How on earth do you write a game?

Notebook next to laptop, ready to write a game

If you read my last post you’ll know that I’m part way through making/writing/developing a game for the very first time – doing everything from the art to the coding to the VO myself. So just to manage any expectations: the title of this post is a genuine question. I don’t have the answer…

I’ve written for a fair few different media up to now; not with massive success, I’m the first to admit. I’ve got a completed novel that’s done the agent rounds (dig into the previous articles if you want to read up on that process), other novels at varying stages of completion, short stories, a couple of play scripts gestating, an experimental TV episode, even a few scenes for a rom-com film script. All of these share one key feature (other than lack of publication): they’re not interactive.

Even though writing for the stage is very different to writing a novel, there is that lack of interactivity tying them together. When a play is performed the actors and director will of course find different things in there, in just the same way that a novel will tickle people’s imaginations differently. They all begin, have a middle and have an end. The actions between the beginning and end are utterly predetermined.

There are exceptions – the Alan Ayckbourn play that changes on the toss of a coin; Fighting Fantasy style adventure books; Punchdrunk-style immersive theatre… But that’s not the kind of territory my writing has taken me into so far.

So. I repeat my question. How on earth do you write for games? And I’m thinking here of narrative-driven games more specifically.

Maybe the big con is the illusion of non-linearity? Some games don’t try to escape the linear – I’ve been playing through Wolfenstein: The New Order and the Uncharted trilogy recently and they’re fairly straightforward. Cut scene, interactive shooty (or climby) bit, cut scene, interactive shooty (or climby) bit and so on and so forth.

Alternatively, there are games like the Walking Dead where choice forms the central interaction (well, choice and quick time events). This is more the style of game that I’m interested in making, so I’m going to ponder a little deeper.

There’s a trick in this kind of game, which isn’t a criticism – I absolutely adore Telltale’s style and what they’ve done for narrative games. Having replayed a couple of their titles, the impact of the choices is sometimes less than may be imagined. Huge SPOILERS coming for The Walking Dead Season 1…

Whatever you do as Lee, whoever you sacrifice or save, the game will still resolve in pretty much the same way. You’ll go to the farm, then the coast. Clementine will be taken. Lee will get bitten. Clementine will wind up on her own. That said, the emotional journey Lee and Clementine (and the player) take will be different each time as the choices change.

This is interesting, and starts to move the narrative technique away from other media to a degree. In writing fiction, one of the big lessons is to ensure thatthe plot spirals out of the characters’ actions. If in a game the characters can take various different actions but the overall plot remains the same then how does this work? Why doesn’t everything feel contrived in Telltale games and their ilk?

I think the answer is a combination of a few things: firstly, on initial playthrough the player can be unaware of which actions are causing which consequences. So there’s the potential for pulling the wool over a player’s eyes. There’s a great example of the opposite happening in Witcher 2, by the way. Half way through the game you get to choose between following Roache or Iorveth. This takes Geralt and the player to a radically different area – a whole massive chunk of the game and narrative won’t be accessed by players who only play through once. Well done CD Projekt Red! Both options are well worth playing through, if you haven’t already.

I digress though. The second point to consider is which choices the player is given. And how that fits in with the various levels of plot. Is The Walking Dead a game about a man finding a young girl alone following a zombie outbreak, falling in with a group of survivors and doing what he can to protect the girl and the group? Or is it about the relationship between the man and the girl? The plot for the former is set largely in stone, with a few minor tweaks along the way. The latter though is completely mutable and up to the player.

Firewatch (which I’ve written about before), created by some of the team that worked on The Walking Dead, is an example of this to the nth degree. The plot is utterly unchangeable, and there isn’t really the illusion of choice about it; instead the interaction hinges on the relationship you build with a voice on the other end of the radio. Having chosen the protagonist’s backstory at the beginning you then get to decide how this affects his social interactions. At the end of the game you’ll have a character that may feel completely different from someone else’s, but will have gone to all the same places and ‘done’ all the same things.

Last thing to consider – the quality of the writing. Telltale’s Tales From The Borderlands is worth a mention here. Playing through, it felt like the choices were fewer and for the most part less dramatic than The Walking Dead, but by gum it’s great fun. That’s not to detract from The Walking Dead of course, which also features top quality writing. Tales… just elevates things even further. I wouldn’t really have cared if it wasn’t at all interactive – I loved the characters, the premise, the dialogue, the acting (another big plus). And it features the very finest gun fight in the history of everything – without a single gun.

So perhaps linearity isn’t necessarily as old hat as I thought. This is good news, as the game I’m making features a straightforward objective – the protagonist has to escape a ship that’s crashing – but how they achieve that could vary. The main interaction is in three branching dialogue scenes with different characters in our hero’s way, and the options chosen will lead to success or failure. It’ll all be over in a few minutes, but hopefully will be worth a replay to see what other options lead to. Also, worth mentioning that I am in no way comparing the quality of what I’m working on to the games mentioned above. Mine is a doodle that those developers could knock out in half an hour. But it’s a start.

