What Should I Read About Video Games?
March 28, 2010 8:12 AM   Subscribe

I'm a professional screenwriter interested in breaking into video games. I want to know more about videogame story telling. Aside from playing a bunch of games, which I'm doing, what should I read?

I'm looking for books, articles, magazines and blogs that have intelligent, practical things to say about video games, how they tell stories or let players tell their own stories, the future of story telling in games, and anything related.
posted by musofire to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Just a few quick suggestions off the top of my head (I'm a writer, but my experience is more in game journalism):

You should check out the books by Sande Chen. She's a game writer and developer who was nominated for a WGA award for The Witcher.

The IGDA (International Game Developers Association) has a sub group (known as a SIG, special interest group) for writers that you should join and get updates from.

There's a site called Game Career Guide, and while it's somewhat geared toward students, they have a regular game scenario challenge that gets posted to the forums and people can critique. They pick three winners and go more in-depth with their praise and critique for them. That could help you out. Also, the community is helpful.
posted by cmgonzalez at 8:20 AM on March 28, 2010

There's also this: http://www.narrativedesign.org/game-writers-in-the-trenches/

And Ars Technica published a good series with game writers a while back. Worth searching for.
posted by cmgonzalez at 8:23 AM on March 28, 2010

Have a browse through Rock, Paper, Shotgun, especially their weekly round-up of gaming articles and their interview with Ragnar Tørnquist.
posted by Electric Dragon at 8:55 AM on March 28, 2010

I'm enjoying reading the archived posts of The Psychology of Video Games blog and the related comments/ links from Cool Papa Bell's post on the blue.
posted by sharkfu at 9:34 AM on March 28, 2010

posted by pyro979 at 10:32 AM on March 28, 2010

Best answer: Games criticism and blogging is accounts for a large proportion of my feed reader

Some game developers with reasonably insightful/introspective-about-the-process-of-game-design-itself blogs:

Emily Short is a prolific writer of interactive fiction (which isn't really what you want to do if you want the big bucks), but she doesn't just talk about IF.

Fullbright is Steve Gaynor's blog (he worked on Bioshock 1 & 2 I think).

Click Nothing is Clint Hocking's blog (he worked on some Splinter Cell stuff as well as Far Cry 2).

Jordan Mechner's blog. He's the guy behind Karateka & the original Prince of Persia among other things.
Let me draw particular attention to his Prince of Persia development journal which is fascinating (though not necessarily useful if you're expecting it to be instructive).

On the non-developer side:

Gamasutra has some pretty neat features.

Brainygamer is also not bad.

Near everything The Artful Gamer says is smart although he doesn't update often enough.

I would avoid Kotau. They're too concerned with rumors & news and getting page views to have much decent criticism.
If do you want up to the minute rumors & news, VG247 frequently beats them to the punch.
posted by juv3nal at 12:02 PM on March 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

from an interview with David Gaider, the lead writer at Bioware:
DG: ... When it comes to writing, you never know what kind of background will actually work. We've hired writers who wrote prose books and were completely unable to sort of wrap their head around some elements.

interviewer: The interactive aspect of game writing?

DG: The interactive nature. If you had picked one particular path of the dialogue -- the one that they had in mind -- it sounded great. As soon as you went off that path, it would fall apart.

And then you'd have people with degrees who had no experience whatsoever. It's weird -- one of the best recommendations for writing seems to be people who as a hobby do a lot of game mastering of tabletop games. They naturally wrap their brain around the interactivity part of that. Who knew?
posted by spindle at 12:15 PM on March 28, 2010

I'd skip the IGDA SIG. But do check out the sites people have listed above. Clint Hocking and Steve Gaynor tend to be interesting. Psychology of Video Games is excellent, as is Kotaku.

I think one of the best ways to get ideas about the industry is to go to a place like shacknews.com and get into the boards - try to meet up with fellow gamers and developers (a good number of developers are shackers) at shackmeets.
posted by kirstk at 1:26 PM on March 28, 2010

I'll second the Rock, Paper, Shotgun and Kotaku recommendations. But the best thing to do would probably be to play as many games as you can, and work out what you like and what you hate about their stories.

Then head on over to the free Adventure Game Studio, and try and write something. The best way to learn is by doing, after all, and the forums there should give you plenty of ideas and feedback.
posted by radioedit at 1:57 PM on March 28, 2010

Gamasutra is your best source for articles about game design and industry. I think they put some stuff behind a paywall, but there's plenty to be read for free.

