Why is Writing for Games so Difficult?

Category : Design, Games, Writing · by Aug 5th, 2015

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I’ve been watching walkthroughs for The Last Express. Funny that a concept I thought was innovative a year ago has in fact been done close to two decades ago.

As a game designer, I often find myself awkwardly maneuvering game elements in order to fit the story. Why is writing for stories so hard? I think the problem is interactivity.

Consider the traditional written or oral tale. In the story, not every minute gets assigned equal weight. Seconds, days, or years that are not essential gets skimmed over. This is the convention, without which both writing and reading would be unbearable. Movies embrace this convention through cuts.

In order fit a good story to a game, we naturally want to extend the above analogy to games, but interactivity works against this in three important ways:

1. Major gameplay sections usually do not support the “cut to the interesting part” structure.

2. Conventionally, gameplay sections must be engaging, which does not necessarily correlate with interest points within the story.

3. Gameplay affords the opportunity to deviate from a single storyline, often in so many ways that covering all scenarios is prohibitive in terms of cost.

In any given imaginary timeline, in order to seamlessly integrate story and gameplay, we must slice the timeline in a way that satisfies both the conventions for good story “cuts” and the conventions for good gameplay “cuts”. #2 and #3 are both difficult to account for while maintaining a good tempo for story, and #1 seems outright contradictory to the convention of a good story “cut”, unless the story or the game mechanics are somewhat special.  Writing and gameplay are not a true dichotomy, but it’s clear that extremely specific requirements must be met to optimize both simultaneously.

If the player is playing as a character in the game, then the “seamless integration” would also have to carefully avoid ludonarrative dissonance, a complex topic (and navigation) in its own right.

I think designers who write existing stories into their games are in a world of hurt, yet most games now still ship with an existing storyline. I think this is because for a long time, existing storyline is the only way of storytelling we know of.

So what are some potential solutions? The Last Express incorporates a highly interesting setting to sustain engagement throughout a stable timeline, while utilizing vast amounts of writing and technology to work around #3. Forgoing elaborate stories altogether may be a good choice (consider Threes and Angry Birds). Simple but well-crafted stories may be effective (Shadow of the Colossus) too. A sense of determinism can be built into the game to combat #3, which may also suitably evoke a sense of the tragic.

I think that increasingly, building the narrative out of player experiences rather than in-game story has become a popular choice. Games like Pokemon, League of Legends, and Journey have minimum built-in stories and rely on gameplay scenarios unique to each playthrough to generate evocative stories. One can think of this as analogous to “emergent gameplay”, expect instead we are designing for potent story scenarios – “emergent storytelling”.

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