When you look at a complete project, it’s nothing like its individual parts.
A book is, at its plainest level, just a collection of words. A movie: a collection of pictures and sounds. A game: a collection of data; sounds and visuals and how they interact with one another. An author’s job is not only to create these parts, but to arrange them in a succinct manner. Even if every sentence in a book makes grammatical sense and even if every scene in a movie is perfectly rendered, if they’re not strung together correctly, the final product will be less than impressive.
In the simplest sense, this is obvious when people take preexisting movie clips and change the feeling for the movie. Making The Princess Bride into a horror movie or, conversely, making The Shining into a romantic comedy. By splicing the scenes together differently and changing the music, the final product elicits emotions not found in the original.
So an author creates and arranges. Writing a book, the creation falls almost entirely within the scope of one skillset—wordplay. Working with words and sentences, the author instinctively puts them together in what, to them, is a natural progression. Yes, wordplay is a big area, and authors are actually balancing a much larger plate then they let on. Who cares if the sentences are beautiful if the characters are uninteresting? Who cares if the characters are interesting if the story has a unsatisfying opening? Who even bothers to pick up the book when there’s no marketing or way of selling the book’s main concept? Without even delving into the finer points, it’s obvious that writing a book is not an easy job. But on the creation part, it is, more or less, one skill. Two skills, if you count arrangement. Three if you self-market it.
A movie is slightly more complex. There, it involves writing, music-making, and human coordination in the form of acting and stage-creation. Some of these are simpler: writing is largely focused on dialogue rather than description. Music is more for setting and mood, and unlike the music you hear on the radio and in a concert hall, it doesn’t need to hold its own. Others, like acting and stage-creation, require all facets of the skill. For all these reasons, movies tend to involve a large body of people, with some independent movies being the rare exception.
Games require writing, music-making, “stage-creation”, as well as programming, all separate from the arrangement. Acting comes into play if voice-overs and the like are involved. Like movies, the teams that make games have grown larger and larger, though compared to movies, small teams have been able to flourish to a greater extent. This is probably due to the fact that gamers tolerate lower production values: a game made in an 8-bit is “retro” and harkens back to an older time. Few people outside the avant-garde would accept a modern movie being shot with the cameras they used in the 1920s.
When it comes down to it, books are the most focused: writing is what’s important. Little else comes into play. Movies (we’ll include television) are often about the visual. Everything else enhances them. Games are about the gameplay. Like movies, the components that aren’t the gameplay serve to, ideally, make the gameplay better. If we look at the inverse, it’s obvious. Books without writing aren’t books. Movies without visuals aren’t movies. Games without gameplay aren’t games.
Prior to assembly comes creation. Can’t make a Lego spaceship without Lego pieces.
In writing books, young authors sometimes make the fatal misstep of writing the opening chapter(s) indefinitely, wanting them to be perfect. Why is this a problem? While the opening chapters are incredibly important—they are what draw the reader into the book, after all—they aren’t going to matter if the later chapters aren’t well written. Or, more obviously, they won’t matter if there are no later chapters at all. Nobody cares about a few good chapters; they want a complete book.
The solution: write the whole book, then go back and edit the first chapters. Or edit the whole thing. Or scrap it. But you’ll learn a lot about writing from finishing a book.
I’m glad I finished my first game. I learned a lot about game creation, the game-making program specifically, and about what I really wanted from the next project. But one thing stayed the same between both projects: after the initial planning period, I needed to make areas. Can’t populate areas without the areas themselves.
With my small first game, I could make all the areas in the game in a week or two. With a larger game, however, the planning took a different route. How many areas should I make before I populate them? Initial areas are good places for testing features found in later areas. So I made the areas that were important for the first two chapters, populated them, and put a wall on advancing further in the game. That allowed me to have others test the game and see how they liked it before I continued.
Having now tested the initial areas, I can safely move on to the whole of “Book 1”, which constitutes the first 1/3rd of the game, as well as the optional areas in this part of the game. If I rewrite it, this whole section could be the entire game. Indeed, it was originally imagined as such.
What’s different from writing a book (I’ve finished one, however bad, if you must know) is that I can’t just write as much as I’d like. In writing, if I’m at a roadblock or simply need to explore a character, I keep writing nonsense until I figure something out. I throw a lot of that away. Even in a rambling post like this, there are parts I throw away. Yes, parts so bad, they didn’t even belong amongst this ramble.
In making a game, I need to make the parts before the actions. Before the interactions and cutscenes can happen in an area, the areas need to be made. And that takes a lot of time.
