Laying the Groundwork for Great Narrative, Part One
By Ed Kuehnel, Mobile Game Doctor Narrative Director
There are a number of factors that must come together to ensure you don’t waste time, money – or worse, generate chaos – integrating a narrative into your game that will attract and retain players, as well as set the game apart from a crowded field in its product category. Thankfully, all of these factors are under your control. In this series of intermittent blog posts on narrative in games, we will cover the processes and personnel decisions that need to come together to lay the groundwork for success in storytelling.
We’ll start with choosing the right kind of writer for your project.
Stephen King’s On Writing is partly a memoir and partly his advice to aspiring writers. In it King divides writers into two broad categories.
– to paraphrase –
There are World Builders and People-Persons.
World Builders tend to be introverts (even more so than the typical writer). Their tastes lean towards epic stories – usually fantasy and sci-fi – and they thrive on creating lush settings: planets, universes, cities, tribes, alien races, kingdoms, dystopias, and all of the systems, societies, and large-scale conflicts that make them tick.
The characters that World Builders create often feel at home in these worlds, but stand out as one-dimensional in more realistic story settings. Dialog is not where these writers typically shine, as they are less energized by human interaction in general and do not excel at conveying emotions on the page. However, World Builders are often great at writing lore. They would rather create an interstellar ark carrying its multi-generational occupants through the void of space at sub-light speeds, pursued by a mysterious “Centauri Society”, than ensure that the main protagonist’s love interest isn’t underwritten.
Remember that friend who introduced you to Dungeons & Dragons and spent weeks planning campaigns, complete with intricate maps and TONS of flavor text?
That’s a World Builder, alright.
People-Person writers are the World Builders’ more annoyingly extroverted cousins, whose relative emotional intelligence usually pushes them towards drama or comedy – two sides of the same coin. They are nonstop people watchers, and the discovery of eccentric individuals, places, or things that are not already well-known to people energizes them, as these discoveries can be used later as building blocks for great fiction. This sort of material (whether it be in the form of real-life interactions, documentary footage, or randomly stumbling on someone’s bizarro YouTube channel) is considered “gold” by People-Persons, as using it to inspire settings and characters adds a degree of realism necessary to give those story elements an aura of authenticity and above all, helps the People-Person “avoid cliché like the clap”.
It is important to People-Persons that even when writing for ex-special forces mercenaries with axes to grind and chips on their shoulders, that the words coming out of their mouths sound like something someone would actually say. Dialog like “Damnit, Johnson! I’m too old for this” or “Tell me what I’m doing here, MacVickers” will be like kryptonite to People-Persons (especially if someone else has already decided the head merc should look like Jason Stratham, only with different colored hair, and that his name should be “Lance Strikeheart”).
So, which do you need?
As you might suspect, depending on the type of game you are creating, you would need a specific sort of writer.
If your game’s story can be described as “high fantasy” or “hard science fiction” – if it features characters, settings, and stories of an “epic nature” in which dialog takes a back seat to interesting scenarios, technology, kingdoms at war, or nations at conflict, or if the world you’re creating is a “sandbox” for the player to tell their own stories in, you’re likely better off with a World Builder who has the stamina necessary to imagine these worlds on a grand scale and write it all down for you.
But if your game relies heavily on comedy, drama, or romance – if you want the player to identify with your characters rather than see them as some sort of power fantasy, you will need a People Person.
Of course, both types of writers can work together beautifully on a project that requires the talents of each, as long as their roles and expectations are clearly defined and your quality control feedback loop is finely tuned to funnel their work to the appropriate editors (more on this to come).
Regardless, having the right type of writer on your project is paramount to its success, and one of the many reasons that small studios who work on a variety of games are smart to outsource their writing, so they can match different projects with writers who are a good fit for them. Getting this wrong will be tantamount to hammering a square peg in a round hole, then asking the rest of your team to design a game around it – a costly and morale-squashing mistake.