SXSW preview: Game story and art direction

Yesterday, the Writers Cabal found itself careening along narrow roads ensconced between rocky gorge and looming green mountain. mountain road The torrential rains had thrown a layer of mud in our path, and we wondered if we’d skid into the suspiciously flooded-looking lake nearby. As we contemplated our mortality, the conversation naturally gravitated toward how art direction supports story in games.

Sande discussed the technique of integrating story within art direction used in cinema. A film director would read the story and identify key dramatic points and the story’s major themes. S/he would then link these to artistic choices. This cinematic technique has often been missing from games, but they can help both writer and player enjoy the story they’re creating.

For example, if the story explored a theme of power and control vs. weakness and chaos, the film director might choose to symbolize power with the use of red, and symbolize chaos with jagged lines. The story might begin in chaos, and the viewer would see broken lines throughout the art direction. However, the main character, symbolizing power, might arrive wearing red. The motif of red would appear whenever the power and control theme came forward in the story. If the story and art direction were developed collaboratively, the symbolic value of red or jagged lines could occasionally tell the story without the need for dialog or characters.

Generally speaking, stories consist of a series of mini-climaxes. Once the director identifies these key points, s/he can use the symbols to emphasize the drama. At the final climax of our power/control vs. weakness/chaos story, the director can throw in both the broken lines of chaos and then allow red to gain control of the scene. I imagine the player entering a location that is in shambles — jagged lines everywhere — the epitome of chaos. While player fights against the final villain(s), perhaps the “set” itself begins to crumble. As the broken facade crumbles, you see it was hiding a rich red rock that had always been there beneath the surface, the foundation of the PC’s future. Have you seen any great use of art direction in a game?

We will be exploring these themes even more at our South by Southwest panel on March 10th. You should join us! As for the Writers Cabal, we obviously survived our trek and relaxed in the hot springs at the top of the mountain.

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Published in: on January 31, 2008 at 5:36 pm  Comments (2)  

Game writing links – Gamasutra roundup

It’s time for another round-up of articles relating to game writing.  If you’ve missed Gamasutra lately, here’s what’s been going on:

Video Games: Officially Art, In Europe
So games are art in France.  Does that mean the next great wave of video game writing will be en francais?

Opinion: Controls, Simplicity, Focal Interest, and Contextual Sensitivity
Player should feel most in control when they are doing the most important part of the game.  Translate this to writing story, and you should give player non-trivial choice when it comes down to how the game ends, rather than resolving it in a cut scene.  Also great comments on mood — you know what also sets mood?  You guessed it.

Game Design Expo: Radical’s Zmak Gives Original IP Reality Check
Got a great new game idea?  Hope you got a pile of cash, too.

Interview: Nintendo, Advance Wars, & The Art Of Localization
To localize a game, you have to want to capture the developers’ original vision.  Not unlike writers brought on to a project late.

Opinion: The State Of WYSIWYG Game Design
When it comes to in-game tips, yes, there really are more appropriate ways to help your player than just writing text.

Project Horseshoe’s Thoughts On Story
Very interesting article from designers about story.  My major beef: Apparently thinks stories from other media don’t create an emotional experience for the user/viewer.  Apparently has never read a book, watched a movie or TV show, attended a play or musical, or laughed at a joke.  I’m just sayin’…

Feature: Designer Sylvester On How Games Engineer Compulsion
This article discusses how games can create emotional states, which we already knew from Nicole Lazzaro, but it may be a nice addition to your reading on the matter.  Author kindly includes human storytelling as one of our natural compulsions and advocates creating opportunities for player story in game design.  Hear hear.

Any articles you’ve come across worth a mention?

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Published in: on January 29, 2008 at 5:30 pm  Comments (1)  

WGA writers and the game industry

We’ve been asked on more than one occasion, mostly by developers, what it means that we’re both members of the WGA and game writers.  The easy answer is that it doesn’t make a difference in how we work.  We write games because we “get” games. We also happen to have experience in other visual media that we can bring to bear. More often than not, however, what developers really want to know is: What does working with a WGA writer entail? 

It could take a million posts to cover this topic, but here it goes in a nutshell. The WGA does have a new media contract. Unlike the MBA (minimum basic agreement) required in film and television, the new media contract is about a page long and does not make any demands regarding how much the writer is paid. As a game developer, you can hire a WGA writer under a WGA contract. You can also hire a WGA writer without a WGA contract if the writer agrees.  By hiring under a WGA contract, you have the peace of mind knowing your freelance writer could get health insurance and the best pension in the entertainment industry.  Since there are so few WGA writers in games, it’s a safe bet there won’t be picket signs in front of your office any time soon.

Are WGA writers more expensive? It depends on the writer.  Certainly a big “name” Hollywood screenwriter would be more expensive, but you may find some WGA writers less expensive than major game writers outside the WGA fold.  If money is your primary concern, however, remember you may get what you pay for. 

