Blood, Sweat, and Dialogue Trees: How Games Writing Has Evolved

Blood, Sweat, and Dialogue Trees: How Games Writing Has Evolved

The creators of 'Gears of War 4,' 'Deus Ex,' and 'Gone Home' discuss the writing craft. Glixel/Getty/Robert Hanson

Games writing has gotten more sophisticated over the years, but certainly not easier

Games writing has gotten more sophisticated over the years, but certainly not easier

Every video game talks, from the twee-est indie darling to the gruffest arena shooter. No matter how trite the words that comes from your next enemy’s mouth might be, they didn’t just emerge from the ether. They're the product of blood, sweat, and an imprecise process improvised over decades, just like pretty much every aspect of the modern video game. And yet the role of games writers – the people who toil for years behind the scenes to produce page after page of text that many players don't even bother to read or listen to – remains one of the most embattled and thankless, even as their importance grows.

Tom Bissell is one of those writers. But just five years ago, as an acclaimed critic, he wrote Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, a collection of personal essays about art, life, and video games. In the first chapter, he praises games' ever-increasing mechanical complexity while excoriating their lack of development in storytelling. "Games have grown immensely sophisticated in any number of ways while at the same time remaining stubbornly attached to aspects of traditional narrative for which they have shown little feeling," Bissell wrote. When faced with these words, the Bissell of 2016 can’t help but laugh.

"Around 2008 to 2009 when I was working on Extra Lives, all I did was play video games and think 'I can write better than this shit!'" Bissell says over the phone. Speaking along with Gears producer Rod Fergusson, he talks at a moderate pace, often pausing to collect his thoughts. Bissell is better known today for his video game credits, which include Gears of War 4, Battlefield: Hardline, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and Uncharted 4.

"Here's the interesting thing: every single person I know who crossed over from writing about video games to writing video games has had that belief rudely shattered in the first month of the job. It's way harder than you can imagine, it's way more stressful than you can imagine."

In many ways, Gears can be seen as the purest distillation of the very same "traditional narrative video games" that Bissell took to task in his work: a story of heads stomped into crimson chunks by massive jackboots, of chainsaw bayonets revving and roaring as they cut a bloody path through rows and rows of monster men. It's engaging enough stuff, but it doesn't exactly embody what Bissell calls "searing, war-is-hell realism." But to hear Fergusson and Bissell tell it, even tales of archetypical characters blasting their way from point A to point B involve considerable challenges.

I've worked on a couple of projects that were cancelled, including a sequel to one of my favorite games of all time. 

"The difficulty all has to do with the fact that you're writing a story completely out of order," says Bissell. "You have very little awareness of what the gameplay leading up to it and coming out of it is going to be. There aren't even levels yet. You're writing scenes that are planted in the middle of this completely unknown ether."

"You write out of order because you're developing out of order," adds Fergusson. "You don't want to start with the beginning of the game, because the first things you create will not be as good as the last things you create. So you tend to go to the middle, and you tend to start with the middle and work your way out."

"Specifically, on Gears 4, we wrote a whole bunch of scenes that we recorded and started animating and Rod made the call that the tone was wrong, that we needed to start over," says Bissell, the frustration palpable in his voice. "We chucked out several scenes. That's pretty common, but it was also really necessary, because the story we were telling had changed so completely over six months of development. It's really challenging."

This sort of thing is common in game development, but the truckloads of money that go into a project like Gears' can exacerbate the consequences, sometimes fatally. Both Bissell and Fergusson have nothing but positive things to say about each other and the studio they work for, but you get the impression that Bissell feels particularly lucky to be there.

"I always feel super valued and super connected," says Bissell. "I cherish that so much because it's really hard to come by in such a chaotic and, frankly, extremely challenging form of writing. I've worked on a couple of projects that were cancelled, including a sequel to one of my favorite games of all time. It's really tough. But forget being the writer – imagine being the level designer on a game like that. Three months of work gone."

Journeys Without Maps

Though the current glut of narrative-heavy action games like Gears and Uncharted 4 ensure that writers will continue to find a place set for them at the development table, this wasn't always the case. Just ask Warren Spector, the creative mind behind some of the earliest, most groundbreaking narrative-oriented games, and a tireless advocate for player choice and consequence. He directed and produced classics like Ultima Underworld and System Shock, though he's arguably best-known as the driving force behind the original Deus Ex.

"That was the big challenge with Deus Ex. We built three solutions to every problem, and we needed dialogue that would fit those pre-planned solutions." he says, laughing. "It was crazy."

Today, Spector is the 61-year-old studio director at OtherSide Entertainment – the developer working on System Shock 3 and Underworld Ascendant, distant successors to two of the games that put him on the map. Spector began his career at Origin Systems, the esteemed developers behind the Ultima series, and back then, a game's script was very much an afterthought.

"The writing process at Origin was pretty haphazard," Spector says. "Back then, typically, you didn't even have writers. You had programmers that were writing dialogue and text. There were no off-the-shelf tools to use. Excel didn't exist, so, on every project, in the same way that you had to recreate the camera, there would be new tools for writing dialogue."

(Hard as it may be to believe, the favorite software of bean-counters the world over represented one of the seismic shifts in games writing. To this day, many lines of dialogue are still written in those tiny cells, as it allows for easier processing into actual game code.)

"At Origin, we were writing branching tree structures – basically choose-your-own-adventure books – and eventually you would run out of branches," continues Spector. "Eventually, every one of the conversations would devolve into 'name,' 'job,' and 'bye.' And you would very quickly get to 'I don't know anything about that' with every NPC. It was pretty obvious what was happening."

