On Brevity

Why “videogame writing should be short” is bad advice.

Brevity is good. But

Myth 11: Videogame writing should be short.

is bad advice. Because, unsurprisingly, it doesn’t say enough.

The past 18 months have seen a big resurgence in the role of writing in videogame production. What was once seen as a necessary evil has finally earned the acknowledgement of okay, fine, but please please just keep it short. Due in large part to the commercial (and artistic) success of BioShock and Portal, the people writing about videogames have been giving more of a voice to the people who write the games themselves. And the advice is pretty consistent: Keep it short, and keep it simple. Occasionally you’ll get the more charitable “be concise,” a concise word with the clear connotation “don’t write more than you need to.”

Which is fine. After all, we’re not Ernest Hemingway. But length isn’t everything. Remember that the expression is “brevity is the soul of wit,” even though “brevity is wit” would’ve been twice as succinct.

Now, anybody who reads this blog would be justified in thinking I’m the last person qualified to be talking about concise writing. But think about it: if you were trying to overcome a drug addiction, would you ask the person who’s never had a problem, or the person who’s in recovery? And on this blog, I’m ready to expose the seedy underbelly of the glamorous videogame writing career and share the scandalous details of two of my most horrifying word binges.

0xF4240 Little Pieces

The first is from my first job in videogames, The Curse of Monkey Island. There’s a scene in a barber shop run by three pirates, each of whom you have to convince to join your crew. Each of the pirates is connected to a series of puzzles the player has to solve, and each puzzle chain has a theme: strength, music, and treasure-hunting. When I came in to write the dialogue, I put in a section for each pirate where he’d go off on a story about his voyages under a previous captain. Each one was a kind of shaggy dog story with a drawn-out punchline, and each was loosely tied in with the theme of that pirate’s puzzle chain.

Everybody who read the first draft said it was too long — unbearably long. So I went through at least three editing passes, trimming out more and more of the excess words (as well as splitting it up into smaller chunks and giving the player a chance to cancel out). By the end, most of the interesting details had been taken out, and it was drifting into “for sale: baby shoes, never worn” territory, if you can imagine a Bizarro Hemingway that removes the least poignant words from a story. It was recommended to cut the pirate stories completely, but I made an argument to keep them in on the grounds that they gave a subtle clue for the puzzles.

Fast forward about twelve years, to my next job in videogames in a creative capacity, Abe Lincoln Must Die! There’s a scene in the Oval Office where you meet three former child stars, each of whom you have to convince to start a war. Each of the child stars has a theme, and each has a dialogue with the player. Again, each dialogue had to go through quite a few rounds of trimming to keep that section of the game from feeling completely tedious. And again, each round of trimming stripped away a little of the character of the dialogue and pushed it closer to being completely superfluous.

And that’s the part that took me forever to appreciate: “too long” and “superfluous” aren’t the same thing. I’d gotten so fixated on making the dialogue shorter, that I’d stopped asking whether it needed to be there at all. And the reason is that I hadn’t yet had my greatest epiphany as a Professional Videogame Writer: writing for videogames is different from writing for other stuff.

Who can ask for anything more?

None of those dialogues felt too long to me as I was writing them, so trying to trim them down was an extremely frustrating task. I’d try over and over to making it shorter while still keeping the flow and not sounding like exposition or technical writing, and it would still come across as overlong. What I’d neglected to take into account in both cases was that I was editing individual dialogues, and ignoring the overall flow and rhythm of the entire scene. A medium-length joke from Barber Pirate 1 might be funny, and as a self-contained piece of dialogue, it works fine. But if you’re hearing all three pirates tell a story with roughly the same structure, right down to the punchline, it’s lost its charm.

It’s not particularly insightful to point out that writing for interactive media has its own set of challenges. Usually, this is described in terms of volume, or of cause and effect. You have to write more, because you have to account for multiple different actions by the player. And you have to write in self-contained segments, because you have little control over the order in which the lines will be played.

But I haven’t heard much talk about how interactivity affects the rhythm of your storytelling. Ken “Nobody Cares About Your Stupid Story” Levine touched on this during his Game Developers Conference lecture about BioShock in terms of overall plot, to explain that game’s anticlimactic third act. But the difficulties go deeper than that. Plotting a videogame story is the part of the process that’s most analogous to movie and television scriptwriting: in a single-player game, act three is always going to come after act two. What happens when you take the knowledge we’ve all picked up from years of watching and reading linear media, and apply that to a form where you’re not sure if one line of dialogue will be played before or after another?

