Author Topic: On Narrative Design  (Read 2175 times)

Mister Andersen

  • Control
  • ******
  • Posts: 11799
  • I'm leaving for a destination I still don't know
    • View Profile
Re: On Narrative Design
« Reply #15 on: January 27, 2015, 10:23:20 AM »
Game Writing - Nuts and Bolts (Part 3)
So I picked through the suggestions. Some good ones in there, a few that could certainly be taken and developed into an actual quest. Some were just the start of a quest. Take this one:

"DAO, Frostback Mountains, Duncan and the dwarf Warden run into an ambush while leaving Orzammar."

Now, the player runs into random encounters all the time in DAO… for this to be an actual quest, it would need to lead to something more than just fighting and killing the ambushers. Maybe the Duncan questions one of them and discovers who sent them, but the player doesn’t get the option to follow up on this until after Ostagar. Maybe the ambush is a distraction, and something Duncan was carrying got stolen amidst the hubbub and now he and the player need to get it back— maybe it’s the Archdemon blood he needs for the Joining? Can’t proceed without it!

So with something like that, it just needs some development and it could be made into a quest plot just fine.

For a few other suggestions, the issue was that they lacked something for the player to actually do… or the only thing that would occur was a conversation. A really simple plot could consist of “go to A, speak with character there” …but that’s only barely a plot, and even less of one if the “go to A” part involves no complication. Does that make sense?

So of the suggestions that remained, I’m going to pick this one to develop:

"DA2, Breaking and Entering, Hawke needs to get a letter to Bethany, who’s locked in the Circle."

Before I proceed to do up an actual design document, I’m going to throw out a more simplified version of how this quest could work— but it’s going to be incorrect. I’ll put it together as something I would red light and offer notes toward a revision… and I want you to see if you can tell me what’s wrong with it.

So here it is, in short:

Step 1

(Condition: player is warrior/rogue, Bethany went to the Circle at the end of Act 1)

Hightown, player’s home. When the player speaks to Leandra after the start of Act 2, she tells the player she’s worried about Bethany. They haven’t heard from her in over a year, and her letters have been returned unopened. She begs the player to get a letter to Bethany, to see her in person so Leandra knows she’s okay. Quest added, letter received.

Step 2

Player speaks to Samson in Darktown. As a former templar, he knows how to get into the Gallows— but wouldn’t suggest it. If pressured, he’ll tell the player how to get into the cellar through a secret Darktown entrance… but for the rest of the path, the player will be on their own. Their best option, he says, is to go alone and dress up as either a templar or a Circle mage. The player can pick which.

This opens up the Darktown location which the player will need to click on in order to enter the cellar.

Step 3

After entering the cellar, the player will be switched to their chosen disguise. The player is then allowed to move into the main Gallows area— it’s night-time, and while the player doesn’t need to use actual stealth they do need to avoid opening doors that they can hear voices beyond. If they do so, this will start combat and the player will be forced to run out of the Gallows (placing them outside, back in Darktown, quest failed).

Provided they don’t do that, they can overhear in several places that Bethany has been placed in an isolation cell on the second floor— either that or they can go to the stairs themselves without hearing anything. Before doing so, go to Step 4.

Step 4

Upon reaching the stairs, an encounter fires— if the player is dressed as a templar, it’s with Cullen. If dressed as a mage, it’s with Orsino. The player has the option to bluff, to plead with Cullen/Orsino to let them see Bethany (both will reluctantly agree, so long as the player leaves immediately afterwards), to lie about something urgent happening elsewhere (giving them limited time with Bethany), or to spectacularly fail— which results in Cullen/Orsino calling the templars, and the player being forced to run out (as in Step 3). Provided the player gets to proceed, go to Step 5.

Step 5

If the player was taken to see Bethany by Cullen/Orsino, they’re escorted directly there. Otherwise, the player goes up the stairs and Bethany sees them from the door’s little window— Bethany calls out to the player, drawing their attention.

The ensuing conversation occurs through the window: Bethany doesn’t want to be freed, and she’s the one who sent the letters back. She thinks it best that her family forgets about her. The player can argue, convincing her to take the letter & send word back to their mother. Alternatively, the player can angrily walk away. This ends the quest, putting the player back outside in Darktown.



So go ahead, tell me what’s wrong. As a warning, however: the way to correct “what’s wrong” can but should not always translate into adding more content. Every plot can be made bigger and more complicated… and yes, that could make it better, but that can’t be the answer to every issue with a plot. Small plots need to be possible as well, and in this case I’ve got a 2,000-word budget to spread around.

With that in mind, knock yourself out. When I do my next update, I’ll post a revised overview with the actual document I’d use for this situation.

Game Writing - Nuts and Bolts (Part 4)
A lot of great comments and analysis on the last write-up. I’ll go through a few of the comments here, and then post my amended narrative overview for the quest.

Thanks to everyone who partook— and note that there is no wrong answer when it comes to quest design. I have experience, and I can say what might work specifically for Dragon Age, but beyond that there’s no magic trick as to what makes for a good quest and what doesn’t. This is all trial-and-error, with a bit of judgement and personal preference. That’s game design in a nutshell, though.

