FTI Writing for Games Course (Day 4)


Time to get down to the nitty-gritty practical stuff. The topic for Day 4 was, Tools and Processes.

We started by comparing two games, side by side – Gone Home and Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture. This was to compare the game’s engines Unity vs. Unreal 4. We saw that the Unity game – Gone Home, allowed for a lot more in-depth object interaction but required a constrained environment (a house). The Unreal 4 game was set in an open world with amazing graphics but didn’t allow for much object interaction at all. So, this means that the very game engine chosen will dictate much of a game’s design and therefore the method of telling the story.

Next we dove into the assets produced in a game and the tools used to create and manage text assets. The narrative designer’s bible is the story bible (that really is the correct terminology). This document is everything narrative including the story outline, characters profiles, plot points, story intensions, emotional hits, location descriptions, game synopsis, timeline of events, even down to marketing material. Anthony uses Scrivener to build this essential document which is produced in the pre-production phase.

The class went on to discuss the obvious importance of version control when numerous assets must be maintained, tracked and changed together. For example, a change to the story bible could require a change to the game design document, manuscript and the game strings already embedded in the game engine. While we are on the subject, the game design document is different to the story bible in that it is more about the implementation of the game. For example, the GDD describes how the game looks in scenes from a game play perspective.

We talked about tools to help “get our story into the game” with Twine being the top-tool, since we are already using it for our own game projects. Inform and Inkle were also called out as useful tools that can generate game strings from story or dialogue. In many cases, studios may just collect game strings in an Excel spreadsheet.

Anthony suggested that we would provide more value as narrative designers if we understood terminology, challenges and limitations of specific game engines. The best way to do this is to practice some level design using designers such as Shadowrun Returns, Minecraft or Super Mario maker! We were also encouraged to look at GameMaker Studio, RPG Maker, Adventure Game studios for making our own games.

The class closed with the inspirational (that’s right Anthony) story of how Anthony Sweet made his way as a narrative and game designer. It took planning and eight years of execution to achieve but in Perth’s tiny market, it is certainly something to be proud of. We need to make our own plans and identify what we can offer to studios, as well as what we can improve on. A narrative designer needs to do a lot more than just write the game story, they should also be able to contribute to or write:

  • Marketing material
  • Manuals
  • Wikis/Guides
  • Coms (Internal and External)
  • Style Guides – e.g. “this is the way you talk about your game” The language used. Buzz words.
  • Social Media
  • Comics
  • Novalisations
  • Character social media
  • Profiles and lore excerpts

So now I will go away and think about what I can do for a studio as well as watch the Double Fine Adventure documentary to get a better idea of what really goes on during game production.

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FTI Writing for Games Course (Day 3)


The third session focused on characters.

Initially we looked at the features and attributes of a Player Character – PC  (as opposed to a Non Player Character  –NPC) and discussed “Player Verbs” and game mechanics. Player verbs determine HOW a story can be told. For example if a player can walk and collect things, the story can be delivered by exploring a scene and examining objects. Player verbs are supported by the game mechanics e.g. Press and hold X to do [player verb].

I found this very interesting article on Gamasutra but here is a short exert on the subject:

The lower the number of player verbs, the easier it is to control the variables and rein in scope. However, a low number of verbs can result in more and more onus being put on out-of-game narrative mechanisms to convey a story. For example, if all the player verbs in a game have to do with combat and none have to do with traversal movement, then how will you bridge from one combat context and location to another? With no option to provide the player an interactive journey from Point A to Point B, you will likely lean upon noninteractive storytelling techniques to establish a change of location and a new reason and context for the next battle. This can range from the simple, five-second panning of images in between Angry Birds worlds all the way up to the sumptuously rendered, ten-minute cutscenes from the Metal Gear Solid series. As you make the hard decisions about player verbs, keep in mind that the more narrow your focus in this area, the more you might be overburdening the noninteractive narrative tools at your disposal.

Another point to consider with regard to player verbs is that people and fictional characters are, in many ways, defined by the choices they make and what they do. In a game, a playable character ends up doing only the things the designers allow. Thus, the gameplay verbs that are available to a player character define, in a very basic way, who that character is. It’s important to realize that player verbs and the player’s character are inextricably interwoven, and should be concepted and developed concurrently.

Further, if you are using a pre-existing character as a (or the main) playable in your game, be aware that the character may come with baggage that includes a bevy of implied verbs. Spider-Man, for example, has inherent wall-crawling and web-swinging abilities that can cause waking nightmares for your level designers and camera designers/engineers. Other characters may imply other abilities.

