Game Writing 101

Growing up with a love for both books and video games, I was always disappointed at the quality of the stories found in my games.  Games had the gameplay, while books had the plot – the two never really mixed. Sure, there are a handful of games with top-notch plots behind them, and it could be argued that for some games the story is irrelevant (and in some cases, rightly so.) But I always wanted that little bit more from my games, and it was disappointingly rare to find a gem that delivered. Even rarer to find a game that shines in both aspects, story and gameplay.

But it wasn’t until I tried to write my own game plot that I realized just how hard it is.

Let me explain – I am one half of an indie game-development team called ‘Nightfall Studios,’ and for the past few years we have been working on our first game ‘Shadow of a Second Sun’ – I had been involved in it from the beginning, but my biggest contribution was writing the plot and several ‘faction plots’/subplots/sidequests.

When I set out to work on the plot, I really wanted to come up with a good game plot that could drive a long campaign forward and bring out the best a game can offer. The standard for game stories has been set depressingly low, and because I come from a novel-writing background and consider plotting to be the strongest aspect of my writing I decided to treat it like a novel. I would write a plot that evolves, captures and holds interest and makes the player  feel for the characters involved in the story – just like any good novel.  However, there were a few major differences between novel and game writing I quickly learned to keep in mind…

First of all, there is the question of what can be portrayed in the context of a game.  In a novel the writer can portray almost anything with the clever use of words, and they can  jump from place to place, character to character to show a reader different events happening at different times, far away from each other. The entire purpose of a novel is to tell a story, and it is perfectly suited to doing that. A game, however, is a little more restricted.

I wanted to have the story develop and evolve around the player as they play the game, as opposed to having segments of story and play with relatively little to do with each other.  I was able to achieve this in two ways – First, I made sure everything I wrote could be portrayed in the game. This means I stuck to a single characters point of view and didn’t write anything that required programming or extra game features to implement. Working within the context of the game mechanics  is very important, and being mindful of that allowed me to write a plot that can be written into the game without changing and reworking core game mechanics and systems. In fact, I was able to actively use the mechanics of the game in the plot.

Second, I use a lot of characters to inform the player of what is going on in the world around them. This is the first major deviance from my ‘write it like a novel’ philosophy, as in a novel it would be a blatant break of the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule.  However, it is justified in the context of a game where it is impossible to show the same amount of detail possible in a novel.

The second concern was the question of interactivity. Unlike a novel, where the story is the sole attraction, a game is based on interactivity with the player – indeed, that is what makes it a game. While writing the plot, I had to keep this in mind – the primal purpose of a plot is to give context and purpose to what the player is doing.

Here, I used the concept of ‘modular plotting’ – the idea was to give the player a goal to work towards, and let them follow it themselves.  In addition to this, I tried to make the plot events themselves as playable as possible, so that the player was actively working towards their goal in the game, instead of simply running between cut scenes.  This created two kinds of gameplay – ‘plot’ gameplay, where the player is playing directly for the advancement of the plot – be it delving deep into a dungeon to recover something, escaping capture, to raiding an enemy fortress – and ‘world gameplay’ where the player is exploring the world, making their way from one point to another.

The story was written to have all the aspects of a good novel, so that if I wanted to I could write a book from it – but gameplay-story integration was also a high priority. The balance between these two demands was hard to get right at first, but I’m confident we have stuck it (or are very close). It’s a compelling plot with all the Themes, characters, emotion and connection as a novel, but happens within the context of a playable and evolving world where the player makes their own decisions and, most importantly, plays the game.

So, there is a little about how the plot for Shadow of a Second Sun was written.  Next time, I’ll talk more about the plot itself, and difficulties with character.

I thought I’d end this post with a short list of some of my favorite story driven games. So, in no particular order, here goes:

Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones – I love all FE games, but Sacred stones if my favorite.

Legend of Zelda:  Majora’s Mask -The Zelda games are very Similar, But Majoras mask is a stand out story-wise. Ocarina of time is my favorite, overall.

