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Game Writing

samzenpus posted more than 6 years ago | from the more-capes-and-spaceships dept.

Games 68

Aeonite writes "Billed as the 'first complete guide to writing for games', Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames provides an excellent overview of the ins-and-outs of writing for the videogame industry. As might be expected from a publication of the IGDA's Game Writers' Special Interest Group, the book is dense with information, addressing everything from high-level narrative theory to the specifics of dialogue engine design and game localization." Read the rest of Aeonite's review.

When I see that a movie has multiple writers involved, I get a little nervous. It's usually a bad sign, generally indicating that the narrative will be somewhat piecemeal and uneven. As this book has 13 writers and a half-dozen additional subeditors, I was likewise nervous, but I was happy to discover that although each chapter has a different emphasis, the general tone remains steady throughout the book. There's a little more fluff up front, and a little more crunch in the back, but taken as a whole the book maintains a coherent focus. These 13 voices speak in harmony, and adequately cover both the creative and technical aspects of writing for games without any noticeable bumps.

The preface by Chris Bateman explains that a book on videogame writing is difficult to write, as many areas of the industry are still ill-defined. Whereas Hollywood has a fairly standard screenplay format that's fairly easy to work with, the videogame industry offers no single script format, due to the different requirements of different genres and different companies. Personal experience has taught me, for instance, that Microsoft Excel is one of the more useful tools when writing for games; one would not generally associate spreadsheets with narrative flow.

The chief complaint here is that there are no clear examples of great game narratives, with the industry's shining stars falling somewhat below the highest standards of work in other media. My interpretation of this is that Half-Life 2 is less Godfather 2, and more Escape From L.A. — good enough, but not great. According to Bateman, chief culprits for the lack of artistic polish may include the fact that the game industry is so young (compared to radio, television, and movies) and the lack of artistic freedom within the industry.

Worth calling out here is an example of where the industry seems to be falling short. At one point, the book discusses the concept of 'forced failure' in games, and why it's a narrative tactic to be avoided. A good example of this (my own, not the book's) is near the end of the original Half-Life game, which sees Gordon Freeman captured, stripped of all his gear, and dumped in a trash compactor, with the player unable to do anything but watch. Yet Half-Life won numerous Game of the Year awards, and is still considered by many to be one of the best games of all time. The point is not that Half-Life is a bad game for using 'forced failure', but rather that it could have been a a better game if it hadn't resorted to that tactic. In other words, even good games can do better, and this book is a first step towards achieving that goal, by way of establishing a 'coherent narrative language' for games.

The book itself is divided into 14 chapters. The first three can be roughly clustered into a category called Game Narrative, as they all focus on higher-level narrative theory. Chapter 1 provides an overall introduction, defining story, character, and other such terms before delving into what makes game writing unique (as compared to other media) and how a writer uses the tools provided (dialogue, cutscenes, etc.). Chapter 2 covers the Basics of Narrative, including Aristotle's Poetics, Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey, Freytag's Pyramid, Syd Field's Screenplay model, and the other sorts of things we English majors learn in school in lieu of math and science. Extensive discussion of Star Wars: Episode IV and how it maps to these models is provided, along with some coverage of Jungian and Campbellian Archetypes. Chapter 3 is an overview of what's involved with writing for games, covering the difference between narrative and story, types of narrative, pacing, structure, and the concept of player agency.

The next four chapters of the book contain less high-level theory and more specific application. The first two cover the path the character takes through the game, with Chapter 4 being an exploration of Nonlinear Game Narrative (branching structure, parallel paths, and how to merge story and game) and Chapter 5 discussing how to keep the player on track (breadcrumbing, funneling, the "edge of the world", etc.). Chapter 6 covers Game Characters (including types of protagonists, antagonists, and NPCs, and the traits and characteristics thereof), and Chapter 7 deals with the specifics of cutscenes and scripted events, and the dangers of removing player control.

Chapters 8 through 10 see the camera zooming out a bit more to cover the broader concepts of Writing Comedy for Videogames, Writing for Licenses, and The Needs of the Audience, respectively. Of the three, the last is the crunchiest, covering specific demographic data and the issues of gender, ethnicity and disability as they relate to a game audience.

The final four chapters cover issues specific to videogame writing, and as a whole generally focus on dialogue. The short Chapter 11 deals with Localization issues (translation, lip synching, cultural differences), with Chapter 12 covering Voice Actors more generally, including: a discussion of context, inflection, and emotion; the need to be at the recording session; and other technical considerations. Chapter 13 deals with Interchangeable Dialogue Content, and covers stitching, dialogue driven by game events, and the problems associated with simultaneity, interruptions and inflections. Chapter 14 closes the book on a crunchy note, covering Dialogue Engines in some detail, with many examples of the codelike format involved (dynamic elements, if-then statements, cases and states).

Although it probably goes without saying, this is obviously a book by writers, for writers. The book is very heavy with text, featuring only a very few charts and icons to break up the copy, so as far as layout and flow there's little to complain about aside from some minor inconsistencies, such as the little 'Note' icons which appear in Chapter 3 and nowhere else. Though dense with information, it's fairly easy to find your way around, as the book features an 8-page glossary, 6-page index and a perhaps too-detailed 9-page table of contents. Also worth noting is the copyediting; aside from some very sporadic typographical issues, the book gets an A+ for editing (with Chapter 2 perhaps only an A). Overall, it's hardly worth mentioning, which is always a good thing when it comes to typos.

