Storytelling in Games: Shaping the Future of Narrative
I was lucky enough to attend Comic Con International’s (you know, the same people who put on SDCC) new event, SAM: Storytelling Across Media, which was held on November 3 at the site of their new Comic Con Museum in San Diego. SAM is “all about storytelling, through a series of talks about how to tell a story in various media, including comics, gaming, animation, movies, and more. It explores the similarities and differences in telling stories through different media and focuses on the craft of telling a story through creator lectures.”
As I was horribly sick that weekend, I was only able to attend one panel: Storytelling in Video Games. Anne Toole (writer, Horizon Zero Dawn), Desirée Proctor and Erica Harrell (writers, Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners), Shanon Ingles (writer and narrative designer, Ghost Story, Midboss, Telltale & EA), and Neal Hallford (executive producer, Swords & Circuitry Studios) were on the panel, covering a wide range of topics.
It was bittersweet to see so many women on a panel like this, as three of them worked for the now-defunct Telltale. Still, I commend CCI for putting together such a diverse panel of artists to speak about video games, showcasing the talent that exists currently within the medium.
Each of the panelists spoke about how they got started in storytelling; Hallford studied Roman and Medieval History, Proctor came from copyediting, and Toole has a degree in archeology, proving you don’t have to have a traditional writing or video game background to get started. While they may not have that traditional background, it allows them to place what they know into their writing, giving all of the games a richer story. Proctor in particular spoke of her Cuban heritage and the importance for her to weave it into her stories.
They all spoke of the unique constraints that games provide when it comes to writing: while films and television have set time limits, games require ‘open ended’ choices, and chances for the player to have agency within the narrative, whether it just be playing through action, or making active choices as one does in Telltale games. Toole said that the key is “subtle manipulation,” of the player, to ensure that they hit the correct tonal notes within the story when necessary, regardless if the story is linear or open-world. Guiding a player to an answer is always better than directly telling. “Clues and hints,” are the best tactic, Proctor mentioned, agreeing with Toole.
Harrell said that it’s also important to realize that your expectations as a writer might not work in reality–what works on paper might not work in the final product. Sometimes the writers find out that players find a puzzle entirely too obtuse, or too easy, and they will take that as a learning experience for the future. No one watches or plays a game ‘wrong’ –which is one of the most important things a writer can learn.
When it comes to lore (something I deeply love), Hallford stated that he prefers to put it in the backend of a game, allowing players to find it organically, but not make it completely necessary to the story. That way if a player doesn’t find a particular note, they aren’t missing anything important–but at the same time, “lore informs everything.”
Of course, games are a team effort, and when dealing with corporations, writers have to be willing to compromise their story to meet corporate expectations. “You have to roll with the punches,” Toole said, and remember that you aren’t working for just yourself–but always be willing to be an advocate for your vision. Otherwise you will burn out sooner, rather than later.
The panel was small, and given the size of most panels at SDCC and Wondercon, it was wonderful to be able to experience these creators in an intimate setting. I’m glad to see that CCI has decided to continue SAM in their new Museum, and I hope they expand it’s offerings in the years to come.