The Illusion of Choice

Lessons from the Writing Excuses intensive course on writing for games

The Illusion of Choice
Photo by Victoriano Izquierdo / Unsplash.

Hosted by published authors working in a variety of genres and with decades of experience in the industry, the Writing Excuses podcast offers quick 15–20 minute long episodes packed with insightful writing, craft, and business advice. This year, the podcast has shifted its format to focus on eight-episode intensive courses that drill down into a particular subject — in this case, game writing.

Along with regular hosts Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Taylor, the eight episodes on game writing were led by two guest hosts, Cassandra Khaw and James L. Sutter, both of whom have extensive experience writing for games. Kaw has worked as a senior scriptwriter for Ubisoft Montreal and as a freelance writer for various indie video game developers. Sutter is a co-creator of the Pathfinder and Starfinder table-top roleplaying games.

Photo by Justin Luebke on Unsplash.

The Craft of Game Writing

The first six episodes focus on the craft of writing for games, highlighting ways of looking at the interactive storytelling and how to build the world around that experience. The first two episodes—Intro to Roleplaying Games and Branching Narratives—explore the ways in which games incorporate choice into the story and gameplay.

When discussing the craft, the group discussed the importance of taking into account the presence of the player, who has the ability to make choices that directly affect their experience and outcome of the story. Depending on the game, these choices range from being able to do virtually anything (as in a tabletop RPG) to having a more reigned in experience, as in many video games.

“It’s all about balancing predestination and free will,” explained Khaw. “You are absolutely the invisible hand of fate. But the trick about roleplaying games and designing them is you’re giving [the player] a setting, you’re giving them a sandbox, you might be giving them a little bit of a map, like a toolkit, some directions on what to do — and you’re kind of hoping that they will go in that direction, [but] it is not necessarily true.”

The group described this as curating the gaming experience for the player. Drawing on her work in interactive theater, Kowal describes this act of curation as a spectrum, ranging from the illusion of choice to allowing the player make impactful decisions that are then carefully curated into the story.

As an example of how illusion of choice can play out in a game, Khaw pointed to Telltale’s The Walking Dead. The game provides points of dialog and action choice throughout the story, indicating that these choices will have an impact later on. However, most of these choices have little actual impact on the narrative flow of the story. Despite this illusion of choice, Khaw explained that The Walking Dead used these choices to create an intense emotional impact for the player. For example, the choice of whether to kill a character after they have become infected or leave them to die evokes a deep resonance, even if the actual outcome will be the same either way.

Choosing dialog in The Walking Dead. Source: Author.

Managing player choice in gaming is carried out through branching narratives. Welles, who started as a novelist, described his own difficulty in trying to understand branching narratives and offered an excellent resource that helped him wrap his head around the concept. Altas Obscura published maps of the various branching narratives from the classic Choose Your Own Adventure books, which present visual illustrations of the various pathways such a story might take.

Khaw explained that branching narratives should be carefully pruned until they become something elegant and spare. “Every time you give a player a choice, you’re kind of splitting off into two different realities,” said Khaw. “On paper, this doesn’t sound too bad. Life is an infinite split of possibilities, after all, but if you’re writing a game, you will not have a life if you follow that momentum… you need to kind of prune it, to make sure it fits the kind of format that feels both dynamic and elegant, and is still leading a player towards [where] you need them to go.”

The group discussed several ways for guiding players to the desired destination. Returning to the concept of the illusion of choice, Sutter recommended a way of pruning that involves bending the story branches back to the main narrative. He said, “Where characters make a choice…, you bend those choices so they come back towards an intersections that I think of as like checkpoints that let you keep the story on track. For instance, if you give the players the choice of [either] talking to the witch or talking to the dragon, they can head off in those different directions, but you know, as the writer, that whatever they do in those two interactions, they’re still going to get the request to go find Bigfoot. So then both of those paths will converge again on Bigfoot’s lair.”

Sutter added that these points of convergence are where key plot or character development details should occur. By placing them at points where you know the player is always going to return, you can make sure that the player doesn’t miss anything important in the story. This is also a time and money saving solution, because otherwise this information would have to be duplicated on each of the separate paths.

Khaw agreed with Sutter, but added that it’s fine to put some key story information in only a single story branch, as long the opposite branch features information that is equally valuable and important. “Players don’t necessarily mind if they miss something, if they get something else in return,” Khaw explained.

It’s also important to tie each decision to the experience of the player and the character that they’re playing. The choices that the player makes has to drive the story and its emotional weight—and there are various ways to show this impact. One simple and often inexpensive method that Sutter recommends is the use of conditionals and callbacks, which remind the player of a choice they made earlier on. For example, if the player chooses to insult a witch in the first scene, when they return to her later in the game, they find that she remembers the earlier interaction and dislikes them. “That can be one line of dialogue, but it suddenly makes the player feel like, Oh, this is a real world with real consequences. Because a choice I made a long time ago is continuing to have ramifications,” said Sutter. “It wasn’t super expensive. It didn’t lead to a whole new branch. It was just one thing that was tweaked.”

Additional episodes on the craft of writing dive into other aspects of game writing, such as Player Characters, Scenes and Set Pieces, Rules and Mechanics, and Worldbuilding for Games—each of which provides their own interesting insights.

The Business of Game Writing

The final two episodes shift the focus of the intensive course toward the business side of game writing, looking at the process of Breaking into Game Writing and Working with Teams.