    What do I gain from this quest aside from potential xps? Why should the player do it? What does it add to the game as a whole?

It’s a good comment, but I’ll point out that— for us— at this stage of plot creation, the writers don’t concern ourselves with what the rewards will be… not unless the rewards are fairly obvious. At best we’ll put in a “insert item reward here” or “give them an XP bonus”. Those are things the Level Designers will look at later, along with adding any needed combat encounters (which they’ll generally discuss with us first, to make sure they fit into the razor).

It is worth noting, however, that what the plot adds is a worthy thing to consider. In this case, I’d call this a “flavor plot”. Other than XP and possibly some approval bonuses, it’s something optional the player might do simply for the story— much like many follower plots. That makes it have less utility than plots which offer more substantial rewards, but that doesn’t make it worthless— and other than the fact this plot is already an outlier by way of it being available only to those players who had Bethany and who had her end up in the Circle, that’s not a bad thing.

    The condition the player is only a warrior/rogue is a problem. This limits an entire section of players who are mages.

Well, sure, except for the fact that Bethany would have died at Lothering, if the player were a mage. The only way I’d have agreed to add a quest like this was if there were an equivalent quest for Templar!Carver… but we’re focusing on one quest at a time, here.

    I can’t tell if it’s ‘incorrect,’ but I was thinking about your point regarding getting the player to do something and wondering how the player would know to seek out Samson in Step 2. Presumably Leandra wouldn’t have suggested that, since she doesn’t know him.

Excellent catch! That was indeed the first cardinal rule I broke, and quite a few people pointed it out— the vague connection between Step 1 and Step 2. Technically we could just add a journal entry that said “go see Samson”, and in that entry it could say the player remembered Samson from Act 1 and assumed he could help… but that’s a weak thing to do. One rule we follow is “never have plot-critical information given only via the journal”.

    When speaking to Samson, what if players don’t pressure him or fail a check to pressure him? Are the players now stuck at this point until they pressure him, or is there an alternate path?

Not as important, as “pressure” could mean a variety of things, but the fact that Samson is the only way to complete the plot is a bit problematic. Having some other way to do things is always ideal, if you can swing it.

    If tasked to reach the circle the first logical step a player would do (unless there’s an obvious map marker on Darktown) would be go to the gallows and ask around how to have an audience with a mage. There should be plenty of templars there to ask. The first instinct of a player should be going there and try every templar in sight before giving up in frustration.

Excellent! Asking “why?” is incredibly important— “why would the player go to Samson? Even if told to, is that the most logical thing to do?” Alternatively, I could always counter that question before it’s asked by explaining how Leandra already went to the Gallows and got nothing— and she says the player wouldn’t either, so they’ll have to find another way— but why wouldn’t that be a good first step?

    I would also make it more simple with the encounter that fires in Step 4. You can replace the need to put an either/or of Cullen or Orsino by replacing the encounter NPC with Thrask. That NPC is a middle ground and would be more accepting of allowing someone in to see their locked up sibling. Depending on how you’ve already interacted with him in Act 1:Wayward Son, the social checks with Thrask would scale from easy to hard to get him to allow you to see Bethany.

An excellent idea. You’ll see in the final version of the narrative overview that I did involve Thrask— though more as a mid-point NPC rather than the one who confronts the player. Even so, having the Cullen/Orsino split was a bit pointless. One would be better off having one character whose reactions varied by the costume rather than having two characters with individual dialogues. The former is good reactivity, the latter is conditional reality— which you should try to avoid.

    What’s the point of obtaining a disguise if going near any of the door leads to immediate combat and ejection into dark town? Wouldn’t this be a much better time to give more characterization to the Kirkwall Templars?

Indeed! And an excellent point. Rather crappy disguise if it doesn’t actually fool anyone. In the end, I’d look at that quest and think that not only did the “stealth” part not work very well, but that it should be considered what the stealth part added. If one could walk freely around the Gallows, that could be quite interesting— so, in the end, I decided to keep it but change how it worked.

    Cullen or Orsino. Hawke is no Champion yet, and should have to use their head. Persuading and lying are two wonderful choices, but I’m not a fan of a fight/run against such an important character in such a trivial manner.

Yes, the entire aspect where getting into a fight meant auto-failure was a problem— and not just with Cullen/Orsino. That’s not how combat works in the rest of the game, so you don’t want to surprise players with something like that unless it’s explicitly spelled out for them beforehand. So either combat should not be allowed to happen, or it should work like combat.

    Since the quest giver was Leandra, Hawke should have a final confrontation with her telling her the outcome, so the quest circle closes and he may comfort the mother over losing contacts with her girl for good or giving her hope she’ll come around and write back to her.

You know, I just forgot about that step, really— very often I just assume “quest turn-in” as something that’s automatically done. But it should have been spelled out, yes.



So I did a revision of the quest, and I should point out that this probably still isn’t perfect. It might need a revision or two, particularly since there’s currently no combat— not that combat is required in every quest, but it’s a good idea to have it for those who enjoy it (and, frankly, letting people talk their way out of combat or otherwise avoid it is also fun for those who don’t like combat at all).



