Archive for November, 2010
November 29th, 2010: Farewell Leslie
LESLIE Nielsen passed away this Sunday from pneumonia. And that sucks. We all die and the man was 84, but honestly, I don’t think I’d be as funny a writer without the brilliance of Leslie Nielsen in comedies like Airplane and Police Squad. I loved those movies as a kid and could watch them repeatedly. I still do. His quintessential straight man routine was not only the backbone of the comedies I love and enjoy to this day in him and in his successors, but his style of humor invariably seeps into the comedy fiction I write and into my main characters. In some ways, all my protagonists are him, straight men to the crap happening around them.
Farewell, Mr. Nielsen. You made the world laugh and pneumonia hardly feels like a fitting end for you. I expected you to go out with something worthy of your comic timing, but then who knows… maybe you’re still setting us up with the best straight-man punch line yet.
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November 22nd, 2010: Juggling My Weekend
It was a relatively productive weekend, even though I didn’t spend it writing, not entirely. Still, on Friday I managed to send off one short story, and another on Sunday while still working on my novel. It was an interesting exercise juggling different voices and genres at the same time. The first short story was comedic horror, the second pure horror and the novel was Steampunk. Regardless, I am looking forward to focusing on the Steampunk novel until its completion, unless, of course, I see an opportunity for more short story work.
For now, though, I can’t call it a success. At least, not until I hear back from the anthologies for which I pitched. Their acceptance or rejection will call the fate of this little test.
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November 17th, 2010: Color me Humbled
COLOR me impressed and humbled by this kid’s courage:
Michigan’s Graeme Taylor is 14 years old and openly gay. That alone is impressive considering the venom out there regarding homosexuality and the ongoing spate of bullies targeting gay teens. That he was willing to stand up before the school board and, in an impassioned and eloquent speech, defend a suspended teacher makes this kid a special kind of courageous in my books. He not only defended teacher Jay McDowell (who was suspended for asking a student to remove a Confederate flag belt buckle and for ejecting him and another student for making anti-gay remarks), but talked about his sexuality and how it nearly drove him to suicide at the age of nine.
Now, the official stance towards Jay McDowell was that he violated freedom of speech and blah blah blah… honestly… fuck it. Hatred has no place in the classroom, and if this was a matter of racial or religious prejudice, then Free Speech would not have been the excuse de jour. Because it’s about homosexuality, however, then people feel free to obfuscate the truth behind any number of excuses so long as they don’t have to stand revealed for their intolerances.
So, bravo to Graeme for his courage and to McDowell for not tolerating bullshit. Freedom of speech was meant to protect speech against tyranny, not to protect tyranny itself.
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November 15th, 2010: Trusting Your Instincts
Thanks to a quick peer review from fellow writers Richard Dansky (http://www.richarddansky.com/) and Maurice Broaddus (http://mauricebroaddus.com/), I managed to beat a short story into shape. The end result is shorter and stronger for their help, but it’s also a re-affirmation of a trap I fall into constantly. I’m talking about trusting my instincts.
See, I knew which points of the story would draw criticism… knew it on an instinctual level, but I talked myself out of doing anything about it. The adage “trust your instincts” is something I find profoundly true for myself, especially since I end up talking myself out of making a change. I suppose it isn’t so much a matter of trusting my instincts rather than fighting inertia. It’s something we all do, I suspect… talk ourselves out of making a change because it’s less work. And it’s always something that comes back to haunt us, or that’s how it seems.
So, just remember. Even if you line up all your nouns, verbs, conjunctions and adjectives in proper marching order, even if the words sing off the page, even if you think you can get away with a shortcut… trust your instincts. Because if you have a niggling doubt about something in your writing, you can be damn sure it’s the first thing someone else will spot as well.
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November 11th, 2010: Writing for Videogames: Addendum
When writing dialogs for quests, it’s important to understand the nature of the dialogs required, because it may not be as simple as going from A to B to C. The following tree shows what dialogs are needed where as a general rule. Quests might not follow these parameters exactly, but they do share the same general principles. Every quest has an intro and an outro, and every quest is supposed to have an explanation and a potential reward. The explanation, regardless of how “in-character” it is for the NPC, must be clear to the player in terms of expectations, locations, dangers and benefits.
Some quests, however, may not have the option of accepting a quest or refusing it, or the option to pick it up later, or even the ability to ask questions. I included those parameters here, however, for the sake of clarity.
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November 11th, 2010: Writing for Videogames: Part VI
And just because… I included this because I helped a few friends write adventures for MMOs or to pass tests sent out by companies. I include this in the off chance it proves helpful.
Most companies will test writers by asking them to submit a sample adventure. The trick here is that while your ability to write is being examined, so to is your ability to relate the mission parameters in a concise and clear manner, as well as your ability to generate workable ideas.
A Primer on Adventures
What to Consider Before Writing An Adventure
Ø Player Fantasy: What is the player fantasy? What do they want to do? Who do they want to be? More importantly, for the game you’re pitching this to, be aware of their game’s global view when it comes to the characters. For single player games, who is the star of the game and what is his/her story? How does the adventure further illustrate the characters?
o For MMOs: MMOs are trickier because the character is unique according to the player playing. There is no set character, and rarely a set class to an adventure. As for the fantasy, are the characters foot soldiers in a great war of realms (Dark Age of Camelot and World of Warcraft)? Are the characters destined for greatness as heroes and villains (City of Heroes/Villains or Champions Online)? Or do the characters inhabit a universe where the setting or some global organization acts as the star (Star Wars, Star Trek, etc.)? The adventure must support the player fantasy in relation to the world, which is often part of that wish fulfillment.
Ø The Player Decides the Character (For MMOs): Unlike fiction writing, where the writer fleshes out the character fully, in all MMOs and in some games, the player controls the character concept. Therefore, the adventure must suit a wide-variety of individuals and be open enough to where a player would never think: “But my character would never do this.” Example: The player’s character is asked to assassinate an ally, but if he refuses, he breaks the adventure chain. Now… if the player were given the opportunity to assassinate or save the target (each choice with its own rewards and consequences), so much the better. Players love these opportunities to choose and explore a different path. That said, the repercussions of that choice must be short-lived. Otherwise the tree of choices may impact subsequent adventures and create a domino effect throughout subsequent adventures, generating far too much work for everyone involved. Think of it, in this instance, of light switches in a house with each light switch being a split or choice. Now, how many variations can you have with different light switches on or off? It’s a lot and that’s the trouble you face with consequence in a game.
Ø Rich Diverse History: Most MMOs and franchise game have a rich and diverse in-game history; it may be the nature of the franchise, of making the game seem epic in scope or of the need to create enough diversity to fuel a full range of adventures. So use that mythology to your benefit. Use their cast of characters. This shows that you know the intellectual property and brand enough to help add to it without breaking it. And speaking of breaking it….
