Part 3 – Writing the Walkthrough & Dialog

Overview

This is the third entry in a three-part blog post on narrative design in which we illustrate a process for integrating story and gameplay that has been used by game developers since the days of early graphic adventure games. This process is simple, versatile, and while not ideal for every project, it is adept at giving developers a clear roadmap for their game’s narrative so they don’t hit any dead-ends during production. Not all of these steps apply to every project, but the process is presented here in its entirety for those who wish to learn it.

This simplified approach boils down to 5 steps:

In this post we’ll focus on the final two steps to wrap up the series.


Step #4 – Documenting The Walkthrough

Congratulations!

If you’ve made it this far, the rest is downhill. The Walkthrough is simply your Narrative Flowchart with important details added so as to fully illustrate the entire experience from the Player’s perspective.

The final result won’t look too different from a well-written walkthrough a fan might create after thoroughly playing your game from beginning to end. You can use your Walkthrough to illustrate: 

  1. The emotions behind each character interaction.
  2. Any changes (or potential changes) to the state of the Player’s inventory (assuming they have one) from sequence to sequence.
  3. Links to reference images that will help game designers, artists, and others to understand the settings, characters, and other things described.
  4. Anything else you feel the need to express in order to get your vision across.

While Story Seeds and Story Treatments, having served their purpose, are usually left by the wayside, the Walkthrough is a living document, and while keeping the same information in two places at once can be tricky, it’s a good idea to update your Narrative Flowchart with any changes as well, as it still serves to give you a good bird’s eye view of the game at a glance.

In the following example, we’ll take this segment of our Narrative Flowchart and translate it into Walkthrough form. NOTE: This part of our game’s story occurs immediately after King Midas receives the the “gift” (or cure) for his “Golden Touch” from Dionysus, henceforth known as the “reverse Golden Touch” – the power to turn things back from gold to their natural state.

Let’s start with the three sequences at far left: two interactive dialogs and some exploration:

12. INTERACTIVE DIALOG: DIONYSUS’ HAIRDRESSER

Setting: ANCIENT TEMPLE

Condition: Sequence 11 (cinema: Dionysus and his hairdresser reconcile)

A brief interaction with Dionysus’ hairdresser sheds some light on their tumultuous relationship and Dionysus’ unpredictable nature, giving us a hint at what a help and a hindrance he will be to Midas in the future. 

Inventory: dagger, Flip-Flops of Swiftness

12. INTERACTIVE DIALOG: CADMUS’ THOUGHTS

Setting: ANCIENT TEMPLE

Condition: Sequence 11 (cinema: Dionysus and his hairdresser reconcile)

A brief interaction with Cadmus will reveal how excited he is to have found the means with which to return Zoe to human form. He’ll also encourage Midas to explore the temple a bit in case there’s anything that might come in useful to them on the journey home — as well as warn his king of the dangers of the road that takes them back to their castle. He is also wary of Dionysus, but likes his hair.

He is also nervous about leaving their castle unprotected as it’s constantly being broken into, even though almost all the gold has already been stolen.

Inventory: dagger, Flip-Flops of Swiftness

12. EXPLORATION: ANCIENT TEMPLE

Setting: ANCIENT TEMPLE

Condition: Sequence 11 (cinema: Dionysus and his hairdresser reconcile)

  • Exploration of the ancient temple to Dionysus will reveal a faded mural or frieze – a sequence of panels that depict the first meeting between Midas and Dionysus in which the overweight party god is falsely shown to have washboard abs and flawless cheekbones.
  • Collectible bust 1 of 100 is found somewhere in the Ancient Temple: Bust of Apollo.
  • There is one flask of healing wine somewhere here.
  • There is a sack of gold coins somewhere here.

Added to Inventory: sack of gold coins, flask of healing wine

Inventory: dagger, Flip-Flops of Swiftness

Why are all three of these sequences given the number twelve?

First, we know there are several sequences that have to happen prior to these three — the opening cinema for example. Let’s say that as with most games, the opening cinema is the very first thing to happen in King Midas 2. In our Walkthrough we’d assign the opening cinema the number one, and for the sake of example let us arbitrarily say that there are ten other sequences that take place after that before we get to these three at sequence number twelve.

We assign the number twelve to all three of these sequences for the same reason they are stacked vertically in our Narrative Flowchart. Within our game’s timeline they become accessible to the player simultaneously, but can be done in any order (or in fact, can be skipped entirely).

Once the player tries to exit the Ancient Temple however, our next sequence becomes unlocked. Let’s go ahead and translate the rest of the Narrative Flowchart into Walkthrough form. NOTE: All dialog is considered placeholder – just enough to get across the intention.

13. CINEMA: DIONYSUS NEEDS A FAVOR

Setting: ANCIENT TEMPLE

Condition: Player tries to exit the temple.

Dionysus has sealed the only exit to the temple. “You didn’t think I’d give you the cure for the Golden Touch for nothing, did you? Here comes the rub, chump!”

Midas is furious. He wants to get back to his castle and cure his daughter, and he’s nervous about leaving her statue unprotected. Thankfully, despite the build up here, Dionysus doesn’t want much — just his pants, which ended up getting lost during last night’s bender.

Inventory: dagger, Flip-Flops of Swiftness, sack of gold coins, flask of healing wine

14. PUZZLE: RETRIEVE DIONYSUS’ PANTS

Setting: ANCIENT TEMPLE

Condition: Sequence 13 (cinema: Dionysus Needs a Favor)

Midas must use his new gift to retrieve Dionysus’ pants before the god will allow him to leave his temple. Tutorial: This is the first time the “reverse Golden Touch” will be used during a puzzle sequence.

