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.
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.