On October 26th, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) invited four games writers and narrative designers for a small panel on the theory and practicality of writing for games. Since I was visiting a friend in Wales at the time, I was unable to attend myself. Fortunately, I managed to sneak a recorder on an unwitting attendee, and she captured the entire panel for me. If this unwitting attendee whose name may or may not be Nina is reading this, you have my eternal gratitude. So while this is an indirect account of the panel, I hope to offer a short but thorough recap here. Read on to find out about the improper use of cutscenes, the challenges presented by a silent protagonist, and why a games writer is like a feng shui guy.
The panel consisted of three established game writers: Rhianna Pratchett (Mirror's Edge, Heavenly Sword), James Swallow (Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Killzone 2), and Ed Stern (Brink, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars). They were being chaired by a fourth: Andrew S. Walsh (Risen, Prince Of Persia). The hour-long panel focused mainly on writing meaningful game characters and their relationship with the player. Since several themes frequently cropped up during the discussion, I'm going to disregard chronology and arrange the major talking points by those themes.
Rhianna Pratchett, James Swallow, and Ed Stern, all noticing something to the left.
What makes a game character tick
Walsh opened the panel with the question of what a character in a game constitutes. Stern took this opportunity to elaborate on the overarching challenge of writing (a character) for a game, which is interactivity. Rather than passively reading a book or watching a movie, an audience actively plays a game and has control over the proceedings. While this element of free will remains an illusion at best, it still forces a reexamination of existing tools and methods of writing characters. Other media may offer convenient shorthands and tropes, but games present a unique challenge of their own. At this point, Stern viewed the crafting of believable characters from a visual standpoint. Explosions and toppling buildings are easy, but two characters having a meaningful conversation is incredibly hard to create. As Tom Jubert once said: "An actor in a film can convey with a single glance what a games writer has to bring across with one or more lines of dialogue."
Swallow made a distinction between two types of player characters: well-rounded protagonists and empty vessels (or blank slates). Well-rounded protagonists (like Uncharted's Nathan Drake) have a defined background and personality, whereas empty vessels (like Half-Life's Gordon Freeman) are usually silent leads without any defining characteristics, allowing the audience to imprint their own. Swallow used Deus Ex: Human Revolution's Adam Jensen as an example of a middle ground between the two. Jensen's history is established by the game, but not his conduct. The game defines his past, the audience his present and future.
It is also pointed out that the background (if any) of not just the player character, but also every NPC, is rarely communicated directly to the player. Stern and Swallow called this "invisible writing". Visible writing is dialogue, e-mails, and even shouts made by the enemy (known as "barks"), but this is merely the tip of the iceberg. Most of the writing is used for internal consistency in design documents and character sheets. Incidentally, this makes Excel to be a games writer's best friend.
Walsh then went into specifics by asking about the dissonance created when a character's actions don't dovetail with his characterisation. An example is Grand Theft Auto IV's Niko Bellic, who can be steered into massive chaos and destruction by the player, but still comes off as caring and sympathetic in cutscenes (as pointed out in this post). Pratchett picked up on this by talking about immersion and suspension of disbelief. Coinciding the motivations of a character and the player who's controlling them is a writer's sweet spot, and if this is not the case, the immersion is easily broken. Niko Bellic may not want to hit that pedestrian, but the player might. The same frustration appears when a player character does something incredibly badass or horribly stupid in a cutscene, which can or would never happen in gameplay.
Pratchett also noted that a game environment can represent a strong character in and of itself. Using BioShock's Rapture as an example, she explains that the level design of a game can tell a story as well (what I call an "aftermath story"). Stern likens this to setting up a crime scene, and notes that this type of storytelling is never forced on the player. That being said, sometimes it is unconsciously absorbed regardless.
How genre and platform affect and influence writing
A question from the audience prompted a talk about how a specific genre can influence writing for it. Pratchett had some interesting experience here, since she has worked on a franchise that spanned different platforms. In the Overlord series, she had to write a character for a game released on the major consoles, but also introduce that same character in another game on the Nintendo DS. Going from full motion capture to a blurb of text on a screen really forces a writer to know the universe they've created and underlines the necessity for the aforementioned invisible writing for internal consistency.
This then spilled over into a discussion of how first-person and third-person perspectives call for different approaches. The player character is entirely visible in third-person games (even if only their backside is visible most of the time), which allows for animations and even camera angles to help with characterisation. First-person games tend to have more silent protagonists whose thought processes are then externalised to other characters in the world. Pratchett mentioned that Mirror's Edge's Faith had a lot of comments and reactions during gameplay, but these were cut at the eleventh hour as they tended to confuse playtesters. The mind automatically links a voice to someone speaking it (which is how ventriloquism works), so if there's no one visible, there's just a disembodied voice floating around.
Stern added that audiences have very conservative expectations when it comes to genres, and went on to state that games are still trying to find their specific language. He used Marshall McLuhan's theory that things are often defined in terms of what they're replacing (with "horseless carriages" as an example). As such, games are often judged by the standards set by movies, just as those were judged by the standards of theatre plays.
Why cutscenes aren't always bad
Pratchett stressed that cutscenes are not an indication of lazy storytelling. They are simply a tool, but as Stern stated, when all you've got is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Sometimes a player doesn't mind being told a story, as long as it's a good one. An expertly crafted cutscene can be a reward after a challenging piece of gameplay. The problem is that cutscenes are difficult to produce. They need to be carefully planned ahead and wrapped early on in development, especially when they involve motion capture. Without naming names, Pratchett aluded to her work on Mirror's Edge, which was hampered by incongruous cutscenes and art styles as a result of time constraints (as pointed out in this post).
She continued that not all story needs to be relegated to cutscenes. It's often far more effective to layer it into the gameplay experience as well. She uses Half-Life 2: Episode 1 as an example. At one point, Gordon Freeman and Alyx are pushing through a darkened parking garage infested by zombies. When an off-screen groan indicates the presence of another zombie, it turns out to be Alyx playing a little prank. This little unscripted "character nugget" resonated with Pratchett far more than any cutscene would've. A narrative that is created around and reacts to the player's actions is something that requires forethought, which is translated as bringing in a writer as early as possible.
Involving a writer from the word go
This point was raised organically at various points, and ultimately forms the synthesis of this panel. If there's anything to take away, it's that there is an inordinate amount of factors that influences the craft of writing games. This plays into the medium's relative youth. Games are still discovering what makes them unique and how that creates a new language rather than one cobbled together from what came before (i.e. movies). And that is why it is incredibly important to have a writer or narrative designer on board as soon as possible. Layering story into gameplay is but one example of a tactic that can only be put to full effect if there's a writer who can make it happen early enough. Stern joked that his job is like that of a feng shui guy: no one really knows what it is he does, but it's lucky to have one around. He moves individual bits of furniture around and everything seems better, though nobody really knows why.
Welcome to Playthroughline, the online home of writer/narrative designer Joannes Truyens. Together with a bunch of cool people, I made Neurocracy, a hypertext game that invites you to solve a murder in a near-future world by diving into the Wikipedia of that world.