Comparing Video Game Writing with Novel Writing

As development of The Regret of Vitrerran continues to chug on, I’ve taken a break from level design to return to the writing side of things. We’re getting ready to really start putting some major level pieces together, and that means the dialogue has to be finished and ready to go.

Having spent most of my free time over the last two months writing and editing long-form fiction, I’ve really been struck by how different video game writing is. That isn’t to say I find the differences surprising—I don’t—but they are interesting.

I find interesting things fun to talk about, so here go. To make my life easier (and to make this more interesting), I’m going to lead by example. What follows is the first conversation between Pakasoph and Caud told in long-form writing:

Pakasoph ran for his life, stumbling through the thick, swampy grasslands and almost tripping over his robes. The thought, “I’ve killed us all” kept running through his head as the sounds of otherworldly monsters reverberated around him. Their growls chilled his blood, and the screams of the local wildlife tore at his heart.

“Caud,” he shouted, hoping his friend was near. They still had time to stop this, to close the portal and fix what he had done.

Pakasoph entered a clearing and approached his friend’s house. Without thinking, he ran through Caud’s garden, stomping a series of pink, leafy ferns into dust. Caud would be out back fishing. He had to be, because Pakasoph knew he couldn’t close the portal by himself. “Caud!” he shouted, again rounding a corner and barreling into the large salamander.

“It’s my fault,” Pakasoph blurted out. “It’s all my fault, and you have to help me. Oh god, what have I done? I didn’t mean to, but—”

“Hey frog, be still,” Caud said with a big smile. He had his fishing pole dug into the mud so it wouldn’t move and tapped at it lazily to keep the lure moving. When he noticed Pakasoph was on the verge of panic, he followed with, “It’ll be alright,” and made a placating gesture with his hands.

“Quick! Quick, you have to help!” The large frog began motioning back to where he had come. “It’s summoning monsters. It’s not supposed to summon monsters, but it’s summoning monsters, and we have to stop it.” When Caud made no motion to move away from his fishing pole, Pakasoph shouted, “Right now!”

“What’s summoning monsters,” Caud asked, still smiling his big, lazy smile.

“The portal!” There were times when Pakasoph truly wondered about his friend, who was often two steps behind everyone. “Now come on! I need your help.” Pakasoph started running back to where he had come, preparing spells in his mind to fight the creatures he had summoned into his home. He glanced over his shoulder, hoping to see Caud, but the big salamander was still messing with his fishing rod. “God, they’ll kill everyone!” Pakasoph shrieked, and that got Caud moving, though he was still carrying his fishing pole. Pakasoph put his hands over his head, feeling completely out of control. The world was going to fall apart if they didn’t close the portal right now. “We have to go!”

Caud started jogging, and together the two ran towards what Pakasoph knew would be an army of monsters and destruction.

Alright, so that’s not perfect, but it’s a solid foundation for what could be the start of a story. Ideally, I’d have some more descriptions of the swamp and maybe Caud’s home, though those kinds of elements can be hard to juggle when you want characters to move quickly.

Now, here’s what I actually have written for our video game:

Setting: Swamp. Conversation 1. Pakasoph runs to meet Caud who is fishing.

Pakasoph: Caud! Caud! It’s my fault. It’s all my fault, and you have to help me. Oh god, what have I done? I didn’t mean to, but—

Caud: Hey frog, be still. It’s alright.

Pakasoph: Quick, quick, you have to help. It’s summoning monsters. It’s not supposed to summon monsters, but it’s summoning monsters and we have to stop it. Right now!

Caud: What’s summoning monsters, Pak?

Pakasoph: The portal! Now come on! I need your help. Oh god, they’ll kill everyone. We have to go!

Bit different, isn’t it? The first is multiple paragraphs while what’ll be going into Vitrerran is nothing more than some direction and strait dialogue. The reasoning behind that is fairly obvious, what with video games being a visual medium; you’ll get to see Pakasoph run in panic and scream for his friends help without me needing to tell you about it. We’ll even direct him over Caud’s garden.

But the thing is, Vitrerran’s art style is all hand drawn and sprite based, meaning Pakasoph’s look of horror and Caud’s lazy smile won’t actually be seen by anyone. Their little hand gestures and head turns will also be absent, as we do not have the kind of time to add such minute animations.

Because of these limitations, everything about the characters has to come through in the way they speak and the words they say. Pakasoph’s the-sky-is-falling attitude and high-pitched fear are (hopefully) evident by the words he repeats and his rambling nature. Likewise, a big part of his character is surrounded in his belief that the portals are spewing monsters because he made a mistake, and that needed to be established as soon as possible. I mention it in the first paragraph of the long form piece, but to make it work in-game, I had to include it right away in the dialogue. The first thing he tells Caud is, “It’s my fault,” not, “Please help me.”

Caud, on the other hand, is a laid-back character with a few verbal quirks. He doesn’t tell Pakasoph to calm down, he tells him to, “Be still.” He doesn’t ask his friend what’s wrong, because to Caud, nothing is every truly wrong. His follow up is, “It’ll be alright,” not, “Tell me what happened.” What happened is of little importance since it’ll fix itself eventually.

Writing for Vitrerran is a very remarkable change in pace and execution, and I’m thankfully finding the challenge fun. Believable dialogue can be hard to write, especially when you don’t have facial expressions and character movements to accompany it, but I think I’m making it work. There’s a puzzle aspect to it, because I don’t have internal monologue or narrated exposition to add in elements of what’s going on. I can’t make Pakasoph blink in surprise when Caud says something profound or stupid. Everything of importance then, be it thoughts, actions, backstory, or emotions, has to be in the dialogue.

And it all has to read logically and seamlessly, because let’s face it, we’ve all ran into a story where the characters don’t talk like how people talk. You can’t force speech; it has a rhythm to it, a natural flow that relies just as much on visual cues as it does the words and word cadence.

Vitrerran is a big place with a big cast of characters, and I love that about our game. So far, I also love all of the characters I’ve created/discovered, and I hope you all will too. It just comes down to making them talk right, because damn, that can be a challenge when the stylistic elements I’m used to using as a crutch are no longer here.

~Chad