What the $%^& does a video game script LOOK like?!??!
You’d think this would be an easy question to answer. But it isn’t. It's a real challenge to share game scripts with people outside the studio.
In the intro to the Marvel Spider-Man Script Book, lead writer Jon Paquette explains why.
“When putting together the game script for publication, we had to do some editing. The final word count for all the writing in Marvel’s Spider-Man was roughly 500,000 words. This book contains only about 68,000 words. So how did we choose what to include?
“This script represents what we call the “golden path” story. In other words, if you played through the game and just followed the main objectives, your experience would roughly follow the script in this book. What we did not include is much of the “open world” work we did: crimes, side missions, research stations, backpacks and other collectibles. We also didn’t include many of the phone calls Peter took while swinging around the city. And while we all loved Christos Gage’s alter ego J. Jonah Jameson, we couldn’t find room for all his podcasts here. And there are thousands of “emergent” dialogue lines not included. These are things Spider--Man and his enemies would say during combat and certain context-sensitive events, such as when enemies are about to fire their weapons or when Spidey defeats the final enemy in an encounter. While all this writing is critical to the player’s experience, we chose to leave it out…because otherwise you’d need a forklift to move this book.”
The script in the book is amazing - and looks like a screenplay. The vast majority of a game script does NOT look like a screenplay. (What do the other 432,000 lines look like?)
Little-known fact: If and when game studios want to submit their scripts to the Writer’s Guild for awards, one requirement is that they have to reformat their game scripts to look like screenplays. I remember going through this process. It’s maddening because you know you are not really sharing the real work!
So as you can see, we’re only working with partial information here.
The problem is that game studios rarely if ever share their scripts with the public. And they DEFINITELY don’t share the working versions. Those are the messy, crazy, sprawling things the team uses to actually create the game and the story.
Why don’t they share these scripts? Well:
Part of the problem is that studios keep their material under lock and key. Between proprietary software and ironclad NDAs, studios make it hard to share working material with other people.
Studios are secretive because of all the intense fan attention. Look at what happened with the GTA leak. For a lot of studios, the thinking is, "Better safe than sorry" - even after the game ships, studios hesitate to put their process out there into the world.
Why haven’t studios found better ways to share their interactive-writing process? Maybe because they don’t have to - the massive demand isn’t there. Yet.
But it's growing.
- Traditional scripts are typically finished before production. Game scripts are part of the production process.
- Traditional scripts are linear/plot-driven. Game scripts are non-linear/interactive.
- Traditional scripts have fewer, traditional forms of text; think dialogue, stage direction. Game scripts have a wider variety of texts; flavour text, game lore, item descriptions, etc.
- Traditional scripts have a principal screenwriter(s) and are less collaborative. Game scripts have multiple writers taking on different roles.
- Traditional writers develop their work independently from the production team. Game writers co-create scripts with designers, voice actors, and other people on the team.
For all these reasons, studios have to get creative when it comes to creating their stories and sharing them with the rest of the game-dev team.
Instead of looking for a one-size-fits-all answer to the question “what does a video game script look like,” let’s take a look at the different tools teams use.
To keep all project material within reach, many teams use internal wikis.
To capture high-level story/narrative concepts, writers use slide decks or documents. (Pro tip: you can make interactive Google Slides games - this is a useful way to explain a playable concept at a very high level.)
To figure out how story and gameplay will work together, teams use flowcharts. Flowcharts are EVERYTHING. They’re especially useful when a team comes to you and says the gameplay is complete, now they want you to add a story. (Yes, sometimes this happens.)
TND alum Nick Solari puts it perfectly:
For character sheets and world sheets, teams often use something like Google Docs. They'll link to character sketches, world maps, environment art, and other supporting material. (Pro tip: Be sure to include character abilities!)
Now let’s talk about game-specific writing elements, like
- Found Objects
- Item Descriptions
- Tutorial text, clude, hints
- Menu & UI
That’s a big chunk of the 432,000 missing lines from the Spider-Man book!
How do teams manage THAT?
They do it with spreadsheets or database(s), or proprietary dialogue toolsets.
In other words, if you’re a game writer, you have a personal relationship with Excel. (Sorry.)
Does that mean you have to WRITE in Excel? No! You can do your creative work in a doc. But when it comes time to share your work with other people on the team, you’ll need to copy/paste your lines into some kind of spreadsheet. Whee! Spreadsheets make the script accessible to other people on the team, like level designers or programmers - the people who actually put the story into the game.
And of course there’s also the main storyline, AKA the golden path. What do teams use to create that? Dealer’s choice. Lots of studios often use scriptwriting software, like Scrivener or Final Draft, for reasons I explained here. But it just comes down to what works best for the writer, and the rest of the team.
So, to sum up: a working game script includes lots of docs and slide decks, plus databases, plus actual scripts, plus whatever else the team needs.
Now you know!
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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 franchises. 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.