Skip to content

What is “writing” in a game?

The people from Extra Credits offer an answer:

What is writing in a game? It’s what the characters say in cutscenes and dialogue boxes. It’s those voice tabs that characters shout out during combat. It’s also the background chatter that characters expell as the player passes by. It’s the words in the options menu, and the loading screens. It’s the flavour text describing guns or equipment or alien bases… OK, so it’s  alot of things. But I’ll tell you what it’s not. It’s notthe high concept. It’s not the idea behind the game. Few games ever start with a fully baked story that the developer is itching to tell, much less a complete script.

Writers don’t decide the concept of the game because in most cases, the game designer will be the person to think through and decide the setting, the mechanics and, surely, the most important traits of the story and its characters. That means the story is half-written before the writer jumps in (just like in Hollywood when a producer greenlights a remake, sequel or adaptation – the movie is already decided before the scriptwriter is hired). Thus the writer becomes part of a huge team – the video does actually review some of the difficulties of game writers’ within the cogs of the industry – but we’ll talk about teamwork tomorrow. The challenge that videogames face today is wider than that: they need to define how they can tell their stories.

Games can’t tell their story through disconnected segments of gameplay strung together by cutscenes. Games need to tell their story through the gameplay. Narrative should trip from every texture, and be integrated into every facet of the world. It should come through in the menus, in the interface, and in every loading screen. But most importantly of all it should come through in the mechanics of the game. The mechanics should teach us about the characters and reinforce the plotline. They should fundamentally attune the player to their character, and let them explore their character’s actions.

Doesn’t that contradict what they said at the beginning? If writers don’t decide the concept or mechanics of a game, how can they narrate through it?

Well that’s the big question isn’t it.