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Writing for Video Games: The world is your Sandbox

Writing for Video Games: The world is your Sandbox

Jamie White continues his thoughts on writing for video games. This time it’s all about the difficulties of writing open world games…

Up until now the games I’ve talked about have had a very linear narrative structure. The gamer doesn’t really have that much control of where the character goes or what they can do. That’s all about to change as we look into what is possibly my favorite genre of game – open world sandbox RPGs.

OK, it can be a bit of a mouthful, but these types of games (which I’ll just refer to as sandbox games) are usually the most immersive. They offer the player a variety of options within an open world setting – you can create your own character from scratch sometimes, mix and match weapons, and perhaps most importantly, nail your outfit. That might sound kinda silly, but giving the player that little bit of control allows them to put some of their personality into the character.

So why are they called sandbox games? Well, as always, Wikipedia puts it best…

“A game in which the player has been freed from traditional video game structure and direction, and instead chooses what, when, and how they want to approach the available content. The term alludes to a child’s sandbox without rules, with play based on open-ended choice. While some sandbox games may include building and creative activities, they are not required. Sandbox games generally employ an open world setting to facilitate the player’s freedom of choice.” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glossary_of_video_game_terms#osandboxgames

So, in short, you can do whatever you like with sandbox games – as long as you stay inside the sandbox and only use the sand and really cool customizable plastic shovels.

A collection of various sandbox RPGs.

A collection of various sandbox games.

I also mostly find that these games have some of the best storylines. Whether it’s the more recent Horizon: Zero Dawn or Nier: Automata, or classics of years gone by like Red Dead Redemption or GTA: San Andreas. The big issue for writers when writing for these types of games, though, is side quests.

Think of side quest as sub-plots. Some are more related to the main plot than others, while some are simply hunting and/or gathering missions. What they should always be, though, is interesting. The escort side mission has become the bane of many gamers’ existence (it’s just so damn annoying!) and finding specific artifacts or plants to complete a quest is just super tedious and unimaginative. These types of missions can add some needed variation to side quests, but finding several unique ways to handle them can be a tough task for writers.

An even tougher task is how the hell you actually write these types of games. And much like the narrative focused games I looked at in my previous article, there isn’t a set way. You gotta go with whatever makes sense to you. But, I do have a suggestion.

Sandbox games are comprised of, essentially, two plot arcs: A) The main story and B) the side quests. Sometimes these side quests only become available after you’ve reached a certain point in the main story, or after you’ve unlocked a certain weapon, or whatever, so how can you writer both into one document?

Well, you’re familiar with those “Choose Your Own Adventure“ novels, right? The ones that say “Turn to page 36 to follow the dragon”, then you turn to page 36, get killed by the dragon and quickly turn back to the previous page. Well, I think you could follow a similar sort of format.

Start out writing the main plot as you would a regular script. Then, when you get to a place where you think “hey, I can add a side quest here”, make a note like “SIDE QUEST “A side quest served cold” now available. Turn to page 124 for narrative”, then carry on with the main plot. You could either then finish the main storyline before adding the side quests, or add them as you go.

Again, it’s best to do it however you feel comfortable. While there’s strict format for screenplays, that is not really the case for video game writing.

Most importantly, though, especially for new video game writers – stick to writing the main plot. Don’t take the Skyrim route that has several big plotlines and what feels like millions of side quests. It can be exhausting to play, so I can only imagine how it would be to write…

If you wanna write your own video game script and enter it in our Spring Contest (we allow video game scripts now!) but aren’t quite sure on how to approach it, just get in touch! Maybe we can end up doing a Q&A sorta thing…? We’ll see!

I wanna also talk about why you film and TV writers should not look to adapt video games into mainstream consumptive media, but that’s an article for another day…

Writing For Video Games Part 2: All about the story

Writing For Video Games Part 2: All about the story

With the recent arrival of a new Elite Mentor joining the team (one who specializes in video games), Jamie White continues his look at how you can be successful at writing for video games.

After looking at the linear narrative to the Call of Duty games last time, I thought the next step would naturally be to look at games with an over-arching narrative, but with hundreds, maybe thousands, of variations and combinations.

For me, the story is almost always more important than gameplay. Of course, there are various examples where it’s the other way around (looking at you Bloodborne) but the story and characters are the most important thing in video games, as they should be for any medium.