Ø Respect the IP: Beware the trap: “Well, I’m a fan of the show and thus feel qualified to point out its shortcomings and rectify them.” I’m afraid that’s not your call. That’s not even a good avenue to take. No creator or IP holder likes to hear how they did things wrong, no matter how open they are to suggestions. If you’re going to write or suggest an adventure, then respect the existing property and use what tools already exist in the game world. Don’t rectify their mistakes; don’t introduce new groups of enemies or conspiracies that nullify existing groups. Celebrate the game world, not its problems.
Ø What Are the Mechanics: Acquaint yourself with the game’s mechanics and verbs, because that’ll often serve as the borders of what you can or cannot accomplish within your adventure. If the game is based on stealth gameplay, for example, it’s unlikely the company will want a last-stand fight with the character unleashing a hail of bullets into targets.
What to Consider While Writing the Adventure
Ø Teaser Line: Always be able to explain the adventure in a quick line of text. This should be the teaser before diving down into the meat of the adventure itself. Examples of Teaser Lines might be:
While investigating an abandoned mining colony, the heroes discover that some secrets are best left buried.
Ø Griefing (For MMOs): Always keep an eye out for ways players can use your adventure to grief other players:
o Eliminating a crucial clue or NPC to prevent a player from advancing through the storyline. Solution? The NPC cannot be killed; the clue cannot be taken or is only visible to the player; a quest item is only visible/”tangible” to the player (in WOW, for example, everyone can see the acorns lying on the ground, but only a player with the quest of Collect the Acorns can pick them up… and they respawn fast) or the crucial elements of the story can only be reached in an instanced location.
o Interfering in the final fight to rob the player of his reward or steal a part of his reward. It’s also known as being ninja’d and kill-stealing. Solution? The fight happens in an instanced location, unless the purpose of the adventure is to summon the final boss to a predetermined area where everyone can help take him down (with the player receiving the special reward); another option is that the reward for the final fight goes directly to the player without anyone else being allowed to “loot the corpse.” That said, make sure the summoned boss doesn’t appear just anywhere. Otherwise, players can use this to “attack” zones.
o Using an artifact or limited use mega-power to attack other players. Solution? This is difficult, because you can never make a device to beat the boss a one-shot item… the player may trigger it before reaching the target. If you make the boss beatable in another fashion, however, you run the risk of the player defeating said boss in that “other fashion” and saving that one-shot power for mayhem later. You could ensure that if you use the Rod of Deus Ex Machina, for example, that it only works against the villain, and once the adventure is done, the device “evaporates.
o Dragging the fight to others. In other words, the players must fight a monster/villain in the shared world, thus allowing them to drag it everywhere. Solution? Instanced is one solution. Or if the boss lives in a shared world environment, you make sure that the environment is either of a specific level so that everyone there has a chance to survive or that the environment is small enough that people can escape it.
Ø Brevity: It’s simple… fiction writing thrives on embellishment, but game writing suffers from it. Keep your general ideas quick and easy, something that can be understood at a glance. There is no hard rule for this, but the people you’re pitching your material to (unlike fans of a novel) are often not willing readers. They’re reading your material because they have to, and the more you force them to read, the likelier they are to gloss over the subject matter. Don’t show off your capacity to write English. Keep words and sentences down to a 10th Grade level. That’s the level where the general public is most comfortable reading. That’s the level to which most successful writers write.
Ø Don’t Add Mechanics: Games are filled with preexisting verbs. In WOW, you can Run, Fight, Cast Spells, Rest, Drink, Eat, Sit, Jump, etc. In Uncharted 2, you can Run, Shoot, Jump, Climb, Grab Cover, Lob Objects, Ledge Crawl, etc. New verbs are complicated to do because they require new animations, new programming, debugging, etc. Therefore, don’t add new verbs. You can assume the game has the verbs for movement, combat and basic interaction (point and click). Make sure your adventure doesn’t bring in new ones or potentially new ones like: The character must entertain the tribal bigwig by juggling if he hopes to get the item.
Ø The Solo Player (For MMOs): Finally… don’t forget the single-player experience for MMOs. Many MMOs support the player’s ability to do the mission in groups or solo. Some force you to do missions (or at least some missions) with other players, while others adjust the number of enemies and threats according to the number of people involved. That’s a matter of gameplay, however. I do recommend that you address the solo player playing this adventure, whether it’s saying how the solo player can complete this scenario (if the game supports scaleable gameplay), or why this adventure is party-oriented only (it at least shows you considered the matter).
Ø Game Hook: What does your adventure add to the environment? Is it designed to facilitate exploration? Is it to show off a game mechanic? Is it to support an end-game theme or introduce an NPC/Contact? The adventure should always support some element of the game to prove you understand the writer’s connection to the team process.
The Adventure Format: A Suggestion
Please note that this is based on the expanding circle of information approach. Start with the general facts and ease the reader into the bigger, more detailed chunks slowly.
NAME: Self-Explanatory… like the name of a television episode.
TEASER LINE: As mentioned, something to encapsulate your idea quickly.
Ø SETUP: What brings the adventure to the attention of the characters, or the characters to the adventure? Is this something they discover as a bit of intelligence on a dead enemy? Is this assigned to them by their superiors (essentially an NPC Quest-Giver)?
Ø CHARACTERS: In the case of MMOs, you have to deal more with archetypes than with actual characters who don’t exist yet. Examples of Character-types might include specifics like: Rogues, Blasters and Jedi. Or “Races” like: Orcs, Humans, Magic-Origin individuals. Or Faction-types like Horde, Alliance or Hero, etc. Just be aware of the language of the game and use that to describe the group of players. In City of Heroes/City of Villains, you’d likely go for Origins or Archetypes. For World of Warcraft, you’d go for Race and Class. For Dark Age of Camelot, you’d go for Realm. For Star Trek, you might go Faction or Class.
Ø OBJECTIVES: What are the characters setting out to do? Do they have to explore ruins for vital intelligence? Retrieve an alien artifact? Stop a rival groups of NPCs from achieving their objective? Kill a villain? Test a weapon? You can list multiple objectives, but keep them quick and to the point.
Ø THE COOL FACTOR: This is something spectacular in the adventure that you think will get the players excited… something beyond the normal gameplay. It’s a pivotal highlight. It might be a location (the character standing in the middle of a deserted city and seeing in all directions), or a moment (the character watches a ship explode after escaping it), or a person (the character speaks with Luke Skywalker, or Morpheus, or Countess Crey), or a situation (the character controls the fortified and armed strangle-point on a map as waves of enemies try to reach him) or the big boss fight (the characters try to kill a villains as he’s trying ascend into godhood, with him floating in the air, energy cascading about him), etc. Think of this as your Hollywood moment in the game… your big budget shoot.
