I’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.