Yanked from my Live-Journal:
So You Want to Write for Videogames II

There's something interesting happening in video games; not good, not bad -- interesting… in a Chinese proverb kind of way.

Writers are launching into heated debates on what writing for videogames means and how writers should approach the matter. There are those who believe the traditional narratives are the truest way to tell stories. They use Hollywood conventions and structures to tell the story (think "Prince of Persia" and "Halo").

The second group advocates hypertext narratives, where the writer helps build the environment and narrative of the NPCs, but the player tells the story through his or her interactions with the world. We're talking sandbox games like "The Sims," where your characters are the story or that the story emerges through the character's interactions with the world. Another good example is "Façade," a free game on the Internet that's catching people's attention. I recommend you download it (it has nothing to do with scores or making money… it's about saving the marriage of two friends). You can find it here: http://www.interactivestory.net/

Other games incorporate the two by allowing for multiple choices. Think "Knights of the Old Republic," "Jade Empire," "Wing Commander" or "Colony Wars," where choice exists along one of a handful of rails (rails determined by dialogue choice or based on mission success/failure).

The interesting thing is that I don't believe the debate has as much to do with defining the future narrative of video games as it does with making a mark on the medium. Let me explain. What's happening with video games has already played out in the transition from radio to television. Television relied heavily on the format of its predecessor, radio… at least until it found its voice. Hell, movies were nothing more than showing scenes of everyday life like an oncoming train (which frightened the audience at the time). But both movies and television changed, and with them, how society was entertained.

Now, we're seeing the exact same transition with videogames, and many writers know this. What we're now seeing with the small schism that's forming is, IMHO, an attempt by people to become the architects of this new future. Hollywood writers, for example, are coming into the field and pushing for Hollywood conventions because that's their strength. There's nothing wrong with that. Videogame writers, however, are pushing for scriptwriting that's imbedded in games as part and parcel of the technology (as a means of staking their claim on the future).

Frankly… the debate is moot. They're both right and they both have good ideas to offer.

The fact is, we are storytellers, and to pigeonhole videogame writing into absolutes like hypertext narratives or conventional storytelling is as dangerous as saying First Person perspective in fiction is better than Third Person is better than present tense is better than past tense. Wrong. It's not the perspective that makes a story good or bad, it's the writer.

Perspective and writing are supposed to be reflections of the writer.


…Only we have little such luxury when writing for videogames. The game is rarely a reflection of the story we as writers want to tell. Why? Well for several reasons:

1) The game is a collaborative effort. And unless the point of the game is to push the story, the story ends up appealing to the lowest common denominator because it's been distilled through so many people.

2) As a result of the collaboration, you rarely write the story you want to tell. You write the story that best showcases the game.*

3) You rarely enter the protagonist's head. Unless the game employs first person narration a la "Max Payne 2," games are rarely about internal explorations. To do so would be to tell and not to show.

4) Television and movies changed as audiences grew more sophisticated in their tastes. As it stands now, videogame companies are making significant money. They don't need to change because their stakes in games are not diminishing. Just the opposite. So… there's no need to explore story when changes to technology are sufficient.

That said… as far as I'm concerned, to ignore past conventions in how games are written is to rob games of powerful myth. And stories without myth are hollow, even if that myth is nothing more than paying homage to in media res or The 9-Act Structure. To ignore the future, however, does all storytelling an equal disservice. The genres learn from one another, and a revolution in one medium might serve as a great catalyst in another.

If you want to follow the articles on writing, read these. I don't agree with them all, but you might feel differently:


And if you want to read the letters disagreeing with the articles… here ya go:


Finally… if you are interested in writing for video games, I seriously advise you to join:


* One definition I like is that games in their broadest strokes, are about the exploration of the game-space. Writing for games is about supporting that exploration.


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