We then went on to look at NPCs and relationship systems. The example of a relationship system Anthony used was an in-game shop, where if a player spends more than X dollars, the shopkeeper provides a 10% discount for future purchases. A cool game that includes a complex relationship system is  the teenage horror game, Until Dawn. Not only does the PC switch between NPCs but relationships are formed based on your interactions as the PC.

FTI Writing for Games Course (Day 2)


In this session, we took the classic writing rule of “show, don’t tell, and reshaped it to apply to interactive game narrative, so it became “interact, don’t show.” The idea is that you should allow/encourage a player to interact with an object or scene to build an understanding of their world or circumstance, instead of spelling everything out with visuals and/or text. An example of a game that does this extremely well (in my opinion) is Gone Home. The player returns to their empty family home with little or no context of who they or their family members are. The whole game is about exploring the house and interacting with objects, such as photos, notes, audio recordings, personal effects etc, to uncover the family history and the game’s underlying narrative.

The question was then raised – how do you deliver exposition to players? Our presenter then explained lots of interesting ways games are explaining the “detail of what is going on” in the form of character diaries, audio recordings, historic documents, news stories (overheard), emails etc. Very cool.

We then went on to talk about meaningful choice in games, using Tell Tale’s the walking dead as a case study. Tell Tale Games base their games on episodic events and strong narrative that require choices rather than exploration or action.  In the Walking Dead, the player has to make many choices throughout the game, some being simple dialogue selection and some being meaningful choices (these have an impact on the player and sometimes AI). An example of a meaningful choice might be to save or to kill another character. This calls on the player to consider their own beliefs or attitudes in the game. We learned that meaningful choices are expensive and introduce risk during game development so a good narrative designers want to give players the illusion of meaningful choice.

Finally we discussed Generative narrative and authored vs systemic narrative. This prompted me to look up an old game called, Dwarf Fortress, which is touted as the most systematic immersive game ever created. Interesting stuff!

FTI Writing for Games Course (Day 1)


Thankfully I have some amazing friends, else I wouldn’t have known about the FTI Writing for Games course that started this week. I was delighted to get the heads-up from those who know me best, and promptly booked in to the six week course run by Anthony Sweet.

Anthony started his own company in Perth called, Hand Written Games (awesome name huh?) and works as the lead designer at Black Lab Games. The man has a wealth of information about the industry based on his experience in Perth. This is valuable for us local writers who want to understand how to compete in this small, niche industry.

I thought I’d write a short post after each session to capture my thoughts and learnings – so here goes:

Day/Night 1

The room was full of bright-eyed guys and gals from all different backgrounds. We introduced ourselves by saying our name and the last game we played (mine was Oxenfree) and consequently, I just downloaded episode 1-5 of the Life is Strange series on Steam.

Anthony explained the role of the Games Writer Narrative Designer and where, typically, the role fits in to the Game Production Process. This was something I found particularly interesting because the Narrative Designer is often brought in quite late in the game’s development phases. Initially I thought the narrative would drive the game design rather than the other way around, but then I made some comparisons with my own profession – Software Engineering – and it made complete sense. Let me explain –

In an ideal world, user stories and requirements should drive the design of software but often the particular system or technology platform that we are building upon has plenty of constraints. This means we tend to prioritise requirements that better fit within these constraints and push back on those ‘pie in the sky’ ideas that would be really cool, but are going to be EXTREMELY hard to implement (Me with my project manager hat on is now underlining $$$$ on the whiteboard while client frowns and developers chew their nails nervously).

My projects are smoother, more agile and deliver better outcomes when 80% of the design is decided before the client turns up for the kick-off meeting. We give them their 20% to go wild with and usually this is enough to create a happy balance.

So it sounds like indie Game production follows the same sort of principles. The game engine, existing artefacts and artwork dictate approx. 80% of the design and so the Narrative Designer has 20% left to work with. If they can understand the constraints, massage the narrative to remove unnecessary complexity and patch the “gaps” (in the other 80%) with some fancy-fiction, then they will be a truly valuable resource to the team.

We looked at a few case studies in the class but the one that stood out was, Freedom Fall by our local StirFire Studios. There is no dialogue in the games and the narrative is delivered through sassy graffiti scrawled across the walls of the background. It really demonstrated how a small amount of text could provide so much insight into the game’s narrative and characters. This has now inspired me to learn the art of the Haiku – a little says a whole lot. So here is one I whipped up after reading the supplied blog post by David Gaider: http://www.polygon.com/2016/8/15/12455728/how-to-get-a-job-writing-games-maybe

Not sugar-coated,

writing for games is tricky.

but I still want in!

// Note: Haikus are hard! Everything I want to say has 4 –  not 5 syllables!