My biggest complaint with the book is what's not covered. For instance, examples from real games, is billed as a main feature on the back cover, but there could have been more of them, especially with regards to more current games. This is not to say that they're not in there, but certain chapters (particularly those in the book's first third) would have benefited from less Star Wars and more Knights of the Old Republic. It's helpful to be aware of the high-level theory, but this is after all a book about game writing, so more examples from relevant games would be welcome.

I also found myself wishing that the book had devoted a chapter to breaking into the field of videogame writing. Books on other aspects of game design and development typically include such information: I have several on my desk right now that discuss how to create a portfolio and land a job as a Level Designer or Game Designer. Do videogame writers simply spring from the head of Zeus, ready for battle? With this information in place, the book would be a more useful tool to everyone from the pro writer to the complete novice; as it stands, the book is much more helpful to those already in the field. However, wishing that the book covered job entry is, I admit, somewhat akin to wishing that a book on carpentry also included a chapter on lumberjacking. Relevant, but not to be faulted for its absence.

As a whole, the book does what it sets out to accomplish, and provides a good overview of the issues involved in writing for videogames. It's a must-have for anyone in the videogame industry, or anyone who wishes to be.

You can purchase Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames from Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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Almost $20 cheaper at Amazon (3, Informative)

stoolpigeon (454276) | more than 6 years ago | (#17832190)

It is almost 20 bucks cheaper at Amazon [] . It has a four star average review there.
    (that's an associates link. if that is a problem, don't click on it.)

non-associated link (0, Redundant)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#17832470)

Another link [] You're welcome

Buy one for DNF coding team. (5, Funny)

Tatarize (682683) | more than 6 years ago | (#17834284)

That's cheap enough to buy a copy for the Duke Nukem Forever team.

Oh, to have that kind of job security.

Re:Buy one for DNF coding team. (1)

alamandrax (692121) | more than 7 years ago | (#17839646)




Re:Buy one for DNF coding team. (1)

Junior J. Junior III (192702) | more than 7 years ago | (#17846098)

This book is going to force the DNF guys to do another total rewrite, so that DNF will have the most revolutionary storytelling system ever. Nice going.

That's funny... (3, Funny)

ivan256 (17499) | more than 6 years ago | (#17832246)

Billed as the 'first complete guide to writing for games', Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames [...]

That's funny.. The copy of "Borland Turbo C++ 3.0 Games" that I bought in 1993 claims right on the cover to be a "Complete guide to writing video games [...]".

Key word: "FOR" (1)

PFI_Optix (936301) | more than 6 years ago | (#17832356)

There's a difference between writing them, and writing FOR them.

Re:Key word: "FOR" (0, Troll)

ivan256 (17499) | more than 6 years ago | (#17832594)

I thought I was making a joke. I guess it wasn't that funny.

8=O (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#17832276)

choad wanker

8==D (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#17832396)

Geez, get it right.

Re:8==D (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#17832680)

No, come on...

8==D~~~ SPLAT!

Re:8=O (2, Funny)

User 956 (568564) | more than 6 years ago | (#17832646)

choad wanker

Uwe Boll? Is that you?

For great justice... (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#17832288)

I can't believe anybody would specialize in this. Based on the games I've played this could be the perfect career choice for writers who lack any and all basic literacy skills (eg: slashdot editors). Another 10 years and the RAMBO script is going to be hailed as Shakespearian.

Re:For great justice... (5, Insightful)

Miniluv (165290) | more than 6 years ago | (#17833684)

How shocking that the majority of anything is crap. The majority of books written are crap, as are the majority of television shows and movies. At least in my opinion. Hell, the majority of SHAKESPEARE is crap. He wrote a dozen fantastic plays, one hundred and fifty odd brilliant sonnets, and a whole heaping pile of cow shit smeared on parchment.

Also, don't knock the original Rambo. Just because the subsequent movies were over the top action flicks with little merit aside from their entertainment value does not mean that the original movie was not a solid screenplay as well as a solid film. It is easy to forget today that Rambo really broadened the action genre, allowing for a developing embrace of the anti-hero who transitions to actual hero by virtue of bucking the system. It also explored the treatment of a segment of the American population when they returned home from an unpopular conflict with personal demons that we as a society demanded they lock away.

Re:For great justice... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#17834138)

How shocking that the majority of anything is crap.

Also known as Sturgeon's Law [] .

Re:For great justice... (1)

Ambitwistor (1041236) | more than 6 years ago | (#17833722)

Perhaps the point of specializing in game writing is to raise standards and introduce literary skills into a field that lacks them.

Re:For great justice... (2, Interesting)

Sciros (986030) | more than 6 years ago | (#17833838)

I wholeheartedly agree. The quality of game storylines and dialogue is currently a couple of notches below that of DC/Marvel monthly comics, which is quite pathetic. Even the generally-agreed-upon-being-great story and dialogue of Baldur's Gate 2, when compared to more traditional forms of literature, simply isn't very good.