Start with this: The 5 Reasons Video Game Writing Sucks (And How to Fix It)

That will detail the gaming writing process as it most commonly works, and what's wrong with that. Afterwards, it's worth reading some interviews with the more well-known games writers currently working.

Start here: Vital Game Narrative: A Conversation With Rhianna Pratchett

It's worth Googling around for other interviews with Rhianna Pratchett and another woman, Susan O'Connor. Together they've worked on games like Mirror's Edge, Overlord, Gears of War, and some other big names. Both are also writers that tend to be hired mid-development, when things like character and story are already set in stone. Their job becomes about writing dialogue, cutscenes and exposition to fill the gaps between the interactivity. As the first link above describes, this is generally considered the wrong way to write good games, but it's unfortunately how the industry most commonly works.

For an example of "the right way", look for any interview with the writers from Valve Software. This article on Marc Laidlaw, a journalist and novelist turned games writer, is illuminating. He works in-house at Valve, is the key writer on Half-Life and its sequels, and is much a game designer now as a games writer. The article also explores what set Half-Life apart from other games of its time, and some of the principles of good games writing.

It's also worth reading around the different genres of game, as each can have radically different methods of storytelling. Role-Playing Games tend to involve a lot of worldbuilding, deep backstories, diverging plotlines and interactive dialogue trees. Check out the Vision Statement that was written for the RPG Planescape: Torment, when the designers/writers were trying to get the game sold. Don't go beyond page 25 if you want to avoid spoilers. It's an old game now, and obscure, but still considered one of the best written.

First-person shooters cast the player as the main character, and (the best ones at least?) tend to have him as a mute cipher for the player's actions. Real-time strategy games will mostly deliver plot via mission briefings, either in non-interactive cutscenes or talking head overlays. Adventure games draw a much more direct link between plot and mechanics than perhaps any other genre. Each style will demand its own writing method, I'd imagine.

I could go on for hours about this. The two most important things to realise is that a) most games writing sucks, b) the medium has radically different requirements from film or novels.

A final link to illustrate that final point: Less Talk, More Rock: The native language of videogames is neither spoken nor written.

I signed up to Metafilter just to write this post. I hope I didn't screw it up.
posted by Gonnas at 2:50 PM on March 28, 2010 [5 favorites]

Check out the Vision Statement that was written for the RPG Planescape: Torment, when the designers/writers were trying to get the game sold.

In a similar vein, the design document (pdf) for Grim Fandango was leaked, providing a rare look "inside" the process.
posted by juv3nal at 3:56 PM on March 28, 2010

Another book recommendation: Game Development Essentials: Game Story & Character Development.
posted by Joh at 4:12 PM on March 28, 2010

The current state of stories in video games is awful. The vast majority of games I've played have had stories that are abysmally written and uninspired, and I believe the reason for this is a lack of priority. Stories are tacked onto games where the mechanics, engine, action, and so forth are put first. I always like to think of video games as a more complex variation of board games; you can try to tack some kind of story onto a board game and it's probably just going to be a silly distraction from the actual game. What video games have that board games don't, however, is rich and immersive multimedia. The best and most compelling video game stories I've experienced have stories that are deeply intermeshed with the actual experience of playing it. In film, the best stories are told when the audience feels intimately involved in the characters and situations, not when the writer is reeling off exposition. In the same way, in video games, you can deeply involve the player by never taking him/her out of the little universe created by the game controls and rules. Half-life 2 and Portal are the poster children of this. I think the best thing a writer can do is to really embed him/herself in the design process, right next to the level designers, programmers, and animators.
posted by aesacus at 10:38 PM on March 28, 2010

Unlimited Adventures (UA or FRUA) is a game design master class. You can use it to create role playing games in the 1980's D&D style. The constraints that are built into that piece of software have taught me more about how to write for games than anything else I've encountered.

Inform 7 is extremely robust, and compared to earlier versions easier to use, and will allow you to create your own text adventure games. Text adventures are - as the name implies - driven entirely by text, so they're a great way for you, as a writer, to really stretch your muscles, and the community of interactive fiction writers out there is tremendous (as in really great people, not really lots of people). Some programming will be required, but the interface tries to make it as easy as possible.

Chat Mapper is a tool for writing for video games, that deals with branching storylines. Haven't used it, but you may find it useful.
posted by MesoFilter at 2:33 PM on March 29, 2010

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