Levelling Up My Noob: Things You Should Know About Writing for Games
When people think of Gaming a terribly stereotypical animation opens up in their heads. They picture social drop-outs, mostly males — rarely females — sat around a pile of discarded food containers, in a smelly half-lit room, all jeering or cheering at a screen.
These people are not healthy.
And by ‘these’ I mean the people doing the thinking, not the gamers. The reason I say this is that Gaming is the in-road to a wealth of new writing opportunities. It isn’t made of yellow bricks and it does go somewhere — it is a very real career.
‘Writing for games, at this point, is something that really requires the full attention of a career goal. I’ve had to give up my other writing and devote my life to it in order to further my career. I’m not suggesting that every single person will experience the same situation, but as a relatively young form of written expression games really demand that the writer learn the trade.’
The stereotype is inaccurate and outdated, and adhering to it holds a lot of writers out of an area of story writing that, in the grand scheme of things, is the new-interactive-kid-on-the-block.
I’m a gamer and a writer, it was only a matter of time before the two worlds collided. In many ways I am sure they already had. I remember inciting story-games with my siblings on long journeys when I was younger — and later with their kids. I’ve toyed with hyper-fiction and transmedia types of storytelling, and I do love an old-fashioned word game, but what if I want to upgrade, what if I want to be at the seat of the creative process and get paid for it?
Here is where my positive ‘can-do’ attitude fell flat on its face. Where’s the in-door? How do I get in? How do I even find out if I put the horse before the cart, or if the egg lays the chicken?
‘You’d be surprised at the number of writers that come up to me to ask about becoming a game writer and they’ve never even played a game.’
When I first started looking into this I had a simple quest: I wanted to look into the world of concept writing for the gaming industry to discover how much technical knowledge is required and how much the story writer contributes to the written text in the finished product.
I needed to discover how much technical knowledge is required, because if I have to know all about game programming, then my ambitions will quickly come unstuck. I don’t know about game programming, but from my experience as a gamer the technical part is interactive and the story part is connective — it’s the engaging bit. You don’t know to interact if you are not engaged with the story. I could be wrong, of course, but this is all about me finding out.
Finding out how much the story writer contributes proved to be a little trickier, because, from my starting point, I envisaged just the one writer — with, maybe, a team of peons to help. I thought that not only would the one writer oversee the consistency of the written parts of the game, but they would have also come up with the original concept.
I was wrong.
In truth, as much as I feel like this is where my head is at as a writer, I don’t know nearly enough, and this medium is still evolving and expanding. There are plenty of dark areas and pitfalls for the unsuspecting wannabe to lose their footing. So, for my answers, I had to ask the professionals, but even that wasn’t like tracking down a writer in any other field, for this I needed the luck dice to roll in my favour.
It paid off.
Level 1 Notoriety
I was very fortunate to talk to UK based Rhianna Pratchett writer on Heavenly Sword, Overlord, Overlord II and Overlord: Dark Legend, Mirror’s Edge, Risen. And US based Jonathon Myers staff writer for Indiana Jones Adventure from Zynga.
The first thing I had to do was get the lingo right. I was wrong with concept writing and the role of a games writer is still evolving too, but it is safe to say it has become too general, and could refer to the technical side or the story side. The consensus is that the new title is interactive narrative designer.
From that clue I was a little clearer that the technical side and the story side are two completely separate areas. But I needed to be sure that I didn’t need a degree in C++ or some other kind of programming to proceed, so I asked Jonathon if knowledge of the technical side of computer scripting was essential?
JM: ‘No, but the more you know the more marketable you are… The more you understand computer science, the better — though it’s not a requirement to understand coding’
Level up! Level 2 Notoriety
With that established, and well aware that I have a lot to learn, I asked Rhianna if one writer would cover concept, story, quest levels, character development and NPC and landscape interaction, as well as other in-game text?
RP: ‘It depends on the nature of the project. If it’s a role-playing game with a high level of narrative content, then they’ll usually be a team of writers working on it. Bioware tend to use teams of 7 or 8 writers per game. Most projects, if they’re taking narrative seriously, will have at least one or two professional writers.
Often designers will provide some of the ground work for the narrative, such as the bones of the story and some of the characters involved and then a writer will come in and flesh out those bones. Then that main writer will often take the majority of the writing (such as the cut-scenes or cinematics, if the game has them) and a secondary writer will support them with feedback, level dialogue and barks. But again, this varies from project to project. There is no standard. On the Overlord games I was the solo writer for everything, but I’ve also worked in teams of two or three writers.’
The thing is, as I said, this area of writing is still evolving, and it is widely acknowledged that some designers don’t use writers for these essential areas at all yet. The awareness of the need for good writers is becoming increasingly apparent due to games development, Deeply Immersive Narrative Universes (DINU) branding, apps and transmedia storytelling pushing the overall interactive world to make that evolution.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a waiting game for us would be games writers interactive narrative designers, it’s just that we need to be adaptive and move with the industry.
JM: ‘It has become known that a writer can really bring something special to the table in the process. They are used much more frequently. Also, big scale story games have done well. Good story and character can make money so publishers and companies are looking to invest more in the human elements of gameplay. It’s a good tool to engage players, and more of the industry gets that now.’
Undeniably, the writing process is secondary to the technical process. But that means that unlike scriptwriting, where the writer comes up with the concept, plot, characters and story, then the script is developed so that the technicians can make the production (chicken lays the egg), with gaming the technicians approach the writers with ideas for the areas where they need narrative not action (or narrative and action) to push the game along (egg lays the chicken).
There is a reason for this: in script writing you have a protagonist who without the writer is static, so the writer is pushing the story along by giving the protagonist a journey. But in gaming your protagonist is controlled by the player. The player needs suggestion (the writer’s part) and interaction (the designer’s part), but, ultimately, it is the player that moves the game along by their decisions and skills.
JM: ‘When a writer is in the environment and working on a game they can pitch ideas or characters or scenarios to the designers. In that case, the designers are doing the same and their intent is more focused on gameplay. Much like in Hollywood, you get about a minute to really win over the whole room or group. If you can excite others with your idea they may implement it. Communication with the designers is everything, which is why looking at it from their point of view and speaking their language is crucial.’
Level Up! Level 3 Notoriety
Armed with the knowledge that I don’t need to be a programmer, but I do need to understand the collaborative nature of the process, for a writer that is also a gamer, figuring out the next level shouldn’t be too difficult.