Game developers can be a little salty when it comes to barks.
Or a little exhausted by barks.
Or a little confused about barks.
Let’s start here, with this very good question. What IS a bark?
“So, what’s a ‘bark’? Barks are a part of video game writing lexicon that refer to short lines of dialog yelled in the background. They can be totally random or in response to something that the player does. Barks are quick one-liners dictated by NPCs (non player characters) with the intent to provide additional atmospheric effects that compound quality music and/or sound design.”
Short lines of dialog? No problem!
Well, as any game writer will tell you, barks can catch you by surprise. For example, let’s say the assignment is to write a bunch of ways a soldier can say, “I’ve been shot!”
Great! No problem. You sit down to work.
You think of some pretty obvious lines a soldier would probably say (or scream).
Then you write some variations of those lines.
Then you write some lines that…a soldier MIGHT say?
Then you start looking out the window, thinking “Ugh.”
Suddenly, you have absolutely no idea what a person would say after getting shot. Haven’t you said it every which way by now?
When it comes to barks, it’s easy to get stuck.
Why are barks so hard to write?
One of the reasons we can get stuck is because often we are writing in a void.
We’re not writing for a well-defined character, most of the time - barks are often delivered by random NPCs who don’t get enough screen time to convey a personality.
We’re writing out of context, too. We have a vague idea of when these lines will trigger in the game, but we don’t know the specifics beyond what the team has defined for us (and usually they haven’t defined much).
When we write barks in a void - with little or no context for our scripts - it can be grinding, uninspiring grunt work that makes us doubt our ability to write anything at all.
Why are things this way? Why haven’t they changed?
At first glance, it doesn’t seem like barks warrant a lot of thought. “We just need some reaction lines!”
So we sit down, we think about what’s on the screen in front of us - the type of character we’re writing for and the event that will trigger the bark - and we start writing… stuff.
And then, after a long afternoon or day or week of writing, we get docs or spreadsheets full of lines that may or may not be any good.
But what if, instead of thinking of barks as assets - standalone files we need to create - we think of them as part of a system?
Let’s take a big step back and look at this bark-writing challenge from a new perspective.
Why do we even HAVE barks in a game?
Barks are there for a reason - and the reason is usually the player. They’re a way of letting the player know that the game “noticed” what the player just did.
(Barks can also be responses to state changes in the world - like when night falls, for example - but for now we’ll focus on the player.)
So let’s think of barks as part of a “stimulus and response” system.
The player does something in the game - that’s the stimulus.
An NPC “barks” - that’s the response.
When the player does something in the game, they’re “talking” to the game.
Barks are the game’s way of talking back.
So what if your barks aren’t standalone lines, and instead are part of a conversation with the player?
When the player takes an action, they’re “speaking” - and the barks are the game’s way of saying, “I see what you did there.”
Let’s unpack this a little bit.
Barking like dogs do
Let’s think about dogs for a minute. Dogs bark all the time, and usually for good reason - they’re excited, they’re hungry, they’re hurt.
When you’re training a dog not to bark so much, first you try to figure out what is triggering the dog to bark. What is the stimulus?
We can ask the same question here. What is STIMULATING the bark? What’s happening in the game world that triggers the response?
For example, let’s say you’re writing merchant barks that will trigger when the player enters the marketplace.
If you’re asked to write barks for these kinds of scenarios, put yourself in the player’s shoes. If you walked into a marketplace, what would you want to know? What would you ask out loud, if you could?
Maybe the players are wondering, “Is this marketplace open?” or “What’s for sale here?” or “Can I afford to buy anything here?” or “What’s that horrible smell?”
Hold those questions in mind as you write your barks. Just answer the questions! “Morning.” “Move it, buddy.” “Cockles and mussels!” “You buying today or what?”
Once you start “hearing” the player’s questions, the world may start coming to life for you. You’ll begin to hear the conversations taking place between the other characters too - the debates, the negotiations, the arguments - and suddenly your barks will feel like they’re part of a system, an ongoing conversation.
With this approach, you’re no longer shouting into the void. You’re just having a chat with the player.
I love this method because it gets to a first principle about games: they’re interactive. When players take actions, they’re interacting with the game. It’s the job of the game to interact back. And as game writers, we interact with words. With a little planning, we can “hear” what the players are saying - and respond accordingly.
Good barks bring the world to life. They’re fun. And they’re worth the effort.
Thanks for reading. See you next week.
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Susan’s first job as a game writer was for “a slumber party game - for girls!” She’s gone on to work on over 25 projects, including award-winning titles in the BioShock, Far Cry and Tomb Raider . Titles in her portfolio have sold over 30 million copies and generated over $500 million in sales. She is an adjunct professor at UT Austin, where she teaches a course on writing for games. A long time ago, she founded the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. Now, she partners with studios, publishers, and writers to help teams ship great games with great stories. She is dedicated to supporting creatives in the games industry so that they can do their best work.