Become a fan of Slashdot on Facebook


Forgot your password?

Writing For Video Game Genres 85

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 Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews — to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.


This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Writing For Video Game Genres

Comments Filter:
  • Game story (Score:5, Funny)

    by PizzaAnalogyGuy ( 1684610 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @02:06PM (#30204098)

    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.

    I have always wondered why MMO's actually have a more dynamic world. It doesn't even need to be something where you can interact with everything, but where your actions have actual effects on the world.

    Interesting concept would be have two or three nations. Every nation would be having it's hierarchy, starting from a single king to ministers and then to army wiht its generals and lower level players.

    For those who wouldn't want to fight, there would be an economical system based on the same idea. Lets say you wanted to be a level 80 pizza baker. But as with life, you wont get to the top right away. Your life would start as an abandoned-by-his-father, homeless boy on the streets of Naples, Italy. As a kid you didn't have any money and had to live on the cold streets. There were lots of fine italian pizza restaurants. After closing time you went on their back doors and sneaked some already cold pizza from the trash. Pizza that was too rotten to be eaten by the classy rich people. Tasting and mixing the different kinds of pizzas you found from the trash actually teached you about different kinds of flavors in pizza and sooner or later you dinged your first level.

    Now the economy could be nicely mixed in. As a low level character without any gold, you have to start from the bottom, doing work that higher level players found boring. You set up your own little corner where you would take quick pizza orders from people walking past you. From soldiers injured by the enemy forces. Because you didn't have any start-up cash, you would took an order and walk behind the other pizza place and hope they've just thrown something out. Perfect, almost the pizza that the customer ordered. You just take out the pepperoni with your fingers and deliver the pizza to the customer. GZ first quest done, level 2 dinged, made some cash and even improved your skills. Eventually your grant level 80 quest would be to create the largest pizza in the world - larger than anyone has ever done.

    This is also why the world should be SKILL BASED, not level based. You do something and you learn. Eventually you would be the best pizza maker in the world.

    That is what i want to see in a game. Maybe this book helps me get in to gaming industry as a game story writer.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by jollyreaper ( 513215 )

      I thought "NewHere" had the most obscure gag-based nick. You, PizzaAnalogyGuy, have taken away that crown.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by zippthorne ( 748122 )

      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

      • by fishbowl ( 7759 )

        >MMO game economies have raw materials invariably going for higher prices than the finished goods for a reason

        It still puzzles me that I can get ten gold for one [Fadeleaf], when a [Lesser Invisibility Potion] won't sell for 50 silver.

    • Except that, by definition, only one player can be "the best pizza maker in the world". So what happens when thousands of people play pizza makers?

      And spending my recreation time doing something that "higher level players found boring" doesn't seem like a great idea to me. I'd rather spend it doing something not boring thanks all the same.

      See ultima online for what happens with that model of gameplay.

    • by dfm3 ( 830843 )
      You created a new account just to post pizza analogies? Wow, and I thought my extended period of unemployment was making me go crazy from boredom!
    • The short version is that the MMO genre started there, but basically that's not what most people want. And that like communism or anarchy, it requires a different kind of human to work than the ones we actually have.

      E.g., UO tried hard to have a world where animals have realistic reproduction cycles, and you need two wolves to get one more wolf. But some people then made it their quest and goal in life to make wolves extinct, just so they can shaft the other players that way.

      E.g., UO tried hard to have a re

      • Or a system of voluntary moderation of accounts by trusted users like everything else on the internet. A Dungeon Master client for those interested in quest design might be handy too.
      • That's why C.J. Cherryh's ``Morgaine'' universe would be perfect --- it's a story of gates which lead to different worlds, each of which must be closed before heading on to the next, but almost all of which were manipulated by an all-but extinct precursor race, so repetitive elements would make sense --- basically a world would remain until played out, then the last character would close the gate on leaving, instantiating a new world which they went to.


      • "To get to your examples: Nations having hierarchies sounds good when you're the first player, but not as the guy who started on a 5 year old game and where every rank above you is fillled with people who seemingly never quit. Some group of fucktards somewhere will make it their goal in life to get those postions just so they can then leave their account running without ever logging in, just so _you_ can't get them."

        For a while there I forgot you were talking about a Mmmmogprrrr...

    • I have always wondered why MMO's actually have a more dynamic world. It doesn't even need to be something where you can interact with everything, but where your actions have actual effects on the world.

      Try EVE Online. It's a space setting, not fantasy, but it's in line with this. You use spaceships to gather ore, which gives you money. You can build things, make capital investments, form corporations with private armies, sell shares in your corporation. Or be employed by someone else's corporation, or become a pirate, or whatever. I haven't played it, but my impression is most things are run by players, and it pulls it off pretty successfully.

  • by Nautical Insanity ( 1190003 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @02:07PM (#30204108)

    can they teach me to write a good first post?

  • by WillAdams ( 45638 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @02:12PM (#30204172) Homepage

    C.J. Cherryh for instance, two of her universes --- the Morgaine series and her Alliance-Union (``Merchanter'') series both seem purpose-built to have RPGs built out of them --- and both have a sufficiently large canvas as to make a Massively Multiplayer game work very, very well.