Games do have issues to deal with that make things hard for writers -- pacing, interactivity, multiple plot progressions, etc. But I do think that when there are *professionals* in the field, the end product should not be as consistently poor as game stories happen to be.

I'm far from a good writer, and I try to not judge work I'm not technically qualified to, but with something like video game writing it's just too easy to do because it's just that bad.

Anyway this is kinda ranty at the moment. With regards to the book being reviewed, I think it's hardly a useful item as far as us gamers are concerned. Not because it's not written for us, but because it doesn't teach game writers what it ought to -- how to have people read over your crap to make sure it's logical, how to ask people to say your dialogue out loud so you realize it sounds hilariously lame, how to notice when people see your "surprise ending" coming a mile away, and how to tell when the reason they don't is because it flies in the face of any sort of common sense. Game writers need to *improve* over where they currently are. The last thing they need is a "this is how it's done nowadays so make sure you know it inside-and-out" book.

Bateman, the book's main author, has the following amazingly written and designed games to his credit: Discworld Noir, Ghost Master and, Bratz: Rock Angels. Whoopee this guy is definitely top tier when it comes to literary masters of our time. Bratz is my fav franchise ever because the stories are just so cool...

Re:For great justice... (1)

_|()|\| (159991) | more than 6 years ago | (#17834414)

The quality of game storylines and dialogue is currently a couple of notches below that of DC/Marvel monthly comics, which is quite pathetic.

I'm not ready to award a Pulitzer to a comic book yet, but I would say that Bruce Jones (Incredible Hulk) and Brian Michael Bendis (Ultimate Spider-Man, Alias, Powers) have done some good work for Marvel lately. Having picked up some of the Marvel compilations on CD-ROM, I have to say that the new generation has far surpassed Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

Re:For great justice... (1)

MrDomino (799876) | more than 7 years ago | (#17835738)

Now, that's not entirely fair. Deus Ex, for instance, had an amazing story written by some [] brilliant [] people [] .

Sequel requested (1)

PFI_Optix (936301) | more than 6 years ago | (#17832300)

"Game Documentation Writing"

Read the manual for a game released in the past couple of years? They typically consist of 20-30 pages of three things:

How to install the game (duh)
How the main menu works
How the main game screen works

If you're lucky, it might tell you a few things like information on specific weapons or units. But maybe not all of them.

How about giving me a comprehensive list of hotkeys? Or an explanation of all the features of online play? Do you think maybe you could mention something about port forwarding for the massive number of broadband users who would benefit from it? HOW ABOUT INSTRUCTIONS ON HOW TO PLAY BOTH FACTIONS??? (I'm talking to you, developers of Company of Heroes)

Re:Sequel requested (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#17832580)

Falcon 4, the epitome of flight sims, came in a special 3 ring binder edition. I think the manual was a few hundred pages, and went over everything from piloting basics to advanced weapon use.

MicroProse always provided excellent manuals. Even on the C64, their manuals could be 100+ pages long.

Re:Sequel requested (1)

PFI_Optix (936301) | more than 6 years ago | (#17832920)

I know. It's on my bookshelf :)

Re:Sequel requested (1)

Skadet (528657) | more than 6 years ago | (#17834310)

Don't forget the epilepsy warnings, repetitive stress warnings, ergonomic tips, very long legal disclaimer, and credits!

Oh wait, how do you actually *play* the game? That's not what a manual's for!

Re:Sequel requested (2, Insightful)

SlimSpida (850632) | more than 6 years ago | (#17835132)

I worked on Company of Heroes. For several reasons (localization, print lead times) publishers need to lock down manuals several months before the game goes gold. Since games often go through changes right up the very end, the manual will often be outdated by the time the game ships, and plenty of critical information ends up in the readme, or worse, a patch.

Re:Sequel requested (1)

PFI_Optix (936301) | more than 7 years ago | (#17842462)

They left out crucial information on playing as Germans. The *only* way to learn how that faction works is to start up a skirmish and experiment with it.

please (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#17832480)

if warren spector had written this, i would buy it.

Yeah, but... (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#17832506)

What it like writing for games?

Still waiting for the book... (4, Funny)

creimer (824291) | more than 6 years ago | (#17832540)

On how to translate Japanese into really bad English [] successfully the first time.

learn something new everyday (3, Funny)

stoolpigeon (454276) | more than 6 years ago | (#17832596)

Whereas Hollywood has a fairly standard screenplay format that's fairly easy to work with,
that's why so many movies suck.
  Microsoft Excel is one of the more useful tools when writing for games; one would not generally associate spreadsheets with narrative flow.
that's why so many games suck

Re:learn something new everyday (1)

Korvar (937226) | more than 7 years ago | (#17844722)

At the risk of giving a serious reply to a funny post, the "fairly standard screenplay format" in Hollywood refers to the physical format - the typeface, character spacing, specific formatting for different sections (dialogue, character names, action description, location specifiers) and so forth. A sort of standardisation of information delivery protocols, if you will. This means that an aspiring screenwriter will know how they are meant to present their stories; presumably this is contrasted with the games industry, which is apparently so bizarre that Excel is a good idea. The fairly standard Hollywood movie formula, on the other hand, is indeed why so many movies suck.

