Behold, the game writer’s fundamental paradox:

  • Many people don’t play games for story, meaning game writers can’t assume universal interest in the game’s story and must write for multiple audiences.
  • In no other media does a writer serve more roles than in a video game, meaning story often is secondary to other responsibilities.

I want to focus on the second point — the multiple responsibilities of game writers, things that aren’t directly about telling a story or creating a character — and how these responsibilities add value to the player experience and game at large. Then, I want to take a wider look at other values writers bring to game development and franchise development.

Let’s start with:

Making the Old Feel New Again

Games are repetitive.

It’s not a dig. Repetition is simply part of game development, as there are only so many ways a player can interact in a game, which are called mechanics. The problem is, a game’s mechanics are inherently limited – thus repetition. For example, in your average AAA action game, you can do a smattering of the following: explore, interact with stuff, fight enemies, hide, hack computer consoles, and so on.

Sometimes, you’ll hear these referred to as the verbs.

Most games introduce players to a set of mechanics, and then remix and reimagine how those mechanics are used in various combinations. By the end of a game, you’ve attained a certain level of mastery over these mechanics that feels empowering

But here’s the rub. Coming up with a completely new game mechanic is incredibly difficult, which is why most games share a majority of common mechanics. Sometimes, a game will come along and introduce a marquee mechanic – for example, the wall running in Mirror’s Edge, which was later used in Titanfall

Imagine sitting down to write a story, and someone tells you that you can only use ten verbs. That’s the challenge of game writing. But fortunately, there are some clever game writers out there who know how to squeeze meaning out of even the most seemingly rote of mechanics.

The best games mask repetitive mechanics by wrapping them in unique narrative in order to make the old feel new again. Enter the writer, who has two main roles with regard to repetition:

  • Contextualize mechanics to leverage repetition, making a player’s actions grow in significance over the course of a game.
  • Mask repetitive mechanics/systems by packaging them with new contexts/missions/fantasies to keep players invested.

Giving Repetition Weight Through Premise and Context

Writers help create player context, which can alter a player’s experience in a game, and how they perceive their actions.

In whatever media you write for, you try to leverage its strengths and shore up its weaknesses. A game writer’s goal is to take something repetitive and make it feel special. For example, how many times have you swung a melee weapon in a game? A thousand times.

Now, there are lots of things you can do to make that melee swing feel more special. You can make the weapon model look visually distinct, or add in sound effects and visual effects to give it weight and power. And if you’re a game writer, you can make the player feel like they’re wielding freaking Excalibur – instead of Prop Sword #25.

Two games that excel at this are God of War and Control.

In God of War, Kratos’ ax Leviathan makes you feel like a god. And you are. But what makes this weapon stand out is its history – Leviathan was given to Kratos by his late wife. Because the entire game is about you as Kratos taking your son Atreus on a pilgrimage to spread his mother’s ashes, the ax becomes the embodiment of this journey. Meaning whenever you swing Leviathan, your late wife is with you, helping out every step along the way.

Or consider the Service Weapon in Control. Yes, it’s got cool animation and feels good to shoot — but let’s face it, we’ve seen these types of guns before in plenty of games. So, what makes the Service Weapon feel special? The mythos of the firearm, and how it symbolizes your role as Director. It’s basically an Excalibur/Harry Potter wand that chooses you – that confirms that only you can defeat the Hiss. And in a game where you’ve got freaking supernatural powers, making an ordinary gun feel special is an amazing feat!

Point being, a shiny new context can make something repetitious feel significant, even mythic, and in doing so, reinforce the central themes of a game’s characters.

Same Set of Blocks, New Shapes

Most mission designers will tell you that the challenge isn’t in creating one engaging mission, it’s in creating the 50th mission that still feels fresh and exciting when you’re forty hours into a game. And the crazy part is that some games even manage to pull this off.

How?

