There are few aspects of being a game writer which are truly
rewarding, but the one shining jewel in the experience of writing for games is
the amazing transformation that voice actors perform in bringing a script to life. Good voice
actors – and there are many such people – can rescue a lacklustre script,
invigorate an average script and immortalise a good one. It is
not much of an exaggeration to claim that the appalling general quality of
videogames narrative taken as a whole would seem even more dire were it not for
the incredible work that voice actors perform in making dry text into living people
and tangible emotions.
My first voice recording sessions were for Discworld Noir, which was also my first videogame
script. I’d worked on the previous Discworld
game, but not in a lead role. I was lucky to get a truly exceptional voice
cast to work with. (I mentioned them briefly before, when I noted that three
out of four of them worked on Mirrormask).
I was also extremely lucky to have the Discworld
author himself, Terry Pratchett, edit the script for the game (while on holiday
in Australia) – with the minimum of tampering, Terry brought out the comedy in
the script, and polished my rough work to a neat sparkle.
Rob Brydon, a Welsh comedian now most famous for the BBC
comedy Marion and Geoff, provided the
voice of the protagonist, Lewton, and several other minor characters. Since the
game features a hard boiled monologue for the delivery of almost all
information, including error messages, Rob had to endure a grueling week of
recording several thousand lines of speech. One particular aspect of the script
caused ever growing frustration: a mistake in the way the shooting script had
been compiled meant that every door in the game produced a line of dialogue in
the script: “After all, a door is just a door”. After reading this line about
twenty times, it became Rob’s own personal hell. I can only hope that he has
successfully blocked it from his memory in the years since!
Nigel Planer, probably still best known as the moping hippy Neil in the BBC
comedy The Young Ones, was perhaps
the most meticulously professional in his approach to the recording sessions. He spent some
time getting the studio set up just perfectly to his requirements, then
delivered all the lines with comfortable aplomb. There was no doubt he had done
this sort of voice acting job many times before.
The voice of all the female characters in Noir, Kate Robbins, was a sheer delight
to work with. She completed all of her lines in a one day session, delivering
them with a glorious lustre and a seemingly infinite supply of accents.
Carlotta, the femme fatale of the
story, exudes a smouldering quality heightened by the lustrous accent Kate performed.
Most amazingly, the script called for the troll diva Sapphire to sing a song (a
pastiche composed and written by Paul Weir) which Kate recorded on the day,
from the sheet music, without ever having heard it before. Classy!
Finally, my favourite of the voice actors for this game was
Robert Llewellyn, most famous as the android Kryten in the BBC Comedy Red Dwarf (although he is also a writer of popular novels). Throughout the long recording
sessions, I was keeping myself sane by tallying a scorecard for whose lines
were getting the most lasts – mine, or those added by Terry in the editing
phase. (In the end, we broke about even). One line in particular has stuck in
memory: it came in Robert’s lines for the Butler, my favourite character in the
game. The Butler – a savagely deadpan wit – introduces Lewton (the protagonist) to the Library at the Von
Uberwald mansion, saying: “The Libraris Apocrypha is a collection
of obscurities and rare volumes from across the continent. If knowledge were an
animal, the Libraris would be a great dragon. Sir by the same scale would
be kebab on an ant’s barbecue.” It cracked Robert up so much, we had to take a
short break to restore order.
I’ve had many other voice sessions since then, but few so
memorable. It was, however, a great personal honour to record the narrator
script for Heretic Kingdoms: The
Inquisition with Tom Baker back in 2004. (Do I need to make it explicit that
Tom is most famous as the fourth Doctor in the BBC science fiction serial Doctor Who?) He arrived at the London
studio where we were holding the recordings as larger than life as ever,
and immediately launched into a discussion about the tone of the script, and
the use of the word “inculcate” in the introduction. Later, after recording
hundreds of narration lines with effortless aplomb, he launched into a random
anecdote about somebody he had been involved in years before, then straight
back into reading lines. There was something magical about the whole experience.
