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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A Professional Critique of my Novel

This is the latest in my series on trying to get my first novel published.

A little while ago I wrote about sending my manuscript off to a professional critiquing service. I chose one of the most reputable (based on my own research) – Writers’ Workshop.

I was happy with my manuscript, but had sent it out to a number of literary agents without luck. During the many drafts I had critiques from a few brave and trusted souls – trusted to give honest feedback rather than glowing praise, that is – but I’d put some money aside and thought a pro critique would be a good idea. After all, this is the first novel I’ve got to a stage that I’d call finished. I’m working on a number of other projects which are at various stages of completion, so if there are important lessons to learn or delusions I’m under then best to find out now.

Writers’ Workshop are frank on their website: they won’t sugarcoat bad news. So it was with some trepidation that I sent my manuscript off. They let me know the name of the chap who would be critiquing the novel. I looked him up (of course) and found out he had a massive number of books published. Most of them are children’s books, but also a fair few that seemed to fit with my novel’s genre and market.

I waited. I held my breath. I twiddled.

An email from my critiquer dropped into my inbox (in very good time, I should point out). Despite being under the weather when the email arrived, I opened it straight away. On a side note, there isn’t a really satisfying way of opening exciting emails. Not like tearing into an envelope or using that weapon of a more civilised age, the letter opener. Oh well, progress.

Now, I knew to keep my expectations in check. I’m self-taught as a writer and haven’t previously had anything looked at by a ‘proper’ author. That said, and if I’m entirely honest, deep down a tiny little part of me really did think the opening sentences were going to be singing the praises of the finest novel of its generation.

Sadly that’s not what awaited me.

First the good bit: he liked my writing style. That’s a biggie. If it turned out that I really can’t write that would be a rather large blow (though not career-ending, judging by a couple of obvious recent bestsellers).

There were major problems though. The critiquer thought the pacing / plotting wasn’t right and, even more crucially, hated the main character – particularly his passivity and refusal to engage. There were other things too (as well as a number of things he really liked), but these seemed to be the biggest issues that will require major work to fix.

Now this is interesting.

Very interesting.

Because after the first draft I noticed these problems myself. Over the following redrafts I tried to fix them with tweaks here and there (alongside other overhauling work), but I never tore out the root of the problem. I thought I could polish the issues away and hoped I’d succeeded. Apparently not.

And this is great news. Not as great as if I’d written the Finest Novel Of Its Generation of course, but great nonetheless.

Why?

It means I can trust my instincts. That’s a fantastic position to be in. I may not be hitting the bestseller lists any time soon, but if I can trust my writing, trust my instincts and keep plugging away then who knows where I’ll end up.

If you’ve had any good or bad experiences with pro critiquing then let me know in the comments – it’d be great to compare notes.

@BornToPootle

NaNoWriMo Hacks – Part 2

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Welcome to part 2 of my NaNoWriMo advice on how to make it as easy as possible for yourself to keep your word count high. These aren’t writing tips per se, just some ways you can help maximise your productivity without going nuts. I’ve been a NaNoWriMo devotee since 2009 and after a rocky first year have ‘won’ every time. On with the tips!
4. Social butterfly.
I had thought that NaNoWriMo would become about staying home and making no plans whatsoever, but I actually found that counter-productive. When I tried that I went stir-crazy and became unable to concentrate on anything at all. What I think is important is a) picking your engagements wisely, and b) planning for some writing time around them. As my Birthday is in November, there’s always the worry that crazy Birthday shenanigans will hamper creativity. Last year though, my other half bought train tickets for a day trip to a really cool town that happened to be two hours away – two hours of writing there, two hours of writing back and a lovely day out too! The other day I went to a couple of exhibitions, one about Gothic fiction and the other about witches in art – both incredibly inspiring for what I’m writing. So time out from physically writing, but great food for my writing brain.
5. Planning
This could be a tricky one, as some people just refuse to plan much. And that’s fine, whatever works best for you. But me? I started out as a pantser, writing whatever came, following that white rabbit wherever he led. Which was, most often, to a dead end. And having redrafted a novel I pantsed, most of it was unsalvageable. Since I’ve started planning, in really quite a lot of detail, I never have to stop and think about what’s happening next – I’ve done all that work in advance and can concentrate on wrestling those words into the right order, knowing that they’re going to end up just where I want them. I love this chap’s approach to story structure – really helped me get my head around planning.
6. Leave it to someone else
And by someone else, I of course mean future you! You NaNo novel will not be publishable. No disrespect to you, but however well it’s going it will need redrafting at least once. And most probably a number of times. That’s the writing process. Embrace it. Don’t keep going over sentences trying to polish the language. Move on. Get a first draft finished, then worry about making each sentence the very best it can be. Who knows, when you reread your novel, you might need to remove a scene or completely rewrite it so there’s no need to get every word publication ready quite yet. Make it the best you can in the moment and move on!
7. Writin’ Juice
If all else fails, a tot of whisky isn’t the end of the world to silence your inner editor and let you get on with it! Or pour a slug o’ hooch into your coffee (a hipflask carried around can liven up a turgid Starbucks Americano too). I don’t need it to write though. I’m fine, really. I just like the taste. I don’t know where that other bottle has gone. Why’s the room spinning?
Hope some of these are useful, feel free to let me know any hacks you employ to maximise productivity.

@BornToPootle

NaNoWriMo – My Experience

The first of November is rolling around, a date that has indelibly been stamped into my mind for the last five years. Not due to Halloween-induced hangovers or the fact that it marks a fortnight until my Birthday, but because it’s the beginning of National Novel Writing Month. I thought it worth a quick pre-NaNoWriMo post in case I sway one more person into taking part, because (spoilers!) I think it’s awesome.

