Thy Story Hath Three Dimensions! So you’re thinking, “that’s a given, asshole” (sorry, my inner voice sounds like Lewis Black at the moment, so we may be experiencing some extra profanity this episode). All writers worth their salt* will try to craft a three-dimensional story with equally fleshed out characters and deep resonating themes, videogames or not.

The notion of three-dimensional narrative space in videogames, however, is different than any other medium. Here, the audience is like the nosey neighbor who comes into your house, roots around in your medicine cabinets, and finds that embarrassing stack of porn. Most stories open a window into the protagonist’s life and the world he or she inhabits. In videogames, we open the doors wide and invite you in for the open house.

How does this affect writers? Well, we already went through the explanation about the team’s involvement in crafting story, right? The choice of furniture assets is there because of the artistic direction interpreting their vision of the character; the choice of music is audio’s take on the story, etc. But, what most writers fail to realize is that when they are on a project, their role does not stop at the borders of the main script. Their job is not just the words of the script. Their job is to give voice to the world, and everything within that world is a greater expression of themes and mood and intentions.

Now generally, the team might have some ideas of how to accomplish this. Jonathan Jacques-Belletête, the Art Director for Deus Ex: Human Revolution, created a golden thread floor tile through one level to symbolize the golden thread that Theseus followed through the Minotaur’s Labyrinth. That was someone who understood the themes and worked them to craft a more complex and complete game. Other times, however, the writer is expected to work with the teams to help create these elements. The reason is that it’s not just about imposing a vision on the project, but weaving together a world that not only reflects the character and the themes, but feels as if it’s been impacted by them as well.

So, what can a writer expect to find as work on videogames? Some examples include:

Critical Path Script: This is the script that everyone envisions writing when talking about games. This is the hero’s arc, and the story doesn’t start or end without these scenes. This script is about the exploration of characters and themes.

Secondary Path Script: Some games have them, some don’t, but the minute a game starts talking about exploring the world, there is generally a secondary script filled with so-called sidequests. The hero can start them and finish them, fail to complete them, or ignore them altogether. Regardless, if the critical path script explores character, this one often explores the world itself in relation to the themes. Think of it as establishing or enforcing the background mythology.

In-Game Documentation: The world might contain radio chatter, dossiers, notes, etc, that the players can find. All these provide background, or justification of historical events, inform of additional quest information, or even feed into a mystery that may or may not have relevance to the main storyline. The benefit of these documents, however, is that they remind the player of (and support) the facts given. As a story designer and writer, I always try to ensure that any interesting tidbits are repeated from two different sources to either catch players who miss one avenue of information, or to impress the relevance of that information.

Conversations: If the player can eavesdrop or mingle with people, then conversations are a way to reflect the state of the game world, to impress the importance of current in-game events, and even provide a mirror for the player’s actions in that world.

Unspoken Mythology: We fill our world with symbols… we always have. It’s a way of understanding or taming our surroundings, of leaving a mark on the world. Primitive societies had statues and carvings, and modern society has graffiti. The writer must help establish the mythology of the world so the symbols in the game mirror the themes and struggles of the character. Otherwise, art direction and narrative are at cross-purposes. This means supplying a list of the relevant symbols, where they might appear, and what they mean so that Level Design or Art knows best where to place them.

All this, naturally, is the tip of an evolving iceberg. We could discuss barks or one-liners and how an NPC reacts to stimuli indicates background; we could talk about the tone of menu items, or working with AI to construct an evolving language. Suffice to say that just as a story is three-dimensional construct in videogames, so too is the approach to telling that story in games. I’d almost be willing to call writing for videogames a four-dimensional discipline, but then that would just be smug on my part.

Next Up! Commandment – It is Thy Job to Know Thy Job

*As a standard of worth, why are we still using salt? The market’s since moved on to other standards like gold, money, cars, clothes, etc. I think it should be “worth their cocaine.” It’s modern, it’s also whitish, and a finer granulation. Sure, it’s also bad for you, but then so is too much salt.