In the book I edited on Game Writing, Coray Seifert’s
chapter on voice actors is called “Adding Magic”. Undeniably, that’s what the
many great voice actors and actresses contribute to every game script they animate:
a miraculous, supernatural talent to bring mere words into spectacular life. Our
videogame stories would be utterly impoverished without them.
It is unfortunate that there are no great game stories. It
would be nice, when people ask what I would single out for excellence in game
narrative, to have some quick and easy retort; some title I could comfortably
pull from memory with the confidence of many days repetition. But alas, I am at
a loss to find anything in the literary history of videogames thus far that
aspires to greatness. This is not to
say that there are not good stories
in videogames, nor that there are not excellent writers and narrative designers
working in videogames – one of the toughest storytelling media around.
The thing about great stories,
in any medium, is that they are not simply of their time – they’re timeless. Great
stories can be told again and again, in many different settings and retain some
hint of greatness. This said, there can be a marked difference in quality.
Akira Kurasawa’s Seven Samurai achieves
greater mastery of the cinematic form than Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars, despite the same essential plot (which
achieved its greatest commercial success in John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven). Great plot. But as entertaining as Corman’s
sci fi hokum may be, it is significantly shy of the subtlety of Kurasawa’s narrative. Seven Samurai doesn’t just have a great
plot, it’s a great story; The Magnificent Seven does a decent job
adapting it to a Western, while Battle
Beyond the Stars is... well, fun.
And maybe that’s the problem. Battle Beyond the Stars, and practically any romping genre piece (space
opera, fantasy quests, treasure hunters and so on) can be fun, but can’t quite aspire to
greatness, because great stories, in the sense that literary critics mean,
are about the human condition – the ineffable essence of life; diverse enough
to fuel endless stories, and inescapably authentic. Most game stories are either silly fun, or clumsy revenge tales that facilitate violent power fantasies in the play of the game. Maybe fun stories are
better suited to videogames because videogames (or at least, their commercial
form) are about having fun?
Another problem – the seedy underbelly of videogames, in
fact – is the repetition. Would you like to be running down a corridor shooting
droves of enemies, or running through a forest hacking down droves of enemies
(and then a mine... a desert... dungeons...)? Or you could optimise an economy
over and over again, or drive down the street over and over again, or perhaps you could repeat a jump over and over again?
Repeat until you get it right. Which is fun – for a surprisingly large number
of people. 94% of gamers say they are okay or good at completing repetitive
tasks, and over a quarter of these say they find it very easy.
(Not to mention repetitive tasks are habit-forming,
essentially by definition: if you learn to do it over and over again, you’ll
keep doing it as long as it’s fun. And understandably, habit-forming games sell
better – or at least, sell more reliably.)
Most successful videogames involve repetition – either to
learn the skills to progress, or to hoard the supplies (including experience in
cRPGs) needed to succeed. Great stories thus far in history have never been as repetitive as videogames,
which makes it difficult to know how one would make a great story in this new
form. But I think we can be pretty certain it isn’t by any of the methods we’re
currently using – not by the tacked-on animated movie, neither by the well-orchestrated spookhouse ride, nor the pulp adventure story shuffled into a game. We have found many ways to make fun games, and indeed there are many great games, and some such games have good stories. But
still no greatstories, alas.
Yes, it’s unfortunate that there are no great game stories
yet, but isn’t it exciting to see how things might develop?
In one of my chapters in Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames, I discuss part of the game writer's role in keeping the player on track. In fact, I suggest in this piece that one of the principle goals of game writing is to communicate necessary information to the player in the most unobtrusive way possible. In the chapter, I talk about two general techniques that can be used:
Breadcrumbing is about leaving a "trail of breadcrumbs" that the player can follow that will lead them through the game spine. Sometimes these are pick ups (as in Turok 2), sometimes they are lines of dialogue (as in most adventures and RPGs), sometimes they are action points the player must visit (as in GTA).
Funnelling is the companion to this, and involves guiding the player back to the "trail of breadcrumbs" if they wander off. Sometimes this is a character who points the player back on track when they get lost, sometimes it is a quest journal or equivalent tool, and sometimes the funnelling is implicit in the breadcrumbing because the system presents itself openly (as with the action points in GTA).
