The Old Man and the Realistically Rendered Water Volume

marlinget.jpgI’m just arrogant enough that I tend to automatically dismiss anything presented as a list of rules or guidelines about writing. There’s obviously a ton of craft involved in writing, independent of any concerns about talent or personal style. But attempts to codify it are always either too vague to be practically useful, or too specific to apply to anything but the most pedestrian writing. We’ve already got a set of rules: high school English. Learn those, and then read (and watch) examples of good writing, practice your own writing, and you’ll learn by doing, to the point where you’re confident enough to split an infinitive in your opening sentence.

So I was automatically skeptical of the “Learn Better Game Writing” tutorial, given by Vicarious Visions producer Evan Skolnick and described in this Gamasutra article. I became even more skeptical after reading this quote:

Video games are a product where the buyer didn’t buy to read something — they may not even want a story. You have to accept certain realities when writing in this business. You’re not the next Hemingway, but even if you are, this isn’t the place to show it. Your job is to write tight, efficient, serviceable story content.

So remember that, kids: your goal is to write succinctly and efficiently. Not like that Hemingway blowhard, always droning on and on. Man, that guy liked to hear himself talk!

It’s unfortunate, because one of my own biggest faults as a writer is a tendency to over-write, a failure to be concise, and a habit of unnecessarily repeating myself. So maybe there are still some good tips there, and I’m being overly antagonistic to assume that using the worst possible example of “Insert Famous Author Name Here” means that the guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

The problem is that the lecture, at least as described in a brief online article, starts out with such a defeatist tone, it’d be charitable to call it “uninspiring.” Launching into a lecture with the loaded words and phrases “product” and “buyer” and “may not even want a story” and “accept certain realities” and “business” and “you’re not the next blank” and “serviceable” and “how much story does your game actually need?” all work together to create a giant vacuum from which inspiration is not allowed to escape.

“Get over yourself” is fine advice which would be good for all writers to remember, regardless of their field. But that’s generally followed by an example of great writing to which we should aspire. Instead, Skolnick takes a completely dismissive tone towards game writing, presenting it as a necessary evil at best.

His quote: “The amount of story content you put in is generally how much the player will tolerate, and if you break those expectations, you do that at your peril.” There’s your objective, writers: to be tolerable. Spoken like someone who uses the term “creatives” like high school students use “drama fags.” Just do your job and get out of the producers’ way, so we can check you off the task list and move on.

He does give an example of a game that does it right:

As an example, Skolnick showed the opening cinematic from Grand Theft Auto III. He then broke down the timeline: 1:30 credits, 2:45 cutscene 1, 10 seconds for the transition to gameplay. […] Your required viewing time 2:55 seconds, and you’re into the game. Quite reasonable. Now it’s time to bring up the whipping boy — Metal Gear Solid 2.

No discussion of the quality of the writing in each game, the way writing is used in each game, or the effect it’s trying to achieve. There’s a single quantifiable measure of the quality and usefulness of game writing, and that’s oh my God are you still talking press A skip cutscene press A!!!!!.

The quality of writing in games in general, and my own writing in particular, still has plenty of room for improvement. We’re not going to get there by following the teachings of a caffeine-addled 14-year-old with attention deficit disorder.

Even those of us with normal attention spans don’t like to be barraged with reams of dialogue coming out of nowhere with no regard to pacing or story flow. But even a well-placed dialogue-heavy passage can be annoying if it goes on too long, for the simple reason that the writing in most videogames sucks. Why does the writing in most videogames suck? Mostly because so many people in game development consider it to be secondary to everything else, a necessary evil that must be tolerated, whose only virtue is its brevity.

Using films as an example, because “movies are our culture’s main shared storytelling experience, for better or for worse,” Skolnick leapt into discussions of the classic three act structure, delineating the acts and plot points of films before turning to the audience to suggest examples. At this point the class became a classic creative writing workshop at a basic level, so if you’re interested in pursuing the ideas presented here, you could easily find some books to read.

Or, you know, watch some movies or something. Whatever. They’re all the same three acts with plot points pretty much, for better or worse. The Matrix was pretty bad-ass. And you should watch Aliens, or if you’re making a game with gangsters instead of space marines, see Scarface.

