This is an ongoing NDE series featuring interviews with Masters of Narrative Design™. While ‘narrative design’ is not a term in common usage, the design of story experiences is nothing new. As game developers are increasingly looking to create meaningful interactive narrative experiences, looking at the lessons learned by these masters becomes increasingly valuable. Today’s master is writer and designer Bob Bates. After being inspired by the text-based adventure ZORK, in the mid 80’s, Bob began looking into blending traditional fiction with video games and started writing his own text-based adventures. He was contracted by Infocom to write his first two titles. Since then he has been credited on 38+ titles (!) and is author of the best-selling book Game Design: The Art and Business of Creating Games. Bob is also a co-founder and organizer of the Game Designers Workshop, an invitation-only conference of storytelling game designers. I’m hoping to see what we can learn from his wealth of knowledge and wisdom.
Stephen E. Dinehart: You currently list yourself as an independent writer? Has this always been your role in game development?
Bob Bates: Not at all. In 1986 I started a small company to design and write games that would compete with Infocom, the reigning king of text adventures. Very quickly we ended up cooperating instead of competing, and the first two games I designed and wrote were published by Infocom. When Infocom closed down in 1989, I co-founded Legend Entertainment with Mike Verdu, and while at Legend I wore many hats for the next 15 years, including administrative duties as studio head, operations, finance, sales, etc.
Along the way, I managed to continue designing and writing and producing games, and even learned enough programming to implement the game logic for a few of them.
I’ve been a freelancer for 5 years now, and these days, I am mostly back to design and writing, which is why I got into the business in the first place.
As a game designer and writer, how do quality gamestories help you make a better gameplay experience?
BB: The human brain is a story-making machine. Stories are how we make sense of the world, and if no story is present to explain unrelated events, our brains will make one up anyway. If we do not supply a good story to our players, they are likely to invent one on their own and then yell at us because it wasn’t very good and it ruined the game. Delivering quality gamestories helps us avoid that problem!
Good stories engage players’ emotions and give them a reason to care about what they are doing. A well-designed story will drive gameplay choices, and likewise, various elements of gameplay may also suggest
different bits for writers to put into the story.
In any game, the range of actions that the designer makes available to the player will vary at different stages of the game, and often the driving force behind which choices are available is simply a matter of where the player is in the story. Designers always try to deliver different kinds of fun as the game goes along, and a quality story will create those opportunities for the designer.
Do you believe there is a correlation between sales numbers and gamestory quality?
BB: Only a weak correlation, unfortunately. As a writer, I would like to believe that the quality of the story is the single most important factor in a game’s sales, but in reality I believe it is well down the list, easily falling lower than gameplay, graphics (in AAA titles), level-of-bugginess, and license, not to mention marketing and distribution.
However, when games have checked off several of these other boxes and are competing on an otherwise-even field, I do believe a superior story can make one game sell better than the other.
What about writing for games is most challenging for you?
BB: The most difficult thing is the tension between allowing players to do whatever they want, while keeping them within the bounds of a dramatic story.
Beyond that, there are the challenges that all writers face – creating interesting characters, putting fresh dialogue in their mouths, and stirring different emotions in the hearts of the players.
Game writers also face a unique challenge in that players always need to be grounded in what they need to do next — and so we have to tell them. There is little room for ambiguity and subtlety. If a reader misses the point in a novel, he can always read on and catch up. But if a player misses the point in a game, he is stuck and unable to move forward. That leads to the kind of “on the nose” writing that we so often find in games, where we feel compelled to tell the player “go here” and “do this.” Avoiding that kind of writing is a huge challenge for game writers.
Game writers also must recognize that players will almost certainly encounter certain lines of dialogue more than once. It is a real challenge to write lines that will stay fresh despite repetition.
How much classical story structure do you use in the creation of your gamestories?
BB: I don’t pay attention to structure at all while I am first creating the story. I just create what I think I need to get it told. Afterwards, I will go back and use structure as one of many tools to fine-tune the narrative. If something feels wrong or out of place, a structural check-up can sometimes reveal the problem. Looking at a story through the prism of structure can also sometimes suggest opportunities I might have missed. But I’m not obsessive about it.
You are credited a range of titles that span over 20 years, what has it taught you?
BB: The basic challenges we face as writers of interactive stories are the same today as they were 20 years ago. We have figured out a few solutions to some problems, but we are still are severely limited in many areas. For example, we still have no good way to let the player conduct a dialogue with an in-game character. We still have difficulty limiting the scope of the player’s actions without suggesting that the limits are actually game obstacles to be overcome. We still cannot evoke a very wide range of emotions in our players.