    The Gates in the Morgaine series in particular would translate well into RPG mechanics of restarting a game w/ an extant character.


  • 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.

    • Well, maybe they're hoping the Space Marine on the left sucks so bad Games workshop will be too embarrassed to sue them.

      I know a handful of guys I work with that would have done a much better job for say $50-100 which on a $50 book is nothing at all.

      • I know a handful of guys I work with that would have done a much better job for say $50-100 which on a $50 book is nothing at all.

        Well, that depends on how many copies of the book you sell, now doesn't it?

        • Even on the tiniest shoestring buget, you take up a $5 collection from each of the authors, donate some plasma or something.

          Maybe you can't judge a book by its ocver, but people still buy them like you can.

    • ...the fine scientific-publishing folks who brought you "Algebraic Combinatorics and Coinvariant Spaces," "Symbolic Dynamics and Geometry: Using D* in Graphics and Game Programming," and "Realistic Image Synthesis Using Photon Mapping." So, for them, what you see on the cover of this book is practically Michael Whelan.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Ihmhi ( 1206036 )

      You have to wait for the companion second volume to come out, Drawing covers for books on Writing for Video Game Genres. It really mixes things up by having a brilliantly-drawn cover but 200 pages of half-assed, nonsensical rambling.

      So basically, it's ghost-written by Rush Limbaugh.

    • Maybe it's a homage to the first Mega Man box art: []

      (But I doubt it.)

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by PaganRitual ( 551879 )

      Excuse me, but if you don't instantly recognize a Space Marine from the Mr T 40k Universe ("I pity the genestealer!"), E'Latina'a the Hispanic Night Elf from the further reaches of southern Kalimdor (She is the one that gives you the quest to kidnap the rich daughter of King Varian for ransom, you know, the "My white powdered goods are of the highest quality" chick) and ... and ... that game with the psychopathic purple rat wearing the ammo belt ... I think it's a character from Everquest (surely one of the

  • "Scantily Clothed Girls with Guns."

    • RPG "Scantily Clothed Girls with Guns."
      FPS "Scantily Clothed Girls with Swords."

      • Re: (Score:1, Redundant)

        by Tekfactory ( 937086 )


        FPS "Scantily Clothed Girls with Guns."
        RPG "Scantily Clothed Girls with Swords."

        • Re: (Score:1, Redundant)

          by vlm ( 69642 )

          RTS "Scantily Clothed Girls with Zerg Rush."
          Flight Simulators "No Scantily Clothed Girls, thus they don't sell them anymore"
          Fantasy "Scantily Clothed Girls on Slashdot."

        • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

          by PingSpike ( 947548 )

          Not as easy as it looks, is it?

    • So why wasn't there ever a Dirty Pair video game? Well, aside from Project Eden which apparently a) sucked and b) was never released outside Japan, probably because of a).

      • It may also be that there was an entirely different game called Project Eden released in the USA in 2002 or so.

    • by NoYob ( 1630681 )

      "Scantily Clothed Girls with Guns."

      Only if you want a sucky movie [] made based on the game.

      • I'd hardly call that Scantily. I want something like SIN Episodes: Emergence - where I can see a Thong on the box cover and the opening sequence has a very suggestive waterfall scene.

  • Rocket Propelled Grenade games can cause quite a bit of damage and even the death of people.

    So be careful kids!

  • but, it's important.

    I can think of a lot of games that are fun, have awful stories and clumsy dialogue but it's just enough flavour to make things interesting.

    What kills me sometimes is that a game developer might create some elaborate for a game thinking it's important for users to encounter "Wall o' Text" every so many minutes.

    I really appreciate video game writing when it's all co-ordinated into one package. Portal was one example where the game mechanic, the puzzle elements and some clever storytelling

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by paazin ( 719486 )

      Writing is not a central element to gaming...

      Let me introduce you to Planscape: Torment, friend.

      • Writing is not a central element to gaming...

        Let me introduce you to Planscape: Torment, friend.

        Let me introduce you to a game that's fucking impossible to find through legitimate channels. :(

        Whenever there's a discussion about deep stories in games and games where your actions have an impact Planescape: Torment always comes up, it's some kind of Godwin's Law for video games.

        I have few regrets in life, but one of them is not buying that game when it was still available in stores.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      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 ot

      • Story is not the most immersive part of single player games: it is the activity and challenge. This was corroborated by Lennart Nacke working for the Blekinge Institute of Technology, Game and Media Arts Laboratory in a study called "BOREDOM, IMMERSION, FLOW - A PILOT STUDY INVESTIGATING PLAYER EXPERIENCE". They had players play various levels designed by them, some with scripted story events, and others with no events. Some with a lot of challenge and fast action, others without. Afterwards they asked the
  • Let me know when there is a book written by who ever wrote the dialog for the Legacy of Kain series. That series had some of the best monologues and character dialog I've seen in games to date.
  • 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.
    • Don't forget that no one ever vocalizes your name unless its a sequel or part of an already established franchise.
      • by JSBiff ( 87824 )

        Unless they either force the character to a particular name, or, as with Mass Effect, let you pick a first name, but only ever use the last name in dialogue (i.e., everyone is "Commander Shepherd" regardless of what you pick as a first name, which, as far as I can tell, is only ever used to identify which set of game saves you are currently using).

    • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) *
      A "chosen one," destined to save all mankind? That could never work as a videogame.
    • by selven ( 1556643 ) on Monday November 23, 2009 @05:37PM (#30206384)

      -The main character is usually a kid. The kid's parents are usually dead or are killed at the beginning of the story. The kid was raised by an aunt, uncle or some other "guardian"
      -Even if the main character is a soldier in the king's army, he's still a kid.
      -The hero usually lives in some small village, which is often destroyed at the beginning of the game or somewhere in the first act.
      -The plot usually involves something that will ultimately destroy the world.
      -Any damsel in distress is invariably beautiful.
      -Even when villains claim to want peace and a solution appears to be offered, it's never true. Even if one tries to cut a deal, there's always a shadowy overlord who will stab him in the back and return to the festivities of taking over or destroying the world.
      -If the hero is ever put in jail, there is always a convenient way to escape - by talking with another inmate who has an escape plan, by stealing the guard's keys...

      It's pretty sad how often these are true in any modern fantasy story.

      • by Quirkz ( 1206400 )
        So, what you're saying is, all I need to to do break the cliche is write a story where:
        • The main character is really, really old. Like so old he's too old to be in the Queen's navy, but he's still there anyway. Also, despite his age, he still has his parents, with whom he's had a long, healthy, and rich relationship, where they've fully imparted upon him a sense of heritage and family history.
        • The hero will live in a large city, which will most definitely not be destroyed. Or if it is, it happens at the end
        • Quirkz, I think a thoughtful, moving story could be created off of the roadmap you've provided. A skilled writer could make the "worry about the peace" absolutely gripping.

          And perhaps the "ugly damsel" is the most beautiful woman in the world to the main character...Niafer from "Figures of Earth" by James Branch Cabell springs to mind.

      • These are tropes and an essential part of storytelling. Calling them "sad" just exposes how little you know, and makes you look like a total moron. Go back to consuming stories, and don't try to talk up to people who know more than you. Thanks, bye!
        • by selven ( 1556643 )

          These are overused clichés and because of them 90% of books are essentially the same book with character and place names search-and-replaced. Calling them "essential" just exposes how little you know, and makes you look like someone who never thinks outside the box. Go back to consuming stories, and don't try to talk up to people who know more than you. Thanks, bye!

    • You're selling video games short.

      For example, there's usually amnesia involved also.

    • I think the hardest thing for gamers and writers to face is that the plot has to end in some forced timeframe.
      Reviews kill game houses that end the game with only 6 hours. Others pan a game for having 40 hrs of in game content.

      WOW, EVE and others you can play for man months if not years as the outcome of the plot is injected and/or generates over time.

      For RPGs go for a multiple (but less than 4) story arcs that are solid. B5, Trek and other successful series use this method as hopefully at least one will ca

    • You can tell the villian is insane because he gives his troops random armor and weaponry, and his orders to glue guns and armor to their bodies were ignored by some of the goons meaning that the main character can occasionally remove them from dead enemies and use them himself, because of course he entered the fight originally with a sharp stick and some rags.

      The one thing you will never find though is a setting in which the black plague is rife. Kinda hard when all your heroes spend their formative years d

  • Games writing is certainly a new field in the grand scheme of things. Can there really be enough established work of sufficient quality that you can point to it in a textbook?

    I mean, how many games are full of one dimensional characters, predictable plots and cookie cutter settings? I remember hearing Bioshock lauded as an excellent example of originality and quality in writing and conceptualisation, but having been thoroughly disappointed with it, I'd much rather play something with a minimal plot and m
  • , which is engaging and critically-important to the whole game experience, would we still call it a "video game" (a label I've never been fond of attaching to, say, RPGs)? Seems like "video game" refers to a game which is mainly about, er, the video. In this sense, it's an oxymoron to have a "video game" with a strong and central storyline.


    • I'm not entirely sure what there is to discuss. Semantics? Videos can have central storylines as evidenced by, er, movies.
  • WoW backstory (Score:2, Insightful)

    by fishbowl ( 7759 )

    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 impatie

    • Yeah this is the thing. The story in WoW is actually quite reasonable for the most part, it's just that no one ever reads it. Admittedly the text scrolls so slowly that you need to have instant quest text turned on regardless but there is some genuinely entertaining writing, and some truly funny stuff as well.

    • by Reapy ( 688651 )

      Actually most people post about wow saying how they read the story and nobody else did. Then a bunch of other people chime in saying they read it and nobody else did. I think most people did read the story or get a little bit out of it...but still overall, while wow has a story, fun world design and great artistry, the plot is still very shallow and unchanging. I know in the last expansion they finally figured out a way for you to effect the world, which is great, but at the end of the day, if you want plot

  • We knew they'd bang out this book sooner or later, and look, they even got to do the cover!

  • by ascari ( 1400977 )
    WTF is a "pseudo trilogy" anyway?

How come financial advisors never seem to be as wealthy as they claim they'll make you?