Are WGA writers better writers?  This often unspoken question lies at the heart of the game industry’s love-hate relationship with itself.  I’ve seen game developers who get stars in their eyes around “real” Hollywood people.  I’ve seen experienced game developers turn up their noses at Hollywood writers with an inability to grasp the gaming medium.  The truth is you’ll find both better and worse writers in the WGA. That’s why it’s important to hire writers not based on how impressive they seem, but whether they’re a good fit for your project. Your game isn’t cookie-cutter, so you wouldn’t want to hire your writer that way. 

Is the WGA taking over? I’ve seen a lot of articles discussing how WGA writers are just flooding into the game industry during the strike.  After walking around in circles with a bunch of WGA members, I’m going to say it’s not true.  While some WGA writers have expressed interest, many of them don’t seem to “get” games, so I doubt they’re running off to tell their agents to get them on a game.  Of the few I’ve met who have written for games, they do it “on the side,” like one of the writers of LOST who contributed to its game. 

Are you afraid of the WGA in the game industry? Or do you think it’s mostly harmless? I’m curious on your views.

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Published in: on January 24, 2008 at 4:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

The WGA strike and game writers

You may have been reading this blog since November and been thinking to yourself — is the Writers Cabal living under a rock? Why has there been no talk about the WGA strike? The answer is both simple and complex. The strike covers many issues, not all of them obvious. We’re also both WGA members and game writers, so we find ourselves in an odd situation as we continue to work while others don’t. But at the end of the day, the WGA strike has had only one clear and non-debatable effect: more people are playing games.

What the strike is about
The Writers Guild generally wants a fair piece of the profits for its members from both DVDs and the internet. Much ado has been made about shows such as THE OFFICE which created original content for the internet, but the writers got paid nothing. Whether this strike comes too early because no one knows the right revenue model for the internet is anyone’s guess. The Directors Guild of America (DGA) recently settled their contract negotiations with the producers (AMPTP). Many have assumed that whatever the DGA negotiates the WGA will have to accept, but that remains to be seen. Ultimately, the strike is an attempt to deal with the slow shift in power away from film and television and toward the internet and other media. That said…

What the strike is not about
In this contract negotiation, games are not an issue for either the Writers Guild or the AMPTP, because most guild signatories (producers who work exclusively with WGA members) don’t make games. It appears animation and reality merely serve only as bargaining chips this time around, too, in case you were keeping track.

Why the Writers Cabal is still writing
As WGA members,Picketing at FOX we are not writing for any struck company. Since most game developers have little or nothing to do with the AMPTP, that means we continue to write for various projects. However, in our wayward youth, both of us did the Hollywood thing, so we support the efforts of our guild-mates. I happen to be based in Los Angeles, so I walk the picket line on days when I can afford a few hours away from writing.

The strike and games
However the strike ends up, the lack of new scripted television has sent about 26 percent of viewers to their computers or consoles and are playing more games, according to a recent survey. I’m sure they’re finding story-driven games more fun than the latest episode of American Gladiators 🙂

Got any questions or angry words about the strike? We’ll do our best to answer them!

Question Mark Last week’s game dialog came from GRIM FANDANGO. John Green guessed it right! Stay tuned for more Guess that Game Dialog!

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Published in: on January 22, 2008 at 2:32 pm  Comments (3)  

A question for game developers on feedback

Here’s a question for any developer who handles game outsourcing or works with writers. In my experience working with game developers, the kind of feedback I receive ranges from the helpful and thorough to the virtually non-existent. The single common denominator on all the games I have worked on has been the speed of the feedback we receive: it is almost always slow in coming. 

The reason, it would seem, is obvious — developers are busy and writing is not a priority. Yet even when working with a developer who cared deeply about the story and the production could not commence until the story was set, I had to wait weeks for any sort of feedback. In television, executives earn their pay by giving feedback and shepherding the project from concept to script to episode. For better or worse, their entire job is to give feedback.  Game developers who manage writers or outsource don’t have that luxury. You wear many hats and cannot or do not devote that much time to giving feedback to the writers. 

Here, then, is my question.  How can we get feedback from you in a timely manner?  We have implemented a few strategies thus far: 

1.  Put feedback in the contract.  In a recent contract, the developer agreed to give feedback on our deliverables within a set period of time.

2.  Ask for feedback and explain the urgency.  This strategy has been hit and miss, mostly miss.  While working under contract, we asked for feedback on a concept that required approval or denial before we could complete our milestone. Even with reminders, they did not give us any feedback, so we were forced to make a decision on our own on as to what to submit.

3. Ask for feedback by a certain deadline. This strategy has been much more effective, but for some reason does not sit right with me, probably because it feels like I’m telling someone how to do their job. How do you feel when this happens to you?    

Which strategies do you approve of? If you know of another way to get speedy feedback, now’s the time to share. In fact, please answer by Tuesday, January 22nd at 2pm EST, or the world will explode. 

