Q. How is video game writing different from film and television writing?
A. Wow. Lots of ways.
First of all, film and television are mature media.
There have been all sorts of experiments in both media, but most tv series tell stories about a family (whether of blood or choice) in some sort of venue (a place of work or a home). Ideally, problems walk in the door every week. People in TV don’t change much over time, because the tv audience wants consistency. After ten years of Friends, Ross was still hoping that Rachel would think he was cool, and Rachel was still hoping that one day Ross would think she was smart and worthy of respect.
Most films are about someone we find compelling, who has an opportunity or a problem, who faces obstacles, an antagonist and/or their own personal flaw. They have something to lose and something to gain. In other words, it’s a single story. The hero starts out haunts by something in their past, is crippled by some fear; in the course of the story they overcome their fear and lay their ghost to rest. (Or, in French movies, they fail to, because la vie est comme ça.)
There is blurring around the edges, of course. The Avengers movies are basically tv episodes that you go into a movie theater to see. “It’s not TV, it’s HBO,” because on pay cable shows, characters can change. By the end of Game of Thrones, Jon Snow still knows nothing, but Theon Greyjoy has turned from traitor to victim to hero, while Daenarys has gone mad. Bingewatching Netflix shows break even more rules.
But still, fundamentally, TV is a mature medium. So is film. You can write a book about how to write for film and you can write one about how to write for television. (Obviously; I did.) It’s possible to describe how you get a TV writing job and how you sell a spec script.
Video games, well. A video game can have a single story about a single, well-drawn protagonist with flaws and a past. Or it can tell the same events from different perspectives. Or it can tell a branching story about a single protagonist that has 28 endings. Or it can provide hundreds of mini adventures that are slightly different depending on hundreds of choices the player has made, starting with defining the blank slate player character’s stats (intelligent or strong? fast or wise?). It can tell no hero story at all, and only create a world and its backstory. I could write a book about how to write the flavor of video games that I write, but I’d be crazy to mouth off about what makes a good story for World of Warcraft, or Stardew Valley.
That much, probably everyone knows. There are a bunch of other important ways that video game writing is different.
The most important thing about a video game is that the player is playing it. If I write a novel (did that too), I am telling you what my protagonist did. If I write a video game, even though I have told a story that could be turned into the novel, it is still you moving the character around. While I might define the major plot twists, how the player gets from one event to another is the player’s choice, within the bounds of the game.
The player inhabits the player character. I can identify with, say, Tyrion Lannister; but I don’t inhabit his character. If I played Tyrion Lannister in a video game, then I would “be” him at a much more visceral level than if I just root for him on TV.
This generates on of the big challenges in video game writing. In a film, tv episode or novel, I can easily have the hero make a mistake, or a morally questionable decision.
But in a game, it’s not easy. If I put the player in a situation where they will likely make a mistake, many players will feel cheated; and some will spot the trap and not make the mistake. If I flat out force the player to make the mistake, the player will normally resent it. Hey, don’t make me do something stupid that I don’t want to do!
Even more so a morally questionable decision. If you force me, as a player, to murder my own dog, I might just stop playing the game altogether, and go write a nasty review. It’s not the player character killing the dog; it’s me, and I don’t want to!
So a lot of effort goes into aligning player motivation with the player character’s motivation. If you’re going to make my character murder his own dog, then you bloody well have to give me such a good reason that I agree with the player character. (The dog has the Black Plague, for example.)
Note, however, that you don’t need to give me the same reason to murder my fictional in-game dog as my player character has. I can have an entirely different motivation. (I know the dog has Plague; player character thinks it’s possessed by a devil.)
Meanwhile, your story is usually a skeleton to hang quests on. The quests ought to progress the story emotionally. But the story is there so that we care about the gameplay. Think of an opera, or a kung fu movie. The opera plot is there to motivate singing. People are not going to the opera for the story. They are going to the opera to hear great singing. Some of the great world operas have absolute rubbish plots. People are going to kung fu movies to see kung fu action sequences.
Of course, there are games that are 90% story and 10% gameplay, and some of them are quite satisfying. 80 Days is close to a choose-your-own adventure story (i.e. not a game); there is just enough gameplay to justify calling it a game. No one is playing 80 Days for the gameplay, they are playing it for Meg Jayanth’s amazing writing. But the vast majority of video games are north of 50% about the gameplay.
The video game writing process is quite different, too. At the beginning, the entire project is just a screenwriter, or possibly a producer and the screenwriter they’ve hired. At the beginning of a video game project, in our studio, the story grows out of any number of discussions between the narrative people, the studio head, the creative director, the art director, the design director, the tech director, maybe the music director, maybe some marketing people.
And those discussions are ongoing. The art director might sketch a character, and the narrative people figure out how to use that character. Or the narrative people sketch a character, and the artists figure out what s/he looks like. Films are written, then shot, then edited, then released, in that order. Video games are made by iteration. There’s a round of creation and design; then we evaluate what we’ve done; discuss how to make it better; and start another round.
That’s a little like a TV show in that you can decide to make a minor character into a major character, or cut a character that you don’t like. But even on TV, you can’t go back and rework all the episodes. So long as you haven’t run out of time or money on your video game, you can rework the game.
Meanwhile, at another studio, all those other people might work on the project for years before anyone evening talks to a writer; rather than providing the backbone of how the player character progresses through the game, the story might be just some feathers or fur that the narrative people stick on after all the muscles have been filled in.
Personally, I experience more respect in video games than I did in film. Maybe I’m just a better video game writer, who knows. But in film you have this perception among producers and directors and actors that they can all write scripts and they don’t really need writers. This might have been a perception in games a generation ago, when the writer was whoever wasn’t busy that week. But I feel like game studios are coming to understand that writing is a skill just like programming/level design/environmental art/ etc.
In video games, we are still learning things that any pro writer knows in film and television. The idea that apparently Good aligned characters can lie, or contradict each other, or even have personality flaws, seems to be newish to game writing. There are games that do, but they’re still thin on the ground.
To be a successful American film and TV writer, you really need to be in LA. New York is a distant second. There are major video game studios in at least a dozen North American cities. In video games, a resume and portfolio can legit get you recruited. In film & TV, it’s your credits, your agent, and whose party you went to last week
Film writing is terribly lonely most of the time, like novel writing. TV writing once the show is greenlit is more like game making: you go into an office and get to play in the sandbox with the other kids.
Lastly, of course, to write great film or tv, you have to watch a lot of great film and tv — and think about what you’ve seen, and analyze what worked and what didn’t, and argue about it with your film and TV friends. To write great games, you have to play great games. (And not just narrative games.)
Those are some key differences in writing in the two media. What have I missed?