Category: InterviewsHits: 5681
GB: You've mentioned in the past that you're not a huge fan of traditional fantasy settings and instead prefer to explore unique and never before seen worlds. But do you think settings like this are worth it when weighed against the necessity of introducing players to a bunch of unfamiliar concepts and then somehow making them care about those?
GZ: In the best cases, I think a setting should have a balance of familiar and unfamiliar elements. A world where everything is totally unfamiliar is probably doomed to commercial failure, or at best might become a cult hit, but a world composed of nothing but familiar tropes isn’t particularly interesting either. The latter might have more success with a mass audience than the former, simply because most players aren’t as immersed in imaginary worlds as game devs are, but I don’t think such a world can be as memorable as settings that strike the right balance.
My favorite settings are ones like Planescape, Glorantha, and the world of Disco Elysium, where the setting is built on a recognizable foundation but is nevertheless full of surprising twists and interesting mysteries to explore. As a player, I’m not only engaged by the main storyline, but also by the wonders of the setting itself.
It’s important, though, that writers don’t fall prey to the exposition trap in innovative settings. A good narrative designer needs to trust their audience. It’s not necessary to explain every detail of a world to players. Let players piece things together gradually through context. Hinting at elements of the world outside the scope of the game can create the sense of a larger world and inspire players to speculate about them, plus give you fodder for future games. The original Star Wars movies from the 70s and 80s are a pretty good example of this. The Spice Mines of Kessel? The Clone Wars? Back in the 80s, those were intriguing and unfamiliar ideas, and passing references to them helped get fans excited about the possibilities of the larger setting.
Personally, I don’t even like in-game encyclopedias very much – the Mass Effect codex comes immediately to mind. I feel obliged to read the long lore entries, and when I’m done, the world loses its mystery.
Making players care is a separate challenge. You can employ a setting that is extremely familiar – even the real world – and still fail to make players care about your story or characters. If you appeal to identifiable human emotions and create believable, realistic characters, players can care about stories set in very unfamiliar worlds.
GB: There was a time when moral greyness was considered a sign of a mature narrative. But do you think that perhaps the industry has now dipped way too far into that territory, and we could really use some more clear-cut heroes and villains in our stories?
GZ: You *can* have too much of a good thing, yep. Especially if it’s not done particularly well.
I’m a fan of moral greyness, and that’s where my mind instinctively goes when I tell stories. But morally gray storytelling needs to be implemented thoughtfully and skillfully, and that doesn’t always happen in games (or other media). If you’re excited about telling a particular kind of story, and it requires moral greyness to make it work… cool. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with a story about clear-cut heroes and villains. Write what comes naturally to you and what you’re most excited about.
A lot of games in my childhood featured villains who wanted to conquer the world or destroy the town just because they were evil. Probably much of that was down to limitations of technology and a lack of writing experience (or… writers at all) in the industry. Around the time I entered the industry, we were already reacting against the early trends and made a lot of morally gray games.
In the future, I hope we’ll see more of a mix, which will mean some games with clear-cut heroes, some with moral grayness, and everything in between. In my opinion, that’s a sign of a healthy story-telling medium.
GB: Speaking of writing experience, do you think the industry should be moving in the direction of hiring professional writers specifically for that job? In your opinion, is there a lot of overlap between general creative writing and video game writing?
GZ: We definitely want writers who are serious about game writing as a discipline... which doesn’t necessarily mean they need a background as a professional writer. What matters more, at least for RPGs, is that writers understand how to construct stories that react meaningfully to player choice and how to use all the tools at their disposal to create the right atmosphere and build a world.
In games, we can’t control the player’s attention like a book or a film does, so a game writer’s task is actually quite different from an author’s or a screenwriter’s. It relies on the same underlying set of basic skills (e.g., mastery of language, story structure and flow), but they’re used in a different way.
Sometimes a prose writer or screenwriter can make the jump to games. However, they need to be genuinely open to learning a new way of storytelling, and they need to realize that game writing is more about helping the player tell their own story, not forcing the writer’s story upon them. Not all writers from other genres are willing or able to make that shift.
For the kinds of RPGs I’ve made throughout my career, one of the most important skills is writing branching dialogue. It’s surprisingly difficult to learn and master. You can become proficient without any formal training in writing (as I did), but having some sort of background in writing and/or literature can improve the quality of your work. It's easier and faster to become a great game writer if you've been exposed to great literature and writing traditions in school and can draw upon that experience to enrich games as a creative endeavor.
Many of the best RPG writers I’ve known in the industry have a combination of tabletop game-master experience (understanding how to craft a story on the fly for a group of players) or similar experience in another medium like improv acting, plus an educational background in writing, literature, or some other discipline that gave them lots of practice using language and thinking critically. But it’s entirely possible to become a game writer just by practicing a lot, and in the hiring process, all we really care about is that a writer can produce great results.