After some thought, I decided that revamping the “stealth” section was a good way to go— and rather than offering other ways to get to Bethany, I focused on having alternate ways to get to the stealth section. The idea is that this is ultimately flavor— really just a small follower quest for Bethany, truth be told. Which isn’t bad at all. For people who liked Bethany, this would be rather cool.

You might also note that I blew my budget. My line count estimates on the individual sections are a bit low (I imagine I could easily go over those totals on the Bethany and Leandra conversations) and even then I’m sitting at about 70 lines over budget. It’s at this point that I would either revisit my plan and figure out if I was too ambitious and had too many steps, or if I needed to go to my Lead Writer and argue that the budget needed to be changed.

Thankfully that’s an easy conversation when it comes to my plots, but even I can’t blow the budget willy-nilly without people eventually coming to glare at me. Eventually, if we went over budget often enough, I’d have to start looking at what plots to cut in order to bring our total line count down enough— and that’s never fun.

You can grab the PDF for the narrative overview here. Hopefully that link works OK (tell me if it doesn’t).

The next step would be taking one of those conversations and showing you how to actually approach putting together the branching dialogue for it— along with offering some tips and tricks. Naturally this is only good advice for BioWare’s style of branching dialogue (heck, it’s actually specific to Dragon Age, as Mass Effect does it differently too), but whatever… some of you might be interested, and possibly some of those tricks will be transferable to other editors.

Mister Andersen

  • Control
  • ******
  • Posts: 11799
  • I'm leaving for a destination I still don't know
    • View Profile
Re: On Narrative Design
« Reply #16 on: January 27, 2015, 10:28:51 AM »
Game Writing - Nuts and Bolts (Part 5)
Quote from: Fan Question
    You said you blew up your budget, turning a 200-line quest into a 270-line one (if I did the math right). Now, it occurs to me that this quest has a (roughly) 22% chance to happen, since player must be warrior/rogue (2/3 chance) AND Bethany must be in the circle (1/3 chance, since other options are she’s dead in the deep roads or she became a warden). This means that there’s a good chance that 78% of players wouldn’t enjoy this quest unless they play different playthroughs trying to explore all the possible outcomes.

    Would a 22% chance be enough to raise your budget by 70 lines (and all that implies in terms of costs and disk space)? What kind of considerations are taken in such a case?

Word budgets are the bane of my existence.

And you’re right, that would be taken into consideration— but let me walk you through why that is.

First off, writing for a BioWare game is considered a bottleneck of development— meaning that every bit of writing we do creates work for other people further down the line. Every line of dialogue has to be edited, translated into several languages, needs voice-over (first in English, and then into at least some of those other languages), very likely needs cinematic design, and—this is no small thing—creates more stuff that needs to be tested. Thus our budget is taken very seriously, as it’s a number derived not only from the amount of work the writers can do but also the work these other departments can do (taking into account the delay caused each time the writing needs to change hands).

So let’s say I’m talking to whichever writer created this plot, and I have to decide whether cutting the scope back down to 200 lines would be worthwhile. On one hand, that might make for a less fun plot… at which point, is it even worth doing? On the other, it would be more responsible to the budget (and other peoples’ time). Let’s say I decide, no, the plot is really cool at 270 lines. Go ahead and begin writing.

The next issue is something called scope creep. That’s the tendency of projects to bloat over time—and it always happens. Every single project I’ve ever worked on slowly gets bigger as time goes on.

Why? Because as we test the game, we run into issues… and, many times, those issues can only be fixed by adding more content. Let’s say we’re testing this plot and it’s felt an extra step is needed somewhere. That requires another conversation of 40 lines. A QA tester feels we missed a really logical step in the end with Bethany, and thus we need to add lines both to her as well as the resolution dialogue with Leandra… another 30 lines, say. Now were up to 340 lines for the plot, 140 over budget.

There’s also the fact that you can’t always quantify writing. I’m putting together a character that I’ve estimated will take 40 lines to write, but by the time I’m done it’s at 55 lines or 100 lines. It’s not like I got to 40 lines and then just stopped. I could look for some places to trim, but maybe there aren’t any. Maybe I needed all those extra lines.

That, in and of itself, is not a problem. It’s just a few lines here and there. But now play this out over every plot and character in the game. Suddenly we’re halfway through the project and our actuals are showing at 35,000 written lines for a game that’s budgeted at 30,000 lines… and we’re not even done yet. That trajectory shows us going to 40,000 written lines or even higher by the time we’re done.

Can the project— meaning all the people downstream from us—absorb the extra 33% added to their schedules? If not, we now need to look for places to cut scope.

It’s painful to do. I never want to cut anything. Sometimes cutting can also cause problems, because cutting narrative in one spot means we’ll need to re-write elsewhere. That one middle plot is cut, but the plots that followed it all referred to what happened… so we need to go in and change them all. It happens quite frequently, but better the writers do extra work once than have everyone else choke on work they can’t swallow.