Smart mission designers know they have to dangle something new in front of a player to keep them invested in the game. Of course, the low-hanging fruit is a shiny reward. Kill ten goblins. Get new sword. But bribing the player can only take you so far and really only works on a certain type of player. Sooner or later, players figure out that they’re just doing the same thing over and over again.

A writer’s challenge is to present a mission that feels different to the player, even if it uses all those same mechanics you’ve been using for hours. We do this by tapping into various fantasies, with the goal of repackaging them with a new context.

For example, consider the kill mission where you help a farmer seek revenge against a cow thief. It feels different from the kill mission where you hunt down a serial killer, because there are two separate fantasies at play.

Same blocks, new shapes

Creating Discourse through Choice and Character

Add player choice to the equation and you’ve got a whole different aspect of a writer’s value – the possibility of creating discussion outside the game.

Presenting players with interesting moral choices in games is, to me, one of the fundamental advantages of interactive media — I’m talking to you, Bloody Baron mission chain in The Witcher 3. I’m willing to bet that games that do this well end up increasing their franchise’s value, because player-led conversations on tough choices inevitably make their way to forums and other social media, and ultimately result in a more long-term success for the game.

Writers help architect and promise these types of conversations. No one writes a mission or character for them to be forgotten. When you think about what sustains a franchise from one game to the next, often it’s the fans who are most invested in a game’s characters. After all, it’s awfully challenging to cosplay a mechanic.

But if you create a stand-out moment or compelling character, fans will still be talking about it years later – when you’re set to release the next game.

Building Bridges and Franchise Development

The question then becomes: what makes players pick up the sequel?  Maybe it’s a newly introduced mechanic or twist on an old formula, but I’d argue that there’s a more powerful incentive. The opportunity to hop back into a familiar world.

The stronger your world, the longer players will want to spend time in it.

Writers are always trying to expand a game’s world. We do this because we enjoy world building. We like creating characters. We want to expose the mysteries of a world and unwrap them one by one, always creating new mysterious and unexplored corners of the world in the process.

No matter whether you’re making a game with missions or one of those newfangled battle royales or hero shooters, I’d argue that world building and character development are crucial for enticing players and retaining player.

Why is building a cohesive, fascinating world so important in these genres? Competition. Tons of it. New battle royales and hero shooters are springing up every day. Some have different mechanics or game modes, but you’re still doing mostly the same thing. This make the fantasy you’re offering to the player more important than ever.

Remember, you can’t copyright a mechanic, but you can own your world. 

Conclusion

Writers not only want the current world to be engaging and mysterious; they also always have their eye on new territory. By nature, we want to draw in players and keep them engaged from release to release, and season to season. It’s in our DNA.

One, final thought. You need writers from the outset of pre-production, when a game’s pillars are still being set. World building doesn’t happen accidentally. It’s a process of exploration and planning that can define the bounds of your game, its tone and characters, and how your world presents to players. It can also box in your franchise, if not done judiciously. But done well, a game world becomes your marketing. It sells your fantasy. It does the heavy lifting of marketing a game for you. So do yourself a favor — hire a few writers!

A job teaching English at a high school in Tokyo. Excellent pay — and plenty of time to finish my novel. Although the school year didn’t start until September, I’d gone early to improve my Japanese. I met some new friends. We went out to bars and sang karaoke until three in the morning. Moving to Japan had always been my dream, and it was finally here. The only problem? This was February of 2011. On March 11th, a 9.0 earthquake would rock the Pacific coast.

As a Floridian, I was somewhat used to natural disasters, though admittedly never on this scale. In 2004, four hurricanes struck back-to-back, knocking out our power for weeks. My mom had taught me how to deal with emergencies, and we’d weathered past hurricanes with stocks of food and water and card games by candlelight. But the tsunami of 2011 was no ordinary disaster. It caused a level 7 meltdown at three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex.

