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Writing For Video Game Genres 85

Posted by samzenpus
from the read-all-about-it dept.
Aeonite writes "The third book in a pseudo-trilogy, Writing for Video Game Genres: From FPS to RPG, offers advice from 21 experts in the field of video game writing, pulled from the ranks of the IGDA's Game Writers Special Interest Group and wrangled together by editor Wendy Despain. It follows in the footsteps of Professional Techniques for Video Game Writing and Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames, and in keeping with the trend, offers the most specific, targeted advice for how to write for an assortment of game genres." Read below for the rest of Michael's review.
Writing for Video Game Genres: From FPS to RPG
author Wendy Despain (editor), Sande Chen, Richard Dansky, et al
pages 300
publisher A.K. Peters Ltd
rating 10
reviewer Michael Fiegel
ISBN 978-1-56881-417-9
summary Genre-specific advice for game writers, from game writers
Depending on your particular poison, the authors of each chapter might be immediately recognizable or complete unknowns. Possibly most likely to be familiar to a general audience are Sande Chen (The Witcher) and Richard Dansky (Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, Far Cry), but Lee Sheldon (the Agatha Christie series), Andrew Walsh (Prince of Persia) and David Wessman (the Star Wars: X-Wing series) might also ring a bell.

The important thing here, however, is not who the writers are, so much as that they deftly cover a wide variety of terrain. As the subtitle suggests the book covers everything from FPS to RPG, from MMO to ARG, and the entirety of alphabet soup in-between. Each chapter covers the particular challenges of writing for one particular genre, and generally offers specific tips on how to overcome those challenges when writing for that genre. The chapter on MMOs, for example, discusses the fact that MMOs have stories that never end, worlds with millions of chosen ones, and a complete inability to control pacing or quest flow. "Writing for Platform Games" emphasizes the need to provide a coherent narrative even while the player is generally busy trying to complete the next jumping puzzle. Other familiar genres covered along the way include Adventure games, Sports games, Flight Simulators and Driving games.

Several of the chapters also venture outside of what traditionally constitutes a "game genre." For example, Richard Dansky and Chris Klug respectively cover Horror and Sci-Fi/Fantasy, themes that are based on the shape of the narrative rather than any particular gameplay format. Later chapters also explore Sandbox games (which author Ahmad Saad indicates can include everything from Grand Theft Auto III to SimCity), Serious games (being "games that do not have entertainment as a primary purpose"), and Casual games. Chapters are also devoted to specific platforms: Evan Skolnick covers Handheld games, and Graeme Davis explores Mobile Phone games. The fact that some of these categories necessarily include games that might also fall into genres covered earlier is never a problem here, however; each chapter offers specific advice relevant to its particular subject, and there is little if any "what he said" repetition to be found, and certainly nothing like outright contradictory advice from different authors.

While a single numbered outline format is followed throughout the book, each author writes in a slightly different fashion. This means that some authors (such as Andrew Walsh, in his coverage of Platformers) present swaths of dense copy within each numbered section, whereas others break up their chapter with numerous subheads, a single short paragraph beneath each point (as with Daniel Erickson's chapter on RPGs). Further, while the format of the book's bulleted lists is consistent throughout, their prevalence is somewhat uneven; Lee Sheldon's chapter on Adventure games is chock full of bullets, while Dansky's chapter on Horror games nearly dispenses with them altogether (but for one single list of five items). Certain chapters contain many charts, tables and/or screenshots, while others lack them altogether. One particular design feature — a boxed "Special Note" that intrudes into the margin — is used only a scant handful of times in the entire book, which makes each sudden instance more of a "Hey! Over Here!!" than the "Psst, by the way..." which I think was intended.

None of this is in any way bad: in fact, Despain's Preface encourages skipping around, and specifically addresses the issue of inconsistency by saying that the chapters are "written as personal essays with the individual style of each author intact." However, it is a notable feature of the book and worth a mention; this is not a book you read from cover to cover in one sitting.

The larger consideration for the purposes of review is this: should you buy a copy? The book's intended audience is — as with the earlier books in the "trilogy" — geared towards professionals already working in the game industry. Quotes on the back cover specifically mention "those of us swimming in the murky waters of games storytelling," and the book's closing chapter (J. Robinson Wheeler's "Writing For Interactive Fiction") dispenses with any illusion altogether, saying "If you're reading this book, you're a writer..." Even the Preface says "we" more than "you" when addressing the reader. The assumption is that you're already "one of us," and while that's a warm embrace for me (since I am indeed "one of them"), it might come across as a bit of a lukewarm shoulder for someone outside the industry.