The most attractive cuts, in those instances, are the things which are fairly isolated. They can be cut in their entirety without affecting anything around them— they’re low-hanging fruit. It’s an unenviable place for a plot to be in, because these gut-checks caused by scope creep are guaranteed to happen at various points in the project… and thus the Eye of Sauron will always turn to them first. A plot like this one, which is seen by a relatively low percentage of the player-base but which costs a fair chunk of work to implement, is going to be at risk.

That has to be weighed, of course, against the idea that branches in the narrative are what makes a game like ours fun. We put the race choices back in DAI, for instance, not because such a huge percentage of players use those other races but because the option to be those races has perceived value even to players who don’t play anything but human. The same applies to plots… ideally you want to have choices in a plot which are good enough so that a large percentage of players could take opt for any side, but even lopsided choices where almost everyone picks a certain option are still better than having no choice at all.

That is, of course, dependent entirely on the type of game you’re putting forward—since we do RPG’s, that’s always going to be a bear of contention for us. Naturally, we have to simultaneously look at the overall length of the game—a thousand branching choices in a plot which, in one playthrough, lasts only 3 hours is not going to be much fun either, is it?

So you don’t necessarily want to trim every branch until you reach a state where 100% of players see every bit of content. Lots of players didn’t see one of Carver or Bethany at all, for instance, and among those who did many didn’t get to see the route that led to them surviving and joining the templars/Circle of Magi… but, to those who did end up there, that path had meaning and the idea that it could have happened differently had value.

So my ultimate answer to your question is that, yes, those factors would come into consideration. It would come most strongly into consideration at the planning stage when we’re divvying up the overall budget and deciding what we can spend where, and then at the stage when we’re ultimately designing the individual plots— the better we do our planning then, the less we’ll have to worry when scope creep inevitably rears its head down the line. There’s a certain amount of budget that would be totally fine to assign to “edge cases” like this one— and so long as the plot kept itself reigned in on the content side, it would stand a better chance of making it into the final game.

Provided, of course, nothing external happens. There were a few quests that got cut in the course of DA2 through no fault of their own. The situation changed on the project side, reducing our downstream team and thus affecting how much writing we could produce—an entire plot series concerning the Coterie (Kirkwall’s thieves guild) which Mary Kirby had already written needed to be cut. A plot specific to Mage!Hawke in Act 1 where they became threatened by templars and had to make arrangements to assure their secrecy was cut. Others too, all cuts that made me wince and despair for the overall coherence of the story (as such cuts always do) but with which a game developer has to contend.

Because it’s not enough in game development to actually be a great writer. You could put together the perfect plan, have the perfect story arc all ready to go in a wonderful design document… and by the time you’re done it will still all have changed. The majority of the hard work in game development happens in the last 20% before ship, and that’s when you have to be the most agile and judge your word-babies by those you believe are healthy enough to reach maturity…and ruthlessly slaughter the ones which aren’t.

Because, if you can’t, the game won’t ship. And that’s the ultimate death knell for all your efforts.

Mister Andersen

  • Control
  • ******
  • Posts: 11799
  • I'm leaving for a destination I still don't know
    • View Profile
Re: On Narrative Design
« Reply #17 on: January 27, 2015, 01:29:58 PM »
On Creative Juices and the Flowing Thereof
Quote from: fan question
Could I ask you for some advice on the writing process (in regards to books, not games)? I’m working on writing my own fantasy story, but it’s slow going due to a myriad of factors. I was just wondering if you have any tips on how to get the creative juices flowing, so to speak. As it stands, I write maybe a few paragraphs at most whenever I open up the documents, which isn’t often (time is not something I have a lot of to use, sadly).

Writing sucks.

Dorothy Parker once said, “I hate writing. I love having written.” I completely agree. Forcing myself to sit down and write, schooling myself to do that and only that and not the hundred other interesting things I could be doing (look! Tumblr!) is a chore. Sure, there’s a story I want to tell. It’s burning inside me and I want to see it take shape… it just kills me there’s this whole intermediary process required to get it from my brain into a form which other people can consume. There’s all that typing, and editing, and more editing, and… bah.

So I can commiserate when someone says they have trouble getting the creative juices flowing. That’s not always the case for me— sometimes the juices are flowing overtime, and it’s all I can do to keep up with where in the story my mind’s already raced… it’s mentally juggling around the climactic encounter at the end and I’m still writing that stupid exposition-laden part in the second chapter. Ugh.

A lot of times, however, the juices are at a standstill. I’d really rather be doing anything but writing. A hazard of doing it professionally, I guess, is that you need to write every day no matter how you feel. You learn to come up with coping mechanisms to keep things going.

First off, I’ll point out that everyone gets their creativity from somewhere different. I’ve always thought that should be obvious, but after talking to some folks I’ve come by the impression not everyone knows that… they think there’s a set process to creativity, to writing. What works for one successful writer should work for everyone, in their minds.

I’ve never found that to be the case. Some people require strict organization and planning. Some people are more stream-of-consciousness and couldn’t write under those circumstances— even if they wrote an outline they’d abandon it by the fifth page. Some people struggle to write action scenes. Others are bored by writing dialogue.

