“Rise and shine, Mister Freeman. Rise and shine… wake up and smell the ashes.”
-The G-Man, Half-Life 2
Someone brilliant had to write the above quote. In fact, someone may have labored over it for hours. Why did they bother? Because it’s increasingly understood that powerful storytelling can separate a great video game from a merely good one.
Story binds a game’s world and its characters together in a powerful and engrossing experience. Isn’t that what we all live for? Games like The Last of Us, BioShock, Portal 2, and Red Dead Redemption stick with us because of their powerful storytelling, their intricate worlds, and how deeply the story and gameplay are linked together. Without a delightful story, we wonder why we should even be playing the game displayed on our TV.
Learning how to write and tell a remarkable story takes years of work and practice, and developing stories for games requires more than knowledge of how to write fiction. Game-specific narrative components — such as branching dialogue, variable story elements based on previous player choices, and aligning player and player character desires — are definitely not found in your average Creative Writing curriculum. In fact, only a handful of colleges in the U.S. offer a program specifically designed to teach how to write for games.
In a few months, there will be one more to add to that list.
Starting in the Spring of 2018, Cogswell will be introducing a new concentration within the Game Design and Development (GDD) program: Game Design Writing. This innovative new program will focus on teaching aspiring game writers how to design the narrative that the player experiences.
“This will be the first [game writing] program that we are aware of on the West Coast,” says Evan Skolnick, the professor spearheading the new curriculum. “A student who is into game writing in California might have limited options,” he adds. “It’s exciting to be able to say, ‘Yes, we have a home for you.’”
Beyond focusing solely on those who specifically aspire to becoming game writing experts, though, Skolnick advocates for all game developers to get a better handle on the narrative aspects of their work. In his book Video Game Storytelling — which is largely the basis for the new concentration’s introductory course — Skolnick writes: “It doesn’t matter if you’re a designer or animator, a 3D modeler or an AI programmer, a producer or a music composer — if you’re helping to develop a game that is trying to tell a story, then… you are also a storyteller.”
A video game development veteran of over 15 years, with a decade of traditional writing experience prior to that at companies such as Marvel Comics, Skolnick joined Cogswell full-time this fall. He has worked as a writer on games such as Mafia III, Star Wars Battlefront, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2, and more recently, the universally-acclaimed Cuphead.
Professor Skolnick describes how, despite improvements in this area over the past decade, there is still sometimes a lack of expertise on game development teams when it comes to storytelling and narrative design. ”More and more companies are looking for people with expertise in this area, and a lot of people want to learn how to become game writers,” he tells the Chronicle. “So a program like this will help bridge that gap.”
The GDW concentration, which will initially fall under the Game Design Art major, will be open to incoming freshmen in the spring of 2018. Furthermore, current GDD students may have the option to switch their concentration to GDW. The requirements for acceptance into the program have not yet been fully outlined, but Skolnick says potential students will have to meet a certain writing quality threshold to enter, stating: “In order to teach execution, it’s important to know where [applicants] are coming from. We won’t be looking so much at their ability to generate ideas as their ability to express themselves with the written word.”
There will be four main “spine” courses to the concentration: Introduction to Game Storytelling, Game Writing 1, Game Writing 2, and Narrative Design and Leadership.*
All four of the main courses will be taught by Professor Skolnick himself, but Game Design Writers will also be taking traditional game design classes at the same time. Cogswell wants students to be equipped with knowledge in multiple disciplines. “As important as the game writer role is, industry demand in terms of sheer numbers is not as high as for designers, artists or engineers,” Skolnick points out. “We feel it’s important that every graduate in the Game Design program be fully trained [in all aspects].”
While the GDW concentration will take a few years to fully get off the ground, Skolnick is excited for the new program and its potential outcomes. “Our intent is to elevate the storytelling capabilities of all Cogswell GDD graduates, and to help students within this particular concentration achieve their dreams of writing stories in games,” he says.
“Many things about being a game writer are challenging, and some parts of the job can be difficult at times,” Skolnick admits. “But they’re always balanced by the excitement of exploring a new storytelling frontier, with so much uncharted territory still waiting to be discovered.”
Students interested in potentially joining the GDW concentration should contact their advisor or Professor Skolnick.
GDW KEY COURSES
The four key courses of the new Game Design Writing concentration are designed to prepare students for work in the video game industry as writers and narrative designers. Each course in this series is a prerequisite of the next, with additional requirements described below.
GAM220 Introduction to Game Storytelling is a “basics” class based around the theories behind storytelling and what makes a good, enjoyable story. This course is available for registration now, and is being eyed as a requirement for all GDD students in the near future. It has a prerequisite of ENG100 English Composition.
GAM260 Game Writing 1 is designed to simulate a junior game writing position. Students will learn how to complete the day-to-day ground-level narrative tasks that senior writers often delegate. They’ll be handed an existing Intellectual Property (IP) and be taught the writing conventions for games – how to work in spreadsheets, write interactive dialogue, handle branching storylines and more. Prerequisites will include the aforementioned GAM220 as well as ENG227 Creative Writing and ENG228 Scriptwriting.
GAM340 Game Writing 2 is a step up from junior writing to be a creative lead on a medium- to large-sized game project. Students will be creating an entire IPs from scratch, building their stories, and marrying them to game mechanics. High-level ideation and documentation for game writing will be taught in this class.
GAM420 Narrative Design and Leadership (NDL) is the top-level course. Here, students will learn what it’s like to be a narrative designer and how to combine storytelling with gameplay. Ideally, students in NDL will be creating some of the specifications for assignments that Game Writing 1 students complete – an attempt to simulate how it works in the industry.