The Game of Writing for Video Games
This is the first in a mini series offering nuggets of wisdom from experienced writers of video games, interactive entertainment and the grey areas in between. Whether you’re still dreaming of the prospect, just setting out on your journey or already well on your way to applying your creative writing skills to a project, perhaps there is something here for you.
“Nosgoth/Fable: Legends/Prince of Persia”
“Remember the ‘writer’ in games writer. That means write as much as possible in every medium that appeals to you. Go out and read and learn about writing. Take courses, read books and put yourself into places where your work is criticised. Read history and literature to expand your knowledge of stories, storytelling and the world beyond. And, no matter how experienced you become, never stop doing those things. Writing is a craft, it must be learned, studied and improved. If you dedicate your life to writing then each story you tell is the prologue to the next.”
“Sunless Skies/Sunless Sea/Sunless Sea: Zubmariner”
“Where video games differ from many other media is the role of the protagonist. In novels, for example, the reader can be told why the hero makes the decision they do. The story can be told with events occurring in a particular order, the writer can plan the length between major plot beats and carefully structure a build up to a climax. This can be a lot harder in video games. If you’re writing for an open world game, the player might actively refuse to follow the main quest, the main storyline. While you can’t cater for those who refuse to experience the story, you might have to factor in that a player might or might not have seen other areas of the land, might or might not have spent in game days before moving on. It is very difficult to create a sense of urgency when the game has to wait for the player. Either write situations that can be prolonged, and might reasonably be drawn out till the hero arrives – or at least avoid knife-at-throat life-or-death situations that the player can walk away from and come back to at their leisure. Cut scenes are (in my opinion) not the answer.”
“Perplex City/Sherlock: The Network/Star Wars: Battlefront II”
“Think beyond words. Talk to the other departments and find non-verbal opportunities for storytelling. Maybe the animation team could replace that lengthy speech with a quick look of sympathy. Maybe that yell of pain could be a visual effect instead. And that sense of helplessness might be better conveyed by limiting the player’s movement. Environmental design, music, sound effects, game mechanics… these can all be part of the game writer’s toolkit.”
“Bomber Crew/The Descendant/Bloody Zombies”
“From the moment you try to get your first games writing gig and for the rest of your career, above all, whether in person or online: don’t be a dick. Be kind. Be gracious. Be humble. Be helpful. Do not shit upon the work of others, especially in public, even if you have an honestly negative opinion of something. Ask questions with good intentions, thanking those who answer. Answer well-intentioned questions asked of you. Be a collaborator, not a dictator or a diva. Be someone people want to work with, that people enjoy working with, to the point where your collaborators will be inspired to sing your praises within this very connected industry where your reputation, and past deeds, truly precede you.”
“Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice”
“First, the most effective writing for video games is that which is fully integrated into the game as a whole: story-line, characters, environment, visual style, and music. Second, embrace the constraints of the genre (such as short snippets of lore distributed across the gamespace), for they force you to be creative. Third, realise that authenticity shines through. The better researched the background (or real-world parallels to imagined worlds) is, the more powerful your words will be, and the more powerful the game as a whole will be.”
“Dead Space/ZombiU/Shadow of Mordor”
“Love games. Read/watch/play everything with a good story. And everything with a bad story. Write every day. Fight for your vision, but recognise when someone else’s idea is better. Don’t let yourself be underpaid. Get lots of sleep. You’ll need it.”
“Buzz/The Deep/Jacob Jones & The Bigfoot Mystery”
“Be sure you actually love games. Writer friends often ask me how to get into writing games but it soon turns out they haven’t actually played anything since a game of Galaga on the, literal, tabletop machine at their local Chinese restaurant in 1983. Love games, be in love with their ability to deliver story in a way no other medium can. Don’t be afraid to ask. I got into games writing because I read a brief article in Edge about Sidelines, an agency for games writers, and popped them an email. It works for all writing, too – it’s how I got my first sketch on TV. Ask and keep asking and eventually someone will want to know why you’re so keen.”
“Star Wars: Battlefront II”
“The games industry is still young. It has yet to establish industry standards for hiring and utilising writers. Being open-minded about opportunities is critical and will help you recognise them when they appear, but equally important is valuing your own time and making sure you’re fairly compensated for all the work you do.”
“No Man’s Sky: Atlas Rises/Aquanox: Deep Descent”
“Actually make a game, however short or rough, and get people to play it (using Twine or any other free, easy-to-use tool). You’ve now done more to become a game writer than most. Attend game jams and practice working in a team with other disciplines, learning the constraints and opportunities offered by limited time and resources. The Global Game Jam (held in January each year in towns and cities across the world) is a great starting point.“
Guidelines for Writing for Video Games
A PDF of the WGGB guidelines for Writing for Video Games (2015) can be found here: https://writersguild.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/WGGB-A4-Videogames-2.pdf
None of this would be possible without the enthusiasm and experience of the WGGB video games committee and fellow writers, including Giles Armstrong, Elizabeth Ashman Rowe, Greg Buchanan, Rosa Dachtler, Mata Haggis, Steve Ince, Anthony Johnston, Dan Pinchbeck, George Poles, Emily Short, Morris Stuttard, Ian Thomas, David Varela, Olivia Wood and Andy Walsh. Credits/titles indicated above refer to content provided to a project, as a writer, not necessarily the writer.
For more information on the WGGB try here.
Thanks for visiting.
All the best for 2018,
Video Games Chair of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain (2016-2018)