Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Building the epic

This has been a question in my mind for a long time, and something I'm certain I still don't understand.  How do you make something epic in only 3,000 words?

Most of my writing ideas stem from one instant : the dramatic, memorable moment or feeling from any given situation.  I've heard this expressed no more concisely than by Julia Cameron, who said "The singular image is what haunts us and becomes art."  Does this mean my ideas are necessarily small?  Not in the slightest.  But it does usually mean I'm looking for the shortest route from point a to point b.

I suppose this is why I make a better games writer than a novelist.  I'm not interested in the interim, give me the now and the then and I'll make it work.  The interim is gameplay - it's the not-necessarily-boring that not only makes up the majority of what the player enjoys, but over which the writer has little control.  They can specify the parameters - go here, kill 20 orcs, etc - but the method, the time taken, the player's level of immersion are all untouchable variables.  Having an insane difficulty, which, again, usually wouldn't be set by the writer, can kill a good story just as surely as making something too easy.  Game balance is a big part of our world, so we forget to worry about the in-between and focus on the points where we do have control.

I'm not talking cutscenes, though those are certainly the thing that springs to mind most readily.  Dead Space and BioShock both get my vote for not making the player stand around while people talk at them.  In games writing, you have to be aware that NPC dialogue is just that for the player : noise.  In novels, it plays a much bigger role. While it's nice to sometimes let my hair down and write what I really want to say, with all its subtleties and niceties, I do quickly become bored and, in a game, so would my audience.  Games should be shorter, and more succinct than a novel, or you're doing something wrong.

That being said, there should always be the option to ask for more information.  This, then, is the game writer's conundrum.  How do you write common dialogue for the players who will read everything and the players who will read nothing?  Well, I have my own theories on that, none of which yet have enough supporting evidence for publication, but suffice to say it is the part of my job that I find the most difficult.

So how, then, to make your in-game story 'epic'?  Given that epic generally means : "extending beyond the usual or ordinary especially in size or scope", we already have a task on our hands.  In a 3,000 word game story, the minimum number of words a player will encounter is generally around 250, and the maximum around 1,500, if you're lucky.  More usually, that upper number is closer to 1,000.  This is to allow for branching paths, different player alignments, genders and classes (which can usually be handled by a well-placed script call, but you never know) and characters that the player may never meet, or kill on sight.  How do you tell an epic in 250-1,000 words?

I'm going to briefly simultaneously riff on and praise Dragon Age here.  Many of the sidequests in Dragon Age are, well, pointless.  You complete them, and it's never referred to again.  This is the nature of sidequests - I would like there to be a different way, to have one small action dictate a series of much larger consequences, but that's why I have Heavy Rain and, frankly, with a game as large and open-world as Dragon Age, I can see why that would be a logistical nightmare.  Where they did get it right was in the DLC - Warden's Keep feels epic.  You may not be the only person to have attempted this coup, but by Andraste you're the only one who's gotten this far.  The setup - an old haunted keep, high in the mountains, home to a glorious last stand with tragic consequences - is ambitious, but proves itself.  The characters - a woman long-dead and a man who should be dead - are sparse, but evocative.  The choice - moral, of course - is nothing short of shades of grey.  

And yet I wager the module itself runs no longer than 4,000 words.  The background history, the discovery of the story and the non-dialogue elements all combine to create an experience that is stand-alone, and yet feels relevant.  Not many sidequests manage to do that.  

So, to return to my original question : how can you or I accomplish this?  Personally, I'm still trying to figure it out.  That's what this blog is for.  In order to write for my players, I have to think like my players, and to think like someone who cares nothing for story is so alien to me that I started this blog just to help me understand.  In that sense, things that are exceptionally well-written are equally difficult to understand, least of all because writing is a lot like audio design - you don't notice it when it's good, but you sure as heck notice it when it's bad.

So for those of you looking for an answer, I apologise.  I don't have one.  Yet.  When I do, I'll let you know, but first, I think a lot more study is required.  Ferelden, here I come!

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