Recently I was hired to write a video game script. I’ve never written for games, but both the producer and I thought my screenwriting skills would translate well since each medium uses dialogue as a key storytelling device. However, except for dialogue skills, I found out that game writing is pretty much the opposite of screenwriting!
This is where I should clarify what type of game I’m working on, because if first-person shooter games or fighting games or sports games are what you think of when you hear the word “gaming”, you’re probably wondering why dialogue is such a crucial element. So, the game I’m writing is called LongStory and it’s a role-playing social simulation game. The “role-playing” thing is common in gaming (that just means the player is a character in the game world), but the “social simulation” component is less common though quickly gaining in popularity. The focus in social simulation games is not killing monsters or fighting bad guys or scoring goals, it’s experiencing a social situation. For instance, LongStory is a queer positive dating game where the player navigates the school’s social landscape and builds relationships with new friends and old enemies to solve the mystery of what happened to a student who left the school, while also working up the nerve to ask out their crush and go on dates. The whole game is based on social interaction and conversations with other characters, so you can see why dialogue and storytelling are super important.
Now that we have the game genre established, let’s get to the meat of this post — how screenwriting is different than game writing. I figured this all out through painful trial and error and a serendipitous encounter with a former film writer who now teaches interactive storytelling (aka game writing), and I’m sharing it with the world so that other writers entering the gaming industry will be more prepared than I was.
5 Differences Between Screenwriting & Game Writing
Story Arc. In films and television, there is a very defined arc with a set up, inciting incident, rising action, midpoint twist, crisis and resolution. But in an interactive game where the players make different choices with different outcomes, this arc is loose. This may sound like a blissfully freeing situation to those who hate structure, but I like structure and felt lost when I began writing this game. The only solution for this? Ask a lot of questions and accept that you’ll probably still make a lot of mistakes.
Thought Bubbles. There’s no such thing as thought bubbles in screenplays. Some films have voice-over, but that is generally frowned upon, and screenwriters are encouraged to tell stories using action and dialogue and not to rely on voice-over narration to fill in the blanks. But in game writing, thought bubbles are used to voice the player’s thoughts and make choices. The difficulty for me was figuring out where and how often to use this new tool.
Scene Length. In screenwriting, the general rule is to keep scenes as short as possible. Everything that is said and done in the scene must pertain to the plot; anything that doesn’t is “fat” and should be cut off. However, in game writing, long scenes are a must! Why? Because the Player needs to explore their options, gather information and make choices. Longer scenes make for a more valuable gaming experience. And this ties into #4…
Action vs Reaction Scenes. In screenwriting, action moves the plot forward. The audience sees the hero DO things, not THINK about things or TALK things through. Often, the only way we know the hero is thinking about something is a two-second reaction shot. And we rarely see the hero talk through his next move with his sidekick, and if we do the scene is brief and probably purposefully vague. Instead, the audience finds out the hero’s plan when they see it in action. But in game writing where the player is the hero and must make all these “next move” decisions, reaction and planning scenes are crucial. It sounds so obvious when I explain it like that, but after writing screenplays for 17 years, it never even occurred to me to write these scenes in the game. My instincts simply skipped them. So when the Story Editor on LongStory said I needed a scene where the player plots their moves for an upcoming scene, my first thought was, “Why? Why can’t we just show what happens in that next scene?” Well no, because gaming isn’t about showing an audience something, it’s about player experience. And that leads to #5…
Audience vs Player Experience. When writing for an audience, it’s all about holding back information. The fact that the audience doesn’t know things is what keeps them entertained. That’s why screenplays don’t have many reaction or planning scenes, or voice over, or long scenes. The less the audience knows, the better! Not knowing exactly what the hero is thinking is intriguing. Having the story unfold through action without knowing the hero’s plan is suspenseful. But it’s the opposite for a game because instead of watching a story, the player is influencing the story. There is still a lot of suspense because the player doesn’t know what the other characters will do, but the excitement comes from making the decisions and agonizing over the various choices. Think of it this way… To an audience, watching the hero think about something or talk about it is boring – they want to see the hero DO something! But to a player in a game, thinking about something or talking it through is where all the tension is because they are the hero! What they decide affects everything.