Ø THEME/MOOD/EMOTION: You may not need this, but you may want to discuss the theme or mood of the adventure to give it more resonance with the player. Mood also works well in determining the look of unique levels to the game.
What is the overview of the story? What adventures are the characters about to embark upon? Think of this as the back cover of a novel, but with more information to it and the ending. One to two paragraphs is healthy, I think.
Please note here that the “Objectives” listed below can be as many or as few as you want. I’d suggest about two or three objectives at the minimum and no more than five at the most. Also bear in mind that the Objectives should encompass this time span: Discovery of the Objective to Completion of the Objective.
Ø Objective 1: How do the characters start (this is the Intro to the Quest Giver)? What must they first do to uncover the mystery of their assignment? What is their first hurdle? Are there special parameters to help them overcome that hurdle? What’s the environment like? What does the first Objective tell the players about what they face down the road?
Ø Objective 2: As before + what information are the characters rewarded with to accomplish their ultimate end goal?
Ø Objective 3: Assuming this is the last step before the final stage… what do the characters need from this stage to enter or accomplish the last objective? Is it information? A key? A weapon? A location? Some other revelation? How do you prepare the characters for what they’re about to face?
Ø Objective 4: What are the final steps to reach the end? What awaits them at the end? What is the crucial challenge? What is the danger if they fail? Is the final level unique to anything else seen in the game (like the heart of a Replicator hive or the burning bridge of a starship or the deck of a galleon in a giant cave)?
Ø Reward: Whether or not the game supports a constant stream of “loot,” the adventure should have some reward for the player and his posse. This is something they can show off… something not regularly available (or at least, not cheaply). It could be anything from a unique weapon (say something that’s better tweaked than the existing, available weapons), to a unique costume piece (that distinguishes the character from other people), to a helpful device (which can “buff” the character by boosting existing stats temporarily, or “debuff” an adversary by lowering existing stats temporarily), to access to new information/locations, to whatever else you can envision within the confines of the game universe. Previous rewards in other games have included: Limited-shot weapons with above-average stats, the ability to summon an ally a limited number of times, temporary boosts to certain stats, uniquely-named premium gear that’s found nowhere else, new costume pieces, etc. Often, this is the Outro to the adventure with the Quest Giver.
Appendix: Resource Guides
Here are some books that can help you clarify the craft or industry a bit (in alphabetic order and no particular preference).
Ø Character Development and Storytelling for Games by Lee Sheldon
Ø Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling by Chris Crawford
Ø Complete Book of Scriptwriting, The by Michael J. Strazynski
Ø Digital Storytelling: A Creator’s Guide to Interactive Entertainment by Carolyn H. Miller
Ø First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game by Noah Wardrip-Fruin
Ø Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames edited by Chris Bateman
Ø Hamlet on the Holodeck by Janet Horowitz Murray
Ø How NOT to Write a Screenplay by Denny Martin Flinn (it’s a fun read)
Ø Interactive Storytelling: Techniques for 21st Century Fiction by Andrew Glassner
Ø Pause & Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative by Mark S. Meadows
Ø Professional Techniques for Videogame Writing by Wendy Despain
Ø Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field
Ø The Ultimate Guide to Videogame Writing and Design by Flint Dille
Ø Writing for Videogame Genres: From FPS to RPG edited by Wendy Despain
Game & Game Design
Ø About Face 2.0: The Essentials of Interaction Design by Alan Cooper & Robert M. Reimann
Ø Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design by Andrew Rollings & Ernest Adams
Ø Developing Online Games: An Insider’s Guide by Jessica Mulligan & Bridgette Patrovsky
Ø Designing Virtual Worlds by Richard Bartle
Ø Game Architecture and Design: A New Edition by Andrew Rollings & Dave Morris
Ø Game Design: The Art & Business of Creating Games by Bob Bates
Ø Game Programming Gems by Mark DeLoura
Ø Massively Multiplayer Game Development by Thor Alexander
Ø Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals by Katie Salen & Eric Zimmerman
Ø Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform by David Michael and Sande Chen
Ø Study of Games, The by Elliot M. Avedon
Ø Swords & Circuitry: A Designers Guide to Computer Role-Playing Games by Neal Hallford and Jana Hallford
Ø Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster
Ø Ambiguity of Play, The by Brian Sutton-Smith
Ø Envisioning Information by Edward R. Tufte
Ø Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Ø Grasshopper, The: Games, life and Utopia by Bernard Herbert
Ø Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga
Ø Jungles of Randomness, The: A Mathematical Safari by Ivars Peterson
Ø Man, Play and Games by Roger Caillois
Ø Online Game Interactivity Theory by Markus Friedl
Ø A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (Center for Environmental Structure Series) by Christopher Alexander
Ø Break Into The Game Industry: How to Get A Job Making Video Games by Ernest Adams
Ø Communities in Cyberspace by Marc A. Smith
Ø Community Building on the Web : Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities by Amy Jo Kim
Ø Creating Emotion in Games: The Craft and Art of Emotioneering by David Freeman
Ø Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature by Espen J. Aarseth
Ø Discovering the Soul of Service: The Nine Drivers of Sustainable Business Success by Leonard L. Berry
Ø Killing Monsters by Gerard Jones
Ø My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World by Julian Dibbell
Ø Pilgrim in the Microworld by David Sudnow
Ø Prisoner’s Dilemma by William Poundstone
Ø Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games by Edward Castronova
Ø True Names: And the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier (Paperback)
by Vernor Vinge & James Frenkel
Ø Virtual Community,The: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, revised edition
by Howard Rheingold
Ø Who Moved My Cheese by Spencer Johnson (Really useful for adapting to the frustrating and fluid processes of making games. It takes about two hours to read).
An addendum will follow this evening.
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November 10th, 2010: Writing for Videogames: Part V
The Writers’ Debate
The existing debate as to what comprises storytelling in videogames has its supporters, its detractors and its heated arguments. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t believe this has as much to do with defining the future narrative of video games as it does with making a mark on the medium. Let me explain. What’s happening with video games has already played out in the transition from radio to television. Television relied heavily on the format of its predecessor, radio… at least until it found its voice. Hell, movies were nothing more than showing scenes of everyday life like an oncoming train (which frightened the audience at the time). But within 25 years, movies (and later, television) changed, and with them, how society was entertained. To paraphrase J.T. Petty (script writer for Prince of Persia and Splinter Cell 1 & 2) and to quote the MTV.com article mentioned earlier, “Petty …considers game development to still be in its silent-film stage.”
