Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Writing For Indie Games; or "How to Characterise When You Can't Afford Characters" - Part 1

This article was originally printed in the IGDA Writers SIG Quarterly

NB Penumbra spoilers throughout!

There's something about a team of fresh, undiscovered talent, combined with comically low salaries, that really brings out the best in people. So far, the Penumbra series has received widespread critical acclaim, been nominated for a Writers' Guild Award, and marked Frictional Games as a studio to look out for. But writing for indie games isn't just about bodging together a story out of limited resources (or starting sentences with the word 'but'). As is so often the case for the filmic equivalent, it's also about the opportunity to provide a genuinely inventive and touching piece of (interactive) storytelling; or alternatively a passionate, yet no less complete, shambles.

This post mortem looks at the specifically indie aspects of games writing, as experienced during my time with Penumbra.

Why Big Budgets Are Overrated (Sometimes)
Necessity is the Mother of Invention
Without particularly setting out to, I've ended up quoting Plato, really early on. Let it be known I cringed while doing it. Tight purse strings, though, certainly have their guiles. I can't count the number of great elements that went into Black Plague as a direct result of not being able to do it the traditional way. Not having characters on screen lent the game a real sense of isolation. Substituting green DOS text for a lavish final set piece made for an eerie and uniquely low key ending to each game. Every piece of narrative had to be designed with extreme limitations in mind, which made imaginative story telling techniques an everyday necessity, rather than an ideal.

One of the best received narrative techniques we developed was to do with the alternate personality the player character develops towards the beginning of Black Plague. We had no way to produce any flashy cut scenes, character models or bespoke graphics, but needed some dramatic moments in the game to develop the relationship. As a solution, we used the assets we already had in the form of the game engine and scripting tools to represent the character's presence onscreen. Unseen teleports and level geometry that shifted moment to moment produced a disorienting atmosphere for this malevolent psychosis to revel in. Later on, the player is tricked into murdering his only friend in the game when she is morphed into the shape of an enemy. It's all very guerrilla: using cheap tools to deceptive effect; combined with convincing voice acting it proved to be everything we needed.

Learning to Promote and Rely on Tone
Just as minimal resources encourage innovation, there's something very athletic about refusing (OK: not having the option) to rely on lush visuals to inject interest into a plot or relationship. Being forced down to the very basics of the craft means doing your best to get the very basics right.

Having the writing support the tone of the game in a far stronger way is the first step. Of course, Penumbra has always had dark, atmospheric scenery and better than average lighting effects, and these help to set and maintain the mood; but any tonal demands that go beyond "Everything's a little bit grimy and hard to see" have to be conveyed through the writing, because you haven't got facial expressions or dramatic visual stunts to support you.

Voice: The Final Ingredient
Yet it's voice that ties the whole narrative experience together. We talked a lot about emotional response and philosophy during development. We wanted, in Penumbra, to do more than scare players, or even entertain them: we wanted them to care for the characters, to be conflicted, to feel guilty. A lot of that is set up by the plot and character arcs: NPCs' motives are intentionally hard to read, their reactions volatile, while the player's own in-game movements affect them in significant ways.

A lot, meanwhile, was down purely to a reliance on fantastic voice performances. Without the wow factor of mo-cap and lip sync, you place your trust in the actors' abilities to bring characters to life. As ever, recording was done to a budget, though Black Plague and Requiem benefited enormously from the very positive feedback earned by Overture and the resultant stretching of purse strings.

Almost all actors were sourced via The developer submits sample scripts and character sheets, and upwards of 50 actors upload audition tapes for each part. It's a low cost way of finding the right performance, and once you have your cast it's a simple matter of live directing over Skype while they do the lines in a recording studio local to them. Required re-takes tend to be part and parcel, and my experience with the actors and actresses was 90% outstanding.

A typical session would involve a complete read through of the script, with the actor taking notes as I talked them through what was going on in each scene, and their character's motivations. This was an essential stage - the personalities in the series are not the usual contemporary square pegs; most are insane. This makes communicating emotion in the performance essential, a goal at least partially achieved via ludicrous direction such as "Imagine you're a puppy who's being scolded for shitting on the carpet". It seemed to get the job done.

To some degree, I think the use of voice only is liberating. It seems to recapture that freedom of imagination granted to the prose reader, while avoiding the all too familiar pit falls of dodgy animation and the uncanny valley - your interaction with characters in Penumbra is 100% human.

Part 2 - The Indie Team - here.


  1. I did like some of the low-key turns that Penumbra made, this was definitely playing to its strengths. (I still haven't got Requiem, though). We briefly exchanged an e-mail last year on the end of Swanson's character arc in which I mentioned that the low budget of Penumbra meant that I was certain that she was going to end up horizontal (in a bad way), but reading above I think you more than compensated with a clever twist which shouldn't have been entirely unexpected, yet it was.

    Tom, you mentioned you attend a writing group (I'm on/off myself at one down in Greenwich). Is there such a thing as a game writers' group where you all read out your work for review or similar? (Not that I would attend, I'm not a games writer)

  2. Hmm... not so formal as that. There aren't that many games writers in the world, so it's a small enough world that you get to know a lot of the other guys. There's a small group of us that meet in London every so often, largely represented at the talk we gave at Southbank University:

  3. Hi,

    I like the blog, but I would recommend adding some SPOILER tags to this post. Haven't finished Penumbra yet, and didn't realize you were going to be using specific examples from the game to illustrate your point. I guess I'll have to read this some other time...

  4. I'll vouch for that as well ninja dodo. My eyes skittered over this post and when I spotted a spoiler I killed the window straight away. I finished Overture and thoroughly enjoyed it but Black Plague is on my To Play Next List and with it being summer and -gasp- sunny here I can't get the required light level early enough in the day, or lack thereof. The winter months are best for horror games.

  5. Ah, the original title mentioned this was a Penumbra post mortem so the spoiler tags got lost along the way. Thanks for threads up - fixed.