Writing For Video Games

games half-life hypermodern muse life majora's mask marc laidlaw nintendo quotations writing zelda

Will Faught

6 minutes

I’ve been reading an essay by Marc Laidlaw, entitled “The Hypermodern Muse“, in which he presents his experiences and reflections on writing for games. In case you don’t know, he’s the writer for Valve’s critically-acclaimed Half-Life games. When describing the essence of fusing writing with gameplay to make truly great games, he uses the game Majora’s Mask as an example. MM is one of my favorite games ever, but I’ve never been able to satisfactorily express why. When I read this, I realized that what he talked about was exactly what I had felt deep down this whole time.The following is the excerpt about MM:

But what about fuel? What makes this ship fly?

Here’s where we diverge from the orderly routine of construction.

Here’s where the blueprints are of little use, and writers fall back on their own odd survival skills.

You might be disheartened to learn that the writer’s life at Valve is not all glory. It is not as exciting as you might think to find a dozen ways to write, “RELOADING!”

But the Half-Life games are made up of a huge laundry list of exactly these kinds of lines. And in fact, turning them into exciting dialog is about as thrilling as converting someone’s laundry list would be.

Without inspiration, without our muse, we’d have nothing to cram into the carefully constructed corners of these contraptions.

I’d like to take the example of the Majora’s Mask, an episode in the Legend of Zelda series that I consider the closest thing to an Alice in Wonderland level classic that the industry has yet created.

Here is a game so intricate it appears to have been designed by Lewis Carroll working in concert with M.C. Escher and a Black Forest clockmaker. Every single bit of this game is intricately engineered to interlock with every other piece, on a scale that is truly beyond my ability to visualize.

Underpinning this game, was a well-oiled development team, fresh from making Ocarina of Time, and an intricate plan. Without this, the whole thing falls apart. And yet, every single piece of this elaborate contraption is exploding with life and character. There is not a single NPC who doesn’t seem to have some completely bizarre backstory. The closer you look, the weirder it gets. And, often, the more poignant. There’s nothing wasted in this elegant design. Every character also has a very specific reason to be there for purposes of gameplay.

If you’re not familiar with this twisted jewel of the Zelda series, it takes place entirely in the span of three days, with an ominous moon-sized clock ticking toward doomsday. Every time you peel back a layer of the game, you have a chance to set the clock back to the first moment of the first day and save the world from certain destruction. You do this by influencing time, by tipping the balance a little at a time, interfering with the clockwork lives of the world’s inhabitants. Only you, the player, in the guise of Link, are free to move in and out of time. Which is to say, only you can save the world.

What the world is made up of, in addition to the traditional series of Zelda dungeons, is a cast of bizarre characters locked into hundreds of intricate timelooped anecdotes. The game design is perfectly rigid; on some level it is nothing but design, scrupulous and elegant. The stories themselves are jewels set in the frame, the best ones possessing the brilliance and brightness of fairy tales or surreal fables. One in particular has always stuck with me.

In an early stage of the game you visit a desolate plateau cut in two by a dry gorge that once held a running river. On the side of the dry river sits an unmoving millwheel attached to a sad little millhouse. A little girl comes down the steps from the front door and crouches near the river. If you approach her, she flees back inside. You must restore the flow of the river to lure her out, then sneak into the house without being seen. If you do so, you discover that her father has been turned into a Gibdo–one of the wailing zombies that infest the world of Ocarina and Majora. If you have learned a song of healing, you can heal the old man, which leads to a brief scene of reunion that is more affecting than it has any right to be, considering the truncated animation, the spare text, the cartoony stylization of the scene.

Now…when Zelda fans gather, they talk about stuff like this. They spend a little bit of time talking about the puzzles, the dungeons, the clever weapons that are also keys. But mostly they talk about the odd bits. The things that come like gifts, out of nowhere; that didn’t have to be anything in particular, but end up being perfectly memorable.

This scene with the waterwheel and the father and daughter reunited, is a perfect meld of story and puzzle, but…it could have been anything. From a design standpoint, it need only satisfy the requirement that it be a puzzle with a layered, multipart solution. You need to restore the river’s flow, and in order to do that you need to have solved other puzzles. You need to sneak into the house while the girl is outside. To heal her father you need to have learned a specific song.

To solve the puzzles requires mastery of the larger time dilemmas of the game. Lacking any one of these pieces, you experience slightly more of the mystery; only with all of them in place can you solve it. There’s the puzzle. But is there anything in the puzzle specification that suggests a little girl and her father—let alone a tender reunion? Is it necessary that the reward for solving the puzzle be anything more than the Gibdo mask? Why should it have any emotional content? All of these additional aspects are irrelevant, but without them, would I have remembered the scene? I should mention, this is little sketch of a scene filled me with envy, and it’s only one. The frustrated romance of Kafei and Anju, two lovers who continually elude each other, is structurally worthy of Shakespeare. And the intricate framework of Majora’s Mask allows this kind of character-driven scene over and over again. It is like a Chinese puzzle box full of hidden drawers, a twisting road that is nothing but detours through a fantastic country.

In fact, every story except Link’s is a detour. As the hero, his journey is ultimately generic. He must save the world. How dull!

However, the designers have taken the care to create a world worth saving. They’ve hit upon the fact that it’s the thing our hero cares about that matters most. It’s the weird supporting characters and mysterious moments we remember.

The writer Karen Joy Fowler has pointed out that the heros of most stories tend to be unlike anyone you actually know or care about, and for this reason rather unsympathetic. However, if you cast around in the shadows, while you can generally find someone you can relate to. It may be a sidekick or someone even less conspicuous. There is a lot of magic in an unfinished sketch, a partial glimpse; the mind never stops trying to fill in the blanks of these characters.