Where the trick lies is remembering all the standard narrative plot structure stuff and lacing the interactivity around that. It’s not something I’ll manage this time around, but definitely useful for the future.

@BornToPootle

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Sunsetwatch would be a more apt name for my playthrough

I’ve been playing an awful lot of games recently, which has been rather nice. And since ‘finishing’ the mahoosive Witcher 3 I’ve turned my attention to shorter games with a focus on the narrative. Stand up Firewatch, Life Is Strange and Tales From The Borderlands. That’s got me thinking about endings, whether videogames approach them differently to other media and whether that matters.

Before we get any further – there are some SPOILERS ahead for Firewatch and Life Is Strange. And Mass Effect 3.

It’s impossible to think about game endings without mentioning Mass Effect 3. So great was the outcry against the ending for Bioware’s brilliant space opera that they went back and created a more in depth version. The things is, I completed it before they fiddled with the ending; although I have started a replay of the whole trilogy, I haven’t got to the third instalment yet, let alone the end. For me though, the original ending was fine. It was a relatively simple and abrupt choice, sure, but so what? The Mass Effect trilogy are huge games, full of memorable ohmygod moments.

What sticks out most in my playthrough is the fate of Tali. She was my lover and I damned her to death through the complicated moral choices surrounding her race and the sentient robots they’d created. I named my laptop after Tali (uh huh) out of a sense of remorse, though still sure I’d made the right choice. And I’m sure for other people the genophage plot line or the mighty Garrus will be the stand-out moments. For me, the ending couldn’t ever live up to the impact of the Tali moment. Think of that as being the focus of my Commander Shepard’s plot and everything else the background detail. Sure, the universe was at stake, but that was always going to feel less personal.

Life Is Strange offers a similar ending in a way. The game follows teenager Max ‘literary reference’ Caulfield through a week in which she develops minor time manipulation powers, reunites with her former bff and gatecrashes the cool-kids’ party (may not sound like much, but it’s a grower and worthy of all the praise). It’s a game of choice and consequences and, despite being smaller in scope, is no less impactful. Ultimately though, it comes down to ‘press this button to be magnanimous, this button to be selfish.’ Some argue – vociferously, from the message boards I’ve seen – that it renders the whole game pointless; all the previous choices are inconsequential given the ending. I disagree with that. Sure, you can argue about the logic of her time powers and what she’ll remember, what was ‘right’ for the character, but I don’t think that’s the point. During the course of the game, I saw characters who seemed like sketchily drawn archetypes become fully fleshed out people. One of the main characters, a seemingly typical rebellious teen managed to grow into someone I felt I understood. Brilliantly, the writers seemed to know that the character came across as a clich├ęd rebel – that was her mask to face the world and when they allowed us little glimpses beneath it paid off. What really sung for me though, was that after 15+ hours of choices, I knew the characters so well that, when the final choice presented itself, I found I didn’t really have any choice at all.

Although I loved Life Is Strange as an overall experience, some of the plotty bits – particularly in the last chapter – didn’t quite grab me. I had the same experience with Firewatch. Perhaps unsurprisingly though, considering the team were in part responsible for Walking Dead Season 1, it’s the emotional punch that ties it together more than the plot. As a narrative game (rather than an action or puzzle game) it seems odd to think of the plot being second-fiddle, but that’s how it felt to me, and I reckon I’m ok with that.

Within 3 minutes of the start of the game I was in tears. In that respect, It’s the Up of videgames (no talking dogs though, more’s the pity). Through a very simple but incredibly effective text adventure at the beginning, the main character’s background is fleshed out with a few tricky and devastating choices. What consequences that has on the plot is minimal. But on how you play the game it’s quite the reverse. Your character, Henry, is a firewarden up in Wyoming, all alone in a large area of national park but for his supervisor’s voice on the radio and a few glimpsed-from-a-distance guests. A plot slowly unfolds, starting as wonderful paranoia and ending as melodrama. Throughout it all though, you’ll be chatting to your supervisor. Or dodging personal conversation topics. Or flirting outrageously. You see, Henry hasn’t gone into the forest to find exciting plotty things, he’s gone to find himself. I felt that I ended the game with Henry ready to face the world again, shaped by the experiences that led him to seek solitude, but no longer defined by them. And that is massively satisfying in and of itself.

These games have all had their endings scrutinised and criticised, but I think that’s judging one medium by the standards of others. Games aren’t films; done well, there’s an investment in the characters that simply isn’t possible in other media. Sure, a hugely satisfying ending is something to strive for, but sometimes the journey really is the most important thing.