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How to Write Scripts for Computer and Board Games

Author:  Anne Hart
Date:  07-01-02

The goal of fiction writers in the new media is to adapt your story, novel, or script to as many platforms, formats and media as possible and to sell to multiple markets - either online, multi-casting, or multimedia. Computer game scripts aren't only for computer games anymore. They're used in dramatizations for training and learning simulations and other learning materials as well as for entertainment online, on disk, and for infotainment and edutainment at all levels from corporate training to Web sites for children and young adults, seniors, and students.

Here's how to write a computer game script that you can adapt to any type of simulation training or interactive learning as well as entertainment fiction.

The average computer screen interactive video or game has double that amount to account for the camera directions, the director's directions (since you're the director and the writer on the computer as you are in animation). So to adapt your screenplay to the new media, separate the beginning, middle and ending exactly as you would cut off the beginning, middle, and ending of a short story or novel. In a screenplay, every scene forms a creative concept. In the industry, the executives try to separate the one-line high concept from the whole-story-based creative concept.

A creative concept is a basic device that's used like an all-encompassing net to catch all the important events of the story. Think of your creative concept as a native American dream catcher net full of feathers and beads woven into memories and facts of your story. Its one purpose is to grab the audience's attention and squeeze until it gives pleasure or emotional response, like fear.

Summarize the highlights into a single paragraph that tells the story. In a screenplay, it has been said and for the past two decades been written about that you divide your story into three acts. However, in adapting a script or story to the new interactive media, you don't divide it into three acts, and you don't divide it into six acts. You bring out eight octopus-sized tentacles or branches and you hang your computer game script or interactive book story on those eight branches.

It has been said that at each new path, or what the screenplay books of the seventies used to call turning points, a new crisis happens that propels the action in forward. However, in the new media, each new crisis instead propels the action down another branching pathway, through another road, and into another narrative. Again, the reader chooses when the action is supposed to branch and turn on its dime to move forward in not so much a new direction, but in the direction the reader says it will move.

The writer no longer chooses. Interactively, the reader chooses.

If you need to write a premise and introduce your hero, in an interactive script you adapt your old media book by writing a summary of the end first and then working backwards to the first chapter or the first page. Interactive books are adapted by writing back starting with the end of the book, story, or script and shuffling the deck. The crisis that sets the story in motion is never limited to only one crisis, but eight, or four, or two, or some other even number. Let the reader choose the crisis the viewer wants to work with, and give more than one summary of each chapter. You adapt a script to the new media by working backwards from the end of the adventure.

Here are some problems to solve as you write your dramatizations for training scripts online or computer game scripts:

  • In a non-fiction interactive script, find your biggest weapon to slay the problem that has to be solved in the action of your non-fiction script. This cliff-hanger approach is good when you're writing a how-to training video, film, or CD-ROM learning tool.
  • Create a high-stakes races to hook your cliff-hanger on.
  • Find a new acronym for each 7-minute scene in your script and lay your cliff-hanger on at the end of each 7-8 minute segment of a non-fiction script.
  • If you're looking for a cover-all that makes your script hang together, use the cliff-hanger to make a connection between what's a household name in your script, the problem to be solved, and the method your narrator or main character uses in the dramatization to solve the problem and reach a conclusion.
  • Sell your cliff-hangers to the interactive TV market targeting ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) technology. ADSL is high bandwidth Internet connectivity that you can use to bring your script to commercial quality video on the Web. Use video conferencing as a means to transmit your scripts to a live audience interested in non-fiction - that is problem solving, skill training, test taking/preparation, and feedback at business meetings.
  • Use wireless paths to sell your cliff-hangers, and use cliff-hangers in training videos and video conferencing. The phone companies are eager to get into the interactive TV business.
  • Write scripts about bandwidth itself for a technical audience as practice, using cliff-hangers every 7-8 minutes as paths provided for the narrator to take new action and move the script faster until a problem is solved at the end and the skill is learned by the corporate employee or student watching your script.
  • Have your script read before a live audience or through video conferencing and have the audience decide which cliff-hangers to insert at each point. Use about 8 cliff-hangers per instructional film script.
  • Cliff-hangers can be used in non-fiction comic books or graphic instructional materials. Most comic books are 32 pages in length. Double that size to 64 pages and you come out with a script for a computer game lasting 22 minutes or more. You also get a graphic novel at that length or a booklet on how to perform a special skill.

