Friday, November 09, 2007

Game writers on writing games

BioWare's Drew Karpyshyn and Ubisoft's Clint Hocking talk craft. Originally appeared in the Toronto Star

When the Writers' Guild of America, the trade union representing TV and film writers in the U.S., announced at the end of September that video game writing would be honoured at their 2008 awards ceremony, it was a bit of an "arrival" moment for games. Granted, the recognition might have something to do with the WGA's desire to organize the caffeine-fuelled legions putting words in the mouths of countless ninjas, wizards and lone-wolf Marines, but still. The award is acknowledgement of games as a form on par with movies and TV, and of writing as an integral part of their creation.

We've come a long way from the days when "INSERT COIN" and "GAME OVER" might comprise a game's entire script; even today's most button-mashy of action games are expected to offer something resembling a compelling storyline. The poster-genre for the game writer's task is the role-playing game, in which players must inhabit a character and make story decisions that branch the plot along multiple lines. Dialogue is king ... and there's plenty of it.

"We have 20,000 lines of dialogue," says senior designer Drew Karpyshyn of Edmonton game developer BioWare, describing science-fiction RPG Mass Effect, set for release Nov. 20. That's the equivalent of 15 to 20 movie screenplays, created by Karpyshyn and five other writers, working with the rest of the creative team. (The new Simpsons Game enlisted the TV show's writers to come up with 8,000 lines – a full season's worth.)

Amazingly, Mass Effect is, says Karpyshyn, "far and away our smallest game, in terms of BioWare standards. Because of advances in digital acting and the cinematic feel of the game, we can now tell more by saying less.

"We do try to follow a lot of cinematic rules. But we have to be careful; (games) are very different from a movie. The player isn't passively watching, they're actively involved and they can steer it in a number of different directions."

Writing for those directions bulks up an RPG's script; characters may need several sets of dialogue to accommodate the role a player has chosen. A simple example is in the Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare's 2003 Star Wars title, where the fundamental choice is between Dark and Light sides of the Force. Through their choices, the player character will become either a Jedi saint or a Vaderesque paragon of bastardry, and non-player-character attitudes will vary accordingly.

The contingencies multiply fast; as Karpyshyn puts it, "How can I let the player make significant choices, steer the conversation as they want, but still manage to control the amount of content so that every time they make a choice it doesn't double the amount of work?"

Mass Effect's answer has been to offer the freedom of multiple side quests while keeping the plot's "critical path" within a matrix of four possible endings. "This was a difficult lesson to learn," Karpyshyn says, "but we (had) to come to the realization that spamming the player with options is not something they're necessarily going to enjoy."

Clint Hocking, creative director at Montreal's Ubisoft, comes at the problem from a different direction. His current project, the first-person shooter Far Cry 2, is more action-oriented than an RPG like Mass Effect, but has the same requirements for managing player choice.

"The most important thing for me is to stop thinking of story as something that we write and then integrate and the player then experiences," he says. "Game stories in general are going to evolve to a point where the player is playing the story the same way you'd play Tetris."

Hocking's approach to realizing this in Far Cry 2 is to develop a style of game writing that takes those player statements and retroactively justifies them. "The player is making statements about what he's interested in by the actions he takes," Hocking explains.

"Instead of providing the content that tells the story that we've written, we provide an encyclopedia of content that the game calls on to provide the meaning, rationale and background for the decisions the player has made. We detect who you shoot and when and then we provide the `why.'"

For Hocking, any comparison between games and film breaks down, as players given real choice will naturally act to defuse the situations ("Don't go in there!") that, in traditional narrative, create drama.

"A lot of the most powerful tools of filmmaking need to be abandoned in order to make a game that equals or surpasses a film. When people say, `You need to make your game more cinematic,' what they're really saying is, "You need to make your game better.'

"It's not the `how' that we need (from film)," says Hocking, "it's the result. We need to be targeting the same emotional results. The `more like movies' that people are asking for is the hard decision that makes you tremble and weep, and I think we have the ability to do that now."


Anne said...

In an ideal situation, you give a player choice that is meaningful and non-trivial.

More importantly, the player should never be punished for making a choice. Sometimes you're given choice, but it's so obvious which way they want you to go, it's ridiculous. Sometimes there's no obvious way to go, but the player will nonetheless be punished for not playing the game "right." In other words, you force the player to read the developers' mind.

By giving the player ethical, more choices with no wrong answer, you deepen the narrative. This way, the player won't make a choice that will end up screwing him hours or even days of gameplay later.

Anonymous said...

I guess you're right; I'm going to post (more) complete versions of these interviews soon(ish); Hocking approaches some of what you're saying.

The problem is, part of what makes a game a game is that making certain choices will "screw you over." Now, you don't want to have a situation where if the player gets pissy with an NPC in the first act, that NPC pops out of the shadows at the climax brandishing a poison dagger screaming "DIE!" and it's game over. But not all player actions are equal; they need to have consequences, and those consequences need to make sense.

Early example, and a favorite of mine: Chrono Trigger. I went around doing all the usual RPG things: trying every chest, picking up anything that wasn't laying around, going through people's stuff for goodies, etc.

Then, a little while later, I find myself framed for a major crime. Lo and behold, all these townsfolk start coming forward as character witnesses for the prosecution: "he stole my lunch!" "He messed with my chickens!" etc. I got sent up the river.

Did II get "fucked over" by my actions? It sure didn't feel like it at the time... what it did was blow my mind, deepen my involvement in the story, raise the stakes, and make me think about what I was doing in the game.

Creating a situation in a role-playing game -- or any other kind of game -- where one choice, ethical or otherwise, yields a different, maybe even much better/worse, result than another isn't forcing a player to "read the developer's mind." It's designing gameplay.