Complications Ensue: The Crafty Game, TV and Screenwriting Blog
Complications Ensue:
The Crafty Screenwriting, TV and Game Writing Blog


April 2004

May 2004

June 2004

July 2004

August 2004

September 2004

October 2004

November 2004

December 2004

January 2005

February 2005

March 2005

April 2005

May 2005

June 2005

July 2005

August 2005

September 2005

October 2005

November 2005

December 2005

January 2006

February 2006

March 2006

April 2006

May 2006

June 2006

July 2006

August 2006

September 2006

October 2006

November 2006

December 2006

January 2007

February 2007

March 2007

April 2007

May 2007

June 2007

July 2007

August 2007

September 2007

October 2007

November 2007

December 2007

January 2008

February 2008

March 2008

April 2008

May 2008

June 2008

July 2008

August 2008

September 2008

October 2008

November 2008

December 2008

January 2009

February 2009

March 2009

April 2009

May 2009

June 2009

July 2009

August 2009

September 2009

October 2009

November 2009

December 2009

January 2010

February 2010

March 2010

April 2010

May 2010

June 2010

July 2010

August 2010

September 2010

October 2010

November 2010

December 2010

January 2011

February 2011

March 2011

April 2011

May 2011

June 2011

July 2011

August 2011

September 2011

October 2011

November 2011

December 2011

January 2012

February 2012

March 2012

April 2012

May 2012

June 2012

July 2012

August 2012

September 2012

October 2012

November 2012

December 2012

January 2013

February 2013

March 2013

April 2013

May 2013

June 2013

July 2013

August 2013

September 2013

October 2013

November 2013

December 2013

January 2014

February 2014

March 2014

April 2014

May 2014

June 2014

July 2014

August 2014

September 2014

October 2014

November 2014

December 2014

January 2015

February 2015

March 2015

April 2015

May 2015

June 2015

August 2015

September 2015

October 2015

November 2015

December 2015

January 2016

February 2016

March 2016

April 2016

May 2016

June 2016

July 2016

August 2016

September 2016

October 2016

November 2016

December 2016

January 2017

February 2017

March 2017

May 2017

June 2017

July 2017

August 2017

September 2017

October 2017

November 2017

December 2017

January 2018

March 2018

April 2018

June 2018

July 2018

October 2018

November 2018

December 2018

January 2019

February 2019

November 2019

February 2020

March 2020

April 2020

May 2020

August 2020

September 2020

October 2020

December 2020

January 2021

February 2021

March 2021

May 2021

June 2021

November 2021

December 2021

January 2022

February 2022

August 2022

September 2022

November 2022

February 2023

March 2023

April 2023

May 2023

July 2023

September 2023

November 2023

January 2024

February 2024

June 2024


Sunday, January 28, 2024

Here are some terms I've heard thrown around while we were talking about game narrative. Some are entirely idiosyncratic to me and my crowd. Others are common. 

What are yours?


Something left over from a previous draft that no longer makes sense or serves its purpose. Narrative cruft.


A single object that exists in the game, such as a gun, a tree, a beer can. An asset can be easily cloned. Environmental artists make assets. Narrative folk may write text for assets that have labels. What’s on the labels of beer cans in this world?

As You Know, Bob

Dialogue that recounts what both characters in the scene already know, so the player can know it, too.


A compendium of all the information developers need to make the game. Out of date moments after it is written. The “narrative bible” might have information about the world story as well as the characters’ backstories. Once production begins, developers tend to stop updating the bible, so double check any information you read in it.

It’s helpful if writing a bible to focus on things that can actually appear in the game rather than Tolkien-stye lore about the Three Silver Trees of the Greensong. Also, remember that a bible is not player-facing. Information you wrote in the bible is not in the game until you, or a level artist, put it in the game using a narrative delivery system.

Break Story

Laying out the beats of the story, usually in a room (or a virtual room).


A punchy way to end a scene, providing the energy to jump back into gameplay. “Needs a button.”


A short movie that interrupts gameplay. Level designers often hate them because they don’t like anything interrupting gameplay. May be pre-rendered, in which case it is literally a movie playing in the middle of the game. Or it may be animated via the game engine using the character models and environments of the game. Some studios use “cutscene” to distinguish in-game cinematics from rendered cinematics, but the distinction is not universal.


An overused phrase or gimmick. “He’s standing right behind me, isn’t he?”


Anything the player character can use up, such as health potions, grenades, or food. Usually found in the environment or bought in stores in-game. If you find yourself in a large room with health potions and ammo scattered around, expect a boss battle.


Two lines, usually brief, one answering the other. Often used to button a scene. “I’m a man!” “Nobody’s perfect.” John Rogers calls this “the basic molecule of script dialogue.”


Ways in which narrative delivery systems interact with other disciplines. Readables, for example, have almost no dependencies. They are assets that can be strewn about the environment by the most junior of level designer, or a narrative designer, or even a writer. (Gasp.) They don’t require animation. They may not require special art. If they convey lore about the world, they don’t affect the game’s story. By contrast, a cinematic has lots of dependencies. It can’t be written until we know what the story is. It will require animation and possibly mo-capping. An actor has to record lines, which have to be mixed. Putting cinematics into gameplay seamlessly can be a person’s whole job on a AAA game.

