THE CRAFT OF WRITING FOR GAMES
02: LINEAR Cut-Scene NARRATIVE
PREVIOUS ARTICLE - 01: Introduction
This article introduces several concepts relating to linear narrative in games; why it is often so hard to write; some initial ways of trying to make such scenes better; and some methods for sequencing linear narrative cut-scenes across games. The article does not exhaustively address all variants of linear narrative, nor will it be the only such article on linear narrative in this series; we’ll be revisiting several of these concepts further down the line.
When many people think of game narrative, they talk about how it can branch — how player choices and decisions can lead to alterations in what characters say or do as part of a game’s plot.
Indeed, many critics and writers go so far as to claim that branching narrative within games is the ideal form to which all game stories should aspire: that anything that does not involve branching and player agency is representative of some legacy of other storytelling forms that fails to take advantage of the medium.
Despite this perception, the dominant mode of storytelling in games — as measured by its centrality to the majority of narratives that occur in games — is that of the linear, non-branching cut-scene (or, indeed, the text-based non-animated interludes we see in mobile titles).
Even in titles that do present branching narrative, we could view many of these choices (such as, for example, deciding whether to save an alien species from extinction or whether to betray a friend) as moments of interactivity that in turn unlock portions of linear storytelling (i.e. either of the above choices might unlock variations of 2 minute long cinematic scenes which do not themselves present any further choices).
It is therefore crucial, and fundamental, even if you believe that the ability to make choices in a videogame story represents the best of what the medium is capable. to be able to practice and excel at non-branching narrative.
1. WHAT IS A LINEAR GAME NARRATIVE SCENE?
A cutscene or linear text interlude section in a game represents the interruption of gameplay and meaningful tactile interactivity.
It is episodic, enveloping direct player action and control either side (whether in a larger branching narrative where choices cue in these non-linear bursts of story, or in a linear game, where these bursts of story occur in-between movement-based gameplay).
Why do many games have cutscenes?
They can attempt to tell a story in tandem with the gameplay (cutscenes allow certain types of storytelling and, interestingly, either high-octane events or low-key drama that might be much more difficult to achieve with the game’s core systems).
Cut-scenes can contextualise gameplay, giving a reason or motivation for what we do moment-to-moment when we control the character on screen in order to heighten the fantasy of being that character.
The game may have been devised to tell such a story as its goal first and foremost, and gameplay systems may have been designed to reinforce that story. This does not fundamentally conflict with the other points in this list, however.
They can tutorialise and reinforce gameplay systems and goals, giving padding to make an explanations and learning processes more enjoyable than they might otherwise be.
The absolute worst, but not infrequent, reason: because some studios have some vague sense that a lot of people like or need or expect stories in games, but this how or why this might be the case is not a priority, and therefore they hire people to help them make one, without paying attention to why those other game stories were popular or well-liked, therefore contributing to the low quality of a lot of game narratives and increasing the problem for future players, writers, and decision makers in a vicious cycle of perception and low evaluation of the medium. (breathes deeply)
Regardless of the reason for their presence, we can view most linear game scenes as defined by what is on either side of them. This is the fundamental difference between game and film/tv storytelling, NOT branching narrative, as not all game stories are branching.
2. THE PROBLEMS OF DIALOGUE, TUTORIALISATION, AND SUBTEXT
With the exception of interactive fiction projects, the majority of game writing is fundamentally dialogue-driven, and this is especially true of linear cut-scenes. So let’s look a little at how dialogue generally works in this medium.
First of all, as a side-note to the below, I would advise all game writers to work on your dialogue abilities in general, practicing and learning from other media. Although part of the purpose of this series of articles is to help build more advice and exercises around game writing, it is still true to say that you will more quickly improve your skills by practicing novel, comic, and/or film dialogue than you will directly operating in games — however, this dialogue will not be 1:1 importable into games, and lessons will need to be re-learned or unlearned in the transition between meda. In the further reading section at the end of this article, over time I will add some resources others have shared with me and/or which I have found useful myself. If you have anything else to share, let me know.
