Writing for video games is a very particular sort of art - an under-appreciated one, if you ask some. It's well known that games can be an exceptionally hard medium to write for, given the inherent options of player freedom and how that can affect a game's narrative. Games, quite simply, face issues that linear media like TV and film don't have to deal with.
GamesIndustry International caught up with several notable video game storytellers to gain some insight into the process behind creating compelling narrative in gaming and the challenges storytellers face.
Perhaps one of the obvious problems for the medium is it's just not that mature yet.
Ru Weerasuriya, studio head at Ready at Dawn, readily admitted, "There's a lot that we need to do to understand how to make story happen. We're still a little obtuse, I think, in the way we address scripts. There are very few companies, right now, that build scripts correctly for games. Oftentimes they're just an afterthought, or something that is way too story driven where you kind of feel like, well, everything's out of our hands."
Weerasuriya noted that his company's changing its practices, bringing in talent from outside the industry, in order to bolster storytelling. "There are things that we're doing ourselves, as a company, actually, where we are trying to bring people together that have expertise that could change the way we tell stories. And I think that oftentimes we are too shy about looking outside to people for help and we've always embraced, actually, anybody who has anything good to bring to the table, we'll gladly work with them. And right now, we're surrounded by people that are not from this medium, that are bringing something that we necessarily would not think of. And you have to trust that everyone's expertise is converging towards the same goal."
"I found out a lot how design and writing works together. Even now, sometimes, design can work against the emotion of a scene"
From the female perspective, the task of writing for video games is perhaps even more challenging, given that a majority of the industry is male and makes games mostly for a male audience. Marianne Krawcyzk had the unique problem of putting herself in the boots of Kratos - she had to develop a character that's testosterone laden in the extreme.
"A lot of the stuff that makes him hyper masculine I don't have much say about," detailed Krawcyzk. "Him disemboweling people is something the artists put in. For me, I try to find what's human about him, like Hephaestus talking about how much having a child means to him. God of War III was bad; he was pretty mad and was almost like an animal. The first one had his feelings for his family; I just try to write him as honestly as I can. He's definitely a jerk, but when I'm writing him I do try to tap into his feelings - that's what I focus on. The way he's animated and what he does in combat is mostly done by guys. I think that's just the balance."
"[Kratos] doesn't feel bad about things. He doesn't cry that he's killed a million people. That's the historical way to look at that and that's the culture he came out of; the Spartans were pretty brutal," she added. "The fact that he mourns his wife and child almost makes him sensitive by standards of the time."
As Krawcyzk so ably demonstrates, the games medium is certainly beginning to tackle more mature subject matter, such as humanity, good and evil, free will and more. This is subject matter that never would even have been thought of for inclusion in video games years ago. Free will was central to the third God of War.
"[Director] Stig [Asmussen]wanted [Kratos] to be the reaper, wanting to destroy every Greek god. He wasn't trying to work for the greater good, it was just revenge. Without the daughter of Hephaestus, there was no reason to like him! Ultimately, he does something that changes the world in the end. He frees the world from the control of the gods and releases hope," she continued. "It played into the theme of free will in the game - even though things ended worse off than having Zeus in power, it frees humanity from the gods interfering with them."
Irrational Games' Ken Levine is creating his own writing problems in BioShock Infinite by not only making the protagonist a speaking character (compared to Jack in the first BioShock, who had no dialog) but also adding a constant companion in Elizabeth. Of course, deciding whether or not to have the main character actually speak - the character you, the gamer, are supposed to become - is a problem that only video games contend with. It's all about how to frame the narrative.
"I'll tell you... having him speak and having [Elizabeth] around, boy, there is a lot more writing! Now, I'm paying two for the price of one!" he said laughing. "The script from one level [of BioShock Infinite] is probably longer than the whole of BioShock 1. We're much more character driven this time around."
"How does it change the story? This game isn't about Atlus talking in your ear, telling you where to go. Booker will say 'There's the thing I need to do' and maybe he and Elizabeth will talk about what to do next. Occasionally it's somebody else giving direction, but this time it's them making the decisions. You don't have that figure that knows about the world, pointing you where to go," Levine explained.
"Anything you need to know must be discovered, and that creates a whole new range of challenges. You don't feel like you're led by the nose; I'm one of the guys involved in making that story trope, but now it's getting long in the tooth."
