The Bittersweetest Thing

Lead Writer of BioWare's Dragon Age game series, lover of fan tears. This is where I blog about game development, fandom, and narrative design. Anything I say here is my opinion alone.

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On Novels vs. Games

Hi. I’m wondering about something. I am currently taking a class on creative writing when the subject of writing novels versus other plot driven styles of writing that are not in book form. Works such as movies, television, or video games. Seeing how you have written both a novel, and worked on writing video game plots, I am wondering if you could enlighten me on the difference between the two. — penandsword023

This is, quite possibly, the question I get asked most often… or, at least, the one I got asked quite frequently in the interviews following my work on the Dragon Age novels and comics. But it’s not a bad one, as there are indeed significant differences in the approach to each medium. In many ways the medium determines what kind of story you can actually tell.

Let’s take the novel. It’s the approach that people are most familiar with, and the one that most people probably think of when they think about writing… and really it’s writing in its purest form. There’s a direct link between the writer and the audience— whatever the writer wills is put into words and directly into the audience’s imagination. You have access to narrative, both internal as well as omniscient, and you can easily change the point of view character. The audience is not required to have agency… they’re a passive voyeur, but not a participant. Any identification they have on the part of the characters you write enhances their enjoyment, but is strictly speaking not required. You know exactly the route the audience will take through the story, laying out each scene as it’s required to occur, and while the audience will make their own interpretation of what you wrote you have far more control in steering them where you’d like them to go.

Compare that to a videogame, in particular an RPG like the ones BioWare makes. Imagine writing a story where you have no clear picture of the protagonist. You might know a few things about them, and indeed the more things you identify the more you can supply story hooks for them, but often the protagonist is almost a complete blank. You can conceivably switch point of view characters, but doing so makes it harder for the player to connect to their avatar (the Identity Bubble, a GDC talk by Matthias Worch, is an excellent source to look at the concept of identity in games). No matter what you do, you have no idea how your protagonist feels about the story, and if you supply choices you’ll never know their true motivation for making those choices.

You can control the order of events in your story, but the more you do the more linear you make it. A linear story is not necessarily a bad one… and, indeed, linearity can allow a writer to construct a superior story at least from a conventional standpoint. But it doesn’t gel with a game that also allows agency, so the more linearity you require the more agency you remove. The less linearity you put into the story, however, the more content you require. Every conceivable option is not a might have been, it’s something you have to write and fully flesh out because every option is equally valid. There are tricks to make such options less costly than a complete division of the story (such as the use of a bottleneck to eventually bring it back in line with the critical path), but do that too much and again the player’s sense of agency will be affected.

And content is something of which you have to be mindful. Unlike with a novel, you are not writing this story alone. You can’t simply write “They rode on their horses to the castle where the dragon awaited!” unless you have horse models, the ability to have character models ride those horses, an area in which they are ridden, a visible castle towards which they must ride, a dragon model and a combat system that allows fighting such a large creature. If the team comes back and says, “letting the player see the castle from the outside will be really expensive… are you sure you want to do that? If so, we’ll need to cut some other levels.” At which point you change what you wrote to “They rode swiftly through the forest, and then there was a fade to black as they arrived in the courtyard. There the dragon awaited!”

"Hmm. Are you sure you want that dragon? Those horse models are really complex to do properly, especially if we need all the character models and their variations to have all the riding animations. Plus you said you wanted jousting. That’s a whole system. To do that and add a dragon, and dragon combat? I dunno."

Then you change what you wrote again: “They ran swiftly through the forest, and there was a fade to black as they arrived in the courtyard. There the dragon awaited!”

"We have to cut some levels. That castle courtyard is really expensive, especially considering you only need it for the one scene. I mean, they go there and have the fight and leave after, right? Is it really that important?”

Then you change what you wrote again: “They ran swiftly through the forest, and there was a fade to black as they arrived in the forest clearing. There the dragon awaited!”

