Video Game Storytelling – Evan Skolnick

I keep talking to people about this book! Evan Skolnick’s “Video Game Storytelling” is the quintessential, example-rich guide for creating narrative for video games. Skolnick offers both a practical and philosophical guide that is useful for video game writers, beta testers, novelists, and gamers curious about the process.

Skolnick divides the lessons into “Basic Training,” which was a helpful introduction to classic video game storytelling tropes, believability, and how much background to give, and “In the Trenches,” which was a hearty helping of anecdotal and prescriptive overview of roles on a game design team, character/mission/level development, using environments to augment the sense of a larger world, audio considerations, and quality assurance. Throughout the book, Skolnick consistently and vividly shares relevant and recent examples of popular games’ successes and failures. Even when I hadn’t played all of those myself, he also provided YouTube links so I could see clips from video games and get the reference. Excellent!

I am astounded at how Skolnick accomplished so much in a normal sized book. I feel as though I’ve shadowed someone in the game design industry for a month, and I know there’s still more to learn.

Skolnick delved into a level of detail I had never considered. He introduced me to new concepts, such as “ludonarrative harmony / dissonance,” which refers to the connection between narrative story and gameplay, and “barks,” which are the programmed sounds and words that non-player characters (NPCs) say often in response to the main player’s actions. His practical leadership and role-related advice for those working in teams of audio, design, narrative, business leads, and testers highly relates to my own occupation as an instructional designer balancing the workflow between multimedia, web designers, subject matter expert, students and professors to create online courses. His 25+ years of experience with video game and entertainment giants Marvel, Activision and Lucasfilm provides a level of insight I suspect isn’t commonly available to the public.

My top takeaways as a writer translating this book’s lessons for video games into novels:

  • I especially will be conscious of how to create environmental details in world-building in my novels to make it seem as though the world will be larger. Skolnick’s example of graffiti and varying barks resonated with me. I’ll try to find similar opportunities in environmental details.
  • I will now focus on ways for the reader to identify with the main character – critical in video games!
  • Providing background – just enough to whet the appetite but not enough to bore the reader – also works for books. I’ll be using his tips for the start of my stories.
  • Planting details so that later big events will seem less deus ex machina already come up tonight in my writers’ group; phenomenal tips in this section are great for a story in any medium!

It takes something special for me to pick up a book of nonfiction and then rave about it. For this book, the juxtaposition of story telling, video games, and the perspective of an industry insider were that special blend. I’ve grown up with video games and watched my brothers play video games. Today, I still play one particular game (The Sims!) and now watch my husband, play video games. Taking a gamble on this book paid off in full, and then some.

After reading the book, I feel a deeper appreciation for the intelligent, thoughtful planning that went into the seamless games we’ve played and seen. I can now envision the collaboration between graphic designers, coders, project lead, and narrative writer, and I’m armed with an arsenal of new terms that will help me to navigate video games nuances in the future.

This book has already helped me to enjoy video games and the constructs behind them, connect with fellow gamers and writers, and reflect on my own approach to story telling. Thank you, Evan Skolnick, for sharing the art of great storytelling in your field.

I received this book free from Blogging for Books for this review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

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