'Writers make sure things explode when they need to': The importance of narrative in games

'Writers make sure things explode when they need to': The importance of narrative in games
Matthew Jarvis

By Matthew Jarvis

May 11th 2016 at 10:45AM

Development often sacrifices narrative strength at the altar of technical achievement, leaving titles with clichéd plots and lifeless dialogue in favour of visual panache and mechanical complexity. Writer Steven-Elliot Altman reveals how studios can give games a story worth telling once again

Two things tend to happen when you ask someone to summarise the story of a game. They either struggle to recall any notable narrative beats at all, or offer a generalised “Well, you know, it’s like every shooter story…”

That’s not to say that gaming’s finest yarns – from Life is Strange’s teenage melodrama to Bloodborne’s cryptic eldritch horror – can’t hold their own against the worlds of cinema and literature, or that other mediums don’t have their stinkers (looking at you, Batman v Superman). But games development’s multitudinous nature at least appears to offer more potential for distraction from simply telling a gripping tale – no-one was crunching getting To Kill a Mockingbird to run at 60 frames per second.

“There’s a lot of serendipity that has to occur before a writer gets brought on to any game, typically parachuted into a work-in-progress,” reveals author Steven-Elliot Altman, who has written for games including 9Dragons Online, Pearl’s Peril and Ancient Aliens.

“You’re sometimes met with cheer, but often shoved in to a room full of hostile developers muttering ‘What do we need a writer for?’ A key attraction for writers is when developers welcome story elements into their games.”

"Bring your writers in as early as you can – it pays off."

Steven-Elliot Altman

When games first emerged as an art form, writers were all but non-existent – ‘They Meet’ is the extent of
the storytelling in 1981’s Ms Pac Man.

"Back in the day it wasn’t unusual to find a game’s dialogue was written by the company’s receptionist, as an afterthought, just hours before the game shipped,” Altman recalls. “It’s been a slow and steady ascent for the recognition of writers in games.

“Nowadays writers have legit job titles like ‘Narrative Designer’, as writers have started to get recognised for playing a part in a game’s success or failure, on par with the evolution of how screen credits on feature films were first issued.”

While writers have grown in appreciation among devs, Altman says that implementing a game’s narrative still remains an afterthought for many studios.

“I’d say that the lead writer needs to be at least in the room during the initial game design banter,” he states. “Bringing us in late when the gameplay is more or less solidified to wrap a shiny wrapper around it can work, but that’s a waste of talent and opportunity in most cases.

“A writer can pick up a thread of a story and follow it. All of a sudden, it’s clear that the time bomb you attached to the Ferris wheel should not explode at that crucial moment – we need to wait until the hero’s girlfriend has gotten onto it, please. If the game developers made that explosion imminent, all the writer can do is try and justify it. That can come off as a let down to the player if it feels like a forced choice, simply because there are certain patterns of story that are ingrained in us. Good writers are sensitive to these patterns. Bad game designers are not. Most writers I know can’t code, but we all know when a story has jumped the rails. So, please, bring your writers in as early as you can – it pays off.”

Once a writer is in, it becomes a tug of war between their drive for the story they wish to tell and the developers’ overall vision for their creation – a battle intensified by additional games in the IP.

“The writer needs to keep in mind that even if they have a perfect vision for the game they want to write, the license holder needs to maintain a consistent vision for the entire franchise,” explains Altman. “The writer may have to kill a darling or two for the good of the IP. On the flip side, the licence holder should give the writer enough room to do their mysterious voodoo, or nothing will happen.

“If you want the writer to be in your ballpark from the first draft, I highly recommend doing your homework and handing them a style guide. The most important part is the ‘do not’ column. For example: ‘Do not let Batman talk too much – he’s the strong, dark silent type.’ The most important thing any writer should ask for in any medium is combined notes. That means even if there are 179 producers on the project, and they all have notes, the writer gets only one set of approved, combined notes. Otherwise, it’s a madhouse.”

Narrative design has never been more important in the world of games, as writers increasingly work to subvert linear convention and allow players to experience their own unique stories.

“Telltale’s storytelling engine for The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones is pointing the way to how narrative will be used in the future,” Altman suggests. “Those games have consequences. If a character dies because of a decision you make in chapter two, they are out of the narrative for good. The majority of games don’t give the player any real agency – just varying degrees of the illusion they can choose their own path.”

VR, Altman believes, is a key driver in the emergent nature of future game narratives – and, subsequently, their eventual succession of other mediums. 

“The future of games rests in VR, which seems to promise players will have more agency than ever before,” he predicts.

“The more choices I have, the more responses my environment will need to have available for me. That suggests more writing, more writers per project, and suddenly watching a two-hour film where you have no agency will seem sort of boring. Once gamers experience real player agency, the beast will be unleashed.”