While BioShock 1 used the idea of being directed and manipulated by some unseen figure to further the story, Levine noted that after exploring the trope and pointing out the flaws, it made it harder to do something like that again. An undercurrent in BioShock is the push-back against the notion that gamers should never question what they're told in a video game.
"There are a lot of things we don't question as gamers," noted Levine. "Any character in a FPS is a person murdering thousands of people. Booker and Nathan Drake, when they have these normal conversations with people, you have to ignore the amount of carnage they had to cause to get to that point. You have to get around it. They accept, 'He's not killing that many people.' If I killed 40 people I would be known as the murderer Ken Levine, but for the audience we look at someone like Indiana Jones and what defines him is 'professor, lover, adventurer' - not the amount of people he's dispatched."
As a video game writer, tailoring the narrative to meet the needs of different game directors can be a challenge on its own, especially when the directors on a hot franchise keep changing!
Krawcyzk had to deal with three different creative directors over the course of the God of War series (David Jaffe, Cory Barlog and Stig Asmussen, in that order) and she was actually one of the few people to participate in the writing process all the way through the series.
"I worked a lot with Cory," said Krawcyzk. "By the time we got to God of War III, it was me with Stig and a producer going over it. They wanted to work some of the fight lines. But we did all sit around and talk about the story, and that's nice if you have the right people in the room. I worked with different directors at different companies and the directors at Sony have some advantages. The structure of the studio gives power to the director and leaves them alone. Then he'd give power to the leads and let them know their vision and I think that's important."
"When you work on a movie or television you're coming into a world really well defined; with games, we get to define what they are"
"Cory was big into the story. And he's big into it as was David," she noted. "I worked with Ready at Dawn and they were allowed to do pretty much anything if it didn't destroy the main story arc. When they wanted to tell a story, I would give them a theme to work with. Everyone brought something a little different to the table."
Importantly, a video game writer must learn to adapt to a game's design. A storyteller may have one vision and it could clash terribly with art direction, level design or character design. Worst of all, it may go directly against the grain in terms of the creative director's vision.
"I think I was pretty bold in my opinions with David," she added. "I presented it as a choice and that's the way I operated. When I'm in the middle of fighting for a story point, I'm pretty honest about it. At the end of the day, directors get final say - it just kind of depends; so long as you're on the same page thematically it works out well usually. They were all open to listening to what the writers had to say. The design team worked under the guidance of the director and I found out a lot how design and writing works together. Even now, sometimes, design can work against the emotion of a scene."
While it's a collaborative effort between Krawcyzk and the director on God of War, Levine takes a slightly different approach, enabling his team to decide the direction of his next game. "Often I start by building in a lot of research," said Levine. "They come out of the interests of people on team. Once we start something, we then keep on talking about what we think works and what doesn't. The reason I love research - it's free ideas! If you don't do it, you have to make up ideas yourself, and who wants to do that?"
"I tend to be inspired by a lot of people. Movies, the Cohen brothers, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick... I steal from the best!" he joshed. "You can't just use what you watch directly; it's non-interactive and what they make is a lot of easier in a way because you can totally control the experience. You can lock a character in a room for a hour and have nothing but dialog and make it interesting if it's done correctly - games don't really work that way."
"Composition is incredibly important and how we frame the story is really key," Levine added. "A lot of my conversations I try to make it clear what the intent is. It's about the way a gamer encounters something; if you don't frame it the right way, you're wasting your time. It's 'how carefully do we show this interaction', 'what's the lighting', rather than 'this is a cool visual' and 'throw in an explosion'."
Krawcyzk's process on God of War was markedly different. "I've always liked Greek mythology. If we're dealing with a specific character, I'll go to the Wikipedia page to get the important bits. For instance Hercules is the hero of the people, also a Son of Zeus. I tend to tune into the human emotion," she said.
"We did this scene in God of War III where Hercules is jealous of his step-brother, Kratos. Hera is the scorned wife. I would get these directions from Stig on occasion and for Hera I was thinking of Mrs. Robinson at first with the drinking... so it kind of stemmed from that, but she's the trophy wife that's estranged from her husband. I guess for research, I just want to pay attention to basic human interaction like wife and child, brother to brother, those sorts of things."
Regardless of approach, there's one commonality among all video game storytellers and Levine summed it up best.
"When you work on a movie or television you're coming into a world really well defined; with games, we get to define what they are," he said. "We're still at such a nascent stage in the development of the industry and that's exciting to me."