Stop Writing ...

and Start Storytelling

Once upon a time, text was good enough to immerse players in a video game. That's not to say a text adventure like Zork is a modern-day War and Peace, but the balance has shifted away from writing in games – maybe for the best.

"Writing provides support for gameplay," explained Warren Spector, who's behind some of the most innovative games out there. "Writing and story, in and of themselves, aren't, themselves, gameplay. Words and story set an appropriate context for player action, which can make gameplay seem, maybe even be, more significant than abstract action. Where a lot of developers and writers go wrong is in assuming that story and words are equal partners with gameplay when, in fact, that's just not true."

Successful writers, though, are changing their approach: Sande Chen, nominated this year for the first Writers Guild Awards for video games, is focusing on multidisciplinary approaches to story in games.

"If you can, imagine experiencing a movie's story without seeing anything," she explained. "Instead, the script is read to you by a monotone computer voice. This is what it would be like if the writing was separated out from all the other disciplines that go into making a great game."

"We're definitely moving out of the dark ages of game storytelling" said Anne Toole, the other half of Chen's Writers Cabal. "In the past, you had to count games incorporating strong story by the decade. Now you can point to several games a year that build strong story into the game."

But while those games may be more frequent, it doesn't seem like that many people care. 2007 saw BioShock, now a gold standard for storytelling in games, weave together intensely satisfying gameplay and an engaging critique of Ayn Rand's philosophy. It didn't even crack the Top 10 list in sales.

That honor was reserved for games like World of Warcraft. WoW, one of the most popular massively multiplayer online games in the world, has a "story" only in the broadest sense. Users complete quests and level up, but there's never a third act – if any one player got there, what would the rest be left with? Game-writing just hasn't caught up to the growing genre gap.

"The casual/MMOG bonanza has not had as great an impact on writing as it should," said Toole. "Game-writing has always favored shorter scenes and lines than film/TV since the focus should be on gameplay. The casual/MMOG world just re-emphasizes this trend, which is why we're speaking about conveying story through means other than dialogue."

One alternative is to look to alternate reality games. For designer and consultant Tony Walsh, they show a possibility of taking a game experience to a whole new level. Halo, for example, has spun off other games, books, videos, and, potentially, a movie. Walsh wants it to go further.

"I'm more talking about the seeds and threads of the Halo universe working their way into our contemporary reality," said Walsh. "Maybe a fictional version of the SETI project makes contact with what we later realize is the Covenant [the alien enemy]; maybe scrolls uncovered in Egypt are actually ancient blueprints for a Halo weapon. There are lots of ways to extend the fiction of video games as believable real-life artifacts, characters, and stories."

To set up a game like that, publishers would need on-call teams of game writers and designers. That's complicated and expensive, but who in Austin wouldn't like to see more jobs in game-writing – in whatever forms it takes?  


Core Conversation: Creating Passionate Games: A Multidisciplinary Approach March 10, 3:30pm, Ballroom E

Core Conversation: What Can the Video Games Industry Learn From Alternate Reality Games? March 10, 3:30pm, Ballroom E

City of Games: Inside Austin's Developerscape March 8, 5pm, Room 8

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video-game writing, Warren Spector, Sande Chen, Anne Toole, Tony Walsh

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