And so, that’s why I love TellTale games, Life is Strange and Heavy Rain. These games can be played by any kind of noob, by a child, or even your dog. These types of games mostly rely on you just pressing buttons to choose one of four dialogue options or performing “Quick Time Events”. I’d hesitate to even call them games – more like… interactive movies. And you know what? That’s fine with me.

But these types of games are much more difficult to write than the linear narrative of Call of Duty or the Injustice games. Looking primarily at TellTale, they employ an episodic format for their game releases. So, The Wolf Among Us will have 5 episodes, or their Game of Thrones game will have 6 episodes, which are released every 2-3 months. But the seemingly impossible task comes from the amount of choice you have within these games. Choosing from 4 dialogue options is no exaggeration, and there will be a LOT of conversations throughout the game – sometimes they force you to make a choice (to kill one guy or another, to burn a magical tree or not).

The secret with these type of games, though, is the choices and dialogue options don’t really matter. They give the player the “illusion of choice”. So, you can easily write the basic outline of the plot, then go back in and decide where you want to have multiple dialogue options. Go back and write in a QTE as you would an action scene – but remember, the player can mess these up, so you’ll need at least two outcomes for each action the player does (or fails to do).

Check out this video to the opening of TellTale’s The Wolf Among Us. This is the very first thing the player does. It’s a great intro to both the series, the game, and the game type.

Just a warning there is some violence, swearing, and a talking frog in this video. So, you’ve been warned.

I chose The Wolf Among Us for a couple of reasons. A). I love it. I love the story, the concept, the tone, the themes. It’s brilliant. Go play it, or at the very least, watch the playthroughs. It’s worth it. B). It showcases really well all the elements of a “Branching narrative” game.

Just note how many multiple-choice options there are, how many places the player can actually screw up. Then think about all the potential consequences and outcomes to each different dialogue choice or failed action. There’s a lot, right?

The best advice I can think to give if you want to write this type of video game is… How would you (as an individual) find it easiest to write this opening scene from The Wolf Among Us? There’s no right answer. You can use Celtx (format it as you would when two people talk at once, then do the same for the replies), or Excel (put each dialogue/action option into a separate cell), Word, a flowchart. Whatever you feel would be the most efficient way to map out multiple dialogue and action options FOR YOU, is the right answer.

And if you feel a little overawed by this task, take a look at the time of the video linked. It’s just under 2 hours. Almost  like a film! The episodic format of these types of games allows you as writers to use episode one as a learning curve. You find out the best way you write this type of game, take a break, then get going on episode two.

Next, I’ll look at open world sandbox games, tell you to stay away from writing things like Skyrim, and why make your own adventure novels could be an inspiration for writing these types of games.

Writing for Video Games: Teaser

Writing for Video Games: Teaser

Our new contest is almost here! And before we announce it we want to draw your attention to our NEW special prize… with the first of our new series of articles about WRITING FOR VIDEO GAMES by Jamie White.

I love gaming. It’s one of the few ways that I can truly turn off from the outside world, and relax… well, mostly (Fifa and Overwatch have given me my fair amount of stress!) Even watching films I can’t fully switch off. Maybe I’ll notice some blatant exposition for no other reason than to be exposition, or I might simply note to myself “shot, reverse-shot, shot”.

Gaming Is different, though. I become fully invested in the protagonist and their story because, as silly as it sounds, I AM the protagonist. It’s my story. I am experiencing these things because I am controlling this character freely and the character’s progression depends entirely on my own.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has this same experience… and it’s great that we are now accepting video game submissions! So, I decided to look at a few games and note down how you can take similar aspects into writing your own video game script…

ONLINE FIRST, STORY CAMPAIGN SECOND

Online multiplayer games are incredibly popular and are possibly the most profitable type of games as it offers a unique element of competitiveness to them. You can actually test your true capabilities as a player. Now, this “loot box” fiasco has taken some glory of these types of games (sarcastic clap for EA) but these are still viable games.

For me, the one gaming franchise that comes to mind when you talk about online modes being more important that the story is Call of Duty. While the golden age of CoD has faded, with some ridiculous and over-zealous stories, they continue to be popular. Why? Online modes. Whether it’s a straight-up team deathmatch or the infamous “CoD zombies”, Call of Duty games continue to sell for their online games modes.