Bastion  – Bastion has a good story, but the really impressive part is the way it is told and explored through the game.

Metro 2033 – Metro 2033 is perhaps one of my Favorite games. It has a Brilliant story, brilliantly told –with most of the plot unfolding naturally around the player – it is Linear, but it doesn’t feel like you are being pushed though a set plot. The Narration between chapters is just the icing on the top.

Arcanum of Steamworks Obscura  – a Great RPG. Maybe I’m a little Bias because I love anything Steampunk. It’s a Good example of a story the player has a huge effect on, where player choices have significant and permanent effect on the plot and world.

World In Conflict – Proves RTS games can have good stories.

Half-Life 2 – Another prime example of the story evolving right in front of the players eyes.  Like Metro 2033, everything seems to naturally fall into place.  (A bit of a ‘gaming confession’ – I haven’t played Half life 1. I know – terrible, right?)

What story based games to you know? Leave any game suggestions or comments below! 

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Why I Write

Today, a friend asked me where I get the will to sit down and write. Here is a (refined) Copy of the answer I gave:

I write because it’s what I love. Well, there is more to it than that, but that’s certainly the first step.

And if that is the first step, then next are inspiration and confidence.  I love my characters, I love my stories, I love my settings – and I really think that, once I have it all written down, other people will love it too. When I’m planning something, I make sure that every character, every scene, every theme – everything that goes into it – is awesome, even on its own. I make sure every sentence I put down is something I would enjoy reading.  Then, when everything has been combined into a novel, I know I’ve come out with something awesome.  And that Inspires me. It is important for me to be inspired by what I’m writing about, and by the characters. It’s important I feel for my characters – because if I don’t, how can I expect readers to?

But the actual task of sitting down and writing? The act of pushing keys until words form, and doing that over and over until I have a string of letters that make some sense? That can be hard, sometimes. I’m Lazy. It’s easier for me to browse the internet, or watch a movie. Heck, it’s easier for me to sit around and stare blankly at my plot outline imagining everything as a movie (or rather, Imagining everything as an anime). Sometimes I’ll sit and write a few sentences or a paragraph and then get distracted and float away. Sometimes I’ll stare at the blinking cursor then decide to check my e-mail, then Facebook, then whatever else I can do to avoid writing.

Out of everything I do as a writer, starting is the hardest part. So I give myself a goal and promise myself a reward, just to start. I force myself into it. Just grit your teeth and do it, I think. And then, a few minutes later, I’m fully immersed in writing and nothing can pull me away until I hit the next bump. Then, usually, it’s off to see what shiny things are on the internet (it’s amazing how much more productive I am when I unplug the Ethernet cable). Sometimes I delete the last paragraph and re-write it from memory, as close as I can, just to get my fingers moving on the keys and my brain ‘into gear.’ Sometimes I do some reading before I write, Sometimes I log onto LegendFire and give a short critique. Sometimes I just listen to music.

But what drives me? Where do I find the will to do any of it, at all? There is no real easy answer to that question.  I could say that I write because it’s what I love, because it’s ‘my thing,’ but that ignores the fact I fantasize about giving people I know a copy of my book.  That ignores the fact I fantasize about seeing myself in the bookstore.  It’s true, though. I do write because it’s what I love, and even if no one could ever read it, I’d still spend hours tapping away.  Writing, Just the simple act of writing, gives me an amazing feeling I can’t get from anything else. I can look back after hours of work and think ‘I wrote that, I created that. Without me, that would not exist.’ Maybe writing is my way of proving I exist. I write, therefore I am. Maybe. But even if every word I put down was to be erased at my death, I’d still write. Showing my work gives me an amazing feeling, too – being read, having another sentient Life-form read and enjoy something I wrote. The feeling is pure euphoria.

I guess it all comes down to this. I write because that’s me. Its who i am, it defines me. I know that sounds cliché and useless, and maybe it is.

