(Some of You Should) Stop Writing Games Like Movies (If That’s What You Do)

grand-values

With the writing done for Episode 1 of Grand Values: Monaco, I’ve had a bit of time to reflect on the experience, particularly in between EGX Rezzed and a BAFTA session in London recently. Before I took over the writing duties Bearhands had been using the solid foundation for western story-telling conventions, the three act structure. They were, as it seems many developers do, drawing from film conventions and I totally understand why. Most people have lived their entire lives watching movies and their relative short duration and simple plot lines make for somewhat easy understanding.

What became apparent to me very quickly was that this wasn’t going to work. At least for Grand Values: Monaco. The first clue, was the episodic release of the game. The plan is to release it in three episodes. In theory, this could have easily just translated to one act per episode. The practice, though, is we need people to come back for episodes two and three and the usual transitions for film from first to second act involve the protagonist having a very clear obstacle placed in front of them that, all things remaining equal, is likely to be unsurmountable. The tension can be there, and the stakes a raised, but it often isn’t what you’d describe as a cliffhanger.

This was the turning point for me though. The need for a cliffhanger. So, I took the basic structure of a television series and placed that over what we were doing with the game and everything fit a lot better. Instead of trying to emulate a movie spread across three acts, it now resembled a television series with three seasons. The beauty of this model was that it scaled down nicely, so that levels became individual episodes. This last part actually turned out to be invaluable as I went about the task of integrating story and gameplay, so that if a player should sit down and play a level they, for most levels anyway, will enjoy a self-contained three act plot play out over the length of that level in the same way a television episode for a series often does.

It also worked for the logistics of the storytelling. While films usually have the main plot, and possibly a sub-plot, a television series will often have a series of plots under the main plot that can all work at different times, and it isn’t so unusual for characters to come and go to facilitate the story-telling. I’d go into more detail, but I don’t want to spoil Episode 2.

Obviously this approach isn’t going to work for every game. If your game is already genre defying, avant-garde, or maybe just short, then you’re either going to find the three act structure useful, or you’ve thrown out all the story-telling conventions to blaze your own way (tweet me at @aboutalexander if you are as I’d love to hear about it).

But for all those indie developers out there my advice would firstly be to seriously consider getting yourself a writer if you don’t have one, and anyone writing take the time to learn the conventions of television series writing and see if they apply better to your project.