Craft Part 1
By Christy Dena
The new writing universeIn the beginning, the world of computer games was a dark universe, where jagged green shapes glowed noughts and crosses, tennis balls and rockets. There wasn’t much call for writers in these kinds of games. Parallel to the zap and ding of arcade games and home consoles, however, was the emergence of the electronic text adventure. In these games, foes were battled with a cryptic mind, not a joyous twitch. ‘An adventure game’ Graham Nelson explains, ‘is a crossword at war with a narrative’. A lot has happened since these emergences in the 1960s and 1970s. Computer games have grown to become an industry comparable to, if not larger than, the feature film industry. Every creative sector knows about computer games, computers and the Internet; less known, however, are the rich and varied creative formats and genres within and beyond computer games.
The New Writing Universe poster [http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/writersguide/newwritinguniverse] aims to provide a generous glimpse into the diversity of expressive forms available to writers. The chart displays a range of roles a writer may identify themselves as: novelist, playwright, poet, graphic novelist, screenwriter, e-writer/interactive writer, game writer or cross-platform writer. While roles such as novelist and poet may seem familiar, the formats and media used to express these types of writing are not. A novelist can deliver their story in chapters on an online diary (blog fiction); a poet can communicate with computer code instead of the alphabet (code poetry); a graphic novelist can design panels and dialogue that change with a mouse click (interactive comics); a playwright can utilise the Internet to connect theatre audiences, remote audiences and performers (networked performance); a screenwriter can write short- and micro-length drama to be experienced on the Internet (webisode) or mobile device (mobile drama).
At some point, the writer becomes an interactive storyteller. Such writers don’t simply distribute their written story via new technology, they write a story specifically for that new technology. They learn the affordances of a new format and alter their story and storytelling accordingly. For example, the Internet is dynamic multimedia, real-time, 24-hour and international; a blog is a revealing, shared conversation; an email is personal and short; an SMS is even shorter and reaches a person wherever they are.
Game writers, while still interactive storytellers, work in an art form in which narrative is usually carefully balanced with, or subtly supporting, game elements. They write alongside designers and programmers in a range of genres for computers, consoles and portable devices. And then there are cross-platform writers. These writers don’t write for digital or traditional media, instead they gather them together and write stories that stretch across websites, print, videos and games.
A quick note here on the term ‘cross-platform writer’. Many terms are used to describe this type of writing, including transmedia storytelling, multi-platform writing, cross-media entertainment and so on. The use of ‘cross-platform writing’ in this guide is intended to denote writing expressed across different media platforms. It does not intended to be associated with the use of multi-platform in other contexts, which as digital gaming when there are multiple platforms within the game (such as Donkey Kong), digital games that are available on different game platforms (consoles, PC, online, mobile), or multi-platform distribution of content (which involves writing for one platform only).
This chapter will explore the changes and opportunities in such an emerging writing universe. It will examine how the craft of writing differs, what the writer’s roles are, what quality writing looks like and how one goes about developing the writing craft for these formats?
New practicesWriting for new media requires that writers understand elements such as interactivity, micro lengths and digital media affordances.
InteractivityThe term interactivity means different things to different people. A giant buzzing machine with levers and steam could be called interactive, and so could a light switch. Likewise, in the context of storytelling, a complex game system managed by an artificial intelligence engine could be called interactive, and so could a website with pages the user clicks through. Therefore, when a reader or audience is active in any way, they can be seen to be ‘interacting’. There are certain factors, however, that one can use as a launching point for discussing interactivity. The following overview of factors indicating interactivity is based on those highlighted by practitioners and scholars alike. Specifically, the four factors listed here are a slightly modified version of Espen Aarseth’s ‘user functions and perspectives’ (1997) and Marie-Laure Ryan’s ‘strategic forms of interactivity’ (2001):
- Internal: when the user has a presence inside the fiction
- External: when the user is outside the fiction
- Exploratory: when the user can move around, choosing paths
- Configurative: when the user can make decisions, affecting the fiction
Many ‘interactive’ projects involve a user selecting pre-written paths, with no representation within the fiction (external exploratory). This type of interactivity allows a user to explore the possibility space of a fiction, but have no impact on it and no role in it. Their actions are limited to unlocking pre-written parts. In these types of projects the writer has to anticipate what the user would like to do, and write a range of paths to represent those wishes. Writers also look at rhetorical techniques to motivate a person to want to navigate, select paths and continue selecting paths. An example of an interactive comic is Australian Simon Norton’s 2001 Testimony: A Story Machine [http://www.abc.net.au/arts/strange/animations/testimony.htm]. Inspired by the collage writing techniques of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, Testimony involves the user clicking on comic panels that automatically select images, text and sometimes sound from an extensive library. The user provokes these random juxtapositions which reveal a rhizomatic murder mystery. Another example is Australian e-lit writer Jason Nelson’s The Poetry Cube [http://www.secrettechnology.com/poem_cube/poem_cube.html]. In this work (co-designed with programmer Rory Hering), the user can select different lines of a poem with a spatially-navigated interface. For insights into the electronic writing experience, see Jason Nelson’s profile.