But that’s really the only answer a writer can give.

 

I’ll leave you with a quote from one of my greatest inspirations:

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

– George Orwell, ‘Why I Write.‘ 

Joyeux anniversaire monsieur Verne!

Oh marvelous day!

For those not in the know, Today, the 8th of February, is the 184th birthday of Monsieur Jules Verne – French Author and Pioneer of Science fiction.

This fan plans to celebrate the birthday of his favorite author by reading two short stories, ‘ A Drama in the Air’ and ‘The Blockade Runners’ – both available (with many of Verne’s works) freely and legally though project Gutenberg – even in English.

So – Happy Birthday Jules Verne!

 

On a semi-related note, I hope Google translate is worth its salt.

Treasonists update

Today was, perhaps, the most productive writing day I have had this year (It sounds impressive when I say it like that, doesn’t it?)

I started the day by collecting all of my plotting notes for the new ending. You see, I aim to almost completely rewrite (Or at least drastically alter) the current ending because it is nowhere near as exciting and thematically powerful as I think it should be.  To guide me, I resolved to write a new plot outline for the ending.

This was more difficult than it sounds. Most of the last third of the book follows the POV of 3 different characters (and minor scenes in a 4th POV) who are all doing different things in different places, at roughly the same time. They all tie into each other in the Climax of the novel, and have massive effects on each other during the lead up to that point. I was very worried all that could get very confusing.

My first order of business was to write-up the separate plot outlines for each character – To note all of their scenes in chronological order as if I were just writing about them.  That was the easy part.

Next, I attempted to fit everything together in a single outline that detailed everything in the order it will appear in the final book. This was a huge puzzle to work out, and I admit it was a read headache at some parts. (Literally, I ended up taking some Panadol!)

First of all, I wanted to keep everything in roughly chronological order so the reader isn’t constantly going backwards and forwards in time, because that could get very confusing. On the other hand, swapping between characters every paragraph could also get very confusing. There is a balance to be struck somewhere between this two, and I have no idea if I’ve hit it. There is no real way to know, really, until it’s all written down and the beta readers look at me in confusion. But it works in theory, for now.

Another consideration is the excitement and ‘plot’ of each chapter. I’m sure everyone reading this can conjure the graph of how a book’s plot is meant to look when excitement is quantified and graphed; An Ascending line with plateaus and finally a climax followed by a Denouement. It is my opinion each chapter should be set out somewhat similar, with its own goals, climax and denouement (or a set up for the next chapter) and I have stuck to this throughout most of the book. I think it works really well, so I would hate to break it to jump around to another character and ‘start something new,’ instantly destroying the tension and excitement built up over previous scenes.

Lastly, I had cause and effect to consider. As I noted somewhere above, what characters do in their plots have significant impacts on other characters. I had to make sure this all made sense, and that I never accidentally showed the effect of an action before showing the cause. This was just a case of Watching  where I was positioning things, and luckily for me most of the ‘causes’ were naturally at the end of something, allowing me to slip over to the next character to see the effects.

After a few hours of working all this through, I was staring at a shiny new plot outline of the shiny new ending. It is much better than the old ending and, if you don’t mind my saying, pretty epic. I think it provides a much more climactic end both for the main plot and the character arcs that eventually cumulate in the final battle.

But that’s not all I did today (I told you it was productive!) – I also got some work on the actual editing or, rather, writing. I’m at a point where I am adding a completely new chapter, so I’ve had to swap from an editing mindset to a writing one. Thankfully, I’m able to do that without much pain.

This chapter is really shaping up to be an interesting one to write, and I can only hope it’s as interesting to read. The chapter follows a major battle, the Seige of Luftenport, Between Vanessa of the Valkyries and Admiral Garcia of the Azimirian/Silvarian navy. What makes the battle so interesting is the fact those are both POV characters. In essence, what I have in this chapter is a miniature version of the above.