It’s a constant series of back-and-forth compromises, so even once you’ve written a good story and it’s passed muster with the rest of the team you’re still going to have to make changes on the fly. Big ones that will drive giant dump trucks through your plot, sometimes without leaving you enough time to go in and patch the holes.

Of course, not all videogames need to contend themselves with a variable protagonist or a non-linear plot. They’re not all asking for player agency on the same level. I’m thinking of games like Heavy Rain or Uncharted 2. They have wonderful, very linear stories, and that doesn’t necessarily lessen their experience. Or you can have games that are really open-ended like Skyrim, where agency is everything even if the narrative must suffer. That’s also not necessarily a bad thing, as such a game isn’t about the narrative as much as it is about the player telling their own story. There’s a whole spectrum of linearity vs. agency one could plot out for games, and wherever the game lands on that spectrum means the challenges are incredibly different.

All of them are going to lack access to narrative, however. Imagine a novel where there’s only dialogue and see how far you get. It’s not that games can’t do narrative, it’s mostly that text in games is sadly considered passé these days and thus you’ll have to show everything you want to convey. How much of the story is conveyed through the environment? Can you show complex emotions on a character model’s face? How much work can be done through cinematics or animation?

There are lots of theories for how to approach putting together an RPG story, I have no brilliant one-size-fits-all solution— that doesn’t exist. But mostly it’s like creating a maze and letting the player be your mouse that goes through it. It could be a single path, but that would make for a poor maze. Too much meandering and the mouse gets lost. Either way, the experience belongs to the mouse and you have very little control over what it does or why aside from constructing the paths it can walk. You can predict, and set up places for the important beats of your story to occur, but you’ll never know the exact impact. At best you’ll check in with them and ask them, in the story, how they’re doing.

There are also lots of ways to approach writing a novel, but it exists within its own confines and set of rules. A lack of interactivity means all the weight is solely on you to entertain: you’re doing all the dancing and juggling and not asking anything more from the audience than to watch. There’s also more history, and arguably more schools of thought on what is considered good and bad writing. Really, considering you’re the only storyteller, the success or failure of your writing falls only on you.

Personally I’m not sure I could say which is my favorite approach. I started off writing games, and I’m far more familiar with that medium, but it’s easy to get frustrated with the limitations. Then again, you’re part of a collaboration… when it works, it seems like it’s more wonderful than anything you could do alone, and why would you want to? Seeing the game on the shelf, this monumental story that you took part in, is a wonderful feeling. A group achievement, and something that potentially draws the player in on a far more personal level.

Yet it’s also very fulfilling to write something of your own. “The Stolen Throne” was my first novel, and one I took on mostly to see if I could do it. I’d dabbled in the past, of course (which writer hasn’t?)… but I’d never actually finished a whole book. I didn’t know if I had the endurance to do so. It turned out I did, though I can’t say I particularly excelled at it. I’m sure there’s no shortage of people who would gleefully agree, eager to criticize what was an amateur effort, but that doesn’t really concern me. I was happy to finish it (not everyone gets the opportunity), and I thought each of my subsequent books showed improvement in my technique. A novel is a herculean task to undertake on your own, so the fact I could pull it off at all makes me happily ignore the naysayers— there are people who tell me they enjoyed the books a great deal, and that’s enough for me to keep trying.

Currently I’m quite happy to work on comics, which are another beast entirely… imagine trying to take your customary writing style in novels and games, both of which involve massive and meandering plots, and squeeze it into a medium that is segmented into issues of a fixed size? No extra page here or there where needed? Whoosh. That’s something I needn’t get into, I suppose, but it’s a challenge of a different order (if less of a marathon, perhaps, which is a nice trade-off).

Either way, good luck in your writing! I doubt my post has been exhaustive, but hopefully it gives you some insight into the different processes.

Notes

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    Fun facts
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    This is a really indepth article with a lot to say about game writing and, as a lot of you are rpgmakers, you should...

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