You’ve been hired for one last job, just when you thought there was nobody left in the galaxy willing to make you an offer. Of all the people whose message could appear in your inbox, it was your ex-flame’s. You don’t know the specifics. You don’t care about the details. All you know is, there’s money involved, and it’s money that you can’t afford to pass up. The kind of deal that could settle your debts for a lifetime. Not much use for tankers these days. The kind of destruction and mayhem a squadron of armour makes as it announces its arrival on the battlefield tends to draw attention where attention isn’t wanted. But somebody wants that kind of firepower, and they’re willing to pay for it. You’re about to find out why.
Three months ago, I sat down at my desk and had a wonderful moment of rare, absolute certainty.
Smiling alone, I looked over the virtual universe I had already created and thought: “I am going to write hundreds of pages worth of scripting and dialogue for a video game by myself”. At this point I should have broken into hysterical laughter, thrown everything I’d already written away, and gone back to enjoying my free time. I failed to do this. In fact, I decided to do the complete opposite.
What I am about to describe to you, my captive audience, are the consequences of this fateful decision.
The first thing you should know is that the idea of writing a full-length script for anything by yourself is already a monumental undertaking; it is the kind of project that takes aspiring writers months, if not years, to realize fully.
The second thing you should know is that when you decide you are going to create a script for a video game in particular, an extra layer of complexity is added to the writing. Unlike a movie or a TV show, game scripts do not have the luxury of proceeding upon a completely linear trajectory. Game scripts must be flexible and account for factors introduced by the player through the framework of interactivity involved in this medium.
Sometimes, accounting for the actions of a video game player
in your writing is as simple as adding additional lines of dialogue to guide
players past moments of uncertainty. Other times, in works with greater degrees
of player agency, you must account for branching “trees” of dialogue based off
what the player has chosen to say to a particular character.
Writing for a video game thus often requires that the author
create more dialogue than they would otherwise need in a more traditional
medium, regardless of the style of game being built. It also requires a special level of planning
from authors, who must be able to make their scripts cover all possible avenues
the player might travel, without sacrificing the legibility of a traditionally
I am writing a script for a video game by myself. It offers a large degree of player agency and
is not for a short or linear video game, because that is not what we are making
with Armour on the Wastes. To add grease to the fire, the script has to
be completed in time for us to make our target release next summer.
Consequently, as you may imagine, the project stretching before me is just a tiny bit crazy. A little bit insane. The kind of project that could drive a man mad.
Luckily, I am nothing if not determined. I have already made great progress thus
far. AOTW’s story possesses three acts, and after a month of work we are nearly through the first act of the storyline – in the form of a rough draft, of course. What follows are a few observations that I have made as I have fallen irreversibly farther into the darkened well that is scriptwriting. Perhaps these observations will be of interest to you.
1. If you are creating a new universe to base your story on, it’s important to flesh your setting out before you start writing your next masterpiece. I can’t tell you how many times my “story bible” has saved me whilst writing the script for AOTW. Not only does having a detailed universe help lend your story the feel of a real place and time beyond your characters, but it also keeps your facts consistent so that you’re not making things up as you go.
2. Take on your project one step at a time if you want to stay sane. If you’re
producing something long or intimidating, it helps to focus on small segments. Set a single task for the day that you can accomplish, and don’t think about the larger picture again until it’s time to go back to strategic planning – likely after you’ve finished your rough draft. This approach is especially helpful if you’re running your project like we’re running ours; working in segments helps break paralysis if you’re only able to work on it in your free time, and if you are trying to balance your writing against other concerns such as a full time job,social life, and girlfriend.
3. Let the characters speak for themselves. Generally
speaking, railroading characters down a path they “should” go down is a badv idea. If it seems like you have to force a conversation to take a particular turn in your script, maybe you should ask
yourself why that’s the case, and why the characters you’ve created aren’t naturally gravitating toward that outcome. You might even want to ask yourself why you can’t go with a different outcome entirely. Besides, some of the most rewarding parts of writing a story are when
the characters take on their own personalities and become real people, rather than simple archetypes or life descriptions. You’ll miss out on that if you plan your story too rigidly.
4. When dealing with non-linearity, tackle a single linear path first. You don’t even know how these characters interact yet, so writing down multiple options for their responses is only going to muddy the waters before you’ve even started swimming. My personal advice is to start down a single
linear path, as I am currently doing with AOTW’s script. Once you’ve gotten a handle on one way the story might run, from start to finish, it will be easier to come up with alternative pathways later on.
5. No matter what, put words on paper. Don’t waste time on revisions until you’ve written a complete first draft. Then go back and pick your writing apart to make it a stronger work.
Even if you’re not writing in your free time, these observations should give you some degree of understanding about how I am choosing to go about my work on this team. Because I am the only writer on the team, it is crucial for me to make sure I deliver on my promises to my colleagues– if I don’t, nobody else will step in to fill that gap.
At the same time, being the main script writer and designer for this project is oddly freeing. You’ve surely gathered that there is a great deal of responsibility involved, but there is also a fantastic opportunity for expression and to put something meaningful into the world. The work of a video game writer is oddly personal and it is very much an opportunity to pour my heart and soul into something meaningful. At the end of the day, when the game is released and you have the chance to witness the events that unfold in the universe of AOTW, you’re going to see this dedication reflected back at you.
