Followup: Writing And Video Games – Primer

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Pic unrelated.

In my previous article I talked about how writing in games has a disconnect with the gameplay and is treated like a separate entity.

I decided to follow this up with a more in depth look of how I write/design/think for PnP RPGs, because it might illustrate closer what I meant. I will be using Pen And Paper RPGs for purposes of illustration but the principles are the same for video games.

But first, the basics.

The Basics

Story

A story is a sequence of events.

A -> B -> C -> D

Example: The king rose from his throne, walked down the stairs, tripped on a banana peel, hit his head on the stairs and died.

Plot

The plot of a story is the “how” or “why” of the story. It’s concerned with how the sequence of events relate to each other.

Example: The king tripped on a banana peel and died because the queen placed it there with the intent to kill him.

Narrative

The narrative is how the events are told in a medium. It’s the method by which you construct the story into a plot.

In Relation To Games

Traditionally the writer does all the work, he creates story, plot and choses the narrative.

With games however the first thing you will notice is that the description of narrative no longer makes sense. The method by which you construct the story into plot is no longer static, the narrative is gameplay.

I believe the phrase of “narrative through gameplay” is a misunderstanding, it treats narrative as a separate entity that is “enriched by” gameplay. With games the interaction (gameplay) itself IS narrative, this is at the very core of the medium.

This creates a peculiar problem because now plot and story can be in constant flux entirely invalidating the writers efforts, the writer does not write the story anymore, rather he co-authors it together with the player.

How I approach this in my PnP campaigns is to do extensive world-building with an obsession over details and coherence. This is what gives me the power to still tell a story, not my story, but rather our story in conjunction with the players.

If I had to find an apt analogy it would be gardening. I plant plot-seeds that are grown and tended to by the players. If I want to make a point, or insert a message, all I need to do is to plant the seed and let it be grown through a dynamic narrative.

How?

Rather than forcing a plot I decide to immerse the player and create a world where the plot comes about naturally from interaction with the environment. I don’t force them to go look for the holy grail, they want to go look for the holy grail themselves.

In the context of a PnP campaign and RPGs this means that quests are not given but rather hinted at, curiosity is a very powerful driving force for players if you manage to properly situate them into the world. Things that are out of the ordinary attract players because it’s our nature.

However, before you can use the extraordinary you first have to establish the ordinary. My campaigns kick into gear usually only in the second session, the first session is used to establish the situation, the world, letting the players interact without large restrictions, they must establish a frame or reference first.

How is the player treated by the world? Does his race, sex, position influence the interaction? What is the geopolitical situation? What is their position in society? What can be used to motivate them? etc.

The player then decides based on the answers and his chosen personality how to interact with the world and how the world will react to those interactions.

Mind you, this applies even if you would give the player an established character to play, the thing to remember is, once you give someone an established character to play, you cede authorship over that character to the player. In your vision Superman wouldn’t go berserk on Metropolis, but with the right motivation he might and he would need to deal with the consequences (although this would be almost impossible to pull off with a godlike character like Superman).

Too Much Power

Designers and writers are afraid to give players too much power, it’s a legitimate concern, the more power a player gets the more likely it is that they will start disregarding the world, consequences and hence story. However when I said that you are co-authoring the story this doesn’t mean that you are riding in the back-seat.

The writer has the power, he is the god of the world he created, but this power can not be exercised absolutely. You are not the biblical god, you do not interfere in events directly (deus ex machina), rather you are in so far a god as physics is. You create the rules and if you have solid rules, the player will have to comply. These rules are not only physical but narrative as well (the consequences of gameplay).

Just like I can’t jump of a building and ignore gravity, a player can not expect to be free of consequences for his actions. The important part is that the player is informed, to a reasonable extent, of these consequences as this creates interesting choices that are coherent with narrative/gameplay. Choices that are simple uninformed statements of preference are not part of narrative and hence outside of gameplay. Whenever a player gets to a decision he must be able to weight and evaluate it, there must be a cost/benefit analysis happening.

Even the oldest and most basic games have this structure, it is at the core of gameplay, and hence of narrative. The decision making in Super Mario (get the mushroom, or not) might be seen as primitive but it is nevertheless a choice that can be evaluated, albeit more intuitively than in a “cerebral” turn-based RPG, but that doesn’t matter.

This should not be confused with an “optimal solution”. If there is no win-state for the challenge of decision, it is simply superfluous to gameplay. However an equivalent but separate choice can still be classified into right/wrong. It is the difference between having a math problem with different equally valid solutions and a math problem with one solution but being able to chose the paper you write on. In one you have to make a decision based on your skill, resources or aptitude, in the other you have a declaration of preference.

Rules

When I say rules I do not necessarily mean restrictions. Rules should be guiding points providing the interesting choices described above, they are not mandates, or at least shouldn’t be. The more coherent the rules, the more coherent the choices and hence the more coherent and better the resulting narrative.

By rules I don’t mean gameplay rules but rules for the setting and plot, the established interactions of the world and objects within it.

Games with incoherent narrative are often characterized by a mandate rule-set, a top-down declaration of what a player can not do. Games with coherent narrative are characterized by providing a rule-set that tells the player what they -can- do but establishing consequences for actions.

It is important to familiarize the player with the rules first, to establish context, before letting him decide the narrative. If the rules are coherent, the players narrative becomes as well and you have a good story. By setting up the rule-set for the narrative you also shape the story.

The Setup

The setup must be such that the narrative rules (the gameplay) builds the story into a plot.

You have to think like game designer instead of a writer. A designer sets up the possibilities that will create the gameplay in the same way the writer must set up the possibilities for the plot to occur.

It isn’t about scripting encounters or roadblocks, it’s about creating important elements that make everything the player does deliberate. Every pull of the trigger is important and every jump is necessary for the narrative to occur.

In effect the weight and importance is shifted to designing the narrative instead of the plot.

This is why I don’t understand people like Rhianna Pratchett and their excuses.

“a lot of peril was gameplay needed, and so that was designed into the levels, so I wasn’t the one throwing her around and killing her in various ways. That was down to combat design, level design,” she often “[put] in the scenes to offset the doom and gloom”.

Rhianna also tells me about her conflicting feelings on Lara’s violence curve going from being afraid to kill, to being a mass executioner. “Hand on heart, the narrative team would have liked that to be a bit slower, but on the other hand we’d kept the player without a gun for at least an hour, we’d kept them without a weapon for a while. …We found that as soon as gamers got a gun, they wanted to use it. …You’ve got the needs of gameplay, you’ve got the needs of narrative, and you’ve got the needs of the player for this to be a fun experience. They don’t always align exactly. Sometimes you’ve got to make compromises on this.”

The needs of gameplay are the needs of the narrative, if those don’t mesh you are doing something horribly, horribly wrong. If your narrative isn’t the gameplay you are writing the wrong story for the wrong medium, wrong.

Games could really benefit from auteurs instead of writing teams and design teams (everything is teams). A writing team can polish up the dialogue, the design team can focus on balance and encounter design, it’s fine, but someone needs to have first unified the core concepts into a defining whole. Just brainstorming ideas for what your dude can do in the game isn’t going to lead to a coherent experience. It’s going to result in a jumbled mess of concepts loosely held together with string.

But this is turning into a rant and I probably said enough about this topic for a long while.

[Before people lose their shit over this, no, this is not the only way.]

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