A few things about videogame writing

Hello folks.

I’m currently writing the scripts for two of the longest cinematic cutscenes in the game. These are the introduction, and the major thing that happens in the middle of the game. The third long scene is the ending.

And while I was writing script, even though it was all laid out in a synopsis already, I thought “man, this is hard.” It’s hard to write dialogue that has the right feel to it. It’s hard writing action that has the right pace and remains readable as well as logical, especially if the scene takes place in several places on a level and several groups of people are involved (military attacks someone else using a diversion [3 groups], the other party does a pincer attack [4 groups] and at the same time blows up a tunnel [5] and so forth.) It’s hard to decide where to put the cuts, where to switch from one place of action to another, and how to assemble the whole thing so it feels organic and has an arc of intensity to it. It’s even hard to write good English and avoid a number of pitfalls. It’s hard to keep in mind how the scene fits into the rest of the game/story, hard to write the characters in an interesting and fitting way (everyone has their way of talking/acting) and it’s hard to do the cinematography – “in this part, the camera does X.” And then you gotta keep in mind that it needs to be reasonably doable in terms of implementation. Lots of time also goes into simple research.

Doubtlessly, writing novels or screenplay is also hard. But there are a few things that are uniquely hard about writing video game scripts / story / whatever other media might be involved in conveying the plot and setting and characters to the player.

  • Most of a video game will be interactive. The writer has considerably less room for telling the story than there would be in a film or novel.
  • You have to slot your story etc. into the interactive parts while not disturbing the player too much. If you’re lucky, you’ll get some noninteractive cutscenes to do a little more organized and “proper” storytelling. But everything else has to be slipped into the interactive game under the guise of different ingame media such as notes, logs, NPC dialogue, environmental storytelling, scripted events, video sequences, quests etc. This is some kind of micro-storytelling and you might find youself having to design graffiti or audio logs or even more unusual things (Scout’s Journey contains visions, for example.) Multimedia storytelling if you will.
  • You might have more than one protagonist or antagonist. The character whom the player controls might just be one figure in a big world. Especially sandbox games tend to do this (example: STALKER series.)
  • The perspective might jump wildly. The player character might not even appear in some of the cinematic cutscenes.
  • The action might be non-linear and the writer is not the one making the decisions – the player is. The writer has to provide for every option.
  • Similarly, dialogue might be nonlinear. Where in a novel, you can lay out the dialogue as it best pleases you and it will be set in stone, in a video game you might have to write two, three or more versions of it for the player to choose from (dialogue trees.)
  • Like in film, you can’t depict a character’s thought or inner monologue very well. You’ll have to imply it.
  • You have technical limitations and considerations. You can write a novel without ever worrying how the story would be transferred to a stage or a videogame environment or if this stuff could ever, you know, actually physically happen. In a videogame, everything will have to be programmed and modelled and animated and designed and textured and all of it takes an ungodly amount of work and you’ll have to keep that in mind every step of the way. Every new character or vehicle you introduce will need a unique model!
  • You’ll have to be clear and understandable to everyone who happens to work on the project at some point in time. Your descriptions need to be clear and your actions need to be well written and your dialogue needs to be uncomplicated so your potential voice actors can process it.
  • Unlike with screenplays, you might need to do your own cinematography. Depending on the size and budget of the project, there might not be a “director” who does all that stuff. Better start watching those movies a lot.

It ends up being like those multiple-choice adventure books from the Eighties (what’s called interactive fiction today.) They had a lot of small text blocks with numbers that read about like this:

“293. You are in a dark room. The sound of zombies is coming from the east. Do you

a) enter the door to the east (294)

b) go to the west (295)

c) find the light switch (296)”

And then you had to continue reading at the corresponding number. These books were very cool, but probably not all that much fun to write. And in a video game, maybe you can only have a limited amount of different zombies, you’ll have to put in (“CAMERA SWEEP”) and (“CUT”), and people will be expecting to have nice sound effects and achievements and five different rarities of randomly created items and sparkly particles and it has to run on an Oculus Rift.

It’s hugely fun to do, but it comes with most of the requirements of fiction writing and a bunch of unique modifiers. Imagine character development across two cutscenes and a dozen different ingame media, some of which the player might never discover, so you’ll need to keep that in mind and tell things two or three times in different places.


And after all this yapping, here’s a bit of videogame script. The synopsis of this sequence is eight sentences. The script is five pages :-s

This script also passes the Bechdel test, meaning the game passes the test within the first 5 minutes (it later stomps all over it, too.) Specifically this bit is enough to pass the test:

Entrance hall
ESPERANZA is alone in the wide hall and talking into a handset.
Scorpion, here Mother Goose. Report.
Herdbase exterior
Banshees are hiding near the cliff and watching the Incursion group. One of them signals to NKOYO, who is up on the cliff: Ten fingers, then again five.
(quietly, into handset)
Scorpion. Bulls on parade.

That wasn’t hard, was it. Two women talking about something other than a man is actually really easy to do.

Here’s the rest of the scene. Enjoy!



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