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An array of gaming controllers, keyboards and other computer accessories on a dark background, with a red and blue distortion effect

Image: Pixelshot/Canva

When it comes to storytelling, the most traditional forms remain the most venerated. Books, film, and theatre hold a certain cachet in modern society, while many people still reduce video games to violence, teenage fantasies, and misogyny. If traditional storytelling is a fine French brie, the thinking goes, then video games are Kraft Singles. However, this is a misconception. From tightly-plotted narratives such as Heavy Rain and Florence to open-world explorer titles like Grand Theft Auto and No Man’s Sky, video games have grown into a medium through which complex and nuanced storytelling is flourishing, and an industry which is attracting skilled writers with a passion for well-crafted stories. Just recently, George R. R. Martin collaborated with Dark Souls creator Hidetaka Miyazaki to create the world of Elden Ring, an upcoming RPG release, and Naomi Alderman, who wrote The Power, co-created the popular fitness game Zombies Run!.

The process of writing for games differs in several key areas to their more traditional literary counterparts. The major factor is interactivity—in a film or novel, the audience passively watches a story unfold; in a game, the audience’s first question is: ‘What do I do?’. In video games, players can choose to pick up objects, smash them against a wall, talk to characters or bypass them entirely. Much like tennis, players can act based on the rules of a certain game, and develop their own strategy within those rules to win. These types of choices present unique challenges for games writers: when there are as many styles of play as there are players, how do you write for them all?

To start, games writers acknowledge that people play games for different reasons. Some want to inhabit a character or explore a world, while others focus on achieving a high score, completing every level, scavenging the best weapons, or socialising with others in-game. What these different motivations all have in common is players’ desire to see the game respond to their choices and playing styles. A games writer needs to actively incorporate this responsiveness into the game’s storyline and world. This means that they need to ensure every element in the game—from the game’s music to the game’s code—speaks to the story.

A writer’s job is to give meaning to a player’s actions, making the gameplay enticing and authentic.

For many, the word ‘writing’ evokes the image of a solitary writer hunched over their desk late at night, slaving away at a manuscript. In the games industry, collaborative story development happens from day one. Of course, collaboration is essential when writing a novel or a film script, but that collaboration often comes at a later stage. Think of the author, for example, who approaches agents and publishing houses only after completing their manuscript, or the screenwriter trying to get their project greenlit. In games, by contrast, the how often comes before the why: the game’s core gameplay mechanics are often designed before the story, lending games writing a practical dimension. For example, if a studio wants to make a game where the main character shoots enemies and solves puzzles, they might expect writers to come up with a main character who is a code-breaking assassin, rather than a ticket inspector. In this sense, the writer’s job is to give meaning to a player’s actions, making the gameplay enticing and authentic.

That’s not to say that games never come with a crafted linear narrative. Many game titles do feature an overarching story with a beginning, middle, and end. Like novelists and screenwriters, games writers use principles like the hero’s journey and storytelling structure to frame quests, write dialogue, and shape goals within a game. However, games also present logistical challenges that are not present in other forms of storytelling. Unlike in books or movies, gamers depend on guidance, practical direction, and context. Together with the designers, writers must find creative ways to illuminate the path ahead without breaking the immersive experience.

In a novel, the protagonist will go from point A to point B as the author intends. In a game, this is not a given, since players decide which actions to take. As a result, a games writer may need to ask even simple questions like, ‘How do we make the player go from point A to point B?’ ‘How do we make sure they pick up a key object?’ and, ‘How do we make sure they don’t skip an interaction with an important character?’ In this way, the games writer’s job is one of influencing players to take the right actions, motivating them to continue playing. This could mean writing specific dialogue for a key character, or including directional text on-screen that can provide this guidance for players. In Super Mario Bros, for example, right when Mario is set to finally locate and rescue his princess in the villain’s castle, Toad cheerfully says, ‘Thank you Mario! But our princess is in another castle!’ This indicates that the game is far from over, and will in fact continue for several more levels.

Together with the designers, writers must find creative ways to illuminate the path ahead without breaking the immersive experience.