Does good dialogue try to mimic real dialogue?
Yes and no.
Good dialogue is not the same thing as realistic dialogue — we want an idea of how people speak related to real speech. We do not usually want the real thing itself, full of pauses and non-sequitors, lacking the unusually condensed and intense coincidence of genre-serving emotion and character development and tension and poetry that composes much of fiction. We just don’t want to be reminded that our real lives rarely reach these heights.
Dialogue that communicates or advances the story’s plot, characters, and/or theme is usually well received, if the style itself is sufficiently well-executed. We also often like dialogue that is itself interesting enough to circumvent a need for usefulness and relevance to character/plot (Chuck Palahniuk, I believe, talks about this in his own essays on writing, discussing how the sharing of real-world expertise about a particular topic can really get us invested in a story, just for its own sake).
We rarely like dialogue that serves plot too obviously, however, as that spoils the illusion. We want to forget the purpose we are seeking and the artificial nature of the fiction, we want to suspend disbelief.
What we often seek is subtext: implicit, sometimes ambiguous meanings from dialogue and character behavivour that implies a hidden world of thought that we have to work at to recreate in our own minds. It is the joy and horror at discovering who fictional people are, and predicting or failing to predict their subsequence triumphs and failures.
The simultaneous opportunity and disaster of game narrative is that the majority of game dialogue tutorialises and teaches as its primary aim; the most obvious being the way it can teach us gameplay concepts and actual controls and objectives, reinforcing what we need to do in gameplay. However, it can be seen as going beyond this. We could see even game dialogue which attempts to provide a fantasy context for gameplay as to some extent teaching you what it is like to be the kind of person you’re expected to control. A dramatic scene of people talking to each other will in turn train you as to the social dynamics between the different characters on screen, allowing you to better make your choice if indeed an opportunity to make a choice arrives. Whatever emotions a cut-scene tries to invoke in its players, this will in turn carry over into gameplay and influence the way you play. Of course, all dialogue in every medium could be seen as tutorializing in a similar way, but as Part 1 argued, games are uniquely focused on being experiential in their storytelling.
Everything about a game is designed to craft and add to that sense of experience. By tutorialising often non-narrative objectives and breaking the fictional spell by moving us from cut-scene to player control, game dialogue often unintentionally draws attention to its own fictionality. This factor has even been an opportunity for comedy or horror in many games, with titles such as Metal Gear Solid drawing attention to the mingling of gameplay and cut-scene context by warning against the use of automatic controller cheats.
The paradox with many games is that the primary goal of many storytelling sequences — to tutorialise and convince you to make certain movements with a controller and certain imaginative leaps in your mind — often require very clear and unambiguous dialogue, as they are actual instructions. Many studios know from experience that if you lack clarity in your writing, at best players will sometimes struggle to know what to do, and at worst may even give up or lose interest.
As I discussed in a late 2018 talk, videogames are the only storytelling medium where we could plausibly imagine there are paying users which might not be interested in engaging with story content at all. Where people might just enjoy the gameplay and actively skip or ignore narrative segments if they seem like a waste of time or if they go on too long.
But is difficult to provide unambiguous and fast direction to players whilst communicating subtext and the gradual sense of character development that we encounter in the pacing of other media. This is not because game writers are somehow incapable of the subtleties of other forms, but due to the trade-offs of many game’s designs and project structures. Sometimes, there simply is not time or space to tell such stories, and even when there is, it can be difficult to convince a team to allow you to do so.
3. WRITING A SAMPLE GAMEPLAY OBJECTIVE SCENE FOR A PREDOMINANTLY NON-NARRATIVe-DRIVEN GAME.
What is a way of taking a basic tutorial or gameplay objective driven scene and improving its drama/subtext whilst not straying from its primary purpose?
1) Ensure the character or characters communicating gameplay concepts have a job, vocation, or personality which will make total sense of the gameplay concepts they need to communicate (if they’re a mechanic and socially need you to do something for them, then it will make sense for them to explain how their vehicles operate).
