Anyone who wants to write a game has at some point asked the following question of a game writer, narrative designer, or teacher: It’d be useful to see what video game scripts should look like, do you have any examples of them?
This is an innocent question, and a very sensible one. It is also cursed. The resounding answer from almost anyone in the know, regardless of how helpful they want to be, is a pained face and an uncomfortable “Well, it’s not quite that simple…”
To understand the answer, we must first consider what TV, film, and play scripts really are. Forget for a moment that we sometimes read or study them separately from the end product. They’re a prototyping tool. Let me explain:
Let’s say I want to make a movie. The most immediate way of doing that is to pick my location, imagine some characters, hire actors and film crew, then go and start filming. All lines would be written as we go, acting would be intuited by the actors and guided by the director. Shots would be improvised on set. We’d then wander to the next location and repeat. Eventually, a story would start to take place, but we’d likely have to reshoot earlier scenes, much like an author revising their book.
It’s about time, and time is money
This would be a prohibitively expensive way to make a film. Imagine the sheer amount of money that’d be wasted on totally avoidable things like plot errors and character inconsistency. So instead we start with a screenplay, which describes the film in words only from start to finish, such that a human reader can imagine the film without the expense of shooting it. They can then assess, edit, and rearrange elements quickly and cheaply until they’re absolutely happy with it. Once this written prototype is done, it’s much safer to start spending money on equipment and talent.
So why don’t we see these ‘written prototypes’ for games? The answer is, actually, you do. They’re called game design documents (GDDs), and they’re a human-readable document which describes every aspect of a game in such a way that a reader can imagine the game without the expense of making it. They are, in fact, more potent than screenplays, since they not only describe the story and game mechanics of a project, but also key elements that traditional screenplays don’t paper-prototype, such as descriptions of music, art direction, and plans for required technology. Just like a screenplay, everyone on a game team is referring to the GDD for guidance on what’s required for their part of the project, and smart developers continually update the GDD, reflecting the new needs of the project over time. Sometimes they get so extensively detailed that we start to call them bibles.
Very different industries
The real reason these aren’t distributed as widely as screenplays is simply that the games industry does not have a social-Darwinist underside, wherein people publish GDDs speculatively online in the hope a game studio picks up their idea. Instead, GDDs are written collaboratively by the key creatives in an existing team, and there’s never really a need to expose them to the public. However, a quick search on Google will yield a good number of GDDs from popular games for you to peruse.
But even then, the story sections of GDDs aren’t written in any kind of screenplay format. They’re usually detailed summaries, more like a film’s Wikipedia page than its script, and it’s very rare for them to include things like actual lines of dialogue.
The reason for this is that game scripts are also often inherently non-linear. Consider the Civilization games, where all of the writing is inside a host of unique, situational interactions with other faction leaders, most of which are absent from each individual playthrough. You can summarise the breadth of each leader, but could you possibly represent this in such a way that you could sit at home and just read the entire script for Civilization? Probably not, but we’re not finished adding problems yet.
Man versus Machine
Real video game scripts need to be machine-readable. They are not a plan for a human to read, they are a file (or asset) that is part of the actual software itself. The game needs to be able to chop lines up, extract the data about each of them, then use them in-engine. In our Civilization example, each passage would need an ID number of some kind, so that it can be found easily by the computer. It would need to be tagged with the speaker, which we’re used to in screenplays, but also with the voice file, which is likely to be obscurely named. It would then need a list of preconditions against which the game can check itself. For example, is this passage about a military surrender? If so, the game must know it can only display this passage during wartime, if the enemy faction’s morale score is low, and when the player is winning.
Reading this document would be, frankly, quite horrible, and is unlikely to make any sense unless an inordinate amount of additional work is done in adding plainly written context to every passage. Think of it like this: if a film script is like a cake recipe, trying to read a game’s script is like trying to read a slice of the cake.
The real game script, the one that’s actually part of the game, is written in whatever format the writing and programming teams can agree on, usually a compromise that’s slightly too technical for the writers, and a bit too human for the game engine. What this actually looks like depends entirely on the type of project and the individuals responsible for it.
Sometimes you’ll use a programming language like Ink, Yarn, or Harlowe, and your writers will have to learn it. Other times, the writers will simply write lines in a massive spreadsheet, and the programmers will have to find a way to parse that into the game. Large developers sometimes use specialist software that bridges this gap, such as articy:draft.
So if you’re going to write a game, look at GDDs rather than searching for screenplays of video games. Then consider what machine-readable format is best for your unique project, and start the real writing in that. Which machine-readable format is best for what type of game? That’ll have to wait for a future column, but it’ll probably begin with “Well, it’s not quite that simple…”
“But what about The Last of Us?!” I hear you cry. Well… OK. There is a small minority of (usually) very high-profile games in which the story and line-delivery are filmic enough that it can be worthwhile to prototype the story like a screenplay, purely as a human-readable script. It’s rare, but it happens. The recently released script book for Insomniac’s Spider-Man game is a great example of this.