So Frictional Games (which made Amnesia and Soma) is looking for a new narrative designer to work on the scripts and the stories and everything, and the studio has put up a couple of questions you have to answer when you apply for the job, to establish that you know what you’re doing and might be able to pull off something original. Since I write a lot about writing in games and behave, as a critic, like I have some kind of idea about what good writing might be like in a videogame I want to answer the questions, from Frictional, and see whether actually a lot of the ostensible lessons and rubrics and instructions and demands I make about writing in games actually might mean anything or sound even basically good when put into some kind of practice i.e. an onanistic exercise in putting my money where my mouth is, through the vector of Frictional’s two main questions posed to applicant narrative designers.
In a realistic, medieval, action adventure game the player is followed by a child sidekick. A tool for creating a bond between player and child is to have the child comment on various game states. Write a few example barks and describe how you would approach this system.
First of all you’re competing here with the fact that everyone hates NPC companions in games automatically, and also that that hate is doubly, triply strong when the companion is a child and therefore inheritor, legatee, embodiment etc. of like a thousand invective pre-notions we all have towards child characters based on watching say The Temple of Doom or The Phantom Menace, combined also with how much of a drag it is having to in any way at all monitor, safeguard, be mindful of, cooperate with a non-player character companion, especially one who, by virtue, is unable to protect themselves or do much of anything constructive towards typical videogame activity as children cannot shoot, fight, climb things, solve puzzles, and so on, and are therefore, in a lot of ways to a lot of people, anti-videogame, so this one is going to be a considerable challenge, getting players to like the child. Couple that with the hypothetical design mandate – “a tool for creating a bond between player and child is to have the child comment on various game states” – and you’ve got a certified mess on your hands, because who doesn’t hate it, and hate the character, when they keep telling you what you should maybe try doing to solve a puzzle or dispensing their type of like badinage or joshing, about maybe your aiming or just your in-game performance in general – “be careful with that thing!” “Er, yeah, that’s not going to work,” and so on.
So when you introduce the child to the player you can’t also be introducing them to the player character – if we’re going to like this kid, they’ve got to matter to our character, and we’ve got to like our character too, or at least recognize why, and as it were agree with, the fact our character likes this kid. The worst way to do this would have the opening level or something be just the main character, and then something happens that throws the kid in the mix, and then the kid is with you for the rest of the game. That gives players a taste of a kid-less experience and then forces the kid on them. You also can’t make mechanics that rely on the kid, like, they can’t be used in combat somehow or you have to tell them when to go and throw a switch on the floor above you or something to solve a puzzle, or they have some kind of ability like I don’t know telekinesis or going into small gaps in the wall to find you ammo that only they can do and you need to progress the game, because as soon as progression rests on an NPC doing something they’re not a character or a facsimile of a person any more they’re just a mechanic and an unreliable mechanic at that, and their having a human voice and face and body just makes it easier to focus your hate.
And so the character and the kid have to have some genuine, implied, sympathetic bond. We really have to buy that the kid means something to the character as a person, as a child, and not as a gameplay thing. You’ve got to make it like they’ve had this whole life story together before the game even starts, because when playing games we have this irremediable preconception that anything we’re introduced to, for the first time, while playing, has some kind of practical use to use – has some kind of mechanical purpose – and if you introduce the kid to us/the character during play then we’re going to always quantify and evaluate the kid in terms of their usefulness to our gameplay, like you can’t just find a new town in Skyrim and enjoy it for the scenery or something; you want to know if it’s got any quests or hidden loot and all.
So our character has to care about the kid and we have to care that our character cares about the kid, and although that might seem like a roundabout way of reaching our destination – player cares about kid – not only is it the only way but also the best way, because this way you’re inviting the player not just to like the kid in a superficial way, as in, as something ludically helpful/conducive/unobtrusive, but to like the kid as a character, and also the player character’s relationship to the kid. So I guess if you’re going to have the child comment on game states and have to write a few example barks you want stuff that pertains to and illustrates the relationship between the child and the player character, and you’ve also got to make sure that the player character returns the dialogue – it can’t just be the kid calling out “hey, try this” and then the player character says nothing, because then it’s like the player character is as frustrated by and determined to ignore the child as the actual player. And also you’ve got to show that the player character in some way relies on the child, and not mechanically or in terms of the practical demands of whatever mission they’re on, but emotionally, intellectually, familially, personally, etc., as in, they have to like having the kid around and get on with them and value and want to talk to them, because if the player character feels that it transposes to the player.
