Developer Interview Part I: Writing
When it's time to start a video game project, it’s important to remember, you can’t do it all alone. Like with every company, you need a team to work under you with many different skills in order to make your game a success. Every member of your team has to be knowledgeable or an expert in their field. We’re going to be looking at every component of skills you will need to make a successful game. The first part in our series is writing. Writing for a game is different from writing a novel, short story, or script. If you hire a writer whose good short stories, it does not mean they’ll be suited for writing a game. So in order to write this article, I called in an expert from our own team. He's our Head Writer at Sonder Games. He will give us his insight on how to write for a video game. Here’s an interview with Kiel Farren.
How important does a story plays into video games and why?
Kiel: Story provides a purpose. A context for the world you're trying to immerse yourself in. Depending on the world and the purpose of the game, story doesn't have to be complex or given a lot of thought, but even in older, simple games like the original Donkey Kong game, you have a story intended to give you a goal. Hero rescues damsel from powerful beast is an extraordinarily common story, but that plays to some games' advantage because everyone instantly connects with something so easily recognized and understood.
Aside from providing a clear goal, a big reason why the motivation of the involved characters matters is because a game isn't much fun unless you care about the outcome. Story makes you care, makes you relate. When you can find a character sympathetic or relatable or likable, you want them to succeed. You are invested in their struggle.
Even the most casual of games, such as Candy Crush or Cut the Rope still give you a premise. Whether you're helping out denizens of a candy themed universe or feeding a bizarre little pet that just showed up on your doorstep one day, you have a purpose, a goal, and you can feel motivated by connecting with the needs of those characters.
While the examples I gave were more simplistic, for the other end of the spectrum, RPGs are notorious for wringing deep emotions from their audience because of their strong focus on story and character development. You can have a truly profound impact on your audience if you put enough effort into developing a cast that your player actually cares for.
The only time I ever shed tears over a game was when I found myself so invested in the story of the protagonist of an RPG that I truly wanted them to find happiness and it was a crushing blow to see them suffer and fail. With enough heart, a character can be even more than sympathetic, they can feel real. And I dare anyone to try and claim that video games are not art when met with that kind of passion.
How is writing a story and writing for a video game different? Is it like writing a screenplay or a script?
Kiel: The difference between writing for a game as opposed to writing for, say, a book, is related to the difference between a game and a story. A game is an inherently interactive medium; it requires input from the player. As a result, you need to account for that input, to create feedback for the player's actions and to allow the player to return that feedback with their own responses.
Interactivity, to be even remotely interesting, requires choice and different possible outcomes for those choices. Books--barring choose your own adventure books, which are in a class of their own--are linear. They have an order through the page numbers that order is absolute, and if you want the story to make sense, you will follow in that order.
Games, on the other hand, allow you to diverge, to delay your journey by taking long paths or expedite it with short cuts or to find alternate endings, secrets, and fail states. It is much like writing multiple stories which all connect to and branch out from one another.
There is no way you can read a book in order to make the ending change. Romeo and Juliet are never going to survive to the end of the play if you skip reading the part where Romeo drinks poison. With books, you as the reader have no agency. You are along for the ride to observe and that is all.
In order for a player to feel like their actions in the game matter, they must be involved and invested, there must be consequences, and there must be rewards, and a great deal of those consequences and rewards can be expressed through story. A great deal of that investment relies on one's attachment to the world and its characters. It is true that books also require a well-developed world and population in order to maintain interest, but the writer has the luxury of staying in full control of every word and every action at all times.
A game writer must give some of that control--or at the very least, the illusion of that control--back to the player.
What makes the perfect Protagonist for a video game? Does it depend on the genre?
Kiel: Well. That is ... a very good question, but the answer is extremely subjective. My ideal protagonist character is undoubtedly going to be different in many ways from other people, and to take it a step further, through the years and even from day to day.
I do feel that some types of protagonists lend themselves very well to certain genres, though, so... allow me to give some examples and why I believe they work:
When I was young, I fell in love with the King's Quest series, among other games. Prince Alexander, of King's Quest III and VI was one of my favorite characters as a child. He is what you might classify as a "paragon." One definition of a paragon is "a person or thing viewed as a model of excellence."