What Skolnick did note that is worth emphasizing is that the structure of games, with a series of levels building toward a climactic final boss encounter, maps very well to the classic act structure of continual conflicts.

I guess you could make a game that wasn’t just a series of levels building up to a final boss level, you know, bring some level of art and creativity to the storytelling process to tell an unconventional story, but you do that at your peril.

After discussing act structure, Skolnick moved into the Monomyth as presented by Joseph Campbell in Hero With A Thousand Faces and more latterly, Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey, which he recommended as popular with Hollywood writers.

Thanks, dude. Hero With a Thousand Faces: let me write that down; I don’t believe that’s ever been recommended before. I tried getting through it one time, but it was way too long. I’m still trying to slog through The Old Man and the Sea.

16 thoughts on “The Old Man and the Realistically Rendered Water Volume”

  1. Fun. I read the same article, and had more or less the same reaction. Incidentally, if you’re going to GDC, and even marginally thinking about attending David Freeman’s talk, don’t. Worst writer ever.

    Now, with that out of the way…

    One of the weirdest experiences I’ve had recently has been working with someone who clearly has read Hero With a Thousand Faces, watched a lot of movies, and read a lot about character development, the three-act structure, etc., and wanted to apply those theories to games. The problem was that he was a *terrible* writer – his characters were flat, cliche, and astonishingly boring in large part because he so slavishly adhered to those basic lessons.

    I’m not going to pretend I’m I good writer – but I’m a better writer than most of the people I’ve encountered who write for games. There is craft to it. I’m sure there are rules, and ways to codify how to write well, but a lot of it is actually having something compelling in your head, and then using the right words to convey that image to someone who doesn’t. The first part appears to be the sticking point for most of the bad writing I’ve seen in games, and I have no idea how you get someone to learn to think of cool stuff. :

  2. I’m not sure you can. Any more than I’d be able to “learn” to compose great music, no matter how many years of music lessons I took.

    But assuming you can teach someone to think of cool stuff, I know the way not to do it. And that’s by exposing them to all the oldest cliches instead of encouraging them to get as broad an exposure as possible, and then learn how to apply those different influences to their work.

    Take the least offensive part of that lecture described in the article: he asks the audience to “suggest examples” of movies, and then breaks them down into acts and plot points. That’s just colossally wrong. You don’t take an example of something that works, and then deconstruct it to cram it into a cliched 3-acts-with-boss-fights model of how you believe things should work. That’s how you get tedious and insipid games, and the insistence that we’re making serviceable product instead of art. What you do is take a movie (or TV show, or anything else), examine how it works in its own medium, and then ask how that method can be applied to your own stuff.

    Of course there’s craft to it; there’s craft to anything that requires talent. But you have to recognize that the craft is in service of the art, it’s supposed to enhance it. You don’t say that the pretense of art is something to be squashed so that your “buyers” aren’t wasting valuable hooker-shooting time.

  3. What always infuriates me about this kind of talk (I gave one about writing at an event myself a couple of years back, and it was the first thing on my list) is the constant confusion between story and plot – as if story is just the bit in script form, rather than the combined effect of character, environment, and everything else that builds a sense of connection to the gameworld.

    The argument tends to be “Boring cutscenes are bad.” Fine. Hard to argue with that one. But to say that story has no part in, say, strategy, is to completely throw out everyone’s reaction when Ghandi gets The Bomb in Civilisation, disregard the fans clamouring for the return of Kane in the C&C games, remove all the character from Alpha Centauri, and lose much of the appeal of the X-Com games, where the strategy hinged on the perfect moment where you finally stop frantically defending yourself from the alien onslaught and go to /war/.

    Just because people don’t necessarily buy games for their story in the first instance doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate them. That doesn’t necessarily have much of a knock-on effect for Part 1, but done well, it’s a massive boost for the next one – something to keep people with a franchise even if something shinier comes along in the interim.

    Not, I hasten to add, with a To Be Continued – the three evil words that almost guarantee a franchise’s instant death. Nobody really cares if Planet Zog is at risk of getting blown up, or if the villain is reborn, or any of that cheap nonsense – with the exception of when it totally invalidates the player’s accomplishment, in which case it’s nothing short of a slap in the face from the developers. More personal things, like the player remembering the satisfaction of finally shutting up the villain, wanting to be reunited with the characters, or simply seeing more of the world.

