Five Things You Should Know Before You Write a Videogame Script
In addition to my Geeks With Wives contributions, I’m a screenwriter. I have yet to write anything you’ve heard of, unless you follow indie developer Blue Key Games (BKG). I am the lead writer to BKG’s current project, Revahlen, meaning that I wrote the screenplay, oversee any changes to the script, and figure out how to implement any ideas that other team members have for the game.
Revahlen is the first videogame I have scripted, and despite the fact that I wrote screenplays for ten years and received a B.A. in English and Screenwriting, I had no clue how to go about writing one. Because videogames are still a relatively new medium there aren’t many resources to learn about writing a videogame. Since the indie market is on the influx, more people are going to be writing games, so I figured that it may be helpful to impart what I’ve learned.
- There is no wrong way to write a videogame.
There are stretches in videogames where the game’s narrative takes a backseat to puzzles or some type of obstacle. Depending on how many puzzles and obstacles are in the game you’re writing, you may find it less like writing a film screenplay and more like storyboarding. Your work may vary from a complete screenplay, to a treatment, maybe even an outline. There are certain games, like platformers, where even if the game features a story, the actual writing may not be as important as the level design.
Basically, there is no wrong way to write a game. Your job as a writer is to find out the Project Director’s needs and either meet or exceed them. There are even times where their needs don’t fit the normal criteria for a writer, but you need to figure it out and deliver. I imagine that it’s kind of being on a reality game show, were chiefs can only cook using aluminum foil over candlelight. But at the end of the day, all that matters is if you have a solid story.
- You’re collaborating with people who are not writers.
Since a videogame
is a collaboration, there is a good chance that you’re taking and applying other people’s ideas and input. Your job as the writer is to make sure the integrity of the narrative remains in check. For the most part videogames are outlandish, so in conjunction with that, some of the ideas that the team may want to implement may be a little off the wall. You need to balance what is acceptable and what may damage the story. Someone wants ninjas in the game, fine. Someone else wants kart chases, cool. Someone wants soul sucking gorillas, okay. Now it’s your job to make all of that work. It’s also your job to know when enough is enough. Good ideas can be ruined by conflicting good ideas, and when you’re starting out on a story it’s hard for others that haven’t wrote before to know when too much is too much.
Also, for those who don’t w
rite may not know your process. People don’t usually see my work until I’ve completed the second draft of the screenplay; my early work, outline, and work treatment are for my eyes only. Revahlen was commissioned work. I didn’t create the ma
in characters or the environment, so I had to check in with the rest of BKG during the course of my writing – to make sure everything sounded good, before moving on to the next stage of writing. Sometimes during those early check-ins some team members forget to look at the potential and direction, rather than the overall product. Work outlines and treatments are usually choppy in quality, because some parts are fleshed out and others aren’t. People are used to seeing the finished product of creative work – just something to keep in mind.
- People aren’t going to pay attention to what you wrote and you need to accept that.
Gamers have their own quarks. Some like unlocking every achievement within a game, some just like completing a campaign as fast as humanly possible. Just like there is no wrong way to write a game, there is no wrong way to play one. No matter how great you think your writing is, there are some gamers that are going to try to skip your cut scenes. I don’t care if you’re Cormac McCarthy; it’s just the way it is. Some people don’t like watching a game versus experience gameplay.
Although people may not experience every joke or dramatic moment you penned, you should still keep in mind they’re experiencing your writing during the interactive portions of the game. Who wrote that big shootout? Who had the protagonists running through a crumbling cave? There is a good chance you did. Even if there aren’t any lines, and your contribution may be minimal, you placed the protagonist there and set up the scenario. The gamer is the one playing it out. Remember, vid
eogames are a collaboration, which includes the gamer’s experience. Without the gamer your game is just a bunch of sprites and programing code. The player’s enjoyment is paramount.
- Making a videogame takes a long time.
BKG began production on Revahlen in the summer of 2012. I completed the finalized draft in August of 2013. The demo is slated to be released this summer, and the full version of the game will be released sometime later – depending what funding we get during our Kick Starter campaign.
Why am I stating the obvious? Because there are a variety of things you should consider before you begin work on a videogame. It takes a long time to write a videogame. I usually take 2-3 months to complete a 120 page screenplay. Revahlen took me about a year. That’s a long time where you can’t give other projects your full attention, especially if you’re working off of backend commission.
And what’s the lifespan of an indie developer? Are the guys you’re working with going to complete the game for the script you spent over a year writing? It may seem impossible that you and your friends would stop work on that unbelievable game you guys created, but the truth is videogames take a ton of work and it doesn’t take long for burnout to set in. And you as a writer have to take that into account before you begin – what’s the likelihood that this game is going to be made?
- Throw your page and word counts out the window.
You screenwriters out there know the rule of thumb: one page equates to one minute of screen time. The difference here is that you’re writing a videogame and not a film. Writing a game script is like writing half screenplay and half novel manuscript. The playable parts of the game are not accounted for with traditional screenwriting. Which means, those of you who rely on three act structure and page count for pacing, you’re going to find a different way to track what you’re writing.
Revahlen’s script is just over 150 pages, which in screen time would less than three hours. In reality, Revahlen has three films’ worth of material in it – at one point I estimated that it would have about 350-400 pages. When I wrote it out I couldn’t believe the chaotic, action filled ending only amounted to a handful pages. It was because it was all interactive. I was summing up what was happening and not actually writing it out, which drastically changes the amount of p ages to content ratio. The only reason this didn’t cause me a massive headache was because I don’t typically rely on act structure or let page count dictate my plot points. If I had, I may have had a major issue. So if you’re one of those people, this is something
you should take into account.