The Impact of Choosing Tools

Posted On: 2020-06-01

By Mark

Writing for a non-linear medium (such as a game) has many challenges, and the literal act of writing - committing words to a page/document - is, itself, one of those challenges. Traditionally, text documents are designed to be both written and read linearly (beginning to end). Thus, when one needs to represent non-linearity (such as a different next line depending on player choice), one often needs specialized tools. Yet, as I work through implementing the various kinds of character interactions, even those tools are sometimes not the right choice - which then leads me to create (or repurpose) tools that better fit the workflow. Along the way, I've had some chance to see what impact this has had on the style and content itself.

Choice of Tools

Although I am no stranger to non-linear writing*, I've been struggling a bit as I write for my current project. Some of these struggles are documented in other blog posts, but, generally, a lot of this boils down to trying to use a variety of different kinds of non-linearity, but relying on tools designed for only one kind. For as great as it is, Yarn Spinner doesn't really support using storylets, but many of the structures I use really need something like it in order to stay maintainable. Conversely, representing the natural flow of a conversation using storylets is quite difficult, so I still find myself using branching narrative for all the bits the user actually sees.

Most recently, however, I've faced a new kind of writing need, one that is purely functional: conveying world-state information. For this particular kind of writing, everything beautiful about writing (characterization, prosody, pacing, etc.) all takes a back seat to just telling the player in as few words as possible*. While working in this economy of words, I found that it actually took more time just building the structure (using either branching or salience) than actually writing the content itself. Thus, I chose to look for yet another tool to simplify the process**, and I settled on one of the most misused tools imaginable: the spreadsheet.

Choice Begets Constraints

Writing in a spreadsheet, with every cell a different possible line of dialogue (based on the world-state) created some unexpected (but helpful) constraints. For one, I could no longer represent the back-and-forth of character banter: one character would say one line, and no more. If a line was cheeky or surprising: too bad - there's no room for a reaction.

Another constraint was the subconscious impact of the cell boundaries. Although I did expand the cells to give a reasonable amount of room, watching the remaining room disappear as I typed pressured me to keep it short. If I wasn't on-point by 4 words in, I found myself rewriting or cutting, to keep it brief and focused.

Constraints Shape Creation

As I completed my writing session, I was struck by how different the resulting content was from anything I'd written in my branching narrative tools. Everything was shorter, punchier, and more focused. Words were frugally spent, not squandered on ornament or texture. What's perhaps more striking still, is that the characters still shone through: writing a simple phrase like "he's in the kitchen" in four different character voices really pushed me to make their respective voices stand out, without relying on wordy "cheats" like catch-phrases or obtuse sentence structures.

The whole experience got me reflecting on my various tools, and how much influence they have on my work. If the constraints of the spreadsheet kept the text focused and punchy, what impact do my other tools have on the rest of my writing? Do large, blank canvases (for every node) encourage me to write more wordy dialogue? Does keeping salience information in a separate tab encourage me to ignore the context as I write the content? Does having to go into and out of each node separately encourage me to think differently about the relationships between the nodes themselves (compared to, say, if I could click a choice in one node to jump directly to editing another node?)

While I don't know the answers to these questions yet, I'm glad I've had the chance to ask them. If I hadn't changed tools, I doubt I would have even seen these possibilities. Overall, this whole adventure has made me think differently about the influence that my tools have on me and my work. Hopefully, reading this has helped you as well.