    (Most recently, Mass Effect has several moments that are clearly ‘You’ll be seeing this later…’ pointers, notably the Flotila, which work very well indeed. Certainly, I finished the game much more interested in seeing the rest of Bioware’s universe than in dealing with the next move from the generic baddies…)

    It’s also quite funny to see Metal Gear Solid as the whipping boy yet again. Three and a half million copies for the third game, post MGS4 furore, a second wind on PSP, and Konami funding the phenomenally expensive MGS4… to me, that suggests they’ve got at least some idea of how much story their players will ‘tolerate’, even if the result is anathema to the critics.

    It’d have been interesting to know how much of the talk would be spent on things like the nine hour cutscene before fighting Doc Ock at the end, and how much on the far cleverer elements, like player identity. MGS2 has a lot of good stuff for writers to look at, even if the game it’s wrapped in is far too long-winded and up itself for most peoples’ comfort)

    There’s enough good writing in games to build on without flat-out going back to the old cliches, or switching track to movies. The industry’s not going to get anywhere if it just focuses on the bad, or worse still, starts self-flagellating about how worthless it is. That’s not a path that leads to improvement, only depression and the words “Oh, it’ll do…”

    Also, if as many writing teachers actually bought and read Campbell and co, those books would regularly outsell the Bible. They’re the equivalent of starting a talk with “When writing, remember to keep breathing. Very important. Eating and drinking, don’t forget those either.”

  4. Hey, if the guy is suggesting that bad video game writers write less, then I’m fine with that.

    The overall error made by lots o’ people involved in game writing, or even game production itself is that they feel the story exists outside of the technology.

    If so, then it’s “cutsene” then “gameplay” then “cutscene,” rinse-repeat until the end of the game. Fine, keep the goddam cutscenes short.

    But let’s get more specific. Story or plot are badly defined here.
    I prefer “linear narrative.” And…linear narrative sucks when playing a game.
    I want the game at my pace, not the storytellers, and I reserve the right to skip it when I want to immerse myself in the environment rather than break the third wall by talking to a ‘bot.

    Chuck…you’re such a “creative.”
    But let’s not get on our high horses (again) about whether games are art or commerce. They are both. As artists, we’re free to make whatever we please. But if no one buys it, then it’s likely you won’t be free to make your pet style of game again.

    But I’ll go out on a limb here. The people who bought Mass Effect were hard core gamers. They like 30 hours of dialog with their shooting. Then, there’s a market for story in games. End of argument.

    Do most people want that kind of painful investment? (I heard tell of the great writing, then saw the game and it was the same arch, stilted TV dialog we’ve seen for the past decade). I think most people don’t. Of those who do, how many more of these games do they have time for? In this case, story is the market differentiator.

    Now Hemingway was stark and minimalist…however Dickens got paid by the word, and he did just fine.

  5. Tech Writing Award Winner For the Week

    From the new Knight Rider pilot:
    (As the bad guys walk through the computer simulation lab for the Knight 2000 KIT Car)

    Bad Guy (in awe)
    I’ve never seen algorithms this complex before!

  6. “Hey, if the guy is suggesting that bad video game writers write less, then I’m fine with that.”

    Yeah. Who was the audience for this seminar? If that audience was people who dread writing, give them permission to write less. People who are enthused about the idea of writing a great story for a game would probably go to another seminar.

  7. The overall error made by lots o’ people involved in game writing, or even game production itself is that they feel the story exists outside of the technology.

    If so, then it’s “cutsene” then “gameplay” then “cutscene,” rinse-repeat until the end of the game. Fine, keep the goddam cutscenes short.

    ^ I agree with that. I always think back to Prince of Persia: Sands of Time versus Warrior Within when this discussion comes up. Jordan Mechner wrote Sands of Time. During the game the Prince and Farrah would actually talk to each other. There was a genuine ongoing love story which frankly compelled me to keep playing just to find out what happened in the story. Warrior Within they hired two “Hollywood writers” and it was the most generic, abhorrent, painful mess of a story I’ve ever had to wade through.

