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  • Storytelling In Games: A Co-Op Quest

    [03.26.20]
    - Danny Homan
  • As a video game writer, you will draft mission scripts, battle dialogue, in-game text, and maybe a trailer or two. Hopefully you'll have a seat at the table during pre-production, and throughout development you'll work alongside designers creating missions. But you won't tell the story, not by yourself, anyway.

    Video game development is a hilariously complicated endeavor. How dramatically a story can be shaped by time and resources still amazes me. As a game writer, you should be ready to solve production problems with creative story and character solutions. Reason being-it takes tons of developers working in tandem to create a new character or to put together a single mission.

    At the end of the day, AAA video game storytelling is a co-op game, not a solo mission. And you'll need some storytelling allies on your perilous journey.


    Story Allies: Narrative Safety in Numbers

    As in any successful co-op party, you'll need allies of various skills and disciplines by your side. Here's why:

    1. Different storytelling perspectives strengthen how a game's story is experienced by the player.
    2. Each discipline has expertise in knowing how to use available resources to tell a story.
    3. More story allies means a greater chance of success during the unpredictable game development journey.

    Every story decision you want to make as a writer will require your fellow developers' time and resources, whether that be a concept artist, animator, 3D modeler, programmer, designer-you name it. Each discipline has some effect on a game's story and characters, and it'd take quite a few articles to cover them all. But on a day-to-day basis, my story allies almost always include concept artists, mission designers, and level designers.

    Concept Artists-Visual Storytellers

    Concept artists create first impressions.

    If I want to pitch a new character, I almost always reach out to a concept artist first. I'll send some quotes from the character, a short backstory, maybe some thoughts on what the character looks like. The concept artist will ask a few questions. Does the character have a pet? A tattoo? Where are they from? An hour later, a concept artist will have made an amazing piece of environmental art or character sketch. Concept artists create pure magic, and they've taught me a lot about creating characters.

    But the most important lesson I've learned from working with concept artists is the power of a first impression. Even before your character opens his mouth to say his first carefully-crafted lines, his appearance will tell a player everything he needs to know. In the concept stage, all aspects of a character are explored.

    • Shape language and silhouettes (the big read of a character)
    • Costuming and accessories (clothing, gear and equipment)
    • Personality (via facial expressions or posture)

    Because a character's visual design creates such a powerful first impression, staying in good communication with your concept artists is crucial. Otherwise, the poverty-stricken character you're writing in secret might end up sporting a top hat. After a character starts down the production pipeline, it becomes more and more costly to change a character's appearance. Usually, if something's going to change later in production, it's your dialogue.

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