I think it’s all fair, so long as you find what works for you. I don’t know if it’ll help at all, but I can tell you what works for me.

Establish a Quota

When I’m writing for a game, it’s a word count quota. When I’m writing a novel, it’s a page count quota. It doesn’t have to be large, and quite frankly the quotas I set for myself are low enough I couldn’t possibly just write that amount every day or I’d never finish on time (1000 words or 5 pages, if you’re nosy)… but the quota’s what I have to write before I’m allowed to stop. I know the quota going in, and I’ve agreed to it. Even if it’s an absolute struggle, I do it. If I absolutely cannot, then I have to add on what I missed to the next day’s quota.

I have a German upbringing, however, so guilt happens to be a great motivator for me. And discipline is its own attraction. Don’t ask.

Don’t Expect Perfection

Very important when you’re writing to a quota: don’t expect everything to be perfection. I have too many writer friends who trip themselves up trying to make every page absolutely perfect before they move on. They go back and revise, hate what they’ve written and then revise some more, and then get depressed when they’ve done all that work and still have only written a small amount. Then they give up.

There’s a time and place for revision, and that comes after the first draft. Right now, you just need to write— even if it’s terrible. Putting words down is the only way you’ll defeat the blank page (or the blank screen). You may get several pages in before you’re suddenly struck by a brilliant idea and decide to go back and start over— and that’s fine. You still need to get those several pages out in order to reach that point, don’t you? Tell yourself that not every line is going to be perfect immediately, and that’s okay.

Don’t Mix Worlds

Some people are better at this than others, but for me I need to establish a separation between my non-writing time and my writing time. I need a space which is my writing space, and that’s the only thing I do there. I can write on my PC at home, but the only way I can do it is by clearing everything off my desk— I just move all my personal stuff out of sight. Doing that tells my brain that it’s time to work. I need to trick it.

This is why I can’t play games on my PC at work, incidentally. But them’s the breaks. Since I don’t wear a suit and my office isn’t very office-like, I need a way to switch over into “work-mode”… it’s a trick that’s always worked for me, though I imagine others would need their own way of doing it.

Rituals Are Your Friends

Yeah, some people might say rituals are a crutch. I don’t disagree. It’s a cheap tactic— but, the way I see it, you’re at war with your lazy brain. Switching over into “work-mode” isn’t always going to go far enough, so you need to get tricksy.

Me, I sit up. I adjust myself so I’m seated properly, back straight and feet planted. Arms on the rests. It’s unnatural for me, as I’m always hunched over my keyboard, but I do it whenever I’m about to write as it’s a nice little “kick” that tells me I’m about to get busy.

I also do a bunch of things online before I get started— I check my email, check the few websites I go to regularly, check the forums… I allow myself a set amount of time to do that (though that can get kiboshed if there are important emails to which I need to respond), but I need to do it. It’s a way of “clearing house”, making me feel like I’ve attended to all the things I need to so I can move on. I have to fight distraction, which is why I only allow myself a limited time, but it’s a ritual that tells my brain “okay, you’ve checked all your stuff… now get cracking.” I’m not allowed to go online again for at least an hour, and thankfully I’m often too engrossed by that point to do it anyhow.

Getting Inspired

It occurs to me that the original question may be as much asking how I get inspired, as opposed to solely asking how I task myself to keep on target. If so, that’s a slightly harder question. Inspiration is difficult to manufacture. It’s something that everyone in my profession is trying to do, and often failing at, so if I had a sufficient answer for this I’d be much more successful.

I can give some advice, however, that I’ve given to some of my writers when they’ve hit a wall— they’ve been handed a plot or a character which doesn’t speak to them, or they’re trying to create a plot for which they just can’t think of anything interesting. They bang their heads against the problem, doing it by rote, and then realize it’s as banal as they feared. What do they do then?

My answer: “Find something interesting in it.”

If they’re writing a character that’s not speaking to them, change it. If they’ve got a plot that seems boring, change it. Put something in there which makes it interesting, even if it’s a small thing. Give a character a quirk. Change their gender, or their outlook. Make them hate something intensely, or love something they can’t have. If it’s a plot, add a complication. Change the location, if you can. Make the plot-giver intriguing, or deceitful. It’s a double-cross… no, a triple-cross! (I did this when I wrote the Drow city in BG2.) Or mix it up! Start the plot in the middle of the action, or reverse the scene entirely. When I was stuck beginning The Calling, I actually cut the first chapter entirely— the book begins in what was originally Chapter 2, and while the cut was painful at the time, it worked. Just add one element that makes you smile, makes it more yours.

This doesn’t mean you need to re-write your entire outline, or throw out the entire concept for the plot/character. As professionals, we don’t often have that option anyhow. It means you play with it, shake it up a little. Quite often my writers get stuck in the mindset that they have to write what they’ve already come up with… I think this happens to other writers, too. They’re so committed to what they’ve already planned out that the idea of actually changing something becomes anathema. They’d rather stick to the plan than realize it’s the plan itself that’s boring them.

