Tag Archives: writing for video games

What Writing Does in Game Dev

Time for an update.

Hard facts

On the technical side, I’m now working on a new PC that should be Unreal-capable. We’ll see when I get that running, I might feel inspired to start porting the first level to Unreal.

Truth is, as may be obvious in hindsight, that the switch away from the Quake engine was more of an obstacle than it should have been. I lost the ability to quickly prototype. But in the end, it’s better for the project. It may look like the old Daikatana mistake, but there’s a difference. This is not 1997 and Quake doesn’t cut it anymore, not in the face of Unreal, Unity and Cryengine. So I still feel the switch was necessary and justified.

It’s simply a fact of life that the FTE engine was too buggy, that I couldn’t do the things I needed to do, and that every time I broke one of those invisible Quake-technology walls I ended up in a minefield of untested things prone to failure. So while the engine switch did end up hurting the project, there really was no alternative. There is Darkplaces, but that would have meant another risky wager that a largely untested engine based on 1996 tech would be better suited than the first one. It just didn’t seem like a smart thing to do.

We’re slowly coming up, by our own boot-straps if you will, to a state where we can likely do a hopefully soft landing on a different platform. One of the environments was already dropped into Unity just to see what happens. Turns out it’s very doable. Unreal won’t be that different.

So engine wise, cutting the cable sort of spun me into a different orbit. Which took some time. Not least because I was busy thinking about more fundamental things.

Squishy stuff

Of course that’s not what most of the development time was sunk into over the last two years or so. People tend to not understand why all this writing is necessary. I won’t go into it much further, just know that the script basically IS the game, just minus the technical implementation side. It is simply the case that the style of game development I’m currently doing is so far removed from Quake modding that there’s not even any common ground I could use to explain it to that crowd.

We’re talking apples and oranges. Quake modding is largely mechanical. Change a line of code, and you’ll make the grenade launcher spit voreballs instead. Yay. The communication problem simply lies in the fact that modding Quake’s pineapple launcher and making a game like Scout’s Journey are two different universes. It’s like the language isn’t even the same.

The entire paradigm has changed. In late 2013, Scout’s Journey was basically a Quake mod that started to mightily rattle the cage. Development was largely writing code and painting textures, blocking in level geometry or modelling weapons. Roughly the stuff we did in Remake Quake, plus new problems such as doing terrain, being a lot more detailed and breaking the BSP visibility stuff to get it running fast enough. Very down to earth stuff in gamedev terms.

Real game development in 2016 is a completely different thing.

Scout’s Journey development isn’t based around just going in and writing code or smacking brushes together. It is turned inside out, or rather, right side out. The mechanical aspect of code and polygons is only an extension of the ephemeral core that is plot and design. This brings with it the realization that scriptwriting is in fact the new engine room. Not 3D modelling suites and not level editors and not IDEs.

The holy trinity of Scout’s Journey style game development are actually writing, art and programming, with the latter two being extensions of the former. Which is how it should be. It is a common complaint by game writers that companies are trying to tack on some writing on the tail end of an already half finished game. That is doomed to fail, and is what I’m NOT doing.

Simply put, a lot more development happens BEFORE the art and code stages. This is akin to saying, “hold on a moment, put down whatever tool you’re using and start actually thinking.” And this is the opposite of the modding mentality, which is “I’ll just go in and do this…”

Game development SHOULD start with writing. Unless it’s Pong or Tetris.

Translation

bzzz02

As an example, this lightning monster cage thing (from Remake Quake, around 2011?) was a result of the “I’ll just do something cool” approach. No doubt that approach is a valuable tool. But Scout’s Journey then takes something like this and turns it into that:

#script

An apparatus, like two half-moons made of humming electrodes, seems to draw energy from the creature itself in periodical crackling flashes. Hoses and cables stuck in the creature are drawing its blue ichor, in a slow drip, into a large glass vial.

Scout slowly wanders around it, circling the cage. She wonders, ”What is this thing doing?” Big Bear says, ”Whatever it is, keep your hands off of it. You’ll just run into trouble again.” The goddess speaks up: ”May I look through your eyes?” ”You may.” Scout gazes at the entire contraption. The goddess says, ”This right here says to me: Naruuk, the Star-Eater was here.” Scout keeps circling the machinery. The camera moves in large sweeps.

”He hates me because I’m of the Earth, and he thinks the Earth his slave and spits on it. It is the same with the Luminar. You know now that there are many worlds. And just like that, Nature finds a way to protect them, and tend to them. That is what the Luminar do. They are weavers of the great web. Holy servants of Nature.”

Scout fearfully reaches out to touch the creature. It doesn’t respond.

”They’re killing them”, Scout says. The goddess replies, ”Yes, they’re killing them. For fear, for greed, for negligence, they’re killing them.”

/script

So the idea of the shambler cage is still in there, just minus Quake’s shamblers, obviously. That’s because instead of monsters, Scout’s Journey has just another faction of intelligent beings that happen to be victimized by the real antagonist (and pissed off about it). Who, needless to say, was more than a little inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s “elder gods” and so forth. I mean, with a name like “the Star-Eater.” And this, especially once Scout (and the little voices in her head)  encounter it, creates something more interesting than a random eye catching landmark on a Quake level. Basically, something like the shambler cage just makes the player say “neat” and move on to kill more monsters. The cage in Scout’s Journey has become much more than that. It became an anchor point for story, characters, philosophy, conflicts and what have you.

