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  • Sybil Collas

The player will destroy everything: Game Writing, Narrative Skills for Videogames


Who is this for?

Aspiring game writers with knowledge of game design and a good dose of objectivity.

Is it awesome?

Some bits are awesome, others are not.

How lengthy is it?

Awesome bits disappear in a second, the others last for ever and ever and ever and

Yep, that's not a typo, they wrote "videogames" in just one word. This book and I were off to a bad start.

Game Writing, Narrative Skills for Videogames was written ten years ago, and it shows.

The book is composed of a skippable preface and fourteen essays by various pro authors who don't always sound like they know what writing for games mean. To be fair, the essays about localization, voice actors, and interchangeable dialogue were specific, filled with applicable advice, went straight to the point, and were overall amazing. The other essays were more vague, even if good advice crept behind their lines. Their authors did not start as developers but came from other media, with their reflexes and their preconceptions about video games.

(Special exception for Stephen Jacobs, Professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, who managed to cram the formal basics of narrative structure into a mere twenty pages. Way too short, but admirable.)

Instead of being formal demonstrations of the techniques and requirements of game writing, the essays of Game Writing come out as personal visions erected on personal opinions - and these opinions treat video games with visible misunderstanding, if not contempt. Sentences and interruptions that affirm and reaffirm how video games are inferior to other media are legion and pretty unnerving in the long run.

The authors established lists of things you should not do because games don't allow it, without any opening for creativity, bypassing, or even consideration for the possible future of the medium. Game design is sometimes confused with visuals or programming, the character of 'the artist' encompasses all art teams and roles and constraints, exposition is put on a pedestal, and the poor poor game writer is depicted as trying to make sense of this barbaric and messy thing that is a video game. Forget about interactivity and the power of self-induced narration: the player is a demon and must be tamed, fought and even put down if deemed necessary.

Okay, the parts about why you should steal control from the player presented some sound arguments, but this approach clashes with my conviction that video games can excel only if you let the player play. It's a matter of subjectivity here. Still, isn't it sad to affirm that suppressing the interactive quality of a video game will make it better?

More objectively. Deeper issues or reflections are systematically postponed by the authors, to the point where it gets frustrating. The book is, I quote, 'not the place for that.' Well yes, it is. Instead of flimsy theories and random data interpretation, the few essays that dare to go deeper and lay out proven production methods set such a high bar that the others look plain ridiculous in comparison.

Granted, this book is old. It represents a vision of game writing at a certain point in time, when game writers were either well-paid professionals grown in Hollywoodian ground or ill-advised developers pushed to writing by time or budget constraints. I hope that the authors have since come to terms with the interactive industry and discovered what amazing treasures of narration video games could provide.

Most of the ideas and techniques presented in Game Writing can be found today in much more complete and comprehensive form, which means that we may have grown past this era of trying to force the mold of other media onto what we do. We are looking at video games like a proper and independent slice of entertainment and we are starting to see how narrative design is a thing. Yay!

Granted as well, the parts which struck me as useful were those that covered fields I wasn't already familiar with. So, well, perhaps, if this book looks like a partially useful guide to the current me, maybe I would have been super glad to discover it five years ago. Maybe. It is possible. Alright, it's likely that I would have loved it.

To someone new to game writing, with some knowledge of game development, and with enough critical ability to shape their own opinions, this would be a pretty good read. Not the read, but a nice collection of thoughts and tips.

10 lessons I learned from this book:

- keep it short

- the player will destroy everything you love

- the story is never as important as how it is executed

- anticipate localization, voice acting, scripting, and cuts

- an IP is defined by world, tone, and characters, in that order

- dialogue can be designed, written and delivered in a ton of ways

- writing should support the level design's job of funneling a player forward

- attracting new players means writing and designing for new player profiles

- don't try to enforce rules from other media and recognize when they don't fit

- video game is a medium which keeps rethinking its limits: it challenges us to do the same

Thank you for reading and have a great day.

#books #review #writing #gamedesign #narrativedesign #technique

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