There's more than one type of paragon, but for the sake of this explanation, what I mean by it is a character who is deeply, wholly, indisputably a good person. Someone who would go to ridiculous lengths simply to do what is right and does not appear to have any real flaws in their moral fiber whatsoever.
This kind of hero has no place in any kind of gritty interpretations of the world, they don't belong in most dramas, they're not meant for examining the depths of the human condition, but for a fairy tale based series that is just as twee, charming, and hopeful as King's Quest ultimately is, Alexander is perfect. He is not overly complex, but he does not need to be, we know he has the best of intentions at all times and that he always will, and we are meant to root for him and help him along his journey toward his goal. This kind of hero usually pairs up with a villain who is as absurdly evil as the protagonist is excessively good.
As I got older, and became appreciative of role playing games and also of horror, I began to enjoy silent protagonists. I wanted to feel like I was playing as me, or perhaps one of my own made up characters. I wanted to feel some deeper ownership or involvement. For games where you are trying to project your own personality onto your avatar, this is a good way of doing it.
I do alternately recommend extreme customization, but back in the alleged "good old days" that simply wasn't a viable option--though a kind of attempt at a happy medium could be argued, such as when players were allowed to select from pre-determined sets of responses--making the protagonist more "quiet" than silent, if you will.
Some examples of silent protagonists I enjoyed playing as over the years are "Chrono" (or whatever you named him) from Chrono Trigger, Serge (or, again, whatever you called him) from Chrono Cross, and Link... from pretty much every Legend of Zelda game ever.
In regards to horror, silent protagonists can be helpful because them speaking or reacting on their own would be likely to distract you from your own reactions to the horror, and it's hard to feel a sense of isolation--a strong element in creating a horror atmosphere--with a voice that is not your own constantly buzzing in your ear over in-universe details.
Mind you, one criticism of silent protagonists is that they, too, lack in realism--something that more recent games have poked fun at, pointing out that a mute protagonist would make any interactions with other characters awkward at best. On the majority, real people tend to be both capable of speech (or at least some form of clear communication) and possessed of a personality of their own. Letting you imagine a backstory for your character leaves those details usually sparce or even totally absent in their own world.
Also, as a bizarre consequence, the villains are often the most interesting characters in these types of games by virtue of them being consistent cast members who are both allowed to be fleshed out and must be if one is to create a strong story with such a vaguely defined hero.
There are the grittier, cynical, darker hero and antihero types which have their place in certain games and settings, just as there's the classic 'hero in training' who is an optimistic, if naive, clumsy, well-meaning, and perhaps cocky individual that has yet to encounter the harsh realities of the former.
Over all, I believe the "perfect protagonist" is simply the one that best fits the story you're trying to tell and the world you're trying to build for them to live in.
How do you deal with writer blocks or snags?
Kiel: There are multiple ways to deal with writer's block, but which one will work just kind of depends. If you're short on ideas, start doing research. Look deeply into the subject you're working on, read other works about it, watch movies on it, play games about it, and chances are, you'll find something to spark your inspiration.
Alternatively, if you're having trouble concentrating, take a break, take a shower, go for a walk to clear your head, meditate, go for a scenic drive--maybe with the windows down and the radio up, exercise, clean your room. Just do something that gets you out of your writing space and lets you switch mental gears. It's good for you.
If its anxiety and you're worried about how you word things, then just write. Write anything. Even utter garbage. As long as it gets you going, you can fix it later. I personally like to roleplay with friends, it's a lot of fun and it gets your mind going without the stress and pressure of being professional.
If you feel unsure about your plans for your plot or mechanics, find someone to be a sounding board. Talk to friends, ask them about the subject, ask them what they think of the characters you're creating or the story concepts you want to get across. A fresh perspective is not only useful in clarifying your own view point, but in rounding it out.
The important thing, over all, is that you need to keep from either pushing yourself to the breaking point or giving up. Just keep going, and even if it's just a few words at a time, you will push that block out of the way.
Last Question: Is there any advice you would like to give to any developing writers? Games or otherwise?
Kiel: Don't let failure kill your passion. We're all human, so you're going to fall, you're going to make mistakes, people are going to criticize you even if you are successful, but you can use those critiques as tools, and what you can't use to better yourself, just toss it out and keep going. Most importantly, write to make yourself proud, not just to please other people.