Meet Leanne C Taylor, games writer and lecturer on interactive narrative.
This is Part Two part on writing for computer games. The second part appeared before the post on YA. Part One covered Pre-production and Production.
Dialogue in Games
Once you’ve finally gotten to the stage of actually writing a game, you’ll quickly find out that, in addition to 90% of your time being spent editing, 90% of your time will be spent writing dialogue. The game mentioned above is the only one I’ve worked on that was written in generic script formatting. All of the others have been written in Excel, line under line, with direction to the sides. How you write a game also depends on the target market and target console – is it for the Nintendo Dual Screen, and a demographic of boys aged 5-11 years? Or is it for the PlayStation 3, and aimed at girls aged 12-18 years? Will the dialogue be spoken, or text-only? Herein lies another challenge : deciding which dialogue falls into which category.
Written dialogue must be short, uncomplicated, and fit within a set space. For example, one of the games I wrote had a character limit of 60 characters per speech bubble. That meant every line either had to be 60 characters long, or have an understandable break somewhere around the 60 character mark. Spoken dialogue can be a little longer, and a little more complicated, but you have to avoid the repetition of important words or phrases, as they’re much easier to pick up when heard rather than seen. Imagine you’re reading a book. Every time, after someone speaks and it says, “she said”, you gloss over it. It becomes invisible. Compare this to a movie where someone says the same word several times in the same sentence, and it’s an entirely different set of feelings – what should be invisible becomes obvious, and irritating. When I’m writing for games that will have VO (voice over), I spend a lot of time talking to myself.
So you’re writing dialogue – what for? In small games, such as those for the Nintendo DS, sometimes a cutscene – slightly different to a cinematic, but essentially the same thing – can be between 1 and 8 lines long. That means you have between 1 and 8 lines to explain to the player who they’re taking to, what’s going on, what’s coming up, and what they’re expected to do. Couple that with the 60 character limit, and you’re not looking at much text. In games for the PlayStation, with full VO, there might be dialogue options for the player to choose from, which means making sure that every line makes sense out of context so they all make sense in context. Multi-path dialogue trees are my favourites to write, but sometimes they can do your head in.
Then you have the mission structure. What is the player doing? Why might they be doing it? How can you motivate them to want to undertake the mission? Sometimes an in-game reward, like a new gun, unit or unlockable item, will be enough. Sometimes you have to entice the player to go the extra mile and click ‘Accept’ when they really ought to be going to bed or cooking dinner. Every player is different, which is what makes writing for games such a challenge, and so much fun.
And, finally, you have something – an experience for the player to walk away with. This is the wonder of the genre, the reason I love it, and the reason people keep playing. In books or movies you might bond with a character, really feel for them, watch them fight for their life, and wish for a good outcome. In a game, you’re fighting for your own life, wishing for your own good outcome. You may do things you never thought you could do. In Heavy Rain, I shot a man by accident, and I cried. In Bioshock 2 I let a man live as a monster, though he begged me to kill him, because I thought it was a just punishment for the cruelty he had shown. In Planescape: Torment I watched myself lead a woman who loved me to her death, and I was powerless to stop her.
Good game writing isn’t about how many characters can be on the screen at once, or how exciting the missions might seem. It’s not about tricking the player into keeping on playing. It’s about tricking the player into a world where they are the character, and these events are happening to them. It’s about showing the player what life would be like from a different angle and, sometimes, even what they might be capable of, if the world was a different place.
Movies, books and games all let us share revelations. They allow us to describe the world as we see it, and the changes that can take place. Pointing a gun at the screen or at another character can’t compare to putting that gun in the player’s hands. Games are about choices, and writing for games is like creating your own series of multiverses, each containing a single, perfect moment, with each moment unique to each player. The ambiguity of an emotional experience is exponential when you do something for yourself, rather than reading about it or watching it. Players bring their own meaning to each experience. And, like a conductor concealed in the orchestra pit below the stage, if all of the elements are right and the plot is in harmony, the audience will be left breathless.
For more of Leanne see her blog.
See her Game Design Aspect of the Month Article in the ‘ International Game Developer’s Association Perspectives Newsletter’ Page 9.