An internal-exploratory project is observable when a user is inside the fiction, can choose paths through a narrative but not affect the narrative. As mentioned previously, such writing involves creating compelling stories that people want to be active with. In such a project, the user can be inside the fiction through such devices as a player-character or an avatar. This changes the way the story is designed, because in many cases the player is the protagonist. The writer therefore has to think about the player’s emotions and motivations alongside the fictional (non-playing) characters. Australian production company Hoodlum [http://www.hoodlum.com.au/] create such active storytelling experiences as online dramas to extend television shows such as ABC’s Lost and BBC’s Spooks. One of the techniques they use to keep audiences coming back and interacting with the online content is to create game missions (or tasks) that a player needs to achieve in order to unlock unique narrative information.
At the other extreme of these four pairings (internal configurative) the user is inside the fiction and able to impact it. The player can also influence the fiction in a number of ways, depending on the design and technology employed. An example is Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern’s interactive drama Façade [http://www.interactivestory.net/]. Through the use of a natural-language engine, Façade allows the player-character to converse with the game’s characters (a couple) through normal (text) speech. Depending on the short phrases and questions the player poses, they may end up getting kicked out of the flat, or even provoke the couple to split up. In such formats, the writer not only has to anticipate a wide range of possible player inputs, but also create responses that suit a range of inputs. All of these forms of interactivity demand, obviously, longer scripts.
Length and Affordances
Since you’re writing not one, but many possible paths, as well as the player’s response in most cases, the length of scripts for interactive projects is substantially longer. For the player, interactive projects often take longer to play or explore. A computer game, for instance, usually takes between eight to forty hours to complete. There are anomalies on either side of the range too, with some formats delivering extremely short content. Indeed, micro or nano fictions are increasingly popular in contexts where partial attention is the norm (the Internet, portable devices) or with limited length capabilities. This is in most part due to the ‘affordances’ of the mediums.
In writing terms, affordances refer to the qualities of a technology that inform or constrain what you write. A mobile phone, for instance, can send and receive text messages (SMS). The length of these messages is 160 (sometimes 150) characters. There have been many experiments with SMS fictions over the past few years including an exhibition at Electrofringe called ‘One Sixty Characters’. The Hunter Writers Centre in Australia ran ‘OneFifty’, a competition to encourage young emerging writers [http://www.onefifty.com.au/] and Onesixty is the ‘world’s first SMS text message literary magazine’ [http://www.centrifugalforces.co.uk/onesixty01/pages/main.html].
An even smaller word limit is a post on the online social network Twitter. Despite the 140 character limit, numerous writers are attempting to create micro stories or nano serialisations. Examples include A E Baxter’s Twitter Fiction [http://twitterfic.googlepages.com/] and Jay Bushman’s The Good Captain, an adaptation of Melville’s Moby Dick [http://www.loose-fish.com/]. New Media Scotland has also been running a Twitterist-in-Residence program [http://twitter.com/mediascot] in which internationally-renowned Australian code-poet Mez Breeze (Mary-Anne Breeze) [http://www.mediascot.org/twitterwurkset], Finnish writer Hannu Rajaniemi [http://www.mediascot.org/unusedtomorrows] and Dan Monks have been guest microbloggers.
There are many other unusual formats developed around technological constraints. See the New Writing Universe poster for more examples. For links to repositories of electronic literature, social media fiction, independent games and so on see: [http://delicious.com/Writersguide/newwriting_repository].
For those entering the area of computer games as experienced but non-interactive writers, it is normal to think about how existing methods can simply be added to the new format. A screenwriter for instance, may see the use of ‘cut-scenes’ (linear video sequences presented at moments during a game) as the only place where narrative is present. Game designers could also make this assumption. However, such linear sequences are not the only way narrative can play a role in a game, and in many cases have become a less effective method. Let’s begin by looking at the various roles and tasks a writer can have in a digital game.
