A Little Bit About “Writing For Video Games”

It’s 2016. New Year. New goals. To bring in the new year, I have a book review on this gem I came across called Writing for Video Games (© 2006) by Steve Ince.

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Steve Ince is an acclaimed game writer and designer from the United Kingdom with 22 years of experience. He currently resides as the Video Games Chairman for the Writer’s Guild of Great Britain. He is most readily known for his work in the games Beneath a Steel Sky (1994), The Broken Sword series (1996, 1997, 2002, 2009, Remastered in 2010), but he possesses even more credits including In Cold Blood (2000), Wanted: A Wild Western Adventure (2004), Agatha Christie: And Then There Were None (2005), Mr. Smoozles Goes Nutso (2006), and recently Survivors: The Quest (2015). That’s still only to name a few. As an assiduous artist, incessant writer Ince proves himself as a worthy adviser to take you into the world of gaming in Writing for Games. He shows you what it takes to work as a professional game writer in an approachable manner. It’s easy to tell that Steve Ince has a true passion for the creative arts, and seeks to encourage and shape those individuals who have the gusto to spread their own wings, achieve their own goals to be a game writer, and maintain the work ethic to do so.

Writing for Video Games paints broad strokes at its beginning with the history of gaming, the overview of game types, and the story building blocks; but Ince then moves into the specifics of how to write for genres and offers tips for writing dialogue. He even offers templates for how to structure scripts in terms of Boolean (i.e. True/False) variables when writing (i.e. fundamental game design logic).  In addition, Ince isn’t finished when the script is over. Instead, he moves on to discuss other forms of post-script writing. Post-script writing includes helping in the voice recording room once the script is locked, localisation, technical writing, and even writing strategy guides and manuals for games. In the appendices, he even offers up design documentation, a sample game script, a list of further reading, websites, must-play games, and a glossary of video game jargon.

From the first part in his book, Ince stresses the importance of interactivity in gaming. Interactivity is a basic concept that separates old media from new media. This concept has been around for a while now (though keep in mind this book is ten years old), yet as Ince outlines – it is really important for any person working in the video game industry to grasp. Video games allow a person to enter into a story as either a predefined main character, or a character that the player personalizes. Either way the outcome is the same. The people playing will discover or decide their character’s identity as a game continues. Games possess freedom unparalleled in movies and novels. People cannot interact with a movie or novel’s environment on screen or on the page, respectively. People can only passively absorb what is happening. As Ince states, that is not to say passive absorption is a bad thing. Interactivity is simply what separates movies and novels from video games. For a game to stay a game, maintaining interactivity throughout is essential.

Gameplay is the first selling point of a game, and it should go hand-in-hand with writing. That means that the game writing is integral to game design. The writing is not just an accessory to be tacked on at the end – granted some projects may require heavier writing than others. For the most part, though, writing – to be valuable writing – should coincide with gameplay and enhance it. People primarily buy games based on the fact that they like the gameplay style, but they will love a game that has the right gameplay style with a great story, memorable characters, and snappy dialogue. According to Ince, a good writer knows the games in the genre – or gameplay type they are writing for – and knows how the structure of said games work. For instance, if you are writing an adventure game, play games like The Longest Journey or if you are writing a First Person Shooter play Call of Duty. Only by first knowing a genre can you seek to enhance it, or effectively break its rules. Writers must also keep up with game development as it progresses.

“At all stages of working with the design team, the writer should keep accurate notes to keep track of the game’s progress…also write up and summarise meeting notes, e-mail communications should be archived and any design or story changes clearly flagged.” (Ince 42)

Keeping track of these things may sound tedious, but it is a necessary precaution in case a previous draft or comment needs to be referenced later on. These are not the only things a writer is responsible for on top of a script. There is more:

“The types of documents a writer will be expected to create will depend on the project and where the writer is brought in. Some typical documents could include but are not limited to, the following: pitch proposals, story overview, full story, character profiles, story and game background, story and game timeline, dialogue scenes, help files, and instruction manual.” (Ince 42)

If you didn’t notice, that’s a lot of work. And that is what game writing is – a lot of hard work. Luckily for readers, Ince hasn’t left you in the dark as to what these documents should look like, but instead he discusses formatting and offers up examples. He also has diagrams of the varying narrative structure from linear to controlled branching. I will not post these documents on here. If you are interested though, I recommend you check out the book.