Hopefully soon --- I’ll actually be able to tell you something about that universe.
As you may remember if you are one of my favorite people in the world (someone that reads this blog weekly), our team now has an artist! This is very exciting for many reasons, especially because we get to see this game come to life visually. It also means that we have a much more official logo now – no more of my Paint.net nonsense.
This also means that I can focus more on promoting our game and engaging with the indie development community. Our team has been sharing our experiences about our development experience so far. This is important, but it needs to go further.
So, beyond sharing our feelings, we also need to find ways to learn from the community at large. I don’t know if it’s the dry British humor or the vaguely hyperbolic name, but for me, the natural starting point in this quest for wisdom is PC gaming site Rock, Paper, Shotgun. After diligently clicking through to the “About Us” section, I discovered RPS founder Jim Rossignol’s autobiographical book This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities. Personally, I’m a big fan of biographies – I love seeing life from another person’s perspective and trying to understand his or her motivations and fears. Now, technically this is not a full autobiography (Jim Rossignol is not in fact dead yet), but nonetheless I was inspired by the title and decided to give it a shot. The bulk of the book is divided into sections based on significant cities that have shaped his experience with gaming: London, Seoul, and Reykjavik. Being slightly compulsive, I’ve decided to write 3 blog posts over the next few months in which I reflect on what I learn from each section.
Part I: London Calling
First off, picking up this book is one of the best decisions I’ve made so far in my experience with indie development. Rossignol writes very authentically, which I really admire. But beyond that, even after reading just the London section, I have found that his writing addresses a question that has haunted me from time to time: Is gaming really a valuable pursuit?
Very early in the book, Rossignol makes his purpose clear: “I am going to try to persuade you here that games are worth paying attention to. They are worth taking seriously and thinking and talking about in some detail. They might even be a very good thing for our culture as a whole.”
I really appreciate that he is addressing this question because it is something that I worry about. Don’t get me wrong, gaming has had a very important impact on my life that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Nonetheless, so many people deride gaming as a waste of time or “anti-social” or “nerdy” behavior that it’s hard to shut this question out entirely.
Rossignol presents several arguments for the value of gaming. But before looking at those, it’s important to understand that he looks at gaming through a very personal lens. Much of the London section is devoted to his description of how becoming an expert in Quake liberated him and helped him make a career in gaming. By liberate, I mean that he got fired from his job as a London based financial journalist. But, he got fired from a job in which he was not at all fulfilled. Fortunately, he’d spent so much time reading forums and coaching online teams that he was eventually able to translate this experience into a career as a gaming journalist. Things don’t work out so well for everybody, but they did for him and the industry is better for it.
However, despite his experience of personal transformation, Rossignol does not rely on this to argue that games have worth. He presents substantial evidence about how gaming can potentially improve reaction time, motor skills, and information processing capabilities. Yet, neither does he use this evidence as the centerpiece of his argument. At the end of the day, he argues simply that games are important mostly because they combat boredom by offering entertainment and the opportunity for intentional leisure time.
I found this argument very gratifying because essentially, what it does is it implicitly sets gamers on equal footing with everyone else and pushes back against the “nerd as inferior” vibe that is often present in American culture. I think that too often, people that are into gaming are on the defensive, trying to justify doing what they enjoy by pointing to greater social benefits. But, at the end of the day, why should gamers have to justify how they want to spend their leisure time? If it’s okay to spend a Saturday watching college football, why isn’t it okay to spend a Saturday conquering new worlds online with your friends? Obviously, gaming, like anything else can be taken to an unhealthy extreme. However, just because something can potentially be abused doesn’t mean the thing itself is bad.
This all got me thinking about where I fall on the gamer spectrum. I personally don’t actually consider myself to be a huge gamer. Between working on a game and keeping up my day job, I have ironically little time to play games. That said, gaming has had a truly important impact on my life. When I rushed home in grade school to play Age of Empires, secretly happy that baseball practice had been cancelled on account of rain, gaming taught me what it felt like to be myself. When I got drunk with Austin on cheap rum and hot chocolate (terrible combo btw) and played Alien vs. Predator, gaming became a bonding experience in one of my most important friendships.
My point is – gaming is wonderful because it’s one of the few activities in the world that can meet you wherever you’re at in life. If you just need to escape for a few hours, gaming offers an intellectually stimulating option. If you need war stories to bond over with a friend, gaming is there. Or, if you find yourself unfulfilled in life and you need to find meaning, you can dedicate yourself to a game and become the master of that universe. Last but not least, gaming also offers a creative, generative option. Thanks to all of the work that has been done in the indie industry, creating a new game is now really an option for everyday people that are willing to dedicate themselves. I believe that the opportunities for personal growth in such a venture are vast, and I wouldn’t have had the chance to face any of these challenges if a vibrant indie gaming community did not already exist.
So, I guess I want to end this post by saying thank you to Jim Rossignol. Thank you for inspiring me, and thank you for helping me find meaning in what I’m doing right now. I can’t wait to read the rest of the book.
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