oxm in­ves­ti­gates… writ­ing videogames

We dive head first into the nar­ra­tive abyss of the videogame writ­ing world and emerge tri­umphant with all the de­tails you need to get into the game

XBox: The Official Magazine - - START - Adam Bryant

Game de­vel­op­ment can seem like a mys­tery to any­body out­side the in­dus­try. But of all the dis­ci­plines in­volved, writ­ing is pos­si­bly the most mis­un­der­stood and un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated. Videogames writ­ing can be best de­scribed as an enigma, wrapped up in a rid­dle, en­cased in the mind of some­one who we’re told is sane but shows clear signs of mad­ness, and keeps bang­ing on about a princess be­ing in an­other cas­tle.

Fear not, for OXM is hot on the case and this month we had a chat with some of the best tal­ent in the busi­ness. Writ­ers Rhi­anna Pratch­ett, Anna Megill, Jakub Sza­małek and JT Petty were all ready to lift the veil and ex­plore their mys­te­ri­ous world with us.

The first thing to clear up would be what a videogame writer ac­tu­ally does. “In gen­eral [writ­ing for games] in­volves work­ing on a game’s nar­ra­tive com­po­nents such as story, di­a­logue, char­ac­ters and world build­ing,” ex­plains Rhi­anna Pratch­ett. “It can also in­volve other el­e­ments such as en­vi­ron­men­tal sto­ry­telling, nar­ra­tive me­chan­ics, voice di­rect­ing, mar­ket­ing and PR.”

“It de­pends on the project and the role,” says Anna Megill. “I might write screen­plays and di­a­logue, or fo­cus on nar­ra­tive de­sign and in­te­gra­tion with other game el­e­ments. I co­or­di­nate with other teams to make sure that our work flows to­gether. Col­lab­o­ra­tion is crit­i­cal. I also write di­a­logue, trail­ers, and lore doc­u­men­ta­tion like story bibles.”

Writ­ing for games has come a long way, but it’s only been in the past ten years that the games in­dus­try has recog­nised the value of ded­i­cated writ­ers. “It’s ac­tu­ally emerged as its own dis­ci­pline now,” says Pratch­ett. “There are many more pro­fes­sional game writ­ers around these days. There are awards for game writ­ing and sum­mits ded­i­cated to the craft. It’s taken much more se­ri­ously.”

“When I first started out in the in­dus­try, there weren’t game writ­ers the way there are now,” says Megill. “I’d say, ‘I want to be a games writer!’ and some­one would re­spond in a pa­tro­n­is­ing tone, ‘I think you mean game

“It’s only been in the past decade that the in­dus­try has recog­nised the value of ded­i­cated writ­ers”

de­signer.’ It was frus­trat­ing, but that was re­al­ity back then. It’s only been in the past decade that the in­dus­try has recog­nised the value of ded­i­cated writ­ers.”

Im­mor­tal prose

Be­ing that ded­i­cated writ­ers are rel­a­tively new to the world of videogames there isn’t a com­pletely de­fined process but there is a gen­eral flow of how the job is done. “You start with an idea for the game, its ba­sic fea­tures and story,” ex­plains Megill. “Then you build the world, de­cide who’s in it and what they’re like, then map out the story. You work with other teams to deter­mine core nar­ra­tive de­sign el­e­ments and once those have been agreed on, you can start craft­ing the story. You’ll write side quests and op­tional con­tent as you go along. You’ll do all of this while im­por­tant story el­e­ments get scoped out of ex­is­tence or re­worked, game­play fea­tures get cut. Then you pub­lish the game, and ev­ery­one ei­ther col­lapses or rolls onto DLC.”

An­other rea­son for there not be­ing a stan­dard process is that writ­ing for games is a com­pletely dif­fer­ent beast to writ­ing for other in­dus­tries. “You’re con­stantly con­sid­er­ing your au­di­ence when it comes to games,” ex­plains Pratch­ett. “With most other en­ter­tain­ment medi­ums you’re pas­sively ab­sorb­ing the story, but with games you’re driv­ing the story, the story is hap­pen­ing be­cause of you. You are the story. You’re also con­tin­u­ally try­ing to bal­ance the needs of game­play with the needs of nar­ra­tive, which rarely neatly align.”