Game writing roles and tasks
Editorial story design director
Games’ company Ubisoft created this position to ‘ensure high quality writing across the company’s titles’. As the editorial story design director Alexis Nolent explains:
As the editorial story design director for Ubisoft, […] my job is to help the writers do the best possible job, and also to help them understand the game design side of it. I oversee all of our top quality games regarding the storyline, storytelling, and cinematics. As part of my job, I travel to our various studios around the world to meet with Ubisoft’s writers as they create our games. I help hire the right writers for each project and I work with them on the different phases of the writing process as the games develop. […] I look for writers with an expertise in building story and characters. They might not be game experts, but they would have to be interested in that new medium for what it could achieve, and to explore new fields and new ways to convey emotions to the player.
(Nolent in Jacobs 2004, 24)
Lead game designer
The lead game designer is responsible for overseeing all creative content, including story. Chris Avellone describes his role as lead designer on KOTOR II:
As lead designer on Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, I was responsible for keeping the vision for the game, the game mechanics and the ‘fun’ of the game, the overall story (and any specific elements about the game designed to propel the overall story, such as companions, key locations, etc.), and then breaking down the remaining elements into digestible chunks for the other designers – in terms of area briefs and area overviews (‘this planet is X, the following things need to happen on it, etc., etc.’) – breaking up the mechanics and play-balancing (‘I need you to oversee the feat and class advancement systems, as long as they accomplish the following goals’, etc.), and then managing all the parts so programmers, artists, and the producer are getting everything they need to keep moving. (Colavco, 2005)
A game writer can be involved in some or all of the following tasks:
- Narrative design: Narrative design refers to the high-level design of the story, as integrated with gameplay. The high-level design often involves seeing relationships between core elements of a game, and so visual rather than textual descriptions are often employed. Stephen E Dinehart has a blog dedicated to exploring this area at The Narrative Design Exploratorium [http://www.narrativedesign.org/].
- Dialogue writing: Since game writers script a range of possible conversations, there is a lot of dialogue in games. Dialogue needs to be written for the player-character (as most games offer a small selection of phrases for the player to input), non-player characters (NPCs) and voice-overs. The player’s dialogue choices vary, some according to moods and attitudes, which provide the player an opportunity to influence the plot progression.
- In-game artefacts: Just like epistolary fictions, important narrative information can be conveyed through artefacts within the game, such as letters, newspapers, books and even simulated emails.
- Cut scenes and scripted events: Cut scenes are the pre-created video sequences that cut into gameplay. Although cut scenes are often used to convey critical plot information, the player has to stop and watch a video which has the potential to frustrate gameplay. Playable cut scenes are another approach, allowing players to move while the video plays. Scripted events are events (such as a non-player-character doing some action) programmed to occur at a certain point in time and location.
- Interface text and tutorials: Game writers can also be responsible for wording all interface text and tutorials that are included in the game.
- Translation editor: Many games are created and then localised for a new territory. Such translations can be done by people skilled in translation in general, but is best when taken care of by translators who are also game writers. The podcast Writing for Pay features some interviews with game translation editors [http://writingforpay.org/category/game-design/].
- Game production material: The writer can also be responsible for the ‘Game Bible’. Such game design documentation includes not only the story, but all elements of the design for all departments to refer to. (Links to examples of game documentation are in the next chapter)
- Game support material: Games are usually packaged with a game manual. These resources usually contain the game story background, character descriptions, synopsis, game description and game tutorials are offered.
- Copywriting: Game writers can also be utilised to write the game’s promotional material such as teasers, the box and website.
- Technical writing: Game writers are also needed to document technical information regarding the technologies used. Such writers need to have good technical knowledge as they are responsible for documenting installation instructions, application programming interface (API) documentation and so on.
For an insight into the tasks of a game writer, see Joe Velikovsky’s profile.
Of course, not all narrative information is expressed with words (dialogue or on-screen text). As all quality screenwriters are aware, narrative can be expressed with non-verbal modes such as setting, character appearance, music and lighting. Indeed, Richard Rouse and Marty Stoltz (2007) have presented at the Game Developers Conference a few times about what they call ‘cinematic games’. The design approach they champion is to convey story information in games through existing cinematic conventions such as juxtaposition, exaggerated camera angles, visualised thoughts and ‘picture within a picture’ tropes. In her book, Better Game Characters by Design, Katherine Isbister (2006) discusses the various ways game characters can convey information with non-verbal cues such as the distance between characters and various aspects of body language such as coordination and gestures.
