What I Learned at GDC: The Writing of New Vegas

About a week or so ago, I was in Austin, Texas for the Game Developers Conference Online as a Conference Associate. This was my first trip to GDC, and I had a lot of fun, as well as learned a lot. I wasn’t able to attend all of the sessions I wanted to, but the ones I did attend were very insightful for me. As an aspiring writer, I attended a handful of the Narrative sessions as I could, and plan to check out the sessions I missed on the GDC Vault when available. I wanted to share what I learned from GDC, so the next series of posts, “What I Learned at GDC,” will cover just that, starting with this one.


The first session I’d like to talk about was called “Surviving the Apocalypse: The Writing of New Vegas,” lead by John Gonzalez of Obsidian, the Creative Director for Fallout: New Vegas. This was an extremely insightful session, as we got a chance to see firsthand how Obsidian goes about their narrative process. Keep reading to see an outline of the notes I took during the session, along with some of my own comments.


This session outlined six steps Obsidian used for the writing of New Vegas.


1. Inspiration

This phase is seemingly the largest of all, and is essentially the research step. It took about a year to complete the initial research, but was ongoing through the entire project. First, they wanted to research the general themes of the game, so they played other games with similar themes, watched films, even read books. It was crucial to remember the key features in the Fallout series, as well. Things key to the Fallout series that they had to work with included: a signature city; open world exploration; reactivity to the player character, i.e. perks and reputation; multiple quest solutions, such as what if the player kills no one, or kills everyone; a focus on companions; and an established tool set.

Immerse yourself in the world you’re creating.
– John Gonzalez

2. Writing

This step is where the bulk of the story comes into play. They began with a Story Brief Document, which outlines the general ideas behind the story in a simple, often bulleted format. Organization was not critical in this document, although comments were extremely so. This was largely an idea document, a way of spreading ideas around the rest of the team and seeing what worked and what didn’t. Numerous revisions were applied to the brief document, and through this process, the key themes began to emerge. Other writing was being done at this time as well, including creative writing and writing which did not follow the critical path. The last major writing document that was created was the Story Overview. This examined the general story, but mostly focused on the main themes. There should be about two to three themes, and the player should be directly participating in those themes.

John Gonzalez described to the audience that everyone on the development team was involved in storytelling, and that there were only about two dedicated writers. For me, this was an interesting point. If the whole team has a chance to toss in their own ideas for the story, they’re going to be more passionate about what they’re creating, since they may have a direct affect on the game’s story.

3. Fleshing Out the World

This step is exactly what it sounds like: creating a detailed world for the player character to explore and interact with. It also includes what and who will be in that world, i.e. non-playable characters (NPCs). For New Vegas, this step included creating faction and NPC profiles, a historical timeline with specific dates and events, and a breakdown of the culture, which helped with character writing. The creation of a historical timeline was something I had not really considered before, at least not to that level of specificity. We had the opportunity to take a quick glance at the timeline, and it was highly detailed, to the point where it could pass as a real-world, scholarly timeline. This helped the team to better understand the world they were creating and the people that inhabit it.

4. Defining Dialogue Standards

At this step, the leads provide the rest of the team with a document that defines the dialogue standards of Fallout. In other words, the team is given a document which specifies how they should write the in-game dialogue, the proper formatting to be used, and the correct spelling and grammar for the world. The writers then took this document and began to write the dialogue, which was revised again and again. It seemed that it was very important that grammar and spelling in the Fallout world and even in all documents had to be correct.

This seems really boring. But you know what else seems really boring?
A parachute… when you’re packing it.

– John Gonzalez

5. Defining Global Variables

This step was meant to define the overview of the game’s arcing story, i.e. the three act structure. The idea behind this step was to define what was going on in the world at certain points/times and how these events affect the rest of the world and the player character.

Even though it’s not a linear game, it still kind of follows the three act structure.
– John Gonzalez

6. Write, Write, Write

And did I mention write? This step is entirely focused on writing. The dialogue should be wrapping up at this point, which should include “dialogue stubbing.” Documents should be created for each major NPC, that define their dialogue plans, story interaction, and references, perks, conditions, skills, etc. The bulk of writing for the project is carried out at this step.

Overview

This session mostly focused on writing, but can also be a great resource for the other positions of game development. For game designers, you should be working alongside the writer(s) to make the game play and story go hand in hand. For level designers and artists, the writing behind a game is essential for you to create your assets and believable characters, levels, etc. For programmers, this can give you a good look at the opposite spectrum of game development, as well as allow you to add your own input, whether that involves pitching a cool idea you have for the story or critiquing to define what can and cannot be done in realistic programming. For marketing, the writing behind the game can better help you to sell the game, since you’ll have a better knowledge of what it is actually about.

All in all, I found this to be a great session. I got a chance to speak to John Gonzalez afterward, and he feels that story is integral to games, which I mostly agree with. We had a nice discussion on how to incorporate story into parts of the game other than just the narrative, such as level design, mechanics, etc. Writing is becoming a larger part of the game industry, and with more and better writers coming in, we can expect to see an increase in story-oriented games.

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