As gamers, we often talk about the games we like in terms of graphics, gameplay, or our favorite characters. But what makes the greatest impact is often the stories we immerse ourselves in. We remember the plot twists, the emotional moments, and the moments that enraged us. We remember fallen characters and the incredible endings that left an impression on us years after we finished the game. These experiences would not be possible without the tireless work of games writers and narrative designers.
This year at San Diego Comic Con, moderator John Wie, Content and Marketing Manager at the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences (AIAS), chatted with four prominent writers, Aaron Contreras (Jedi Fallen Order), Clay Murphy (Control), Jennie Kong (Sky: Children of the Light) and Amelia Gray (Telling Lies), about their experiences in writing stories using an interactive medium.
First Narrative Gaming Experience
The first question to the panel was about their first narrative experience and how it made an impact on them. They were also asked to consider how storytelling in games has evolved. For Kong it was Dino Crisis and the first Resident Evil. To her those games were immersive and she wanted to see where the story went. Another game was Ico. She appreciated the spin on the “Save the Princess” trope that is frequently used.
Murphy, being a Nintendo player, credited The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. It wasn’t for the story, he explained, but rather for how big the world felt. In the game you meet with a variety of different characters from the gnomes forging weapons, to the Witch in the hut making potions. These were moments of discoverability that showed him what storytelling could be.
Gray’s choices were Grim Fandango, the Space Quest series, the King’s Quest series and the Grand Theft Auto series. To her the “unfolding narrative was fascinating to me.” But the real spark came from Fallout New Vegas. The decisions made in the game and how they shaped the world, “was really mind blowing to me.”
Contreras, perhaps being the older writer on the panel, named Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar as his influence. In the game, you create your character by choosing Tarot cards. But it was more than just choosing attributes, or killing the bad guys, “it became about not just what you did, but how you did it.” This showed him that games could go beyond basic gameplay and could raise questions about morality and the choices we make.
The Writing Process
The next question focused on the script writing process and the timeline from writing to production to release.
Murphy was surprised that the script for Control wasn’t change as much as he thought it would be. Missions and characters were dropped or swapped, but for the most part the core story was kept intact. Contreras worked on Jedi Fallen Order for over two years but experienced a narrow release window. Jedi Fallen Order, being a game within the new Star Wars canon, had to be released between The Mandalorian and The Rise of Skywalker. The story was already drafted, but it went through many changes.
“You’re not just working kind of in a vacuum with your screenwriting software or word processor, you’re working with a whole team…So everything you write is going to get touched and manipulated and has needs that go past just the demands of story,” he explained.
Casting and Character Design
Wie then asked the panelist about casting and character design and whether the characters were already finalized before they joined their teams. Since Gray’s Telling Lies was completely told in live action, they had people and types of characters in mind. They were through the casting process and were fortunate to find the right people for those parts.
Kong, in writing for thatgamecompany, explained that the company didn’t feel the pressures of having their character designs completed earlier in the development phase. Since they are their own publishing company, they were able to focus on character design later in the process for Sky. There were different iterations of the characters, but since the world was built out first, they had a better idea of what the characters would look like. Interestingly, in creating these characters, they took a different route in their development. “The other main thing that we thought was basically going that extra step further where the character was not only genderless but also presented as equal, if you will. There was never one that looked stronger or one that looked kind of, you know, more skillful in any way.”
For Jedi Fallen Order, there was a lot of concept art and they had a sense of who the cast was going to be. Once the cast was brought in and they could collaborate with them, they began to write and tweak the characters. This was whole team effort to flesh out these characters.
Murphy described a completely different experience with character development. For Control, Remedy Entertainment was able to pull from their list of actors; therefore, some parts where written for specific actors once production began.
Moral Choices in Games
The next question Wie asked the writers about moral choices in games and whether they had any thoughts on the subject or would possibly want to explore that concept in their own games. Murphy shared his belief that character choices are important and that more time should be spent on creating opportunities to connect more with a story. He cautioned against creating choices for drama’s sake rather than having choices that were pertinent to the character.
Kong added that multi-branching narrative games like Life is Strange, Until Dawn, and Detroit Become Human “pose questions that maybe we wouldn’t have posed in real life or we can’t pose because we’re not in that situation, I think has been really fascinating.”
For Gray, she sees fiction and novels as an “empathy machine” and believes that games can be put up there as well. In Telling Lies, players are forced to confront their own biases and that’s what drives the story forward.
Contreras viewed the question of moral choices in games is an old and difficult one. One way to address it is to make sure that a game is about something even if it’s a linear experience. For games that do have a branching narrative the writer and the development team has to be in sync. The design of the game can also determine how much branching can be done especially with regards to motion capture and cost.
Wie then asked the panel if there were any gameplay trends and technological advancements available in game development that they were excited about. Contreras immediately responded that he was excited to see this new generation of game writers who have grown up wanting to be in game development. This means that they can take games to a whole new level because they have a better understanding of the medium and may be more technologically savvy than their predecessors.
Murphy drew attention to games that have no dialogue like Journey, Little Nightmares, and Inside, which all tell a story “based on the world that you see and interact it in.” While he knows it’s a contradiction to what he’s paid to do, he finds the idea of these types of games exciting.
Kong believes that technology will continue to “break new ground” in game development, but to her the creation of new genres is what she is looking forward to. New genres lead to new emotions and new opportunities to explore.
Gray looks forward to stories that can be told narratively or in script form. Also, the idea of diverse stories told by diverse writers is something she is excited to see in future games.
Advice to Aspiring Game Writers
And finally, Wie asked the writers for any advice that they have for aspiring game writers. “Start doing it,” was Murphy’s response. He suggested using the software Twine, which is a free program for developing nonlinear, interactive stories. This allows writers to try out branching dialogue. He also suggested working with hobby groups that are found on Reddit or Facebook.
“You have to really, truly love video games,” said Kong. Writing for games is not a solo project and must be done as a team. She suggested playing games and finding a game that you gravitate towards and see where you can go from there.
Gray suggested, “find your people and find your crew.” Start by writing what you want and find people who enjoy that genre of writing. She also agreed with Murphy’s advice of just doing it. “Open it up and get into it. Lean into who you are, whoever that is. And the thing that makes you special is the thing that’ll make a special piece of art.”
Contreras admitted that he made many mistakes along the way to becoming a game writer. He recommended learning more about writing and to get into the industry whether it be through an indie team or AAA company. Experiencing the process of game development will let you know whether this is something you want to do or not. Ultimately, “if you want to do it and you’re persistent, you’re going to win. Like they can’t stop you from becoming a game writer is that’s what you want to do. If you want it bad enough.”
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