Most often, you just keep writing linearly, but make it as atomic as possible. For example: the audio logs in the System Shock games and carried through to BioShock. Each taken on its own is a perfectly fine piece of videogame writing: it’s in character, it sets the mood, it often ends on an intriguing note. And spread amongst the levels, they can build up a pretty suspenseful meta-story over the course of the game: the ones you discover in level 4 have implications that only become clear after playing levels 1-3.

But they have little immediate context — you can be hearing a recording of a horrifying attack on a nightclub while you’re wandering through the quiet, spooky remains of that same nightclub; or while you’re in the middle of a full-blown firefight with bad guys in that nightclub; or while you’re wandering down a hallway hundreds of yards away. The effect each time is very different, and only one (the first, I’m guessing) is the intended one.

And the shorter you make your “atoms,” the worse the problem gets. I’ve seen too many platformers and other action-oriented games that have been touted as having strong writing but end up being impossibly annoying within minutes. It reduces to characters spouting sound bites or catch phrases repeatedly. The writing itself isn’t the problem; it’s all in the context.

Your attention please

One of the reasons I started writing about videogame storytelling on here was this article on arstechnica.com about “why writing in games matters.” The author started his series of articles with the reminder that we’re always lamenting the state of writing in videogames, but we never praise it when it’s done well. As his example of outstanding videogame writing, he quotes in full Breen’s public address from the beginning of Half-Life 2.

My first reaction: he couldn’t have picked a worse example. That’s not a criticism of the passage itself. It’s immediately apparent that it’s more intelligent, mature, and thoughtful than the vast majority of what gets written for videogames. And as the author points out, it helps set a tone of maturity and gravity that carries through the rest of the game. By any standard, it’s a solid piece of writing.

By any standard, that is, except the standard of writing for videogames. A monologue, no matter how well-written, is still a monologue, and this one goes on for minutes. (A couple of years ago, I could’ve told you exactly how many minutes, because I did wander around City 17 just to listen to the whole thing). It shouldn’t be put forth as an example of great videogame writing any more than a film of someone reading a chapter from Lolita would be an example of great movie dialogue.

But the most interesting thing about that particular passage is that it does succeed in Half-Life 2. The reason, again, is context. It’s presented in the background, playing constantly over loudspeakers, with a huge videoscreen of the speaker visible from nearly every point in the area. It’s written so that you don’t need to hear the whole passage to get the effect; every paragraph and in fact every phrase that you overhear gives a sense not just of menace and oppression, but of a pompous self-serving lackey at the heart of it all. As it turns out, it is a solid example of videogame writing, although I suspect it’s not in the way that the author of that article intended: the reasons it works within the game are completely separate from the reasons it works as prose.

The soul of wit

Everyone’s going to compare videogame writing to prose, or movie and television scriptwriting, or comic book writing, because that’s what we’re most familiar with. And, frankly, because there’s still too little videogame writing that’s outstanding enough to use as a reference. Still, I can list a few of my own favorite pieces of writing in videogames (from memory, so excuse the paraphrasing):

  • “Mind if I drive?” “Not if you don’t mind me clawing at the dash and shrieking like a cheerleader.”: Sam & Max Hit the Road
  • “I said CHISHOLM trail!”: You Don’t Know Jack: Movies
  • “Life is short… Bury! Steady Sword!”: Final Fantasy Tactics (original translation)
  • “‘You can’t beat a Corley.’ Kind of ironic, considering how he died.”: Full Throttle
  • “For yoooooouuuu….”: Overlord
  • “Kick, punch, chop I got the funky flow! M.I.X. the flour into the bowl!”: PaRappa the Rapper
  • “This is the rare Indigo of the Montoya Genus. You have crushed its flowers. Prepare to dye.”: Fable II

What that list demonstrates — other than the fact that I have a corny sense of humor, and that I kind of miss “what’s your favorite?!” lists from message boards — is that even apart from plotting, character development, and overall storytelling, there are many different aspects of videogame writing. Some of those lines are delivered only in text, some become memorable because of the voice delivery. Some are in cutscenes, some are during interactive segments, some are in song lyrics, some in information screens.

And they all convey some piece of information that’s necessary to the player, whether it’s a notification, an item description, or “simply” establishing character. That’s another aspect of writing that’s unique to games: it’s the convergence of creative writing and technical writing.

Even more than in screenwriting, it’s crucial for every line of a videogame script to be packed with information. A good screenwriter must be able to break down a story into acts and beats, and understand how scenes and individual lines of dialogue work towards the goal of the entire script. But videogame writers need to be even more conscious of this, because every spoken line or word printed on screen is assumed to have some purpose — there’s often no telling when a “throwaway line” will send the player off on the completely wrong direction.