    So point one, the value the game company places on the writing is important. Point two, the respect the writer has for the audience is an issue. If you are thinking of writing a few cut scenes for some dumb teenage boys who just want to shoot stuff or blow something up it will hardly be prize winning material.

    I think the writer should actually challenge the audience to go along with the material. Create something original and unique. Too often in video games I’ve played the story is force fed down your throat to a mind numbingly level. Look heres a cut scene, there’s a bad guy, now go play your game we’ll get out of the way now. The truly great gaming experiences combine the story into the game play, so what you are doing actually means something and genuinely relates to the story.

  8. Plenty of good points, most of which I can get full-length blog posts out of. Especially brevity; I can write for hours about brevity. I’ll make sure to take everybody’s ideas and present them as my own when I go out on the lecture circuit.

    Richard, your examples of story in strategy games are good ones, although I think the one of Gandhi getting the bomb in Civilization is the only one that developers should be trying to emulate. The others are mostly just the case of story adding context to a strategy game, where Civ’s “story” moments are more integrated, and actually derive from the gameplay.

    I bet the developers would balk at the suggestion (in fact, if I remember correctly Soren Johnson explicitly said that story has no place in strategy games), but a lot of what the Civ 3 and Civ 4 teams added to the game are what I would call story development. They added more character to the other leaders, made the Wonder discoveries more dramatic, added additional mini-wonders and events to give “plot points” to the game. And they put a lot of effort into tightening up the end-game and making the early game more engaging. In other words, pacing — the same type of pacing you put into a story arc as you would into a game.

    Jonathan, I think the art-vs-commerce thing is irrelevant, unless you really believe my balking at the use of the term “product” is the same thing as saying “I want to write anything I want because I’m an artist in happy fairy princess land!” You don’t even have to bring commerce into the discussion: there’s NO type of writing, except for a private journal that no one wants to read anyway, where you don’t have some obligation to an audience. I’m actually losing money on this blog, and it’s about as close to a personal journal as you can get without writing more about my feelings, but I still have to keep in mind that other people are reading it, and present it in a way that is hopefully halfway entertaining.

    As with everything else, it comes down to why you’re doing what you’re doing. If you start out with the mindset that you’re making product, and your goal is to move units, then people will be able to tell that you’re pandering. If you go into it with the mindset that your work is secondary, and your audience doesn’t want to hear what you have to say so don’t waste their time, you’ll end up with vapid, insipid writing. The only way you get good material is to start with the assumption that you’re saying something the audience wants to hear, so I’ll make my point and then make sure it’s got the right pacing and clarity for the audience to get it.

    It’s particularly interesting you’d talk about the Knight Rider TV movie immediately after going on about art vs commerce. When you’re making a two-hour long Ford commercial intended to launch a franchise that appeals to 16-year-old frat pledges, then you get lines like “I’ve never seen algorithms this complex!” and a dude who doesn’t shave for his mom’s funeral and starts out in the middle of a three-way because they were scared that otherwise he’d come across as a big pussy.

    As for this guy’s lecture, I think Larry summed it up best: the people who really care about raising the state of game writing aren’t going to pay attention to lectures like this one. It’s still fun as a great example of what not to do.

  9. If you think you’re not a commercial artist, then I think you’re kidding yourself. 🙂

    I don’t think the games you’re making are akin to the indie experimental movies or James Joyce stream of consciousness books. They’re great, sure, but they are product.

    If you want to immerse yourself in interactive narrative heavy with writing then you should be working and teaching at a university.

    I’ll continue to hold to my opinion that if you are really passionate about great storytelling then you’re in the wrong industry. Write movies, TV, poems, books even librettos.

    If you’re passionate about making games, then focus on what makes games special and better than books and movies. Sure story can be an element, but to make story the focus just makes me think the designer would rather be making movies. Can we say, “Wing Commander”?

    Discussions about writing in games seem to take up way more space on blogs and posting boards than actual discussions of game mechanics, level design and game structure. Maybe it’s just the blogs I gravitate to written by other people who’ve made adventure games.

    Why is game writing such a hot topic, when even at its most integrated it is an ornament hung on the Christmas tree?

