What's your pet hate about bad video game writing?

One-note characters, bad exposition and boring choices -- Naomi Alderman and David Varela give their

In September, the Arvon foundation is running a week-long course, aiming to teach students about the unique challenges of writing for video games. I recently spoke to its tutors, Naomi Alderman and David Varela, about creating characters, worlds and dialogue for this fast-growing art form.

Both have experience writing for games and other, more traditional media -- Naomi is a novelist (her latest book, The Lessons, is published this month) and David has written for TV, radio and theatre.

What is the biggest challenge in writing a computer game?

David Varela: It's really allowing the player to feel that they are exploring and finding things out in a way that is organic; that they are not being all fed lots of expositions at key moments; that they are finding things out on their own. So giving them a sense of freedom when, actually, you are manipulating them.

What's your pet hate about bad game writing?

DV: It probably is too much explanation. Show, don't tell. You can build up a lot of information piece by piece through a well-thought-out environment; you don't need to literally shout out to people like you do in Call of Duty.

Naomi Alderman: I often feel there's a lack of understanding of character. Characters often just have an assigned role . . . In any game, once you've played it for a while in a particular way, your choices ought not to be the same as they were at the start. So three-quarters of the way through that game, if you've always been helping out the people who ask you for help at the side of the road, you shouldn't have an option to go on a shooting spree. That is where the character starts feeling hollow . . . if they will always do what you tell them.

Take an example from Monkey Island. There's a bit where Guybrush Threepwood is confronted by his beloved Elaine: you get to choose, "I love you so much" or "You're the only one for me"; but whatever you pick, what he says is "Bleugh bleugh bleugh".

It's a beautiful moment because he is a character -- he's not you. You can't make him do anything. At some point, you have to understand that he's a bit of a shmuck. Heavy Rain's very good at that -- there's that bit where you try to make Ethan walk across a crowded subway station and he can't do it. That's what character resides in.

DV: Heavy Rain is a really interesting example because, at a point at the start, it felt like a single-parent simulator, where you are having to tend to this child. It builds an interesting relationship between you and the child, where you feel a duty of care and, at the same time, you feel slightly irritated. You create a relationship through the gameplay and when your child goes missing, it feels like you have bonded already.

It's very frustrating when you lose Jason [your character's son] in a shopping mall and you assume that if you play well enough, you can find him -- whereas the game is designed not to let you catch up with him.

NA: As games mature as a form, I think we'll have many more games where you cannot win, in that quite narrow sense of winning. Silent Hill 2 is a real classic. There's a man who gets a letter from his dead wife, saying, "Come to meet me at Silent Hill," which is the place where they first met. And, obviously, there's a handful of ghosts and horrors -- and he's just a bloke and not very strong -- and can't fight very well.

By the end of the game, it seems like the whole thing is a kind of hideous hallucination of his and he's trapped into doing the one thing that the whole way through the game he doesn't want to do. It's brilliant. The point at which characters are limited in what they do -- that's when they start to become real, rather than being menus.

Do you think most developers or publishers are now seeing writing as important -- or is it an afterthought?

DV: I think it is rising in terms of priority. It is going to be an on-going battle and I expect it will take a while.

But it is definitely on a lot more people's mind now when they are first coming up with proposals. They are thinking of the creation of worlds, rather than the creation of games: so they do start thinking early on about the atmosphere of the piece, what is the story, what is the background story, where do the characters come from?

Naomi, you mentioned character. Did the ending of Red Dead Redemption irritate you -- when you go from Clint Eastwood-style badass to doing chores for your wife and ungrateful teenage son?

NA: Yes, there's no emotional arc: [John Marston] is forced to hunt down and kill all his old friends, he's betrayed by his government, he's kept away from his wife. If this were a movie, at the end he would be a very different character to the character he was at the start. When I played, I killed 734 people in that game -- you would think that would change a person.

The [lack of arc] was more obvious, maybe, because RDR is drawing on those tropes of westerns -- a big story about a man who becomes disillusioned with the life that once enthralled him and who comes to realise that all the deaths were for nothing. That's quite a typical story in a western. But there's no change in him . . .

What about the binary choices -- very good or very evil -- that pervade games?

NA: In Bioshock, it's save the girl, kill the girl -- not a very nuanced moral choice. In fact, it's so un-nuanced that it reminds you that you're playing a game and it's not happening.

Are there any games that push beyond that?

NA: I can name one for you: Dragon Age: Origins. You're a wizard at wizard school and one of your friends comes to you in a dreadful state and says "They're going to take away my powers" -- mentally castrate him -- "You have to help me escape."

Asking around, you find out that it's because the people who run the school know he's been dabbling in blood magic; [they say] if we let him out of the building with magical abilities, he'll be taken over by a demon and he'll become a threat.

So you don't know what to do. Obviously, it's a more melodramatic choice than most of us have to make in our lives but, at the same time, you sit there thinking, "Either I help him -- he is my friend, after all, and maybe he's right that the people who run this school are corrupt -- or I don't help him, because maybe they're right that he's a danger."