Downloadable Content (DLC)

Additional content for the game. May have new maps and tell a completely new story. “DLC” is also what your producer tells you when they cut the levels you’ve been working on for a year.


What happens when the player character runs into someone or something. Level designers create and script encounters. If it’s a dialogue encounter, narrative folks will write the dialogue, Lord willing.

Environmental Artist

An artist who creates assets that will appear in the game. They may put them in the game map, if they don’t affect gameplay; level designers may put them in the map if they do. Narrative folk work with artists to make sure the environment tells the world story. For example:

This was once a grand palace, but now it is covered in weeds. Sprawled here and there on the floors and benches, servants, courtiers, knights, and ladies sleep dreamlessly.

Environmental Narrative

Narrative descriptions of the game environment, creating a world story, a mystery, a mood, or anything else that attracts us to play in this world and makes us care. Each major location in a game might have its own narrative description, in addition to whatever notes the art director is giving her artists.

Environmental scenario

A few items laid out in the environment to tell a story. For example,

A table covered with playing cards. Two chairs, one fallen backwards. Dried blood spattered on the cards. A bottle shattered by a bullet. Under the table, a scrap of paper – on interacting with it, it turns out to be an IOU.

Narrative folk write these descriptions to convey the world story. Ideally, an environmental scenario uses assets that already exist, or are already planned for the game. Creating a single asset for an environmental scenario can take an artist a week, which is expensive. The sooner you can get these to the environmental artists, the better.

The difference between an environmental scenario and environmental narrative is just scope. A scenario is a single collection of assets intended to convey a single idea. Environmental narrative encompasses everything that conveys what the world is.


Something that only happens once or twice in the game, or in only one level. Exotic gameplay might be when a level introduces tightrope-walking as a verb, but there are no tightropes later on in the game. 

First Person

A way of showing the player the world in three dimensions as if through the player character’s eyes. The player character is usually invisible, though sometimes you can see your hands. First person games are more likely to have a blank main character, so the player feels like it is them in the game world. 

First Person Shooter, or FPS

A first-person 3D game in which you shoot people in the face.

Fridge Logic

A logic problem in your story that no one is going to notice until they get up and go the fridge. Often not worth fixing.

Gameplay designer

Someone who designs gameplay features, such as verbs. Features are active on many or all maps, unless they’re exotic.


An early state of a level, before the environmental art is in. Looks like a bunch of grey boxes. No point arting up a level before you know if it works.

Hang a Lantern on It

To draw attention to something. If there’s something you really want the player to know, you hang a lantern on it somehow.

You can sometimes get away with inconsistencies by hanging a lantern on them. “How come he can fly and we can’t?” So long as the players know that you know it’s inconsistent, they are more likely to forgive you than if they think you’re being sloppy or think they’re dumb.

Hat on a Hat

Gilding the lily. Trying to make something stronger or funnier by adding something else strong or funny, thereby paradoxically weakening it. A hat does not need a hat on it. A man in a gorilla suit is funny. Give him a clown nose as well, and you have a hat on a hat. Also known as “gilding the matzah.”

Idiot Ball

When a character makes an out-of-character and obviously dumb decision, or acting on misinformation they could clear up in a text message, they are carrying the idiot ball.

Killing your Darlings

A darling is a bit of narrative you particularly like and are particularly proud of – but it isn’t actually good for the story as a whole. You must kill your darlings, as Eudora Welty said.

Laying Pipe

Setting something up early that will pay off later. Akin to installing pipes so you can use the sink later.


A hunk of the game map that is loaded into the consoles or computer’s memory at one time. In Unreal Engine, a level is usually on a single map. Levels may or may not be apparent to the player. If levels are separated by loading screens, they will be pretty obvious, but next generation consoles don’t necessarily need loading screens. Often a single level designer “owns” or is responsible for a level.

Level Designer

Someone who designs the levels and what happens in them. Their job is to make gameplay fun. They have to know how the features of the game – especially the verbs – can work together. They are known for having a god complex. They create worlds, after all.

Loading screen

What you see on the screen while the console or computer is putting the level in memory. Usually a still image with some text. Can be used to remind the player what’s happened so far in the game, or to reveal some aspect of the world story, or give gameplay hints. The loading screens for Spec Ops: The Line mock the player, “Do you feel like a hero yet?”

Magic Hat

A Magic Hat is a special power that you don't explain because the explanation wouldn't actually resolve anything. The point of magic is that it's magic. You can create lore behind a magic hat (e.g. the One Ring, Excalibur). What you don't need is a scientific explanation:

Midi-chlorians were intelligent microscopic life forms that lived symbiotically inside the cells of all living things. In sufficient numbers, they could allow their symbiont to detect the pervasive energy field known as the Force. Midi-chlorian counts were blah bitty blah blah blah. 

And what gives midi-chlorians this power? Their magic hats? You're just kicking the can down the road.