Just because a line is functional doesn’t mean it can’t be clever, funny, insightful, or dramatic. The real art of videogame writing is being aware of the context: understanding how, when and where the line is going to be used, and how to compensate for the times you have no control over when the line is played. Sometimes it really is as simple as knowing when to use a well-delivered “For yooooouuuuu…” instead of something longer. Reducing everything simply to brevity or wordiness is equivalent to saying “Too many notes:” it puts too much emphasis on the function and not enough on the artistry.

It’s just a coincidence that those lines are all pretty short.

4 thoughts on “On Brevity”

  1. Mr. Collie, if that is not your real name, I am a fan of your work and I am only a rookie prose writer myself so I am truly sorry if what I’m about type seems disrespectful, but what is good writing if it is not concise writing? You say a throw away line in a game is worse than a throw away line in a movie, and I don’t think it is. Good storytelling is when every line in a novel, every scene in a play or movie is there only when it furthers the story. This does not mean I consider Hemingway to be the greatest storyteller known to man, frankly I’ve never read his stuff because it sounds uninteresting to me, but being concise MEANS ejecting the superfluous, and it should be done regardless of medium. Of course, what is and isn’t superfluous depends on the medium for storytelling used. A long, detailed description of a house in a novel is often superfluous. Unless it is really vital to the story, the number and type of light fixtures in the house aren’t really important. But if you present this story as a film, the number and type of light fixtures would become important as the set dressing. If the mansion of a wealthy family is shown to have a single, bare bulb as the only lighting in the dining room, that will influence how the story is told. It’s incongruous and unexpected, the audience will expect it to be meaningful or important, not that the set designer forgot to get a chandelier. Making sure every detail is right is now important. But, if you had a chandelier in dining room and had a two minute shot of just the chandelier in the middle of the scene that would be just as bad as a long description in the novel. It would not be concise. Video games should also be concise, but not just as regards dialog, because that’s not the only way the story is told. For example, in a game like Crazy Taxi or Grand Theft Auto you drive around large, open ended urban areas. But do they really need to get larger and larger with each game? Do you really need another street lined with shops you can’t enter that looks just like the other streets lined with shops you can’t enter? I mean, does it really add to story, or even the gameplay? Level designs should be concise, just as much as the dialog should. Of course, that’s just my opinion, as an outsider and amateur.

  2. Of course I’m not starting a campaign against being succinct (all evidence to the contrary); that would be absurd. The only issue I’ve got with the advice “be concise” is that it can keep writers focused on the clock or the word count, instead of the creative process. Every piece of writing should say no more and no less than what it needs to; the trick, as you mention, is deciding exactly what it needs to say. Where I’d disagree with your comment is in deciding what is superfluous:

    Good storytelling is when every line in a novel, every scene in a play or movie is there only when it furthers the story.

    I’d say that’s efficient storytelling, not necessarily good storytelling. I need traffic signs and fire extinguisher instructions to be efficient; stories, I don’t mind if they ramble. (One of my favorite writers is Roy Blount, Jr., and he wanders around, goes off on tangents and digressions, repeats himself, and somehow almost always manages to tie it all together at the end).

    And many of my favorite moments in games have been the ones that don’t really further any story, but are included just for the hell of it. A random comment or a joke, or some meaningless interaction like turning lights on and off or looking at random objects. You could go through some justification that say those moments are storybuilding because they develop character or they establish interactive parameters of the world, but that’d be pushing it. They’re just there for fun.

    The reason I think games have unique difficulties when it comes to this topic is because there’s such a big push for the writing to be purely functional. Get in, give the player the minimum amount of information he needs to continue, and get out; the real artistry of a videogame is in the game design. I say there’s room for artistry everywhere, as long as it all works in concert and there’s no one part that detracts from everything else.

    So I say the best advice for videogame writing is the same as for any other type of writing: not “it should be short,” but “it should be short when it needs to be short, and long when it needs to be long.”

