This article first appeared in issue 318 of New Zealand Author magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.
A world of stories: Erika Cabrales looks at the local gaming industry and the role of writers when creating games.
The world of video gaming is a world of stories.
A different narrative style is required for games compared to screenwriting or prose, and I interviewed Stephen Knightly, Edwin McRae and Nick Jones – New Zealand experts and entrepreneurs in narrative game design – to find out more.
The gaming industry is huge: not just in the number of people interested in it or working within it, but also in the rapid growth of its turnover. An industry survey of 41 NZ Game Developers Association (NZGDA) studios reveals a $143 million annual revenue, a growth of 43 per cent since last year, in the New Zealand gaming industry sector.
Stephen Knightly said in an interview with RNZ, “If the games industry in New Zealand had one extra significant hit, say one per cent market share – that’s $250 million worth of exports.”
Knightly is Managing Director of InGame and secretary of the NZGDA; his company specialises in creating “serious games” that directly revolve around education and have been made for both university research labs and government departments. They are currently working on a mental health project called “Habits” for the Auckland University School of Medicine. It aims to teach cognitive behavioural therapy to teenagers.
“What’s great about it,” says Knightly, “is that it has a really strong Māori and Pasifika representation – both in the creation of the project and the user design process, as well as the audience – who are under-represented in these areas, while being over-represented in some of the mental health statistics, which is a shame.”
Game narrative design is its own genre just as are screenwriting, poetry or crime fiction. While each medium of storytelling engages its audience, a video game allows the audience to actively engage in the text that a video game represents, thus allowing them to take control of the narrative, depending on the type of game they play.
So, knowing all of this, what is the role of writers in the gaming industry? Knightly has his own take on it: “The job of an interactive narrative designer does become world builder, which then can lead to game designer, which kind of means maintaining spreadsheets of every magic sword in the world and even writing a cool description about every one of them.”
Nick Jones currently teaches interactive narrative design at Auckland University of Technology (AUT) and has been in the narrative design field for three and a half years. He commented, “When you’re writing a game, you’re writing for a studio and they have deadlines, and they also dictate the creative vision.”
Edwin McRae has worked in video games for over a decade. He previously worked in TV, specifically writing for Shortland Street, and these days works with independent game developers. He explained his experience working in the gaming industry as a writer in conjunction with developing Path of Exile – the massively multiplayer online game (an online game with large numbers of players, typically from hundreds to thousands, on the same server) that has global fame.
“You’ve got player experience to wrangle all the time and the game mechanics will change, especially for a game like POE which is online. It’s responding to the audience constantly so you’ll find that the mechanics will change based on what the player wants. That has knock-on effects to the narrative and the effects are so dramatic sometimes that it may completely change your story arc and you have to come up with something from scratch. That organic kind of problem solving actually somehow works. But it does take a bit of a mindset shift. You have to develop thought processes that envelop a lot of things at once, so it takes time to develop narrative design.”
When designing a game, techniques in common with the writing of prose and scripts come into play. There are narrative techniques such as foreshadowing, subtext, unreliable narrators, narrative hooks, as well as various others.
However, these genres are vastly different from one another. “The major difference is that video games are interactive,” says Jones.
“They’re unique in that they allow you to become the protagonist, more so than in any other medium. When you watch a film, you don’t engage with it on a tactile level, whereas with a video game, you inhabit the character. You create them and live in the world. You’re developing narrative space as opposed to text on page; you have to think about the object and why it’s there and develop narrative reasons for that, so you can’t just gloss over it.
“When developing a script, it’s crucial to only include things that will help the audience understand the story,” Jones adds, “whereas when developing video game narratives, you almost want too much information to cherry pick what ends up in the game.”
McRae: “If the player does this here, then that will change a later scene in three or four different ways depending on their health score or mana score or what their relationship is with certain characters at that point.”
When he was growing up, Jones aspired to write a novel, and originally came to AUT to sharpen his skills in creative writing. After deciding to pursue a career in narrative game design, he reflected on a specific difference in the two disciplines:
“Prose feels more emotionally dense than writing for games. Games, in my experience, tend to have a lot of characters so I don’t as strongly connect with characters in video games as I do in a novel or film script. Video games have infamously bad emotional pacing. Partly to do with syncing computer-generated characters and because historically it’s been written by programmers and not writers. Even today, with a few exceptions, it’s the programmers that pick the vision.”
Game narrative design is a new and emerging field where writers can diversify their talents in narrative structure, creating characters and building small story arcs that show off a side character’s own world. While interactive media writing is its own field of writing, that doesn’t mean writers specialising in others such as prose or script-writing can’t offer valuable input as well.
What’s out there
* Path Of Exile is an online action role-playing game based in a dark fantasy world. The player's character is exiled to the continent of Wraelcast but the ship they arrive in capsizes in a large storm, leaving them washed up half-alive on the shores of Wraelcast.
* Heavy Rain is an interactive and cinematic psychological thriller taking place over several days in October 2011. It follows the stories of four different characters as they attempt to piece together the mystery of the Origami Killer before they claim their latest victim.
* Final Fantasy XV is a Japanese role-playing game that follows the story of Prince Noctis Lucis Caelum and his royal retainers as they embark on a journey to reclaim his kingdom, the city of Insomnia, that has been invaded by the empire of Niflheim.
- Erika Cabrales is an aspiring narrative game designer who recently completed an internship at NZ Society of Authors. She is currently finishing an arts degree majoring in creative writing at AUT and will be pursuing the Masters of English and New Media Studies next year.