Now, we’re seeing the exact same transition with videogames, and many writers know this. Videogame writers are pushing for scriptwriting that’s imbedded in games as part and parcel of the technology.
Unfortunately, while perspective and writing are supposed to be reflections of the writer, we have little such luxury when writing for videogames. The game is rarely a reflection of the story we as writers want to tell. Why? Well for several reasons:
1) The game is a collaborative effort. And unless the point of the game is to push the story, the story ends up by appealing to the lowest common denominator because it’s been distilled through so many people.
2) As a result of the collaboration, you rarely write the story you want to tell. You write the story that best showcases the game.
3) You rarely enter the protagonist’s head. Unless the game employs first person narration a la Max Payne 2 and Alan Wake, games are rarely about internal explorations. To do so would be to tell and not to show.
4) Television and movies changed as audiences grew more sophisticated in their tastes. As it stands now, videogame companies are making significant money. They don’t need to change because their stakes in games are not diminishing. Just the opposite. So… there’s no need to explore story when changes to technology is sufficient.
This list does not include departments like Human Resources or Tech Support or Network administrators.
Ø Producers: The producers ensure the project runs smoothly, they handle disputes between departments, keep the project on its tracks and make sure it’s running on time.
Ø Director of Realization: The director of realization is the cohesive element behind the creative vision of the project. Like a movie director (and often from the same background), he or she takes the characters and dialogs as realized by narrative, the locations as realized by level design, the character look and movement as realized by art and animation, and glues it together with his or her own vision.
Ø Game Design: Game Design is the game’s think tank, the group that generates the ideas and approves everything else. They determine how everything works, from the actions of the character to how the environment acts and reacts.
o A.I.: AI is responsible for programming behavior into NPCs.
o Multiplayer: Multiplayer focuses on creating and balancing the PVP experience.
o UI Design: The User Interface designer (sometimes attached to art or marketing) creates the in-game display.
o Narrative Designer: Owner and sometimes writer of the story.
o Open World Team: If the game allows for exploration, a team might exist within game or level design to handle whatever happens in open world while the character explores.
Ø Level Design: Dictates the layout of the missions and the placement of the enemies. Ensures that the level enables the game’s “verbs” to shine through. More than almost anyone, they are responsible for a game’s tempo.
Ø Animation: Handles any animation within the game, from PCs to NPCs, whether key-framing a movement or using motion capture. They also have a say in defining a character’s personas and traits.
Ø Modelers: They design anything with a physical presence in the game universe. Cars, appliances, characters, weapons… anything object or person that the player can see.
Ø Art: Art handles the look of the game, from surface textures to shading. They work closely with level design to “pretty up” the level.
o Textures: Texture artists focus on giving in-game surfaces their appearance.
o Shader Artists: These folks focus on the lighting and shadows of a level.
Ø Sound: Sound handles all noise and dialogs for the story. They also decide on music choice and on actor selection (working closely with the writer to find that right voice).
o Localization: This department oversees the voice recordings in multiple languages.
Ø Programming: The workhorse of the project, they’re often the last men and women on and off the project. Programmers wrangle with the C++ code needed to drive the game. If game design is the driver, programming is the car’s engine. Nothing would get accomplished without their expertise and approval.
Ø Marketing: Marketing handles the game’s exposure to the public, but it also finds sponsors and arranges for product placement. While some people frown on marketing’s role in the latter, the truth is, it’s important for the individuals on the project. Marketing placement ablates the costs of production, and because many companies tie their employee bonuses into the project’s profitability, product placement often means a larger bonus for the employees. Marketing also employs its own artists for things like magazine covers, etc.
Ø Scripting: If Modelers create the characters and Animation moves them, Scripting handles the placement of scripted events in a level. They work closely with Level Design and the script to ensure the in-game cut-scenes and scripted moments happen as intended. This may include seeing a chopper in the sky… Scripting would handle the flight-path. This also might include a two men arguing on an elevator while a third person uses a laser mike to eavesdrop on them… Scripting would handle the men entering the elevator and exiting (the body language of the argument itself would remain under animation’s or Director of Realization’s purvey).
Ø Quality Assurance: QA handles the game’s debugging, ensuring that the game released won’t crash, freeze or otherwise prevent players from enjoying and completing a game. While viewed as a glamorous job where people get to play the game all day long, that’s far from the reality of it. Testers might spend days on the game menu alone, flipping rapidly through the selections to ensure there isn’t a game freeze, for example. And communication skills are a must to relate the issue or problem. QA is also the most common entry point for people trying to break into the industry, and I’ve met a Creative Director and several Leads who began in QA.
Stay Tuned for Part VI, the last section
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November 9th, 2010: Writing for Videogames: Part IV
NARRATIVE IN GAMES
What is narrative in videogames? Rather than tell you what people want it to be, let’s start with what it is as far as my experiences.
Writing is usually an internal process, something that happens and unfolds inside the author’s head. Writing for videogames is a team experience, however, and thus an external process. That is the crucial bit. You aren’t writing for yourself and you aren’t writing by yourself. You cannot possess ideas and you cannot take change personally. You can own up to the work within the process, but frankly because of the team nature of making games, if you fail at your work, the team fails.
The External Narrative Process
Externally, narrative is not a solitary process. It’s the caulk of the project’s story, but you’re not the solitary owner of that story. The story is told through the narrative of level design as determined by the level director, through the lighting and environmental mood as determined by the art director, through ambient sound as determined by the sound engineer, through the gameplay verbs (the abilities of your character) as determined through game design, through the movement of the characters as determined by the animation director, through the actions of the hero as determined by the player.
Consider the game Tomb Raider or Uncharted 2. The only thing filling some of the gorgeous environments is soft music and the immense level itself. There is no dialog saying “Wow! Look at that! It must be really old!” The visuals are narrative enough, while the music provides the mood.
Pretend your imagination is a company filled with different departments. You could imagine the flow of the story, but you can’t control the character’s movement without permission from the second aspect of your imagination. The environment he explores is likewise limited by a third aspect of your imagination.
Rather than looking upon these facets as interlopers to your masterpiece, however, you have to see them in light of what they are… they are a part of the story as much as your imagination is.
So, what are some of the external factors that can affect your story?
Ø Producers: The producers protect the company’s interests on a project, and they will axe any idea they consider too risky or any idea that isn’t in line with the brand vision.
Ø Game Design: The Creative Director and Lead Designer may touch upon the story in a number of ways, most relating to the overall mood, theme or flow. Their personal preferences will heavily affect the story and how it’s written because often, the project’s success falls on their shoulders. They have the greatest potential for direct impact on the story, requesting changes to the story itself for the sake of modifying it to their preferences.