This chapter has been very well received, and referenced in talks by other game writers, which is very flattering.
And, I am pleased to announce that I have been invited to speak at Austin Game Developers Conference this year to provide a session on this subject, entitled What Do I Do Now? Narrative Devices for Guiding Players.
As part of my preparation for this, I am considering some examples of breadcrumbing and funnelling techniques from recent games - and for this, I need your help! If you have any examples of breadcrumbing or funnelling techniques that you have seen in anything you have played recently, please let me know.
Think about what helped you work your way through the game, and any support that was provided to guide you when you lost track of what you were doing. If you have any examples you can share with me, please do so in the comments.
Thanks in advance, and hope to see some of you at Austin GDC!
Games and stories have become inexorably intertwined – but we
should be cautious about stories in games, as videogames are an extremely
inefficient narrative media. The question must be raised: when is it worth the cost of rendering a narrative in a game?
Much has been written about the relationship between games
and narrative, here, there and everywhere else besides. In general, I think it
can be agreed that while games do not need an explicit narrative (there will
always be games such as Tetris which
are entirely abstract, for instance), there is a class of games which depend
upon their narrative element as a crucial part of the experience of play. These
narrative games are quite unlike other narrative media.
But when you have a particular narrative, how do you judge
if it is suited to games? And when you have a game, how do you judge what you
can do with its narrative?
A problem which game writers, and others interested in game
narrative, often choose to overlook is that it is tremendously inefficient to
render a story in a game. For instance, suppose you have a short story to tell.
You can write it in prose in a few hours. You can shoot and edit a short film
of it within a day or so. But to make the same short story into a game takes hundreds of man hours.
Now it is true that by making a game of it you add something
that you cannot get in other media – namely interactivity. But there is a
flipside to this, which is that not all stories benefit from interactivity. If
you want to tell the story of Job, for instance, there is very little point in
making it interactive... In fact, by making it interactive you probably
collapse the narrative, as it depends upon the protagonist reaching a state of
despair from which they fall into inaction. This is essentially impossible to
render in an interactive form, except as an absurd pastiche. Similar arguments
can be made for Shakespeare’s Macbeth,
say, or James Joyce’s Ulysses.
It is not that these stories could not be made into (or at
least used to inspire) games – it is rather that what makes these narratives
interesting is not necessarily compatible with an interactive form. Furthermore,
it is such a tremendous investment of resources to render a narrative in game
form that one had better be certain
that the narrative is a good choice for a game before beginning.
Far too many people, especially students and amateurs, have
an idea for a game, which is actually upon analysis an idea for a story. But they do not then try and write the story
(as a novella, or screenplay), they set their sights on a game and have high
hopes of bringing their story to life in game form. Most fail. Even those that
succeed often do not produce a very satisfying narrative, as if one does not
have the skills required to write a story as a novel or a screenplay, there is
no reason to believe that one has the skills required to render the narrative
in a game – a considerably more complicated task.
It cannot be overemphasised that it takes a tremendous volume
of resources to make a game narrative, and the more interactive the narrative,
the more laborious it becomes. Façadeis
an impressive piece of work, but it represents hundreds, perhaps thousands of
man hours of work for only half an hour
of play (ignoring replay). It was only worth doing because it was pioneering
new techniques (which were absolutely worth exploring!), and even then, it is
doubtful that any commercial game will follow in its footsteps.
Certain game stories are comparatively simple to implement.
For example, if one is creating a linear, or fairly linear, shooting game, then
one can render the story as a series of cut scenes between the action – this is
in fact the de facto standard for game storytelling, whether for good or ill.
In these cases, the story is simply a gloss upon the gameplay. These are cases
where the game narrative serves its purpose; the game is already being made,
and the narrative adds positively to the experience of the game.
But this is not the case for every narrative idea proposed
in the context of games. Indeed, it is arguable that the game concept should
precede the story concept, unless it happens that the story concept implies gameplay (which does happen – Ico is an example).
