Book Review

Writing For Video Games

Author:  Steve Ince
Publisher:  A & C Black
Year Published:  2006

By Gordon Aplin (January, 2007)
Many years ago I played and reviewed a computer game that contained some memorable dialogue. Memorable for all the wrong reasons. Without the slightest provocation your character could say to the captain of a space ship, "How would you like my fist in your face?" And you could ask a colleague if the ship's female doctor was any good in bed. None of this was relevant to the game and only served to establish your character as someone with 'attitude'. A juvenile attitude at that, though I'm sure it was meant to portray the character as a veteran, a tough, no nonsense man of the world. The effect created was the opposite.

Well, we've come a good way since then ... but there's still some way to go.

In Writing for Video Games, Steve Ince briefly discusses how the role of the writer for games has changed in the last two decades. From the early days when one or two people may have done the game design, story, artwork and programming, through to today's large development companies where up to a hundred people may be involved, each with their own specialised tasks. Yet the actual writing of the story, background details, character sketches and dialogue are all too often left to those team members who think they can write. After all, anyone can write, right?

Ince points out that the importance of good writing is now being acknowledged and developers are seeking to bring experienced writers on board early in the game's creation. Opportunities are growing for writers to come into their own and apply their skills and creative talent to the storyline, plot development, dialogue, character backgrounds and narrative. These days the writer is becoming a crucial member of the development team and that means working closely with the other team members.

So if you are a writer looking to work in the industry you need to understand the game development process and your role in it. Being a good storyteller is only one part of the equation when it comes to writing for video games. Ince argues that understanding the interactive nature of the media and the development process is just as important, as is playing the games to get a feel for what is involved. Writing for an interactive media is quite different to writing for a passive media like films or books where the writer has control over the actions of all the characters. In games some semblance of control is given to the player so the writer may have to grapple with issues like branching story lines brought about by the differing paths the player may take.

Thus in Writing for Video Games, Ince gives an insight into the role of the writer as part of a development team. This is not simply another book about how to write but is instead a practical guide to writing specifically for games. It is aimed at both experienced and novice writers who want to hone their skills and take advantage of the opportunities the industry now offers.

In this book Ince has distilled his own knowledge and experience of the industry into a highly readable volume that covers a wide range of topics including interactivity, game design, character and point of view, dialogue and logic, and audience. The section on targeting an audience has some interesting information on the age and gender of game players. On the changing demographics, for example, Ince notes: "There are more female gamers playing online than hardcore gamers, something that is not going unnoticed by many of the online gaming providers." It is to be hoped that the widening appeal of games outside of the traditional target demographic of teenage males will lead to a greater variety in terms of storylines and gameplay.

However, Ince acknowledges that attempts to target what he believes is a mythical mass market by adding features to broaden the game's appeal runs the risk of alienating the core audience for the game. Here he emphasises that gameplay is paramount and argues that the writing should enhance the gameplay. He also believes that the writer (and everyone in the development team) should be fully aware of the established conventions of the genre and the expectations of the audience. I can only agree.

The context for writing for games, whether for console or PC, is firmly established with sections on the history and growth of interactive media and the various types of games (genres and sub-genres) that have a greater or lesser role for the writer. The adventure and role-playing genres are ideal for story telling, character development, and dialogue but increasingly strategy and action games too are looking to create more depth and immersion by employing a strong narrative and complex characters.

Other sections of the book discuss understanding the limitations of the game engine, making changes to the script and testing for continuity, recording voices, dealing with intellectual property licenses, humour, localising a game, and marketing yourself as a writer. The appendices include a design documentation, a sample script and a useful glossary of terms used in game development.

Some of the sections are a little short and I would have appreciated a few more of Ince's insider anecdotes and examples to illustrate some of the important issues he presented. However, this is a practical guide for writing for games and is not specifically aimed at people like me whose interest in the topic is largely peripheral to my enjoyment of playing and reviewing games. As a casual reader with an interest in games I enjoyed reading Ince's informed views on the games industry. As a game reviewer I appreciated his behind-the-scenes look at the game development process. It illustrated both the amount of work that goes into writing for a modern game and the many pitfalls that can trap the unwary.

Ince's strength in Writing for Video Games is in consistently focusing on the writer as a member of the team and distinguishing the role from that of designer or programmer. It is a useful introduction to the world of game development for those aspiring to write for games. It could easily become recommended reading for the many courses that are springing up covering aspects of game design and development. It's also a timely reminder for game developers to employ the services of a good writer. Remember, you want your game to be the best it can be, and memorable for all the right reasons.

Steve Ince is an experienced writer and game designer who worked on such games as Beneath a Steel Sky, In Cold Blood, and the Broken Sword series: Shadow of the Templars, The Smoking Mirror and The Sleeping Dragon. He was also script editor for Agatha Christie: And Then There Were None. He was nominated for Excellence in Writing at the Game Developers Choice Awards and the interactive BAFTA awards. He has recently released his latest game Mr. Smoozles Goes Nutso.

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Copyright © Gordon Aplin 2007. All rights reserved.