Ø A.I.: AI has potentially separate issues that can affect you. You may be unable to script a scene because A.I. hasn’t programmed the NPCs to react a certain way, for example.
Ø Director of Realization: Like a movie director, the DOR is about bringing the creative elements of the game together to form a cohesive vision. He or she directs the mocap to engineer the right performance for the game, and thus has creative influence over the story as someone interested in how it plays for the audience.
Ø Level Design: The greatest chance of residual change comes from level design. The reason I call it residual change is because they aren’t trying to alter the story. They’re changing a level design concern or scrapping a map, thus inadvertently affecting your plotline in the process.
Ø Animation: In animation’s case, they may be unable to key-frame a scene the way you want, so you have to rewrite the scene to accommodate their concerns or alter a character because the actor chosen doesn’t fit all your needs in term of character. The same applies to mocapping a scene. Another potential problem with animation is that they may not capture specific movements you believe necessary for the script but that is unnecessary for the game. What if there is no animation for a character kneeling down to pick up the murder weapon? What if it’s too complicated getting two characters to grapple?
Ø Sound: Sound could impact the story directly in terms of the length or number of lines that the actors have to speak. What happens if your lines of dialog require an additional day or week of voice-recordings? The lines go and you’re left doing damage control.
Ø Localization: Localization handles the game’s translation into multiple languages. While they may not require script changes, they will ask a ton of questions about the script concerning turns of phrases that don’t translate, or ask questions concerning the exact intention of certain dialog so they can translate them properly. France may ask about the gender of an object while Japanese localization may ask about a particular bit of slang that has no corollary in their tongue.
Ø Programming: Programming is a high risk residual factor. They will almost never have the time to do everything that Game Design wants implemented. That’s a given. It becomes your problem, though, when Programming drops a feature that affects your story. What happens, for instance, when a crucial plot point hinges on solving a puzzle, but the puzzle mechanic is never created because of time?
Ø Marketing: Marketing is a direct impact department for your script because they will ask for modifications on anything they don’t consider “brand.” They may change the game’s direction because of market trends or because of reception of a similar element in a previous game. Point is, if marketing makes a request that makes it past the producers and lead designer/creative director, then you must make the modifications regardless of their impact.
Ø Scripting: Scripting is responsible for things like where NPCs move during scripted events as well as the flight/drive paths of vehicles. A helicopter arriving, hovering and leaving might take scripting six hours or more to set. They are another residual impact department, requesting changes because of event complexity or length; this means shortening scenes or altering interactions.
Ø Other: “Other” can be any number of things, from an IP’s license holder to the company’s editorial branch to the legal department. All of these may affect your script directly or indirectly.
The Internal Narrative Process
Ah, now here’s something we all figure we can handle. The internal narrative process is relatively familiar territory. Unfortunately, not so much when it comes to games. Everything you write is under the magnifying glass, so be prepared to justify and account for every change. Or to choose your battles and change things when you think you know better. You answer to other people, and even though your logic may be sound (as far as you’re concerned), you may still have to change an idea, a character or the entire plot.
If writing is about investing yourself in the story and characters, writing games is about knowing when to divest yourself from the process. Otherwise you’ll end up bitter. The rule of thumb is therefore: Most criticisms are against the idea and not the person.
The following information is a combination of what I’ve encountered and what is also mentioned here on Chris Bateman’s site (Managing Director of International Hobo): http://onlyagame.typepad.com/only_a_game/2005/08/diversity_in_ga.html
Video Game Narratives are broken into the following categories:
Ø Linear Traditional: This narrative style uses the tried and tested conventions found in fiction, television and movies. Whether you’re talking about the three-act structure, the 9-Act structure or anything that’s been done before, it’s the most common method used in the upper games market currently. No dynamic elements; the narrative language is inherited from other media. While there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s nothing special in an industry that reinvents itself technology-wise every few years. As a result, writers are trying to find something comparable and new to match the constant evolution of videogame technology. Only now are people exploring new forms.
Ø Hypertext Narrative: This style of writing is created by writers who are purists in a fashion (believing that videogames should not draw on the constructs of the past). Hypertext Narratives are where the writer helps build the environment and narrative of the NPCs, but the player tells the story through his or her interactions with the world. Essentially, the writer doesn’t so much write the story as he does help impregnate the characters with an AI framework and a sense of self that reacts to the stimuli of the game. You’ll see this type of game with sandbox games like The Sims and Minecraft, where your characters are the story or where the story emerges through the character’s interactions with the world.
o Dynamic Narrative: Under the branch of Hypertext, this uses highly separated narrative elements with pre-determined connection possibilities. We’ve also called this ‘dynamic object-oriented narrative’. This is close to what is used in Façade (it’s about saving the marriage of two friends). You can find it here: http://www.interactivestory.net/. Dynamicism may come from changing relationships between the player and NPCs, or it may be simply dynamic in the way the narrative is exposed to the player.
Ø Implied Narrative: this is another category of narrative where, like The Sims, there really is no writer-defined narrative per se, but the stories emerge from a dynamic play environment.
Ø Branching Narratives: Other games integrate Linear and Hypertext by allowing for multiple, but very limited choices. Think Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Wing Commander or Colony Wars, where choice exists along one of a handful of rails (rails determined by dialogue choice or based on mission success/failure). It can be done well, but it can be heavy handed, and it can massively duplicate the material needed, and as such isn’t recommended.
o Parallel Paths: This is when branching narratives recombine to form a set of parallel paths (or rails); it is more manageable than a strict branching narrative. These days, most branching narratives recombine their paths, to avoid the combinatorial explosion (e.g. 5 splits = 2^5 paths, 20 splits = 2^20 paths and so on) so this has all but replaced basic branching.
Ø Threaded: Multiple isolated story threads with pre-determined interconnections between threads. (Think of having several short stories, where the sequence in which the player encounters the different short stories is dynamic).
Unlike most other mediums, it’s difficult to get into the head of the character, where most of the character development takes place. Even with movies and television, the actor is a suitable vehicle that can portray a wide range of subtle emotions to express the character’s thoughts or growth. As a result, many videogame characters come off as being one or two dimensional because there is no human actor to empathize with. At best, there’s only a voice. The characters become stereotypes because stereotypes are often the only way of transmitting certain facts about individuals with minimal effort.
There are two reasons why this exists and why, as a result, it’s almost become the accepted norm:
The first is that initially, story was a by-product of making the game… a bridge to justify stringing together the levels. It was tacked on by game designers and programmers who could rarely piece together a story. Even now, this has fostered a feeling among many companies that writers are a luxury and generally unnecessary. This is changing, fortunately, but the mindset still exists in teams… people are willing to take shortcuts to justify gameplay and level design decisions. Story and character are secondary to the game-cool factor.
