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Everything I Needed to Know About Game Writing I Learned From Star Trek 120

Evan Skolnick has been writing for comic books and games for a good, long while now. He thinks that the most important elements to good games writing can be found in one of the touchstones of nerd culture: Star Trek. In an hour-long presentation at GDC Austin today, he discussed some of the most important lessons that can be derived from the Star Trek franchise as regards storytelling, character development, and the importance of not starting a story with "all we have to do now is wait." Read on for notes from his equally informative and humorous look at crafting a great tale.
What can Star Trek teach any writer? Five simple things.

Start with a Bang - It's vital to hook the audience almost immediately. It was important in 1966, and it's even more important today. The teasers at the start of the original series episodes were prescient. Today's 'finger on the remote' television watchers and game players have even less patience than 1966 audiences. All the movies got this right, even the slow-as dirt 'Motion Picture'. Next Generation didn't get it right in the first season or so; but they got better. He shows us clips from TOS and TNG to contrast. The TOS clip has a tense feeling (thematic music, red alert notice), with only a few clues as to what's going on. It immediately grabs the viewer and has them questioning what's on the screen in front of him. TNG's clip, by contrast, starts with Picard saying there's nothing to do but wait ... and then passes to a thrilling discussion between Geordi and Data about a model ship.

For game writing, starting with a short (emphasis on short) and gripping scene is the best way to get a player hooked. Focus only on the 'need to know' info. Don't cram the tutorial into the first minute of play. Delay the release of expository information as much as you can, keep them guessing without frustrating them. When you do have to release that information, have the player asking questions that can be answered by actually playing the game.

Defy Expectations - The original series was completely different than many other shows on television; even Spock was controversial. There was concern among the mainstream television folks that he 'looked like a devil.' They actually modified promotional stills to avoid the appearance of 'devilishness.' There was also concern that a rational, unemotional point of view would be uninteresting. Uhura is more obviously controversial; a female African American woman on the flagship of the fleet was pushing boundaries. They originally wanted a female first officer, and the character became a lieutenant because the studio 'sort of' won.

Specific episodes call this out more. "Devil in the Dark", with the tale of the Horta and her eggs, was very out of the ordinary for the time. The 'pure energy' Organians in another episode, facing down Starfleet and the Klingons, turned expectations on their head.

The move to Next Gen defied expectations in different ways. A French guy with an English accent as captain of the Enterprise? He was physically and temperamentally different than Shatner's character ... despite them hedging their bets with Riker. Data was an attempt to capture the essence of the Spock character while also turning things on their head. Spock has emotions but doesn't want them, Data doesn't and wants them. It allows for new interactions and possibilities, something expanded even further by having "Klingons as allies?" They were the fire for a lot of conflict in the original series, and things needed to be retconned in order to make the new vision of the race fit. The Borg were out of left field, completely different from almost any other thing seen in TV science fiction (except maybe the Daleks). A huge amount of fodder for the series, but something you wouldn't have expected if you look at the original series.

Game writers need to look at their work, then, with a critical eye towards culling cliches. Try to surprise your audience, and avoid leading the player on a straight and unwavering path to a goal. Avoid plodding 'missions' that lead to a goal they've seen for hours. Is there some way to change the mission midstream? The only catch there is that while players like to be surprised, they hate deus ex machina; make it come from the gameplay.

Externalize Internal Conversations - The Kirk/Spock/McCoy triumvirate is a great way to do this. Spock's superego vs. McCoy's id makes for entertaining television and allows Kirk's ego to come to a decision. It allows conversations we have in our head every day to be played out on screen.

When you make characters, ensure their personalities are well-differentiated. Games only have a limited amount of time to establish characterization, and people will muddy the lines between too-similar NPCs. This allows you to void clumsy narration, and provides the opportunity to have entertaining, sharp banter. It also allows for the chance to relieve stress through humor.

Use Classic Structure - The original series stuck very closely to the Aristotle idea of story structure. Setup, confrontation, and resolution makes for a nice graph of the tension during the story. Older stories tend to have a slope up from the baseline; starting with a bang has tension starting high and then dipping before coming back up over the course of the tale. The Monomyth of the Hero's Journey is also a very widely understood component of storytelling. Archetypes and the 'universal framework of stories' is something that is used by many authors across media. From the safe and sound setting of the 'Ordinary World', past the 'Supreme Ordeal', to the 'Return with the Elixir', it's something we've all seen before. (Quick screenshot of Star Wars points out that this has been used before in science fiction.)

Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan is the best example of this in Trek. Starting from the world of Kirk as an instructor at Starfleet, we're taken through the trials of Regulus to the 'death' of Spock to resurrect the Enterprise and Kirk's youth.

You don't have to use this pattern directly, but understanding the pattern is helpful as a guideline for writing good stories. Non-linear storytelling makes things more challenging, but the Hero's Journey is always helpful as a template.

Focus on Character - The hero should be a force within the plot. He should be a way to spur on the plot, to create conflict. Kirk is decisive, action-oriented, and takes risks. It's also important beyond these simple elements to ensure that the hero has something personal at stake. Conflict isn't meaningful unless there's something actually at risk. Finally, the hero should solve their own problems. Deus ex Machina is always disappointing; don't let 'luck' win the day.

For games, the player *is* the hero. They want to be the primary character in the tale, they want stuff to do, action. They want to feel like they're facing risk and danger. They also want to make decisions that have meaning; be the one that changes the world.

The villain, on the other hand, should be the flint for the hero's steel. Conflict should be created by their interaction. They should be more than a match for a hero. Heroes that beat wimpy villains look wimpy. Modern villains should not think they are the villains; in his story he *is* the Hero. He needs a believable motivation for doing what he does, on that note. At the end of the day, there needs to be a direct confrontation between the Hero and the Villain; Khan is a great exception to the rule.