15 thoughts on “Screenplays vs Game Scripts: 5 Differences”
You bring up some very interesting comparisons. I’m curious, in a game like Longstory, what percentage of decisions in the game have a legitimate effect, whether it be plot-related or just a different line of dialogue? I enjoyed playing a few story-centered games from QuanticDream (Heavy Rain), but noticed that nearly every decision you make will result in the exact same outcome no matter what.
In LongStory, the majority of decisions lead to a different line of dialogue or plot path. It’s very rare that a choice takes you to the exact same place.
Thanks for reading and commenting!
Sounds like an interesting game. I get hung up on Sims 3 every now and again, but that’s about it for this type of game. 🙂
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Thanks for this thought-provoking post. I enjoyed playing Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire because they had that focus on conversation, choices and storytelling as well action scenes. Those ones are interesting because they do have a narrative arc, but there are a lot of branches in between with many major and minor choices to be made that affect the outcome. I’ve often thought these games must be complicated to write for, and I see I am right!
Indeed, there’s a lot to keep track of! I didn’t even talk about stuff like setting variables and tracking different branches of the story. But I love that aspect of it.
Great thoughts Heather. As someone who spends much time thinking about interactive narrative, hearing it from the opposite perspective is interesting. All valid and useful guidance. My only quibble would be that you seem to imply in the opening that shooters and other games that people often first think of when gaming comes up don’t need good writers. However, I’d argue that the best first-person shooters, the best of any game genre really, are the ones where awesome storytelling was the foundation of the game. The vehicle for exploring the narrative becomes secondary if the story itself is well written.
Hi Rick! I didn’t mean to imply that shooters and other games don’t need good writing. Not at all! It’s just a different kind of writing – more action-based than social simulation games where pretty much everything hinges on the dialogue.
I’m a fan of fantasy RPGs like Skyrim and Dragon Age: Origins, but my only experience with a social simulation game is Sims2. Part of me cringes at the thought of playing a game that takes me back to high school. 😉 But seriously, I can’t imagine how difficult it is to adapt your writing style to this. Sort of like a choose your own adventure story, except probably even more complicated! Now I’m going to have to download the first episode to see what it’s like.
Hi Stephanie! Yes, getting back into the mindset of a teenager felt a little weird at first, but the good thing about playing LongStory is that you know it’s not really happening, so you can play around and do things you may not have done when you were actually in high school. 😉 And you’re right, it’s like CYOA but waaaaay more complicated. In CYOA books the reader makes a decision at the end of the scene, and it’s generally an action decision. But in LongStory there are lots of choices mid-scene that take the player down different paths and back again, and the way you answer a question could affect a scene later on in the story, and on and on. So many variables!
You have to be living the dream for a lot of people. Pretty cool! One of these days you should post some of your other writings, or blog about the process of what you do for a living. I think it would be educational and interesting, but also open people’s eyes to writing possibilities they’d otherwise never think of.
Thanks for the comment, Dan! I will keep that in mind for future blog posts.
So interesting. I never thought of writing for games but what a challenge and what fun! Hey, how do I get a gig like this? LOL! Thanks for the info.
Hi Willow. How did I get a gig like this? Well, this is not what anyone wants to hear, but the answer is connections. I know the producer. She knew I was a screenwriter and thought I’d be good for the job. I applied with a writing sample and a resume, passed the interview, and here I am. But as for more practical advice, if you’re interested in writing games, I’d simply contact people who make games and ask for advice on how to break into the gaming industry. People generally like to talk about what they do to someone who is genuinely interested. Oh, and also always offer to buy them a drink for their time.
OMG You are the writer of LongStory?!? Amazing!! I played that game 5-6 years ago. It was still incomplete so I couldn’t finish it myself but OMG!! I absolutely adore that game, the reminiscence is strong even to this day! I was 12-13 back then and now I’m 18 ahaha. No doubt the best IF I played on mobile.
Hoping to land a deal with a IF game I’m currently interviewing for xx