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Book Review: Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know about Narrative Techniques by Evan Skolnick

Book Review: Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know about Narrative Techniques by Evan Skolnick

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At first glance, an outsider to the world of video games might see little relation between a major motion picture and a video games. They seem to be different genres, different worlds, even when movies crossover to become games and games crossover and are developed into movies -- often badly. The action, the interactivity, the immersion of video games can make their stories seem unlike a standard narrative program. Surely, due to the player’s control of characters, video games can’t be written in the same way as a television script. While that might be true in some regards, when you go deeper into the creation of story that drives the final narrative, there are more similarities between writing for film and video games than you might imagine. These similarities also mean that many similar challenges exist for these writers regardless of their genre.

Writer Evan Skolnik is an international speaker and educator who conducts workshops on storytelling techniques and has worked on large scale video game projects such as Star Wars 1313, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 and Spiderman 3.

The first half of Video Game Storytelling would be familiar to anyone who has ever taken a film writing course. It discusses the “three act structure”, “The Hero’s Journey” and the Monomyth that are the basis for many of our most classic books and films like Star Wars and Alien. Skolnick uses these well-known films to illustrate various writing concepts but then expands his examples with examples from well-known video games and how they also use these same techniques. These games include the Bioshock series, Uncharted and Metal Gear Solid. Thankfully, just as with movies, many scenes and playthroughs of these games are easily available via YouTube. This allows the reader to familiarize themselves with games they may have never played and fully understand the lessons Skolnick references.

While there is a good deal of video game examples spread throughout this first half, I found myself wishing for even more examples of how the traditional writing and storytelling rules applied to video games.
The second half of Video Game Storytelling details the many disciplines involved in creating a video game and how each of these affects -- and is affected by -- the narrative tools he has illustrated in the first half. For incipient video game developers this is where they will find the “meat” of the book and the majority of the author’s expertise. The information found in the first half might be found in any good book on screenwriting, but the detailed breakdown of all the video game development disciplines, their challenges and their relationship to the narrative of any video game should probably be required reading for anyone considering a career in video game design and development.

In the “In the Trenches” section, Skolnik details the responsibilities of each important discipline including Game Character Development, Level and Mission Development, Environments, Audio and several others. He also details how a video game writer needs to work with each of these disciplines in order to create a well-balanced, successful, and most importantly playable video game.

Throughout Video Game Storytelling you will see and hear a complaint common to any collaborative writing and creative enterprise -- the lack of inclusion, if not outright respect, for the creator of the narrative of a game. There are several common mistakes in dealing with a writer, whether in traditional media such as television or film or the relative younger video game industry. Skolnick lays out the biggest mistakes creative teams can make with their narrative experts i.e. writers. These mistakes can range from not hiring a writer at all for your game to hiring a writer but then not giving them the power and support to defend the narrative from the competing demands of all the disciplines mentioned above. Too often writers are given all the responsibility for the narrative, but very little power to defend that narrative. This can often translate into taking much of the blame for a less-than-successful game, even when many of the narrative decisions were taken out of their control.

Skolnik’s best advice when hiring a video game writer can be summed up as -- hire as early as possible in the development process, integrate them fully and equally with all the other disciplines and teams, listen to their guidance about the narrative. A game developer is paying their writer for their experience, advice, and knowledge. They should then take it. Too often, though, that is not the case. The writer -- and the narrative -- get shunted aside by cool gaming mechanics, great explosions and intricate AI characters.

One of the main reasons I requested a review copy of the book from Blogging for Books is so I could better familiarize myself with game development and be able to discuss it more intelligently with my high school aged son, who is looking at a career somewhere in the game development industry. As I read the book, I found myself reading him some of the stories and ideas out loud and also encouraging him several times to read the book as soon as I had completed it. I think there is a great deal of knowledge to be gained from both sections of the book. The “Basic Training” section gives an excellent introduction into the world of the Three-Act Structure and the second half applies that knowledge in very concrete ways specific to video game development. It is a great starting point for learning about an industry -- video gaming -- that is rapidly becoming a huge entertainment industry on the level of traditional television or film.


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