Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Writing for Games vs. Traditional Fiction

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 19, 2014

At the Comic Con spin-off convention this spring, FanX, I attended a writing panel by a number of authors who were either well-known in the games industry (both video games and tabletop / dice-and-paper), or popular authors who were also avid gamers (particularly role-playing games). The panelists included Michael A. Stackpole, Larry Correia, Tracy Hickman, David Farland, Robert J. Defendi, and William Pace.

One of the panelists – and I forget which one now – mentioned how his editor (or agent?) told him that he could always tell which writers were RPG gamers … meaning dice-and-paper, generally game-masters. They were all surprisingly good at world-building and making logical plots, but really bad about developing characters. Naturally, that was because the individual players were supposed to be in charge of the important characters in a dice-and-paper game, while the game master has to make sure they have a very consistent world that’s predictable in all the right ways in which they can adventure.

In fact, one of the cardinal rules in writing for a game (tabletop or video game) is that you are not to impose a reaction on the player’s character / avatar. It’s usually okay to say something along the lines of an environment being oppressive, but you cannot write a line of text (or narration) that says, “You feel oppressed by…”  The former hints at a reaction or describes a typical reaction, but the latter imposes a reaction.

One of my goals this last year was to put more effort into my writing. Frayed Knights – and a lot of future projects I have planned – are pretty story-heavy. Even though I’m one of those weirdos who claim that story and interactive games don’t play well together, I love story-heavy games. Apparently I delight in the balance between warring objectives. So naturally, I want to improve my writing chops to make the best games possible.

Not that writing for me is necessarily secondary to game development. Writing short stories this year, submitting for publication, and even doing the long hours of editing and being forced to participate in marketing drives has been fun for me, and I’ve learned a lot. Seeing my story published in Terra Mechanica: A Steampunk Anthology (which is currently climbing up the Amazon Kindle charts! Yaaaaay!) was definitely a high point. I intend to keep doing both. Because, I suppose, I subconsciously think five hours of sleep per night is way too much and I need to cut down…

But I digress. (That’s another weakness in my writing, I guess.)

Anyway – back to the point. Do I have  a point? Ah, yes. Writing for both games and traditional media.  A very cool part of this learning process for me was discovering where I have weak points and blind spots. Character development is one of them. Telling instead of showing is another. Trying to be too “objective” in my descriptions is another. Failing to applying appropriate subtle shades and symbolism is another. Pacing is another. Passive voice… gah! And on, and on, and on…

Not all of this is 100% applicable. For example, subtle doesn’t usually work too well in games.  When you are dodging incoming fireballs across moving platforms over a sea of acid, you can’t pay much attention to nuance. Maybe some bit of it may hit you on the head later, but at the time, your brain is fully occupied on problem-solving.

This isn’t completely unique to games. In my short story “Dots, Dashes and Deceit,” my editors Terri Wagner and Penny Freeman made me rip out large chunks of my action sequence. The problem was pacing – I was providing the same kinds of detail for a fast-action scene as I had everywhere else.  It was blindingly obvious once it was pointed out, but I had missed it through several revisions.

I think there’s a lot of cross-application between writing for traditional, linear media and writing for games. The problem is that while the two skills are related, they are not identical. That’s probably what trips up a lot of people. I’ve known traditional writers who really had a hard time “getting it” with games… they grow frustrated that they can’t force the player to make the right “dramatic” decisions. Or – as we see too often these days – they actually design the game to force that very thing, nullifying the most interesting choices the player could make via cut-scenes and purely linear game design. In my mind, that’s not writing for a game – that’s writing a traditional linear media but giving the player a child’s activity book to keep them busy through the boring parts.

So really, it comes to adapting to the medium. For linear storytelling, I have to change what I do, and build on skills that tend to atrophy when writing for games. And for games, there’s probably a lot of room to adapt linear storytelling techniques in such a way that they really improve the game rather than trying to smother it. There’s plenty of room for more character development in games — even if it’s ultimately the player’s decision of which direction it drives the character. There’s also plenty of room for subtlety (just not during intense action sequences), symbolism, nuance, etc. In a text-heavy game (as I tend to make), there’s even more room for authorial tricks and skill. But we must apply it differently.

We’ll see how well I do. I’m frantically working on a demo level (which may or may not be in the final version of Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath) and trying to combine what I learned from the first game with what I learned writing. The result will hopefully be a tighter, better, more entertaining game.


Filed Under: Writing - Comments: Read the First Comment

  • Kel said,

    My sister (an artist and comic creator) once told me a story about a very talented artist who was hired to draw a comic. Except, for some reason, he thought that required lots of writing, so his comic ended up being full of dialogue. Text, text, and more text… which is not the type of storytelling that works well with comics. I think in this case, it was pretty apparent that he never read comics for fun himself, and so was trying to use writing methods he had picked up from reading novels.

    Though all media strives to tell a story, the method of storytelling differs vastly from form to form. That’s why book to film adaptions have it so rough… keep it the same and it won’t work as well, but change it and fans get mad.

    As for games, I think this is why I prefer JRPGs to western RPGs. The JRPG story has a chance of being better and you never have any control anyway, while western RPGs either suffer from weaker story or taking control away at the end (obviously there are exceptions to both, but)…

    Good luck with writing Frayed Knights! I loved the dialogue and humor in the first game (though I sadly never finished it because my save file was on a computer that crashed. Whoops.) Thanks for the article.