Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Writing for games

In a thread at a new forum I spent time in (The Diving Bell Adventure Pub), someone mentioned it might be a good idea to let would-be novel writers create the stories for casual games. I don’t think that would be a good idea and here is why. And it’s here, because it is about writing rather than about gaming.

As a would-be novel writer (and I’ve no problem with that label – I’m not published yet, so I do not consider myself a ‘true’ novelist), I see a couple of problems with that idea. I have, quite some years ago, tried to write and program my own text adventure (I don’t have the necessary graphic skills to create sprites, animations and backgrounds). Even writing the story did not work out well – let alone the programming part.

Adventures and RPGs need very flexible stories that can be pushed and pulled in various directions and still stay in shape. You can do a lot of things differently or at different times in a chapter (or the whole game), so the story has to ‘play along’ with it and allow the game to put in cut scenes in different order (because you first finished chain two instead of chain one, each adventure contains a certain number of intermingling puzzle chains that need to be finished in order to move on to the next chapter – the same is even more true for RPGs with their side quests). A novelist (or a would-be novel writer) on the other hand fights very hard to find the perfect order for all the scenes in a story.

HOGs get a story to motivate the player to go on. You can actually have a HOG without a big story, if it’s a straight HOG (no IHOG, a HOG with adventure elements). But most HOGs tell a story and they do so in dialogues between the levels. That’s not a lot of storytelling, even with the odd cut scene here or there. Unlike adventures, HOGs do not contain puzzle chains that are intermingling, so you don’t have to care about a flexible story that much. But if you dare to put in more than just a few lines of dialogue between levels, half of the players will say ‘that’s a bad game, I don’t like it’, because they don’t like reading that much. (For instance, the game “The Mysterious Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” was bashed for containing actual pages to read that continued the story between levels – I found the game and the storytelling great, most people didn’t.) But you can’t tell a very difficult story with lots of plot changes and intrigues in just a few lines of dialogue. So, not a place for a would-be novel writer (or professional novelist), either.

Other casual games (TMs, Match 3 and so on) put even less emphasize on a story. It’s just something that connects the levels in most of them. People want to beat those games, to get an expert score or beat the clock, that’s why they play – not because of the great story.

The only kind of ‘game’ that you need a very good story for – albeit one with a lot of dialogue, but dialogue is good in a story – is the Visual Novel I’ve written about before. It’s a novel you play (and even they need a branching story – a story with different paths towards the end or even different endings depending on the player’s choices), but it’s above all a novel.

In addition, most casual games are made with an option for a sequel, provided the game does well. You can’t really ‘finish’ the story – although there should be some sort of closure – and have to give the player the little ‘this isn’t over yet’ scene in the end. This is something a novelist could work with, but it doesn’t make telling a complicated story any easier.

You can write a novel based on a game, you can make a game based on a novel (such as “The Great Gatsby” which I might cover over in my main blog soon), but you can’t apply the rules for writing a novel to writing the story for a game. Therefore you can’t just take a novelist (or a would-be novel writer) to create a story that works with a game.

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