Being brief is a craft. Game dialog has to be brief. When it’s not, players get bored.
Game text also has to be split up. Or it’s not readable — and players get bored.
Good games use both their gameplay and the tropes of games writing to sharpen their dialog. For instance, read this scene from early in Uncharted:
NATHAN So look: when Drake sailed into the Pacific he took the Spanish fleet completely by surprise. He captured their ships, he took all their maps, their letters, their journals … and he recorded everything in this diary.
SULLY Uh-huh, so this …
NATHAN But when he got back to England, Queen Elizabeth confiscated all of his charts and logbooks — including this one – and then swore his entire crew to silence.
SULLY Yeah, so this …
NATHAN You see, Drake discovered something on that voyage, Sully, something so secret, and so valuable, they couldn’t risk it getting out.
SULLY All right, Nate. Just pretend for a minute that I don’t really care about any of that stuff, and cut to the chase, would ya?
NATHAN A man only interested in the climax. You must be a real hit with the ladies.
SULLY Never had any complaints.
Sully keeps interrupting Nathan Drake’s exposition about the history of Francis Drake and the treasure. Sully voices the player’s dwindling interest, and his nagging keeps yanking us back into the story. We don’t get lost in gamey, goal-posting objectives and justifications, because the script plays off those expectations instead. Finally, the exchange develops into a comical bit of characterization through their banter.
That last paragraph I wrote was too long. If this were a video game, you wouldn’t have finished reading it. You probably skim-read it anyway. Did you spot the word ‘bullfrog’ buried in that paragraph? You didn’t? Go back and read it again.
Other games use the writing as a game mechanic. Mass Effect rewards or punishes you for things you say. You shape your whole game experience with a chisel made of words and dialog trees. For instance, if you did go back and re-read that last paragraph, you lose 10 renegade points.
Games writing needs to be brief, because players are distracted. In a non-interactive cut-scene, the player wants to do something, so he skips it to get to gameplay. Keep it short and interesting, and maybe he won’t. But equally, when hearing speech during gameplay, while the player can do things, he’s distracted by the frequently life-or-death situations occurring, so he misses what was said and has only a woolly idea of what he’s meant to be doing — and usually no idea why.
These problems are almost impossible to solve. Being brief is an important start, but the best games writing also helps us over the hump by reinforcing everything in the game experience — the artwork, the design, the mechanics; and importantly, vice versa.
The mantra should be: as in life, so in games. In life, we use intuitive logic to identify patterns linking what we hear with what we experience. Valve are experts at teaching you intuitively via the world what you might have missed in the writing, but also giving you the flavor of the world itself just from the words you hear:
GLaDOS Momentum, a function of mass and velocity, is conserved between portals. In layman’s terms: Speedy thing goes in; speedy thing comes out.
This, one of the early lines from Portal, not only teaches us a fundamental mechanic — that conserving momentum is key to solving puzzles — but also achieves two other objectives. One is environmental, and one is in characterization. This line is doing a lot:
— At the most basic level, it tells the player that if you can gather speed before hitting one portal, you can use that speed to traverse a great distance when you exit. This is reinforced via the environment, the things you see, and the gameplay. This is the ‘message.’
— The clinical, academic vocabulary and phrasing of the first sentence reminds us we’re in a research facility — and we’re listening to a highly advanced computer. This is world-building, and reinforces the environment and tone of Aperture Science.
— The second sentence, with its sudden, surprising descent to a third-grade reading level, tells us about the character of GLaDOS. She doesn’t think much of humanity, and she enjoys patronizing the player. Its bathos is also a surprise — and we can expect plenty more of that.
Not only that, but these 22 words accurately encapsulate the overall journey of Portal as a game. On its surface, it’s a game that requires you to intuitively get to grips with key physics concepts. This veneer of erudition breaks down as the game progresses, becoming both more viscerally direct and also a parody of its own complexity.
So. If brevity is the soul of wit, this article has clearly been too long. I apologize.
TL;DR: Portal teaches you a mechanic, sells you an environment, and expresses a compelling character in 22 words. Are you doing that? No? Well, you probably need to cut. And hire some great freaking writers.
David Midgley is a narrative designer. He cut his teeth as a game designer on the doomed Battlefront III for Free Radical Design before moving into a writing role on Driver: San Francisco for Ubisoft. Since then, he has written the scripts for Medieval Moves: Deadmund’s Quest (PS3) for Sony, and Final Run (iOS). He now works as a technical designer and writer for Certain Affinity. He can be found musing on the life lessons of Texas Hold ‘em, the gameplay of Sonic the Hedgehog, the story of Left 4 Dead 2, and other assorted odds and ends on his blog at http://www.davidmidgley.net. He tweets at https://twitter.com/dave_midgley.
More from the May issue of the IGDA Perspectives Newsletter: Writing
- For Games Writers, Brevity is the Soul of … What Was it Again?, David Midgley
- Merits and Flaws: The Power of Contradicting Traits and Abilities, Tobias Heussner
- Fixing Games Communication, Mary Kurek
- IndieSpective: Writing from the Start, Robert Madsen
- Game Design Aspect of the Month: Where’s the Fun?, Steele Filipek and Jeff Gomez
- Welcoming New Staff: James Baldwin
- GDC: A Heartfelt Thanks