Some of you might say that the videogame industry is really starting to mature. The signs can be seen all over. Game production budgets are sky-rocketing, Hollywood is looking into the games industry with hungry eyes, script writers line up to get a share of the work and money. Today you have guys like Dave Freeman riding along and (probably) making a good living out of regurgitating really old truths about scriptwriting, selling them as his own ideas (and yet adding very little about “gameplay” integration to his theories.) Furthermore, Peter Jackson recently stated that he want to develop games and is said to have described the Xbox 360 and Live as “an amazing living canvas … which allows the storytellers of our time to express themselves in a new medium.”
And while the money starts to roll and the industry grows and develops (in an unhealthy way, some say) one must stop and wonder if this is really a maturing industry. Is Peter Jackson right? Do we really know more about game-storytelling than we did 10 or 20 years ago?
If you remember Lucasarts, Infocom, Magnetic Scrolls and other high quality writing developers, you might dismiss the question immediately and say that games like “Planetfall” and “Monkey Island II” offered a deeper interactive experience than anything we have seen on the shelves since then. In some ways I agree with that statement. The interactive storytelling of the classical adventure game is hard to surpass, and evidently some of the most interesting interactive storytelling of today is done within the small but healthy “int-fiction” community. Look at the brilliant The Edifice for instance. It contains one of the most innovative and well integrated puzzles I have seen in any game.
And yet there are games like “Shadow of the Colossus” which uses minimalistic storytelling (just like “ICO”), but still manages to enchant and captivate much more than other, more story-intense, games. The FPS is also being overhauled over and over again since “Half Life”, “Deus Ex” and “System Shock II”, with each iteration doing a better job of telling a thrilling story, largely in-game. Just look at “Bioshock”, “Prey”, “F.E.A.R” – and our own “Riddick” and upcoming “Darkness” games.
There’s much more to the picture than this, of course, but the question of the state of the industry, and the maturity of the game medium is a complex one. Just consider the following…
What tools are writers using when writing for games? Well, I don’t have a definite answer, but I have made some observations that point in a rather disturbing direction. In some of the on-line forums where game developers hang around, I have seen the following question being asked: “I am an aspiring game writer and I am wondering if you guys write in Final Draft or some other tool?”
Final Draft seems like a reasonable suggestion, given that it is a well used and quite good tool for writing screenplays (but stay away from version 7 until they have fixed it). However, Final Draft is tailor-made for screenwriting and helps you write in a format that is developed for movie scripts. However, you should know that there are differences between games and movies that make the use of the movie-script format for games cumbersome and ill-fitting. Just consider multiple choice dialog, for example – or any non-linear gameflow.
So, back to the question from the forums… What tools are people using and suggesting? Well, you could never guess… It’s “Microsoft Excel”!
Wow! If any game-writer who actually works through Excel reads this you are more than welcome to tell me about your workflow, because I can only imagine it working like this: Excel is great for structuring table-like information and I use it a great deal when producing voice-sheets for voice-recording, and also for typing up AI dialog. But that’s about it. An Excel game-script can hardly be more than sheets of AI dialog. There’s probably directions to where the dialog should appear, about who is speaking, about the dialog context and so on – but tables nonetheless. (I may have totally missed something here so please tell me if you know or catch something I don’t)
Storytelling versus Cinematics
If your game is focused on gameplay and you then stitch the parts together with storytelling cinematics, then the “Excel”-way works fine. The game writing and the story writing becomes two different processes. It is not uncommon that the job of doing the in-game stuff is given to someone internally, and then you hire a professional writer to do the cinematics. That approach has the advantage that the design is more likey to be focused on gameplay and not the story. It’s also easier to cope with production-wise since the cinematics can be pre-rendered and produced by an external company. But it definitely ain’t “allowing the storytellers of our time to express themselves in a new medium.” Cinematics is cinema. Moving pictures and sound. Period. The “new medium” part of games is about player participation and interaction. It is about using gameplay and storytelling to provoke feelings and ideas. For me, it is very much about the integration of game and story. Cinema was not cinema in the beginning. It was “filmed theatre” where the camera was totally crippled. Similarly I do believe that interactive storytelling in games is not about the separation of story and gameplay, but the integration of them.
There are people who seriously consider these things and bring those ideas into their work, but the “Excel” situation makes me wonder how many they really are. It is not only Excel. We have had several publishers and others visiting us who has remarked on the fact that we have in-house writers (we are two nowadays). It seems like it is still quite rare even though it is becoming more common. And when more people work with similar things, it is a good thing if they share knowledge and tools…
Game scripts and Walkthroughs
When designing games, you need to be able to describe gameplay properly. For that, you can write “Walkthrough” documents. These are descriptions of what the player encounters and is supposed to do. They could contain some level of detail regarding the level layout and they could describe NPC interactions somehow. In parallel to that, the story is often laid out as a series of background documents (written in Word, for example) with story synopsis, character bios and whatnot. The actual story, if told by a series of cinematics, is probably written in Final Draft or Word. These document often contain detailed scene-setups and some camera directions. They also contain the dialog. Besides those documents, there are often numerous amounts of documents and databases that specify and manage everything else for the game.
So if we aim to bring story and gameplay together we should probably start by extending (or modifying) the gameplay Walkthrough documents to incorporate the actual storytelling as well. If we manage to do that properly we could end up with one type of document that serves the following purposes:
- It sets some constraints for level design.
- It serves as a base for planning (just like a movie script is used for planning.) All important assets should therefore be named and described.
- It serves as reference for implementation of gameplay, sound, effects etc.
- It provides the data for voice-recording.
- It provides in-game data for voice subtitling.
- It is the script used when animating and recording events.
- It is the script used for any cinematic production.
A well thought out framework for Walkthrough writing can thus help us keep things together. It does not invalidate the need for all kinds of separate asset-management processes and tools. Walkthroughs in this manner should be kept quite concise and not overloaded with detail since the more detail, the harder it is to keep documents updated – and they tend to get harder to grasp and work with as well.
Now, the sad news is that I don’t know of any accepted standard for Walkthrough documents that can be used – nor any good tools (or any tools at all for that mattet). However, I suspect that there are candidates out there, in-house stuff that has been used for all kinds of projects. For the production of the “Riddick” project, for exampple, I designed such a documentation model and also developed a number of tools that all has been redesigned and iterated through the years. I use the same foundation for “The Darkness” right now.
In the end I think that we need to consider the production process seriously. If we want to move away from the “stich those levels into a story” approach that still seems to be quite widely used, we need to alter our way of thinking. And we need to be able to express our ideas in a workable format.