GDX Edmonton Highlights: Narrative in Games

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending Sunday at Game Discovery Exhibition Edmonton, (GDX). It was a mad crazy weekend, followed by an insane week so I’m sitting down now to write some thoughts about the conference.

The second panel I was able to attend was the Narrative in Games panel. Moderated by Matt Dykstra, the panel included Bioware lead writer Patrick Weekes and lead editor Karen Weekes, Beamdog writer Andrew Foley and Madsoft writer Corina Dransutavicius.

It’s always a pleasure to attend panels that bring writers together! I took a lot away from this one. General take away on how to break into the game writing world — go find Dave Gross, who was the pivotal connection that got Patrick and Andrew their jobs.  Actual take away, go join writers groups, stay connected with other writers.

Other highlights:

General writing advice:

  • Write what you want to read, not what you think is ‘literary’. Patrick talked about when he lightened up his writing and started writing for his own entertainment, his work started to sell.
  • When reading, watching movies, playing games — pay attention to the points where you zone out or get bored and eliminate those points from your own writing.
  • Reader (and player) trust is important, gain their trust by using foreshadowing. Readers need to know they’re getting themselves into a tragedy before the tragedy strikes otherwise they won’t trust you to grant catharsis. Important to remember that when writing games vs. prose: you don’t win or lose a movie or a book, but gamers want to win.
  • Andrew Foley gave six rules of writing I was not fast enough to jot down, but the sixth rule is: “show it to someone who will pay you for it.”

Writing for Games:

  • The critical path in a video game = everything the player will experience as part of the story.
  • Bioware focuses on characters first.
  • Bioware writers use a shared language of films and TV shows to communicate tone and mood. If this were a movie, which movie would it be? Mass Effect 3 is World War 2 in Space. Geth and Quarian story-lines were imagined around Das Boot and other submarine tales.
  • For Corina, working with an indie studio is different. They often start with a game mechanic, and think of a story that can bring that mechanic to life. Consider; how do we justify this cool mechanic through story? How do we make sure this is explained in a way that makes sense and is fun?
  • Every line of dialogue has a voice over description that explains how it should be read, where the emphasis is, what’s the context.
  • When you’re writing a PC, it’s a character that doesn’t exist until the player makes it exist. How do you include enough options for the player to feel like their character is unique? Bioware does this in a classic tabletop RPG way: good, chaotic good, neutral, chaotic neutral, evil.

Dragon-Age-2-Dialogue

  • Patrick: give every minor character and NPC one thing that speaks to their life outside the story. (Ex. an NPC whose function is to provide a fetch quest, but the context is that his daughter is getting married and he needs the item for the wedding.)  Important to note, if that NPC is a diverse character, don’t make that one thing about their gender identity or race — that’s tokenism. Make it about their life.
  • Player agency is key to writing for games. How are you going to make the player feel in control even if they’re not? They need to control the exploration, or the destruction/building of the world.
  • At each step in your story, ask yourself if the player will know what to do and where to go from here.

Feature image from the GDX website. 

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