Asking Questions, Receiving Answers

Being open to questions doesn’t begin and end with the game writer-developer relationship. When I go to game expos, I like to ask questions. Sure, I like to see the previews and sometimes, I’ll hop on and play a classic game like GALAGA. But usually, I go look at the new games being demo’ed and if there’s somebody nearby to bother, I’ll ask specific design questions, e.g. Why did they decide on this aspect of the design? Did they know about this factor? Asking questions is something that filters in and out of work, life, and play.

At conferences, as previously mentioned, we have a good time at parties and sessions. We always seem to find people willing to engage in scholarly discussions, whether at the AI dinner or at the hotel lobby. Industry parties are also a gold mine of shop talk. At the last event I attended, I asked an audio engineer about voice-over set-ups for an ensemble cast. I talked to a programmer about localization issues. He told me that at his studio, they design the interface for German as a default since it tends to have the longest words. As a rare treat, I met a game writer from a French game company. He told me that the sex quest with the dryad in the game, THE WITCHER, was tasteful and thought more games should incorporate mature themes.

While working, we ask questions, but we also like to receive questions from developers, especially ones of the clarifying sort. It’s part of the back and forth of production. Since changes to quests, back story, or other content may occur during production, we need the channels of communication to be open.

What’s the best answer to a game design question you’ve ever come across? What’s the best question?

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Published in: on April 17, 2008 at 3:41 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)  

Writing the Witcher and Andrzej Sapkowski

You’re playing THE WITCHER and you want to know more — about the game, and about the original novels that inspired the game. You’re in luck. You’re about to get both. Here we attempt to answer those burning questions — and encourage you to ask a few more.

The reason we’re all here: Andrzej Sapkowski
Andrzej Sapkowski introduced Geralt, the witcher, in a series of short stories and novels. While these novels are best-sellers in Europe, they have yet to jump the pond (as of October 2007). THE LAST WISH, the original collection of short stories featuring Geralt, has been translated into English since we began work on THE WITCHER. However, I ended up reading the book in French, because it was the only version available at the time that I could understand. To supplement the material we had received from CDProjekt and Atari, I wrote an extended synopsis of the book, which we used as inspiration in writing the English script. The book and writing are fabulous — we highly recommend it.

If you want information about what happened in the first or subsequent books, you have a number of options. First of all, feel free to ask us and we’ll do our best to answer. You can also hear about what happened in the stories and novels by asking certain NPCs in-game. You can also buy the English translation of THE LAST WISH. If you want a preview of Sapkowski’s writing before buying, you can also read an English translation of Sapkowski’s short story based on Arthurian Legend.

Writing THE WITCHER game
Now, it’s no secret that the English version of THE WITCHER has been edited down. As writers, we accept that when we hand over the script, there’s always the possibility it will get changed. (Just to clarify, we were not the translators, but the writers working on the English adaptation.) Although every detail was not able to be retained, ideally the cuts were conducted in a fashion so as to keep the spirit of the original meaning. As far as we know, these cuts happened for production reasons only. The cuts were not done for reasons of censorship. As with most production- related reasons, you would not have the game in hand had these cuts not occurred. Moreover, we think CDProjekt has done a phenomenal job.

We also understand that some of the cuts have caused some confusion. If you have any questions about an in-game dialog, we’ll do our best to find the original line and tell you its meaning. We only ask for patience in return. So ask away!

Question Mark Guess that game dialog becomes What’s your favorite line? Today’s line: “A witcher! Quick, hide your women!” What’s your favorite line?

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Published in: on November 5, 2007 at 5:39 pm  Comments (13)  

Nipples! The Witcher UK

For those of you who aren’t in the know, the PC game the WITCHER came out in the UK on October 26th and came out today in the US. The two versions have one subtle difference. The UK game includes pictures of women in the nude.

We can chalk up this difference to the puritan morality that still pervades much of the US. I think it’s more a question of what you’re used to. Once upon a time, I watched the original British version of Queer As Folk. Let’s just say it’s a bit graphic. Now I wasn’t scandalized by what I was watching, but what I couldn’t get over was that it appeared on the public airwaves. Plunged into the depths of cognitive dissonance, I couldn’t stop repeating, “They put this on television?” Clearly the US and Europe are on different pages.

When Sande and I worked on the WITCHER and came across his multiple sexcapades, we were amused by the idea. We admittedly had a few discussions on the appeal of the WITCHER’s main character, Geralt. A man who can’t get a woman pregnant, nor could he give her any disease, he has lots of experience and is certain to be out of your hair within a few days. Draw your own conclusions 😉 However, for the part of the Witcher we worked on, our job was to make the language consistent with Sapkowski’s fantasy world. Although we had nothing to do with “taking out the dirty bits,” the decision certainly makes business sense.

