Early video games did not involve much of a story – certain genres still don’t, to this day – and so the idea arose that creative writers were not needed by the industry. The notable exception to this was the adventure genre, which centres on a narrative and tends to involve slower paced, non-confrontational gameplay focussed largely on problem solving. This genre is fairly niche, however, and is at least partially obsolete in its true form, although many older gamers still retain a huge nostalgic interest in it. Not surprisingly, the genre has sometimes evolved into film – for example contemporary titles such as Heavy Rain. On the whole, developers tended not to involve dedicated writers on their projects until fairly recently, and this is where the understanding of the medium itself becomes vitally important for writers who aspire to work on games.
As video games have evolved with the available technology into a viable new medium for telling stories, the methods and style of game-based storytelling have also evolved. Relatively recently, video games began to include larger environments with more complex gameplay mechanics. Notably, cinematic cutscenes mimic scenes from films and serve to drive the story forward. More recognisable scenarios and characters began to exist within a game and the settings also developed. The result was more ‘tools’ for game developers to work with in order to tell stories – but we have to remember that game and film are quite different media with different demands – and these differences can perhaps best be characterised by the notion of interactivity.
Games actively involve the audience in the experience of the game world. We should consider exactly what that might mean. There used to be a school of thought that concluded that – as a result of the player assuming the role of the hero – this character should be an ‘empty shell’ into which the gamer could project his (it usually was a ‘he’) fantasies. While there is an element of truth to this, it is certainly not the end of the matter, and recent titles such as the Uncharted franchise have utilised effective and powerful player controlled characters. The key seems to be to achieve a balance here. The hero must be ‘relatable’, perhaps more so than in any other medium. Not necessarily ‘likeable’ – but involving for the player. Players are going to be investing at least twelve intensive and interactive hours in this character, probably more. Giving the protagonist a certain charisma, a ‘reality’, will also allow you, as the writer, to avoid another common pitfall of game stories (or at least common in games of 5 to 10 years ago). In such games, the hero became a pawn who was solely influenced by the other characters. The bottom line here and now is that the hero should be proactive, rather than reactive.
These days, triple A games will have a minimum of twelve hours of playing time. That’s a lot more engagement on the part of the audience – in the shape of the gamers – than any film or play will ever demand (although there are obvious parallels with a full length work of fiction). In effect, the parts of films you don’t see, or don’t even need to see, are integral parts of games. So the game writer is presented with the problem of how to make these interesting.
To achieve this the game writer will have to work closely with the game and level designers (the people who actually create the gameplay and the multiplicity of tasks which the player carries out when playing) to create a consistent and involving story. A point to note here is that the writer may be required to write for a section of a game which has already been created from a technical standpoint. For example, the development team may have created a section where the player character must chase another character in the game. Presented with this, the game writer must find ways of cleverly and believably weaving this into the story.
Finally, games don’t necessarily have to be linear. There can be multiple, branching pathways in which the narrative can go, and some tasks may not need to be completed in a specific order. The actions the player carries out may affect the subsequent story sequences. Again this provides another challenge to the game writer – and perhaps demands a rather different mindset. As with all forms of writing, the more you involve yourself in your chosen medium, the better equipped you might be to write for it. In games, we have the technology, and we can create terrific experiences for players. But story telling is still very far from realising its true potential and we need writers to help us with this!
Charlie Czerkawski. Visit his festival link Charlie and his company Guerilla Tea also feature in the Festival in @theFestival (Aug 24)