Writing for an interactive medium requires all the same skills as writing in a static medium, but there are different focuses. Whereas plot is important in writing a novel or script, it is not important in writing for an interactive world. The three areas that are most important are character, world, and situation.
Plot isn’t important because in an interactive medium, we give the player choices, and they make the decision and drive the story in whatever direction they wish. If we develop an intricate storyline, we will end up giving the player meaningless choices which all lead to the same place.
Storytelling is the same no matter what medium we are using. Before you even begin writing about your characters, world, or situation, consider these questions:
- What do you want the player to feel?
- What does the player care about?
As the writer, you want to impart a specific feeling to the player, and you want the player to care about something so they don’t put down your game and do something else. You are creating a mood, and teaching the player something. Think about that while you create your characters, setting, and backstory. It will influence some of the decisions you make, and the story will benefit.
Gameplay should also enhance the emotion and writing of an interactive world. I am getting off topic, but the way the choices are presented to the player will enhance or detract from the experience. Consider that as you design the gameplay, and consider the gameplay as you write the story. They both can and should complement each other.
Think back to a movie or book you watched or read several years ago. Unless you have an excellent memory, you’ve forgotten the storyline and how it ended. You may have forgotten the character’s names. But did you forget the characters? Think about what was most memorable about the story. Was it the cool storyline filled with twists and turns, or the characters that won your heart?
If I were a betting man, which I’m not, I would bet that you remember the characters more than you remember the storyline. This doesn’t mean the storyline isn’t important. Us humans just have a way of connecting with other humans that’s more powerful than with storylines.
All that to say, characters are important. Characters are memorable. Characters can teach us things about ourselves that we can’t learn any other way.
What does a character need, then, to become real? Characters are only interesting if they want something so much they are willing to do anything to get it. They need believable goals, which drive them forward. They need a backstory so we know where they came from and why they are the way they are. And of course they need a personality; one that is influenced by their backstory and goals.
There are many aspects that go into creating realistic characters, and many others have written on the topic. Here are some links to get you started:
Of course I have to recommend The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, which has some excellent wisdom on writing characters. His second book, The Art of Creative Writing, is completely about character creation. If you can only read one, I recommend The Art of Dramatic Writing, but if you can, read both. They are excellent books.
After designing the characters, you will need to write a lot of dialog. I mean a ton. The characters will need something to say in every possible situation. For now, I would recommend limiting the situations, rather than omitting dialog. Writing dialog for three characters in one room is a lot easier than writing for 50 characters in an entire city. I could say a lot about writing good dialog, but I will keep it brief. Dialog must do more than just give the player information. It must also show the speaker’s personality, and their relationships with other characters. As all good writers know, nothing is there to just pass the time; it must have a purpose, it must drive the story forward.
To make the job easier for the writer, you should limit the cast of an interactive storyworld. Unless you have a team of writers, only a few characters should exist. Also, for an interactive storyworld, no characters are minor characters. In a traditional story, the writer could decide who got the large parts and who got the small parts. In an interactive environment, the player decides who is important. They may choose to pursue a path that involves one character more than all the others. That one character must be complete, or the player will think the world is underdeveloped.
In my humble opinion, games don’t do character well. Most of the time the characters are one-dimensional stereotypes meant to add some life to an otherwise dead setting. At least one exception would be the Mass Effect series. Mass Effect may not be as well written as some books or TV shows, but compared to other games, it is one of the best. Also, The Walking Dead from Telltale Games had excellent character development. But in no game are the characters interactive. They still have defined storylines, and the player can do little to change them. If you’re going to make your characters interactive, then you’ll have to know them.
When I talk about worldbuilding, I mean creating the setting. Where does the story take place, what are the politics, the religions, the history, the technology? A lot goes into worldbuilding–more than goes into any individual character. After all, a story isn’t only about who, it’s about where. The P.I. needs an office, the doctor needs a hospital, the family needs a house, and the King needs a castle.
Here are some things to think about when creating the world of your story:
- Geography. The physical layout of the world.
- Climate. Weather patterns, is it hot or cold?
- Cultural groups. What are the different races of people, how are they organized, who are they fighting?
- History. What has happened to the different cultural groups before your story begins? How have they changed?
- Languages. How do people communicate?
- Culture. How do people act, eat, live, dress, etc.?
- Science and technology. What is the technological level of your cultures?
- Religion, mythology, and magic. What do your cultures believe? If it is a fantasy world, is there magic? How does it work?
If you’re writing a science-fiction or fantasy world, then your work is cut out for you. Don’t think you can avoid research; even fantasy authors need to know how the real world works. Do you think J.R.R. Tolkien just sat down one day at his typewriter and hammered out The Lord of the Rings? Nope.
Of course your setting could be as simple as a single room, but there will still be some worldbuilding involved. A lot of time should go into worldbuilding; it is, after all, one of the main characters.
Worldbuilding is one of the stronger parts of most modern video games. The most memorable part of Fallout 3 isn’t the sardonic humor, or the crazy characters, or the gore-inducing weapons. It’s the Capital Wasteland. For Fallout 3, or a game like Skyrim, the setting is the main character. I’m not sure exactly why this is; perhaps because the designers put so much effort into level design. Setting is a large part of level design.
What has happened before the story begins? Was someone just murdered, and your character has to solve the case? Did a spaceship just crash-land on a planet stranding your character? What makes the player interested in the interactive storyworld to begin with? Nobody is going to pick up a game or book or movie because they heard it has interesting characters. They need a catch; a reason to pick it up in the first place. More than that, they need a place to start. Where they go from the start is their choice. They can choose to solve the murder and have the murderer arrested, or they can go and kill the murderer themselves. How the story ends is up to the player, but how the story begins is up to you.
I remember reading a blog post that said everyone started LOST because of the crazy storyline, but they stayed for the characters. I am watching Star Trek: Voyager for the third time. Even though I’ve forgotten most of the stories, I still remember and love the characters. If you put the time into making an interesting beginning, the player will start your game. If you make great characters, they’ll finish it.
Games usually do a pretty good job of starting with a bang, and putting the player into some crazy situation. Half-Life, Portal 2, Mass Effect 2, and Bioshock all had great intros that grabbed the player and tossed them into the thick of things.
Once you have decided on a mood for your interactive world, you will need to spend a lot of time creating the characters, setting, and situation. These are all important, especially in an interactive medium.
I haven’t spent much time on these three aspects of storytelling, so perhaps in the future I will dive into each topic a little further. For now, I will leave you with this introduction.