You just pick one and then you have to live with the consequences of your actions. In either case, the consequences are quite nasty.

What, for you, is the game with the best writing that's available at the moment?

DV: There's a beautiful game that came out probably 18 months ago called Flower, which is lovely. Elegant game, tells the story without a single word of dialogue, without a single word on the screen. It's quite an emotionally led story; quite impressionistic but it's very powerful; it makes you very happy.

It gives you structure without saying a single word. Writing is about more than just dialogue; it's about creating a journey.

Why don't the artistic aspects of video game writing get taken seriously in the mainstream media?

NA: Basically, you need to sit down and put in 50 hours learning how to use a console in the same way that you would sit and bloody learn enough about opera in order to be able to understand an opera.

There's also the fact that games are becoming increasingly cinematic.

NA: I sat and played Heavy Rain with a friend of mine, Josh Appignanesi, the film director [he directed The Infidel]. He was very interesting on the way that Heavy Rain is actually directed. Cut scenes are usually filmed from one angle -- two talking heads -- there isn't anyone thinking about conveying mood in that way . . . The use of that artistry is very interesting.

What do you hope to teach on the course?

DV: It's about getting people out of the mindset that writing is all about words. Writing a game is not all about the dialogue any more than writing a screenplay is just about the dialogue.

NA: Professionalism. Writing for games involves a lot of writing and isn't as much fun as sitting down and playing your favourite game. The best teaching involves asking really interesting questions and then allowing students to figure things out. I don't think games writing now is as good as it will be. It's a young medium -- it's OK to be a young medium -- but we have to keep pushing forward.

I'll be posting more from Naomi and David tomorrow. For details of the Arvon course in September, click here.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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My first ever vocal performance was singing "Rebel Rebel" inside a wardrobe

Inspirational artists don’t inspire the brave (they’re fine already): they inspire the timid. That's what David Bowie did for me.

I couldn’t write anything the day David Bowie died. Like many people in music, I was asked for a tribute, but despite being a huge fan, I felt unable to strike the right tone. A glance at Twitter showed me how upset people were, and in that immediate aftermath of shock and dismay what was needed was cathartic and expressive writing. Some people took umbrage at the declamatory grieving, but to me it felt appropriate and I never much mind other people saying things I’m too shy or inhibited to say.

The outpouring of love and affection reminded me how personally we respond to artists, how they speak to us and for us. Pop music has its greatest effect on us when we’re young, when our clay is soft and pliable, and we take its imprint and carry it for ever. The songs we hear while our hearts are still wide open to the world make such an impression that it seems reasonable to me that we care more strongly about the people who sang them than, say, casual acquaintances we make later. So we can mourn a singer we never met more than someone we actually knew.

But one thing I thought wasn’t stressed enough in all the tributes and obituaries was simply that none of Bowie’s groundbreaking work with image/gender/sexuality, would have had as much impact without the phenomenal tunes he wrote, which ensured that his records were played to a mainstream audience. Like anyone my age, I came to Bowie not through an underground record shop, or reading about him in the NME, but by hearing him on Radio 1 and seeing him on Top of the Pops. He embedded himself in my consciousness primarily as a pop artist, a writer of songs so packed full of hooks, you were caught on first listen. I loved my brother’s Ziggy Stardust album because it was strange and yet familiar and I could sing along with all of it.

If you’d never heard Bowie, many of the descriptions might make you think that his work was arch, cool and detached. But he was part of the pre-ironic period of pop, not afraid of sincerity, especially in his singing. It surprises me when he is talked about as a kind of alien, because although he often seemed heroic, and immortal, he clearly had a sense of humour, and a family, and by all accounts was witty and charming and friendly to people. A proper human being, in other words.

Through all the tributes and memories, what became clear was that everyone had some recollection that encapsulated his meaning for them. My little story is one I have told before, in Bedsit Disco Queen, of the day when I was rehearsing in someone’s bedroom with my first band, Stern Bops. I was the rhythm guitarist, and that day our singer didn’t turn up, so the boys in the band asked if I could sing. I wasn’t sure – I’d never really tried, certainly not in front of anyone – and so I replied that I would have a go but not if they were all looking at me. Instead, I’d get inside the wardrobe and sing from there. Which is precisely what I did, and once inside the stuffy darkness, out of sight but clutching my microphone, I sang David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel”. It was my first ever vocal performance.

How hilarious, you might think, how pitiful even, to sing an anthem to rebelliousness while hiding in a closet. How could you take all the defiance and pride of that song and undermine it with fear? But the more I think about it, the more I realise that this is exactly how inspirational artists work, and why we need them. They don’t inspire the brave (they’re fine already): they inspire the timid.

And you don’t copy people you’re inspired by. Quite often you can’t; you wouldn’t know where to start. You can only stare, open-mouthed in wonder. And yet still something happens, you hear a voice telling you something, a tiny little spark is lit. And you treasure that spark, and add it to others that you’re finding elsewhere, gathering them around you like a protective halo. Until you have just enough courage to take that song you love to dance to and sing those words you love to sing. Even from inside a wardrobe.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle