The Game of Writing for Video Games
This is the third part in a bite-size series, offering nuggets of wisdom from experienced writers and artists 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.
“Total War: Warhammer/Warhammer 2 /Total War: Rome 2”
“No matter what you’re working on; learn it, live it, love it. Whether that’s spending hours reading the entire back catalogue of a franchise, playing similar games to get a feel for pacing and style, or finding out the exact number of buttons on a rifleman’s jacket in the Napoleonic Era, time spent researching is never time wasted. When you’re passionate about a subject, franchise or genre, it will shine through in your work.”
“Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture/So Let Us Melt”
“Don’t forget that stories are about characters. Even the best plot will struggle without compelling characters. Focus on your characters, because if they are written well, they will adapt and work in an evolving setting and plot.”
“Thimbleweed Park/Goatherd and The Gods/Mess Goblins”
“Push on and finish the game project you currently hate. You may have 20 unfinished games and 30 design docs but it doesn’t mean anything until you put it out into the world as a finished product.
I am the bully of my little team. I have cracked the whip through unpleasant slogs where we have wanted to give up on a game and do something else. You absolutely must not. Don’t keep starting things if you aren’t finishing them. See those ideas you once loved through.
That said its fine to admit defeat when a game really isn’t working, but a lot of game writing and design is toughing out the boring stuff to build a portfolio. The rewards come after the hard work and perseverance. Making games is fun, it’s an experience I wouldn’t swap for anything, but like most creative pursuits it will make you wish you had picked another career about halfway through whatever project you are working on.”
“Bomber Crew/The Descendant/Bloody Zombies”
“If you’ve never written for games before, then go write a game. I know that sounded facetious, but: go and build a short Twine game with multiple choices, some of them with a lot of impact, and so maybe some light branching, where every playthrough can be completed in seven minutes. Doing this, if you haven’t before, will teach you a great deal about creating fiction that’s actually interactive, as well as the challenges of implementing your work, testing it, and editing it to ensure every path can be completed in seven minutes. I recommend this as I’ve seen globally-recognised games studios set this task to potential workshop candidates with good reason — the willingness to complete the task shows a great deal about prospective candidates and their suitability for a career in games writing. Plus, that seven-minute duration vastly increases your chances of someone in a hiring position playing your Twine writing sample to completion. You can learn more about Twine, which is completely free, web-based, and has loads of tutorials, on its website: http://twinery.org/
Go to events and meet-ups. Immerse yourself in the industry and the medium, whether attending the Indie Dev Day at Develop, or finding inspiration at AdventureX, or spending four days enthusiastically devouring games and talking to sleep-deprived devs in the Rezzed section of EGX, or going to your local game developer/student/enthusiast meet-up, or a game jam taking place within one of the industry’s main hubs, or any of the many (often free) events and talks put on by The Writers’ Guild, BAFTA and the IGDA. Unless you’re already established, opportunities will not seek you out, so get out there, make new like-minded friends – you never know when a random contact from years ago will be the source of your next project.”
“Aliens Versus Predator/Fragments of Him”
“Writing is a craft, and there are few people who will be naturally talented at it. A friend of mine recently had his ‘debut’ novel published, but I was reading his stories twenty years ago. His current level of skill didn’t appear magically, but was the outcome of decades of writing and finding his own authorial voice. With that said, I think you can accelerate your writing skills: pick a few authors that you think you might like and in a genre that appeals to you, then read a lot of their short stories. If games writing is going to be your main focus, read scripts written for the screen and short plays, because this is often close to the work of a games writer. Consciously study these stories, looking at the tone of writing, the use of the senses and imagery, and particularly how they build tension. Almost all stories have some form of conflict in them, so how is the conflict introduced? Which stories did you think were most successful, and why? Good stories leave the protagonist changed as a person, typically that is either an external change (relationships, wealth, travel, etc.), internal change (they have learnt or overcome something inside), or both external and internal – weak stories generally lack this kind of character progression so, in the best stories, how were these changes shown to the reader? What is the plot structure and pacing?
Once you have a feel for the things that appeal to you, try writing short stories of only one thousand words. This is very short, and you can do it in a couple of hours after a little practise. The brevity will force you to establish location, character, and conflict very quickly. I really believe short stories are an art in themselves, but they can also supercharge your learning process… And don’t forget to let other people read them!”
“Star Wars: Battlefront II”
“Writing for games means thinking about how we can tell stories interactively and reach players in ways that other media can’t. It means thinking about the player’s holistic experience in the game as well as the script, and it requires a love of collaboration and iteration that will see you through projects that may be as short as a few days or as long as several years. And at its core is the craft of writing; storytelling sensibilities from all media are relevant, and all expertise will be helpful. Read, play, watch, live, and write – a lot.”
“No Man’s Sky: Atlas Rises/Aquanox: Deep Descent”
“Know that many (perhaps even the majority) of paid game writing gigs do not involve crafting interactive, branching narrative stories with tonnes of description – a lot of writing work in the medium involves crafting dialogue, often for very functional purposes to contextualise comparatively linear gameplay. Play as many games as you can (good and bad) to get a feel for how this can be done well. A lot of players go into games without high expectations for the narrative; your job is to take your brief (“explain to players how grenades work”, “tell them to go to point B”, etc) and craft a story with excitement and emotional weight worthy of the player’s attention.“
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, Lauren Davidson, Mata Haggis, Steve Ince, Kate Jarrett, 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)