Inventory: dagger, Flip-Flops of Swiftness, sack of gold coins, flask of healing wine

15. COMBAT: BRIGANDS WANT MIDAS’ HANDS

Setting: ROAD BACK TO MIDAS CASTLE

Condition: Sequence 14 (puzzle: retrieve Dionysus’ pants solved, temple exited, Midas heads towards his castle)

King Midas and Cadmus rush towards the castle to cure Midas’ daughter, Zoe, but are set upon by brigands who are pumped to see Midas has left his castle. Somehow they have the idea that if they cut off Midas’ hands, they can use them to turn things into gold. Tutorial: Dionysus’ “reverse Midas Touch” used in combat for the first time.

Removed from Inventory: sack of gold coins, flask of healing wine

Inventory: dagger, Flip-Flops of Swiftness

16. CINEMA: STATUE OF MIDAS’ DAUGHTER IS STOLEN

Setting: MIDAS’ CASTLE (THRONE ROOM)

Condition: Sequence 15 (combat: brigands want Midas’ hands)

Midas returns to his throne room to discover that while he and Cadmus were gone, someone broke into his castle and stole the gold statue of his daughter, Zoe. Midas is crushed — he’s waited decades to find the means to cure her, allowing his entire kingdom to go to hell around him, and now she’s gone. Thankfully, the thief couldn’t resist leaving behind a calling card. From this clue, Midas deduces that the thief is a Persian pirate of some reputation. Therefore, he must be headed back to the sea with his stolen loot, and thankfully there’s only one route to the closest harbor.

Added to Inventory: Pirate Thief’s Signature

Inventory: dagger, Flip-Flops of Swiftness, Pirate Thief’s Signature

It’s fairly obvious to see that each sequence that’s stacked horizontally in the Narrative Flowchart is assigned a unique number in our Walkthrough (see 13 -16). This reinforces the notion that before a given sequence is accessible to the player, the sequence before it must have occurred (or have been made available). Further details as to these conditions can be described under the “Condition” header. You will also note that any potential changes to the Player’s inventory (whether they actually occur or not) are easy to track through the Walkthrough.

Most important however, is that you take the opportunity to discuss the motivations, emotions, mood, and context for each cinema, NPC interaction, and gameplay sequence in relation to your story.


Step #5 – Writing Dialog

After giving the artists, game designers, audio designers, gameplay programmers, and others a clear roadmap they can use to add their contributions to the story, it’s time to flee to the quietest place you can find and hide so you can write crisp, pointed, and at times hilarious dialog brimming with subtext that will change the lives of the Players who are lucky enough to experience your cinemas — unless they skip them.

There are literally hundreds of good resources out there on the art of writing dialog and precious little that I can add to that conversation that hasn’t been heard before. Instead, let’s consider the  restraints us game writers must keep in mind before we start writing dialog. 

Before you get started, be sure to work out with your programmers, producers, audio designers, localization folks, and any other relevant parties the details surrounding your localization pipeline, voice over pipeline (if applicable) and how exactly dialog will be displayed in your game (again, if applicable). For example, if your dialog is to be seen on-screen will you use word balloons? Boxes at the bottom of the screen? Will these things point at the person speaking? If not, how will you handle attribution? Will you need different types of balloons or boxes to represent different types of dialog (speech, thought, sound effects, voices coming from radios or TVs, etc.)? How will you EMPHASIZE words: all caps, italics, bold? What about dual dialog (more than one character speaking at the same time)? The more you’ve thought out the design and mechanics behind how your dialog is presented to the player, the more effective you’ll be at writing dialog that does your characters justice. 

Here some resources that may help:


A final thought – Is it uh… “Good”?

Unfortunately, even with other stakeholders scrutinizing a writer’s output at each phase of this process, we can’t necessarily vouch for the creativity of the story being developed (we’ll cover QA for writers in some future blog posts). It is entirely possible that a story created using this process, while it checks all the boxes, can ultimately fail to please. However, by being careful to use these steps you can be certain that you will not need to halt during mid-production to solve nasty story problems in mid-development while artists sit on their hands and wait impatiently. In other words, you will not get “lost in the weeds” — which is all well and good for novelists, but not when you’ve got a development team, a limited budget, and looming milestones to worry about.


Ed Kuehnel, Mobile Game Doctor Senior Writer
Ed Kuehnel, Mobile Game Doctor Senior Writer


Ed is a story consultant, narrative designer, and writer with twenty years of experience, having written on over seventy-five games across a wide range of platforms, publishers, developers, and mediums, including casual, mobile, and free-to-play.  Ed recently led the writing efforts for The Goldbergs:  Back to the 80s idle game built in partnership with Sony Pictures Entertainment and East Side Games.  His game writing debut, Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude, earned a Game Developer’s Choice nomination for Best Writing in 2005. His work on Ubisoft’s Valiant Hearts earned the game a win for Best Narrative at the 2014 Game Awards.

Thank you to Erin McGechaen at East Side Games for her excellent insight into story pitches. Thanks to author Brian McDonald for sharing his wisdom in his excellent book, Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide To Building Stories That Resonate, and special thanks to David Grossman and Noah Falstein for their wisdom and insight while sharing this process with me early in my career.