Novels to Video Games: Taking the Leap

Posted on April 15, 2015 by Moira

Pick up a book on writing novels, and a significant number of chapters will be devoted to writing the character arc and pairing it with your world. Protagonist and world (or plot) will in a sense be foils, both uniquely suited to the other and diametrically opposed. The world and the protagonist play off of one another, leading the protagonist to struggle, fail, learn, and ultimately conquer. However clinical it may sound, I can assure you that as one gets down into the guts of the story, working out this interplay can be exquisitely frustrating,

Still, when Keaton White approached me about writing the story for Shroud, I felt confident. I had written characters from bored noblewomen to scientific researchers to trainee assassins—and I love video games. I began building a story with, in retrospect, a comical level of naiveté.

One of the first unexpected emotions to hit was guilt. Fantasy author Neil Gaiman once described visiting the set of the movie Stardust, and seeing the set crew building a flying pirate ship:

"I felt so guilty. I wasn’t saying how great it was; I was going, “I am so sorry I made it up!” Because it didn’t cost me anything, just the price of whatever tea I was drinking and some ink. And now 70 people have spent two months working to build this thing and you can dance on the deck. It was very, very strange."

I first read this quote years and years go, and thought it was amusing, but it really was very strange to dream up cities and settings, and watch artists spend hours upon hours creating sketches, coming humbly back to me to ask if this was what I had envisioned for the characters and the world. No matter how much they enjoyed their work or how much time they expected to spend working on a world, the experience was a wakeup call: I was no longer chewing on the end of a pen, sitting alone at my desk and dreaming up things I could change at a moment’s notice. Other people’s livelihoods hinged on me not only getting this right and creating an engaging world, but being respectful of their time meant that I must do so quickly and surely, with a minimum of rework. I went back to dreaming, but more seriously.

As I started to write the character, issues became plain: not only did I need to make a character arc largely without internal dialogue, but I needed to show the character in juxtaposition to the world without a great deal of external dialogue, either. This was an idea I had simply never faced before. The world would be shown as it was, not as my character perceived it, and my character’s main actions would need to be comprehensible, while allowing for the characters to feel they had an influence on the story. Oh, crap, would be a good assessment—if not quite a verbatim transcript—of my internal dialogue at this juncture.

And this was before we added in the game mechanics, cut scene limitations, and the opinions of the other game designers. Necessary changes began to accrue, shifting the storyline subtly in an increasing number of ways. I gave up and went to play Dragon Age, which only served to unnerve me even more. Dialogue wheels! Extensive character lists! Multiple writers!

It took a few weeks to click, but when it did we went full steam ahead…in the other direction. In retrospect, maybe this approach should have been obvious from the start: with one writer, there was no way we could recreate the vastness of a AAA game like Mass Effect, using dialogue options and motion-capture. Although it was obvious, as well, that we should not have thought of that as a failure: after all, Thatgamecompany had shown with Journey that it was entirely possible to create an outstanding game and a rich story by working within limitations instead of pushing for things that were not possible.

We considered what we had, and what we could do. Limited dialogue? Well, how about almost none at all? After all, video games are fundamentally directed by actions. Characters could mostly silent and still reflect the feelings of the player, if they were allowed outlets to choose their antagonists in quests, switch alliances, and suggest new ones. Our protagonist, being an outsider to the complex and vicious politics of Iskendrun, would naturally take time to become vocal, with much of their character shown in their choice of allies.

Just like structuring character development along the lines of action was an obvious choice in retrospect, writing these choices is infinitely easier in concept than it is in practice. As a novelist, there is the expectation that as soon as the work is out of one’s hands, readers will bring their own perspective to it. It is a new perspective entirely to plan for the engagement of the players to be ongoing, and to prepare for the possibility that it could shift the story in directions I had not originally planned—because once Season 1 begins, the players themselves will be the voice of Iskendrun’s politics. And that means setting them loose in the world our development team has brought to life…and letting the mechanics I set in advance play out.

Post by Moira Katson, story designer for Shroud