Picture the scene. It’s September 2009. I’ve written a few short stories. I’ve got the first few thousand words of a couple of different novels languishing a long way short of complete. One of them, at fifteen thousand words, is the longest thing I’ve ever written. And then my wife discovers NaNoWriMo. I grumble that it’ll distract us from finishing what we’re working on, that it’s better to keep our heads down rather than start new projects. She, fortunately, ignores me, and I eventually see sense.

With no planning, and no idea of what I’m trying to say, I write a complete first draft in a month, mainly on my phone on my commute and lunch breaks, and scribbled in notebooks to be typed up later. It’s about 40,000 words, so shy of the 50,000 target, but it’s the longest thing I’ve written and my first attempt to structure a longform story. Unsurprisingly, when I read it a few weeks later, it’s Not Great. Very Not Great. But there are some interesting things in there, and having completed a first draft I begin the process of redrafting for the first time. It’s the obligatory post-apocalyptic coming of age novel, of course.

A year later, and this time I’m a bit more prepared.As well as massive supplies of tea, I have an idea of the general plot and characters for my steampunk opus. I write about 60,000 words in the month and finish it off in December with another 10,000 words or so. Upon reading it, it’s also Not Great. But I have some thoughts on why, and look up more about how to structure a plot. How to plan a novel. How to develop characters.

Next time it rolls around, rather than start a brand new project (which is what NaNoWriMo is supposed to be about – honestly though, who cares as long as it gets you novelling) I turn to the idea that’s been burning at the back of my mind all this time. One of the novels I’d started before NaNoWriMo came into my life. I spend a month plotting and squeezing my brain and then spend November completing the novel. The planning paid off – it’s a lot more coherent than my previous attempts, though needs a lot of work still.

The next year is spent redrafting that novel, A Calling-on Song, and I give NaNoWriMo 2012 a miss, but when the Summer version, Camp NaNoWriMo, approaches in 2013 I decide to take a break from redrafting. I spend a couple of months preparing a new novel, The Lord of The Dance, then kick it’s ass in a month. I write the first three quarters of it, but it’s already 80,000 words. I leave it there, happy to draft the last quarter when I’ve shored up the rest, and return to redrafting A Calling-on Song.

And now, as I’ve been blogging about, A Calling-on Song is being chucked at agents in the hopes they like it and I’m in the process of redrafting The Lord of the Dance. I’ve learnt a hell of a lot about writing, about me as a writer and about what I want out of life along the way.

Will writing a novel in a month make you a successful author? No.

Is it hard work? Yes. Oh god, yes.

Will you have to make changes to your routine to accommodate it? Yes.

Could it be the most awesome thing you ever do and change your life? Yes.

Let me know if you’re tackling it. Good luck!

@BornToPootle

Breaking Breaking Bad

Rather than focus on the novel I’m trying to get published, I thought I’d write something about the other novel I’m working on at the moment.

I wrote three quarters of the first draft a little while ago, and am wading through the redrafting process of the first quarter at the moment. I’m trying a different approach with the redrafting, one that I’ve nicked from Joe Hill, so it plainly works for someone. The idea is that, rather than redraft the whole shebang, you break it down into quarters (and have a read of this chap’s site about story structure if you want to define those quarters – he’s ace) and then, once you’ve redrafted the first quarter, you put it away for a while. Then you redraft the first quarter again and also the second quarter. Then put it away. Then redraft the first quarter, second quarter and third quarter etc etc… The idea being that the beginning will be so rock solid by the time you’re getting to the end that everything should fall into place.

The process was going ok – I’d redrafted the first quarter and set it aside for a while. Now I’ve picked it up again though, I’m struggling to find the excitement in it. Sure, after the crazy world changing events at the end of the first quarter there’s plenty of excitement, and my characters have all the standard stuff they need from the get go – goals, stakes and obstacles – but something was lacking. Fortunately though, I just spent three weeks addicted to Breaking Bad.

Right. So how is that useful? Isn’t it just a distraction from getting any writing done? Well yes in a way, but also it’s incredibly inspiring. I may be a bit late to the Breaking Bad love-in, but it’s gone straight to the top three of my all time favourite shows, alongside Firefly and The West Wing. All different, but all awesome. Anyway, as both my wife and I write, we often spend some time trying to analyse books, shows and films we’ve had a strong reaction to (either negative or positive) and so we spent an evening talking through what made the show work so damn well.

Turns out there are a lot of things that make it great. But the one that’s helped me out is this: Walter White is the obstacle for pretty much all the other major characters. How cool is that? It means that every character is instantly brought into conflict with the protagonist. Sure, there are some external obstacles too, but by and large it’s Walter who causes all the other characters’ headaches.

How’s that useful? In my first quarter my main three characters are school kids still. They’ve all got various obstacles, from religious nutjob parents to abusive homes to starting school for the first time ever at sixteen. One of the three is a bully and the others the bullied. When, after a few scenes, they are brought together by a shared experience they get a common goal, and despite all the external forces acting against them it feels a little too easy from then on, at least until the really weird stuff starts happening and their allegiances crumble. From the outset I’ve known that the characters have different agendas for wanting this goal, but what I’m only now putting into place is that these agendas are directly conflicting. So rather than forming a cohesive trio combating external forces, they are now also in conflict with each other. They are each others’ obstacle to achieving this shared goal. Instantly more exciting. Instantly more fun to write.

Right, I’ve run out of Breaking Bad so no excuse not get novelling. Or rewatching Breaking Bad…