Another possibility is some brainstorming. When I’m stuck, I bounce an idea off of someone. I announce it to the rest of the Writers Pit, or I call up a friend who’s patient enough to let me explain my entire plot to her. Maybe the suggestions will spark something, or just the act of my speaking the story out loud will do it. It usually works, though not everyone’s going to have someone with whom they can brainstorm. That’s okay— most peoples’ ideas really suck anyhow, and they’ll never be better than your ideas. It’s just a way of making you engage with your story outside of your own head, to be honest, and sometimes that’s all you need.

If, after all that, you still can’t think of a single thing to change? A single thing that brings you joy as a writer, which makes your scene/character/project cool and something you want to do? Then you shouldn’t be writing, harsh as that may sound. You probably need to re-charge, go back to the well that inspired you to be a writer in the first place… whatever that is.

Don’t worry about it. It happens. Give yourself permission to fail, just like you give your first drafts permission to kind of suck. Try not to be so miserable your roommates threaten to smother you in your sleep should you ever write another novel (sorry, Cori). It’s okay to step back and regroup… so long as eventually you face that blank page again, take a breath, and just write.

"I Want to Write for Games"
It’s a common enough sentiment. I’m contacted on a regular basis by people who say exactly this, and are hopeful I can help them out in some way, give them some advice on how to submit a portfolio, steer them to some information (such as this post), something to help them realize their dream.

I do this knowing most of them will never get the chance— turnover among writers at BioWare isn’t exactly high, and what constitutes a “writer” at other companies can vary a great deal. There are only a handful of companies that have writers who do exactly what we do, while many others either outsource their writing requirements or have people on staff who write as a secondary task.

And of those who do get the chance, they’re very likely to not end up working out. For every candidate we end up keeping full time, we’ll go through several others we had to let go after testing them out. Why? Because writing for games isn’t what you think it is.

Okay, then— what is it? What’s so difficult about writing a story? Anyone with half a brain can write a story. Look, I just wrote a paragraph which details an awesome story that would undoubtedly turn into an awesome game.

And that’s just it. That is, in fact, the least part of what being a game writer is about.

Let’s look at it this way: imagine how you think a story is created for, say, a novel. A writer sits there, puts together the concept and then crafts the story from a series of scenes— all centered around a protagonist who grows and moves through those scenes in a scripted fashion. The writer creates it from beginning to end, with the story being everything.

You could make a game story that way— indeed, there are some very good games which have a set protagonist and a story that moves through a series of scripted sequences in the same way as a novel. “Last of Us” is an excellent example. The one hitch, of course, is that even there a writer would need to bow to the requirements of gameplay and level design. Is the story fun to play? A novel doesn’t need to worry about interactivity, whether the levels it describes are fun to move through… and these are bigger challenges to navigate than you might assume. What is interesting in theory is not always good in practice. You learn this quickly.

But let’s say you don’t know who your protagonist is— or you do, but need to allow for variable motivations, interests, and goals. Agency, in other words. You have only a limited amount of control over the pacing and the order in which they’ll encounter scenes. The more control you exert, the less agency they have. The more agency you allow, the more you need to rely on emergent storytelling at the expense of scripted storytelling.

And that’s assuming you have any control over where on that spectrum your game will actually reside— which you probably won’t. Most of these things will be provided to you, along with major themes, game features that need to be prominent, and other aspects those in charge of the project want to focus on. You might have some input along the way, and you might not— it depends on the company— but at the end of the day you as a writer are making their story and not the other way around.

Hmm. That probably sounds one-sided. I should amend that to say the story is a collaborative effort. You’re doing it as a group, and in my experience a lot of the story elements are going to come from a writer who’s working within the parameters they’re given— they’ll come up with something interesting and cool and pitch it upwards until they’re given a green light to proceed. So it’s not quite like they’re just handed something to work on. But neither is it what many assume: that a writer conjures up a tale and everyone else implements it. That never happens.

And some of you may be nodding your head. “Yes, we already know this.” But you’d be surprised how often this mistaken perception comes up with writer applicants and new hires. People who apply with story submissions that are actually stories for an entire game. Their entire pitch is “I have lots of ideas! So many ideas! I could provide you wonderful ideas for your game if you’d let me!”

Which is great, as fresh ideas are absolutely necessary, but like I said they’re actually the smallest part of what we do. Ideas for a game come from people higher up, like the Project Director and senior leads… they have their own ideas, and don’t need to hire someone for theirs. Ideas for smaller things, like specific plots and ways to make new quests and themes and character arcs, those are better… but, of course, they’re going to need to be in the context of the overall story (which is created early on). You’d be surprised how many new writers are disappointed that they have to work within a much smaller sandbox than they imagined, and that they’re not alone in that sandbox— every idea they come up with has to be tempered by technical and resource limitations, not to mention the discovery that the storytelling ideas of other people on the team (such as the people who make the cutscenes or the art or the level design) are just as important as a writer’s and need to be taken into account. The writer is more ringmaster than creator.

