The Game Narrative ToolboxComplications Ensue
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Monday, September 07, 2015

(Click the pic to buy the book)

In between the two games I'm writing (We Happy Few and Stories: The Path of Destinies), I've been perusing The Game Narrative Toolbox. It's written by a quartet of extremely experienced game writers from the world of triple-A, one of whom is my buddy Ann LeMay.

There are all sorts of hidden rules in game writing. For example, one of the challenges in writing We Happy Few for me, as a recovering screenwriter, has been our studio head Guillaume's insistence that the player's goal line up with the player character's goal. A character's goal in a story can be anything: to save the world, to lose his virginity before senior year in high school starts, to show up his father, to make the best cheese in the world, to win a dog show.

In a movie, all I have to do is convince you to care about the protagonist, and you'll automatically root for (or against) him or her achieving that goal. Few of the audience for Best in Show were dog fanciers.

In games, G's philosophy is, the player does not automatically have the same goal. Most game developers have heard of the four Bartle types. Players play to kill, to socialize, to explore and to achieve. Most of the console and PC games you've heard of try to hit three or four of these motivations to play. Witcher 3, for example, which I just finished, is about killing monsters, about exploring a world, and about achieving certain goals. I'm willing to bet that the developers considered making a multiplayer mode, too.

So, back to cheese. While Achievers might dig a game where you make the best cheese, what about Killers? What about Explorers?

So we need to make the player's goals line up. In a shoot'em-up, that happens more or less automatically. You play Splinter Cell because you want to kill dudes. The hero is a dude who kills bad dudes, and the story is about how there are all these bad dudes he has to kill.  But what about cheese?

Say the next step in my cheesemaking challenge is to get a special kind of rennet (a cheese ingredient). The player probably does not have strong emotions around rennet.

But I can show the player a beautiful, high-security building he's going to have to sneak into in order to get it. I can warn him that his chief competitor, Aloysius B. Abernathy, is plotting to buy up all the special rennet. And I have cleverly been building lore about a secret society called Blessed Are the Cheesemakers that hopes to control the world through cheese. I can hint to the player that he will discover a Big Secret about Blessed Are the Cheesemakers inside that high security building.

Now the player has all sorts of game-y reasons to get that rennet. They are not the reasons that the player character has. He'd really rather buy his rennet on Amazon (just as you can, you know, buy the book on Amazon by clicking on the picture of the book). But I've made the player and player character goals line up.

It's particularly important because there is a significant subset of gamers that just don't care that much about story, just as there are moviegoers who are just there for the pod races. They want enough story to tell them why they're supposed to kill the Thing in the Sewers, but just enough. The reason the player character has for doing it is not at the center of the experience; it's an excuse.

It's been on my mind a lot, because I've been working on how to line up the player's goals in We Happy Few with the goals of [character name redacted] as he [redacted][redacted] the [redacted].

Well, triple-A games have more of these hidden rules than indie games do. First of all, in triple-A, the writer is one of a dozen people involved in narrative design, on a team of 600 people, to pick numbers out of a hat. That's a very different writing environment from mine, where I'm the guy writing the story and the lore and the dialog and even directing the voice actors. So communication is much more involved. There are way more memos and meetings.

THE GAME NARRATIVE TOOLBOX (remember? that's what this blog post is about) is all about these hidden rules. It is full of the things that you would not automatically know about AAA game writing, or game writing in general, just by consulting your common sense. How do you make an epic plot into a relatable plot? What are the elements of good quest-giving dialog? When can you give exposition and when should you never give exposition? What's the difference between the lore you can impart to a raid party of players who regularly play together, and the lore you can impart to an ad-hoc party?

Cleverly, since this book is pitched at beginning-to-intermediate writers, the book has lots of exercises you can do for practice, and to build your portfolio. I'll be consulting it too. Indie means you don't necessarily do things the way the big studios do them; sometimes because you're trying to do something interesting, more often because you can't afford, say, motion capture, or 20,000 barks. But you're wise to know how they do them, and depart from their ways only when you have a specific reason to do it.

Good book, Ann! Hi, Toiya!


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