Writing in the Gaming Medium – Interactive Fiction & the Challenges

Writing a gaming narrative for the first time has been one of my toughest writing experiences yet. At first, I didn’t really understand why I was struggling. I’ve had plenty of experience in writing creatively, in mediums ranging from collections of short stories and poems to scripts in an attempt to find what I like, what I’m good at and just stuff that challenges me. They all have their own issues, but all have been one intrinsic component. They’ve been linear. They all had a single direction, a straight arrow which myself and the reader could grasp onto and follow. But writing an interactive, multiple-choice piece of fiction isn’t a straight line, it’s more like growing a tree, starting at the trunk before thousands of branches begin sprouting outwards. This, I learned, was why I struggled.

To clarify, I have wanted to write for video games since I began at university two years back. It wasn’t until now, after gaining more writing experience, that I felt prepared enough. Now I’m  in my final year and with my first interactive story (relatively) done. You’re Killing It! (under its second draft and will hopefully be released soon) is the story of you, the protagonist, aiming to become a stand-up comedian. You begin by getting inspired for joke ideas, writing them down, testing them out before the night arrives, where all your prep comes to fruition. I wanted to write something about stand-up comedy ever since I performed stand-up back in January, coupled with my desire to want to create a game, it all just worked out. Until I actually sat down to start it.

Twine in action
Twine in action. Each arrow shows how the story can go.

From the outset I was naïve. I thought it’d take a few weeks to complete, but two months later I’ve only completed a first draft. I believed it’d be a few thousand words, but nearly forty thousand later the project’s exceeded all my expectations. It was only thanks to Twine, the story-building software I used, accompanied by several online guides on how to use it that I actually got anywhere. It’s a great introduction to writing interactive stories for someone with little to no experience, whilst still being deep and complex enough so you can tell a story you want. I’d definitely recommend it for any looking to test out the aspects of writing in a non-linear manner to pursue or just understand it. And, from personal experience, maybe don’t make your first attempt the length of a novel. A novella/novelette would be just as good or even better to start from.

Anyway, no matter how good the software I could’ve used, there was still a steep learning curve for writing in such a non-linear fashion. The hardest challenge for me was dealing with how player choices can affect the way a story develops with all these splitting paths happening. The lack of a straightforward plot means you have to think of the consequences of every situation and outcome you include in the greater narrative in order to make the story good. In a more typical piece of fiction, like a novel, you’d write a piece of fiction with a single start, middle and end. But a non-linear game is like writing a hundred of these and you’re required to make them all jell with one another. I was actively trying to imagine how A will result in B, C and D which leads into E, F, G and how that affects all of the 7 endings I had. My thought process throughout was confused when trying to deal with these problems since it was all overwhelmingly complex for my mind. My own ambition didn’t help, since I aimed to make a choice heavy story that players could engage better, which meant aiming  to have at least two branching choices every other box during the first act, meaning you actually had an effect on the story and its outcome later on. It was only by revising and constantly going back to my plan that I could make sense of everything. It all had to be perfectly balanced, everything had to work together, otherwise the story would collapse under inconsistencies.  At one point, I even made character lists describing personality traits and the interactions you had with them just so I didn’t have to use my brain to remember those facts. I think that it’s true on any big project, you need a solid plan of action so you can breakdown this giant idea into smaller, more malleable, chunks. For gaming narratives, i’d say it’s even more crucial.

From there the story was all basically maths, though the maths wasn’t always basic. This next big challenge was having to deal with variables, macros and coding, using them appropriately so they’d do what I want whilst trying to learn what they were and how I could use them best. Variables were the key aspect that allowed me to properly make an interactive story. Using them allowed me to keep track of and acknowledge player choices which can then affect future options and choices available. For example, if the player’s objective is to hang a picture on a wall. If the player chooses to add the hammer and adds the nail to their inventory, they can hammer a nail into the wall, allowing them to hang the picture. That’s the simple principal. By acknowledging that the player has picked up the hammer and the nail, it opens up the option to hang the picture. But that’s the ideal narrative arc, you still have to address things when they don’t end like that. If you don’t find the hammer, your formula is incomplete and you have to address it. This one example could result in at least 4 different responses depending on the variables. Then you get onto the complex problems of variables depending upon variables. In You’re Killing It!, as you prepare to do your stand-up routine you’ll face decisions that affect your chances of success, those chances of success then effect what ending you’ll have, what dialogue or choices are offered to you which can then influence further events. It was difficult to keep track of these variable instances, so much so that I have graphs and pictures I’ve drawn that illustrate the potential results and statistical changes from choices players make. It was a giant bloody mess on paper, but it was a bit more incoherent then memorising it all. It was only through keeping a log of these outcomes throughout writing the story that I could see the potential paths the narrative could take and address them.