So the chapter follows the POV of both side’s commanders. Think of it was watching a game of chess (or, more aptly, an RTS) where you can see the plans and strategies of both sides as they attempt to implement them, and make the other fall into their traps. We get to see the commanders formulate their plans, we get to see the plans implemented, and we get to see the opposing side make their counter-plans and react. It’s a very interesting dynamic to write because both characters are Strategists, leading to a battle of wits with the lives of a few hundred soldiers at stake.

Not only that, But the battle has the same features of all my battle scenes – I like to show how things play out from the POV of commanders directing the battle (Moving regiments, implementing strategies) and also the POV of the actual soldiers fighting the battle directly.  Again, it’s an interesting method of doing things and I like to think it pull it off well, but there is no real way to know until I have my beta readers look at it.  At some point in the future, I’ll write a post entirely about how I write battle scenes.

To get all this working together, I’ve had to make heavy use of ‘***’ on an In-chapter level, to indicate a change of character. On a larger, inter-chapter level I’ve come up with the idea of calling Chapters by the same number with a different letter to indicate Concurrent timelines. For example, Chapter 6A and Chapter 6B happen at the same time, but follow different characters.

What do you think? How do you deal with different POV characters affecting each other’s stories? How do you show a battle from both perspectives? How do you indicate to a reader that two scenes are happening at the same time, in different places?

The Baron’s Daughter – Reflection

A few days ago I posted a short story titled ‘The Baron’s daughter’ that I had written for a short story competition. Now, I’d like to look at the story in a little more depth. If you haven’t read it and would like to, it can be found here.

The short story opens with Aralia facing her father, the baron, after refusing to attend an arranged marriage with a prince. Here, I dive right into the first redemption arc. Furious with his daughter’s disobeyal, the baron vents his anger and sends her to the mines to redeem herself for disobeying him. This starts the first of two redemption arcs, but it should be carefully noted this one is a subversion of the theme. Aralia does not particularly care about redemption, and just wants to escape the prison-mine.

The next scene shows Aralia arriving at the prison-mine, where she has a discussion with the prison warden, a man named Panax. This is the major characterizing paragraph for Aralia, and is supposed to paint her as a somewhat witty/snarky character, perhaps a little too self-assured and self superior.  Originally, I had a scene directly following this where Aralia immediately starts a fight because she is not shown proper respect as the daughter of the duke, but the scene had to be cut for word restraints. Essentially, Aralia is not meant to be a very likeable character at this point. She is selfish and considers everyone else below her.

The next scene serves to detail the conditions of the prison-mine. It is short and passive not because of word count restraints, but because it would slow the plot down if it dragged on for too long. In all honesty, I’m not too happy with the way this part turned out. It seems forced and on the tell scale of the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule. Ideally, I would have woven the information into the scenes around it, but I certainly didn’t have the word count to do that effectively.

Warden Panax then takes Aralia to his office, a little foreshadowing for the ending, and offers Aralia ‘redemption.’ Panax tells Aralia she will be able to leave the prison if she sets a trap for the other prisoners, explaining the mine is no longer turning a profit and the continued existence of the prisoners it too costly.  Aralia, thinking only of herself and escape, accepts. Here the real subversive nature of the redemption arc comes into full view. Redemption is, traditionally, about a character seeking to undo or atone for some horrible past action, not actively cause death to save their own skin.

Aralia continues to set up the device; however she is trapped in with the fallout through a beautiful turn of Karma. This signals the beginning of the second redemption arc, the one that is played straight. Aralia is saved by a prisoner named Rauk, and this was meant to be a character-flipping moment. Aralia realizes the full magnitude of what she has done, and realizes the true redemption she needs to seek is for this.

After realizing exactly what had happened, the Prisoners decide their only option is to escape. Seeking Redemption, Aralia offers to go through with a plan that will allow the prisoners to escape. She doesn’t want to put anyone else in danger by letting them do it, and goes ahead with it despite her broken arm.