Secondly, another reason shallow characters are allowed to continue is because companies worry about alienating the audience from the character by creating someone with too strong or unique a personality. This is especially true of First-Person shooters where the player is literally looking through the eyes of the character, essentially sublimating the character’s identity with his own. The character is the player’s vehicle into the game, and if the player doesn’t like the character or his/her voice, the experience is diminished. Now novels and movies can get away with this because the reader/viewer is generally spending about $10 for the experience (ignoring a meal/popcorn or hardcover costs), and can set a book down, change the channel or walk out of the movie theater with little loss of investment. Videogames alone are six and seven times that cost (not including the hardware to play the game). Thus, it’s a greater financial investment for the player and that makes companies leery of experimenting with voice.
Action & Character
Action is not Conflict. Yet action is the bread and butter of videogames, and it seems to be our principle tool for portraying conflict. Understandably, the same conflict that fuels something like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is not what constitutes good videogame action. Conflict in videogames remains external; we rarely explore the character’s head in games because the exterior world is visceral, immediate, more interesting and more satisfying; the world of the mind as portrayed in games is, at best, a terrifying, twisting landscape (cue the final level with twin bosses Basal Ganglia and Cerebellum). Until then, everything about the character’s internal workings and struggles either becomes heavy-handed exposition or non-existent or a part of the action. Take Max Payne. Good game that carried off the characters emotional turmoil relatively well because:
Ø It used the first-person narrative, which cannot be used often as a tool.
Ø The character wanted revenge, and revenge is supported through game-play through killing. Most games don’t have the benefit of supporting emotional resonance through gameplay.
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November 8th, 2010: Writing for Videogames: Part III
Art may feed the soul, but it’s a poor seasoning for our stomachs. One question I often hear is: How much should I ask for? That’s a tricky question, because it varies according to company, to region, to project and most importantly, to experience. That said, the IGDA states that designers can/should expect the following (based on a survey taken in 2001):
Experience: 1-2 Years 3-5 Years 6+ Years
Designer 54K 51K 64K
Lead Designer/ Creative Director 48K 57K 81K
The major mitigating factor is actually geographic in nature. Salaries are obviously based on cost of living, which is significantly higher on the West Coast. This throws the curve off a touch into annual incomes. Again, for the IGDA’s 2001 White Paper, annual incomes on average for Designers are:
West States (Excluding California): 62K
South (Excluding Texas): 53K
North California: 69K
South California: 55K
These figures are from 2001, however, before all the recent economic turmoil. Animation Arena’s video game salary survey, however, indicates the following as starting salaries (http://www.animationarena.com/video-game-salary.html) for around 2006 or so:
Experience: Under 3 Years Under 6 Years Six Years+
Programmers & Engineers $50K $66K $88K
Lead Programmers $54K $83K $90K
Technical Directors $60K $73K $110K
Artist $41K $53K $66K
Animator $46K $67K $80K
Designer (Writers Potentially) $46K $55K $70K
Director $45K $54K $81K
Producer - $62K $80K
Exec Producer $50K $82K Six-Figures
Tester $32K - $62K
Lead QA $40K $50K $60K
Sound Engineer $50K $66K $74K
Musician/Composer $55K $62K $90K
As always, remember the following rules of thumb in regards to these articles. 1) Treat these with a grain of salt. 2) Companies follow an internal formula and mandate. 3) People earn less because the pay increase often comes with a promotion, so no promotion/smaller pay increase. 4) The bigger the title/platform the better the pay.
Another interesting and more recent article is: http://gamersyndrome.com/2010/video-games/2009-game-developer-salary-survey/
What to Avoid/What to Expect As Story-Teller
Ø Brevity: Writing for games demands short concise sentences. At expense of irony, I should leave it at that, but what the hey. You have to punch your lines because few players will willingly sit through reams of text no matter how engaging you think you are. They want to jump into the action, and while some games turn long elaborate storylines into an art form, most companies are trying to avoid that. Some may even ascribe word counts for sentences, sentence lengths for scenes or character counts per sentence. Other companies eyeball a figure based on the length of a scene. Others are based on the lines that need recording versus their budget. And guess what, words aren’t cheap when you figure the man hours involved in recording those lines.
o Case in point, I wrote about one thousand extra lines of barks for Rainbow Six: Vegas, which were eliminated because that represented an extra week or three worth of recordings for an already bloated schedule (every bark had to be recorded multiple times by each terrorist voice in the game or each Rainbow Six teammate). And it was the right call.
o Check out Uncharted 2 for a game that got short and punchy absolutely right.
o Another reason for short sentences or exchanges, especially for handheld consoles and RPGs, is something I call “The Avalanche Effect.” The Avalanche Effect comes into play whenever a player needs to clear a line of dialog from the screen by pressing a button. A simple exchange like “Hello, how are you? “I’m fine, thanks,” involves two button mashes. So, the more the player needs to continue pressing buttons to get through the dialogs, the faster he’ll skim through the text to get back to the game. Too many lines, and he’ll just press buttons to skip it all. That’s the avalanche effect. Brevity is key.
Ø 1001 Critics: When you write for videogames, your work (no matter how unpolished) is visible for all to see. It will also receive criticism from a dozen or more corners because almost everyone thinks they can write (did you know that the number of people who believe they have a novel in them is greater than the literacy rate? Think about it). It’s the nature of the biz, and the trick is divesting yourself enough not to take it personally, but remaining involved enough to enjoy what you’re doing. Unfortunately, games pass through so many layers of criticism that what emerges at the end is a story that often appeals to the lowest common denominator. Essentially, any significance that the story might have possessed is often stripped away through attrition. A word removed here because it’s too politically charged; an idea changed because it might offend the wrong group. At first, each change seems innocuous enough that it doesn’t merit attention. Eventually, though, the sum of changes is somehow greater than the whole. So while working on a project, know when to accommodate the project while managing to maintain the story’s cohesion and ability to fit together. In other words, pick your battles. Not every noun deserves to live, but some verbs might.
Ø Youth: We are a young industry and it took cinema 25 years to find a standard for storytelling. Companies say that the shelf life of an employee (before leaving to go elsewhere) is about three to five years. Coincidently, people consider someone with five plus years of experience to be a veteran. This perception is slowly changing as the industry ages, but turnover is high and experience not just valued, but treasured and hoarded if possible. The youth of the industry also means it sometimes suffers for that relative inexperience. Companies enter into the fray with ill-defined guidelines and employees burn-out before they hit 30. Videogames are still trying to find their way, but like all pioneering, it can be rough trails at times. You just need to be ready for the process and the hardships.