Storytelling Ability Is the Primary Requirement (2, Interesting)

curmudgeon99 (1040054) | more than 6 years ago | (#17832640)

Developers always spend a lot of time worrying about the technical aspects of Game Writing. In fact, coding is the easy part. Storytelling, the art of making us care about the game play and become engaged in the story, is the central problem. Although developers spend most of their time learning how to make cool graphics, they should learn how to tell a good story.

For example, is running a novel writing contest right now. First prize is $5,000.00 and publication by Simon & Schuster. The central problem with the majority of the entries? Lack of storytelling skills.

Here is an example that does have a story and that has been highly rated:

The Butcher of Leningrad []

Here is an article that attempts to address the problem of:
What Is A Story

Anyone who has set off to write a novel or even a short story will eventually confront this question: what is a story? There are many books available, those that were published in the past fifty years and those that more recently entered print.

As a budding author, you may commence to write a story or what you think is a story by trying to relate an anecdote that you heard. Unless you are quite fortunate, this approach does not yield very good fruit. The explanation of why this doesn't is as mysterious as the entire writing process. One cannot go to a single place and find the answer, as one could hope to do with an encyclopedia. Rather, one must investigate the answer and attempt to get close to the solution.

Ernest Hemingway's Advice: "Don't Describe, Invent"

I began my life as a writer back in 1983, when I was 18 years old. I first began by reading Ernest Hemingway's "First 49" short stories. I was amazed at how effective they were. I dissected them sentence by sentence, trying to figure out by the arrangement of clauses, the control over concrete verbs and the avoidance of adjectives what he had accomplished. I did not arrive at an obvious answer and in fact just got more confused. I turned to the many biographies and analytical works that strove to understand what Hemingway was trying to achieve. I accomplished the same thing I would have if I had just read each of the stories over and over a hundred times. I achieved a critical close reading by reading these biographies and critical analyses.

More importantly, though, I heard related a lot of the comments Hemingway himself made about his writing life. He was always making pronouncements that I did not understand and that frustrated me. One of the first ones I heard was: "Don't describe, Invent." Well, I thought. What the devil does that mean? It took me about two years of my own writing to start to understand what he was meaning by this cryptic comment. Hemingway was describing the process of story writing. When a writer tries to create a story out of something that actually happened to them, they are apt to describe what actually happened. That might work except that a person's imagination--driven by their subconscious--is always limited by what actually happened to them. Their imagination can go no further than the real events. If the writer does not base their story on a real event, then what we just described (description) is not an option. If the writer makes up a story from whole cloth, then they are not describing, they are inventing. In this situation, the imagination--driven by the subconscious--is not hampered by the real events that happened. Instead, the mind is free to live in the story, to make it up as it goes along. This is the first secret that a writer must learn. Usually a writer will not get around to inventing stories until they have used up all the stories they know or have heard. So, it isn't until you use up all the crap you know that you start to really engage your imagination and write some good stuff.

Hemingway's Iceberg Principle

Hemingway was full of these little nuggets of wisdom. I am fortunate that I started to pay more attention to what he said to his biographers than to what he wrote. Sure, I read everything Hemingway wrote but I found that he didn't always practice what he preached. In his personal discourses, Hemingway explained stuff that you sensed he had grown too lazy to practice in his dialogue heavy stories. And by those, we're purposely excluding masterpieces such as Sun, Farewell and Bell. Another one of Hemingway's insights came in the form of his famous and, again, cryptic "Iceberg Principle", in which he said that a story was often improved by what was left out, rather than what was put in.

This seques nicely into a separate but related point about how the writer must meet the reader at the halfway point. If the writer is too specific and states every single thing, such as the number of scratches on the hero's nose, then the reader's imagination does not have much work to do and it becomes boring for the reader. On the other hand, if the writer does too little and just says. The old man squatted in the corner with no other color added, then the reader has to imagine too much--do too much work--and this is also boring for him. Therefore, the writer wants not to tell too much. Rather, the writer wants to find that Goldilocks point where the reader is involved but not overwhelmed. Hemingway meant with his Iceberg Principle that sometimes you need to pull back and say less so the reader has to do more work and involves her imagination more. Ah, that's what he was getting at--in my opinion. You may have a better explanation.

Show Don't Tell

This now brings us to the final big kahoona point of all fiction writing technique: show don't tell. This is a point that you will never exhaust. It never runs out of metaphoric meanings. Here's what I'm talking about. If I was staring through a keyhole in a wooden fence and I said: "Ooh, that is the coolest thing I have ever seen. How can they do that? That's just shocking!" You would want to say "Move the hell aside--let me see for myself!" People don't want you to digest their experience, they want to get the information for their five senses first hand--for themselves, so they can digest it themselves. They don't want you to chew up the experience for them and then spit it out and say: "Oh, that steak tasted really good."

In the fiction world, when I give you digested experience--and deny you the chance to see, feel, taste, smell and hear it yourself first--we call that "telling." If I as the writer show you the plumes of steam rising from the steak, if the hot smell of beef curls under your tongue, if you bite down on the meat and the strong sirloin juice rolls across your tongue and runs over your lip and drips off your chin--ah, that you can taste. I'm not in there between you and your steak. You're chewing it yourself, right off the plate. That is what readers want. That is called showing.