And once the ideas stage is over, the new writer discovers that 80% of their job is actually implementation. Which consists of writing, testing, and iteration— and by “iteration” I mean re-writing. Scrapping your work and starting over, or changing chunks of it because of bugs or issues encountered by other departments. It might be re-writing to make the story better. It might also make the story worse, in your opinion, and there’s nothing you or anyone can do about that. The story is not a princess who gets to complain about the pea under the mattress, after all— it’s one of many mistresses in the house, all clamoring for equal attention. Sometimes the needs of the story do not carry the day.

And that implementation is not easy. Take BioWare’s writing as a specific example. We don’t have narration, which is most of what people think of when they read books. We only have dialogue— and, outside of a cutscene (which is written in the same manner as a movie script), that dialogue is going to need to allow for choice and branching while still remaining coherent and imparting all needed information no matter what path through the dialogue the player takes. That requires a very specific skill set, and not one which has much to do with writing prose.

Indeed, someone who has the ability to write good prose is not necessarily going to make a good writer of branching dialogue. Sometimes they’ll have a too-specific PC in mind. Or the dialogue is fine if you follow one specific path through it, but as soon as you veer from that path it becomes incoherent or you miss important info. Or they focus so much on keeping the mechanics straight their writing loses personality and charm. It works the same on a plot level— needing to account for players choosing where to go either leaves sections in their design which are too vague (and thus need clumsy hacks to force the player in a direction, once they realize what’s missing) or has them trying to include so many options that the plot explodes into something unwieldy that can either never be tested or takes 10x the budget just to write.

These can be frustrating things for a writer who comes to work for us. They might write decent prose, have a certain grasp of what our games call for & some ideas to bring to the table… and yet discover that juggling the demands of gameplay and branching narrative is too much. Or they get discouraged by how very much not like writing the job can sometimes be, or how most of the big decisions are made before they even come onto the project. All these things might mean they discover the job’s not right for them, even though they’d really hoped it would be.

Is the job still rewarding despite all that? Absolutely. I’ve written about that at length before, so I won’t repeat it. It’s not quite what some people think a writer does, but once you’ve slogged through the monumental task of wrestling a story to the end— no matter how little it resembles the story you thought you were going to make— you’re incredibly proud of it despite all its bruises and funny haircut.

All I mean to suggest here is that, for people who say “I want to write for games”, they should be aware what they’re actually intending to pursue. Writing for games seems sexy because the writing is a very visible thing when you’re playing— but it’s not all that goes into the storytelling, not by a long shot. Someone who thinks “story” may actually be thinking design, cinematics, heck even concept art or music.

And that’s assuming they aren’t someone who thinks that writing is their calling of choice simply because they don’t have any “real” skills… and anyone can put together a sentence, am I right? Because the less said about those people, the better.

Mister Andersen

  • Control
  • ******
  • Posts: 11799
  • I'm leaving for a destination I still don't know
    • View Profile
Re: On Narrative Design
« Reply #18 on: January 30, 2015, 05:54:45 AM »
Developing party members for CRPGs

While not entirely applicable to P&P games, the examination of design methodology strikes me as useful tool when considering how to meaningfully integrate NPCs.

Mister Andersen

  • Control
  • ******
  • Posts: 11799
  • I'm leaving for a destination I still don't know
    • View Profile
Re: On Narrative Design
« Reply #19 on: January 30, 2015, 10:04:36 PM »
On Writing Different Perspectives
Quote from: fan question
Do you have trouble writing for female characters, despite knowing in conceptual form their (basic) story path? I know where I want to take them to make them (hopefully) interesting, yet that doesn’t help me get over the problems with perspective. Perhaps fear is the root of it…

Hmm. Difficult question, and not one with an easy answer, I’m afraid.

I don’t think I have difficulty writing female characters, but my not finding them difficult doesn’t mean I necessarily write them well. Some people say I do, some people say I don’t. Personally, I think that has more to do with my personal prowess as a writer, as opposed to the nature of any character who is very different from myself.

If you’re going to write a character, any character, there should be something within them with which you connect. I was able to write Cole in Asunder, not because I could empathize with his true nature or because I know what it’s like to kill someone, but because I know what it’s like to feel profoundly lonely and cut off from everyone around you. To feel invisible. I was able to write Fenris not because I had anything to say about slavery or the plight of elves, but because I know what it’s like to feel impotent rage over abuse you’ve suffered in the past. The same applies to Morrigan—I didn’t write her because I had anything to say about sisterhood (perhaps I did accidentally, but I certainly wasn’t trying to), but because I connected with her cynicism and her aversion to forming bonds with others.

The same also applies to my writing a straight character like Alistair. I know what it feels like to be attracted to someone, to be shy or to clumsily court them. That’s not so different.

If there’s anything I would be hesitant about, it would be trying to co-opt a story for a character to which you have to right. I can write a female character by tapping into the parts of her with which I feel a kinship, I can even tap into my own femininity (if I’m honest), but I cannot use her to tell a story about the actual experience of womanhood. Similarly, I would not want to write a black character and attempt to talk about the actual experience of black people in America. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t write a female character or a black character ever, but I’d want to restrict the stories I tell with them to stories I can tell which ring of truth.