Thomas at Mile Zero asks as part of this month’s Round Table
on games and narrative (albeit accidentally!) why there are no game stories
with the richness and unique identity of art house movies such as Junebug, and why we are instead doomed to heroic (or anti-heroic)
archetypes in videogames. I feel that the answer to this question is the
inefficiency of rendering narrative in the medium of games.
The audience becomes used to the high production values they
experience with upper market franchises such as Grand Theft Auto and Final
Fantasy, and the budgets for such games require a sufficiently large
audience to justify their creation. That audience is not generally courted by
inventive narrative, alas – I wish that it were. Rather, the few interesting
examples of game narrative occur despite
resisting commercial factors. And even
if one makes an interesting narrative on a smaller budget, it is still grossly
inefficient to do so, compared to how much it would cost to make a short film
with the same story content.
There is no way to avoid the fact that games are an
inefficient medium for delivering narrative. But there is also no way to avoid
the fact that interactive narrative can only be attempted in a game, or
something very much like one. What is lacking is the commercial impetus to
justify the costs required in making creative interactive narratives, and while
the market for videogames remains focussed on games of harsh challenge and fleeting
entertainments, this commercial impetus remains absent. It is not even clear
that we will ever find such a market. Creative interactive narrative might always
be a by-product of the games industry, and never a commercial goal.
But it will not stop those of us enchanted by the potential
of the medium trying to push its limits whenever we can.
The opening image is Two Infinities by Freydoon Rassouli, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is implied, and I will take the image down if asked.
There is not a great deal published exploring our notions of game storytelling in high-level abstract terms, so it gives me great pleasure to shill the new white paper published by PJ's Attic entitled Games and Storytelling: A Working Definition of Storytelling that Encompasses New Media. You can download the white paper directly from here, or from their publications page here.
The white paper sets itself the goal of providing specific definitions for Narrative, Plot and Story that together provide a new perspective on the storytelling process, thus allowing for a better understanding of what can be achieved in interactive (or even participatory) story. As games such as Spore highlight the increasing focus being placed upon the player contribution to their own play, this is a timely examination of the potential of the medium of games for creative narrative purposes.
Here's an extract:
Once the audience receives the narrative, the true storytelling experience begins. Storytelling is a communication. It does not happen in a vacuum. You can write novels, design games, or film movies your entire life, but if it does not end up in the hands of an audience, you're not really storytelling. Any analysis of games or other narrative media that does not take into account the audience's participation is incomplete and lacks relevance.
I'm honoured to be referenced in the paper; it's a great privilege to be mentioned alongside such luminaries as Umberto Eco and Marshal McLuhan. Quite a change of pace from someone who previously denounced the writings of dead intellectuals!
If the souls of a thousand mangled
videogame stories could band together and take reprisals against the industry
that created them, it would be a massacre. No-one would be safe. It’s easy to
lay blame for the shambles that is the typical game narrative at the foot of publishers,
or developers, or Hollywood screenwriters, or whomever else you want to single out as a
scapegoat, but in fact there are many sins, and we all bear some
The Cardinal Sin: “What We Should Do
The main reason why game stories suffer is
captured in the old adage too many cooks spoil the broth.
Take a look at the films you really love.
Take a look at their writing credits. Most have a single screenplay credit. A
few, such as the works of master film-maker Akira Kurasawa, feature two
screenplay credits (in these cases, it is Kurasawa-san working with a
professional screenwriter). Very few if any of the films you really rate had
screenplays written by more than two people… It’s the same situation in books –
there are a few cases of beloved genre novels being written by two people, but
the vast majority of quality book narratives are crafted by a lone individual.
There’s a reason for this. Two people can
work together to produce a great story. Three people might work together and
produce a reasonable story. A dozen people will work together and produce
nothing but gibberish.
The Rookie Sin: “How Hard Can It Be?”
