According to Evan Skolnick, everything you need to know about game writing can be learned from watching Star Trek.
“I come to you today not as a Star Trek writer,” said Skolnick, Editorial Director for Vicarious Visions, “but as writer inspired by Star Trek.”
Skolnick described his short quest to become a writer for one of the series’ many incarnations, then his big break in producing digital trading cards. He’s since worked as a writer and producer for a number of games for multiple platforms.
According to Skolnick, there are five basic lessons to be learned from watching Star Trek:
1. Start with a Bang
Just like when the episode begins with a flashing Red Alert beacon and the sight of a handful of actors pretending to be rocked back and forth in their chairs, a good game should engage your attention as soon as you fire it up.
2. Defy Expectations
When the original series began, Spock was designed to look like the devil. This was different, scary and compelling. Star Trek also had a female bridge officer, a big step forward for womankind in the 1960s.
“If you have a vision for something, its important,” says Skolnick. “Fight for it. You need to be consistently trying to surprise your audience. In a game .. knowing where you’re going … can be extremely boring. A player needs to be surprised.”
3. Externalize Internal Conversations
The Kirk/Spock/McCoy triumvirate is a well hammered literary device. It’s the sci-fi embodiment of Freud’s famous personality aspects: Id, Ego and Super Ego.
“Create characters that have personalities that are well differentiated,” says Skolnick. Then you can use their multiple aspects to present different perspectives and tell your story through them, not at them.
4. Use Classic Structure
The three-act structure explained by Aristotle is perhaps the best understood narrative form. It’s used pretty effectively in all media, even games.
Just as well known is Joseph Campbell’s theory of the Hero’s Journey, in which a hero character undergoes various trials on his way to heroic ascension.
Skolnick illustrated the effective use of the Hero’s Journey by mapping it to the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Strangely, it worked.
“I know there are differences between game writing and movie writing,” he said. “But it’s not really as different as you might think.”
The lesson: Know what works, and use it.
5. Focus on Character
“What would Kirk do?” Skolnick asked, illustrating a conversation he often has in his head when attempting to design actions for the hero character.
He described how all stories revolve around characters and how the secret to effective storytelling (in any medium) is to show what happens through characters, not tell it through exposition.
He also explained that even the bad guys think they’re good. The player may be the hero – and want to be the hero – but the bad guy does, too. In his mind, his quest is the heroic quest. That’s what makes him a character and not a cardboard cutout.
The key to making a good game story is utilizing all of these aspects and/or watching a lot of Star Trek.