Actually, thanks to the miracle of 8-bit graphics, it doesn’t actually take a super long period of time. Depending on the size of an area, I can usually get the basic layout down in about an hour or three. Another hour or two sprucing it up with minor doodads and things that give the area flavor, like NPCs. If there’s a story segment, that’ll take a few hours. If there’s a sidequest, that’s another half hour. If it’s an area with battles, that will probably take another 3-4 hours as long as I’ve written the battles out beforehand. In total, a single area probably takes about 10 hours to completion, on average. I made a super small side area the other day that only took me about 2 hours total, but the bigger the area, the exponentially longer it takes. Also, I shouldn’t count that, because I still need to add an NPC or two and actually finish making the sidequest that’s in the area. That’ll probably take about an hour, and I don’t even need to make any cutscenes.
Another difference with writing a book and making an open-ended game is the fact that not everything is important in the latter. Yes, it all contributes to a complete experience. But when you write a book, it’s important to look at everything as worthy of the book’s time. Sure, the main character’s friend’s backstory is really cool, but you have limited space. Maybe you need to scrap it. Maybe it ruins the pacing and should instead be included in the sequel.
Compare that to a game. In a game, the player is afforded the opportunity to choose: do they want to plow through the main story, or do they want to leisurely tackle the side areas while they take a break from the action. Games let you play according to your own style and time. You can actually include that backstory within the game if you want to, and place it within a side area instead of within the confines of the main story. Both the story in a book and the story in a game need to be concerned with pacing. But games also need those optional tasks. Or you’ll get complaints about how the first 40 hours of a game are “too linear”, and basically on a rail.
So assembly in a game requires some thought to begin with:
How important is the main plot? (How much of the game should be dedicated to the main story?)
How important is freedom? (How much of the game should be opened up from the beginning?)
How important is difficulty? (How much of the game should be locked behind difficult tasks?)
How important is lastability? (How long should a game be? How much of your memory of the game should be on the main story? (Is your memory of an MMO or Elder Scrolls game of the main story?))
For my current game:
Main plot: Not too important. Enough to get the player to care about the world and want to explore.
Freedom: Important. Players should want to explore the world.
Difficulty: Not too important. I want players to feel comfortable exploring the world, but pepper it with occasional challenges.
Lastability: Very important. The game should be long. I want this to be a game that players can spend a long time with.
Coming back to assembly, the game needs to be arranged in a way to accentuate its parts. In many ways, that was Final Fantasy XIII’s biggest fault. It did open up late in the game, and while the storyline wouldn’t have allowed it earlier, if that was one of the main facets of the game, it should have been somewhat available earlier on. In my game, while true freedom to explore isn’t opened up right away (it would probably be too overwhelming), players are given options for where they go even early on. In the game’s opening, there are two places to choose from on the world map. When the world is opened up for real in chapter 1, there are technically four places to choose from. The goal is to keep the feeling that the world is big and fun to explore.
What’s utterly bizarre to me, as someone who writes, is just how artificial games actually feel. Which is funny, because writing is basically the same thing. Both are actually artificial—created. And both feel real, when you’re in it. When I’m exploring an MMO, I feel like I’m in another world. Yes, going from one area to the next, it’s odd when a grass path leads right into the desert. When I’m reading a book, sometimes a character’s speech feels odd. But our minds often accept it. It all comes together in the end.
When making it, however, I can’t help but see it as a bunch of separate parts. When you make an area, you start with a blank page.
Then you go and put some green down.
Add a road. Some buildings.
Connect it to other areas…and BAM! It’s something real.
It takes some finesse to actually put it together to make it feel real. Sometimes, walking from one area to another is odd and unnatural. But oftentimes, it’s accepted.
As a creator, it feels odd now, to think of how many things I think of as “real” or “real interactions”, aren’t even close to real at all. That girl with the brown hair and glasses standing over by the tree…she’s actually just an event made to stand there at that specific place when some other thing happens. There’s no such thing as object permanence. When you leave the screen, she actually ceases to exist.
What you think of as a character in a video game is actually a hundred pieces of a character strewn about. Our own assembly of those pieces is what allows us to perceive them as a character.
Look at this!
Why are there so many copies of the same person! Couldn’t one have sufficed? What is the world coming to!
Thankfully, this doesn’t ruin games for me. When you begin to create something, the magic goes away. But with the loss of wonder comes a new sense of reverence: it’s amazing that someone could make all these seemingly disparate pieces into something that feels whole. That’s craft! Making a hundred separate pieces feel like a real, living person.
So the illusion is ruined. And I don’t mind it one bit.