Get it?
Get it?

The rest of my time was spent making the writing good, or decent enough that I don’t cringe when I read it. This brings me to the current stage I’m at and it’s one I’m more familiar with, though still dread. Rewriting the whole thing. I know more of what to expect here since it’s what any good piece of written work should have done to it (like i’ve already re-written a lot of this pieces loads of times already). Still, I was challenged by writing mainly in a second person perspective, which is where the writer basically uses “you” a lot of the time, which I’d never done before. My Creative Writing lecturer told the class to avoid it completely since it’s the hardest perspective to write in and the most difficult to make good. Regardless, I didn’t even consider using the first or third person perspective because, form the outset, these are your choices and I want you to know it. Though I tried to make them as much of a blank slate as I could, the protagonist is not really you in story, they’re more like your avatar in the story. That’s my defense for using a secondary perspective. I still think my lecturer is mainly right but, like the term non-linear fiction suggests, the medium opens up new ways for you to test established ideas in writing. This whole experience has revealed new lessons for me to learn from so I can work at my writing.

It has also taught me why some video games just have terrible or near missing plot in a lot of cases. I’m sure some developers aren’t confident with their own writing ability, who know they can’t making convincing dialogue, so instead remove the need for dialogue and plot development as much as possible. I’m also sure there are other devs who think their writing is hot stuff and so great that they make up these lofty narrative ideas but never quite achieve them because they’re just not good enough writers. These developers may be fantastic programmers or 3D artists, but their stories don’t reach the quality they could have. Why aren’t we demanding for more great writing behind them?

This first-hand experience has made me appreciate the artistry, skill and pure dedication some game writers have. It’s reinforced my opinion that all types of games need to hire writers for their projects, early on and as integral part to the whole development team. Right now, games writers are just not being taken seriously as a crucial part of the development process as they should be. It’s something Rhianna Pratchett, writer of Mirror’s Edge and Tomb Raider reboot, has brought up as an issue within the industry. She’s had experience on projects near the end of the game’s development, most of the assets are all programmed in and ready, only the writing has been left over to work on. The problem is, writers can’t be at their best when constricted to such tight ruling, making the quality of writing bad and generally the whole projects falls short because of it. It’s an issue in any project that doesn’t consider the writer as essential.

A wise dog.
A wise dog.

You can see examples of this across the board with gaming. The recently released Destiny has been praised for its superb gameplay, graphics and atmosphere but many have slammed the poor writing, the bad dialogue and generally crap reasons for why the players are committing another genocide of some random aliens. For some, this sort of thing has affected their experience in such a negative way and put them off of the game altogether. And even with one of the biggest budgets I’ve ever seen for a game, it shows how overall the writing in games still matters so little even with big money behind it. It’s developers like Bioware and Obsidian that show off how good writing can be implemented well when the writers are an integral part of the process, when a developer is willing to put writers as an integral part to the process. Games like The Walking Dead and The Stanley Parable are great examples of how great writing can turn a badly or minimally designed game into a universally praised one.

I can only hope that things improve for writers when it comes to inclusion. Not only because I want to get hired, but because it’s a hard job, the toughest for any writer I believe, and it deserves equal respect alongside every other in the gaming industry. And it’d be great for you, the consumer, to have better writing that accompanies great gameplay and design because each of them compliments one another. Win-win for all involved. In the meantime, whilst the industry continues on, I’m going back to work on my next draft.

If you want to keep up with me, run faster. Or follow me on Twitter: @KamSage

And if have any interest in You’re Killing It! I’ll be posting relevant information on my blog when I can be arsed to do it.