I remember approaching a writer of a game I love, Bioshock, and asking him: how do I write for games?
He said, ‘Be a writer. Write a lot of things.’
The simplicity of the advice shocked my younger self: become a storyteller, regardless of the medium, with a body of work. While I can’t profess it has been easy, in my case it has been true.
I was working on a novel and some short stories and it was on the basis of one of these stories, a subversive fairy tale, that I was given my first game writing opportunity with The Voxel Agents. They are an independent game development studio who wanted a writer to help them with a brand new game project. It was to be their first narrative-driven game. The catch? It is an adventure puzzle game with no text or speech.
To conceive of the story, I wrote character profiles, story bibles, short stories and poems. In meetings I used storytelling language like ‘drama’ and ‘conflict’, which were seemingly at odds with the creative vision of the game design: to be slow and observational. I realised my goal was to first convey the story to the team. To do that, I would have to better understand their creative challenges.
The Gardens Between is about two friends who find themselves in a surreal world and must help one another find their way out. To understand storytelling in our game environment (small, terrarium-like 3D gardens), I made levels out of Lego and wrote stories set in them. The key was to be visual, to always ask: how do we show this story to the player? This question concerns every team member’s discipline — art, tech, design — their creative vision and technical restrictions. I mapped the story to a traditional story structure, The Voyage and Return, and pitched two synopses using a visual presentation that included the artist’s concept work and ideas about game design.
Be a writer. Write a lot of things.
This marked my growth from writer to narrative designer: one who creates and writes the story, and communicates the story to the team. They form the narrative by working with art, design and tech to communicate the story to the player and advocate for the story at each step in the development process.
My second project, Earthlight, with Opaque Media Group, requires me to do all of this, yet the process is entirely different. Earthlight is a virtual reality (VR) game set at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab and it follows the journey of an Australian woman training to be an astronaut. Gloriously, I’m not the only writer on this project. With experience in games already, my role is to help create and write the story, and to facilitate discussions between us, the narrative team, and the other disciplines. I have written character biographies, narrative treatments and asset lists (a list of objects we request from the art team to create to help tell the story, like photographs). I write scripts, sit in on voice actor auditions and ensure all narrative documentation is up-to-date for the rest of the team.
The narrative team on Earthlight works closely with the design team to ensure we have all the dialogue we need, not only to tell a good story, but also to guide the player through their astronaut training. For example, if the player wanders off the path they are meant to follow, we must ensure we script dialogue that encourages them to get back on track. If they drop an object important to a puzzle, we must ask them to pick it up. These are called ‘fail-states’ in the gameplay. To make an immersive experience for the player, we try to capture as many fail-states as possible. Other characters around our protagonist would surely say something if she is moving away from her objective or dropping things. The trick is to write fail-state dialogue in such a way that it doesn’t feel clunky when mixed in with the rest of the narrative dialogue.
I never imagined myself writing for virtual reality, but having experience with games made me aware of the storytelling power of a 3D space. Creating a living, breathing experience is integral for the aspirations of Earthlight as a virtual reality game. As a narrative designer and writer, it’s part of my job to place players in environments they can explore while stationary. From discussions with technicians and designers, I learn what is in my toolbox to tell story. For example, when I know it’s possible to trigger events such as a voice-over, or when the player looks at a key narrative object like an antique ring, I can script the dialogue related to that object.
Locating ways for the player to have meaningful impact in the virtual world is integral for those who wish to bring agency, the control a player has in the game world, to VR storytelling.
The challenge of VR is that, for the most part, it’s a passive, seated experience where the audience is an observer. Moving in the VR world is tricky until the technology allows us to move safely around our living rooms – and it’s on the way! The player in Earthlight can influence their environment to a certain extent, which isn’t always the case for VR experiences, such as those displayed at MIFF this year. Locating ways for the player to have meaningful impact in the virtual world is integral for those who wish to bring agency, the control a player has in the game world, to VR storytelling. How we go about doing this will vary from project to project and will evolve with the technology.
In game development, there should be an ongoing dialogue between narrative team and the rest of the team about what is needed, and technically possible, to tell a good story. From a dialogue system, to gameplay, to level design, and keeping in mind the creative vision of the project, I’ve learned to involve myself as much as possible in the early stages. My skills as a storyteller—pitching, writing a synopsis, scripts, character profiles, storyboarding, plot structure—have served me well on my foray into games. I’ve learned to execute them in different ways to suit these collaborative workplaces and interactive mediums.
Writing for games is technical, iterative and collaborative. Writing for virtual reality is the same, and as a medium, is gaining some traction as it is on the way to being accessible by the consumer. I’m excited to see games use their power for immersion and empathy. I want to see them challenge constructed identities, the way we see ourselves and each other. I want stories, in any medium, to allow us to play and shift because I believe that’s what makes good storytelling. Write lots of things.♦
Brooke Maggs is a freelance writer, narrative designer and producer working in games and writing fiction. Recently named in the top 100 most influential women in games, Brooke has talked about games and writing a bunch of panels at festivals and conventions. She loves brunch, the beach and succulents. She’s here: www.brookemaggs.com & @brooke_maggs
Published February 7, 2017
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