If you read most novels that were written a hundred years ago--with some notable exceptions (some Dickens, some Tolstoy), you will get predigested experience that we now know is telling. Readers have learned that it doesn't have to be that way and so they do not accept that. Hemingway, by the way, was one of the first modern writers to really learn that lesson. One of the things that he did right was to--at all costs--show. He refused to tell. In Hemingway's case, the style is known as the "objective correlative". Or, "the sequence of motion and fact that creates the experience." Hemingway was not cheating and telling you what he was trying to say. Rather, using his method in its purest form, he was forcing himself to always show you and never cheat and tell you what you should think. Consider "Hills Like White Elephants." No where in the story are we told that it's about the man wanting his girlfriend to get an abortion but (here's the iceberg) we sense that this conflict exists. In fact, in Hemingway's case, he would first write in the part about abortion and then he would remove it--trusting that he had left enough traces of it that we, as readers, would sense its presence. That, my friends, is art.

So, thus far, we have only covered the idea of how you express yourself in your writing. Sadly, it is absolutely necessary that you understand all that but it is not enough by itself. You need to know a lot more about how a story is constructed.

Shakespeare's Plots: Introduction, Growth, Climax, Fall & Catastrophe

Stories have been around for thousands of years. What constitutes a story has progressed in those centuries. What Homer would have considered a story is not necessarily what we modern readers would expect. In the case of Shakespeare's time, he knew a lot but modern readers are less patient than were his viewers.

All of Shakespeare's plays are quietly divided up into five acts. And, these acts each have a dramatic function. The parts are: Introduction, Growth, Climax, Fall and Catastrophe.

i.) Introduction: we lay out what the play is about. Take the example of MacBeth. MacBeth listens to the witches three and they tell him if three things happen, he will become king.
ii.) Growth: right away, one thing and then a second thing has happened and so MacBeth knows he is well on his way to becoming king. The last thing that must happen is for the present king, Duncan, to die.

iii.) Climax: MacBeth himself decided to kill king Duncan. [Notice how we 20th-Century movie watchers are used to the terminology of having the "Climax" come near the end of a story. In fact, the climax is the most intense part of the story but it should come exactly at the middle. Until the reaction to the climax has happened, the story is only half told.
iv.) Fall: The Fall is the reaction or response to the Climax. In the case of MacBeth, the King's men start to figure out that it was MacBeth who killed King Duncan.
v.) Catastrophe: This last act is where King Duncan's men come and kill MacBeth for what he did in the Climax.

So, you see, in Shakespeare's time, a story was an even bit of architecture. If you cut off any part of the story, boy--it was not complete.

Fiction is Architecture--Not Interior Decorating

This brings us back, nicely, to another famous quote by Hemingway. Fiction is architecture, not interior decorating. A story (a novel) is not about pretty writing. It's about completing a dramatic structure. That's the point.

Dean Koontz' "How to Write a Bestseller" (1974, Out of print)

Having learned all of this stuff, you will still find yourself with a big problem. You know now what you need to accomplish but how do you get that done? Dean Koontz, who knows a bit about novel writing, wrote a famous book in 1974 called "How to Write a Bestseller." The title sounds like another one of those wastes of $20 that you can buy but in fact, on page 73 of this book, Koontz laid out what I had been seeking for 13 years. He explains how to write a novel. "First, begin with terrible trouble," he says. The next two or three pages really explains the rest of the stuff that I'm not going to totally give away because a novelist I know--Tami Crawford--who owns a copy would skin me alive if I did. If you can find your own copy and read from page 73 onward, you can find the secret. (Sorry, writing is the most competitive business there is.)

Dwight Swain's "Techniques of the Selling Writer"

Another famous book that is full of goodies is Dwight Swain's "Techniques of the Selling Writer." What we're talking about now is not how to write but how to plan a novel. If you are right-handed, then you will really find Swain's book the most valuable. If you are left-handed (like me), then his absolutely linear sequential method will not fit as well with your thought patterns, which are visual simultaneous. (For more on this, go to Wikipedia, find the article on "left handed" and see the piece I wrote called: "Possible effect on thought in humans.")

Swain also had another great point, which was this: the strength of your novel is equal to the strength of your villain. If your antagonist--villain--is not up to par, then it will be hard for we as readers to care. If you want us to care about your main character, put him or her through hell.

As you may have noticed, by this point my analysis comes closer to the modern times and so my research and explanations are less thorough and less satisfying. Story writing is an evolving art. It is the queen of all arts because it incorporates all of them.

I personally have completed six novel-length manuscripts and I am still learning with every new one. My entry to this contest, "The Butcher of Leningrad", is my best one ever. I would appreciate hearing what you think.

Noah Lukeman's "The First Five Pages"

There are many people who have been annoyed by the limitations of this contest. The limitations on being a US Citizen or resident are not justifiable--we all know. They are administrative comprimises to keep the entrants manageable.

The requirement that you have a finished novel are, however, perfectly justifiable. I don't know about you but I have started about 40 novels. I have completed six. The first three were completed only in the sense that I finished the story I wanted to finish. In four of the six, I actually had a dramatic plan for a novel--but not too detailed of one, must leave room for the imagination to invent--and I completed that dramatic plan. All of that matters, but it is not enough.