Narrative Designer

Someone on the narrative team who focuses on getting the content into the game rather than creating the content. They might place assets into the level map. They might do some scripting. They work with the level designers to make sure that the gameplay is, as much as possible, also telling the story of the main character and of the world.

A narrative systems designer defines narrative delivery systems for the game. In a smaller team, that job might be folded into narrative design, or even writing.

The dividing line between writers and narrative designers is blurry, though. Some narrative designers write player-facing narrative content. Others don’t. Some writers do narrative design, whether they call it that or not.


A game focused on how the player character gets from point A to point B.


Something players will experience in the game. Lore is not player-facing until it appears in a readable, a journal entry, or an environmental asset such as tavern sign.


An asset that exists to be read. Usually when you interact with it, you can read some text on a separate screen, for example as an entry in the player’s journal or inventory. A poster for shaving lotion that you can read as you ride into town is not considered a readable; it’s a “decal.”  Readables are by far the cheapest way to get lore into the game. Most developers will not put anything critical into a readable, since God forbid the player should have to read something. Baldur’s Gate 3 bravely puts information useful to the player in readables. That’s a game design decision.

Run and Jump

Describes a section of traversal in a game. “And here we have a little run and jump until we get into our first combat encounter.”

Second Draft

Something meaningful in screenwriting contracts and which producers like to put in their narrative pipeline chart, but isn’t really a thing. Writers may write a vomit draft, a rough draft, and a first draft. You may get your draft approved, and eventually recorded. But all the drafts between first draft and approved draft – why count them? How many changes do you need to make for it to be a second draft? Every draft should be considered a first draft until it’s recorded.


A shoot’em up. A shooter. As opposed to a beat’em-up, a game focused on melee combat.

Shoe Leather

The narrative hoops you have to jump through to set something up dramatically -- e.g. establish that the hero is an orphan, remind the audience of their psychokinetic abilities, etc. all so it pays off later. Not that far off from laying pipe, but more of a criticism. “That’s all just shoe leather.”


Any game focused on shooting NPCs. Game developers add “in the face” almost instinctually.

Snappy Banter

As a putdown, dialogue that sounds clever and punchy but has little emotional content.

Table Read

A readthrough of all the dialogue scenes. On the first day of rehearsals for a play, the playwright, director and all the actors would get together and read the play, sitting down. Our version might be on Zoom, to make it easier to get actors to participate. Pay the actors if you possibly can. You’re getting paid, aren’t you?

Taking the Curse Off

When something is cliché or dumb, you may not be able to get rid of it for reasons. But you can sometimes take the curse off it by twisting it in some way.


Foreshadowing. Giving the players too heavy a hint where the story will go. You don’t want to telegraph the punchline to a joke. Comes from sending a telegraph saying you’re coming, rather than just showing up.


Gameplay focused on getting from here to there. Narrative audio is traditionally constrained by the assumption that the player is traversing the level as fast as the game allows them, even though the player may not be. If the narrative is longer than the minimum traversal time, you need a game mechanic to prevent narrative audio from stacking up.


A substance that everybody in the science fiction game world wants but is hard to get. It might be the thing you need to make the best sword, or a spaceship. In Avatar it is literally called unobtainium. Very common in fantasy too (e.g. mithril).

Up and Back

When the characters or plot go through action sequences, dialogue scenes, complications, etc.,, but the story does not progress. You could cut out an up-and-back and you wouldn’t feel anything is missing.


Any action the player can take in the gameplay, for example, “walk,” “jump,” or “dodge.” A shooter has specialized verbs like “shoot,” “take cover” (if it’s a cover shooter), “stealth takedown” (if stealth is a mechanic), and “throw” (if you can throw grenades or other consumables.) A platformer might have verbs like “climb,” “mantle” and “use zipline.” A walking simulator might have “examine.”

World story

The history of the world, as distinct from what happens during the game. What sort of world we’re in can be as, or more, important than the player character story. There may be a bible that defines the world story. It is already hilariously out of date.


A person with a socially acceptable and occasionally paying addiction. There is no known cure. Often an introvert.


Post a Comment

Sunday, January 14, 2024

 We saw the Rothko retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. Fascinating to watch how his style changed -- how he found it, and then sort of lost it. This was interesting:

<blockquote>The recipe of a work of art -- its ingredients -- how to make it--the formula.

  1. There must be a clear preoccupation with death--intimations of mortality... Tragic art, romantic art, etc. deals with the knowledge of death.
  2. Sensuality. Our basis of being concrete about the world. It is a lustful relationship to things that exist.
  3. Tension. Either conflict or curbed desire.
  4. Irony. This is a modern ingredient--the self effacement and examination by which a man for an instant can go on to something else.
  5. Wit and Play...for the human element.
  6. Hope. 10% to make the tragic concept more endurable.
I measure these ingredients very carefully when I paint a picture. It is always the form that follows these elements and the picture results from the proportions of these elements. 

I still am most fond of the canvas he's got up at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Like any Rothko, a photo doesn't begin to do it justice -- it is not one single color of blue, it is many blues. Up close and personal, it's mesmerizing. You could fall into it. 


Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger.