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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6 thoughts on “Video game writing – interactive storytelling or grand world building design?”

  1. I often have to explain that there’s more to video games than just running around shooting stuff (though that’s fun, too). It frustrates me how so many people dismiss games and refuse to accept that they’re just as important storytelling devices as movies, TV, books, comics, etc. Even weirder still when the person waving off games as massive time-wasters or mind-numbers are fans of soaps and Big Brother-style reality shows. O.o

  2. I completely agree; it is often purely for the narrative thread that I get hooked on a game. I am one of those gamers that isn’t very good at exploring on my own (or going off on a wild killing spree!) I simply want to follow the story and find out what happens…and I definitely don’t watch Big Brother!

  3. Hey Stephen,

    This is such a fascinating subject. You wrote:

    “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.”

    You’ve nailed it here.

    Turns out this is called environmental storytelling, or at least that’s the direction video games are moving more towards. The idea of creating an environment – providing the setting, tools and experience – to let players or visitors create their own narative.

    I’ve recently read a great article that interviewed one of the Disney Themepark designers on the subject. However, I forget where I read it.

    If I find it again I’ll pop back and link you up with it.

    All the best,
    Nate
    The Worldbuilding School

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