Writing video games – Jeffrey Yohalem at the Brisbane Writers Festival

Jeffrey Yohalem is a video game writer and designer. He works for Ubisoft Montreal, which is one of the big (AAA) game studios. A couple of weeks ago, during the Brisbane Writers Festival, Yohalem gave a talk at the State Library about writing video games. He divided his talk into two parts. In the first he schooled us in how to write games that are immersive and meaningful. In the second he described the battlefield that is the AAA studio, where no one cares about story except the writer.

Yohalem believes that video games should be immersive experiences that treat players as actors. If we are inside a game, acting it as if we are living it, the game gives us the ability to reflect on our lives. It also allows us to empathise with other people because we can experience someone else’s life as it if was our own. To illustrate his points, Yohalem quoted often from the director and teacher Konstantin Stanislavski. Stanislavski believed that actors should draw upon their own life experiences and emotions when they take on a role. Yohalem used his writings as a kind of a handbook on game design.

It is a given in AAA games that there must be one consistent super objective presented to the player within the first half hour of the game. And then everything the player is able to do within the world of the game must reinforce that super objective. At the moment, these super objectives are always external, for example you may need to save friends or solve a murder. But Yohalem believes that in the future they will be internal.

He says that scenes and dialogue are less important than gameplay. If scenes exist they should be a transition between gameplay. He believes that pure dialogue moments such as cutscenes shouldn’t exist. Games do not need them to convey meaning. He talked about good directors enticing protagonists towards meaning and bad directors shoving meaning down protagonists’ throats.

He believes that in the future, games will have A-list mechanics that are subtle expressions of life. He talked about shooting people as a B-list mechanic. He says there will be emotion-based dialogue systems but they won’t involve player/actors choosing what they say. Words are the least important part of the game. He talked about new analogue mechanics and control shifting, where controls are kept contextual. He didn’t elaborate but what I think he meant was the player/actor will keep control over what their character is doing rather than having the game suddenly step in and force decisions.

In the second half of the talk, Yohalem told us what it’s like to make a game in a AAA studio. There are a number of stages, and early on, in pre-production, the arc of the game is created. But the writer isn’t necessarily involved at that point, often they come in later and create the story as a kind of wallpaper over the top.

Nobody in the studio has the luxury of time. Games are rushed through and developed as quickly as possible. People work long and hard. And Yohalem told us that no one on the team will want to work overtime because of your story. And no one on the team will read your script. Anything you put in the script is just for you.

All the big decisions about the game are made during the pre-production phase. The level designers create the levels based on what was decided back then. They don’t care about the story that you’ve subsequently come up with and are now trying to tell. And they can end up putting characters physically in the wrong place or dialogue where you can’t hear it because of shooting that’s happening at that moment. Their focus is on making levels where cool things happen (cool being a subjective word), they don’t think about how that might fit with the story. Continuing his earlier theme, Yohalem said he thinks that level designers should have film or theatre backgrounds. That’s how he believes things will change.

At the final stage of the process, studios bring in a closer. The role of the closer is to make a passable game that recoups costs. They will make cuts that will potentially damage the coherence of the story and they won’t care.

This second half of Yohalem’s talk was quite astonishing and also quite sad. During Story+ the day before, where Yohalem also spoke, someone said they felt that AAA studios are putting out the same game over and over just each time with a new skin. Yohalem concurred. During this session he told us that there’s no time within the schedule to invent new mechanics or do any adequate playtesting. He said that indie games are the prototypes now.

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