A whole lot of the stuff I did in Remake Quake was the nucleus for ideas that turned into something meaningful in Scout’s Journey, but only because of the writing.

The next step, after writing it out like the example above, is to turn it into new concept art (the cage won’t look quite the same, the size relations are different, the meaning is more complex) and only then modelling it, putting it into a level, and coding stuff like particle effects.

A lot of similar features and landmarks from my Remake Quake levels did survive into Scout’s Journey, just laden with different meaning.

Hopefully this gives people an idea what the writing phase is good for and what can be done with it. It’s like metamorphosis.

That’ll be it for now. In the interest of better understanding what is going on behind the sometimes slow-moving blog. The writing is unfortunately not as photogenic as simply posting assets.

Oh, and because the world is what it is: I call dibs on my own script. All rights reserved.


Happy one

$mas

Happy whatever it is you’re doing today, people. Enjoy yourselves. I hope you get lots of presents. And careful with that tree.

Bard Song

I landed on WordPress’ stats page today. This blog has had 13,500 visitors and 65,000 views until now. I wonder if I should let WordPress have the ad money, or if it’s actually better to run my own domain and do the ads myself. I mean, I could use the money.

I’m thinking about doing a Patreon page down the line, and rewarding e-patrons with things like mapping videos or realtime game development, art, texturing, 3D modelling, programming, writing, composing etc. content. I’m not a specialist at any of those, except level design and environments, but you know, being a generalist is probably underrated especially if you’re indie. If I didn’t have the meta-skill of learning things from such different fields in relatively short time, I couldn’t be doing this. It’s like the AD&D “Use Any Item” feature, or like being a bard in that roleplaying system. The bard can’t cast as many fireballs as your party mage, but when the mage gets disabled, or when you’re without a high-level thief to pick that lock, you’ll sure be glad you had a bard. A high level bard can kick a lot of ass and s/he can do it in more different disciplines than anyone else. You’ll also earn more XP faster if you let a bard do all these things and keep your party small. Being a generalist isn’t so bad in game dev either.

Worldbuilding, cont.

I’ve been doing more research on prolonged isolation in mixed-gender, mixed-culture groups. Referencing things like long-term space exploration training, research stations in Antarctica etc. The findings, even without really digging down into it, are pretty clear.

Symptoms include e.g. insomnia and lethargy, with resulting accidents. A 2014 study revealed that a very high percentage of women in antarctic research reported sexual harrassment, a significant percentage sexual assault.  This happened even in professional space training – in one infamous case, the arrival of a female crew member led to blood spattered walls, additional locks installed and “all knives hidden” across the experimental station. Imagine if that had happened in space.

There are also cases where it seems to work well, but it looks like the participants have to be chosen with extra care. Unplanned long-time isolation has a history of leading to disaster, hence all the space travel research programs.

Another thing on my mind is Pitcairn Island, and what happened after the Bounty mutiny. There are also several records of polar expeditions that ran into similar issues.

It looks like my guess at how the situation might develop for the deserters in Scout’s Journey wasn’t far from the mark. Some turn into tyrants, some become psychotic, some are the target of assault. Some establish sub-groups for self protection which then engage in rivalry. Some look for a way out.

A small twist is adding religion into the mix – as happened on Pitcairn, as happens in Scout’s Journey. Both 18th century christianity and the fictional cult of the Star-Eater have strict ideas about the role of women in society, and pretty similar ones, too.

I don’t think a break-out attempt led by women (as happens in Scout’s Journey) is such a far fetched idea at all. Including the motivations that would lead up to it (basic needs not covered, no influence, marginalized, target of violence.) If this group was led by highly intelligent and resourceful individuals, they could succeed.

Historically, there have been occasions where women have banded together and, for example, pulled off sex strikes to effect change (or on Pitcairn, built a boat and tried to escape.) In a postmodern military scenario where society has failed, authority is largely absent, and everybody has easy access to weapons, I don’t think it too unlikely that guns would be pulled, on occasion, which consequently happens in Scout’s Journey.

It does seem like gender is a very difficult topic still. We would like humanity to be more civilised. We would like to let sleeping dogs lie. But evidence tells a different story.


Save the cat, but

There is a famous screenwriting manual called “save the cat” suggesting that your character should do something nice like that so the audience will like them. The inspiration is Ripley in “Alien” saving the ship’s cat.

My theory on why Ripley saves the cat is different.

The cat is the only creature on the ship who’s not a moron except Ripley. The rest of the crew all disqualify themselves when the question arises if the away team with the infected crew member should be allowed back on the ship. Ripley is the only one who’s trying to do the right thing here while the rest of the crew are dooming themselves by disagreeing and overriding Ripley’s order.

Had Ripley succeeded at that point and not let the away team back on the ship, most everybody would have lived.

Ripley doesn’t save the cat to make a nice impression on the viewer (it’s much too late in the movie for that) but because the cat is innocent. The cat deserves to live. Everybody else was an asshole.

 

 

 


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.

Hooray.

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:

CUT
Entrance hall
ESPERANZA is alone in the wide hall and talking into a handset.
.
ESPERANZA
Scorpion, here Mother Goose. Report.
.
CUT
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.
.
NKOYO
(quietly, into handset)
Scorpion. Bulls on parade.
.
CUT

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!

siege