Ultimately, if you want nipples, there are plenty of places to see them. I’m just sayin’. However, if you’re American, you want to save a few dollars on the exchange rate, and don’t want to be plunged into the cognitive dissonance of thinking, “They put this in a game?” go ahead and get the US version. We don’t judge.

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Published in: on October 30, 2007 at 11:28 am  Comments (1)  

Are you The One?

The ever-questing hero, the one born of modest means who ultimately triumphs over evil and fulfills an ancient prophecy, is a story often told in RPGs. This storyline appeals to those of us in the West, where the culture strongly values individualism. For certain, there’s more than one myth in the world. Myths, stories, even analyses of myths, are barometers and functions of culture.

During high school, I studied creation myths to gain an understanding of different cultures and their outlooks. Of course, there’s the Judeo-Christian story where God created the earth. The Hindu version is not so clear-cut. Indeed, some variants of Eastern religion do not even delve into a creation myth. The Middle Kingdom exists between Heaven and Earth. It simply IS.

Applying an analysis of mythic storytelling to all stories as if they are the golden rules leads to formulaic, cookie-cutter writing. Tread carefully. Always be aware that analysis comes bundled with an ethnographic or hegemonic viewpoint. I would posit that there’s room for mythic stories beyond what we’ve seen in games.

Wouldn’t you like to experience that?

And you don’t even have to be The One.

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Published in: on August 8, 2007 at 7:48 am  Comments (1)  

Towards a Game Vernacular

In film, the screenplay is often thought of as the blueprint for the production. Very often, the screenwriter has nothing to do with the actual production. The director will comb through the script, thinking about different angles and shots. The producers may say sadly: We can’t afford that helicopter shot or those special effects. All the while, the script gets changed according to budget, time, and circumstances.

Sometimes, it’s more collaborative. The director is also writing and producing or they’re a team that has worked together before. They already know the limitations of the budget and time. The screenplay is written with forethought of these issues.

While the first scenario may bring to mind the way a game design document functions in game development, it certainly isn’t the standard for game writing. Much as it might delight me to see the story document reign supreme in game development, I would have to say the second scenario, while not an exact match, is closest to how writing is used in games.

Naturally, we hope that the writing will support the gameplay and that the gameplay will support the story. A game writer should understand interactivity just like we’d expect a screenwriter to understand the visual language of film. And since cinematics are in games, a game writer should have those screenwriting skills as well. If I were to pick the ideal situation, I’d want a writer who knew not to write beyond the limitations of the engine, i.e. I’d want a writer who understood game design issues. I’d want a writer with foresight to think about production in its entirety, about issues like localization and staying true to IP.

Only then will we make strides towards a game vernacular.

What do you think?

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Published in: on July 27, 2007 at 1:40 pm  Comments (1)  

Gender unknown: writing for French translation

We’re writing for a project with a unique mandate: make it easy to translate into French. This is a challenge because we do not know which gender the player will choose to play. This problem must be unique to game writing, so we thought we’d write up a little cheat sheet for people writing in English who may not know what problems the French translators may encounter.

1. Avoid simple past tense and future perfect with gendered pronouns as direct objects. For example “You killed me!” or “I hope you won’t have killed me by then” would have different spellings in French depending on the gender of “me.” Ok: “You killed Adriane!” “I hope you won’t have killed Adriane by then.”

2. Avoid “etre” verbs in the simple past tense and future perfect when the subject is gender unknown. Fortunately, there are only 16, but they’re pretty major: to come, to arrive, to enter, to climb, to stay, to return, to turn back, to be born, to go, to depart, to leave, to get down, to fall, to come back, to become, to die. Click here to find out more about verbs that take etre.

3. Avoid reflexive verbs in simple past or future perfect with the subject an unknown gender. So what are reflexive verbs? These types of verbs inherently reflect back on the subject, ie “I hurt myself,” “I washed myself.” Less obviously: “To amuse oneself,” “to have fun,” and “to be interested” also fall into this category.

4. Avoid adjectives describing your unknown gender. “You’re smart!” “I’m stupid!” — these and most other adjectives in French have different spellings based on the gender of the person described. That said, many exceptions exist, like “orange.” Rather than sharing an exhaustive list, try to avoid them. Ok: “That was a smart thing you did.”

5. Watch for plural subjects with one gender unknown. The above rules dealt mostly with singular masculine or feminine. However, you may find an instance where the unknown gendered person is referred to in a group. If this group consists entirely of males, or males and females, then you can proceed with impunity. However if the group may consist entirely of females, or may not depending on user choice, you will have to follow the guidelines above.

Next week: gender unknown for Yemeni Arabic. Just kidding! You don’t want to know about the duals. Do you find these guidelines similar for other romance languages, such as Spanish? Would you find it helpful to learn about other languages’ issues?

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Published in: on June 20, 2007 at 11:32 am  Comments (13)