Breaking In

When looking at breaking into game writing, both Khaw and Sutter explained that it is important to set reasonable expectations—considering the fact that the business is highly competitive and most game writing is work for hire (which means someone else owns the work). Sutter described this as the difference between being an artist and an artisan. “Where I think an artist is all about sort of expressing yourself and creating the thing that is you, embodied on the page. An artisan I think of as somebody who does a job for somebody else,” he said. “They tell you what they want. You build it. Then they control what happens to it afterwards.”

Actually getting a job working in games requires a proactive approach, according to Khaw who recommends putting yourself out there by networking through conventions, social media, internships, and participating in game jams. You can also connect with developers by interviewing them for media outlets, such as blogs, podcasts, etc., which not only allows you get to know the developers, but also to learn more about development and the industry.

Sutter explained that it’s also possible to get your foot in the door by going for alternative jobs at a game development company, such as in accounting, marketing, or so on—but you have to be careful. “You need to make sure that first and foremost, you do the job you were hired for,” he said. “If you do it well, then the people in the ‘creative departments’ are going to be a lot more likely to give you a shot when they’re looking for freelancers.”

The group also explained that having a solid portfolio is important. You start off by making your own stuff, such as Twine games, your own table top RPG, video game mod, or any other types of writing that could be related to the kind of job you are trying to do—any work that will showcase your best skills.

“One of the things also to keep in mind when you’re building a portfolio, regardless of the medium in which you are building it, is that portfolios are judged by the weakest piece in it,” noted Kowal. “Because your best peace might be a fluke as far as they’re concerned. So whatever your weakest piece is, if you’re like, ‘Well, I’m including this. It’s not really good but there’s this one piece about it,’ take that piece out.”

Once you have a gig in the industry, it’s important to impress your employer and team by doing the work asked of you. That means hitting the word count (not over or under) and meeting deadlines, as well as being transparent about any inabilities or challenges that you might be facing, so that the developer can find solutions if they need to.

Although its important to impress the employer, Kowal added that it’s also equally important to create a work level buffer in order to prevent burnout. “One of the things that people will do when they want to impress bosses is that [they] will do 110% that first couple of months,” she said. “The problem is that they assume that that is your normal… Remember that whatever expectations you set at the beginning are the expectations that you have to live up to for the rest of your time there.”

While not advocating for anyone to deliberately slack off, she recommends that you start at 80%, which provides a built in reserve tank for when crunch periods need to happen. “If you are competent and show up on time and are pleasant to work with, that’s basically all people want,” said Kowal.

Working with Teams

In the final episode of the intensive course, the hosts discussed aspects of collaboration and working with teams—which they explained is as important, if not more important, than being a great game designer. This requires both communication and compromise.

“Something I always used to tell my team members is you never get to a point where you get to stop compromising,” said Sutter. “As a new writer, you want to show off your ideas…, but in the end, you need to sort of salute and do what the group or your boss decides.”

As you’re working with a team, it’s important to honor other people’s skillsets and allow space for your teammates to show off their creativity. Everyone brings their own skills to the development process. Artists, level designers, sound engineers, and so on are all able to contribute different elements for shaping the story. Speaking of level designers as an example, Khaw noted, “They know exactly the structure [they are building] and how people might approach it and [they] also have little tools and little tricks that might not necessarily be things you think about that can enhance whatever story you’re trying to tell in the videogame.”

Sutter also recommends being a fan of your colleagues and championing them in their success. He explained, “I think sometimes people misunderstand and the think that the game industry is a zero-sum game, and that if they praise what their coworkers are doing, then they’ll be less likely to succeed—or, on the flipside, they feel like, ‘Oh, well, I can’t self advocate, because if I do, my coworkers won’t like me.’ I think that is absolutely a thing that people run into, that especially runs into issues of privilege as well. But I do believe that you can absolutely climb the ladder and self advocate, while still doing your best to be responsible and friendly and team oriented.”

Another important factor in working with teams is not to overly invest emotionally in the work. You need to be able to speak up, share your point of view, and advocate for yourself without getting caught up in the minutia. This is important not only in dealing with colleagues, but also in how you spend your creative energy.

Sutter pointed out that he has known some creative people who have been hurt by giving all of their creative energy to a team or company, without saving any for themselves. “One of the things that I have found really kept me sane in the 13 years that I was working at Paizo, as part of the teams on Starfinder and Pathfinder, was to have a creative outlet outside of work that could be just mine,” he said. “So I’d pour all my creativity at work into those settings, but then I would go home and I would work on a novel or I would play with the band or do something that allowed me to get that same creative release without having to always be compromising with the same people.”

Final Thoughts

Over the years that I’ve been listening to the Writing Excuses podcast, I’ve always found value in the various insights it provides on various aspects of the writing process. The conversational style allows for multiple points of view on a single subject, illuminating multiple paths forward as a writer. In addition, each episode features a book of the week—or in the case of the game writing intensive course, a game of the week—that helps to illustrate the point of the conversation. All of the episodes also include homework, such as writing challenges aimed at helping the listener further develop a particular skillset.

The game writing intensive course presents an excellent introduction into interactive storytelling and working within the game industry. In addition, past episodes of the podcast (though primarily focused on fiction writing) might also be valuable for game writers looking for more on the act of storytelling, from world building to character development.

Note: A big thanks to Writing Excuses Transcripts for doing the hard work of transcribing these and all the Writing Excuses podcast episodes—so that I didn’t have to.


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