Video game writing is hard, yo

A few weeks ago, I got this great idea for a text adventure game a la Zork. So, I downloaded a text adventure creator and gave it a go. Not only was it really hard to find free software that does what I want it to do and isn’t super hard to master (still looking for something better), but I also started thinking about the differences between novel and game writing.

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This is what Zork looks like, in case you were wondering.

One of the oft-repeated bits of advice for fiction writers is to write not for everyone, but have just one perfect reader in mind (note: you write the first draft for yourself, but the one that’s suitable for public viewing for this perfect reader). For Stephen King, this is supposedly his wife. Other writers use their agent, or simply imagine who they’d like to have read their book. Just one person.

They say that if you try to write for everyone, you end up writing for no-one, as it’s impossible to please every single person. Writing isn’t about hedging your bets, it’s about bleeding on the page, about making something special and unique.

When it comes to video games, any kind of video game, you can’t just think of one person. Instead, you have to think about the many strange ways in which gamers can interact with your game. This isn’t just relevant for the designers and coders, but also for game writers, as they have to think about in what order a player might come across their narratives. The last thing you want is to confuse the player.

As an example, I’ve been playing Ni No Kuni 2, and sometimes when you talk to an NPC, you’ll find you’re reading the second bit of conversation before the first. A small thing, and certainly not anything that dampens my enthusiasm for the game, but something to keep in mind from both a gameplay and immersion perspective.

When it comes to a text adventure, where it’s basically all text, a writer may want to think about someone who just puts “fart” into the text box over and over again. Then again, this might not be a player you’d mind losing, depending on how difficult the game is.

So, what do you write into the game, and what do you use a standard “does not compute” response for? While it’s still impossible to write for everyone and think of every single thing people might write/click, the audience has to be wider than just your partner or agent.

That said, any type of writing requires passion. Ticking boxes for the things you think people will want to see (moody, silent protagonist, check, annoying supporting character dialogue, check, repeated instructions… you get the gist) will generally not make people want to keep playing, let alone play your game over and over again to find all the little things they’ve missed.

In summary, video game writing is an under-appreciated art form that is super hard to master and I take my hat off to all that do it for a living. I’m having a hard enough time trying to please my one perfect reader (the first, of course, being myself), let alone weave an intricate story into an action-packed frenzy that can handle players making all the most non-obvious choices.

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