The volume of game writing is often times 5-10 times more than that of a regular movie script. A great deal of writing is involved in video games, and it doesn’t stop when the script is written. Writers can still be helpful when it comes to the recording studio if for instance the voice director doesn’t get the intention of a line. Or perhaps a line needs to be fixed; the writer can make an adjustment right then and there. Writing also has to be tailored to other regions of the world through a process called localisation. During localisation a writer combs a script line-by-line in order to translate words, convey the same meaning but in different languages, and edit for cultural differences, so that a game is as welcoming to play in one region as it is in another. Ince even highlights how to do technical writing and the Technical Design Review (TDR), which was a new concept to me personally:

“The…TDR is a collection of documents that outline all the technology – hardware and software – that will go into making the game the best ever. It should cover, where appropriate, the player interface, the use of simulated physics, the audio system specifications, graphics rendering techniques, the use and incorporation of middleware, outlines of various target platform differences and how they will be resolved and many other details specific to the project.” (Ince 122)

Lastly, Ince moves onto tips for writing strategy guides, and ends with a lot of practical advice on how to market yourself and put your name out in the world as an aspiring game writer.

Writing for Video Games is only 140 pages long – not counting the appendices. As a person who is really interested in this field, I don’t think a 140 page book should be the end-all resource for all things needed-to-know about video game writing. On the other hand, it’s a brilliant overview of the field, and a fantastic starting point for anyone interested in this field. If you don’t know anything about games, you will learn a lot. If you know some, reading this book will be good refresher in the beginning, and I promise you will learn something new as the book continues.

On a personal level, I have a new-found respect for Steve Ince. I admire his service to aspiring creatives and game writers. I love that he doesn’t joke around when it comes to professionalism, and I see him as a model of discipline. I am definitely looking forward to following his work in the future; I encourage others to do so as well.

 

Works Cited

Ince, Steve. Writing for Video Games. London: A. & C. Black, 2006. Print.

 

Here is a link to his website and his blog Game Writer Bites:

http://www.steve-ince.co.uk/index.htm

https://gamewriterbites.wordpress.com/

 

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Zoombinis: Welcome Back

A wave of childhood memories washed over me today when I looked up one of the first video games my parents bought for my sister and me: The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis ©1996, a puzzle/adventure computer game. Over recent years, I have periodically searched for this game, because my sister and I unfortunately lost our copy.  But the game is extinct; you can’t buy the original game to play on today’s technology. The closest I could get to the original game was watching a “Let’s Play” on Youtube from somebody who kept their copy from years ago — or so I thought. Today I realized there has been a campaign on kickstarter for a reboot of The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis to match the original game.

TERC, the game creators, have already released the iPad/tablet version of the game; the desktop version for Mac and Windows will not be released till later this year. As you can see from the kickstarter video, the reboot contains updated designs for the landscapes and characters, but everything else from the music to the voices is on point with the original game. I will admit that I am going to miss the original designs. Still, I can understand why the old designs cannot be used. As stated on the Zoombini kickstarter page:

“…we are updating the graphics for modern devices. The original art was just not scalable. All our characters were pixel-based sprites, and the background art was a fixed resolution….[Now] The game will…work with tons of different devices and screen resolutions.”

As an older generation Zoombini gamer, I will have to get used to the new look. I am happy to know that the new designs will still hark back to the old ones as stated and seen on the kickstarter page. I will probably always like the original Zoombini character look better, but the new landscapes add some beautiful lighting and color that I think I could get used to. Above all things, the fact that these new designs have the flexibility to display on multiple devices is a great achievement. This allows a greater chance for more people to play the game – which is the the most important thing.

Why is it important to play this game? 

To answer this question, let’s back track (as well as look forward) to the game’s original designer, Scot Osterweil. In a podcast quote from Osterweil snagged from the blog of Henry Jenkins, media scholar and professor, Osterweil stated regarding the creation of the game Zoombinis “instead of putting math in the game, we tried to find the game in the math.” There seems to be a fine line in edu-tainment games between fun and learning. You either have one or the other, but you can’t have both; it’s either a bunch of fun with some math tacked on, or it’s the equivalent to lifeless math worksheets from school. With Zoombinis, you can have both. When you play The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, you learn sorting, probability, and most importantly how to use logic and critically think – the key to all learning.

Almost more important than how you learn in the game, ironically, is how fun it is. Adults may get jaded and think that hard work can’t be fun, but it can. Also, because the game is fun even if it is hard work, the player keeps coming back for more. I’m 22 and I want to play this game as much as I did when I was a kid; I love it! I also know, that if I played it today, the game would still be challenging. Their harder difficulty levels are just that – hard to play. Moreover, each time you play, it is a new experience; the solutions to problems will always be randomized.

Scot Osterweil currently works at MIT and he is also the Creative Director of the Education Arcade. He believes that play and playing games can make a true impact on people. You can watch the video below to see what he means by “play” and how playing games can contribute to learning, exploration, and school curriculum.

