The Game of Writing for Video Games
This is the second part in a bite-size 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.
“Blood & Laurels/Sunless Sea/Where the Water Tastes Like Wine”
First: work with the gameplay mechanics. If they’re evoking an emotion or creating an arc for the player, that’s part of the storytelling of the game. Your contributions should integrate with them. Develop your critical instincts about story and gameplay by analyzing existing games.
Second: tell the truth in your writing. Find any bits you wrote on autopilot and replace them with something you’ve felt, observed, or (if necessary) researched. If the story raises dilemmas that you find challenging, let that complexity come into the story; don’t feel you have to glue on an easy moral. Writing is a great way to unpack our beliefs, and games writing is not an exception.
“Aliens Versus Predator/Fragments of Him”
“Almost no two jobs in games writing are the same. A games writer might be brought into the team at the last minute to add a story between pre-built and finished gameplay, or they may only be asked to polish existing dialogue. At the other extreme, a games writer may be involved from the very beginning of a project and work closely with the whole team to develop the world and give input on missions, locations, and even gameplay mechanics. This deeper engagement is sometimes termed ‘narrative design’, and steps beyond writing into the wider craft of interactive storytelling. This is where my passion lies. I learnt to write apart from games but, when I became a level designer on a first-person shooter, I found that understanding storytelling, plot structure, and all those authorial skills were helping me decide gameplay events and design combat encounters. I worked on the story of my level and then progressed to working with the other designers on the stories of their levels. A narrative designer, in my opinion (and there are many other interpretations of this job title currently!), uses the whole interactive medium to tell their story: visuals, audio, art and animation, interactions and choice, combined with an understanding of gameplay context understood through player psychology. All of these are combined to create the intended experience for the audience. Most games writing jobs don’t give that kind of authority to the storyteller, but they do come along sometimes!
Our industry is very demanding, and writers are more often asked to adapt to the needs of the team rather than the other way around. You will need a strong work ethic, because often you will be working alone at a keyboard, so you need to be self-motivated and disciplined. You will also need a lot of patience and so-called ‘soft skills’, because you will be working with a lot of teams that may or may not understand your aspect of the game-creation craft. There will be a lot of meetings!
There is a piece of advice that goes both ways: appreciate the video game medium and what is outside of it too. This means that non-interactive writers will need to play games, to love games, and especially to understand the basics of the demanding technical and creative skills of games development. You wouldn’t expect to be brilliant at writing radio plays if you haven’t ever engaged with that medium, so apply the same passion to understanding the medium of video games too. Conversely, video game lovers who want to write for games, you will need to learn about the great storytelling experiences outside of the games and comic-book world: read classic books, explore different cultures, travel if you can, go to theatres and galleries, and watch the greatest films from every decade of cinema, and also study the sciences and play sports. Great writers generally have very varied internal libraries that feed their imagination, and your unique knowledge and skills are what you bring to a team as a storyteller.”
“Sunless Skies/Sunless Sea/Sunless Sea: Zubmariner”
“The writer doesn’t have access to the player’s inner dialogue. In some games this does not matter – the player is playing a known character, a hero with feelings and thoughts separate from the player’s. (Lara Croft, for example.) It is OK to put decisions on that character that that character would make, and OK to suggest the reasons why they did them. It is very different when the character is one made up by the player. In these kind of games (mainly RPGs), strive to avoid telling the player how they feel, how they react to a situation. One player might be role playing someone who is delighted to wander into a graveyard; another might be playing a character that is barely able to resist swooning with fear. One of these players would not take well to being told they’re too scared to go in. You need to give reasons for situations that don’t depend on the player having one particular mindset. Don’t take the story away from the player.“
“Broken Sword/The Bunker”
“Write with the player uppermost in your mind. Even in multiplayer games, you’re still writing for an audience of one because each player makes their own choices and actions.”
“I’ve always said to aspiring writers that breaking in is like starting off as a drop of water stuck behind a dam in a deep pool of others. Only a trickle of your competition ever breaks through. Some get so good that they rise up over the rest and slide in from the top, others find a clever breach somewhere beneath, a lucky break. Work to rise over the top. Always keep pushing for clever breaches, but remember they never stay clever for long.
If you can add a second skill to your arsenal, you will have a better chance of getting hired on your first indie gig. Consider making that second skill a niche function that doesn’t warrant a whole hire in itself. If it is a big thing like animating, art or programming, your competition will be stiff and you’ll need to spend a lot of time developing yourself to get to a level of professionalism that’s any use at all. My second skill was voice acting direction.
But more important than anything, become an amazing writer. It can take over ten years of full time writing to be the best you can be. I personally believe that screenwriting is the best possible entry discipline for game writing. You get a better grounding in drama, dialogue and visual storytelling than writers from any other discipline, including game writers, whose masters are mostly still reinventing the wheel. The areas of departure from screenwriting, like branching narrative and player agency, are either much easier to master or much less important to our work than we’re led to believe.
Think on theme. Why does your story need to be told? What message does it hold, or better, what questions does it ask? For plot, prose and dialogue, you need to give yourself to craft. For theme and character, to life. And books. Lots of books. In short – write, live, read.”
“Pendragon Rising/SOMA/The Bunker”
“Read it out loud. If you stumble over the words, rewrite and rewrite again, until it flows.”
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)