  10. And again, I don’t know where you’re getting the impression that I’m portraying myself as some bohemian suffering-for-his-art indie game developer. Unless you think that there’s no middle ground between product made for the sole sake of moving units and furthering a franchise (I’ve worked on those), and games made with the mindset that they’re going to be fun (I’ve worked on those, too).

    SimCity 4 was not some indie experimental game crafted by patchouli-scented art fags on a commune; it was a sequel to a profitable franchise for a huge corporation. And it was a lot of fun to work on, because the execs never talked about what would sell (not to us in the trenches, anyway), but about what would be fun for players.

    I don’t call the games I work on “product” for the same reason I don’t call my friends “bags of meat and water.” Technically, either term is accurate, but one is just a lousy way to go through life. Luckily, I don’t usually have to think about “product,” because the companies I work for hire people who are good at that. It’s really that simple.

    As for the rest, I disagree to the point where I don’t even say it’s a difference of opinion. I’d just say you’re wrong, because I’ve seen how good games can be at storytelling. It’s not some theory. There are moments in Sam & Max Hit the Road that I remember more vividly than scenes from the comics. Most of Half-Life 2 was more memorable and engaging to me than War of the Worlds. The twist in BioShock hit home a thousand times harder than the twist in The Sixth Sense, etc.

    Game writing is such a “hot topic” because there are still plenty of game developers and ex-game developers who just aren’t getting it. It is about what makes games special and better than movies; that’s what all these posts have been about. I’m talking about getting over this dated idea of story being as separate as you describe, or only limited to adventure games. And about finding ways to carry storytelling moments throughout the entire game.

    You won’t find any insight about level design here because I’m not a level designer. You won’t hear me going on in detail about adventure game puzzles, either, because a) there are many people (including yourself, and luckily, the lead designer on the Sam & Max episodes) who are better puzzle designers than I am; and b) traditional adventure game puzzles bore the hell out of me. What I am pretty good at, and interested in, is figuring out how and why a game, movie, TV show, etc. worked for me, and thinking of ways to extrapolate that to something else. That’s game structure.

    How can anyone insist that game writing is ornamental, and then claim that games are incapable of being a great storytelling medium, and fail to see the cause-and-effect there?

  11. Fair enough we can agree to disagree. But I believe the concept of story being integral is the throwback concept, not the new concept. Dating back to the days when technology couldn’t provide a realistic sandbox for self expression. Releasing a player from story is a stronger choice than forcing a story on the player.

  12. And your a hell of a writer, too. Truth be told, I despise adventure game puzzles, too but it pays the bills, ya know.

  13. that’s ‘you’re’
    Talk about interactive writing. They should give talks about writing on your Blackberry.

  14. I’m just curious about this whole games-as-product-thing. Why are games referred to as “product” more than books, or movies, or CDs, or comics, etc? I found the concept come up in my job recently. Won’t get too deep into it, but I have to categorize random search terms into pre-selected categories as one aspect of my job, and while the search term “There Will Be Blood” would fit into the category of “Is Title,” the search term of “Sam And Max Hit the Road” would be placed in the “Is Product” category..

    Perhaps it’s based on the assumption that a game is something that will most of the time be purchased, but movies or books or CDs aren’t necessarily going to be bought?…

  15. All those media types are referred to as product in their own industries, so I don’t know who makes the distinction.
    I believe that in both the cases of games and dvd’s you buy a license to view the media, rather than purchase of the media, so in that case there is no difference.

  16. I think it’s also (or mainly) because videogames have always been halfway between application software and toys or board games, both of which are considered “product.” The industry distinction doesn’t bug me that much. What bugs me are:
    1) When the parody/copyright/licensing/trademark regulations are different for games than they are for movies & TV;
    2) When execs, developers, or the audience decides that it’s somehow pretentious for games to aspire to be creative works;
    3) When the audience acts that there’s some dollar-to-minute-of-playtime value ratio for games, that they’re “owed” 35-40 hours for their fifty-to-sixty bucks, and that anything shorter than that is a rip-off.

    And as for “adventure game puzzles pay the bills”: Luckily, what’s paying the bills for me right now is trying to figure out ways to subvert, expand, better-integrate, and get around adventure game puzzles while still keeping it accessible. And, of course, writing fart jokes.

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