Pro tip for anyone wanting to write a video game: "If it's longer than a tweet, a character should probably not be saying it in the play of a game."
For those with dreams of seeding video games with their scintillating prose, Austin Grossman's observation may be a bit deflating. But the writer/designer who helped craft Dishonored's narrative knows what he's talking about.
It seems like there's always some kind of debate about how video games can tell stories, what kinds of tales they tell best and whether scripted narratives deaden player-driven experiences. Grossman doesn't much care about any of that. "The beautiful thing about games and novels and films is that you don't tell a story one way," Grossman told me last week. "You have a huge tool kit for telling stories. Montage is a tool. Flashback is a tool. First-person is a tool. Third-person is a tool. Environmental storytelling is a tool."
" ‘We find a trail of blood leading from the office to the bedroom…' That's a tool for telling a story," he said. "And it's a tool that you can use in various different media. I'm not saying it's the same thing in each, though. Novels are big and you need, like, 50 different techniques to get a story told. And games are that way, too, except that we're still discovering more and more tools."
Grossman's history in games goes back to the 1990s, when he worked on Ultima Underworld II. He then wound up contributing to System Shock, Deus Ex, Thief: Deadly Shadows among other games.
"The fun thing about spending my 20s in games and doing games again now is seeing how the medium is rethinking stories from the ground up. Now we're getting more sophisticated about telling stories in games. And we have a lot of weird different tools. I did games before I did novels and it was a good preparation for novels."
Grossman invoked a classic sci-fi horror game to illustrate how working on that helped him figure out how to write prose. "You have all those stories running in System Shock, for example. You have guys exploring the space station and the crazy AI. And you have the little backstories of the people who are dead by the time we find them, but you can kind of reconstruct what happened to them. It was a weird sort of MFA in taking story apart and putting it back together."
"One thing I came to accept early on is that language written and spoken is not the central tool in games," Grossman told me. "It is not as central as it is in film. Language is just not the main show. The main show is that connection you have with the controller in your hand and motion on the screen and the image on the screen. It's not about the words so much. That was kind of the basic thing to accept when you're the writer working in games. I think it's one of the many confusions that can attack as we try to integrate writers and their craft into games, which has been done historically very poorly."
The relationship between game designers and game writers can come in a lot of different shapes. Sometimes the roles are tightly woven together and other times, a story's plot is mapped through and a writer's job is to script it out. Grossman said that he doesn't wait for developers on a project to come to him. "Ideally, I will approach them rather than vice versa, because a lot of designers don't know how to use a writer. So, part of your job as a writer is to teach them how to work with you. On Dishonored, the basic level design got done first. The layout of the levels, the mission logic, the goals, some of the basic problems that you have to solve, and who the major characters are in it. And then they spec it out and they actually put together a spreadsheet saying, 'OK, these are the conversations that we need.' So, in many ways, a lot of the high level stuff in Dishonored is designer-driven.
"Then we sit down and walk through the level. And I can see how everything is played out in space and time. And it's very, very tricky, because the timing issues are crazy when you do spoken dialog in a game. What if this person doesn't have enough time to get their line out because you have the sniper rifle and you can take their head off before they finish what they're saying. Or, a character in a video game is sprinting all the time. If you want to hear somebody's dialog, you don't want the player to slow down if they don't want to."
How do you get around a problem like that? "You're going to have to write a very short line or have an actor talk very fast. Or have somebody talking over a PA system or something. Which is overused in games, but at the same time, it's kind of exactly what you need," Grossman answered. "You have to work that out. There's a lot of just messing with logic. Like what if you can get into the warehouse but you don't interact with this character? Or this character dies first? And now you are supposed to have knowledge and you don't. There's a lot of messing with logic in game design, and it generally deals a particularly broad spectrum of possibilities that can happen. Like by the time you get to a castle, the entire building could be on fire. And so you need to allow for that in a conversation tree."
I mentioned to Grossman that a game like Dishonored highlights the challenge for writing for video games because letting the player have so much freedom to improvise fills an experience with fractal possibilities. "That's why I think games that are conversation-based can feel like they're doing it wrong. It's not a medium that favors conversation. And really, why should it? Not every medium needs to do that. The stories that have true impact are the stories that came from the player, not ones that came from a well-written moment in the dialog."
"As a writer, your clever quips are not there to be the main show. The main storytelling, it's storytelling in the design. It's in the layout of the level. It's in the feeling in the player of who you are and what you know that you were doing, and the feeling you have attached to that. So the writing supports your sense of who you are in the world and what that world is. So you're in a support role by the time you play."
But some game design studios feel like they still want players to soak up every word that comes out of characters' mouths. I wondered what Grossman thought about Rockstar Games and how their titles seem to key in on a very cinematic feeling, drawing on spaghetti westerns for Red Dead Redemption and crime thrillers for Max Payne 3.
"I think Rockstar are kind of geniuses. They do a much better job of integrating the interactive stuff in with how they approach language and character. Rockstar is an interesting example because they're not the most idiomatic games out there. I think of that end of the spectrum as being like Call of Duty. Those titles tend to be basically single tracks. Shooters with a big set piece that's triggered when you step into a room. That's the big sort of wannabe-film track. I hate to tell people that they're not having fun when they play those games. I kind of understand why [people think that] because the games have some of the relaxing passivity of a movie. But, everybody, this is me saying it: ‘You're not having fun [when you play Call of Duty].'"
Part of Grossman's job on Dishonored was to populate the world with ambient NPC dialog that would communicate the moodiness of life in Dunwall. "NPC chatter is great and the fact that's it's become so easy to implement changes things a lot," he said. "If you're writing a game, you can have what we call the blocking conversation where the play stops and you say, ‘OK, we have to get this information to the player.' So we're just going to freeze him place and make him listen. That line is really short but to the point. But then you have the NPC chatter and, with that, people can just go on and on and add a lot of flavor and background to the world. Because if you're playing the game in stealth and you're waiting for a fucking guard to clear out, you got nothing to do but listen to them talk."
"So that's where you try to drop in a lot of fun, indulgent language that helps the world. NPC chatter is where you can keep world-building and play with language. That's where it kind of belongs. If you have any writerly ambitions you want to put into a video game, that's the place where you shift those to. Because it's opt-in, opt-out. It fills a space if you're waiting for a searchlight to finish its sweep. It doesn't stop the game. Learning to use NPC chatter has been a really good lesson for the game industry, partly because of stealth mechanics than the whole stalk-and-wait activity of gameplay. But partly just because they realize that's where language belongs. That's where we can do a lot of our writing and not kick the player's experience in the nuts."