used to impact a narrative. Already previously described, player agency is the players’ ability to choose how the protagonist (called the “player-character” in the industry) will act in the game world. It’s the ability of players to choose whether they will turn left or right, will say  dialogue line one or dialogue line two, or whether they’ll pull the trigger on that gun. And this ability connects players to player-characters and their experience in a way novels and cinema cannot quite replicate.

Because of this agency, games demand a unique, somewhat difficult writing style. Their writers have the challenge of allowing players to meaningfully choose how they act, while also delivering a cohesive story that will (for the most games) be the same regardless of these choices. Unlike prose or cinematic storytelling, games writers are not able to entirely pre-write protagonists and their actions, because part of the players’ unique experience in the medium is being able to choose these actions for themselves.

Even the simplest video game storylines, which often thinly justify action scenes, must tell gripping stories which the player-character develops within, while allowing players to feel that they truly have the agency to control the player-character as they please. Most importantly, this must be done without players feeling like they’ve made their player-character act “out of character”. In other words, player-characters need to be relatable and interesting enough to develop and like real people, but simultaneously blank enough to feel like they would act in the ways the player directs them to. As an extreme example, players must feel able to profess their love for, scream their hatred at, or even kill a certain character without feeling one of these options wouldn’t “fit” the pre-established character of their player-character. This can make writing major plot-points difficult, and often means games will employ a lot of techniques to guide you into doing what the plot requires freely, or to make you feel like you’ve had more of a choice than you have – which sadly I don’t have the space to discuss here.

This writing is extremely popular in games, when done correctly, because it enhances the escapism considerably. By making players feel they have the agency to project whatever actions they please onto a player-character, they come to feel responsible for the character, or can even feel that the player-character is an extension of themselves. For example, you are more scared for a character’s survival in a horror film when you can relate to them and find parts of yourself in their character. Games capitalise on this tendency of audiences to connect to characters by using agency to make it seem like the players’ thoughts and actions blend into the player-character’s, effectively relating them to themselves. When done right, it almost feels like you are inside the horror game, rather than just a virtual character, and both the escapism and the experience is enhanced. Thus, writing a game and its characters properly becomes integral to a game’s ability to fully immerse its players in a way yet unreached by other mediums.

Writing not just the virtual characters, but the worlds these characters live in, to be individual yet accessible like this is easily one of the intensive narrative processes in consumable media. Creating universes in which players can effortlessly immerse themselves in often involves thousands of collective writing hours – the process is akin to creating a sometimes city-sized virtual film set, where every rock, brick, piece of graffiti, character and line of dialogue are designed not only to fit the game’s story, but to tell it. To do this well, it’s important for the world to feel new and fantastical, but also for things to be recognisable enough that the player feels they understand as much about the world as the player-character would.  

For many games, this is aided by almost every prop on these virtual sets being available for players to interact with. By being able to pick up and eat a local delicacy, or read a poster on the wall about a local circus, players can absorb information the player-character already know without breaking immersion. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is an open-world narrative game on the extreme end of this, with an entire 31.7km2 county open for players to freely roam. This county is overflowing with the ruins of several civilisations, feuds between a plethora of races and sub-factions, 1087 unique interactive characters, thousands of interactive objects, and even a collection of 337 full-length, in-universe fiction and history books that players can discover and read in the game. It’s so big that players are still discovering new story arcs, ten years after its release.

However, so much work being done on the world and characters around the story rarely means games don’t tell powerful stories. The 2018 version of God of War is a good example of this modern narrative. The Norse-themed game is a fifty-hour experience of the player-character repressing his violent past and rebuilding his relationship with his son after the mother’s death. The character and plot complexity easily rivals a common novel, being full of unexpected backstory and plot twists, while playing as the father serves to make the experience all the more poignant. Every time the son cries out in pain, it’s because you as the player failed to protect him from the dangerous world, or from his grief. Even with this melding of player and player-character, the writers at Santa Monica Studio still manage to develop the player-character in an unexpected direction as he continues to battle his grief and his past, without making the player feel as though any choice they could have made would have been out of character. The result feels like stepping inside a Norse mythology novel, and having the protagonist’s experiences combine with your own.