Of course, a writer’s intentions don’t always align with the choices a player makes. While it is the writer’s goal to guide and influence gameplay, player choice will always introduce an element of unpredictability to any game. Interactivity, and therefore unpredictability, are core considerations of the games writer’s practice. In Bethesda’s open world role-playing game Skyrim, players are able to recruit a dog called Meeko as a follower. Meeko is vulnerable to attack and can die in-game—this has led to some players abandoning the game’s main quests and jumping through elaborate hurdles to protect Meeko. For the developers, this was an unexpected side effect, and when Bethesda released their newer title, Fallout 4, the team took this into account. They included the ability to adopt another dog as a companion, however this time they made the dog, Dogmeat, immortal—thereby alleviating players’ concerns about protecting their dog and shifting players’ focus back to the main quests of the game.

Due to the collaborative nature of games production, a games writer must be intimately acquainted with every aspect of the development process. This involves frequent discussions and consultations with everyone in the studio, ranging from animators to sound designers. No games writer is an island—it takes a team to map out a player’s movements and to establish a consistent narrative whole. As a result, game scripts can look quite different to a traditional script for film or TV, more likely to be developed through spreadsheets, flowcharts, and mood boards. This lateral design allows writers to establish which actions players can take, what flow-on effects these have on the story, and what the game’s boundaries and limitations are.

Similarly to film and TV, defining a game’s boundaries is often informed by pragmatic constraints like budget, team capacity, time, and money. Even in large studios, budget and development constraints will often force writers to change or adapt things last minute, and—much like in screenwriting—no games writer is a stranger to having to kill their darlings. In fact, it’s an expected part of the job. If a game has levels set in a space station, for example, but it’s no longer possible to go up into space because of budget constraints, those levels will be cut in one fell swoop. Even without these particular segments the narrative must still make sense, so games writers rely on modular storytelling to ensure the story structure is agile. That way, the narrative chain will hold overall, even if large chunks of it are missing.

Games and cinema won’t fully overlap until their fundamental intentions do too.

While this process may not be nearly as romantic as the unbridled freedom normally reserved for the solitary novelist, it does provide writers with a collaborative process that makes them more skilled and versatile. Games writers need to work with everyone on the production team to present a coherent narrative whole. Like production executives in the movie business, seasoned games writers learn to develop useful ways to reuse locations, art, or characters to reduce the workload for different departments, and are well-versed in working conservatively with animations and cutscenes to save time. Ubisoft, for example, reused the climbing animation from their popular 2018 game Assassin’s Creed Odyssey in their next game, Immortal Fenyx Rising. When playing both games, players will notice characters scaling rocks with the exact same movements. To some, this might seem like cutting corners, but the reuse of existing frameworks frees up creatives to focus on other aspects of the game development process.

A close-up image of a young dark-haired man looking worriedly to his right, with text underneath showing two options: 'throw tea over computer' or 'shout at dad'.

Fionn Whitehead in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018). Image: Netflix/IMDb

While the process of making games has a lot in common with that of making movies, they are two very different beasts. Interactive advertising and television such as interactive Uber ads and Black Mirror: Bandersnatch have become increasingly popular in recent years, and many people have predicted that movies and games will eventually converge. However, the way both media are experienced by an audience is fundamentally different. Even though a story like Bandersnatch offers their viewers choices within a story, it’s not quite on par with the level of interactivity inherent in video games. While the audience can choose to eat breakfast in the morning in Bandersnatch, for example, or choose whether or not to accept a job, it’s not clear what these choices amount to, or whether they matter in the grand scheme of the narrative. It allows you to piece together a plot, yes, but it doesn’t give you the room within the plot to act and express yourself the way that a game does. Compare this with a massively open role-playing title like Star Wars: The Old Republic, where a player can choose to be good or evil, a spy or a smuggler, and befriend or kill non-playable-characters at will, leading to at least 37 different possible conclusions. To revisit the tennis analogy, players know what the match outcome will be—there’ll be a winner (hopefully them) and a loser—but they can make their own choices regarding gameplay. In this way, video games have more in common with escape rooms or interactive theatre. These experiences immerse participants in a world that responds to them and lets them get creative with the rules. Games and cinema won’t fully overlap until their fundamental intentions do too.

Does this mean that film and games will never merge? It’s hard to say. Companies like Netflix and Amazon are certainly paying attention, with both streaming giants recently starting a dedicated gaming arm, and Facebook’s metaverse has fuelled much speculation of what immersive content could look like in the future. In reality, it looks like we’re still a long way off these two forms overlapping. It’s an exciting prospect, but until then, we’re happy to keep tending to our farms in Stardew Valley.