What Screenwriters Need to Learn About Games

There are at least 17 points that screenwriters need to learn about games if they're to be effective as game writers, let alone designers.

The Shortest Distance May Be a Straight Line But Who Wants a Straight Line?

Point 1: The screenwriter might feel that the player should follow a set route through the game to make sure that the player experiences the story in the way he or she (the writer) intends.

But the screenwriter needs to learn all the ways to give actual or apparent freedom to the player, so that the player doesn't feel trapped into merely being a pawn in a story. Gamers want to feel they're playing a game, not being played by it.

Point 2: Many screenwriters don't realize that, even in games with stories, there may be ways to play the game that completely avoid the story altogether (example: enjoying "vigilante mode" in Grand Theft Auto III).

Therefore, the screenwriter needs to learn dozens of other ways to make the game emotionally immersive so that it will be compelling, even if the player never experiences the story or puts the story on hold.

Point 3: Many games are designed so that a player might come upon elements of the story in a variety of orders. Most screenwriters create emotional experiences by making a story unfold in a particular sequence. They need to learn how to keep a story emotionally engaging when the different parts of it can be experienced in multiple orders.

Stan acquainted himself with nonlinear and multi-path story structures.


Game designers, take pity on the linear writer who drowns in a chaos of plot possibilities, gasping for air while going down for the count in a sea of infinitely expanding flow-charts.

Creating Playable Roles

Point 4: A screenwriter will often get quite excited about the idea of a player acting out a certain role in the story. But if the game, or the story in the game, casts the player in a role say a space pilot that doesn't automatically mean that the player feels like a space pilot.

The screenwriter needs to know techniques for getting the player to identify with a role.

Point 5: Screenwriters need to learn how to induce a player to identify with the personality of the character he or she has been cast as. Let's say that the character played by the gamer is someone who is cunning yet generous.

Bad news Just because this is the personality the screenwriter wants the player to pretend to have, that doesn't mean that a player who picks up the game will suddenly feel cunning yet generous. Instead, the player will probably feel like himself or herself.

Screenwriters need to learn how to create an environment in which the player willingly adopts a different personality in the make-believe world of role playing. By role playing, I don't mean RPGs (role-playing games); I mean any game in which the character being played has a supposed personality.

Point 6: One solution some screenwriters might seize upon to the problems discussed in Point 5 is to cast the player in the role of a hero. After all, wouldn't any player readily want to identify with a hero?

Perhaps not. You see, what screenwriters often don't know is that for every angel that sits on a game player's right shoulder, there's usually a grinning psychopathic devil on the left, who, just to be mischievous or rebellious, might attack foe and friend alike.

A screenwriter needs to allow the player this freedom, yet still provide incentives for the player to follow the story in the role the player is supposed to be inhabiting. Granting freedom yet prompting behavior with incentives is tricky business.

Similarly, just because the character you play is supposed to grow or change in some way during the game (undergoing what screenwriters call a Character Arc), doesn't mean the player will feel any different at the end of the game than he or she did at the beginning.

I'm not saying that creating a First-Person Character Arc is impossible (see Chapter 2.20, "First-Person Character Arc Techniques," for more about this). I am saying the way to do this effectively doesn't have much to do with the process screenwriters use for writing linear scripts.

Dialogue in Films Versus Games

Point 7: Because dialogue is often minimal in a game, the writer needs to be a proven master at creating complex characters and maybe complex and likeable characters even if that character speaks few words.

Point 8: NPC[1] dialogue is often used to convey information. But having NPCs dialogue only convey information can actually end up squashing emotion instead of enhancing it.

[1] An NPC is a non-player character any character in the game not controlled by the player.

A screenwriter needs to know how to work with short bursts of dialogue to convey simultaneously not just information, but also emotion and have this emotion not be conveyed in a cliché or bluntly over-obvious way.

Well, at Least They Can Write the Cinematics[2]

[2] A cinematic is a section of the game in which the player has no control and, instead, watches action unfold as if watching a short movie.

Point 9: Most screenwriters feel comfortable writing cinematics, because they're the part of games most like film and TV. They may not understand that these "mini-movies" are the least game-like part of any game. Although cinematics won't completely disappear any time soon, many game designers consider reliance or over-reliance on cinematics to be a weakness in a game.

A Different Kind of Process

Point 10: In films, a writer comes up with an idea and then writes a script. Many writers don't understand that in games, the idea is often evolved by a group.

When in a meeting with the design team, a screenwriter might not realize that the other members of the team are likely to have ideas that may be just as imaginative, viable, and artful as the screenwriter's.

Here we find a real mixed bag. I have found most screenwriters to be warm and responsive people. But there are a few who can't or simply won't adapt to the kind of group process games demand. You don't have to forage far for anecdotes from designers who have had extremely distasteful experiences with professional screenwriters because of these issues.

Point 11: Screenwriters may not understand that they need, when working in games, to be flexible to the point where yoga masters would pay them homage and pretzel makers would use them as prototypes. As games are made, quite often all sorts of aspects of the game are changed in process.