And if you’re worried about whether what you’re writing accidentally breaks that rule —perhaps you’ve wandered with their narrative into addressing a topic about which you feel you have no insight but which you don’t want to remove—then get the input of someone who knows. I didn’t write Maevaris Tilani in the comics to talk about the transgender experience, but I did want the input of someone who was transgender to offer me a gut check over whether I accidentally had her saying anything that rang false. I have female writers on staff who can review my female characters and tell me if I have them saying something which no woman in the world would ever say—which has happened exactly once (and, to be honest, puzzled me greatly even if I absolutely deferred to them). So that’s handy, and I can worry more about accessing the parts of those characters I can write honestly and less about blundering into dangerous territory.

Because, you’re right, fear is definitely an element when it comes to writing characters that aren’t essentially self-inserts. Part of it, however, is realizing there are more parts to you than you suspect, than can be encompassed by a bunch of labels you’ve applied to yourself. We all understand both masculinity and femininity to some level. We fantasize about people we normally wouldn’t, have a moment of sexual attraction that’s outside our norms. Deep down, we know what it’s like to feel pettiness or rage, to contemplate suicide, or to commit murder. Part of being human is having the capacity for all these things, bad and good…and part of being a writer is not being afraid to access them and feel them when you have to.

Some might say that’s the curse of being a writer, but it can also be a source of joy and great empathy.



Mister Andersen

  • Control
  • ******
  • Posts: 11799
  • I'm leaving for a destination I still don't know
    • View Profile
Re: On Narrative Design
« Reply #21 on: February 28, 2015, 05:33:55 AM »
Another useful article on the nitty-gritty of your RP setting: The effects of monsters on terrain

MilitiaJim

  • Control
  • ******
  • Posts: 4650
    • View Profile
    • My lame little LJ
Re: On Narrative Design
« Reply #22 on: February 28, 2015, 07:15:07 AM »
Another useful article on the nitty-gritty of your RP setting: The effects of monsters on terrain
Oh man.  I really hadn't considered any of that...  What sort of terrain do hydras like?  Swamps?  Like Louisiana's bayou?  HMMMMM.
"Quemadmodum gladius neminem occidit, occidentis telum est."  ("A sword is never a killer, it's a tool  in the killer's hands.")
- Lucius Annaeus Seneca "the younger" ca. (4 BC - 65 AD)

Mister Andersen

  • Control
  • ******
  • Posts: 11799
  • I'm leaving for a destination I still don't know
    • View Profile
Re: On Narrative Design
« Reply #23 on: March 20, 2015, 11:05:05 AM »
Using Fate-style Zones in Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition

Naturally the technique can be ported over to Fantasy Craft.

Desertpuma

  • Control
  • ******
  • Posts: 4530
  • Highest Level LSpy Agent 16th, almost 17th
    • View Profile
    • Crusaders Citadel
Re: On Narrative Design
« Reply #24 on: June 13, 2015, 02:40:50 AM »
Interesting idea overall


Living Spycraft Masterm

Morgenstern

  • Control
  • ******
  • Posts: 6109
    • View Profile
Re: On Narrative Design
« Reply #25 on: June 13, 2015, 08:53:08 AM »
We tried something a little like that in The Shop sourcebook - the huge submarine is broken down into about 6 places where the action might really heat up. I don't think it's have damage effects overflowing form room to room - easier to present them as non contiguous spaces. I'd also have to have 2-3 things that could be invoked in each locale... one feels a little too railroad-y.
At your own pace: Do. It. Now.
How about some pie? - Heroes of the Expanse

Mister Andersen

  • Control
  • ******
  • Posts: 11799
  • I'm leaving for a destination I still don't know
    • View Profile
Re: On Narrative Design
« Reply #26 on: June 29, 2015, 05:46:02 PM »
http://torforgeblog.com/2015/06/01/what-roleplaying-teaches-writers/

"A writer can gain much more from gaming than simple confidence."

Desertpuma

  • Control
  • ******
  • Posts: 4530
  • Highest Level LSpy Agent 16th, almost 17th
    • View Profile
    • Crusaders Citadel
Re: On Narrative Design
« Reply #27 on: July 01, 2015, 11:58:39 AM »
Good read


Living Spycraft Masterm

Mister Andersen

  • Control
  • ******
  • Posts: 11799
  • I'm leaving for a destination I still don't know
    • View Profile
Re: On Narrative Design
« Reply #28 on: September 11, 2015, 05:40:35 PM »
How you can get rid of the rails from your game

DungeonWords: 240 evocative words distributed among 12 tables, free to download. The final page contains Artificer's Lament, an example microdungeon inspired by a handful of random words from the tables.

Desertpuma

  • Control
  • ******
  • Posts: 4530
  • Highest Level LSpy Agent 16th, almost 17th
    • View Profile
    • Crusaders Citadel
Re: On Narrative Design
« Reply #29 on: September 13, 2015, 03:12:22 AM »
The article on getting rid of the rails is an excellent piece of advice on how to do it.


Living Spycraft Masterm