Thursday, May 6, 2010

Visual storytelling as the writer's craft

I was writing a game design document this afternoon for an informal pitch this evening, and found something strange.  As a writer, I prefer to communicate my story in casual games via art.

This is not to say I'm an artist.  That certainly isn't the case.  But, rather than having dialogue of any kind, I'd much prefer to let the environment speak for itself.

This may not be a surprise to any of you.  I've worked in games for so long that writing only using dialogue seems natural, as I'm usually asked to wrap things up once the game is content-complete.  That means there's no provision for a little extra asset that would make all the difference and save a tonne of dialogue.

But planning this one from the beginning, I'm finding it easier to work with the backgrounds, items and even interactive objects to create a story that requires no explanation.  To my baffled delight, I'm even enjoying it a lot more.

One of my biggest peeves about games, and what I have to do when writing for games, is the overuse of talking, talking, talking.  If I can't skip it, it shouldn't be there.  That's my feeling as a gamer.  If I want to read it, that's great, but forcing people to read something is the quickest way to make them want to skip it.  And yet I consistently find I'm asked to add in more dialogue, more jokes, more explanation.  She cannae do it, Cap'n!  It's all she's got!

Subtle.  Evocative.  Meaningful.  These are words I would like to hear regarding my in-game story, but often such adjectives conjure up images of banks of text, just waiting for the user.  They much easier regard a literary work than a gaming one.  And it's not for me to say that environment design is my forte.  It's not.  But the little touches, the ones that change a blank wall into something meaningful to the narrative, are.

Of course, input is always nice.  I vastly prefer to design and create in a team environment, especially when it comes to games.  And that's another thing I usually find as a games writer.  The people bringing me on to the project are somehow so terrified that my ideas will be polluted by what they already have that they separate me from the team entirely.  Of course, that only leads to frustration from the team, who thought what they had was pretty good, and definitely doesn't further the cause of game writers, since it's making us out to be the bad guys.  So, then, asking for an asset becomes a big deal, even if it would save a lot of the player's time.

I don't blame teams for disliking writers.  I blame management for not getting writers involved sooner.  That doesn't mean you need a permanent writer on staff.  Personally, I'd get bored.  But it does mean your writer can come in as a consultant.  Let them sit in on the pitches and scope meetings, and make their contributions.  Bring them back in at the beginning of production to see how things are progressing and make suggestions to help the mission structure remain cohesive.  And then bring them in at the end, to tidy up the loose ends, add the finishing touches, and work with what you already have.

That's something else I want to stress: just because it wasn't written by a writer doesn't mean it's terrible!  Clients often want me to rewrite their whole game from scratch, and I become the villain when I simply refuse.  So much of a team's time and effort goes into the story, no matter the depth or tone, that it's pointless and unfair for a writer to come in and change all of that.  There are exceptions, such as when the team doesn't actually have a story, but I have never seen a game story that was a lost cause.  Even the most cliched hack-job can have redeeming qualities, if you only know what to change.  That is the role of the writer.  Not necessarily to create, but to improve.  To create from the pieces a living whole, and make the world make sense.

Have a little faith in yourself.  Have a little faith in your team.  It's as much their game as it is yours.  Trust them to know what suits.  And then, hopefully, you'll have a little more faith in your writer.  Moulding unset clay is easier than starting with a blank slate.  Let your writer take what you have created with your loving care and improve it with their own.  You'll find greater things come from a shared story than just something for the player to listen to while they kill stuff.  You'll have something everyone can be proud of, and that shows.

Know what you want, and don't settle until you get it, but be open to suggestion.  It sounds like the shopping list for the perfect project manager, but I assure you, it's possible.  If you're not happy with the direction your writer is taking your game in, talk to them.  We're only human, just like you.  It's not that hard to understand. We're trying to do our best, and if we need to change direction, it's better to provide some guidance than apply the brakes.  It's your project, after all.  But if you really want the writer to feel it's their project, too, the guidance needs to be clear from the outset.  Lay the course, set the line, and sail off into adventure.  Nothing ruins enthusiasm like having to stop and revise every 3 minutes.

But sometimes, please, just give us the benefit of the doubt.  Let us run with the idea that seems wild and irrelevant.  Let us ask how long it would take to make such and such an asset, or film such and such a sequence, but don't be afraid to help us think of alternatives, especially where the tech is concerned.  If we're asking questions, we have a vision, and any obstacles that can be overcome will bring us one step closer to achieving it.  Let us dream - help us.  I promise any decent writer will bring you a story more wonderful than you could have imagined.

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