In the days of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, an Editor such as Max Perkins was the gatekeeper for a novelist. Nowadays, publishing house consolidation being what it is, Agents are the new gatekeepers. An agent named Noah Lukeman wrote a very provocative book called "The First Five Pages" that describes the process from the agent's side. It explains all of the excuses and reasons that overworked agents, agents who don't want to carry 100lbs of manuscripts home every weekend, use to flush novels. Reading this book opened my eyes and caused me to perform a kind of rewriting on my novel. I dumped nearly every adverb. I made the formatting perfect, etc. The point is this: if you're whining about this little contest's difficulties, then you have no idea what you would be required to stand if you were to encounter an agent. This, my friends, is nothing.

So, I have given away (nearly) all of the secrets that I have gleaned over the years. This is what is needed to succeed. Years ago I would not have dreamed of revealing all these secrets because I considered them an edge. They do constitute an "edge" but they are by no means sufficient to get the job done. That, my friends, is up to you.

--Tom Hunter (Original article:What is a Story [] )

Re:Storytelling Ability Is the Primary Requirement (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#17832924)

Although developers spend most of their time learning how to make cool graphics, they should learn how to tell a good story.

No, it is the developers job to present a good story well. Just like a director to a movie. But it is not their job to write the story. That is the writers job. Except if you are one of those indie game developers where you pretty much do both.

Re:Storytelling Ability Is the Primary Requirement (1)

ClosedSource (238333) | more than 6 years ago | (#17832964)

"Developers always spend a lot of time worrying about the technical aspects of Game Writing. In fact, coding is the easy part. Storytelling, the art of making us care about the game play and become engaged in the story, is the central problem."

I would say gameplay is the most important aspect of a game. You can have a wonderful story, but that doesn't mean it's going to make a great game. Even if you think storytelling is the most important part, that doesn't make coding "the easy part". It may be true that there are fewer good writers than good programmers, but that doesn't mean the writer's job is harder than a programmer's.

Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey & Story in Ga (1)

22RealMcCoy (864375) | more than 6 years ago | (#17833066)

Just saw a conference with a panel on storytelling in video games: []

Seems classic story surround us--practically everywhere but video games.

When will video games achive deeper narrative? Do they need to?

Are video games art?

Is there a classic video game on par with Shakespeare or the Odyssey or Dante's Inferno?

Can Campbell's "Hero's Journey" be brought to life in the realm of video games?

Re:Storytelling Ability Is the Primary Requirement (4, Insightful)

guaigean (867316) | more than 6 years ago | (#17833478)

Developers always spend a lot of time worrying about the technical aspects of Game Writing. In fact, coding is the easy part.

Do you have any idea how arrogant that statement is? Not to be a troll, but I can't count the number of times Liberal Art majors in College tried to act holier than thou because they experienced the "symbolism" of a story, and felt it was so much more important than science or math.

Yes, I realize that storytelling is important to games as well, but don't try to act like "coding is the easy part". Most people don't even stop to read the text in these games, particularly MMORPG's. More realistically, people tend to care about their level, their gear, and how quickly they can kill another player. Don't try to marginalize the skill and dedication of programmer's just because you FEEL that the story is harder to write than the code.

It's balanced (1)

PIPBoy3000 (619296) | more than 7 years ago | (#17842938)

I've won several awards for my Neverwinter Nights modules [] . These were all coded and written almost completely by myself. In all honesty, both the writing and the coding are equally challenging for me, in different ways. I'm a long-time programmer, so I can whip up some code pretty easily, though debugging and understanding the inner mysteries of the game engine is often challenging. Being able to consistently write good dialog and maintain focus on key plot themes can also be quite difficult.

For me, it's great fun, as different parts of my brain get a good workout when making a module. For writing, I like to hang out in a coffee shop with a tattered notebook. When coding, it's tea in front of the computer. I guess the moral of the story is that everything is easy with enough caffeine.

Re:Storytelling Ability Is the Primary Requirement (1)

curmudgeon99 (1040054) | more than 7 years ago | (#17844102)

guaigean, I have been a software developer for around 11 years. I make my living writing code. When you make code, you are solving a problem whose outline and parameters are defined. You are "solving" a problem. Writing code is not that hard. In writing the story, the parameters are not decided. You must create both the problem and its solution. Creative work such as writing is infinitely more complex than writing code. And I'm not some foofy English major. I know code. I'm not talking about theme bs, I'm talking about writing a story. Why does Stephen King make millions? Why does Joe Koder make $80,000? Becuase the former is much more difficult to do. Your foofy English major didn't know what they were talking about either. Perhaps it sounds arrogant to you. Fine. That does not detract from the substance of the point. It remains true.

Re:Storytelling Ability Is the Primary Requirement (1)

Ambitwistor (1041236) | more than 6 years ago | (#17833812)

Although developers spend most of their time learning how to make cool graphics, they should learn how to tell a good story.
In most games nowadays, except for small development shops, the two tasks are done by different people. Cool graphics are made by developers (engine coders) and artists. Telling a good story is done by game designers and dialogue writers.

Re:Storytelling Ability Is the Primary Requirement (1)

Ambitwistor (1041236) | more than 6 years ago | (#17833854)

Telling a good story is done by game designers and dialogue writers.
I should perhaps amend that to, "telling a story is done by game designers and dialogue writers". Telling a good story in a game is done by no one (usually).

