If you are a video game writer - or want to be one - that means you are probably play a lot of video games. And maybe you are that dream player, who hangs on every word the characters say.
But are there times when you just - tune it out?
Maybe skip a cutscene here or there, just because you’re not that into it?
And we all have friends who love games but could CARE LESS about the story.
The reality is, as game writers, we have to learn to write for an audience that may not listen to a word we say.
It ain’t easy!
But it can be done.
Inattentional blindness: the superpower we all have
Before we get into the solution, let’s talk about the problem. Why DO players ignore the story?
It’s because when players are focused on a task, they have the magical ability to tune things out. We all have this superpower. We use it when we’re driving a car, operating heavy machinery, or playing a game.
There’s even a term for it. It’s called inattentional blindness.
It’s a great skill to have - without it, none of us could drive, for starters - but it creates a challenge for game writers.
Because games are all about completing tasks - difficult, engrossing tasks - and therefore games usually require a player’s attention.
And when the player’s attention is focused on the gameplay, they are NOT focused on the story.
Which begs the question, why do we even bother writing storylines for games?
To answer that question, just imagine if NO game ever made had a story. At all.
If you feel like something essential would be lost if the narrative was missing, you’re not alone. 57% of players say that story is one of the main factors in deciding which game to play next.
So we still need a story. We still need scripts, and voice talent.
It's just a question of figuring out how to bring story and gameplay together the right way.
So maybe we just need to approach this part of game development differently.
Pro tip: Don’t include gameplay information in your game script
The first rule of thumb is this: if there is something essential you need to communicate to the player, don’t put that information in the script.
(In this case, “something essential” means “something the player needs to know in order to progress through the game.” In other words, if they don’t have this information, they’ll get stuck.)
Unless players can easily replay lines of dialogue, the reality is that if they miss a line, they’ve missed it. And if the player realizes they’ve missed something important, they’ll be annoyed. And they’ll replay the level or go back to a respawn point if they have to. But at that point the narrative is just irritating to them, and getting in the way of their fun.
So instead. put that information somewhere else. ANYWHERE else. Ideally, you’ll put it in a place where the player can easily access it, when they’re ready!
Put it in the environment. Put it in the menu. Put it in the player inventory. Put it in an audio log.
You have plenty of options! For inspiration, look at how some of your favorite games deliver the narrative to you. Odds are, they use every trick in the book. Once you start looking, you’ll be amazed at all the different ways you can convey story to the player.
Once you’ve offloaded the essential game/story information, you can start having fun with your script.
How to have fun with the dialogue in a script
Once players realize they don’t HAVE to pay attention to the story in order to progress through the game, they usually do one of two things:
- Completely tune out the narrative, or
- Start paying more attention to the narrative
It all depends on whether they like stories in their games or not!
You don’t have to worry about the players who DON’T like narrative. They’re not your audience. They'll have fun without you, and that's great.
From this point forward, you’re writing for players who WANT to hear what you have to say.
So now you can start to flex your muscles as a writer. Finally!
You can use your script to:
- Develop characters. Help the player get to know who these people are - their hopes and dreams, their weird quirks, their messy selves. If you want a great example of this, look no further than Disco Elysium.
- Develop relationships. No man is an island, and no videogame character is, either. How do these people feel about each other? How do their relationships grow stronger or fall apart? Give the player a chance to eavesdrop. Eavesdropping is fun. Check out Uncharted 2: Beyond Thieves to see what I mean.
- Build the world. This is where you get to share some of the world’s secrets with the player. Use your script to help them understand the factions, the underground lairs, the truth behind the government facade…whatever layers you want to peel back for the player, you can do it in your script. The Dishonored series does a nice job of this.
- Entertain the player. Why not? Isn’t that the whole point of this? I still think about Grim Fandango, a game that 100% entertained me with its silly and delightful script.
Thanks for reading. I hope this makes your writing process a little bit easier - and a little bit more fun.
Write great scripts with this free guide
Want to improve your writing skills? We can help. We've created an easy 5-step guide you can use to write scripts your players will love.
Best of all, it's free. Just click the button below!
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.