2) Complicate the tutorialisation of the scene by introducing a wildcard emotional element. This should fit the nature of the scenario, but add drama and urgency to the character’s needs. Too often, game writing is bad because there are no stakes or no real reason for what is happening beyond an excuse for gameplay. If you have a complicating dramatic situation that a) fits what’s going on, and b) doesn’t get in the way or complicate too much, but adds an extra dimension to what is going on, then that’s great.
For example, you have a car mechanic giving you objectives? Think about the emotions likely to be invited by driving cars around the landscape, whether this will perhaps involve a test of speed and time-trial mechanics, a sense of thrill and urgency. Think about what might be so urgent for the car mechanic that he needs your help to achieve these things, and why he cannot do so himself. A hypothetical answer might be that he is a fugitive and must avoid capture, but that there are certain tasks that must be completed before he and his loved ones are safe. This in no way conflicts with his need to explain instructions to you urgently, but in many ways, better fits them than a shrugging-shoulders, because-i-said-so explanation.
3) For short cut-scenes or tutorial scenes:
Clear communication of the gameplay objective without much subtext at all should be communicated in the early lines (depending on the kind of game it is, at the end may be fine also)
Follow up, or precede, the gameplay objective with some personality-establishing lines that link into the wildcard dramatic situation and give some emotional stakes to the gameplay objective. This is where you have your hints of subtext in the moment, but even more important than that is the establishing of character and the surprise factor of that establishment. By surprising a reader, viewer, or player, a character starts to feel alive. Reveal some facet of personality or an intensity of perspective that has not yet been revealed, and pace these characterising lines in an arc across your episodic bursts of cutscene content.
Probably the most controversial recommendation here, and a very rough one that you should absolutely alter as circumstances demand: Roughly, this formula can be summarised as 1/2 to 2/3rds Objective Lines + 1/3 to 1/2 Subtext Lines. This is a massive simplification of the above and should by no means be directly followed, but the stark practicality of it is useful to consider when working on projects where you need to get in and out of the pure linear narrative portions as quickly as possible.
Don’t overstay your welcome. Not all objectives need to be discussed to the same degree. Not all facts and elements relating to your character’s life need stating beyond what is relevant and what makes sense to the actual conversation. Emotional communication is far stronger than overly explanatory conversation. Hold back.
4. STRUCTURE AND SEQUENCE
If cutscenes can be seen as moments of storytelling that envelop gameplay sequences in episodic bursts, then due to the way they are broken up in this manner, videogames could be seen to unusually foreground the role of sequence and structure in the way they communicate narratives.
In all stories, sequence is incredibly important: biases in the way we categorize and build up pictures of people and situations in our mind mean that the information we receive first, last, and the different ways in which it is communicated to us can result in wildly varying opinions and versions of the characters at hand.
Much modern writing advice boils down to various models of storytelling which follow various sequence paths. All of these are useful to read, analyse, and practice in order to develop your own methods and to understand what your divergence from these methods might mean. They are not, however, primarily what I’m going to talk about in this section: I am going to be discussing how to build narrative sequences for linear storytelling based on the emotional dimensions of your gameplay.
By ‘idealised method’ I mean what I think I would do if I had all the time in the world to create and hone a piece of game writing, with all my energy and drive trying to aim towards some noble aesthetic ideal.
If a prototype for your game exists, play it and note down/explore the emotions it makes you feel. If no prototype exists, play around in the genre (and watch films / explore other related works of art that might provide reference points), hypothesising what the final experience will be like and performing similar emotional work. This does not just relate to gameplay, but location, look, feel, sound. Any assets you can get your hands on or whose direction has been discussed. Games are more than just fun; they can be lonely, angry, upsetting, wonderful, euphoric, romantic, existential, anything at all. Work through what the experience will be in this regard.
These emotions can provide a bedrock for your narrative work, but your story should ideally NOT re-create those emotions in a non-critical way. The term ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ was coined to refer to a lack of alignment between gameplay and narrative, and is often used to refer to an ill-fit between anti-violent narrative and incredibly violent, fun gameplay. I would argue that this is sometimes uncritically applied as a response; dissonance is not always bad if manipulated purposefully.
Lay out a beat to beat description of each major story beat as soon as you can, considering the emotional landscape you explored above alongside such factors such as budget, allowance for cinematic time, and the progression of levels and gameplay objectives. A lot of your story work will typically involve coming up with a narrative that explains, motivates and justifies gameplay; sometimes, gameplay will be created in response to your story beats; sometimes, a project will involve iteration back and forth in both directions.
The important thing is that your story links into, evokes, manipulates, undermines, and raises up the emotions your gameplay is likely to evoke. Regardless of how much your cutscenes and text therein actually link into moment to moment gameplay, the various elements of your game will ring true if you find this balance and interlinking of feeling. Emotional logic is extremely powerful when it comes to storytelling.
You know how I said we wouldn’t be considering story structure models? Now’s a good time to consider your story alongside traditional models — one I like to use is Dan Harmon’s story circle. Not because these models are accurate to what a good story is or because they are rules that need to be adhered to, but because by testing my storyline against them, I may be able to gain new insights. Most story models such as Harmons are about desire, conflict, change, and unexpected consequences. These are all good dramatic elements which often pose deeper arguments about human emotional scenarios, linking back into that earlier work you did. Look at your story structure from various abstracted angles and see if you want to change or resequence elements.
Lay out the beats of your linear story in a spreadsheet and consider its pacing, both in terms of word count, length of scene, and whether each scene sets up drama, acts as drama, or twists the overarching plot of the game. Most scenes will represent either of the former two, but by laying them out in this fashion with brief summary lines and considering these other elements, you may realise the need to move them around or add or remove elements. Consider the tempo of your storytelling; if you have access to it, add data about the average play sessions you’d expect between these linear bursts of content and whether you’ll need to reiterate / re-establish plot details and dramatic situations as a result of those gaps in a manner you wouldn’t have to consider in film/tv.
Many works make arguments about society, emotion, and human nature. As a result of all of the above, do you think yours will, and if so, what will it be? How can the sequence and tempo of your work itself act to promote a form of argument and subtext throughout, even if each burst of content cannot easily achieve that nuance on the level of the actual line?
Minimum Viable Method
By ‘minimum viable method’, I mean the kind of faster, more instinctive work I would do if I had a limited amount of time or resources to finish a particular piece.
Create a spine that communicates key gameplay segments and objectives. We’re going to work on adding to this spine and expanding it out, but avoiding too radical departure from the gameplay and each area at hand.
Read through the above advice under Section 3 regarding tutorialisation and subtext. Ensure your characters and dramatic scenario will allow you to communicate gameplay objectives and emotion throughout your story in a way that makes sense and will not require extraneous explanation. I.e. if your game will involve a lot of driving cars, ensure your characters are people for whom all this will be natural and make sense.
Consider a wildcard element thoroughout the story that will add drama, need, and conflict. The idealised method discussed on the left hand column suggests considering gameplay emotion; use these elements and definitely play through whatever prototype materials exist.
You can also establish these layers of meaning and emotion through the temporary use of other systems of meaning. Consider segments of your story as relating to life, mythological processes, famous story models, other works of fiction, whatever is helpful. The stages of grief, for example, or the tarot arcana, can be applied as wildcards to your gameplay beat spine; when held loosely, they can promote and spark other story ideas quickly that soon become more than the sum of their parts.
Usually such systems will not be apparent in the final work as you will most likely shed and abandon it at some point in your development. You create a NEW model.
One advantage of these structures can be that they introduce noise and mess to the universe of your story without utterly seceding from the gameplay purpose of the plot. They imply a level of meaning beyond what needs to be there precisiely as they are not stated; if used well and carefully, they can bootstrap a sense of reality and subtext by mixing ingredients quickly, by proceeding from exterior unrelated sources of logic and finding commonalities with what needs to be there.