Another element beyond such visual, aural and spatial information is gameplay. Alex Noliant, Editorial Story Design Director at Ubisoft explains the characteristics of game writing and gameplay, and how they work together:
The mix is what will make the game great, interesting, entertaining, and moving. Game design can be defined as establishing the rules for the game, what will make the game experience unique and addictive, while game writing is what will make it believable and worthwhile, from an emotional and quality standpoint. When we get there, the two of them must appear to be impossible to differentiate. One has to enrich the other. One has to help the other convey everything that it has to offer to the gamer. (Noliant in Jacobs 2004, 21–22)
Richard Dansky goes further to warn that the ‘core elements of traditional writing – lengthy exposition, internal monologue, switching character perspectives – can be utterly deadly to gameplay if not handled carefully’ (Dansky 2007). But Dansky offers a litmus test to determine if gameplay has been handled well:
What is important, then, is continually asking: ‘how does this support the game?’ Does it reward the player, advance the action, provide depth without slowing the pace or otherwise move the player forward? If the answer is yes, then the gameplay has been kept in the writing. If the answer is no, if the reason something is in the script is to show off how incredibly cool it is, then the gameplay has been lost, and the writing extraneous. (Dansky 2007, 10)
Another technique to assist writers to think in terms of gameplay is offered by Flint Dille and John Zuur Platten (2007). They recommend writers consider a ‘play it, display it, say it’ priority model:
For example, if your hero must blow up a door, write a version in which this can be accomplished in gameplay, a version in which the hero detonates the door in a narrative, and version in which the hero recounts blowing up the door to someone else. Think about the implications of each. Which is more satisfying for the player? Which is the most cost effective for the production? Is there a way to split the difference? (Dille & Platten 2007, 16)
All writers would be familiar with the range of plot techniques that can employed to weave a story. They can for instance introduce subplots, explore sub-characters, juxtapose two narrative threads, braid narrative threads together in unforseen ways, or even spread key information across episodes. What some writers don’t realise is that these same techniques can be applied in a cross-platform context. That is, a story can begin in one medium (say a book) and continue in another (a website); a subplot, sub-character or even an alternate universe can be explored in another medium. For these writers, there is a role for both traditional media such as books and radio, as well as digital media. Indeed, magic happens when the two are employed synergistically. While many principles of storytelling still apply, this peculiar mix of mediums brings its own opportunities and challenges.
Cross-platform writing roles and tasks
While many of the roles and tasks of a game writer correlate with cross-platform writing, there are some distinctions. Interactivity in digital games is controlled by sophisticated computer programs. In cross-platform works, interactivity is usually managed by people manually. A cross-platform writer has to observe their players in real time: keep an eye on player expectations and actions in forums and blogs and then adjust the plot accordingly. Sometimes the writer has to ‘perform’ in-character, improvising dialogue at online live events through text-based technologies, blogs, forums, emails and SMS. Indeed, many writers of ‘alternate reality games’, comment on the tension and thrill of writing story elements on the fly, performing characters live through email, SMS and other two-way media, and having the audience respond passionately and immediately. Writer Sean Stewart has described how he approaches interactivity in alternate reality games:
Power without control: Give players power over the narrative in carefully defined situations.
Voodoo: Allow players to contribute the ‘raw material’ out of which you fashion story components.
Jazz: Build the game with enough blank spaces written into it, and a commitment of time and resources to let yourself take directions from what the players do.
Stewart, (no date)
Another difference from digital game writing is cross-platform interaction design. Unlike gameplay and interactivity in general, actions in cross-platform experiences involve movement to different media devices and locations. A reader puts their book down, walks to the computer and becomes a user; or an audience member becomes a player in a street game. In The New Media Industry chapter the notion of ‘lean back’ and ‘lean forward’ described the differences between passive and interactive entertainment. In the cross-platform context, the activity moves beyond lean forward to ‘lift up’. Many of the same principles for designing for interaction apply, but oftentimes the writer needs to generate compelling calls to action to facilitate such movement the first time and in subsequent times. Other challenges a cross-platform narrative designer consider are the media mix experience and maintaining coherence.
The media mix experience
Cross-platform writers need to choreograph the experience of their story across different media platforms. They choose which part of the story will be experienced in which medium and in what order, and the pacing of each release. For instance, it would be appropriate to narrate backstory with a fixed medium like a video or book, but a website is more appropriate for the real-time interaction between the characters and readers. Beyond sequential release, some cross-platform writers aim to engage a person with more than one medium at a time. Variously called ‘simultaneous media use’ and ‘concurrent media use’, these types of experiences require writers to consider the combined effect of each medium. Laura Esquival’s 1993 novel The Law of Love (Three Rivers Press), for instance, includes a CD-Rom with aria music. At certain points in the novel the characters reminisce about their past. The novel shifts from text to graphic art panels, and has a prompt to play the accompanying CD, so the reader can see and hear what the characters see and hear.