“Game writ­ing is col­lab­o­ra­tive,” says Megill. “You have far less con­trol than you would have with a novel. The churn of it­er­a­tion can be bru­tal. It’s not just ‘kill your dar­lings’ in the games in­dus­try, it’s ‘watch the slaugh­ter of your dar­lings’. Ad­di­tion­ally, you have to think of nar­ra­tive in a mod­u­lar way some­times, as play­ers can progress through your story in a non-lin­ear fash­ion and com­pletely ruin the emo­tion you were build­ing.”

“In­ter­ac­tiv­ity is the crit­i­cal dif­fer­ence, though,” con­tin­ues Megill. “Screen­plays and movie scripts need only en­ter­tain, but game writ­ing has to in­struct, as well. You have to show play­ers how to reach the next step of your story. And, of course, the trick is to en­ter­tain while in­struct­ing.”

One of the writ­ing roles that pop up with in­creased fre­quency is nar­ra­tive de­signer, and they have a slightly dif­fer­ent job. “Broadly, a nar­ra­tive de­signer has one foot in the de­sign camp and one foot in the nar­ra­tive camp,” ex­plains Pratch­ett. “They usu­ally come from a de­sign back­ground and have de­cided to spe­cialise in nar­ra­tive, rather than, say, me­chan­ics or level de­sign. Writ­ers are more con­cerned with the tra­di­tional as­pects of nar­ra­tive (plot, di­a­logue, char­ac­ters etc) whereas nar­ra­tive de­sign­ers will be more fo­cused on the ways in which the nar­ra­tive un­folds dur­ing the game and how play­ers

ex­pe­ri­ence it. Nar­ra­tive de­sign­ers and writ­ers usu­ally work hand-in-hand and some span both dis­ci­plines.”

“There’s no in­dus­try stan­dard for the roles. The dis­ci­plines over­lap a lot,” ex­plains Megill. “A nar­ra­tive de­signer and game writer can per­form the ex­act same work, only be called some­thing dif­fer­ent by dif­fer­ent stu­dios.”

Char­ac­ter build­ing

How­ever, de­spite the in­creased promi­nence of writ­ers within games there are still plenty of mis­con­cep­tions, and peo­ple who think that writ­ing doesn’t mat­ter. “Para­phras­ing what [id Soft­ware founder] John Car­mack once said, I think many peo­ple still share the sen­ti­ment that a story in a game is like a story in an adult movie, it’s ex­pected to be there, but not much be­yond that,” says Jakub Sza­małek. “It’s a sen­ti­ment that I’d like to chal­lenge.”

“One of the big ones is that writ­ers are the equiv­a­lent of film direc­tors and have ab­so­lute con­trol over every­thing the nar­ra­tive touches,” says Pratch­ett. “That is rarely the case un­less the writer is also the game di­rec­tor. In re­al­ity, writ­ers work in a small team. Given the fact that so many peo­ple con­sider them­selves to be writ­ers it means that nar­ra­tive can be­come quite a crowded bat­tle­field.”

Thank­fully, this is some­thing that is chang­ing and as tech­nol­ogy im­proves, so too will the amount of op­por­tu­ni­ties and ways in which to tell those sto­ries. Writ­ers are al­ready look­ing ahead. “I think that non­ver­bal sto­ry­telling will play a greater role in the fu­ture,” says Sza­małek. “In The Witcher

2, our mim­ics and ges­ture sys­tem was fairly rudi­men­tary. Our char­ac­ters only had a cou­ple of emo­tional states, so in­stead of show­ing the player how they feel, they had to con­vey it with words, which isn’t nec­es­sar­ily how hu­man be­ings be­have. In The Witcher 3, we could show much more with ges­tures, furtive glances, eye rolls, and so on. I can’t wait to see what the fu­ture will bring.”

