December 14, 2011

Writing in Boxes

A couple of weeks ago I discussed our collaborative writing project that we did over the summer. That was one of the two writing projects I started during the publishing break. The other one was building a portfolio for video game writing.

Now, this is a separate field in a lot of ways, and not something that the other HBM authors dip their toes into, so this whole post is basically a tangent. But, for me, it's been a really interesting journey learning about the writing that goes into a game.

First off, the craft of video game writing is incredibly young. It's juvenile in every sense of the word. It was hard for me to pin down how it works, or even when it is needed. Many games don't have writers in the traditional sense. Some games don't have (or need) writing at all. Tetris doesn't even have a story, and it certainly wouldn't be better if it did. Shadow of the Colossus (one of my favourites and an important work when it comes to story in games) does most of its story-telling through action and not writing. RPGs like Bioware's Dragon Age are bursting with writing, with text or dialogue making up huge portions of its 40+ hour play time. All this to say, video game writing can mean a lot of different things.

And the professional advice that I got matched with that. Other writers in the industry said that an aspiring writer should learn to have breadth and show that in their work. So, while my first few ideas revolved around stories that I would love to see in games, I later tried to do stories for games I wouldn't even enjoy. Or writing pieces that have nothing to do with story. So different from my fiction, where if I'm not liking the story that I'm writing, it won't get finished. I also learned some great exercises that felt a lot like the prompt-based writing that started Here Be Monsters. "Write 100 variations on 'I've been shot'" was always one of my favourites. After a few simple versions, I started looking at it like micro-fiction. They may be a bit elaborate but I think "I'll miss the birds on the pond the most" or "So I fall, as she prophesied, to a heathen's bullet" are a lot more fun than the usual barks you hear in shooting games.

I'm really excited about games and where they're going, so this was fun for me. But I found myself butting up against a lot of walls when doing the writing. There are the limitations of technology and scope. More constraining however, are the limitations in content. Games, by and large, have had a narrow field of stories. They are mostly about direct, violent conflict with another group or character. Literature teachers tell us not confuse the concepts of "hero" and "protagonist" but games have almost never made that distinction. And this isn't even taking into account the glut of remakes and sequels that makes the summer movie blockbusters look like a parade of film-fest darlings. It was so ingrained in me that I found myself looking back at a lot of pieces and thinking "isn't that just like the game x?"

So, I restarted. After a couple of months of work, I've taken a couple of pieces from the original eight or so and left the rest. Now I'm looking for more ways to tell stories in the rhythm and language that games use. Like, weaving a story for key units in a strategy game. Anyone who plays these gets attached to that one plucky pack of soldiers that have been with you since you started your campaign in Italy/Japan/Tatooine. Many games even have mechanics to reflect this, so I was looking to reinforce the feelings that already exist with dynamic story. I would also love to work on an adventure/mystery game. They're not as popular as they once were, but the ones that are made are often gems. Plus, you can add something to the traditional whodunit -- in text, a mystery can only end in one way (the one that is written) -- In a game, it's possible to have endings where the mystery remains, a lie stands as truth, or the real truth is revealed. The story can accommodate all of those.

I still have a lot to learn in this area, but I can see the potential there. I plan to keep going with game writing until I figure out how to make it feel as good as my fiction writing.

Thanks for reading this. If you'd like to hear more about it, I'll happily talk ad nauseam with you in the comments. Otherwise, look for more posts from HBM next week. And if you haven't seen our microfiction yet, please check it out.

1 comment:

  1. The deeper you go in trying to figure out the form and content that is expected the more you realize that there just isn't much of a body from which to draw those sorts of conclusions.

    It became kind of frustrating to me that there don't seem to be a whole lot of well trodden paths. Seems like making it as a game writer means finding some figuring way in and then just doing it.