Writing For Video Games: Art, Emotion And Storytelling

Ever wanted to write a story for a video game? Do you feel like you could make gamers lose their heads over your clever storytelling?

WANT TO BECOME A FAMOUS GAME WRITER AND PRODUCER LIKE HIDEO KOJIMA?

yay

Now that’s the spirit!

This is the first article of a series of essays about writing for video games. The series has been designed so writers and indie-game developers could take better choices by understanding the audience and the fundamentals of storytelling.

Short disclaimer: I’m not an expert in video game writing. I’m just a regular and passionate screenwriter that happens to play a fair amount of games. All of the insights and findings comes from my personal experience with studying the psychology of players, writing comics, screenplays, and working with gamification.

If that’s good enough for you, I’m sure you will find at least one thing that will prove useful for your game writing.

So press start and join. Today we’ll be talking about how to balance game art and game writing to connect with the player’s emotions and imagination.

The player’s imagination: Leaving room for empathy.

Empathy is the social and mental process of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It’s you and your mirror neurons allowing you to smile when the protagonist gets to finally kiss the girl. It’s what pumps up your heartbeat when tension rises up and danger is imminent, or what makes you feel nostalgic when you reach the last piece of the game.

Empathy is your best friend as a storyteller. If you think of it, without empathy our ancestors would’ve perished years ago when that caveman friend told them that one story of how he lost his right leg to a sabretooth tiger.

The same applies to paleolithic cave art –the very beginnings of visual storytelling.

cartoon0907

We’ve developed our empathy since we lived back in the caverns. And that required a lot of effort on our behalf.

To this day,  imagination remains a key element of fiction and fantasy. It’s only through imagining that you can put yourself into a story.

Now, as a game writer, your job is to make your audience empathize with your story by letting them play a part in it.

But how?

By using the same principles our ancestors used in the caves. Stick with me and I’ll explain this to you.

Comics, movies, and video games: Balancing images and words.

When you write a short story or a novel, you rely exclusively on your words and writing voice to engage your audience. The details, setting and mood of the story can only be grasped by the reader by well… reading.

This means you’re responsible for what you write, but still, your reader is constantly using his imagination to sketch the fantasy world you’ve created. The reader is actively playing a part.

c79e1b2be27b22ea64166c96d576f113

In comics, the reader still uses his imagination by piecing together sequential images. The reader mentally fills in between the gaps to understand motion, time, space and sound.

Comics holds the key to understanding how audiences can empathize with a story through images -This principle applies to animation movies and video games, and it’s the same principle used in cave paintings.

Scott Mccloud calls it Amplification by Simplification. Scott -a terrific comic artist- explains it in detail in his book Understanding Comics“:

less-is-more

The image on the far left is a very detailed representation of an adult male while the far right image could be anyone beyond gender or age.

It’s easier to identify with more simplistic visual representations. And we’ve been doing it for ages. From the very beginning, archaic pictorial representations became powerful storytelling tools. It continued the same with Egyptian papyrus paintings until we reached the age of modern comics and animation.

Scott goes even further and explains how this principle is the reason why children are incredibly engaged when watching cartoons. And for me, it’s also the reason why some types of video game graphics are better suited to produce an emotional response in the audience.

Let’s take a look at these two Final Fantasy games:

differences

The first thing you will notice is that there has been a notorious improvement in terms of graphics during this 24 years gap. But we’re not looking for a winner here-each visual style allows for a different type of storytelling and game writing.

Simplification by amplification in Video Game Writing:

Even when most gamers love the Final Fantasy franchise, the shift to a more realistic visual style has compromised the level of emotional engagement in most players -without them even noticing it.

Take this review for Final Fantasy XIII from Video Game Magazine Destructoid as an example:

It takes more than graphics to make a game, and Final Fantasy XIII offers very little else other than eye candy…

Ouch.

On the other hand, more simplistic games like the classic Zelda or Chrono Trigger have been labeled as Masterpieces because of their stories.

I remember playing Chrono Trigger or Pokemon and diving into a world of imagination and fantasy. The simplistic visual style left enough room for me to put myself into the game -which felt more like a reading a book.

That’s the moment you realize how storytelling has evolved over the ages:

Playing Chrono Trigger: “I’m that guy with red hair saving a princess… I should always be brave and help others”

Watching a drawing on a cave: “I’m that stick guy chasing a boar… I should pick a spear before heading out of the cave if I want to bring food to my family”

Yes… we’ve changed our walls for huge TVs and our spears for motion controllers.

"Don't worry mom, next time I'll hunt the dinner"
“Don’t worry mom, next time I’ll hunt the dinner”

This amplification by simplification principle is characteristic from story driven games like Firewatch, Journey, Inside, or Gone Home, games where you won’t expect a lot of visual realism.

These titles were designed from a perspective where you never get to see your own face, or where the character’s faces are abstract enough to represent a universal concept.

journey

So, do you need stunning graphics and the latest engine to write a great game? 

Of course you don’t.

Realistic Games and Screenwriting:

“Ok, this theory sounds cool and stuff, but what do you have to say about games with awesome stories and compelling graphics like The Last of Us?”

the-last-of-us-pc-game_1920x1080

I’m glad you’ve mentioned it. The Last of Us is a game with a solid and realistic art style, and yet, it’s one of the best video game stories ever made.

So how does it manage to emotionally engage the reader? Is the theory of Amplification by Simplification wrong?

If simplistic visual styles games are more like comics, games like The Last of Us are more like movies.

That’s right. The Last of Us is written as a screenplay, with a formal script and a narrative arc that follows a three act structure with turning points. This means it has a different way to connect with the audience.

It’s a different approach to game writing. One we’ll look in depth in the next article.

Bottomline and next articles:

Writing for games is a complex but rewarding task. Adding visuals to a story shifts our writing mechanics. It makes us aware of how images and words weaves together to create a unified gaming experience.

Games with simplified (yet stunning) art, allow the players to use their imagination in unexpected ways. It opens a path for emotional connection, which in turn works perfectly for those games that want to produce a particular emotional response.

Other games with more complex and realistic graphics rely on the same principle as movies to tell stories. The emotional gap grows wider as you depend on other elements like music, voice acting, and aesthetics to make sure your story shines.


So, what do you think of this first article? Was it useful or a waste of time? Leave a comment so I can improve future posts.

Keep an eye on the next article where I’ll explain how to adapt the screenwriting principles of story structure to video game writing.

Make sure to share with your friends and if you’re interested in knowing more of game writing feel free to leave a suggestion in the comments below.

Until the next time

Dan

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *