Teamwork: Authoring With Intent
This came up in a chat in our new ad-hoc Stockholm narrative gamedev evening, and I thought I’d rapidly scribble down what I was muttering about, as per usual.
Why did you write it like that?
As writers, narrative designers, but also good collaborators, I think it’s important for us to clearly communicate the intent of what we’re doing to the rest of the team — and to ourselves.
That, and to keep good records on our choices — why did we pick this phrase or name? What is the oblique reference we’re making with it?
You Are Probably Not The Expert
A game experience ebbs and flows as it is played. It is someone’s job to make sure that every moment of the game, whether it’s a level or a cutscene, has a clear purpose in how it makes the player feel. Exactly whose role it is depends on your team setup, but it lives somewhere between creative direction, game design, and narrative. And in my experience it’s often missed, forgotten, or poorly explained.
There is a tendency for creative directors or designers or writers to make choices about what they want the other departments to do without communicating why they are making those choices. “Everything should be desaturated here.” Sure, the art dept can do that, but why?
If the whole team is aligned on the intent of a scene, then everyone can bring their own expertise to bear on making that scene work. The music will be appropriate. The VFX will make it shine. The lighting will be just the right sort of oppressive. Because those departments all know their craft better than the people who set the direction.
“For this location, there should be a painting on the wall of Miss X. She should be wearing a red dress, holding a flower, and…”
The painting of the character comes back from art. Miss X is wearing a red dress, but it’s kinda goofy, and you didn’t want her to look goofy. Several rounds of revisions to the art later, where everyone argued about it, you’re all frustrated by the process.
You shouldn’t have told the art department you wanted Miss X in a red dress. You could perhaps have told the art department something like: “There should be a painting on the wall of Miss X. It’s a romantic painting from when she was in her mid-20s, commissioned by her lover, and shows her blissfully happy and looking forward to a wonderful future. We’re trying to show the contrast to the player with how things are now.”
The art department are much better at art than you, and will come up with suggestions you wouldn’t have thought of. Perhaps in one of their suggested takes she is wearing a red dress. Or perhaps not.
Of course they’ll need more information on the character of Miss X to show her as truly happy. But you’ve documented the characters very clearly for the rest of the team to understand them, right?
Feedback Becomes Constructive
I’m sure all writers have been in a situation where they’ve written a scene, only to have someone else on the team go “I don’t like that line, couldn’t they just say this?” or “Wouldn’t it be better if she talked about this?”, and as writer you feel defensive of the work you’ve done and feel like ‘fighting back’ against the note. Which is pretty unhelpful and frustrating for everyone involved.
This is often assumed to be because other people just don’t get it, and are naïvely feeding back on story because “story is easy” and “everyone can do story”. Because everyone has seen movies and read books, right? And sure, maybe sometimes there’s an element of that.
But let’s take that chip off our shoulders for a moment. If someone knows what you’re trying to achieve on a particular line or scene choice, then they can understand why you did it like that. And sure they might not like the line for some reason, but the conversation becomes much more constructive in finding a solution. And because you know they get your reasoning for it, you can have a clearer understanding of why they are pitching alternatives.
And don’t overlook the scenario where you are super-happy with a scene, you are challenged, and you have to struggle to figure out why you have written it that way but you know it seems ‘right’.
This is on you — as a writer often you make word choices without thinking too consciously about them. Having a clearer understanding of the intent behind the choices you have made, whether they were made consciously or unconsciously, makes it much easier for you to figure out what truly matters in what you wrote rather than what is superfluous fluff that you could alter or edit away.
At the start of a project, you wrote a load of early dialogue you’re very happy with. You made up a load of names for characters with deeply-researched connections, you dropped in lines that are meaningful, and then you put that dialogue into the game.
Several years later as you rush towards release you are hacking around with old game dialogue, chopping out sections, pasting in new ones to make sense to the player.
What did you mean when you wrote that line? It was definitely cool, but what was it for? If only you’d kept a note…
Why is that character called what he is? It’s a reference, right, there’s something symbolic about it? You remember looking it up and finding just the perfect name. But… damn. The marketing team want it changed. What was that good solid reason you had? Was it that important? Should you defend the choice you made back then? Or are there other ways of achieving the same effect which would work well for marketing? Why oh why didn’t you write it down, it seemed so obvious and clever at the time…
Show Your Working
So what I’m advocating here is that your whole team communicates very clearly on the intent of each level or scene in the game… and that you as a writer keep and share notes on the reason for a choice, rather than just the end product of the choice itself.
It’ll make your lives easier and the game a better experience, as all the departments are working towards the same intent.