Everyone thinks they can write, but not
everyone is a writer. Many of the diabolically overwrought and cliché infested
monstrosities that pass as a game script were put together by people who have
played games and watched movies and think that this qualifies them to write a
game story. But writing a book or a film screenplay is hard – and writing a
game script is even harder, because there are many more restrictions to contend
with and the special advantages of our medium only add to the complexity of the
Please don’t let people who can’t write
work on game scripts. It hurts us all.
The Expert Sin: “I Know What I’m Doing”
The converse mistake is to hire an expert
writer to work on a game script believing that doing so will solve everything,
as often happens when publishers hire a Hollywood screenwriter with little or
no game experience. Now I don’t mean to suggest that there are not
screenwriters working from Hollywood who can write a good game story – I only mean to suggest that
having worked in Hollywood, or having had a screenplay optioned, does not by itself qualify
you to write for the vastly more difficult medium of games.
Most conventional writers are used to
having unlimited narrative devices for exposition, free use of visual symbols
for deepening the story and so forth. In short, they are used to the narrative
language of films (or novels). But these methods are radically more expensive
to render in videogames, and usually lead to the player watching cut scenes
instead of playing the game.
You can write a game story that is
delivered entirely in cut scenes – effectively making a game and an animated
movie and then putting them together – but it will not only cost a fortune,
it will fail to capitalise on the real potential of a videogame story.
The Developer Sin: “We’re All In
It’s the Cardinal Sin all over again…
I’m certain democracy in videogame
development can and does work. But I’m equally certain it doesn’t work with
game stories except in rare and miraculous circumstances. It’s okay for
everyone to contribute ideas and feedback, but the writing team must be in
charge of the story. They’re the only one’s who (in theory at least) know
what they’re doing!
When a developer changes its story to reach
the agreement of everyone in its team, they almost inevitably blanch out the
unique flavour and file down the interesting roughage of the story. The result
will all too often be a story that feels like every other story you’ve ever
The Publisher Sin: “You Need To Do
Yes, it’s the Cardinal Sin once again!
The best publishers know when to leave
things well alone. It’s okay for external producers to contribute feedback, or
even to dictate certain high level story elements, but if they begin to
micromanage the story, narrative disaster will never be far away.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the
writing team must be in charge of the story. But because the publisher
holds the purse strings, the developer is sometimes afraid to say no to
requests or demands from the external producers, even when they clearly know
nothing about storytelling.
For developers, I suggest taking a leaf
from Steel Monkeys’ book and getting a contract that allows the developer to
fire the external producer if they interfere with the development process.
We should be working together, not working
against each other.
Forgive Us Our Trespasses…
Lest I lay the blame squarely at the feet
of those of us who make the games, those who review and buy
them are also somewhat at fault. The specialist press has a woefully poor track
record of serious narrative criticism in the context of games, and gamers seem
to gobble up the latest repackaging of the plot of Aliens or Lord of
the Rings without ever stopping to say: “I liked your game, but I do wish
the story had been better.”
Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Perhaps gamers
are content with the current quality of game stories, which to be fair has
improved considerably in the last ten years. Sadly, even now it often fails to
reach the not-especially-high benchmark set by television shows.
I would like to see our medium fulfil its
narrative potential, and frankly, we’ve barely even begun to rise to this
challenge. Perhaps that is the greatest sin of them all.
Chris Lepine is constructing an extremely detailed critical review of Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames at The Artful Gamer. He's covering one chapter a week - thus far only Chapter One and Chapter Two have been covered, but there's more to come. I find it extremely flattering that anyone would consider commiting such attention to the analysis of the book - I look forward to reading more of this critique over the coming weeks.
I'm pleased to report that the book I contributed to and edited, Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames got a very positive review on Slashdot. At first, I was very uncomfortable being consistently and erroneously listed as "the author" of this book, rather than the editor. I had always wanted the author to be "IGDA Game Writers Special Interest Group", but the publisher insisted on a person being named, and not an organisation. Similarly, I am getting tired of correcting people who write that I'm the author of 21st Century Game Design and not the co-author. It's so hard to determine where the boundary between minutiae and errata lies...