Game Writing Meets Star Trek

evanskolnick.jpgEvan Skolnick never wrote a Star Trek episode, but he came close. He wrote for William Shatner's Tek World comic, was involved in the Marvel Star Fleet Academy series, and even helped develop a digital Star Trek trading card game no one ever played. He may not have written for Star Trek, but the series has helped him throughout his career writing comic books and now video games. Though I will always remember him as the editor for Ghost Rider 2099, Skolnick is now a producer and editorial director for Vicarious Visions. Today at the Austin Game Developers Conference he talks about the influence the sci-fi series has had on his career in a presentation entitled, "Everything I Needed To Know About Game Writing I Learned From Star Trek".Skolnick breaks down the Star Trek into five different rules to write by.

Start With Bang You need to hook the audience immediately. It was important in 1966 when Star Trek started and is even more important today. They would open with a teaser that would grab you, making you stay past the first commercial break to see what happens. In later series this trend faded. He illustrates this point by showing the openings to a TOS episode that presents a conflict, putting the crew into a dangerous and intriguing situation right from the start. He then shows a Next Generation episode that begins with the ship waiting for something while Geordi and Data look at a model sailboat. Exciting! Made the point quite nicely.

In game writing, this translates into starting with a short, gripping cutscene and then launching the player into the conflict.

Defy Expectations Give people something they don't expect. Spock is a prime example of this. Getting Spock into the series was a struggle because he was non-emotional and looked like the devil, but today is one of the most popular characters in the whole franchise. Another risk was Uhura. A female African America bridge officer? Unheard of at the time. Skonick also uses the example of the episode "Devil in the Dark", where the horta is at first a murderous monster but turns out to be just a mother protecting her young. The trend continued through the latter series. Choosing an older, bald captain for the Next Generation Enterprise, introducing Date, an outsider android on a quest for human emotions, making Klingons into allies, etc.

Game writing applications? Skolnick says you need to constantly surprise your audience. Hunt down clichés in your work and kill them. If you can keep it believable, change the course of the story in an unexpected fashion just when things are starting to make sense.

Externalise Internal Conversations Ah yes, the Kirk / Spock / McCoy triumvirate. Star Trek takes conversations that would take place in Kirk's head and gives them life by using Spock as Kirk's logical side and McCoy as his emotional side.

This can be applied to game writing by creating characters with different personalities from each other so you can look at situations and opinions from different angles.

Use Classic Structure All classic stories have three basic parts. The beginning, where characters are introduced, the conflict, and the resolution. Skolnick explores the classic story structure using Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which is of course the best Star Trek movie unless you are some kind of freaky communist.

The game writing takeaway? Study classic structure and apply it to your game writing.

Focus On Character: Heroes Kirk is a decisive, action-oriented character who takes risks. He solves his own problems. For Skolnick, Kirk defines the hero, so as he writes he often asks himself, "WWKD?"

In Game writing, it is important for the player to be that hero. To feel like they are important and that the risks they are taking are real ones.

Focus On Character: Villains KHAAAAAAAAAAN! A villain has to be a match for the hero. In fact, Skolnick feels it is important that the villain of the story not consider himself a villain. He thinks his way is right, and in his own story *he* is the hero. A villain must have a clear motivation.

"It's very important to view the entire game story from the villain's point of view." Make the villain consistent and believable.

He finishes up with an analysis of City on the Edge of Forever, the most popular episode of the original series, despite not following the formula most would consider vital to a Star Trek episode. There were no space battles, no aliens, and no even any really sexy bits. Just a bittersweet love story that succeeds because it defies expectations and gives the hero a very personal stake in the situation.

Skolnick urges aspiring game writers to take their own area of expertise and explore how it applies to game writing. Whether you are a Star Wars fan or a Lord of the Rings junkie, you can learn from those classic works of fiction and use the knowledge you gain to help create gripping video game storylines.

Evan's final message? Live long and prosper.


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