Question Mark Guess that game dialog! What game did the following dialog come from?
Manny: Any messages for me?
Eva: Besides the one about the poisoning?
Manny: Yeah.
Eva: I only have one other message for you, Manny… I’m not your secretary! I don’t take your messages! So get it through your thick skull, and stop forwarding your phone to me!
Manny: All right, but that sounded more like FOUR messages to me. In my heart, though, you’re still my secretary.

Check back next week to see if you guessed right!

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Published in: on January 17, 2008 at 2:20 pm  Comments (3)  

Witcher nominated for Writers Guild Award!

It’s official!  THE WITCHER, the first joint project of the Writers Cabal, was nominated for a Writers Guild Award!

While THE WITCHER has already earned accolades from IGN and GameSpy, among others, the WGA nomination has special meaning for us, because it specifically recognizes the story and writing.  This nomination puts us game writers beside the likes of Damon Lindelof & Drew Goddard, writers of LOST; Bryan Fuller, writer and creator of PUSHING DAISIES; and Diablo Cody, writer of JUNO. We have long believed that good storytelling was not the exclusive territory of linear narrative.  This nomination proves it. 

We are terribly grateful to our co-nominees at CDProjekt — Artur Ganszyniec, Sebastien Stepien, and Marcin Blacha — for introducing us to the world of The Witcher.  We lift a virtual mug in your direction!  

Other nominees in the Videogame Writing category include the writers behind Sierra’s CRASH OF THE TITANS, D3 Publisher’s DEAD HEAD FRED, EA’s THE SIMPSONS GAME,  and Sierra’s WORLD IN CONFLICT.  Congratulations to everyone!

Question Mark Last week’s game line came from Anne’s recent session playing DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION SUPERNOVA. Did you guess it right? More Guess that Game Dialog to come this week!

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Published in: on January 14, 2008 at 5:43 pm  Comments (6)  

You know you’ve been writing games too long when…

We’ve been building this list for a little while, but when the IGDA mailing list we’re on brought up the topic, we figured it was time to post! So here it is: You know you’ve been writing games too long when…

1. You find yourself using $playername$ in casual conversation. Ex: “Yeah, I wouldn’t wear that dress on a date. It’d be like, ‘Yes, $playername$, I am an idiot.'”

2. You watch a movie, the actor looks into camera, and you think, “Wow, he’s looking right at player.”

3. When you hear the word “shopkeeper,” you immediately have flashbacks of merchant screens.

4. You use medieval-speak when talking to friends, co-workers, relatives and you don’t even notice.

5. You’re doing some research on-line for names and before you realize it you have entered into the search field: “mini boss of nebulousness.”

6. You watch a movie and afterwards, your critique is “That’s totally not re-playable.”

7. You start giving people excessively specific directions. Ex: “Take this dish to the sink in the kitchen, then return to me.” Okay, so this never happened to me, but it’s only a matter of time.

8. You’re trying to recap a linear story for “normals” and you keep saying “player” instead of “the main character.” They look at you strangely.

Got any other moments from the game developer’s perspective? Share so we don’t feel like we’re the crazy ones!

Question Mark Guess that game dialog! What game did this line come from: “Marvelous! Perfect! Perfect! Marvelous! Great! Perfect!” Check back next week to find out where it came from.

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Published in: on January 9, 2008 at 8:58 pm  Comments (2)  

See us at 2008 SXSW Interactive Festival!

Continue the conversation on games and narrative with us at the 2008 South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival! See us speak!SXSW Interactive will run March 7-11, 2008 at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, Texas.

We will be moderating a Core Conversation on “Creating Passionate Games: A Multidisciplinary Approach” on March 10, 2008. You should join us! Many thanks to everyone who voted for our session!

Creating Passionate Games: A Multidisciplinary Approach

Who creates meaning in a game? Who’s responsible for the passion? Everyone! Artists, designers, and composers discuss techniques that incorporate narrative and meaning successfully.

When a game successfully captures the passion of its developers, what tool made this possible? The gameplay? The story? The art direction? The most successful games integrated approaches from all these departments before producing the game.

While games have come a long way, developers have yet to take full advantage of the medium by incorporating meaning within the very structure of the game. One of the strongest tools to convey meaning is narrative, but the best stories suffer when developed independently of other game elements, such as gameplay, game systems, art direction, sound design, and music. Developers of all stripes need to marry these different disciplines to create meaningful products for today’s crowded marketplace.

Experienced narrative designers Sande Chen and Anne Toole of Writers Cabal invite participants to discuss experiences, techniques, and obstacles encountered while attempting to create more meaning in their projects. This Core Conversation will cover topics such as:

  • What cinematic directing techniques can artists employ to heighten drama and meaning?
  • How can narrative be shown through gameplay actions? Can game systems be designed to support narrative?
  • How can suggesting what cannot be seen not only affect mood, but create meaning?

See you March 10th in Austin!

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Published in: on January 8, 2008 at 6:27 pm  Comments (3)