Heavy Lifting: Meta-Responsibilities of a Game Writer
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.
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.
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!