Ø The Casual Gamer: The Holy Grail of videogames is attracting the interest of the casual gamer… that untapped motherlode of promised success and fame beyond the dreams of avarice. Unfortunately, casual automatically limits the ability to craft “a narrative masterpiece.” Casual implies something that is quick and fast, capable of rewarding the player after a minute of play. I’m talking about narratives as full course meals when casual is all about the fast food of gaming (immediate gratification, no waiting). Tack on to that the fact that around 10-15% of gamers only finish games, which means close to 90% will never see the ending of a story, and companies are resistant to the idea of putting too much effort into crafting a game beyond reusing resources. That’s not to say companies don’t care about story or the ending… simply that it’s difficult convincing them that the effort is worth the investment. Not unless the company is dedicated to creating strong narrative.
o The milestone here is BioWare, with the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series. Their commitment to story should be the standard, not the exception.
o In terms of casual gaming, the market is in flux. Five years ago, casual meant handheld, but now the console market would kill to have an MMOs success. And as of the last two years, MMOs can only dream of having the number of players for Facebook Apps like Farmville and Mafia Wars.
Ø The Overtime: Come on now… you were expecting this. Overtime is the most common problem facing the industry and a major reason behind the high traffic of employees between companies. While it seems like an easy evil to eliminate, the problem lies partially in the technology boom. As games and players become more sophisticated, teams grow larger and development times increase to accommodate the bureaucratic and technological ballet required to craft today’s games. It seems that with each project, the company is stuck reinventing the wheel when it comes to production cycle. Where companies once relied on a team of 10 or less to fashion a game in a handful of months, it now takes over 100 employees and a minimum of 1.5 years to create a Triple-A title. That’s a major expense on the company, which is employing people on the off-chance that they’ll make a profit somewhere down the road. As a result, overtime becomes the tool to handle ripples in the production schedule and to push out a product to sustain the company’s coffers. It sucks, but there it is.
Rather than speak out against the evils of this widespread practice, I refer you to those who could do so far more passionately than I can. Although her identity is now known, she’ll always be remembered as the EA Spouse:
And then, of course, there are the more recent Rockstar San Diego Wives:
Still… bear in mind that if you agree to work for a company, it means you accept their overtime policy as well. If you don’t, then you should have done better research; just don’t be naïve enough to think you’ll be the one standing up for the little guy. It’s a lesson I learned the hard way. Many young employees, however, are willing to put up with notorious crunch times for which some companies are notorious just to land credit on that one project that will shine on their resume. And while some companies are willing to chew and spit these people out, they surely realize that they are just grooming talent for other companies.
Ø Can’t Do That: It seems natural, n’est pas, that working in videogames would somehow mean more leeway in constructing scenes? The fact is, however, you are extremely limited in what you can do. It’s not a bad thing, though… it’s just one of those realizations that make sense once you understand why the limitations exist. Many games save the pre-rendered cinemas for the beginning and end of a game, or for pivotal moments. Most of the cinematics during the game use the game’s engine for their cut-scenes, and therein lies the limitation:
o Animations: In one scene, you want your hero to slide across the hood of a car and land on the other side before firing on the enemies. Guess what… you can’t do that if animation doesn’t have that in the game. When using in-game cinematics, you only have access to the bank of animations used for the game. The character might not be able to “defuse a bomb,” if he doesn’t use that skill in a game, or “spin-kick a bad guy.” In fact, you almost never want to show the character performing some tremendous feat of heroism (even in the pre-rendered movies) if the player can’t use that power in the game (unless it’s the culmination or a reward for events in game).
o Modeling: In another scene, you want the character to escape in the getaway vehicle, but that’s not happening if modeling never constructed the vehicle interior or even built a car door that opens.
o Dialogs: Here’s another small tidbit that you learn while writing for videogames… your characters can rarely interrupt each other. While it’s natural to have people argue and interrupt each other in everyday conversations, especially when the conversations are heated, you can’t do that in videogames because the voices will never synch up exactly right for that to happen. There might be a longer pause between interrupted speaker and the interrupting speaker. Sure, it’s a small thing, but I just thought I’d share because it actually changes the way arguments work out in dialogs.
o Standard operating procedure is, be aware of the game engine’s limitations for in-game cinematics and both budget and timing constraints for pre-rendered cut scenes.
Ø Prenup Your Ego: Above all else, before you get involved in videogames, you’ll need to divorce your ego from the process. Sorry, but the truth is, videogames aren’t looking for a savior or someone to show the primitive natives the magic fire from your lighter. You’ll hear talk about how this genre writer or that is trying to bring law to the Wild West of videogames, but the fact is, your bag of tricks have likely been examined, tried and either applied, modified or discarded through process by the innumerable writers who are or have worked in the industry. Aristotle’s Poetics for Scriptwriters? The Three-Act Play? The Nine-Act Play? The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell? Those aren’t alien concepts to us. And no amount of navel gazing is going to shape the industry. People can talk a good game about narrative and art, but in the end, it’s about what you deliver and what sold enough to justify a company’s trust that matters, and that includes a handful of precious games so far that married the two successfully.
o Examples: Red Dead Redemption, Uncharted 2, Heavy Rain, God of War, Mass Effect 1 & 2, Dragon Age.
Stay tuned for Part IV, where I’ll finally get into the meat of narrative in game.
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November 5th, 2010: Writing for Videogames: Part II
And now for Part II on Writing for Videogames: The Roles of the Writer
Before diving into what Narrative is in videogames, let’s introduce you to the various positions a writer can occupy in a videogame company. A big caveat is that these roles do not share the same description in this industry. Nor are their job functions standardized within companies either. So when applying or interviewing for jobs, always ask what the job entails because experience has taught me that it varies from team to team.
The Narrative Director or Lead Narrative Designer
The Narrative Director (or in some teams, Narrative Designer) assumes the role that an editor would in novels or a line developer in paper & pen games. In video-games, his role would be to handle the mechanics required to write the final script and to collaborate with the team to decide on story and the locations where events unfold. In some companies, this position would be called the Story Director or Narrative Designer, for example. The Narrative Director:
Ø Helps Create the Game’s Global Story (The overall concept or IP)
Ø Helps Create the Game’s Storyline (The plot synopsis)
Ø Generates Game Locations with Level Design
Ø Helps Create the Scripted Events or Cut-Scenes (The scenes where PCs and NPCS interact to advance the story)
Ø Manages the Game Script (Breakdown of the game/story from the introduction of an objective to its completion)
Ø Helps Create the Micro-Timeline (Locations, enemies, character motivation and emotional crux of each map presented in XL format)
Ø Manages the Micro-Timeline
Ø Provides Scripts for FGF & FPP Levels.
