Writing for Fantasy Games

I recently attended a panel hosted by the International Game Developers Association on the topic of Writing for Fantasy Game Worlds.  It was an interesting event, with three very different perspectives on game writing:

  • Daniel Greenberg, who has served as Creative Director for Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online and whose Tolkein lore would best be described as encyclopedic.
  • Jeff Gomez, CEO of world-builders (and brand-builders-for-hire) Starlight Runner Entertainment, who invented Magic the Gathering’s Corondor setting.
  • Steve Balzac, founder of both the Society for Interactive Literature and the MIT Assassin’s Guild, LARP GM extraordinaire.

Amazingly, I had a chance to chat with Steve before the panel started about far-ranging and diverse topics.  Initially I had no idea that he was one of the panelists, but when I realized that I was face to face with the founder of the Assassin’s Guild, I suddenly couldn’t think of anything to say.  (Although I did start watching my back.)

Steve has an incredible long view about LARPing, especially insofar as video game writing is its bastard child.  Coming from a tabletop- and live-action-intensive gaming background  myself, it was fascinating to hear his ideas about how plot ideas that work well in LARPs have been adapted – often unwisely – in computer games for decades.

He argued that it’s bizarre that computer and console games often give such emphasis to system (hit points, for example) in the user interface, when the evolution of RPGs has increasingly elided these.  He said that total system transparency was the dream of many a game master, and games running on a computing machine can absolutely provide this.

However, where there’s story, someone has to author it.  In what is perhaps the ideal case, you can offload much of this creative burden to your players – for example, MMORPGs often have weddings and player-run shops even though there is no support for this in the game’s system.  Other games aim for a much more “one story fits all” approach – but as Steve said, in a multi-player computer game (as in a LARP) every player is prepared to believe that he is the protagonist.

How do you tell a story with a thousand, or a million protagonists?  Do you splinter your tale into a million instanced stories, losing overall cohesion, or do you convince your paying customers to play bit parts?

Do you hire a large team of, effectively, game masters to keep everyone entertained?  Or, and here maybe is the crux of it, do you try to create something whose storytelling operates on a fundamentally different spectrum?

Unlike Jesper Juul, I will not argue that “You can’t have narration and interactivity at the same time; there is no such thing as a continuously interactive story.”  I’ve played Shadow of the Colossus – I know that narratively poignant moments can be generated interactively.

That said, even in SotC, some of the most powerful moments are rendered non-interactively, in cutscenes.  We aren’t talking about a medium which tells you a story (although the game’s creator can, if you’re willing to sit through it without doing anything); we’re talking about a closed system which generates events, to which narrative signifiers have been attached.  The elegance of the system’s logic is the only thing that determines what kind of stories can emerge, beyond the canned narratives which the game’s author has embedded for you to stumble upon.

It’s a fool’s errand to try to create that kind of game, because it requires discovering the logic of human narrative and encoding it into a rule-based system.  People have tried to do this kind of thing with the much simpler subset of fairy tales, with limited results.  But maybe it’s time for the forward-thinking powers in this industry to play the fool instead of falling back on an expensive approach that is proven profitable.