Read these days, it's clear that the primitive conversations in the Ultima games essentially served a functional role. But all that changed with 1994's System Shock, the first-person "immersive sim" that established the blueprint for many of today's hits, including BioShock and Dishonored.

"On System Shock, I remember I was talking to Doug Church, who was the project lead, and we just looked at each other one day and said 'we have no idea how to do a believable conversation in a game. We just have no clue. So what do we do about that?' And that was when the decision was made to kill everybody on Citadel Station." Born of desperation and necessity, it ended being up one of the most radically influential decisions ever made by a game developer.

Like many game protagonists of the era, System Shock's main character is a faceless cipher; referred to simply as "The Hacker,” he has no backstory and no discernible personality. Rather than drive its story forward with the medium's conventional tools – in those days, stilted cutscenes with line after line of written dialogue – System Shock revealed its world and narrative through play. System Shock’s direct offspring inherited this sensibility, like 2007’s BioShock, but its influence is felt across genres, with even the likes of Dark Souls imitating its example.

"The story was communicated through video logs and emails and things scrawled on the walls, so players actually constructed the story based on what you found when you found it," says Spector. "It actually worked really well. It was really powerful for me."

By the time Spector was directing Deus Ex, he was looking for writers with more conventional experience. However, the exhausting pace of games development continued to take its toll on everyone they hired. At one point, one of the writers on Deus Ex, Sheldon Pacotti, developed Carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands and couldn’t even physically type. But Spector was undeterred – they bought Pacotti text-to-speech software, and the injured writer began to recite every single word in the script. But even that wasn’t enough.

"We ended up having to bring in a team of writers," says Spector. "The final script for Deus Ex was a stack of paper three feet high. Game scripts are enormous. When you look at a screenwriter, it's a minute per page and a long movie is two hours, so, what 120 pages? You should be able to do that standing on your head. But a game script? You write a lot more words, that's for sure."

Found Narratives

Today, writers at bigger studios might work more closely with project leads like Spector and Fergusson, but the actual amount of influence they have on the games themselves remains relatively minimal. "Most of the big ideas come from me," admits Fergusson. This has motivated many a one-time game scribe to tough it out in the independent scene, hoping that their more experimental fare will find a devoted audience.

That was the route that Steve Gaynor and Karla Zimonja took, leaving successful big-budget careers behind to found the Portland-based studio Fullbright. They’re now well-known for the 2013 domestic disharmony simulator Gone Home, in which players rifle through an empty house trying to discern the fates of their various family members. While critics fawned over its novel premise and thoughtful depiction of female adolescence, the game's deliberate lack of mechanical complexity caused some to call it a "walking simulator," an epithet that like-minded developers have since rehabbed into a durable, if slightly patronizing, genre descriptor.

"When you're at the helm of a really huge project that is going to have billboards put up for it, you are serving a lot of masters," says Gaynor, a shadow of a smirk animating his bearded face. He describes marketers and focus test organizers giving him conflicting advice – instruments of the big-budget system. "When you're running your own studio, luckily you're mostly beholden to trying to make the best version of what the thing you're making can be."

"In a bigger studio situation, so much of your job becomes communication," Zimonja says. "Just trying to keep tabs on everything, the different tiers of communication filtering down to the actual devs – your focus is shifted a lot. It's that way in a lot of media. You don't have the freedom to go in a new direction unless you're a small, nimble, weird person."

We are not a story-first studio. We're a design-first studio...

"Just look at our new game," continues Gaynor. "We came to a point in Tacoma's development where we didn't feel like it was the fully expressed version of what we wanted to make with it. And that point, the hard reality comes, that as people who run our own studio, we're able to extend the schedule to make it better. You can't really do that on a $10 million project. But, all the same, I feel like stuff like Gone Home has started to influence stuff like Uncharted 4. That game has a lot more, I don't know, quiet moments than 3. I think that stuff has to filter up, but it means there's a lot more dependencies if you want to do something great with story."

Considering that Gone Home is essentially a labyrinth of found narrative, with letters and diary entries strewn all over the house, you might assume the developers of it started from the written word. They didn’t.

"We are not a story-first studio," says Gaynor. "We're a design-first studio in that the design of the game's first job is to support the player's investment in a story that's worth seeking out. In the case of Gone Home, we could make a game about walking around and opening cabinets and finding stuff that's set anywhere. It could be in an Elvish castle, and you could find out about the Elvish lords. That's super viable. But you could also make it about the people who live down the street from you, and I don't get to play games like that very often."

"It's the same thing that excites us about stuff like Pompeii," says Zimonja. "Like, these people drank wine and had pet dogs. Even though they're all long-dead, it's so understandable. The graffiti they had is the same as our graffiti."

When it comes to the future of games as narrative, both Zimonja and Gaynor hedge their bets on what they'd like to see.

"We're making the stuff we want to make," says Zimonja. "We want to see the stuff we would have never made, not just because we didn't want to, but because we never would have thought of it."

Gaynor agrees. "I want for there to be games to come out that I never saw coming, that I had never expected."

As for Bissell, the weight of experience has tempered his expectations.

"If you asked me what I'd like to see in narrative video games in 2010, I would have had a thesis for you," Bissell says. "2016? All I'm looking at is: here's the game I'm working on, and here are my colleagues. How do we make this as memorable an experience as possible? The people who invented the conventions of video game storytelling did it on the fly, day by day, year by year, title by title. They invented the orthodoxies that we're all stuck with. And it's going to take another generation of people to subvert those orthodoxies and figure out new ways to do it. And I'm hoping to add a little bit on the margins of that myself."

"If there's anything I've learned, it's that game-making is a journey without a map," he says.