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How to Write Computer Games

James Hutson

EMERGING WRITERS' FESTIVAL: How to Write Computer Game with Paul Callaghan: Most people figure they have a book in them, some a TV series or film. But, if the attendance at the Emerging Writer's Festival How To Write Computer Games workshop is anything to go by, not enough are looking to write computer games.
How to Write Computer Games
Most people figure they have a book in them, some a TV series or film. But, if the attendance at the Emerging Writer's Festival How To Write Computer Games workshop is anything to go by, not enough are looking to write computer games. Most of us are now gamers. We get it. It's no longer the domain of kids and geeks (though they are still represented in droves). 68 per cent of Australians play computer games and 46 per cent of those are women. My six year old already has ideas for her first iPhone game. The trouble then is not the desire to develop computer games. It's that even inside the games industry, very few people appreciate that computer games have, or indeed need, writers. Paul Callaghan knows differently. He looks a grown up Harry Potter (minus the scar) and sounds Scottish. He made the leap from game programmer to game writer in 2005 and has been arguing the case for writing in games ever since. He had 26 separate public speaking engagements in 2009 alone. Last year he still had trouble finding the right projects. This year the groundwork is paying off. The work is now finding him. The session spoke directly to emerging writers. It took everything writers (and readers) know about writing and mapped it to games. Premise, theme, character, plot and conflict all have their part to play. Paul summarised it as follows: Choice is the primary driving force for both linear narrative AND game play. In linear narrative the choices are the made by the author. In games by the player. So in the same way that reading is useful if you want to write, playing games is useful if you want to write games. It would also help you to understand the presentation portion of Paul's two hours. References to epic console games like Bioshock, Mass Effect, Arkham Asylum and Shadow of the Colossus came thick and fast. Sprinkled with some gems for the indie gaming worlds like: Braid, Flower and Machinarium. Paul teased out the impact writing had on the game play experience. The gamers could look back and re-examine ideas and actions that they may have taken. But non-gamers weren't excluded. Paul's examples still provided an overview of where the form is today seeing how and where writing aspirations and abilities could be put work. Every example discussed not just the nature and intent of the writing but player responses to it. Bioshock subverting player control after allowing them hours of autonomy. Players of Shadows of the Colossus abandoning the game because they could no longer stand to rid the world of giant, beautiful peaceful mythic creatures as required by their quest. Players having to play through 20 hours of gameplay in Mass Effect before understanding something they saw at the beginning. Players of Portal manipulating space and time as they themselves are being manipulated. Lecture was interleaved with the workshopping. Examples. Brainstorming. Examples. Brainstorming. Until after two hours we pieced together the beginnings of an epic immersive game. At this point I must make a confession. I really did enter this workshop with exactly the right amount of cool journalistic detachment. That lasted about five minutes. The excited school boyish enthusiasm and eagerness to contribute that followed was all down to Paul. His clear love of the form (and dislike of the the rubbish that sullies the form's good name) was infectious. Our game outline was as follows: an immortal who is sick of life must hold off on his own death wish in order to protect his family from an assassin. His family are gods (or at least godlike). Perhaps owing something to Egyptian mythology. The assassin is looking to destroy the natural order to return a loved one to life. You seek a sanctuary for your family but unknowingly place them in the care of the assassin himself. Ok it was rough. Perhaps to the jaded observer, it sounds like a haphazard compost of myth, superhero references, cliches and other recent games but there was something there. Satisfying and novel game play possibilites. Non-linear game progression. Depth. Characters. Conflict. Our idea lived and died on the whiteboard that afternoon but it did provide a window on just how much fun it might be to work as a game writer and how important writing can be in shaping an interesting game. Budgets for the big games run into millions. Studios are risk averse and there will always be more boy's own, shoot 'em ups rather thoughtful risky experiments. I don't expect a first person shooter to join the pantheon of humanity's favourite narratives any time soon. Perhaps not for hundreds of years. But thanks in part to Paul I do now believe that such a thing may be possible. The workshop was presented by Express Media in partnership with the Emerging Writers Festival on Saturday 22 May 2010. Paul is co-director of the Freeplay Independent Games Festival which will be held 14th and 15th August 2010 at the State Library of Victoria. He is currently working with the ever clever Chocolate Liberation Front as a writer/producer for a first person refugee simulation game for the Immigration Museum, Renegade Pictures, The Refugee Council and SBS. His personal website which (eventually) hosts all his presentations materials can be found here: http://www.paulcallaghan.net/
What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

James Hutson has been involved with factual television and online media for 12 years having started as a researcher with Beyond 2000 in 1997. James has trained as a lawyer, animator, molecular biologist and computer programmer and hopes to one day achieve complete career convergence by creating an animated documentary series about bioinformatics patent infringements.

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