But they still contain story campaigns, and rightly so. They may not be the main draw of the games now, but they’re still vital elements to their marketability. The way these games utilize their stories could also be the easiest way for new video game writers to get involved with the medium.

Note: I haven’t played a Call of Duty game past Black Ops, so I’ll be mostly referring to Modern Warfare 1 & 2, World at War, and Black Ops itself.

Now The way the stories work in these types of games is fairly simple. There’s one narrative (maybe two) that goes from A to B – much like a regular, linear screenplay. The difference is the scenes of this type of video game script would be HUGE. You should treat your scenes like levels in a video game (sounds obvious, but it really is the best way I can put it). The levels won’t last 10 seconds like some screenplay scenes, but closer to 10 minutes, and probably even longer. Check out this video of the first level to Call of Duty: World at War.

That opening is close to two minutes long – that sets up the premise of the entire game. There’s another “cutscene” that acts as an intro to the level itself – another 30-40 seconds there. That means the level itself is around 10-12 minutes long. Consider that a scene for your video game script and compare it as a regular feature script scene – that’s a huge difference. Saying that, that’s the only real difference. Take note of how certain NPCs (non-playable characters) only appear or act when the player is close by – see how that would be scripted? It’s very cinematic. Very filmic.

If you’re new to video game writing, you should definitely take this sort of approach.

Next, I’ll look at a couple of games where the narrative is imperative but gameplay takes a backseat, and how that could be much more complicated than this method.

Why we can’t wait for a BLACK PANTHER sequel…

Why we can’t wait for a BLACK PANTHER sequel…

With the recent announcement of a BLACK PANTHER sequel, we look at why this will be a good thing for superhero films.

They are just not going away. Disney, Marvel, DC, and any other company making superhero films will continue to make them. They just make too much damn money. At least, in the case of BLACK PANTHER and its potential sequels, we might be going in the right direction.

BLACK PANTHER shows us cinema currently evolving. It has a strong black lead (and incredible supporting cast) and it has very sparing references to the wider MCU, almost making it a standalone film. We’ve written why both of these things already, so go check those two articles out! (Links below…)  But in short, BLACK PANTHER allows black audiences, regardless of nationality, gender, religion, etc. to relate to a superhero character, for almost the first time. Sure, Blade and Storm (X-MEN) kinda count, but this is the first time that a superhero film has had a majority black cast, and the reaction to the film has been great. This has been a rare film where both critics and audiences agree on how good this film is. And now the film has even surpassed $500 million at the Box-Office – overseas! (Over $1 billion worldwide, which is just as incredible).

But BLACK PANTHER really sums up the way cinema, and specifically superhero films, is going. Black leads are becoming more prominent and production companies can bank on black actors more and more. But I particularly like BLACK PANTHER because it was essentially a standalone film. You don’t need to have seen IRON MAN, CIVIL WAR (which was Black Panther’s live-action debut), or any other Marvel flick to understand what’s going on with this film – and that’s great. Marvel seems to be adapting and evolving and moving away from every film being inherently connected – and that’s just fine with us!

Read more about BLACK PANTHER’s Box-Office success here: http://deadline.com/2018/03/black-panther-china-tomb-raider-wrinkle-in-time-international-box-office-weekend-results-1202334223/

Read about why scripts with black leads are big right now here and why it might be time for superhero films to stand alone here.

How we’re pitching our winners…

How we’re pitching our winners…

How we’re pitching our screenwriting contest winners to the industry…

Since our relaunch in February 2016, we’ve gained a wonderful, varied slate of award-winning scripts and writers, many of which have now completed their year of free script development as we prepare them and their writers for the pitching process. As our campaign to pitch them gathers momentum, I thought now would be a great time to show you what we’ve been doing for our winners and the great responses we’ve been getting. We can’t reveal the confidential details of course, but there’s plenty we can show you as this gains pace.

STEP ONE – NAIL THE SCRIPT.

Even our winners’ fine scripts usually have a few important question marks in them, from a producer’s point of view. (If you would lose your job and your reputation for greenlighting a project that bombs, you’d feel the same.) So we use all our expertise and industry experience to feed back studio-quality reports and guidance for our winners, for a year, for free. It often takes that long – sometimes even longer – to get the script so sharp and convincing that producers can’t use easy excuses not to greenlight.