Redemption was the prompt of the contest and the central theme of the story. My single largest goal was to make the redemption theme as clear and exciting as possible, without slipping into cliché. I think having the nature and meaning of redemption to the character change as the story progress was a really cool idea, especially having one cause the need for another.  I think, in this respect, I was successful.

That said, the rest of it was pulled off pretty poorly. Character and general writing quality would be my biggest concerns if I ever write a re-worked version. Some work though the middle on developing Aralia and introducing the prisoners that show up later would not go astray.  Another big part would be at the ‘turn of redemption’ where Aralia has her epiphany – That part is quite poor, and I think would be the first section I revise.

So what have I learned though this experience? First of all, that I can’t write short stories. I think, if I had left it, this would have turned out between 6000 and 8000 words, all together. However, that’s a bit negative so let’s see what else it taught me.

I think working under such a strict word count with such a ‘big’ idea really forced me to change my style and make everything much more concise.  Especially near the end. For the most part, I don’t really like the style, however I have noticed some things work well here that have always felt a little odd under my normal style. I’ll give an example of something I sometimes do that has always annoyed me; let’s say a character was sitting down at a desk reading a book when he hears a knock on the door.

Bob placed his bookmark within the paperback’s pages and snapped it shut, letting it rest on the desk in front of him.
‘Just a minute!’ He called as he pushed his chair back and stood. Bob walked to the door and turned the handle, pulling it open.

Now, that is just not very good. Ignoring the fact it’s a rather mundane example, it’s far too long for what little it says and really just holds everything up. Perhaps something similar could be selectively used to create tension in the reader, but it certainly doesn’t work in general use. Whenever I catch something like this in my writing, it always annoys me a little. Working on a word count, however, forced me to shorten things.

Bob snapped his book shut with a bookmark and opened the door.

That is thirty-five less words. Already, I can’t believe I was working like the first example. That’s the biggest lesson i learnt– Just do it. Just have characters do what they need to and move on, not every little detail needs to be explained.

So what do you think? Is the story worth a major touch up, or should I let it go and focus on larger fish?

The Baron’s Daughter

And here it is!

This is ‘The Baron’s Daughter’ A short story I did for LegendFire’s annual ‘Legends contest.’ In all honesty, it was a bit of a rush job (especially the ending) and I got it in just in time.  That said, I’m rather proud of what I was able to achieve working with the restraints I was working with – time, word limits and from a prompt. I have a fear of mandatory prompts, a symptom of English at high school I’m afraid.  I may spend some more time on this, fixing her up. I still have the deleted scenes and know I need to work on character and most of the style. If nothing more, to keep it consistent. But then, that takes time from my already overwhelming projects. Tomorrow (or sometime within the next few days) I will post a more in-depth analysis to explain what I was trying to do, and why I did what I did. Watch out for that if you want a window into the way a (read: this) writer does things.

Please remember this is not me at my best. So, here we go – The Baron’s Daughter, Third place winner of LegendFire’ 2011 ‘Legends contest’ for fiction.

Yes, My LegendFire pseudonym is PenPen. Does anyone know what it’s from?

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1Q84 In Hindsight

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

1984 by George Orwell is one of my all-time favorite books.

That’s why when I saw the title ‘1Q84’ while browsing the book store I was more than a little interested. 1Q84 is a novel by famous Japanese Author Haruki Murakami and “as the title suggests, a mind-bending ode to George Orwell’s Nineteen eighty-four. (The number 9 in Japanese is pronounced like the letter Q)”

Imagine my disappointment, then, when 1Q84 had absolutely nothing to do with Orwell or 1984, besides a few throwaway references. Heck, my own novel has more in common with 1984 – both heavily feature the theme of propaganda.

But despite my disappointment in this regard (I was hoping for a 1984-in-tokyo – We were always at war with Oceana.) I guess I can’t really fault the book for that; it might have still been interesting despite its misleading title and blurb.  Might have been.

