Writing a video game script is very different to writing a movie script or a novel. Firstly you have to contend with different choices taking you through different routes, and secondly you have to deal with the limitations of game programming. And finally, the writer is often pulled on board long after the basic premise and setting has been decided. S/He will probably have to work as part of a much larger group, and have their ideas ruthlessly shot down by the investors. A daunting prospect.
However, games are one of the few places where what you get is limited only by your imagination. As science-fiction novels have gradually waned from their height during the 1950’s, the medium of games has stepped in to take their place – frequently cheesy and badly written, but with incredible ideas and explorations at the center. As they become more sophisticated – and more expensive – the writer becomes the source of these innovative ideas. Games are not afraid of drawing on mythology and ancient legends, they are not afraid of religion, they are not afraid of political commentary, and they are not afraid to make you think or cry.
All of which is well-and-good – but how do you actually go about writing a game from beginning to end?
The Overview is the prose story outline. This is where you detail the opening scene and motivation, all of the salient plot points, and the climax. If you have several story arcs, you detail each one separately and write two (or three or four) endings.
If you are working on something huge like an MMO, you will probably only be worrying about a minor story arc or two. These work in exactly the same way – if your Player begins the quest by going into an inn and talking to a shady looking man with an eye-patch, that is where you begin your story. What has gone before is irrelevant, as you have no idea what quests they may have completed.
Breaking it Down
Okay, you have your overview. Now you need to break it down into scenes. A scene can be playable, and it can be a cut. It can also be one of those hybrids, in which the character is stuck with hitting a button to work their way through the conversation.
For cut scenes and hybrids please keep them short. Anyone remember that flashback in Final Fantasy 7 where you are talking to Aeris’ Mom? Your game should not be testing your player’s patience.
At this point you will probably want to start making a flow chart. I like to do this step on paper and pen, each scene on a different sheet, so I can juggle them around. There is loads of software devoted to making flow charts if you prefer the computer. Check out the Google Search!
Reviewing your script means you show it to your team, your managers, or your friends. If you are making this game all by yourself – and kudos to you if you are – you shove it in a drawer for a week and forget about it. When you pull it back out, look over it as though you were a jaded gamer with a short attention span. Is it gripping? Is it new? Does it have a Hero character you really want to play?
Rewrite anything that doesn’t make sense, or would get missed. Make sure that really important plot points are repeated throughout the game. Many people will drop a game half way and not come back to it for four months. If you’ve written an incredibly long and complex RPG, people may not remember when they reach the end some 400 hours of gameplay later what crucial thing was said at the start of the game and on which their survival now hinges. Quest logs, notebooks and diaries can be very useful for this reason.
Make sure that any absolutely essential things are completed without the Player having to reload from an earlier point. For example, if they needed that secret book of ciphers, and you let them leave the room without it, and then later that building falls down so they can’t get back inside – well, you’ll make a lot of gamers very angry. If that building fell down fourteen levels ago… you’ve just made a lot of lifetime enemies.
Finally, ask yourself if you would want to play the game. There are hundreds of corporate created games out there, slick and shiny with invested money. If you want your game to succeed, it should offer something new and heartfelt. Like any creative endevour, writing a game is about giving something of yourself to the world.
About the Author:
Keira Peney is a gamer and a writer. Her thoughts and advice on gaming can be found at Write the Game.