The process can even go beyond the one-year mark. One of our early winners has been very ill for much of the time since his prize; another – who is aiming high – decided to give the script a big review when I fed back to him my concerns that the things I felt producers would be wary about when I gave him the prize, still hadn’t noticeably progressed in his script. The writer’s approach to feedback, and their general responsiveness and promptness of redrafts, makes more difference than the guaranteed year-long timeframe: some scripts and writers are ready far sooner, others never convince us they’d reply promptly enough to a concrete offer from a serious producer.

Remember, WriteMovies have been pitching scripts to the industry for twenty years, and launched two Oscar-nominated writers into the industry. Things are ready when they’re ready. We don’t take any cut of option fees whatsoever – so we’re prepared to put in as long as it takes to give our winners the best chance of breaking through. When we succeed in doing that, everyone wins.

 

STEP TWO – THE ONE-PAGE PITCH

We’ll show you more about these and why you might want to make one, in another article soon. But these are meant to be a short, snappy, visual teaser of what this script would FEEL and LOOK like to the viewer. In an industry where the real decisionmakers are often hard to get on the phone, it’s important to present your script in the most professional way possible – that clearly shows how this movie could be SOLD to top talent and audiences. Getting our one-page pitches right is an important way to show that we, and our writers, mean business.

In the Terms & Conditions of entering our main contests, you’ll see a promise of ‘intensive pitch coaching’. This is it. We coach our winners to prepare their logline and one-page pitch, guiding them through multiple drafts as we get this right with them. At the end of it, the writers are far better placed to present and pitch their scripts in future.

And you know what else? More than a few have found that the process of presenting their script in a one-page pitch, has made them sharpen and focus and intensify their script more effectively. Everyone wins.

Meanwhile, we often give our Elite Mentors the chance to feed back on the scripts on our slate – and the writers love getting feedback from top industry pros like them. Sometimes the Elite Mentors even get involved and help push the script forward towards production themselves, which is the best of all worlds.

STEP THREE – RESEARCHING WHO TO TARGET

From quite an early point, we’ve already warmed up the industry to the projects on our slate, because of the promotion we give our winners in the weeks after their win, and consequently when their logline is promoted extensively to the industry through InkTip. We also sometimes use our dedicated Industry Newsletters (which go out to hundreds of producers and agents) to promote scripts more widely too. But these methods are only a small part of the real pitching process. The world is busy and full of competition, and everyone you want to reach out to needs treating as an individual.

Lots of writers take a scattergun approach, approaching as many producers, directors or actors as possible. Lots of writers think the world OWES them for creating their scripts, and should now bow down before them. Good luck with that. If you don’t understand the real life of producers and talent, you’ll need a totally world-changing script in order to break through with that attitude. And, if you’re so oblivious to the individuality and business needs of the people you’re approaching, you almost certainly won’t have achieved a script that good anyway.

So, between us and the writer, we compile SHORT lists of producers or talent who we think could really go for this project (exploring all sides of my motto: Aim High, Use Allies, or DIY – Do It Yourself). We research them properly, their track record and preferences, and how best to reach them. We then make our approach on whatever platform, opportunity or situation is the one they’d be most likely to favour. With our track record and polished scripts and one-page pitches, we’ve got a good chance of getting in the door. If we’re then invited to send the whole script, awesome. From that point, it’s up to the writer and producer/talent: we keep the line open and follow up until there’s a result, for better or worse. And then seal the deal or get proper feedback that we can use to improve the script or our understanding of its prospects, and then move on to the next on our shortlist.

Wherever possible, of course, we pitch in person, or failing that on the phone. Most people prefer doing business with strangers by email, but building their trust and their image of us gets us in a lot of doors that writers alone couldn’t. Our in-person pitching in the last two years has got many of our scripts read by leading players and has earned us important new allies, some of whom put us in touch with other people who’ll read the script now it’s been recommended by someone they trust and rate.

Getting a ‘no thanks’ often isn’t a closed door, if we’ve handled the approach right. It’s just a no to this script at this point in time. But with the range of our slate – now and in the future – and all the other services we offer, we always look to keep the door open for mutual support in the future. We keep in regular touch with all producers or agents who are happy for us to, such as through our industry newsletters.

