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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 hansamurai ( 907719 ) <hansamurai@gmail.com> on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @03:20PM (#20483787) Homepage Journal
    Start with a Bang - It's vital to hook the audience almost immediately.

    Okay, I hate to tout my game review site, but this is exactly the thing I've been focusing on lately. Every week, I've been playing the first hour of different games from different genres and judging them entirely on this notion. I whole-heartedly agree that the first few moments of a TV show (Battlestar Galactica or even comedies with cold opens - like The Office - have been pulling this off pretty well lately) and the first few minutes to the first hour of a video game is crucial to capturing your audience's attention while developing the foundation for the rest of the experience. I've reviewed games with really good first hours like God of War 2 and Indigo Prophecy and games with really awful first hours.

    Some of the best first hours of video games that I've played throw you right into a boss encounter: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and Beyond Good and Evil come to mind immediately. This is almost as good as you can get when trying to start your game off with a bang.

    http://thefirsthour.blogspot.com/ [blogspot.com]

    There you go if you're interested.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @03:54PM (#20484547)
    Sure. And "Alien" was a metaphor for cancer. Or unwanted pregnancy. It could go either way.

    The theme of the ravenous revenant goes back further than Night of the Living Dead. Dracula was one of the ilk. The revenant stories belong with those fairy tales about things everybody wants but cannot have, like endless riches or immortality. The basic ideas is that if you knew what it would take to get those things, you wouldn't want them. People who fight becoming revenants aren't fighting for survival, they are fighting for a prolongation of their mortal state.

    This makes a pretty good framework for telling a story, you just have to be creative about decorating that framework.

    Now, what makes the Borg interesting is not that they are space zombies, but they are zombies with an ideology. That's a new wrinkle as far as I know. Zombies bite people for the same reason people scratch mosquito bites. It just feels good to do it. The Borg assimilate people not because of instinctual drives, but because of group aspirations.

    And since they have an ideology, there is the possibility -- or perhaps the inevitability -- of hypocrisy. The Borg want you specifically your individuality. However you are not allowed to direct that individuality or benefit from it. Instead it is absorbed into the whole and used for the good of the whole. It is a form of radical egalitarianism, except that at the top everything is the queen who is allowed her exercise her own egoism freely. As such it is a metaphor for state socialism -- in fact for any social or political hierarchy where the people at the top control things for the "good of all".
  • I'll agree too (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Moraelin ( 679338 ) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @04:23PM (#20485205) Journal
    I'll agree too. Some of the worst videogame implementations of the Monomyth (since it's mentioned in the summary) went and made me do boring, mundane tasks for hours on end, apparently for no other reason that the Monomyth said they must start with the hero as an everyman Joe. So, same as an action movie starts with showing you the hero for 10 minutes being an ordinary father and good cop (or good soldier, or guy on a trip, or whatever), some games seemed to feel a need to stretch this proportional to the game's length, and made me go through hours on end of doing mundane, uninteresting, un-heroic things.

    So I guess what I'm trying to say is: kudos. Maybe a review site can get that idea out of more potential victims' heads.
  • by AKAImBatman ( 238306 ) <akaimbatman&gmail,com> on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @04:29PM (#20485315) Homepage Journal
    Specifically, I'm referring to the practice of showing the most dramatic scene of the story during the teaser, then jumping back to the start of the story once the show begins. You then have to plod through the story to reach that dramatic moment again.

    This technique makes a lot of sense in some stories. Especially stories that maintain a sense of intrigue by slowly revealing past events through flashbacks. But as of late, it's been abused to no end. Did SG-1 really need to open with the Stargate being zapped away? Did the Enterprise episode "Singularity" really need to open with everyone unconscious?

    If the writers can't open the story without framing it up front, then their story probably isn't that interesting. Or at the very least, they're telling it wrong. (ex. Ent. Ep. "Similitude" was very similar to the Voyager episode "Demon". Yet "Demon" did not need to be framed in order to keep the viewer in suspense about the crew members having duplicates.)
  • by Ford Prefect ( 8777 ) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @07:05PM (#20487591) Homepage

    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.

    One of my favourite aspects of escapism in computer gaming is the exploration of whole new worlds - for instance, I loved Half-Life 2 not for the fact I was Gordon Freeman, but for the ability to (albeit briefly) visit this subdued, subtly described post-alien-invasion version of Eastern Europe.

    Okay, so I might have been playing the hero, but that's not what interested me. I like to visit plausible worlds, not save them. Seeing an absence of hands on the main clocks in the railway station in City 17, or the carefully, uniformly cut cords on the receivers on the public payphones - those interest me.

    Likewise, game box art really disappoints me. It has to be the gun-toting hero surrounded by explosions or other action, when I'd be far more interested with an abstract architectural shot. The European box art for Ico [wikipedia.org] was meant to be rubbish, but I love it. The North American art? Awful!

    My own Half-Life 2 mod MINERVA [hylobatidae.org] has, disconcertingly, been lauded for its storytelling and writing - but I've had more fun creating a semi-plausible world which is slowly infiltrated by the player. The world reacts to that presence, but it's not a sterile, empty place beforehand - I've had fun telling stories in an entirely non-verbal form too.

    As for the verbal stuff? I can't stand Star Trek, and I've been more inspired by Iain M. Banks and friends than anything else. I have my own unreliable narrator - an anti-heroine of the highest proportions. But again, the world doesn't revolve around her - she is a reaction against it, and is attempting to undermine it. If she fails, it continues on without her. If she succeeds? Pretty much the same...

  • by spaceyhackerlady ( 462530 ) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @07:19PM (#20487729)

    The City on the Edge of Forever is a classic Greek tragedy:

    The hero is going to lose.

    The here knows he is going to lose.

    The hero knows there's nothing he can do about it.

    We like the hero, and share his pain in an impossible situation. The result: gripping drama.

    Generally, I find there were only a few clunker TNG episodes, while more than a few TOS episodes are clunkers 40 years later. A few just plain haven't aged well; others were silly to begin with. But the best ones remain excellent to this day.


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