The coronavirus is a different kind of disaster. It’s a biological tsunami that has overwhelmed the entire world. Like many, I’ve been at home for weeks, stocking up on supplies, reading the news, and waiting for an indication of what comes next. In conversations with my friends, I realized that my experience both in Florida and in Japan had taught me a few strategies for coping with a sudden crisis and making good decisions. Those I share with you now.

The Undertow Mindset

Growing up, whenever I went to the beach, my mom always warned us about the undertow. It’s an ocean current that can come in suddenly, invisibly. If you do nothing, the undertow can sweep you far out to sea. But when you start to feel yourself being pulled, you’re not supposed to swim directly to shore, either. The undertow is too strong, and you’ll only exhaust yourself — and potentially drown. Instead, my mom taught us to swim to the side before heading back to shore.

In the midst of the 2011 Fukushima meltdown, the undertow began to pull my mind out to sea. My dream was in danger — and yet everyone back home was saying that I should pack up and leave it all behind. At first I resisted. I began to search for information that didn’t disrupt my plans. I resisted unfriendly news and warnings from friends and family, insisting that the nuclear situation was being handled. The situation would blow over in a few months. 

Of course, it didn’t. Far from it. But at the time, I couldn’t see that this was a disaster far greater than I could have imagined. In the end, I made what was for me the right decision. I left the job and returned home. But making decisions during a disaster is like fighting the undertow. So, for what it’s worth, here are some coping mechanisms and strategies that helped me. Maybe one or two will be helpful to you as well.

How to get through a Disaster

Ask for Help, Help Others

March 11th, 2011 was unlike anything I’d experienced before. I can still remember when it happened. I was on the fourth floor of a classroom, tutoring an old man. Mid-lesson, he stood up and said, “Something bad. Listen.” A minute later, I felt the first aftershock. At the station, all the trains had shut down, and I was an hour from where I was staying. I barely spoke Japanese, and read even less. Fortunately, some teenagers helped me figure out how to use a pay phone to contact a friend, and I got picked up a few hours later. There are people in need right now who you might be able to help. And as importantly, don’t hesitate to ask for help.

Talk to Friends and Family

Talk with your friends and family. They know you best, and they can help you work through conflicting thoughts on your future versus your immediate safety. In the end, my mom didn’t talk me out of staying in Japan, but she patiently chatted with me until I was able to come to the conclusion on my own. At the end of the day, your friends and family want what’s best for you. If the undertow mindset grabs you, chances are your friends and family can help you swim to the side, instead of fighting the current — or doing nothing and being swept out to sea.

Give your Mind a Break

Read the news, but don’t read it every second. In 2011, I remember scanning for radiation levels several times a day, attempting to discern whether I should stay in Japan or go. I became a “nuclear fission expert,” able to discuss radiation levels at length. Obsessively reading the news isn’t the same as being informed, and you’ve got to give your mind a break. So I bought a flight to Taiwan for a week, just to get out of Japan, planning to reassess the situation once I got back. That week helped my thoughts to settle, and I made better decisions as a result. So pick up a video game. Or a book. Dust off those playing cards. Disasters can overwhelm your mind, and you’re going to need it for awhile.

Write in a Journal, and Review

In the aftermath of 2011, I wrote in a journal daily. It helped me not only to collect my thoughts, but to track how my perspective was changing by the day. Thoughts that seemed perfectly rational seemed absolutely absurd a week later. It’s hard to know what to do in a crisis. Writing down how you feel can help you sort out how you’re processing information and emotion, and how one is impacting the other. Besides, a daily journal will bring you one step further towards that goal of writing a dystopian thriller.

Dark Humor for Dark Times

To some, that last sentence might come across as callow, but humor has a role in sustaining us during crisis. For example, here’s a funny story. After I left Japan, the girl I was dating broke up with me. I had no money, so I lived with my parents. To review. Broke. Broken up with. Living with parents. I won’t tell you my age. Fine. It was 30. That said, my career pivot to video games was a result of taking the moment to reassess my career goals. Six months later, I met the woman of my dreams. We got married — but delayed our honeymoon because I was in the midst of working on Borderlands 3, a dystopian dark comedy. Guess when my wife and I scheduled our honeymoon to Japan. March 2020. Funny, right?