“what games do that’s different from freeplay is give us a structure and give us a set of proximal goals…we have a sense that maybe we will get a little better…and we tend to rise to the challenge…” (Osterweil)

In summation of his video, people enjoy interesting, authentic challenges and setting goals with the hope of achieving those goals. This idea is supported on a scientific level as well. Psychologist Edwin A. Locke outlines the importance of goals in his goal-setting theory. His theory reveals that goals motivate people in daily life and in the workplace. Think of it this way: when you were playing those Bowser levels on Mario 64 (or whatever your favorite video game is) or you were in the middle of that basketball game (or whatever your favorite sport is), why did you keep going? It seems obvious; you wanted to win, of course! Even more so, you enjoyed the anticipation of winning, or else why would you go through all the trouble? Now what if we applied that mentality to school? What if students tackled math problems not as a chore, but as a puzzle where at the end you could receive the winning solution? Looking at how seemingly difficult subjects like math and reading can be played rather than just regurgitated is looking at ways we can really learn and have fun doing it.

And with that, you can watch the demo for the original game here if you want. At the beginning of the demo, the narrator talks about the educational value of the game; once you get ~4:00 the video shows the gameplay by itself.

What about the story?

Okay, so maybe you don’t give two ding-dongs about the educational value of this or any other video game. Let me give you another reason to play this game and convince you of its awesomeness. The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis has a good story.

The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis is the story of blue creatures who are similar, but have differences in appearance. They had a thriving mercantile society until the Bloats invade and take over their land. The Bloats promised the Zoombinis prosperity in life and business if the Zoombinis joined forces with the Bloats, so the Zoombinis allow the Bloats to help. Unfortunately, the Bloats end up taking over and essentially enslaving the Zoombinis. Therefore, the Zoombinis escape on a quest for a new home, one they will call Zoombiniville. Before they get there, the Zoombinis must go through various destinations (i.e. Allergic Cliffs, Stone Cold Caves, Pizza Pass, Captain Cajun’s Ferryboat, Titanic Tattooed Toads, Stone Rise, Fleens, Hotel Dimensia, Mudball Wall, The Lion’s Lair, Mirror Machine, and Bubblewonder Abyss), each with a complex logic puzzle to solve in order to get each Zoombini safely across.

None of that description is what got me personally attached to the game, however. What did get me emotionally attached was the fact that I could lose Zoombinis along the way. The player didn’t just loose a life, and see their avatar reappear. The player lost the physical presence of an avatar in the game; the avatar goes somewhere else and doesn’t come back. As a kid (and even now thinking about it as an adult) that is emotionally stirring. When I first experienced the loss of Zoombinis, I literally I thought I was killing Zoombinis, and it was my ethical responsibility to get them to their new home in Zoombiniville safely.* Moreover, after each Campsite checkpoint for the Zoombinis, if I didn’t have 16 Zoombinis with me, I couldn’t continue the game. I would have to go back to a previous checkpoint. If there were no previous checkpoints with Zoombinis, I would have to get more Zoombinis at Shelter Rock (i.e.Start) and get them through each destination again.

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Perhaps it seems absurd to care about blue dots with faces and no post-cranial anatomy besides legs and feet – or bike wheels or a spring or a fan. These creatures may not look like people, but we can still relate to their story and their struggle to find a new home. Trust me when I say, after all the work you put into this game you will be proud of your own logical reasoning skills, and even prouder if you can say you got your original 16 Zoombinis across the map without a scratch.


**Just to be clear, there are no  Zoombini killers. If the player looses a Zoombini, it either goes to a checkpoint or Shelter Rock. This is after all a kid-friendly game.

Hello World!

My name is Andrea Justine Millard. I am currently 22 and a recent Radio-Television-Film graduate from the University of Texas at Austin. My nickname is “AJ,” and my social media identity is @aj_thetarsier. What is a Tarsier you ask? It’s a very small Happlorine primate which currently resides in Southeast Asia and is nicknamed for its elongated tarsal (i.e. foot) bones. I’m a personal fan of these little wide-eyed creatures along with all other apes and monkeys of the animal kingdom – hence why I use it as my social media name.

Here are pictures of the little dude. When you think of me, you can think of this little guy.

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Aren’t they as cute and weird as ever?! Just like me! Just kidding.

I have been wanting to start a website for some time now to share my video/production content with the world. And maybe just write a post or two about monkeys, the entertainment industry, and maybe even monkeys working in the entertainment industry. What else is there to know about me? I am interested in film, television, video games, and theater. Therefore I watch and play A LOT of different media. Sherlock Holmes and Nancy Drew are my heroes; I love good detective stories (Shout out to more recent faves – True Detective and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries).

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I have played practically every Nancy Drew game developed by Her Interactive. I own the complete works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and the B&W films with Basil Rathbone playing Sherlock. I am also a big fan of the BBC series, Sherlock (and I hold high respect for its creators Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss along with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Sherlock and Watson, respectively). It should go without saying that because I enjoy Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s work, I also love Doctor Who. These are just “a few of my favorite things” (hint for future reference: I also enjoy musicals).

Now that you know some of the things I like, here is a little of my work:

My vimeo page

My Youtube channel

This is just a sample of my work with the promise of more to come later.

For now – in the words of a famous goodbye in Her Interactive’s Nancy Drew,

¡Hasta La Pasta!