Video game writing – interactive storytelling or grand world building design?

I have never made it a secret that I am an avid (if not particularly good) video game player, and I have noticed that storytelling in video games has evolved and become a lot more ambitious in the last few years. It’s come a long way from a lengthy backstory written up in the forward of an instruction manual to character customisation, choosing your path and having multiple outcomes. Yet the writing in video games is something that is dismissed by people who would still laud the plots and characters of movies and novels.

While interactive storytelling can be much more complex than linear storytelling, the fundamentals are the same. You have structure, characterisation, 3-5 acts and a climax, but time can pass dependant on the player and his or her interactions within the game. The script has to take into account a third dimension that is controlled by the player, and out of the writers hands completely. Working within the boundaries and constraints offered by the medium provide the biggest challenge to the writer of a game as opposed to, say, someone writing a novel.  Rhianna Pratchett had to write most of the backstory for Mirror’s Edge off screen in comic book format, so it didn’t exist for the majority of people who played the game, her original story chopped and edited to fit already existing level design and gameplay mechanics. A frustrating, but not totally uncommon, occurrence to video game writers.

But there are more games writers now than there were five years ago, and creators like Ken Levine of Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite are more becoming the norm. Neil Druckmann, writer of the PlayStation title “The Last of Us” would like to see a move away from mainstream pop culture references and to make the stories told in games to be as personal as possible. When you don’t approach things from a personal or emotional level, he feels the player doesn’t learn the message you are trying to convey.

To me, the writing in video games is beyond simply the narrative, the lines of dialogue and scripted cut scenes. Video game writing is at it’s best when you don’t notice it. It’s the experience of the story, a believable and immersive world built and presented that makes sense. This is why I personally find video games such as the Bioshock series, Gone Home, Portal and Mass Effect great inspiration for my own world building exercises, and encourage me to want to expand my own fictional universes.

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Interview Tips

When you’re a freelance writer, you take any writing gigs that you can get; that includes the dreaded telephone interviews. Even if you have never done an interview before, this is something that you don’t want your editor to know – as far as they’re concerned, you’re a professional, you’re a natural, you’ve done hundreds of telephone interviews before.

Even if you are quite the professional interviewer, there are several tips that you cannot enter an interview without.

Number one: Probably the most obvious – do your research. You don’t want to make the call to your interviewee and get any information wrong, because if you get the facts wrong, you won’t get the story you want.

Number two: Don’t ask the questions that everyone else always asks; ask the questions that you and everyone else really want to know the answer to.

Number three: Do your prep, but don’t stick to your script. Sure, make some notes before you begin the call and have your questions at the ready, but if your interviewee feels comfortable and is on a roll, just go with it and let them steer the conversation, even if it isn’t necessarily going in the direction that you hoped.

Number four: Allow it to open doors; you never know what might come of the interview, what event you might get invited to and what networking opportunities that could have, so be open to everything and anything.

Number five: Don’t rely on technology. More often than not, you will be recording the interview so that you can type it up later. If you’re using a Dictaphone, make sure that you have spare batteries, and if you’re using your phone to record, do a few test runs, make sure you’re fully charged, and take some notes during the interview just in case. It pains me to admit this, but this is where shorthand (that you felt like you were being tortured with in journalism class for months and would never ever be useful) comes in handy!

The (Vast) Difference Between a Critique and an Edit

Usually, when a writer has finished a story or taken a story as far as they can, they send them out to critique groups or beta readers for feedback. As the author, it’s difficult disconnecting from a story’s headspace, and that makes it tricky to judge if everything is working. This is where critique groups and betas are invaluable: the fresh eye, the new perspective, the telling reactions. These all help author see where a story might still need work.

But there’s a big difference between a critique and an edit, and sometimes authors get back one when they really need the other. I’m going to talk about why, break down each one, and suggest things writers should do when approaching someone for feedback.

Critique:

A critique is an evaluation. It’s a review where you look at the bigger picture and consider things like pacing, clarity, character motivation, character arcs, plot and plot holes, weak dialogue, unnecessary exposition, theme and motif. This is where you think about whether or not every chapter, every scene, every paragraph advances the plot. You ask if all the characters are pulling their weight. You ask what the writer is trying to get across. Think: bigger picture, overall story.

Edit:

An edit focuses more on grammar, style, and punctuation. It picks apart paragraphs and sentences and looks for inconsistencies, repetitions, misused words, typos and spelling errors, awkward sentence structure, etc. It can expand to include suggestions on characters, dialogue, pace and plot, but these are generally smaller observations, on a paragraph by paragraph (or line by line) level. Think: details, fine tuning.

When you send stories out for feedback, be clear about the following:

1) How ‘finished’ is your story. It’s no good getting line edits on a first draft–it wastes everyone’s time. Ideally, you don’t want line edits until you’ve fixed the plot and characters. Plot and characters come first, and they should be analysed in a critique. Often revision is required, which can lead to whole chunks of a story being rewritten. How awkward when you have to explain to a beta reader who just spent two hours line editing your work that you’ve had to rewrite the entire story from scratch.

2) Be clear about what type of feedback you need. Specify the elements of a critique if your reader doesn’t know the difference. Ask questions (put them at the end of the story so as not to influence the reader before they start), and get them to write down their reactions as they read. Did their attention wander at any point, and if so, when? Were the character motivations clear and believable? Did the ending satisfy and tie in, at least a little, with the start? Was anything confusing? If the reader has never critiqued before, these questions will help guide them through it.

Writers become better writers much quicker through writing, reading, and critiquing. Editing will help teach you when to use commas instead of semi-colons, but it won’t teach you how to develop an engaging character with clear, compelling motivations, or sharpen your use of metaphor or motif, or just tell a damn good story. Semi-colons generally don’t sell fiction. Good stories do.

(Not, I want to add, that there’s anything wrong with a semi-colon! I ♥︎ them.)

If you’re a fiction writer, start critiquing. Do it every week. If you can’t find a fellow author to crit, then pull an anthology off a shelf and practise with that.

Here are some other excellent resources on writing critiques:

How to Critique Fiction, by Victory Crayne.

Nuts and Bolts of Critiquing, by Tina Morgan, posted at Fiction Factor.

15 Questions for Your Beta Readers, by editor and author Jodie Renner, posted at Kill Zone.