So maybe when the game notices you’re struggling to solve a puzzle, like in that Uncharted or God of War type way, rather than the kid saying “hey why don’t you try…” they say something that actually mirrors the player’s and the player character’s presumed feelings like “You know, I keep looking around and I can’t figure it out” and then maybe then can say “how about we try…”, because you need the player-guidance critical path stuff in there, but actually just changing “you” to “we” and making the language more about the two characters struggling together rather than one NPC kind of passively aggressively telling you what to do because you’re clearly not getting it makes that NPC a lot less frustrating a presence, and simultaneously manages the opposite, as in, they seem like they get it, and get the player character, and get you, the player. And in combat instead of shouting like “look out!” or “try blocking!” or whatever, they can respond not to you as a player of the game but to the character as someone who they’re going through all this with and care about, like yelling at the enemies to “leave my brother/sister/dad/mum/whoever alone!” or “you’ve done it now, he’s (the player character) gonna crush you!” So again, it’s not like the kid is just there to guide you through the mechanics, and isn’t there either to just idly comment on stuff happening, but has some kind of concern or interest or genuine like investment in what you and the player character are doing, like it stirs something in the kid emotionally.
In a thriller game, set in an alternative 1970s, the player is tracking down a person they suspect of being a spy. They manage to find their secret locker and search its contents. After a bit of thinking, the player realizes their suspicions were true. Describe the 5-7 objects found in the locker. Try not to rely too much on text.
I mean, like the medieval one, I wouldn’t do this in an “alternative” 1970s, I’d just do the real thing, because why dodge the substance of it all? If you’re going to do it, do it, you know. I guess I am better at saying what not to do than what to do which is why I’m a critic and not a writer in the creative, actually-making-something sense. But you’d have to be tactful here as in, the stuff in the locker shouldn’t be obvious spy stuff. The way I’d do it, if you’re playing as a spy as well, is have the locker contain things that your character has as well, because that way you get a little sympathy, a little recognizance, a little connection between the character and the presumed villain, like if for example at various times in the game we saw our character had a photo of their family secreted in a special compartment in a wallet or a jacket or something and then in the locker we found a similar wallet or jacket or something with a family photo in the same kind of secret compartment that’d tell us that yes this person is also a spy but also that this spy is a person, and I guess that would be more resonant and meaningful and everything, like you recognize them as one of your own.
And maybe that would be the hook, like our character has a bunch of stuff we see them use and rely on a lot – cigarettes or drinking or whatever, to cope with being a spy – and the locker also has all these things as well, so you get the big narrative beat but also some characterization and some humanization and the discovery means more than just advancing the plot, and adds this new dimension between the player character and the villain, and the decision to maybe turn them in becomes loaded and difficult because it feels like turning yourself in – like their pain is yours and you know what it would mean if you got caught, so you’re conflicted about catching and inflicting that pain on them, is how I would do it. Because that’s probably the key victory of Gone Home, the way it uses found things to signal not just the central developments in the story but also the familiarity of the characters and then the empathy you feel towards them, that kind of irresistible, telepathic, kind of Jungian thing where if we recognize the character as being similar to us in even in small ways we feel for them more dearly, so yes, the spy’s locker should simultaneously confirm they’re a spy but do this by reflecting back at us that our own character, and by extension us as players, are spies.
So not secret tapes or microfilm or voice recordings – just stuff that is familiar to our character and by that point in the game familiar to us as players, of a spy. Stuff our character uses and relies on, i.e. the alcohol for the nerves and the hidden photo and maybe they have some slightly different version of a gadget we have also, like a pen with a hidden blade but whereas ours has, like, a Russian name for the manufacturer on the side, because we’re trying to hide among the Russians, theirs has an American name, because they’re hiding among us, the Americans. And I’d do all this, like the thing with the kid in the other hypothetical game, to create a sense that we should know and recognize and care about this character, because too often, game writing gets caught on benefiting strictly the mechanics and the kind of, as it were, ludic consistency and propulsion of a game, and not enough games use writing strictly to serve emotional, narrative, dramatic purposes, and they do this at their own peril, because serving those purposes – emotional, narrative, dramatic – is actually not serving them strictly at all, because writing that achieves all of those things actually benefits the mechanics and the ludic propulsion and makes what you are actually doing in a game as a player, like combat and so on, more meaningful.
Edward Smith is a writer from the UK who co-edits Bullet Points Monthly.