Ø Creates the Characters (history, motivations, relationships, speech patterns and development arcs)
Ø Works with A.I. and Game Design to Create the Bark Templates (one-liners based on gameplay)
Ø Works with Multiplayer (for specific MP dialog requirements)
Ø Works with Writers (whether freelance or internally, if necessary)
Ø Edits the Writer’s Work
Ø Handles Emergency Re-Writes (if the writer is not in-house)
Ø Provides the Writer with the Writing Staples (Locations, Characters, Scenes, Plot, etc.)
Ø Manages a team of in-house narrative designers to coordinate with other project teams.
The Narrative Designer (as Subordinate)
Sometimes, the term Narrative Designer is used for someone working under a Story or Narrative Director on a large team or for a large project. They are part of a team of writers who still work in a very technical capacity, though they may do some writing for the game. It depends on whether there is an in-team script writer or not. If not, then the Narrative Designer can handle the emergency work that invariably pops up on a project. Regardless, the Narrative Designer in the role of supporting a Narrative Director is to handle a specific function, often coordinating with a team for their writing needs. For example:
Ø A.I. Team: Initially, this narrative designer works with A.I. to generate the bark requirements of the characters and NPCs. They might help ensure that the barks aren’t overwhelming or that they prove useful to the situation.
Ø Level Design Team: This narrative designer works with Level Design to identify location specific dialog needs, unique game locations that fit the story, and even how certain scenes might play out within a specific environment.
Ø Sound: This narrative designer coordinates with sound to help manage the library of recordings, the cataloguing of dialogs and barks, and to attend voice recordings and VoCaps to enter in unanticipated changes to the script.
Ø Mission Pipeline: Once the project enters the production cycle, the narrative designers might get pulled into smaller teams or work together to handle specific levels or missions.
Narrative Designer’s Place on the Team
During the process of making the game, the Narrative Designer/Story Director/Narrative Director works closely with different departments. This schedule is not an absolute, because the pipeline and even work process of each team might differ.
Ø Conception Phase: The narrative designer works closely with game design (the Creative Director and Director of Realization) to create the global story and storyline. This will likely include a world bible, a location bible and a character bible.
Ø Pre-Production: The narrative designer begins working with AI to create a list of the required barks.
Ø Early Production: The narrative designer works closely with game design to create the overall gamescript. This is a breakdown of the game’s events into levels and emotional blocks.
Ø Early Production: The narrative designer works closely with level design to ensure the gamescript and scripted events are adhered to as well as create solutions when they don’t work.
Ø Production: Once the scripted events are locked down, the narrative designer works with the writer to create the story or write the story him/herself. This is usually a multi-draft process because many times, the editing is done in context to production needs, which mean the story is not applied to the game in a linear fashion.
Ø Production: Once the written script is okayed, the narrative designer works with sound design for the initial recording script and subsequent recordings.
Ø Production: The narrative designer works with animation and scripting to handle potential rewrites of motion-captured derived scenes. Animation and audio may also be involved with narrative in choosing the proper actors to play the characters.
Ø Production: The narrative designer handles on-site required rewrites and edits of the script.
Ø Production: The narrative designer works with the multiplayer and single player team to generate in-game menu texts and descriptions.
Ø Late Production: The narrative designer works with marketing to provide them with edited text for interviews and articles, and with any relevant material needed for marketing relating to the story itself.
Ø All Production: The narrative designer is owner of all questions related to the script and the game world.
In some projects, the Narrative Designer is also the writer because nobody else is as intimate with the story as him. Sometimes the Narrative Designer hands off the scriptwriting to an in-house writer or freelancer because of deadline restrictions. The latter is usually better because most teams need a critical eye for story that is divorced from the project and all its baggage. The Narrative Designer/Director should always be more concerned with adhering to the global vision while the writer handles the nuance of that vision through dialogs.
The out-of-house writer is responsible for:
Ø Writing the Script: Write the script in Accordance with the staples (as provided by the Narrative Designer/Director).
Ø Writing Barks: Completion of barks, which may number in the thousands of lines with the various iterations.
Ø Rewriting Material: Rewrite sections according to feedback and, more than often, because elements and locations in the game are dropped or modified as the game evolves.
The in-house writer is responsible for the above, but may also:
Ø Work Closely with Level Design: The script writer will need to work closely with level design, which provides the setting for the dialogs. This includes writing dialogs that either highlight a location (level design may need lines to remind the player of a direction or multiple paths through a location) or locations that affect dialog (the characters might whisper in a cavern, or shout aboard a helicopter).
Ø Work Closely with AI & Sound: Writing barks and gameplay triggered dialogs require finessing and rewriting to play properly in the game’s context. What sounds good on paper or in the studio may sound ridiculous in the heat of action or be drowned out because of ambient noises. Case in point, during the Rainbow Six: Vegas recordings, two actors sounded perfect for their roles and their lines were recorded separately. When their lines were synched for the game, however, we realized that because one actor’s voice was too high and the other too low, they sounded comical speaking in the same scene. The lines had to be re-recorded with the stress level of the high-pitched actor brought down to make him sound less panicked and screechy.
Ø Work Closely with Scripting: Scripting handles events occurring in the game while the player is playing. Think of them as pre-generated scenes that happen when the player is around to trigger and witness them. A helicopter landing, cars pulling away, NPC soldiers running through a door before it detonates, etc. Uncharted 2 used this heavily when event happened around Drake as he moved through an environment. Generally, the player cannot influence them. A writer may be needed to rewrite dialogs, for example, if a scripted moment happens at a later point or if the lines are too long.
Ø Work with Localization: Localization is the process of translating the game into multiple languages, and may be required to answer the proverbial laundry list of questions that arise. Use of slang is problematic for some translations (a Spanish writer may question the use of “Puta” (bitch) on a man when it’s common in North America but not Spain). Some languages like French require genders for objects, and the writer may have to assign one to an object to help them translate the line properly. Other languages like German may have multiple versions of briefcase while North Americans only have one or two, etc.
Ø Work with Animation: Animation is responsible for generating (among other things) a bank of idle poses. These can be two men standing around talking, or moving around objects or searching… whatever idle state an NPC is engaged in before the player arrives and triggers a response from them. This means that a writer will need to coordinate with Animation to figure out what idle states exist to create a bank of idle dialogs as well. In addition, specific animations may require specific dialogs. A character that falls and hits the ground will need a “grunt.” A character who performs an awesome move may require a spectator response. Animation and Narrative are closely tied together because Animation is instrumental in defining characters through movement. Are their NPCs arrogant in their swagger? Shy? Furtive? Alert? Angry? The writer needs to know how the NPCs look while moving to properly write for them.
Stay Tuned for Part III!
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