I was not aware so little could happen in 300 pages. In total, 1Q84 is a monolithic 900 pages, split into three books – I have only read the first one. The story (if you can call it that) follows Aomame, an assassin who hunts down and kills wife-beaters and child-rapists with a modified ice pick so small it leaves no trace of the murder. Or, that’s what we are told – In the 308 pages of book 1, only once does Aomame do anything remotely interesting. In the second chapter she sneaks into a hotel dressed as a member of staff come to check the air conditioner – There, she assassinates a businessman. This was early in the book, and mislead me into thinking there was an interesting plot, but the rest of the chapters about on Aomame focus on either her history ( which is told and re-told, without even adding more detail the second, third and fourth time) or her sex life. Murakami goes into great detail about Aomame’s preference in men – middle aged, balding and slightly plump (by coincidence, I’m sure, that’s what Murakami himself looks like) – and we Follow Aomame and her young friend, Ayumi, though the nightlife of Tokyo as they search for sex partners and have ‘rumpus sex feasts.’

But 1Q84 is about two characters, their story told though alternating chapters. The Second one is only slightly more interesting. Tengo is middle-aged writer living alone and working on his first novel when he becomes involved in a literary conspiracy. He is approached by his editor and asked to re-write a remarkable novel written by a 17 year old girl (Who has a nicely shaped chest, which is mentioned so much you’d think it was important). The core story of this 17-year-olf girl’s novel is brilliant, or so we are told, but the writing style is horrendous. All Tengo has to do is re-write it so it can win a contest and be sold. After some (a few chapters) debate Tengo accepts and is soon stuck elbow-deep in the conspiracy with his editor and Fuka-Eri, the 17-year-old dyslexic writer of ‘Air Chrysalis” (with a nicely shaped chest.) Oh, before I forget (I can’t forget, it’s featured every second chapter) we also read about Tengo’s sex life, and how his ‘older girlfriend’ gets very jealous.

None of this is to say 1Q84 is an Erotic novel – it’s not. While we read a lot about the characters sex lives any of the actual sex is left unexplained or IKEA Erotica. It’s just that Murakami has some determination to explain anything and everything as long it has no direct relevance to the plot (and if it does, it is skimmed over as quickly as possible). I know what kind of Pajamas Tengo wears (and what they smell like after Fuka-Eri has been wearing them,) and I know the finer details of Aomame’s diet and how she stays healthy and avoids constipation. I know about the Gilyaks, the natives of a small Russian island who don’t walk on roads. I know this because Tengo spends a chapter reading to Fuka-eri about them, while she sleeps in his bed in his pajamas, while her nicely shaped chest is mentioned every paragraph. It is exactly as creepy as it sounds. Despite never having heard the thing, I know more about Janacek’s Sinfonietta then a classical music professor.  1Q84 reads like an attempt to break free from writers block, where the writer just gushes anything and everything from their mind with no real plot, point or purpose above ‘writing something.’ I think most writers have done it when they are feeling a little writers block, but it’s not usually published.

Despite all this criticism, 1Q84 has some interesting things in it. There is a communist revolutionary organization lurking in the shadows; A religious cult with more secrecy than North Korea; the (very drawn out) promise that Aomame may undertake another assassination (when she gets out of the clubbing scene, it could be a few hundred pages yet,) some magical ‘Little people’ who are apparently very wise and remain mostly hidden, and a joint US/USSR project to build a functioning base on the moon, not to mention the fact there are two moons. But I do suspect those last two were thrown in just to prove to the reader the book isn’t set in the real 1984, and Murakami probably has no intention of following them through. But then, it doesn’t appear Murakami has any intention of following anything though in this novel.  I must admit, I am a little intrigued to find out more about the revolutionary organization and the cult, but I’m not willing to wade through another 600 pages of Murakami delving into excruciating detail about everything that comes to mind and the sex lives of his characters. I think I’ll give the Wikipedia page a whirl. Or maybe I’ll just go read 1984 again – At least the fact Julia and Winston had a sex life meant something.