The Insight: Deep Inside a Game Writing Master Class

In which the author learns much and hears the sage words, “Fuck the internet. I swear to God.”

by Jill Scharr

It’s one thing to write about videogames. It’s quite another thing to write for them.

That’s why I attended NYU’s weekend long “Games Writing Master Class” a few weeks ago. The class was taught by Susan O’Connor, a freelance writer who’s worked on titles like BioShock, Far Cry 2, and even the ill-fated Star Wars 1313.

On both days the class opened with an exercise: each table (comprising approximately six people) was given a different simple game, such as a chess board or a deck of cards. We were told to play the games as a group, and then devise a narrative based on the mechanics of the game. For example, my group on Saturday morning got a deck of cards and played Bullshit. We then came up with a narrative about how we were secret agents testing each others’ bluffing skills and learning each others’ tells.

But exactly why did we do this?

O’Connor said that this exercise echoes what it often feels like to write for games: usually, in her experience, writers are brought on board long after the design mechanics have been decided or even after production is already under way. So writers have to write to suit the existing material.

The Magic of Structure

After this exercise, O’Connor discussed narrative structure. Every story has at least one main character, said O’Connor, and every main character has:

A Need: This is a direct response to the character’s flaw. Even if the narrative doesn’t consciously address it, the need shapes the character’s choices.

A Desire: This is what the character thinks he/she needs. It’s the goal driving the narrative.

An Opponent; This is the bad guy or obstacle preventing the character from getting what he/she wants.

A Plan: This is how the character is going to achieve his/her desire. This is basically the plot.

A Battle: This is the pivotal confrontation.

A Moment of Realization: This is the twist. The character learns something or realizes something that changes everything.

A New World: This is what the character is left with after the Battle and the Moment of Realization.

All good stories, O’Connor said, use this structure. Therefore it’s a useful tool for a writer to have, both for structuring stories and for discussing your work with the level designers, producers and directors. This structure is not about aesthetics; it’s not a matter of opinion. Besides, joked O’Connor, game designers and programmers like rules. They understand rules. So describing storytelling in terms of rules frames a writer’s work in terms that the other collaborators can understand helps keep everyone on the same page. A writer might not be able to choose whether the game is about vampires or dinosaurs, for example, (in fact, writers rarely get to decide what the game is about,). But the writer does have the responsibility to take a concept about vampires or dinosaurs and turn it into a structured narrative.

When this structure is sound the audience feels like the story couldn’t have ended any other way. (That statement segued into a discussion of Mass Effect 3 and its controversial ending, at which point O’Connor said what might have been my favorite piece of advice all weekend: “Fuck the internet. I swear to God.”)

Every level, or even scene, can be a miniature version of this structure within the larger game structure. For example, in a single level the Desire might be to acquire a certain item, and the Opponent is that level’s boss. The Moment of Realization is some new piece of knowledge or development contained in that level that advances the plot, and the New World is the new way in which the hero will approach his/her goals after having experienced the level.

This structure also helps with character design, and by extension combat design, because in a good game, one would echo and reinforce the other. However, O’Connor reiterated, most often the combat design is also established by the time a writer joins a project, so often the writer has to design the character around the existing combat system. If you were to make a game about Batman, for example, you start with Batman’s personality (we described him in class as “moral, sad and rich,” which is probably the most succinct description of Batman I’ve ever heard). From there you develop a playstyle of nonlethal attacks, lots of skulking in the shadows and working alone, and lots of gadgets and devices. That way, even without dialogue or exposition or an iconic Batman setting, you still feel like you’re playing Batman.

The Utter Coolness of Analyzing Characters

After giving us this outline, O’Connor used it to analyze and compare the plots of the video game God of War and the movie The Gladiator. These are the structures we came up with:

Kratos in God of War

Maximus in The Gladiator

Need

To atone for killing his family.

To act in an honorable manner

Desire

To kill Ares and avenge his family

To rejoin his family (in an honorable way, so no suicide)

Opponent

Ares

Commodus

Plan

Kill the God of War

Gain Rome’s attention through the gladiator battles

Battle

Final battle vs Ares

Final battle vs Commodus

Moment of Realization

Killing Ares will turn Kratos into the new God of War, and he’ll never die and never forget

His rigid adherence to his own principles has allowed him to achieve his goals: restoration of Rome and rejoining his family.