Games are already pushing this immersion further, though. Experiences like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice or Forget-Me-Knot take advantage of this ability to place players inside a player-character’s experience by emulating their player-characters’ Schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s respectively. The result is a uniquely disturbing experience – it’s one thing to hear someone describe these conditions, but to experience approximations of malevolent auditory hallucinations or time and space shifting around your every move is quite another. Both games still have stories – Senua is trying to rescue her lover from the underworld, and in Forget-Me-Knot the unnamed player-character is simply trying to remember who they are. Games such as these showcase the medium’s distinctive ability to narratively foreground and educate players on social issues by putting players through these issues – but games have already found a way to push this immersive education further.

When given meaningful control over the narrative, the player’s agency becomes an arguably limitless tool of immersion and experience. Up until this point, the games discussed have all been written to allow for players to make choices without “breaking” the story – no matter what players do, those games don’t reshape their stories around player action. However, game narratives that do break the story are called “branching” narratives, because such narratives “branch out” depending on what players do, and this allows the entire narrative to shift around players much like real life. This increases the writing teams’ workload immensely: each narrative “branch” is essentially a new version of the world, player-character, and narrative where one of the player’s actions has changed things, and thus must have new narrative arcs developed for them. Despite this, these narratives are becoming more and more common in games for the unique experience they can offer. 

This unique experience is the players’ complete freedom to write their own roles. Degrees of liberty vary, but on the extreme end players are no longer limited to another character’s role, and instead are free to write themselves into its story however they please. Such narratives are most commonly found in Role-Playing Games, named because, though all games technically allow players to play a role in the game world, Role-Playing Games specialise in allowing players to choose their own “role” to play without worrying about breaking the story. The Surrey-made fantasy-RPG franchise Fable was one of the first big-budget games to provide players a distinctive choice in roles to play, but it was arguably 2007’s now-seminal space-opera RPG Mass Effect which showed the true potential and scale a branching narrative could create. In it, players embark on a quest to build a starship crew and save the galaxy with a custom-made player-character. The players’ success relies entirely on the trust they build with the dialogue and actions they choose when interacting with their crew, all of whom are experiencing personal crises. If the player mishandles or ignores these crises, then characters – or even the galaxy – will die. After spending upwards of 200 hours with these characters, this can be devastating – much like a late death in a long TV series. The result is an experience different to anything any film or novel could offer. Common and intense themes like mental illness, grief, faith and identity are still present in a depth rivalling or extending past other media, but how, where, and in what depth these issues manifest entirely depends on who players choose to talk to, and how players choose to act with them – much like how your real-life experiences rely on what choices you make.

To me, this emblematises the power of branching narrative to replicate human potential. There is a powerful art in how games can communicate not just the experiences of people, but how through branching narratives they can capture the complex, simultaneous possibility of people to act in different ways, depending on how others act to them. This is, to me, what makes games a medium capable of literary masterpieces: their ability to capture, portray and teach with human experience like no other medium.

Of course, I couldn’t possibly cover every type of video game, or every narrative they include. But I hope this (somewhat lengthy) snapshot into the world of narrative gaming has shown you why you really are missing out on an amazing narrative experience if you’ve yet to explore games. The stories games tell are just as valid, artistic, and powerful as – and yet so far from – the written and cinematic storytelling you know and love. And if this has inspired you (as I hope it has!) to look more into games or talk about things further, I’d love to have a discussion with you in the comments!

About the Author – Leon Lynn

I’m a final year Creative Writing Undergraduate currently working in video games during a gap year, and my favourite authors are Iain Banks, Derek Landy, and John Keats. I am also your Assistant Festival Director for SNWF 2021! I can’t wait for you to see everything we are planning for you all. Find my writing portfolio at www.itsallagame.com/leonpaullynn

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