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How To Write Video Game Barks
Combine feedback, character, and storytelling together in brief lines of dialog
Of all the different forms of video game writing, barks are among the most abundant, important, and unique to the medium. They can also be incredibly difficult to write.
What Are Barks in Video Games?
Even if you’ve never heard the term “barks” before, you probably know what they are. Simply put, a bark is a brief line of dialog delivered by a character in response to an event, often triggered by the player’s action. A bark could be an NPC saying “Hey you, over here!” when the player character passes by, that same NPC uttering a grunt of pain when the player attacks them, as well as the player character saying “Nobody tells me what to do” while standing over the now-dead NPC.
Barks are one of the most important parts of game writing because they are emblematic of the medium. They assist in making the player feel like their actions have consequences, which in turn helps to bring the world inside the game to life. In this way, barks are the storytelling equal to “press X to jump.” Furthermore, barks can confirm a player's action, spread lore, add personality to a character, provide brevity or tension, and guide or even trick the player — sometimes all at once.
So naturally, good barks can be hard to write.
What Makes a Good Bark?
Every bark does three things:
Respond to a trigger
Provide the player with information
Accurately reflect the speaking character
One of my earliest memories of video game barks is from Myth II: Soulblighter, a 1998 dark fantasy real-time tactics game developed by Bungie. In particular, the dwarves’ barks have always had a special place in my heart, so let's look at what makes them good.
While knights in Myth II occasionally acknowledge being selected by responding with a line like “Your orders?” the dwarves instead might reluctantly grumble “What now?” Similarly, telling a knight to move might result in them saying “yes sir” while a dwarf might mockingly chant “move here, move there!” To top it off, commanding a dwarf to throw an exploding bottle at an enemy might result in an enthusiastic “catch!” or “burn!”
The dwarves’ barks meet all three of the essential requirements: they are triggered by the player’s action, confirm the action, and personify the dwarves as a grumpy and bloodthirsty race.
What makes them especially noteworthy, however, is how they go above and beyond those three essential elements. The dwarves’ barks change the entire mood of the game, offering a bit of comedic relief that contrasts the incredibly dark themes and story without breaking immersion. Furthermore, the dwarves’ intense personalities help to further personify the other units as disciplined and heroic by comparison. They singlehandedly elevate the rest of the game.
Don't worry! Not every bark needs to elevate the game. That said, even the most basic barks can be difficult to write. Barks risk being trite, unhelpful, and (worst of all) annoying. As if the pressure to write a good bark isn't enough, it’s common to need several versions of the same bark for any trigger — any line can potentially be said in dozens of different ways by the same character and by dozens of other characters.
How To Write Barks for Video Games
To write good barks, you first need to know where to put them. You do this by finding where action can lead to information.
1: What Information Can You Provide?
From a game development perspective, ask yourself what information the player might need or want to know — what questions might they be thinking at any given moment that a bark could answer? For example, might the player need or want to know:
What should I do next?
Am I low on health?
Did pressing that button have the desired effect?
2: What Actions Can You Respond To?
From a storytelling perspective, ask yourself where and when a character might conceivably respond to the player’s action — where are the opportunities to tell the story? For example, might the player character be:
Retracing their steps?
Visiting an in-game shop?
Swinging a weapon at an indestructible door?
Chances are the first list you make will inform the second. In any case, the next step is to find matches between the lists. As luck would have it, all three items on my first list can be paired with the same numbered item on my second list like this:
The player character may be retracing their steps because the player is wondering what they should do next.
The player may be visiting an in-game shop because they’re worried about being low on health.
The player may be slashing away at the door to find out if it can be broken open.
These examples have both triggers to respond to and information to provide. Now we need to accurately reflect the character speaking and bear in mind how we want the player to feel.
3: How Can You Accurately Represent the Character?
For whatever character is barking, ask yourself:
What is their speaking style?
What is their background concerning the situation?
How do they feel about their situation?
Without realizing it, everything we say is influenced by these three questions. Knowing the answers for your character is key to selling the bark. Even if they’re an incredibly minor character with no personal backstory or impact on the game other than to greet the player as they walk by, take just a moment to think about the greeting that makes the most sense for them in that situation. Is it a casual “hey,” a more formal “good day to you,” or perhaps something like “thousand suns upon you” that also gives us a glimpse into the unique lore and state of the world?
4: How Do You Want the Player To Feel?
Just as important as knowing your characters is knowing how their words might affect your players. A bark that makes sense for a character may not always make sense for the game.
For example, maybe it makes sense for an NPC in the squad to tease the player character for failing to do something easy, but doing so may come across as you, the developer, teasing the player as well. Do you want your player to feel shamed for making a mistake or inspired to try again? In this case, the solution could be as simple as toning down the negativity, finding another NPC to bark something inspirational, or having the player character bark back “Quiet! Let me focus.”
Great news! You now have all the key ingredients to writing a good bark. The next steps should be familiar to anyone who read my previous post “3 Essential Tips to Improve Your Writing” — quickly draft a few dozen barks, slowly whittle the list down to the best ones, remove excess wording, keep your eye on the prize, and repeat.
More Examples of Video Game Barks
Here are five barks from the perspective of the player character and five barks from the perspective of an NPC sidekick, each with a different tone. Think about the different effects each one might have on the player, the type of character that might say them, and what each bark might say about the situation.
For practice, try writing 5-10 alternatives for each bark while still providing the same information in the same tone.
Trigger: The player character is retracing their steps.
Information we want to provide: You’ve been here before. That’s the wrong way.
Speaking character: Player character
Annoyed: “Ugh. Already been here.”
Doubtful: “I think we should go the other way.”
Curious: “This looks familiar.”
Confident: “Nah, this isn’t the right way.”
Excited: “Hey, I remember this place!”
Speaking character: The player character’s NPC sidekick
Doubtful: “Do you know where you’re going?”
Shy: “Are you sure this is the right way?”
Stressed: “Right. We’re lost.”
Annoyed: “Would you make up your mind already?”
Encouraging: “Take your time. I’ve got your back.”
How To Write a Game is a free publication written by Ryan Matejka, an organic human who loves to write. If you like this, please consider making a small donation.