In short, this book — perhaps even moreso than either of the previous IGDA Writers SIG books — is by writers, and for writers. As a "starting point from which we (game writers) can work together to improve the state of the art," the book provides an excellent foundation, and deserves to be on the bookshelf of any game writer or designer, be they novice or veteran. As for everyone else... if you're ready to dip a toe in the chilly waters of game writing, you could do far worse than to check out the advice within.

You can purchase Writing for Video Game Genres: From FPS to RPG from amazon.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews — to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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Writing For Video Game Genres

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  • by Microlith (54737) on Monday November 23, 2009 @02:13PM (#30204184)

    ...and not artistic design. Whoever drew a cover should stay very, very far away from any sort of real work.

  • by RobotRunAmok (595286) on Monday November 23, 2009 @02:20PM (#30204256)

    ...unlike the folks who will be buying this book, who would most likely work for free for the opportunity to be part of a game development team.

  • Re:Game story (Score:3, Insightful)

    by zippthorne (748122) on Monday November 23, 2009 @02:31PM (#30204354) Journal

    As a low level character without any gold, you have to start from the bottom, doing work that higher level players found boring.

    This it the thing that kills the MMO concept, IMO. Everything in the game is in there by design, so why would the designers deliberately put in bits that are "too boring for high level players" and how could that possibly be "acceptible level of boring for low level players"

    MMO game economies have raw materials invariably going for higher prices than the finished goods for a reason, and the reason is that XP makes doing a job more valuable than buying the output, and that due to the variety of activities available to them, there is nothing that is more boring for a high level character than a low level character.

  • by Reason58 (775044) on Monday November 23, 2009 @02:38PM (#30204456)
    There is an impending disaster perpetrated by an insane villain. You rise from complete obscurity. You single-handedly (or with the help of characters with whom you have a love interest) defeat the entire opposing army, which attacks you in waves. Conveniently, they save the hardest opponents for the end when you are strongest.

    For added depth give your character a dark past, such as your village and parents being killed by the opposing forces and making you a real lone wolf. Rinse and repeat.
  • by Monkeedude1212 (1560403) on Monday November 23, 2009 @02:56PM (#30204650) Journal

    I personally cannot think of a Single Player only game to have come out in the last 3 years which has failed to do just that. Any game that focuses on the immersive 1 player experience does it rather well, the story-telling is something like reading a book (for those who enjoy reading books) or like watching a movie (for those who... yeah you get the idea). Single player games really do tailor it to the user so their gameplay always seems to line up with the story rather well, mostly because there are no other elements to cloud it up.

    I kind of prefer it that way, it seems like a 1 on 1 with the developers. I felt like I got to know Valve and their new acquisitions when I played Portal. I could tell they had a good sense of humour, and really loved mystery. And I don't know about the rest of people, but I feel awkward playing that type of game with someone watching. Even now, I'm going through Dragon-Age on the 360, which means its on the TV in the living room - and I can honestly say I don't enjoy playing the game when someone is watching. I know that when my room mates played it they skipped the dialogue. They did things differently, sometimes in an easier way. They feel the need to interject a joke in the midst of my playing. Maybe I'm just insecure, but I prefer it when I'm immersed so deeply into a game that I lose track of time. But when someone is there I can't help but feel like I should try to make it entertaining for them too, which is sometimes different then what I find entertaining.

    And when you throw in a multiplayer experience - all storyline kind of gets tossed out the window. Its no longer about you and the designers, its now about you and your friends. You don't care about the characters story so long as their stats are better then your team mates. You are no longer playing a role, but rather playing a game.

    And when a game feels like just a game, you couldn't care less how it ends.

  • WoW backstory (Score:2, Insightful)

    by fishbowl (7759) on Monday November 23, 2009 @05:48PM (#30206548)

    The backstory in WoW actually has some potential. Unfortunately, the story is revealed 512 characters at a time, and nobody actaully reads it. They get the quest pane, and dismiss it, and then maybe look to see what they have to kill/gather/find. If there's a question that needs to be answered at the end of the quest, it comes from thottbott, not from actual immersion in the quest.

    The first time my character ran Scarlet Monastery, I actually read the books in the library, much to the scorn of my impatient party. At the end of the quest, I was the only one with the answer to the quest giver's question -- everyone else looked up the answer on thott. I found that experience genuinely gratifying. I read the quest logs, even though many of them are silly and boring. I think the whole epic Azeroth story is pretty good, easily as compelling as something Cherryh or Jordan might have developed. It's kind of sad that it's lost on the average WoW player, who seems to be more intent on getting the game over with so they can get to lvl80 and harass other players in the cities, or try to out-do each other on the marginal benefits among the various purples.

    The game is fun at low levels, if you actually play it instead of blindly skipping it.

Do you suffer painful illumination? -- Isaac Newton, "Optics"

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