Fragmented audiences and coherence
At this stage, most cross-platform stories are created with different audiences in mind for different media. Some people, for instance, may want to watch the TV show and not play the digital game, or read the book and not go to the website. An issue arises here when a writer chooses to provide unique narrative information in each of these media. Will the story make sense to the TV watchers if important information has been delivered elsewhere? Therefore, techniques are needed to ensure the story makes sense, irrespective of what component is experienced.
Coherence strategies include:
- recapitulations (recaps)
- elaborating on a story event rather than continuing it
- exploring a subplot or sub-character
- restricting or controlling access to the content
- creating artefacts that have no role in the plot (e.g. a website for a fictional corporation).
Each of these techniques enable audiences to experience different content without any loss of critical narrative information.
For more about the challenges of writing for cross-platform writing projects, see the Marissa Cooke and the Isabelle Merlin profiles.
Quality interaction experiences
This section will discuss some of the approaches that facilitate quality interactive experiences, whether they are for electronic literature, digital games or cross-platform writing.
Early and equal
As with all collaborative crafts, the principle of ‘early and equal’ facilitates a far superior creative outcome. For instance, a well-integrated game occurs when writers and game designers begin working together at the concept stage, share the task of communicating story and gameplay elements, and cross-fertilise their skills. Although the budget does not always permit it, having full-time writers working with a team will only benefit the product. Writers can ensure the fiction is expressed consistently and with depth by participating in various aspects and stages of the production: keeping an eye on design decisions (environments, characters), working with the actors (voice-over), staying on during the bug-fixes, and so on. Craft doesn’t happen at one stage of the production process, it happens at all stages.
The art of choice
As was discussed in the earlier section about interactivity writers of interactive projects don’t create a single narrative path for a player to experience, but write many paths or environments that facilitate a range of possibilities. Often, a characteristic of interactivity heralded by writers, designers and players alike, is choice. Freedom of choice influences the design and experience of interactive works and creators of quality interaction experiences usually consider the following factors:
- Significance of choices– the dramatic significance of each choice
- Range of choices– how many choices
- Frequency of choices– pacing of choices
Impact of choices– response to choices
On the first factor of significance, interactive storytelling designer Chris Crawford advises that ‘the storybuilder’s most important task is creating and harmonising a large set of dramatically significant, closely balanced choices for the player’ (Crawford, 2005). This means that no single choice is obviously the only or ideal choice, because if it was, there really wouldn’t be a choice. Range of choice then, according to Brenda Laurel, a human-computer interaction designer and researcher, refers to how many choices are available (1993). Are there too many or too few choices? But as Chris Crawford has explained, ‘the absolute number of choices isn’t important; it’s the number of choices offered, compared to the number of possibilities the user can imagine’. The frequency of choice also impacts the experience: how often is a person asked to interact? Are the intervals consistent or varied? Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, what is the impact of the person’s choices. Do their actions make any difference to the story world? Would events have occurred irrespective of their actions? If not, then the option to choose is gratuitous and can be experienced as work rather than pleasure.
The art of immersion
Immersion, otherwise known as transportation and sometimes flow, usually refers to the state of person who is not thinking about anything else but the fiction they’re experiencing. Elements that jolt a person out of their state of immersion include incongruities, poor expository writing and clunky design. Besides avoiding such pitfalls, writers and designers can also work together to make elements usually considered exterior to the fiction, part of the fiction. This approach is echoed in many design philosophies, such as S Charles Lee’s motto of ‘The Show Starts on the Sidewalk’ for the design of movie houses.
In games, this approach can manifest in the creation of themed tutorials. The Halo game, for instance, has integrated the tutorial into gameplay: the game begins with the player-character being awoken from a cryo-tube and then having to relearn how to move and shoot. In cross-platform projects, the actual media used is often given an in-story rationale: a book, for instance, is an artefact from the fictional world, not a delivery channel. Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman’s Cathy’s Book: If Found Call 650-266-8233 (Running Press Kids 2006), for example, is presented as a lost book, with scrap paper, photos, phone numbers and websites that all support this illusion.
As this chapter, and the New WRITING Universe poster [http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/writersguide/newwritinguniverse/], has hopefully shown: a rich and varied range of writing formats are available for writers to explore. Each presents challenges and constraints that can potentially birth great new stories and just how you can develop these skills will be explored in the next chapter on Craft: Professional Development.
The writer's guide to making a digital living: choose your own adventure by Fingleton, T. Dena, C. & Wilson, J. for the Australia Council for the Arts is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License.
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