Re:Storytelling Ability Is the Primary Requirement (1)

Xenoliths (966439) | more than 7 years ago | (#17837802)

If I had points I'd give you some for your generally great post. However, I thought the 5 act structure was imposed on Shakespeare's plays by later publishers. The excellent book by Mark Rose, Shakespearean Design, reveals a more sophisticated structure in the plays that is obscured by the (somewhat arbirtrary) 5 act demarcation. I'd go into an example, but I don't have the book next to me... I think its the finest book I've ever read about Shakespeare and also on dramaturgy and dramatic structures... about the best thing that I came across when writing my thesis on Macbeth. I recommend it highly and the few people who I know have read it (as in my copy of it) have praised it highly as well - its available second hand on Amazon...

Re:Storytelling Ability Is the Primary Requirement (1)

curmudgeon99 (1040054) | more than 7 years ago | (#17844772)

I read a book called "Shakespeare's Plots" and that's where my information came from. I will agree that Shakespeare did not ever say his plots were designed like that. We inferred it. I also think there will in infiite set of variations on the topic as we, in essence, dissect the workings of Shakespeare's brain.

Glad you liked the post. Please now go and vote for my novel at

The Butcher of Leningrad []

thank you,


THE complete guide (2, Funny)

steveo777 (183629) | more than 6 years ago | (#17832686)

1. Hire either Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, or Morgan Freeman to narrate
2. ???
3. Profit!

Still only so many paths (1)

Form-o-Stuff (706090) | more than 6 years ago | (#17832814)

Too bad videogames are still limited by the versatility of their prewritten scripts. You either have to have a bunch of mute whores (GTA) or a lot of very obsessive task-oriented people NPCs. "I really think we should get back to the mission." "I hardly think this is a time to be fooling around." "Stop touching me!"

Re:Still only so many paths (1)

ClosedSource (238333) | more than 6 years ago | (#17833090)

I admit it's been a long, long time since I've played any non-arcade style games so my comments may be obsolete, but the central puzzle of these adventure-style games seems to be to guess what the game designer was thinking at the time. Wouldn't it be great if you could solve problems in ways that the writers never anticipated? Or are there games that really allow that today and I just don't know about them?

Re:Still only so many paths (1)

Form-o-Stuff (706090) | more than 6 years ago | (#17834428)

We've strayed onto Level Design from Game Plot writing. I'll touch on both. Fortunately for the game writers, although solving problems in unique ways is becoming more mainstream, the script doesn't need to worry much about this. That's because the nature of the plot just needs to set up why your character needs to complete that goal. Oh, your princess is captured? Well you need to get into that castle and save her. The galactic counsel has been infiltrated by a Sith Lord? Well you'd better sneak through the Death Star to confront him. While more and more games are giving you more ways to solve problems (Deus Ex lets you build your own climbing structures, pick locks, program robots. Splinter Cell lets you knock people out, hide bodies, disable alarms, hide or just shoot) Since it's the developer's job to make the game fun and playable, at least one solution will always exist and be known to the developer. If you could imagine a game with an infinite number of interactive elements (down to the chemical composition), you could claim there MUST be a solution to the problem, then the programmer's job would be done, and could just write your character to get locked in a solid steel room in a straight jacket, and say, "There's a way out, in theory." The way communism works, in theory. That's why you're always going to have the dumb-AI guard with the security pass facing the wrong way outside the compound gate. The invisible hand of "We hope you enjoy our game" will always leave an obvious and less-creativity-necessary-than-reality way through. Sure, there'll be a few alternate ways to win, and by the end you'll have to be rather clever using what you've learned. But since you're still just solving a set objective at a time, the plot can be untouched no matter how you solve a problem.

Re:Still only so many paths (1)

ClosedSource (238333) | more than 6 years ago | (#17834590)

"if you could imagine a game with an infinite number of interactive elements (down to the chemical composition), you could claim there MUST be a solution to the problem, then the programmer's job would be done, and could just write your character to get locked in a solid steel room in a straight jacket, and say, "There's a way out, in theory."

That's pretty much exactly what I imagined, but I'm sure it's not that easy to implement. Back "in the day", all we had to worry about was getting the big, fat pixels on the screen (Atari 2600); everything else was just gravy.

Re:Still only so many paths (1)

Form-o-Stuff (706090) | more than 6 years ago | (#17834712)

Oh don't worry, I'm arguing that this is totally infeasible, and if anybody wanted to play a game that open-ended, they should turn to reality for their fix.

Re:Still only so many paths (1)

Torvaun (1040898) | more than 7 years ago | (#17835678)

As soon as they give reality save points, I'll be all over that.

Re:Still only so many paths (1)

Half-pint HAL (718102) | more than 7 years ago | (#17841038)

We've strayed onto Level Design from Game Plot writing.

I disagree. Problems and solutions are narrative devices, hence part of the plot. To try to state that this is level design, not plot, is to suggest that the plot only exists in the cutscenes between levels.


