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All work, all play: the art of videogame writing

Videogames are designed and programmed for action, which means storytelling has the capacity to be complex and engaging in ways not possible in other media.

The narrative in Gone Home (2013) is akin to a detective story.
The narrative in Gone Home (2013) is akin to a detective story.

Games writers dream up characters, dialogue, motivations and plot much like film screenwriters. But rather than keeping an audience captive for two or three hours at a time as in cinema, gamers will play for dozens if not hundreds of hours over the course of a game.

While some factors of screenwriting come into play in videogames, the nature of game storytelling is quite different. This is the theme being explored at Perth Festival this weekend in The Game Changers: The Writer and The Game, which on the face of it seems to break the traditional model for writers festivals.

So what can we say about writing for games?

Player agency

At the heart of game storytelling is the concept of “player agency”. Here, “agency” refers to the ability of a player to make changes within the game environment, or even more importantly, the illusion of being able to do this.

If the game presents a convincing enough illusion of freedom then the player suspends his or her disbelief in the artificiality of the game’s world and the limitations in their choice of pathway.

As a medium of interaction, videogames present the player with different possibilities and ask them to enact stories based on designed structures.

This may take a linear form, as in the clearly defined pathways of the action-adventure The Last of Us (2011), to the relatively non-linear in the sense of freedom experienced playing game Skyrim (2011).

Videogames run a broad spectrum and, while it is accepted that all games have rules, it can be argued that videogames are not necessarily a story-based medium. Looking to early game history, game spaces were more akin to game boards or sports fields.

Think of maze games such as Pac-Man (1980), sports games such as Horace Goes Skiing (1982), and tower defence games such as Plants vs Zombies (2013).

Horace Goes Skiing.

The objectives of these types of games are straightforward – stay alive as long as possible, and/or obtain a high score. The game space may be limited but the play strategies are endless. Story may be ascribed to these types of games, but they aren’t considered story-based games in a significant sense.

Narrative evolution

As game history progressed, the abstraction of games like Pac-Man evolved into the “convincing illusion” of fictional game worlds.

The advent of navigating 3D space in games from the mid-1990s such as Super Mario 64 (1996) and Tomb Raider (2008) led to the living, breathing worlds we experience in games such as Skyrim (2011) and Grand Theft Auto V (1997).

Over the last ten years, game storytelling has made significant developments along with the rapid rise in new capabilities of each subsequent console generation.

Building on this, the flourishing of the indie game movement has led to an increased experimentation and sophistication in game form and storytelling. We now see a greater range of subject matter and variety of storytelling approaches from both mainstream and indie game development, from the emotional drama of Heavy Rain (2010) to the pixelated puzzles of Fez (2012) and the simple ethereal serenity of Journey (2012).

Ricardo "Eb" Trejo

With the further maturation of videogames as a form of expression, and the average age of gamers being over 30 in countries such as Australia, game developers have greater remit to create and explore more adult-orientated experiences.

Contemporary videogame experiences can be so emotional and encompassing that players are moved deeply while playing certain games – think of the harrowing decision-making of The Walking Dead (2012) or the relationship that develops between Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us (2011).

American media scholar Henry Jenkins argues that games use their environment to tell stories and may exhibit four dimensions of what he calls “narrative architecture”: games may draw upon pre-existing stories and enact story through traditions drawn from other media such as cinema in the form of non-interactive expository scenes or “cut scenes”, embed story elements within the game space, and create the possibility for players to author their own stories by constructing the world in which they play as in the case of Minecraft (2011).

Exploring human emotion

In Braid (2008), game creator Jonathan Blow set out to explore loss and forgiveness. A game “mechanic” is a feature that describes how the game behaves or operates. It is tied in to the game’s rules and what a player can do within the game.

 

Thomas Hawk

Braid is a puzzle game in which the core mechanic is the player’s ability to manipulate the flow of time, including rewinding time. Here the central thematic and conceptual concerns of the game are designed into a gameplay feature that explores memory and the feelings associated with failed relationships.

A game such as Gone Home (2013) demonstrates environmental storytelling. In it, the player assumes the role of Katie, who returns home from a long trip overseas to her empty family home and discovers a mysterious note written by her sister, Samantha.

A liminal example of game design as exploration, Gone Home is akin to a detective story, in which the player searches the house for artefacts that develop the tapestry of the intriguing narrative about Samantha and the rest of the Katie’s family.

The accomplishment in the writing of Gone Home can be seen in the way the game activates players' curiosity to draw them into the mystery. There’s a subtlety and elegance to the writing of this game – despite not encountering any other physical characters, fragments of narrative are dispersed and embedded throughout which the player must actively piece together to interpret the story.

In many ways, the similarities between the game writing and screenwriting processes are limited to constructing overarching plots or writing character dialogue and cut scenes – should these techniques even be employed in the game’s approach to story.

Videogames are designed and programmed for action, which means storytelling has the capacity to be complex and engaging in ways not possible in other media. Story is affected on a moment-to-moment basis dependent on the affordances employed, the way spaces are navigated, or choices the player makes.

Videogame environments create a world for meaningful play where events unfold, challenges evolve and the story is different for each and every player.

The Game Changers: The Writer and The Game takes place on Saturday February 22 at Octagon Theatre, University of Western Australia. Perth International Arts Festival runs until March 1.

Scott Knight does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.