Game writing has its own set of problems and terms that describe them. As a relatively new field these don’t have universal definitions, but here’s a tour of some that we use and what they mean to us.
Dissonance* is the akward feeling you get as a player when the game does something stupid or inconsistent, which knocks you out of your immersion and shouts in your face “YOU ARE PLAYING A GAME”.
It’s best avoided.
- A guard carrying on a conversation with his colleague, who’s just been shot and killed in front of his very eyes.
- There’s one door you can take down with a rocket launcher, but all other doors are rocket launcher-proof. Worse if the rocket launcher/door thing happens in a cut-scene.
- Quest-giving NPCs detailing the dangers and difficulties involved in your approaching fight with the arch-nemesis, but that it’s vital to try so you might get your hands on the Helm of Far-Seeing… while you’re already wearing the Helm of Far-Seeing.
- Encountering a powerful figure whose martial prowess every NPC has been raving about, only to find that they’re no better than anyone else as soon as they join your group.
- The protagonist agonising over the death of an individual character whilst the gameplay merrily involves mowing down minions by the dozen.
- NPCs all hail you as the conquering hero when most of the time you just break into their houses and steal their stuff.
- The mighty, conquering hero who is stopped dead in their tracks by a foot-high concrete block.
Narrative elements – particularly cutscenes, but also highly scripted sequences – can be heavily at fault here if they make incorrect assumptions about the gameplay.
A common cause of dissonance is repetition – hearing the same line of dialog over and over again becomes very noticeable very quickly.
This is writing that is designed to solve a defined technical problem.
Perhaps the problem is how to communicate to a player that something ahead is dangerous. There are many things you could do: Pop up a box on the screen, put a warning sign on the wall, place a pile of bones near it, have an NPC shout a warning to you, or simply show someone meeting their gruesome end.
All of these solve the problem, some clearly better than others.
Other narrative engineering tasks can be to give the player hints if they’re stuck, teach the game’s controls or give plausible reasons for limitations in the game engine or design.
They needn’t be serious; the game Tex Murphy: Under a Killing Moon made a joke about the fire-extinguishers being painted onto the walls by the cheap landlord to fool the one-eyed buildings inspector. What was a limitation of the low geometry of early 3D technology became a memorable line** and a credit to the game.
Narrative Engineering is very important when writers are introduced to a project late in the development cycle*** when most of the gameplay and structure are set – it then becomes vital to come up with story/dialogue that support and explain the game that exists, rather than wishing to make major changes.
The Projective Hypothesis
Also known as ‘less is more’, this is the psychological idea that if you describe something minimally then your imagination will fill in appropriate details.
It’s a powerful concept, explicitly used by Dr Peter Favaro in his life simulator ‘Alter Ego’ (Online version here) which let you play out little scenes from a lifetime. These were deliberately cut down to their bare essentials, making a virtue of necessity with the limited storage available on the Commodore 64.
Using the Projective Hypothesis is an excellent way of avoiding Dissonance, because the less you present the less there is to clash with the player’s experience. Your imagination likes consistency and will not fill in dissonant details. This can also explain the paradox of some game worlds becoming less satisfying as they become more realistic.
To use this in a more modern context, lines can be written that avoid too much specific detail, or that can be read more than one way.
The Subtle Art of Environmental Storytelling
Games have a setting which the player explores, and what the player finds in that environment can tell a story more effectively than just being told directly. A discarded family photograph can be a story in itself.
Deus Ex: Invisible War had a perfect little scene where the subway ticket office was manned by a hesitant punk instead of the usual uniformed attendant – a little snooping around and an unconscious attendant and a couple of hidden punks could be found at the back of the office. Clearly they’d broken into the office and were trying to get the ticket money from potential passengers, but that was never said. It was all ‘written’ in the environment. From a technical point of view it was very economical too – just use some existing assets in an unexpected place.
This is all environmental storytelling – letting the player discover the story in the world. At its best, it can allow even small discoveries to place everything else in an entirely different context**** , and players often value things they discover themselves more highly than things they are simply told. Environmental Storytelling can also be used to encourage exploration – a small narrative reward can be a far more satisfying thing to find in a difficult-to-access area than a gold star.
This has to be carefully handled, though – sometimes the environment can tell too much. Valve generally use this technique to great effect, but the generous provision of boxes of rockets under the bridge level of Half-Life 2 almost screamed ‘you will come back this way – and there will be flying things to shoot’. Similarly, the existence of a mounted machine gun would guarantee a horde of enemies bursting through a door the moment you touched it.
*** Which is usually. Game writers are constantly asking to be involved in the development process early on, but this is very much the exception – it’s an example of developers wanting to mimic cinema, not realising that games can, should, and do transcend cinema - so writers accept the hand they’re dealt and go from where you are. Like the old joke, it’s no good saying ‘I wouldn’t start from here’.
**** Personal favourites are the hidden room in the Milla’s Dance Party of Psychonauts, and Pritchard’s emails in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Neither of these are vital to the game, but both add extra layers of meaning if discovered.