Game writers should take time to view the story from the villain's point of view. Write the game's story from that POV as a useful way of looking at things differently. Make sure to examine the villain's behavior for internal logic and consistency. Are they needlessly crazy?

Perfect Trek Episode - You'd think the perfect episode would be one with space battles, fighting, and space babes. Instead, "City on the Edge of Forever" is often lauded as the best episode ever. Why is this? It defies expectations by placing things in the past as opposed to the future, and stakes Kirk's personal views deeply in the story. Contrast this with the two big favorites in TNG. "Best of Both Worlds", the Borg two-parter, has all the usual stuff. But the other one that everyone lauds quite heavily is "The Inner Light", the story where Picard lives an entire lifetime in a few moments.

What Inspires You? - The takeaway should be: everything can inspire good writing. Look at what you see as good work, and ask what makes it so. Ask what could have been done better, what you can do better.
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Everything I Needed to Know About Game Writing I Learned From Star Trek

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  • by hal2814 ( 725639 ) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @03:27PM (#20483907)
    "You'd think the perfect episode would be one with space battles, fighting, and space babes. Instead, "City on the Edge of Forever" is often lauded as the best episode ever. Why is this?"

    For the same reason that the best Outer Limits episode is "Demon with the Glass Hand" and one of the best 80's Twilight Zone episodes is "Shatterday": because Harlan Ellison wrote it. Good sci-fi starts with good writers.
  • by Retric ( 704075 ) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @03:45PM (#20484345)
    Ok, they are cyborgs that seek to increase their numbers by converting people into ___

    However, the Borg are a collective where individual Cybermen can and do act independently. Personally I think of the Borg as a mix of zombies (convert you and your fellows to them), ants (hive with little individuality), rampaging robots (they have advanced teck and for the most part just walk all over Starfleet). IMO it's their organic / zombie nature that really messes with you as they are not going to kill you so much as eat your brains and send your body off to collect your friends and family. Because it's one thing for an intelligent toaster to attack someone it's another thing for the family pet to get rabies and attack you. Add to that the somewhat seductive nature of the "Borg queen" and it's IMO a fairly unique mix.
  • Re:To sum up: (Score:2, Insightful)

    by JPLemme ( 106723 ) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @04:00PM (#20484673)
    It's not bad advice. Breaking the rules requires an understanding of the rules to make it effective.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @04:43PM (#20485595)
    The Borg you describe were not the originals. The Queen was an invention of the movies. "You," Casper the Friendly individual Borg and all that other Unimatrix Zero Voyager back story came crap along later.

    The original Borg kicked ass. Despite the range of Star Trek aliens, most of them amounted to humanoids with face paint. Even the plasmas and gases acted just like us. The Borg were different. They were collective. They couldn't be reasoned with or argued with. They couldn't be effectively attacked, because there was no one thing to attack. You really didn't even exist to them. They started chopping your ship up before they might even notice you. And when they did, they attacked and adapted and attacked again until you were assimilated. And they did it without fear or anger or hate or any other emotion or attribution that we could understand. That is what made them so creepy and cool as enemies.

    The Borg became an instant success and rose to the top of the Star Trek food chain and the writers faced with a new popular antagonist turned the Borg into just another individual, reasonable, talkative character that made for easy writing.

  • by MobyDisk ( 75490 ) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @04:55PM (#20485821) Homepage

    At the end of the day, there needs to be a direct confrontation between the Hero and the Villain; Khan is a great exception to the rule.
    The end of "The Wrath of Khan" ends with a very personal showdown between Kirk and Khan. Yes, they are on separate ships, and yes, it is Spock's advice ("His pattern indicates two-dimensional thinking...") that results in Khan's death. But the entire time Khan is cursing Kirk and treating this fight as an epic battle between Khan's raw hate and intelligence -vs- Kirk's heart and experience.

    Direct confrontations do not always involve fisticuffs (although with Kirk, they usually do).
  • by Loke the Dog ( 1054294 ) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @05:22PM (#20486249)
    "For games, the player *is* the hero. They want to be the primary character in the tale, they want stuff to do, action. They want to feel like they're facing risk and danger. They also want to make decisions that have meaning; be the one that changes the world."

    Some people like that, I don't. I hate it when I play a game only to realize that everything that happens in the game revolves around me. I guess it makes the story interesting for the player, but it doesn't make it believable, because that's not how real life looks. I hated that in morrowind, they created this huge world... where nothing happened if the player didn't come along. Obviously, creating a truly living world is very hard, but you can at least try to convince the player (me) that the world will go on without them. Morrowind utterly failed at that, and by this advice, that is apparently a good thing.

    Similarly, I hated the Kirk character. Partly because he was way too stupid to feel like a true captain, but also just because the world seemed to always revolve around him. Nothing ever happened that was completely unrelated to him. In TNG, this was not the case. Sure, Picard ended up in situations where he could change the world, but these moments where very rare, and he wasn't the only one.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @07:41PM (#20487943)

    Perhaps this is why video games usually make lousy movies.
    No, thats just because of the lousy film directors screwing up the story so much it becomes nothing like the game.

    Take Doom as an example, the story was easy to understand, my 5 year old cousin could grasp it:
    Humans create teleporters, they test them, some weird stuff happens (people coming back screwed up, screaming etc), demons come through and kill everyone, you are sent in to check it out, all the team is killed but you, you need to kill the demons and turn off the teleporter.
    Yet, the film was pretty damn crap to be honest, it was Resident Evil on Mars, no evil demons from Hell or anything... i hope there isn't a second film, i will cry, the first is so horrible it hurts.

    Anyway, enough of films now.

Can anyone remember when the times were not hard, and money not scarce?