The competing cliff-hangers grow in volume as the story moves forward, even if it's a routine safety instructional film to train vehicle drivers. Test your cliff-hangers' performance. Set up a Web site and get feedback from your cliff-hangers from an audience. Try before you make your cliff-hangers permanent.

You're teaching even if you're not writing anything instructional in the traditional sense. Propaganda films teach a lesson, too. You get at the emotional response of the audience through cliff-hangers. Then you appeal to their thinking, logical side to insert the facts that come after the cliff-hanger. Either the narrator, the product, or the audience can become involved n the cliff-hanger and solve the problem to get the answer. Use mazes when appropriate. Even mazes can become cliff-hangers, and text mazes of logic are useful only when you are teaching the viewer to use test methods to solve problems. When writing cliff-hangers, use more emotion and less demand that the audience think. Most people view a script to have fun and learn by passive imprinting and associations rather than to be forced to solve problems.

Therefore, let the dramatized character solve the cliff-hanger/problem. A cliff-hanger is a substitute for a problem to be solved in a non-fiction script. In a fiction script, a cliff-hanger is hidden problem to be solved and exposed suspense requiring emotional reactions to solve.

Five Steps To Dramatizing Interactive Personal Essays For The New Media

  • Ask a specific question.
  • Use the essay to answer the question.
  • Write the question at the start of the essay and make your question interactive inserting many branches or possibilities each possibility narrowing down more and more to concentrate your reader's mind.
  • Use the interactivity to ask the reader how does this paragraph help answer the question?
  • Whenever the paragraph finishes answering the question begin a new branching narrative, pathway, or choice for the reader. It's time for a break of concentration and a shifting to a cliff-hanger. Even the brief personal essays in interactive media can have cliff-hangers, even in non-fiction, autobiography, and other personal essays based on life experience. Many experiences can lead to a topic for writing in any media, such as how to receive email interviews.
  • Another fiction with a real-life practical use online topic you can make a script or article from is how to get terrific email interviews. Books can be written from lists such as a list fleshed out of what are the funniest things that happened to employers recruiting employees on the Internet, such as viruses that came with resumes. Base your writing on interviews with dozens of human resources personnel who hire people from the Internet based on resumes and correspondence coming in my email and from Web page recruiting.
  • A writer gets all interviews for a book from the Internet. I once wrote a book based on hundreds of interviews all gotten by email. I requested the interview by email and got the person on the other side to give me the interview by email only. Most of my interviews in the past were with famous and best selling authors and screenwriters, including interviews with big-name screenwriters who switched to writing for the new media (like Ken Goldstein, publisher/screenwriter of the Carmen San Diego series for Broderbund), and best selling interactive novel writers/publishers, and virtual press publishers. You could write a computer game, animation script, essay or an article or book on how to get great interviews by email for any writer who is working on a book or a column. Your title could be: Secrets of Success in Email Interviewing. What\'s the funniest thing that happened to you on the Internet while writing your column or other creative writing?


Jeffrey Sullivan of DigitalArcana, Inc.

What outlook do you see in interactive multimedia for freelance fiction and/or non-fiction writers as far as making a living, opening a writing service or home-based business, or getting a job?

There is tremendous opportunity for writers (both fiction and non-fiction) in the area of interactive media. The incredible growth in the market has spawned a strong appetite for new talent, and the increasing market shares in the more mature sub-markets mean some increase in pay rates. Building a career in this field remains a fantastic opportunity, but there are some things to remember:

  • Know your field. Don't just hop on the bandwagon because you hear interactive is "the next hot thing." Not only will it be easy for potential employers to sniff this out, but it's the absolute worst thing you can do, both for your personal employment opportunities, and for opportunities for writers in general. One of the biggest problems in interactive is that there are a lot of "displaced writers" from other media who figure that "writing is writing," so they just hop into interactive, over-promise what they can do in this tricky medium, and leave producers with a bad taste in their mouth for "professional writers."
  • The newer the field, the more appetite, but the less the pay (in general). if you want to be on the cutting edge, be prepared to pay the dues.
  • Love this stuff. If you're just in it for a paycheck, then #1-2 above will ensure that you not only flop, but that you make it harder for other writers to follow you.