Re:Still only so many paths (1)

Form-o-Stuff (706090) | more than 7 years ago | (#17844730)

I guess I was drawing a distinction between dialogue-requiring plot and puzzle-solving plot. Sure, a level can be full of lots of small puzzles, but they're mostly things like "get over there" where you might HEAR more DIALOGUE, that might tell you where you have to go next, thus justifying the next puzzle. The plot is then like the information-justified goal, and the gameplay is overcoming the obstacles imbetween.:

I can't wait to get this book, they must touch on all of this.

Re:Still only so many paths (1)

Skadet (528657) | more than 6 years ago | (#17834362)

"I hardly think this is a time to be fooling around." "Stop touching me!"
Huh, sounds strangely like a number of young ladies I used to date. . . .

Yu0 fail it?! (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#17832846)

To place A paper []

I am a video game writer (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#17833014)

And let me tell you, if you are a writer who likes video games... get a job writing for some other medium, and play games after work. Unless you work on a project where the story is regarded as critical from the upper levels of management on down you are likely to be a frustrated video game writer.

Huh? Please dont editorialize (1)

Jack9 (11421) | more than 6 years ago | (#17833142)

A good example of this (my own, not the book's) is near the end of the original Half-Life game, which sees Gordon Freeman captured, stripped of all his gear, and dumped in a trash compactor, with the player unable to do anything but watch. Yet Half-Life won numerous Game of the Year awards, and is still considered by many to be one of the best games of all time. The point is not that Half-Life is a bad game for using 'forced failure', but rather that it could have been a a better game if it hadn't resorted to that tactic.
A story has a beginning and an end and sometimes a sequel. The game would not have been better, but different. Stories and games have one commonality that they are banking on; people prefer certain styles more than others and he is in that minority that can't appreciate the original HL storyline. I wonder how he feels about Zelda now.

Variations on Choose Your Own Adventure (1)

ubuwalker31 (1009137) | more than 6 years ago | (#17833328)

The problem with lots of games, but not all, is that the formula is either "Choose Your Own Adventure" oriented, where your actions have profound and unpredictable consequences, often with no rhyme or reason, or the story lines are fixed as you advance through the adventure, with too little interaction, just little movies. There has to be a better model.

Short version (5, Funny)

tfbastard (782237) | more than 6 years ago | (#17833532)

An evil
[ ] wizard
[ ] dragon
[ ] robot

is threatening
[ ] a princess
[ ] a prince
[ ] an island inhabited by ewok-esque creatures

as the
[ ] son
[ ] daughter
[ ] best man

it is your duty to
[ ] club everything in your path
[ ] collect money
[ ] get lost in dungeons
[ ] all of the above

Re:Short version (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#17834744)

That pretty much sums up the story line of fable...

Even Shorter (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#17834972)

Thank you, but the princess is
[ ] in another castle

Rinse and Repeat for maximum effect

Re:Short version (1)

lonechicken (1046406) | more than 7 years ago | (#17842784)

Don't forget. The main character has to either have amnesia, woken up from a coma, has been destined to be greater than what his/her upbringing by his foster parent would suggest, or has a "dark past."

Save $18.38 by buying the book at! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#17833586)

Barnes and Noble is selling this book for $39.95, but is only selling it for $21.57!
Save yourself $18.38 by buying the book here: Game Writing [] . That's a total savings of 46.01%!

Interactive Fiction (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#17834252)

These sorts of problems have already been well-researched for interactive fiction. Check out books like "Twisty Little Passages" for more details.

VIDEO Game Writing (1)

Kris_J (10111) | more than 6 years ago | (#17834558)

Is says "videogames" right there in the book title, why was it dropped in the Slashdot headline? Last time I checked, you didn't need to consider voice actors for a typical card game. Videogames are a sub-set of games -- not the entire set!

Re:VIDEO Game Writing (1)

f_raze13 (982309) | more than 7 years ago | (#17836000)

However, the only writing you need to do for a card game would be the instructions, so that's hardly worth mentioning.

Re:VIDEO Game Writing (1)

Kris_J (10111) | more than 7 years ago | (#17837348)

There's the cards as well. Not every card game uses a standard 52-card deck. Then there's a heap of graphical design, getting the cards printed and packaged (including writing and designing what's going to be on the box/packaging) and distributed, writing advertising copy, press releases. And contacting stores and chains to actually sell the thing. Display boxes don't design themselves either. Plus there's the potential for new rules with the existing cards. And I've probably missed at least a dozen other things.

The rewards are no good (1)

sean_ex_machina (1026748) | more than 6 years ago | (#17834830)

As long as most people don't really care much either way, there's no incentive for game writing to rise above the level of a bad fantasy or sci-fi novel. You can sell a game on great gameplay or great graphics, but it's pretty tough to sell it on great writing alone.

It doesn't help that the people who do seem to care about game writing tend to have rather indiscriminate taste. Every time someone says "the plot of Metal Gear Solid is better than any action movie" (or, worse, "Xenogears has a great story"), I die a little inside.

Re:The rewards are no good (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#17836884)

>(or, worse, "Xenogears has a great story"), I die a little inside.

When you finally do, I promise to make your reanimated Wels' death a quick and mostly painless one.

Snakes on a Video Game (1)

Eli Gottlieb (917758) | more than 7 years ago | (#17837960)

I hope this book helps out the video game writing situation, but most video games still have better writing than the movie referenced in this post's title.
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