The Aftermath

In my experience, disasters impact you long after the initial crash. And unfortunately, it seems we’re just at the beginning of this crisis. The Coronavirus is going to test our resolve as an interconnected, global society. But it’s also going to test our humanity — how we treat each other, watch out for each other, care for each other. My hope is that this becomes a wake-up call for all of us. What happens in one part of the world affects the other. We can no longer afford short-term bandages to global problems. So watch out for the undertow mindset — and for each other.

Invisible blockers are everywhere in video games. Blockers are designed to prevent you from going somewhere that might get you into trouble. Could be an area you’re not leveled-up enough to explore. Or just the edge of a level. We’ve all had that experience before — wanting desperately to explore an area in a game, only to run into an invisible wall. Which just makes us want to go there more…

We consume books, TV, and film stories. Then when we turn on a video game, things are different. Certain storytelling conventions just don’t seem to work the same way. And it’s frustrating! Which leads some to say that games will never tell stories as well as other established media.

This sentiment is based on an assumption that games can and should tell stories like other non-interactive medium that have come before. Although I’ve played plenty of games whose stories have impacted me as strongly as any book, TV show, or movie, but here’s the thing — they impacted me in a different way, and for different reasons. Video games operates under another set of storytelling rules, with a host of limitations — some easily apparent to most gamers, some not so much so. Interactive storytelling has its own set of invisible blockers, which come into effect the moment you press start.

Just Press Start

When you sit down to watch a TV show, it’s safe to assume that you want a story. That’s not necessarily the case with a game, even a story-centric game. Storytelling in games isn’t a prerequisite, and strictly speaking, a traditional story isn’t required to make an interesting game experience. Not everyone who plays a game wants to experience a story. To some, story gets in the way of gameplay. Others might feel that game stories simply don’t resonate like stories in other media. Even though I’m a professional game writer, sometimes I find myself skipping through dialogue.

The question is why? In non-interactive media, the only control we really have is whether we turn a movie on or off, fast forward, rewind, etc. We can reread a passage of a novel, or skip ahead. Pause a TV show while we get a drink. But that’s pretty much it. We have no significant control over the story, and we accept these limitations because we’ve never known anything different. Tell us a story, writer. Go on. And if it’s not engaging, we’ll find something else to watch.

From the moment you press start on a game, you view story through a different set of assumptions. Games are about you. Depending on the game, you’re the protagonist, director, cinematographer, costumer, and so on. You have control. And this control extends to the idea that in most games, you don’t have to care about story. Fundamentally, this changes how we interpret a game’s story — because traditional storytelling is about the suspension of belief, about pacing, about story being delivered to you, instead of created with you as collaborator.

Even for those of us who do play a game to experience a story, it’s worth considering the types of obstacles that makes interactive stories difficult to write, obstacles that are often invisible to the average player. For example, for those who play WOW it is an indescribable experience. Endless is a private server of World Of Warcraft (WOW), which is dedicated to providing the most complete Burning Crusade experience. So if you like fast leveling and exciting gaming, then Endless is the perfect private Burning Crusade server you have been looking for. The new realm on Endless is called Windrunner. Perfect choice to experience TBC before it’s release. You can buy some endless windrunner gold from Gold4Vanilla as well! Seems they support it.

The Ticking Clock

Some storytelling tools in traditional media don’t work as well in the interactive space. Take a common storytelling element: pacing. Games are player-driven, meaning the time between plot points can vary from five minutes to five hours, depending on where your player decides to go, and what activities they elect to take part in: side quests, additional content, screwing around with your friends, staring at a rock for forever.

All of this contributes to the player’s perception of how a story unfolds. One of the most beautiful aspects of games is that they don’t need to be a linear experience. If you’re curious about what’s over the ridge, follow it, plot be damned!