Indeed, in narrative sequence in general, avoid being overly deterministic or clean in your arguments and emotional logic. Each element should be executed in a story with interest in more than just the broad picture; by secretly drawing inspiration from another picture entirely, you create a feeling of untapped and hidden realms of meaning, which, when thought through, can evolve into something new.
These are totally optional and to have fun with, especially this week. Write as much or as little as you like!
The above approaches themselves suggest exercises you can engage in regarding projects in-progress and yet-to-be-started.
Below, I suggest a few additional exercises you can use to practice and develop your own opinions and approaches:
Find a game with a linear plot structure, preferably one whose story you enjoy (games that alternate cutscenes with gameplay sequences will be perfect for this exercise).
Summarise the game’s story structure. YouTube and Let’s Plays can be useful for this to quickly move through the narrative, and you may want to choose a portion of a game rather than the entire thing, if it ends up being too long. The more the better, however.
For this summary, you will want 1-3 lines on each cutscene, summarising what happens in the story for each one. You will want 1-2 lines on each gameplay segment that occurs in between, detailing what the player does in these segments.
A spreadsheet application will be great for this. If you have the time and interest, it would be great to add in extra information, such as cutscene length and rough gameplay length for each sequence; whether the cutscenes represented a build up of suspense, action, or twisted the plot; and all the other kinds of information I discuss throughout the article.
The purpose of all of this is to try to really understand the mechanical narrative structure of a game you admire. The more you do something like this whilst practicing your own writing, the more you will notice things you want to try out yourself, and indeed understand why certain ideas work well or do not work well.
Look for tutorialisation in the narrative, try and think about how the cutscenes communicate objectives directly or ‘train you’ for later story moments. Make notes alongside the above lines.
Look also for subtext, how the game creates non-explicit emotional and thematic meaning — things that are not necessarily stated, but which become clear throughout character development and dialogue. Think about how the game achieves it. Figure out what works for you and what doesn’t, and indeed how the game structures and apportions space for those elements.
Take a film you like and imagine how it might work as a game with linear cut-scenes. Picking a film that already has a fairly good in-depth online plot summary will be great for this.
Imagine a scene -> gameplay -> scene structure. Write notes on how its original structure as a film might be adapted into a videogame and the changes you might make, following the methods and concepts discussed throughout this article.
If you completed Exercise 1, consider creating a similar document here for this imaginary film to game adaptation, as if you had all that similar information and data to hand. Use your imagination.
Pay attention especially to the way in which, in later cutscenes after long portions of gameplay, you may need to reiterate story and remind us of prior moments in the narrative due to the vast periods of gameplay between storytelling beats. Films don’t have this problem; consider the episodic nature of game cutscenes in comparison.
Exercise 3 (Extra-challenging)
Pick a story genre (i.e romance, mystery, action, thriller, etc); a videogame genre (i.e. action-adventure; first-person shooter; platformer, etc); and a random sequence of locations (5-6 will do; i.e. forest, train, sea, city, etc).
Substitute another game’s gameplay emotions into the mix (i.e. if I said I felt giddy joy and righteous rage when playing the 2016 version of DOOM, and analysed those emotions further, I could plug these feelings into whatever made-up game I’m forming for this exercise).
Create a rough, high-level overarching plot structure using the idealised and minimum viable methods above, using the work for this exercise so far.
For tutorialisation of gameplay, use another game’s mechanical systems (i.e. if I’m doing a platformer for this exercise, I might pick some systems from Super Meat Boy or something).
Create character and narrative concepts for a tutorial sequence to explain a series of 3 mission objectives a player will need to perform in one of the locations you’ve planned out for this game narrative.
Write a script for this tutorial where the player character and an NPC discuss these objectives and evolve a wildcard emotional situation in the game’s world (see above for explanation of what I mean by ‘wildcard’ here). If you are struggling with this and need to find script examples, watch other game tutorials and cutscenes online, so you get a sense of what others have done.
Swap with another writer and discuss the results.
This will be developed over time. If you have any recommendations, please get in touch and I will consider adding them to the list below!