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Writing for Computer Games

I went along to a workshop at the State Library on November 29, on writing for computer games. It was held as part of Game On, an exhibition on the history of computer games, held in Brisbane from November 17, 2008, to February 15, 2009…

A good way to get a different perspective on writing is to see how they handle it in other media. There were a few people at the Games and Writing workshop, held recently at the Queensland State Library recently, with this idea. There were people interested in writing for animation and prose, for example, plus a lot of computer games students from Qantm and other institutions. And there were plenty of good tips to be had.

Speaker Leanne C. Taylor, who had a lot of experience in the computer games industry, and had studied creative writing, talked about how computer games have to use many of the techniques of writing if they are to be interesting.

It’s easier for a person to play a game if they have a reason to be playing it, and this is given if there is an over-arching plot involved. Ms Taylor made a lot of interesting points about writing, for both computer games and other media. For example, she said writers sometimes write to find out what they would do in a certain situation.

Complex characters.

She mentioned how well-written computer games have characters with many levels, for example a scientist who created monstrous things feels terrible about it in the game Bioshock. Characters have bad days and do things they’re not proud of.

Good games had backstories, too. These may not appear in the game, but the game has a history that explains why characters act the way they do.


Dialogue in computer games is short and sweet. It’s informative. There is also in-game world building; expository dialogue is used (one character tells another character something that the player of the game must know).

The rule with this is that to tell the player something this way, make sure the character being told the information doesn’t already know it. Another tip was that it intrigues players if there is a passing reference to something they’ve never heard of, for example a “necrophilia fine”.

Missions and characters change throughout the project, and this is reflected in dialogue. Also the audience gets bored if characters talk too much.

Character diamonds.

Character diamonds are a good way to develop more interesting characters. This is where you design a character by having three character traits that go together and one that doesn’t. For example, a character that is loyal, caring, a family man, and a kleptomaniac. Then you ask yourself what that character would do in a given situation.

The three-act structure.

She also mentioned the three-act structure used in many plays and other stories since Ancient Greek days. She also tied in with this a pattern known as the hero’s journey.

Roughly, in the first act, you have the set-up, or the ordinary world. This is where the hero lives and where his friends are. Then there’s a plot point that occurs: a point of no return where the character has to go forward into a new situation or world. It’s usually a problem of some kind.

Then in Act Two, the hero usually meets an ally to help him face this problem. At the end of act two the hero usually gets some extra information, like that the problem isn’t just his problem but it affects the whole world. Or he finds out his ally is really his enemy in disguise. The stakes are raised.

Then in Act Three there is a final confrontation or solution to the situation; things are restored to some sort of order, or the hero loses.

I recognised this basic pattern when I was watching the movie Ghost not long ago. The pattern seemed to go something like this: Act One. Sam Wheat, the hero, gets shot and crosses over a point of no return. Being dead is a pretty obvious point of no return.

Act Two: Sam Wheat finds out he’s been murdered and his wife is in danger from the murderers. He is wandering around and comes across an ally, Oda May Brown, the character Whoopi Goldberg plays: a bogus psychic who does turn out to have the power to communicate with Sam Wheat. He needs Oata May Brown to save his wife. Oata May convinces the wife she can talk to Sam, and warns her.
He also finds out his supposed best friend is behind the murder.
Act Three: With help from Oata May Brown, Sam saves his wife when the bad guy out to get her gets killed. Also another bad guy, who was behind it all, the supposed friend of Sam Wheat, gets killed by a falling window or something. Then they tie a ribbon on the end of it, when Sam and Molly say goodbye, and The end.

It’s formulaic as hell, but it’s better than having no structure at all. Personally, I’ve got to have a reason to turn the page other than supposedly beautiful language and some change in character at the end of the story. And I don’t care if the story has a message about the environment. The three-act structure is good start for engineering stories.

The speaker liked the novels of science fiction author Anne McCaffrey, such as The Dragonriders of Pern series. She also mentioned how Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged inspired the underwater art deco city in the computer game Bioshock.