While there are tools that help alleviate the pacing issue in games (for example, plot-reminders when you load up a game), often brute force repetition is required for clarity. When a Non-Player Character (NPC) tells you that a villain is going to do something for the fifth time, it’s often an attempt to split the difference between entertainment and plot clarity, and this can affect how the player perceives a game’s narrative.

Let’s get more specific with pacing — the ticking clock.

This device often signals that a story is about to reach a crescendo, barreling the audience towards a dramatic conclusion. But a ticking clock can be difficult to implement in a game. If an NPC tells you, “the building is gonna explode, you’ve got to DO something!” they’re almost certainly lying. Unless you find yourself in the middle of a timed event, you can probably go save that dude’s dog first. Pacing is one of the reasons that game writers focus on creating engaging characters, but there are invisible obstacles to creating those, too.

Simulated Characters

Generally-speaking, game writers have more control over how a character speaks and acts than they do the plot the player follows. That’s because main plot is a collaboration between writers, mission designers, level designers, and pretty much everyone else on a development team. And a main plot needs to do more than simply tell a story. As a writer you support tutorialization of new game mechanics, for example. The best games fold these tutorials into pivotal story moments.

Yet even creating engaging character can be impacted by the types of resources a writer has to sell that character. Creating characters is more expensive than you might think!

Building an NPC, for example, requires concept, a 3D model, rigging (how a character moves) and animation (what movements an NPC is able to perform). Custom animations require additional work and resources. That’s one reason why we often see the most important dramatic scenes happen in cinematics. Yet most games use cinematics sparingly. As a general rule, designers try to avoid taking control away from the player. That means that the ability to sell a dramatic scene in-game often relies upon the animations needed to support the conversation. Or a scene must be written to sell character primarily on voice.

Try this. Go start an argument with your friend, but don’t move at all. Make sure to record the conversation. Or reserve yourself to a limited set of gestures. Then watch the video. See what I mean?

A lot of storytelling relies on the suspension of disbelief. Pacing helps with this – you can’t dwell on a plot hole in a movie if you’re swept up in the moment. But games are simulations. If the player wants to test the boundaries of a simulation, they’re free to do so. And because games are about you, and the control you exert over the world, it’s often fun to exert that control! Stare at an NPC long enough, and you’ll realize that they’re as scripted as a character in The Truman Show, repeating the same loop over and over.

Try this. Go outside and repeat the same actions on a one minute loop. Are your neighbors staring at you? Congratulations, now you know how an NPC feels!

Interactive Mindset 

So, what areas of storytelling can video games excel, or even exceed traditional media?

World-building. Games are character-filled theme parks where players often spend dozens, if not hundreds of hours. And perhaps as importantly, as a game writer you can allow players to choose for themselves how much of a game world they experience. Main plot. Side missions. Lore. Games have tons of room to build a world, as well as the mechanics to allow you to experience that world on your own terms, based on your interests, at your own pace.

Despite certain limitations, creating characters is another avenue where games have some important advantages. In a game, characters we meet can actually help us progress — and help us feel more empowered as a result. When an NPC gives you a new ability or power, or helps you explore the world, it establishes a connection between you and that character that’s wholly different from traditional media.

In the end, experiencing a game’s story depends, in part, on your mindset. Sure, an NPC might loop animations from time to time. And it’s possible I’ll try to talk to them too much and exhaust their conversation. But just as I try not to pause a TV show or movie, I’ve taught myself to sink into the world of a game, rather than poke around for the seams. So if an NPC tells me the building is about to explode, I’ll take them at their word – and hope they forgive me if I stop to stare at a rock, or save that dude’s dog. 


But the invisible obstacles don’t stop there! In no other medium does a writer have to serve more roles than in a video game, juggling not only plot and character, but tutorials, new mechanics, unfolding systems, inherent repetition of player actions/missions, the list goes on. I’ll explore all this in the next article. Coming soon!