Sunday, June 19, 2011

Die Hard Minus McClane

{Note: As of this writing, I’ve not yet seen Richard Dansky’s “Hero-Shaped Hole” talk from GDC 2011. I suspect I’m at best clumsily retreading the same material. If you have access to GDC Vault, I highly recommend giving it a look.}

Game writing is weird. Unless you’re lead on a heavily scripted, character-driven single player game, or game where story choices are the primary mechanic, you won’t be writing a story. All books you read on arranging the plot just-so and playing off the protagonist’s conflicts and motivations to create a complete and compelling narrative, they’re all going to lead you astray.

Okay, bad exampleGame writing is all about writing incomplete stories. You’ll write about Nakatomi Plaza. You’ll work with artists to fill its halls with the appropriate décor. You and the designers will figure out that the basement of the building houses millions of dollars. You might be handed the entire terrorist/thief faction and asked to flesh them out, providing them with personalities, hopes, and dreams. And when it comes time for E3, you get to work with the guys at Blur and storyboard out the awesome scene when the bad guys take over the tower and hold the entire Christmas party hostage.

But that’s where it ends. You set all that up, but you’ll have leave the rest of the story just hanging out, waiting for someone else to do all the fun bits. It’s the player’s role to jump off the roof tied to a firehouse. Aside from maybe work with the LD to place the firehouse in the rooftop map, you don’t get do shit with that moment.

This is a high quality pun.Effective game writing—and this includes world building, dialog, scenario building, etc.—revolves around narrative potential. Your blood and sweat is going into making the ultimate funhouse/sandbox/murder-factory possible. But the interesting bit don’t happen until the player makes them happen. You’ll design a world with a hundred Chekhov's rifles, but only the player gets to pull all the triggers. And that’s good.

So if you find yourself writing the next great American video game, remember to let go of the story threads. You’ll go insane, otherwise.

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