It’s often frustrating how little of all this activity we get to share with you publicly. For obvious reasons, producers and talent wouldn’t want us to share the detail of what we discuss with them. But believe me, if you become a winner in one of our main contests, we’ll be working furiously behind the scenes to take your script as far as it can go.

While many agents and writers would be annoyed to learn that the company we approach have already got something similar on their slate (maybe worried they’ve been plagiarized!), personally I welcome it. Why? Because it shows we really did get this to the people who’d be interested in it. And the praise we often get back from them is great momentum to take into our next approach.

Enter our latest contest now, or enter our next one early by purchasing a consultancy service, to get the benefit of our decades of industry experience into YOUR project.

© WriteMovies 2017. Exclusive to WriteMovies – To syndicate this content for your own publication, contact ian (at) writemovies dot-com.

KILL IT! KILL IT WITH FIRE! – Writing Tips

KILL IT! KILL IT WITH FIRE! – Writing Tips

By guest author Calix Lewis Reneau, writer/director of www.childthemovie.com and producer and creative of features, television, print, music, and new media.

“You’ve probably heard the writing advice to “murder your darlings.” This means to be ruthless in deleting clever writing that doesn’t serve the greater purpose of your work. I’ve learned that a writer must take this a step further. To get the best story on the page, we must be willing to kill the story in our minds.

If you’ve ever tried to explain a dream you’ve had after waking up, then you can understand this. In your dream everything was vivid, real, logical, connected – a complete story. But as it immediately fades, even the simplest narrative detail slips from your grasp. Worse, when you can remember the precise details, they sound pedestrian and disconnected in the telling.

The same is true of the story you have in your head which you’re so passionate to tell. For reasons too complex to relate in a short article, we humans don’t think in a simplistic, connected, linear fashion. On simple fact can help reveal to that complexity: there are more than one hundred trillion synapses (neural connections) in your brain, at a minimum. That’s a thousand times more than the number of stars in our galaxy. And your connections in your brain are unique in all of history to you alone. What you think, what you see, what you feel, what you dream – your story – has never been before, and will never be again.

The story you want to tell is meaningful to you for the same reasons you are so invested in your dream when you’re having it at night. It’s immediate. It’s real. It’s consists of more than what can be put in words on a page, or images on a screen. The story is made up of your unique emotional connection to the material which drives you. It finds meaning in your personal history. It finds context in your life and worldview.

In short, the story in your mind is your story alone. It can never be anything more than that.

As writers, we’re compelled to share that story, impossible though it might be to do so. That’s where the skill, the talent, the hard work come in. The job of the writer is not to tell the story in our heads. It’s to translate the unique inner experience into a tangible form which will hopefully lead others to a similar journey. To laugh, to cry, to learn, to grow, or just to be entertained.

This translation requires that we understand the connective elements that we share. Functional communication requires two parties: someone to say something, and someone to hear it. You have something you want to say, need to say. As a writer, the fundamental task at hand is to say it in a way which will clearly give your intended audience what you want them to have. It’s no use to complain that others can’t enjoy the dream you had last night in the same fashion as you did. The hard work that sets successful writers apart from all others is the learned ability based on innate talent to take that powerful inner experience and craft something that leads others to their own unique powerful inner experience that is reflective, that is connected through our common humanity.

To do this, we must be ruthless in “murdering our darlings” at the most fundamental level. This means recognizing from the start that the story in our heads can’t ever function as the story we want to tell. But that’s okay, because once we accept that, the story in our heads can become the powerful inspirational genesis for the stories we put out into the greater culture using our skill and talents of translation as writers. Your focus, passion, ability, and self-discipline is the refiner’s fire which will burn away the dross of self so you can change the world with the stories you have to tell.”

Calix is a full-time creative working in features, television, print, music, and new media. He has written professionally for just about every type of media imaginable, including a stint as a top-selling greeting card writer. These days he spends most of his time juggling projects at his own production company which are in various states of entropy, from nascent ponders to completed features winding their way through post production and into distribution. His job title at Calix8 Productions – “iconoclast gadfly” – pretty much explains his approach to work, life, and the mysteries of the universe.

You can learn more about Calix at his poorly-maintained personal website – www.calix8.com – and see the trailer to his most-recent completed feature film (as writer/director) at www.childthemovie.com.