Books: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

 In Books, Uncategorized

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King.

As others before me have said, games designers need to know how to write. They don’t need to be master storytellers (although they should definitely consider employing good writers if their game is going to involve narrative or dialog) but they do need to know how to express their ideas clearly and they also need to understand the rudiments of narrative structure. Paul Callaghan opened my eyes to this in a guest lecture for my games class. I thought I understood the basics of writing: Setting, Character and Plot; but he got us thinking about deeper issues such as Theme, Subtext and Symbolism, and how they applied to our work as game designers. A game may not involve any “writing” per se, but can still benefit from the application of these ideas. They are the meat and drink of serious writing and for our games to earn the same level of artistic merit, they need to be our food as well.

Many of us got turned off of these ideas in high-school English classes and dread the idea of applying them to our games. If this is you, I recommend Stephen King’s book highly. He doesn’t waste your time insisting on deep philosophical themes. Story comes first with King and his first draft is not concerned with anything else. But once you’re done, look for opportunities to add “grace notes”.

“If you write a novel, spend weeks and then months catching is word by word, you owe it both to the book and to yourself to lean back when you finished and ask yourself why you bothered.”

If you see a theme emerging from your work, he says, see what you can do to develop it. If you note particular symbols reccuring, try to reinforce them. This is advice that we can bring to game design. Done well, it leads to work with greater depth, that are not only fun but also have something worthwhile to say.

Another piece of valuable advice from King is to always make at least two drafts of your work first with the “door closed” and then with the “door open”. That is, your first draft should be the one in which you download the idea in your head onto paper, without help from anyone. You say everything you need to without feedback from others. Only when it is done does he recommend showing it to others for criticism.

The second draft is made with the “door open”, that is, it made to address the input of others. And you edit fiercely, cutting out anything that is an impediment to your readers. “Murder your darlings” he quotes. Your aim is not to show off your cleverness but to provide the reader (player) with an experience. Cut out anything that hampers that experience.

The same tension between artistic vision and playtesting arises in our work, and I think King’s approach to it is healthy. Make the game you want to make, playtest it, then be merciless in how you edit it.

There is more in the book that could apply also to game design. I think King’s concept of an Ideal Reader, for example, is a valuable one, much better than the nebulous ‘target audience’ spoken of in game design texts. Whether you are a fan of King’s work or not (and I confess I am not) I recommend this book highly for anyone who would like to improve the craftsmanship of their game design.

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