Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Guest Post: “On Writing Fiction vs. Writing Games” by Richard Dansky

A 14 year veteran of the video game industry, Richard Dansky is the Central Clancy Writer for Ubisoft/Red Storm. Named by Gamasutra as one of the top 20 game writers in 2009, he has written for games ranging from OUTLAND to the upcoming SPLINTER CELL: BLACKLIST (which I’m rather looking forward to). Richard is also the author of six novels, including the critically praised Firefly Rain. He lives and works in North Carolina with his wife and their statistically improbable collections of books, scotch and cats. His latest novel is Vaporware.



RichardDansky-DinosaurPicThe big difference between writing games and writing fiction is whose story you’re actually telling. When you’re writing fiction, you’re writing a singular, defined narrative. The characters do what you want them to do. They say what you want them to say, when you want them to say it, and the plot moves, one page at a time, toward the conclusion. The reader receives the narrative; the story’s told in linear fashion, and while the reader can adjust the way they receive it by reading out of order – or by skipping the bits with Tom Bombadil and getting straight to the barrow-wights – the text is set on the page. It’s the writer’s story, not the reader’s.

In games, it’s not your story, it’s the player’s. Every piece of writing you do, every word you put on the page isn’t there to advance your story to a singular conclusion. It’s there for the player to pick up and put on and experience, and then to make their own. It sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s true. Without the player actually playing, those story elements sit there inert. They’re pure potential, waiting to be actualized by the player engaging with them. Until then, they just sit in memory, waiting to be triggered by the player’s actions.

What this produces is a very different kind of story. For all the classical genre tropes that so heavily infest game writing, classical storytelling techniques need to be adjusted to allow the player room to play. It’s what I called “the player-shaped hole” at my Game Developers Conference talk a few years ago, the possibility space around what the player might do at any given moment. And even in the most straightforward game, the list of things the player can do at any given moment is surprisingly large. Shoot? Maybe, but even with that there are innumerable choices to be made (weapon, rate of fire, choice of target, etc.). Move? Duck? Jump? Check inventory? Use a healthpack? Fiddle with the controller? All of these things the player can do, things that might be incorporated into their personal story of playing have to be accounted for so that when the player looks back on their experience, it feels like all the choices they made were the right ones at the time. Before it happens, it has to be open; in hindsight, it has to be seamless.


That’s not to say that the gap between writing fiction and writing games is insurmountable, though I confess, as someone who’s done both, it’s often easier to go from the ultimately interactive scenario of game writing to the ultimately dictated scenario of fiction than the other way around. And a look at the writers working both sides of the fence these days – Austin Grossman, Erin Hoffman, Lucien Soulban, Jay Posey, and many more – might even suggest that there’s some potential benefit to laboring in the vineyards of games and learning the hard way to tell stories not your own.


If you want to learn more about Richard Dansky and his work, be sure to check out his website and follow him on Twitter.


  1. Refreshing to see someone from the industry side recognize this. If I wanted to read a book, I'd read a book. What (should) differentiate games as an art form from books or movies is the interactivity between creator and player, and the trend lately seems to be towards linear narratives interspersed with gameplay that ultimately doesn't matter.

  2. I like the idea that games writers become better-equipped for linear narrative! I'll definitely agree that moving into linear narrative after writing games feels like jumping in a Ford F150 after trying to drive a buggy being pulled by a mule.

    While I agree with the general gist of everything you say, I am a little wary of a few of the stronger claims for the distinction between games writing and traditional storytelling.

    For example, my thinking is that game story is usually a little less interactive than argued (after all, the events in memory, yet-to-be-triggered, are much like the events over the next page-turn, yet to be read).

    Likewise, I think there's an argument to be made that game designers sometimes overstate the case of traditional narrative as 'the writer's story'. I think Barthes's concept of "Death of the Author" is one worth considering: all story is liberated from the original creator once consumers take responsibility for creating it in their own minds.

    Since all consumption of the word is an act of interpretation of imperfect and amorphous signs, made by an imperfect being with imperfect attention and given areas of focus, I'm sure my reading and understanding of Vaporware might be drastically different than another reader's.

    And given that the videogame, like film and TV, deprives consumers of the requirement to visualize (and hear) every scenario in their own heads, you could even argue that books are freer in the final form they are likely to take. Perhaps, in that case, you could argue that games offer a freer expression of one's own will (but again, usually with a ton of major constraints), whereas books offer a freer use of one's own imagination.

    Theory aside, I'm looking forward to checking out the new book!

  3. I've always found Barthes' notion to be an interesting one, but one with certain inherent limitations - you can free a fish from an aquarium, but it's not likely to climb a tree because of its innate structure. Ditto for various forms of storytelling - the reader's individual experience is certainly unique, but the constraints of a packaged, pre-formed narrative are IMHO tighter than those of a video game, even a directed corridor shooter. That's not to say we're necessarily taking great advantage of what the narrative structure of games is offering us, though diving into that brings all sorts of market, legacy and technological issues into play. But regardless, a good game narrative is always telling the player "I want you to do this", not "I want you to see this", which I think makes for a serious distinction.