New World

Eternal life as the God of War

Death and the afterlife with his family

O’Connor said she chose these two stories because they’re both very well known and have similar stories: a warrior sets off to avenge his family. However, from that very basic premise they both end very, very differently. In analyzing God of War, then, Gladiator was sort of our control group, to which we could compare the things we found in God of War.

For example, we looked at how the gameplay in God of War echoes and reinforces Kratos’ character. Kratos is hot-tempered and violent, so it feels right to be mashing buttons and performing brutal combos while a disembodied narrator cheers you on with shouts of “Vicious!” and “Gory!” In Gladiator, conversely, combat is never glorified, at least not by Maximus. Even when killing his mortal enemy, Commodus, Maximus never looks like he’s enjoying himself, he never relishes in bloodshed. He’s performing his duty, nothing less and nothing more. Maximus even challenges the coliseum crowd (and by extension the movie watchers) for what he considers a perverse enjoyment of spectacle with his famous line “Are you not entertained?”

The characters aren’t the only ones with desires, however. The player also has a desire that motivates his or her actions. And, according to O’Connor, the player’s and the character’s desires are rarely aligned.–even in a videogame, when the player and the character have an intimate relationship with each other. Most often, the player’s and the player character’s desires are entirely at odds. In God of War, for example: on the surface, both the player and Kratos want to kill Ares. But while Kratos wants to forget his past, the player wants to learn it.

The plot always tries to keep the player off balance. If the player is leaning forward, said O’Connor, the story should pull them even further forward. If the player is leaning away, the story should push them over backwards. Being an audience should never be a passive experience—as a writer, your job is to keep your audience on their toes.

When Is A Main Character Not A Main Character?

O’Connor talked about how different characters’ desires might coexist and conflict with each other within the same narrative, and how in a video game the player’s character might not be the main character. To illustrate her point, we looked at the game BioShock, and compared the desires of the player character Jack and the opponents Frank Fontaine and Andrew Ryan.

Jack

Andrew Ryan

Frank Fontaine

Need

??? (has no personality, no flaws, therefore no need)

Humanity (to realize that no man can be an island)

Empathy/humanity

Desire

To escape Rapture

To keep Rapture

To take Rapture

Opponent

Ryan, then Fontaine

Fontaine

Ryan

Plan

Do what Fontaine tells him

Obstruct Fontaine (and Jack) (backup: blow everything up)

Use Jack to take Rapture

Battle

Fight with Ryan (and himself)

Fight with Jack

Fight with Jack

Moment of Reali-zation

He’s a clone being controlled by Fontaine (is freedom even possible?)

He’s a man of his word, and willing to die for his principles (leading to BioShock’s most famous scene)

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New World

Escape from Rapture

Death

Death

When we looked at this chart we’d come up with, the class realized that Andrew Ryan, not Jack, is the most interesting character in BioShock—possibly even the main character. Most of us had kind of sensed that already—it just took looking at this chart to explain the whys and hows. O’Connor explained that the main character and the protagonist are not always the same person. In The Great Gatsby, for example (this is my example, not O’Connor’s), Jay Gatsby is the main character but Nick Carraway is the protagonist, the character from whose point of view we experience Gatsby’s story. BioShock works in a similar way—Jack is the vessel through which we, the player, experience the clash of titans that is Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontaine.

Bioshock is also an example of a story ending before the game does, said O’Connor. Of the three main characters in the game, Ryan’s story is by far the most interesting, but it ends about two thirds of the way into the game. That’s why the game’s ending, the battle with Fontaine, feels anticlimactic—because the real Battle, the one with the Moment of Truth, has already happened.

O’Connor said that knowing this structure makes it nearly impossible for her to enjoy average and decent stories, because she can see right through them. But conversely, her enjoyment of truly excellent stories is only heightened, because she can identify exactly what it is that makes them stand out. Even in just the four weeks since the class, I’ve found that I agree: just the concept of plot as pursuit of desire is immensely helpful in analyzing and assessing other stories. The Games Writing Master Class, and this narrative structure in particular, have given me a new language, a new set of terms. I find myself applying the chart to everything I see—video games, books, TV shows, graphic novels, movies. And it usually works—all of my favorite stories follow the structure, and all my least favorite ones botch the structure, or fail to communicate their characters’ desires. Now, when someone asks me why I think a game is good, I know exactly how to respond.

 Jill Scharr is a member of the New York Videogame Critics Circle, former host of Full Circle and a writer at both Tom’s Guide and Tech News Daily.

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