  3. First off, let me say I’m sorry for responding to your response at so late a date, but I actually sketched off my comment right before leaving on a short trip so just got back to my internet connection. And when I return I find you will no longer be posting on video game writing. Here I’ve sat, reading your posts for months, I finally get the courage to post a comment, only for it to be my last chance to do so! So I decided to be rude and respond to an old post.
    Second off, let me say thank you for your posts. As a prose writer who’s a gamer, I’ve always been interested in writing for games, but couldn’t really understand how it was done. I had thought that it must be vaguely like writing a choose-your-own-adventure book, but beyond that I just didn’t get it. I’ve gained a much better understanding from your posts. I still could never design and create a game on my own, but I have a much greater appreciation for what does go into making one.
    Third off, rebuttal! Well, kind of. When I said concise, I definitely did not mean short. And to me, story is not merely a recounting of events, and it’s definitely not just a plot outline you hand to the reader/player and say, “There you go! Do with it as you will! And have fun blowing stuff up.” I’m not familiar with Roy Blount Jr.’s work, but from what you say and have said in previous posts, he sounds like a writer who has no superfluities in his work. That might sound odd, but you say he rambles, goes off at tangents but then ties it all together. Seems to me, the rambling, the tangents, that’s the story.
    I had a teacher when I was kid, he was the advisor of our storytelling club. He was from the South, had a soft, slow drawl and was kind of a shy guy, but he told tall tales and scary stories better than all the professional storytellers I’ve met since. What he taught our club was that all the descriptions, all the repetitions were what made the story. They set up the tension, created a rhythm and turned a chain of events that could be described in about 45 seconds into a full experience that stays with you for years. Or millenia, if you’re talking about the Iliad and the Odyssey. And while Mr. Blount may not have had the years Homer did to perfect his stories, I still bet he worked awful hard to get each sentence just right.
    And as for turning on and off light switches, well, I think they’re fun because they are character building. (And involve Trogdor, but still, my point stands!) At Telltale you guys seem to do it so naturally, but when the “extras” in a game don’t match, they stand out like a sore thumb. Like Twilight Princess. The bug girl with her side quest, mini-game thing always bothered me. She’s cute and all, and her gothic lolita/Victorian styling does kind of fit into Twilight Princess what with the Old West town near the Gorons feeling like a Native American village lifted out of an episode of the Wild, Wild West (Only without the B-52 hairdos.), but catching bugs is really kind of a weird thing to do when the world is falling apart. And her house was really cool looking, but it looked like a little too much work went into it. Like, almost as much work as went into the Zora world which is supposed to be a much more important location, but is far less distinctive and imaginative than Bug Girl’s house.
    In comparison, the side quests in Psychonauts really added to the game. The scavenger hunt is the kind of thing you expect to find at a summer camp, and it’s good training in your powers. Plus a lot of the extras like reading the tree rings at the monument in the parking lot are funny, and help to explain more about the world in the game. You can get through just fine without them, but they actually add depth if you take the time to enjoy them.
    That’s what I think excites me most about games. The ability to really explore the world created for us. Not in the open sandbox sense, but the ability to experience the story in different ways. When I come up with a story I have to figure out the best way to tell it, and I stick to that one telling. You can maybe do the flashbacks of different people thing or something similar, but still, I’m the one determining what the reader sees and when and decide everything out before hand. Which I’m fine with. But the thought that I could create a single story that could be experienced different ways, even if they were only subtle differences, that just seems fun. Like in a story I wrote, a character chases after a thief who broke into her room at night. She’s half asleep in a strange town and the thief easily loses her, only to be later caught by a cop who’d been ordered to keep an eye on the heroine. In a game, maybe the chase could be played, with two possible results. Either she loses him like in my story, or she catches him, with the cop coming up and nabbing the thief soon after she gets him, but not before the thief mentions a name, a character the player hasn’t met yet, but will soon. The end result of the chase is very similar, and it’s pretty much still the same story, but the player gets an extra “clue” if they play well. Rather than branching off into different plot lines, it’s more like you get slightly different perspectives.
    And as to word counts, well, if you don’t have to deal with them let me just say I wish I could get hired at Telltale! It’s hard enough finding magazines that still publish fiction, but a lot of them want 6,000 words or less, AND they want strong characters who develop through the story. I can’t do that in 10,000 words. After much blood, sweat and tears I can manage to come up with an idea that fits into around 12,000, but I still end up filing away about 75% of my ideas for those novels I’ll write when I get enough published to get an agent.
    So after writing 1103 words on being concise, I’d like to summarize. I’ve enjoyed reading about your writing on writing, I’d probably consider Roy Blount Jr. a concise oral storyteller who just happens to write his stuff down, Bug Girls don’t belong in Hyrule, but scavenger hunts at camp are fun, and I wish I could write without worrying about a wordcount, too. Thank You, and Good Night.

  4. Thanks! I reserve the right to keep writing about videogames on here; I just want to avoid the long-winded treatises and just mention stuff I like.

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