The range of genres I have worked in has taught me that each is different, and that the devotees of one genre have certain things they care about that players in other genres don’t. For example, action gamers want the story to come to them, while RPG players don’t mind going to look for the story. Pace is also different from genre to genre.
But one thing that most players seem to have in common is that few of them are fans of the “big information dump” cutscenes that unduly interrupt gameplay. Over time, good writers have learned to distribute the story elements throughout the environment, so that they come to players in small pieces that they assemble in their heads to understand the overall story.
Are you able to experience more creative freedom as a contract writer?
BB: The increased freedom I have comes from being able to figure out whether or not I’m a good match for a project before we start. I think most in-house writers have to work on whatever their company is doing, whether they are suited to it or not. In my case, I can talk with a developer ahead of time about what the project is and what they want done, and if I don’t think I can do a good job, I can refer them to someone else.
Once I have taken on a project, I don’t feel any different degree of freedom than when I was working in-house at Legend. The writer always operates in service of the needs of project, and those needs are generally determined by the designer and the producer. I always try to work with them to be as creative as possible in interpreting their ideas in fresh, innovative, and unexpected ways.
But theirs is the final word, and if they disagree with my ideas, then I write it the way they want it.
What format do you prefer for writing your games?
BB: The format truly doesn’t matter to me. I’ve worked in all sorts of formats including Excel, Final Draft, and several proprietary systems, but it really doesn’t matter. For virtually everything I write, Word is my primary tool.
My methodology is simple. I start a “spew” file for each project, and I call it that specifically to free myself up to blat out whatever I want to, without regard to form, beauty, or in some cases, even comprehension! It’s just thoughts streaming onto a page with as little interruption as possible.
Once I have that, I start to refine. I use cut-and-paste extensively, never throwing away a single draft of a line or paragraph. Instead, I copy it endlessly down the page as I make even minor changes. In this way, I never have any paranoia about “losing” some particularly felicitous phrase, or forgetting some important idea that might otherwise get lost in revision.
Once I have the piece revised within an inch of its life, I simply cut-and-paste the final version into whatever document format the client wants.
As a creator of original IP with a habit of working in licenses do you have a preference?
BB: Each has its advantages.
With an original IP, you have the freedom that every writer wants – the chance to create a world from scratch, just the way you want it. On the other hand, creating every single aspect of a world and its characters is hard, not to mention risky.
With a licensed IP, you are already handed a world and characters that have been proven to be popular. Your challenge becomes creating something new and interesting that fits into that world. That’s often a worthwhile challenge to undertake, although of course you are always bound by the licensors – or their representatives – which can get difficult.
But to answer your actual question <g>, if I were given a choice on a new project, presuming money and risk were not a factor, I’d probably choose to work on an original IP.
How do you sell yourself as an expert in storytelling?
BB: I don’t know that I am an expert in storytelling. I think I understand many different aspects of telling stories within games, but there are huge chunks that none of us has figured out yet. As for selling myself, it’s more like a conversation with the developers to see if we agree on what the game needs, and whether I’m the right guy to provide that.
What do you see as an ideal future for storytelling in games?
BB: I suspect my hopes for the future are the same as most gamers. I hope we will figure out a good way for players to talk to in-game characters. I hope that stories will be deep and rich and compelling, and that players will encounter them naturally, without any interruption in gameplay. And I hope that our stories will enable our medium to take a place alongside the other art forms that matter so much to people everywhere.
Last but not least, can you explain what the Game Designers Workshop is?
BB: The Game Designers Workshop is an annual two-day, invitation-only, mini-conference that is run by Noah Falstein, Steve Meretzky, and myself. We try to identify experienced people with multiple game-design and game-writing credits, and gather them for a weekend session that’s a cross between a writer’s workshop and a GDC roundtable. We cap attendance at 30, and each of the attendees gets a slice of time to present a specific problem to the group, or to discuss some general issue related to game making, or to demo a product they think is important for the group to see, or simply to lead a discussion on any topic they think is important. We find that tapping into the collective knowledge of experienced writer/designers is an effective way for individuals to get practical advice for problems they are facing.
Bob, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to interview with the NDE.
Bob is true veteran of video game storytelling. His humble honesty, and experience make him a incredibly compelling person to speak with. He remains committed to gamestories and is surely an inspiration to us all. I know I have learned, and I hope you can say the same. For The Narrative Design Explorer™ I’m Stephen Dinehart.