This can greatly impact the way story or character information is revealed. A writer has to be able to creatively "wing it" as the ground keeps shifting under his or her feet.

Point 12: A screenwriter might find himself brought on board a game after the characters and locations for the game have already been established. The screenwriter might then be asked to create both a story and personalities for characters that fit in with the existing locations and character designs.[3] In such cases, the screenwriter needs to be able to operate creatively and easily within this kind of process.

[3] Lest you think this isn't possible, it has happened to me several times. Stranger things have happened, too, but they were in Tijuana and a lot of alcohol was involved.

Point 13: Screenwriters usually don't realize that they might be needed at some points in the game, and then, after story and character descriptions are worked out, that they'll probably be sent away for three to seven months while the game continues to be built. Then the writer will be called back to write the NPC dialogue and expected to be available.

Point 14: When it comes to knowing how to emotionally draw a player into the story, the screenwriter should be aware of what's been done in other games, so as to not retread the past. In other words, screenwriters who want to write games should do their homework. They need to sit down and deconstruct game after game.

Point 15: This point was contributed by one of America's top game designers who is helping to push the envelope of story, character, and emotional immersion in games. He wrote to me:

"Game writers have to be able to master the technical aspects of writing for games. There's a coding element to game writing that's the stiffest challenge new writers face."

He was referring to a kind of writing that creates emotion while presenting the player with a wide range of options. In game design and writing, there are often an enormous amount of game experiences structured to unfold as:

If the player does A then X happens; if the player does B then Y happens and Y is twice as intense if the player has done not only B but C as well.

In this scenario, X or Y might take place soon after A or B, or they might occur much later in the game.

The applications of and variations in this kind of design, programming, and writing are almost limitless in nature. The screenwriter has to not only be able to think easily in this manner, but, importantly, needs to also be able to create a wide range of emotional experiences with these tools.

Hello, Hollywood

Point 16: In life, it ain't over until the fat lady sings. In games, it ain't over until all the NPC dialogue is written.

I was speaking to a high-placed executive at a large game company. He was quite excited; he had just begun a relationship with one of the biggest and most prestigious Hollywood agencies. I could almost hear his heart pound as he told me some of the famous writers these agents had introduced him to.

I asked him what he had been told he'd have to pay these famous writers, and his voice lowered a bit as he mentioned that he was supposed to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars, plus offer them all sorts of back-end revenue, in exchange for their story ideas.

I paused for a moment of sad contemplation, the way I always do when I watch the innocent get led to slaughter. Then I took a deep breath, and explained how he was about to get fleeced. I pointed out:

  • Agents have one goal in life: to make money for agents. They aren't on the developer's side; they're on their own side.

  • The big-name writers he was talking about are always booked for several years out. This means that they'd spend a few weeks (at best) to whip together a story for him, take the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and then run back to their much more prestigious and lucrative screenwriting deals.

  • Because of the way games are developed, who even knows how much of their story ideas would actually be present when the final game was done? And yet the game company would be out tons of money.

  • Because of all these problems, the agency would probably end up trying to get the company to accept some of the agency's writers "from the bottom of the deck. " These are writers who haven't worked for a while, not infrequently because they're not very good. And the game company would still be overcharged.

  • Are the famous writers he was speaking about going to stick around and write 500 or 1,000 or 10,000 lines of NPC dialogue, one line at a time? Or, are they going to keep the exorbitant money they've been paid, grin as they walk away from their NPC writing duties, and go back to making serious coin writing screenplays and soaking in the glamour of Hollywood?

I asked the executive, if he's hiring a famous writer, exactly what is he getting for his money?

There was a long pause on the other end of the line, as the executive realized he was on the verge of becoming 21st-century roadkill, blindsided by a ten-ton semi in a B-rated Hollywood shark-o-rama.

The game executive was by no means an unintelligent man. He had just never been a bit player in a real-life episode of Jaws before.

And It Doesn't End There

Point 17: A screenwriter might think that giving a game a story is the only way to make a game emotionally engaging. However, sports games and racing games have little story but can be very emotionally engaging. Screenwriters need to learn that there are many other ways to create emotional immersion in a game besides story. The screenwriter should know how to:

  • Integrate the story with the gameplay mechanics.[4]

    [4] Mechanics are actions that can be performed by the character or characters being played by the gamer.

  • Make the player care about the world of the game.

  • Create emotionally complex relationships between the player and the NPCs and, for that matter, between the NPCs and other NPCs.

  • Figure out to what degree and in what way the world of the game impacts the player, and to what degree, if any, the player impacts the world of the game.

  • Make sure the player is motivated to play through to the end of the game.

  • Know many other ways effective ways of creating emotional immersion in the game by the player.

Many game developers find their first encounter with Hollywood quite memorable.


Creating Emotion in Games. The Craft and Art of Emotioneering
Creating Emotion in Games: The Craft and Art of Emotioneering
ISBN: 1592730078
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2003
Pages: 394

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