What kind of training would a writer need to start a career as a freelance writer in interactive multimedia?

The two key ingredients are experience in the genre of interactive you want to work in, and solid writing skills. Solid writing skills is something I'll take as a given (if you don't have it, I can't tell you how to get it). Experience is easy to acquire. Go out there and use the products you want to create. If it's adventure games, play adventure games ravenously. If it's edutainment, then experience all of them out there.

One caveat: don't just check out the "hot" titles in a field. There's nothing worse than hearing a person rattle off the two or three best known entries in a field as their favorites, a sure sign that they haven't done their homework. (A side note: if I had a dime for every time I heard someone tell me they had an idea for a cross between "Doom" and "MYST" over the past few years, I'd be independently wealthy.)

For the older writer - 55+ - who has been rejected by ageism from the Hollywood screenwriting market, or for the novelist seeking a publisher, what does interactive multimedia offer?

I hate to say this, but in many of the interactive fields, ageism is even worse in interactive. In all of the "hot" areas like cutting-edge gaming and interactive fiction, there is a fairly strong perception that anyone over the age of 30 (!) doesn't "get it," and can't write this stuff.

The perception is that well-established linear writers simply can't think non-linearly as interactive often requires. However, I think that in the fields of reference, education, and entertainment, there may be much less of this attitude. Since my experience lies elsewhere, however, I can't be sure.

How would a freelance writer of fiction or non-fiction who has been doing print writing for years begin to make the leap to get into writing interactive multimedia? Are there any jobs out there for writers who can't find work on daily newspapers because of the downsizing of daily newspapers?

If you're a newspaper writer, your best entree into interactive may be with the marketing department of an interactive company; there your skills are the most directly relevant. Once you're in, you can absorb the culture and experience, and try to branch out into other areas.

For general writers, the key is, as I've mentioned above, knowing the field. Know as much as you can about what has worked (and what has not) in your field, and know why things work or don't, in your opinion. Knowledgeable people in this field are rare, so preparing yourself is a great way to get that foot a little farther in the door.

What advice would you give to creative writers of all types to enter the new media?

Know the area you want to work in exhaustively. And try to know the other areas at least in passing. You never know where a good idea (or even a bad one) in one field will yield a great innovation in another.

Is there anything readers might want to know about the hidden markets in interactive multimedia? Can one work at home?

Working at home is a definite option in many cases. Interactive firms, being much more highly computerized in general, are a lot more comfortable with the concept of telecommuting or simply working off-site than many other industries.

Is it easier to sell to the interactive multimedia market than to try to find a print publisher for one's novel, screenplay, or how-to non-fiction book?

No. With respect to a book, you can create what is essentially the finished product. with respect to a screenplay, even though the script isn't the finished product, the accepted convention is that writers don't do anything more than a script. In interactive, however, the norm is to need to do a prototype or sample art in addition to a design document, so there is more to do to get an idea sold. Add to that the fact that many companies have more ideas than they can handle, and the market for new ideas is not as great as it once was.

What education is best for a freelance creative writer to get a foot in the door in the new media?

A background in computers, writing, game playing (if you're interested in the game market).

Can a writer educate himself at home and work at home, or must there be a college degree with a major in interactive multimedia to enter the occupation of writer in this field? In other words, will a B.A. in English get one in the door? What other job titles are there in interactive multimedia for writers? What else can they do in this field to find work? How long have writers been writing for interactive multimedia? Five years? Three years?

Absolutely not. For one thing, these college degrees are so new that there are few people in the market who will even have one. Second, this industry values credits and experience over degrees more than many other fields. The more technical your interest, however, the more likely that a degree will be necessary.

What's the future of multimedia for freelance creative writers?

I think that creative people will be the guiding force in moving interactive media into a new and mature mass-medium. Technology can only take you so far, and although we've been driven by it so far, it is becoming harder and harder to differentiate your product on technology alone. Soon, it will be impossible. The companies know this, but they are often caught between two cultures (technology driving product and content driving product); soon their minds will be made up for them.

Copyright 2002 Anne Hart. All rights reserved.

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