James Wallis levels with you

A game narrative reading list

Two friends with credentials (George Buckenham and Jurie Horneman) have posted recommended lists of books on game design, and as I’ve had a similar list knocking around for a while I thought I’d put it up here. Mine is more specific than either of theirs since it’s mostly about game narrative, and it overlaps with Jurie’s list more than it does George’s, but I hope it’s still interesting/useful.

(Two things. (1) This is a living document and I will add to it regularly. (2) Most links go to Wordery, which offers free worldwide delivery on all titles.)

THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES by Joseph Campbell. A dissection of metamyths, the structure underlying a lot of folklore and mythology from around the world, and boiling it down to its common elements. This is where a lot of the story-structure theory and thinking comes from, in particular the ‘Hero’s Journey’ metaplot that George Lucas used for Star Wars and the Wachowskis used for the Matrix and so on. On a similar theoretical level is Vladimir Propp’s MORPHOLOGY OF THE FOLK TALE which is from 1928 and dry as bones, but it’s where a lot of this stuff started. HERO is quite old-hat these days and many people can recognise a story based on it, but it’s a key text.

SCREENPLAY by Syd Field: summarises the three-act structure of most movies and dissects Chinatown brilliantly. One of the two classic books about writing screenplays, and by extension structuring a story. The other, by Robert McKee, I don’t like nearly as much. (McKee is the seminar-running guru fellow played by Brian Cox in the movie Adaptation.)

SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder: takes the three-act Field model and demonstrates how to break it down into story-beats, a structured sequence of emotional peaks and troughs for the characters to experience. Has the distinction of being written by someone who actually wrote some scripts that were actually made into actual films, which is not true of most books about how to write movies or for that matter novels. Very readable, often very funny. People tend to take it as a bible, which it shouldn’t be. Horribly formulaic but by goodness it works.

INTO THE WOODS by John Yorke. ‘Not three acts! Five! Like Shakespeare!’ The most recent of the decent how-to-structure books. I don’t rate this as highly as some do, but it is a good read.

IMPRO by Keith Johnstone, and here we get into interactive story-creation although Johnstone wouldn’t recognise games as being related to what he does. I mean, probably. This is the guy who basically created modern improvisational drama and comedy, and invented theatresports along the way. This is one of my favourite books ever, it’s an inspirational work about creativity and authority and how the two can and can’t sit together, but his stuff on how to impose simple rules to create a structure that generates narrative from interaction is just brilliant. This book underlies a lot of my thinking about how and why games work. I have reread it more than almost any other book in my adult life.

HAMLET’S HIT POINTS by Robin D. Laws takes the ‘beats’ concept from screenplay writing and applies it to interactive media. Specifically Robin applies it to the mad boundary-less sandbox interactives of tabletop RPGs, but there is a lot to learn from here regardless of what bit of game or narrative creation you’re in, and Robin is an engaging and entertaining guide. He’s a master of his craft and created the multi-award-nominated narrative game HILLFOLK last year, which you should also buy because it’s brilliant and I have a bit about feuding Augustan poets in it.

PROFESSIONAL TECHNIQUES FOR VIDEO GAME WRITING edited by Wendy Despain. Nutsy-boltsy stuff on how to write stories for games, with chapters by many of the leading practitioners in the industry. Rhianna Pratchett is in here, Richard Dansky is here, the usual suspects are here. Among the best of its type in the field that it’s in.

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT AND STORYTELLING FOR GAMES by Lee Sheldon. I’ve just got the second edition of this and haven’t had a chance to appraise it yet, but Lee is a god of the field with experience of making movies and TV as well as narrative games. From a first skim this is not state-of-the-art stuff, not cutting edge interactive narrative creation, that book’s not been written yet and I’m hoping that Playful Fiction (the forthcoming journal I am putting together) will be the bedrock of that, but this is a very solid foundation. Bit of a tome. Be warned.

UNDERSTANDING COMICS by Scott McCloud is really about building your critical vocabulary but in this case it’s more about adapting your narrative techniques to fit your medium. This ought to be essential reading for anyone involved in building narrative in any field at all. UC was the direct inspiration for Interactive Fantasy, the journal of game narrative and criticism that Andrew Rilstone and I produced twenty years ago, and which published…

I HAVE NO WORDS AND I MUST DESIGN by Greg Costikyan (web) which is explicitly about critical vocabulary and its importance to the growth of a form. Short. Brilliant.

SECOND PERSON edited by Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. A collection of essays and statements about games and stories, published by MIT. I am massively biased because I have an essay in here and it reprints The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen as an appendix. It’s mostly a collection of approaches rather than a how-to—it’s aimed at academics, as you’d expect from the publisher—but a worthy and not too wordy read despite that. Greg Costikyan is in this one too.

and finally

MAN, PLAY AND GAMES by Roger Caillois, which you really should have read by now. One of the fundamental texts of games criticism: witty, intelligent, and still remarkably on the money even though it predates the first commercial video-game by at least fifteen years. I always feel that Huizinga was an outsider looking in, but Caillois—who hung out with the likes of Georges Bataille—was a player.

There is nothing in this list about Nordic Larp at present, because I don’t know the field well enough. George’s list includes the DJA-winning NORDIC LARP by Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola (PDF) which is a monster and you should have read it two years ago, but it’s more inspirational than instructional. Probably the best primer on the field is THE FOUNDATION STONE OF NORDIC LARP edited by Eleanor Saitta, Marie Holm-Andersen & Jon Back (PDF), a collection of influential essays gathered from earlier works, which is also a free download. I’d also recommend Markus Montola’s PhD thesis ON THE EDGE OF THE MAGIC CIRCLE (PDF) even though it’s a PhD thesis because I am obsessed with the magic circle, I think it’s one of the things that truly differentiates games from all other media and it links all the way to consensus realities and Occupy and TAZ which reminds me TEMPORARY AUTONOMOUS ZONES by Hakim Bey, again inspirational not instructive but if you don’t finish reading it and immediately want to either change the world or make a new one then you’re going to design horrible games.

Comments? Any core texts I’ve missed?

Categorised as: Uncategorized


  1. rdonoghue says:

    Seems a little cheaty to include HHP by not Mckee. :)

    For a lot of the same reasons I give the thumbs up for Save the Cat, I’d throw in Epstein’s “Crafty TV Writing” for a similarly useful drilldown into TV.

  2. […] James Wallis also wrote a list. There’s some overlap with this one. He has gone deeper into the screenplay books. I’ve […]

Leave a Reply