“We’ll see more writ­ers and nar­ra­tive de­sign­ers be­com­ing game direc­tors or cre­ative direc­tors and get­ting more hard power on teams,” says Pratch­ett. “More com­pa­nies will start us­ing pro­fes­sional writ­ers as stan­dard, and in­volv­ing them ear­lier in the de­vel­op­ment process. As an in­dus­try we’ll start im­prov­ing our nar­ra­tive lit­er­acy and be­com­ing bolder and braver with our sto­ries.”

“I’m fas­ci­nated by VR and the chal­lenge of writ­ing for some­thing that feels so real,” says Megill. “Writ­ing for games now means try­ing to pull the max­i­mum emo­tional re­sponse from play­ers through a 2D ex­pe­ri­ence. But from what I’ve seen, we might have to pull back on elic­it­ing emo­tion be­cause it’s built into the re­al­ism of the VR ex­pe­ri­ence. Have you seen the videos where peo­ple are play­ing sur­vival hor­ror games in VR? It’s so real for them, they get so ter­ri­fied. Not ex­actly the re­ac­tion I want as a writer.”

Things still aren’t per­fect though and a lot of mis­takes are still made, not just by the writ­ers them­selves but by de­vel­op­ment teams, too. “Writ­ers are of­ten hired too late in the de­vel­op­ment process,” says Pratch­ett. “It’s what I call be­ing a nar­ra­tive para­medic. Writ­ers can of­ten find them­selves in ‘story by com­mit­tee’ sit­u­a­tions where their skills are be­ing un­der-val­ued and un­der-used.”

“You don’t have to de­scribe every­thing that’s hap­pen­ing,” says Megill, “not if other dis­ci­plines are do­ing good work. Let the en­vi­ron­ment and game­play do some heavy lift­ing for you. I once read a scene where the player char­ac­ter said, ‘It’s quiet here. Not much go­ing on,’ as they walked down a quiet, empty hall­way. Why say that? Es­pe­cially out loud? Trust play­ers to look at the world and draw that con­clu­sion them­selves.”

“I’m al­most al­ways dis­en­gaged by cin­e­mat­ics,” says JT Petty. “Be­cause the player doesn’t have con­trol, there’s less ten­sion when a cine­matic be­gins, which is the worst time to be get­ting your story across.”

The on­go­ing de­bate seems to be that given games have a huge reach and in­flu­ence, many be­lieve writ­ing for them should have a higher pur­pose.

“It’s okay for games sim­ply to be what they are,” ad­mits Megill. “Just like movies or books,

“We ought to be de­sign­ing re­spon­si­bly, con­sid­er­ing how deep a game can get in your head”

they don’t all have to be mas­ter­pieces. I love that there’s a range of ex­pe­ri­ences for peo­ple to en­joy. For me per­son­ally, how­ever, I’m very con­scious of the ideas I’m pro­mot­ing as a cre­ator. I’d never work on a game that was ir­re­deemably hate-filled and hor­ri­fy­ing, but I’d never tell some­one else not to work on it. But not ev­ery game needs to serve a higher pur­pose. If you want to make a game about pop­ping bub­ble wrap just be­cause ‘it’s fun’, then heck yeah! Go for it.”

“Ab­so­lutely,” says Petty. “At their best, games are these hyp­notic, phys­i­cal and emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ences that peo­ple are go­ing to spend dozens of hours in­side. We ought to be de­sign­ing re­spon­si­bly, con­sid­er­ing how deep a game can get in your head.”

Gospel truth

But what does it take to be a suc­cess­ful games writer? “Any­one can do it if they de­velop the right skillset, work ethic and keep prac­tis­ing their craft,” say Pratch­ett. “Work­ing in the in­dus­try is much harder than it looks from the out­side. I cer­tainly un­der­es­ti­mated how tough it would be. A good game writer is some­one with a flair for nar­ra­tive, who un­der­stands games, can work well in a team and un­der pres­sure, is flex­i­ble, adapt­able and knows which bat­tles are worth fight­ing.”

“It’s prob­a­bly a strange mix­ture of hu­mil­ity and over-con­fi­dence,” says Petty. “You need to know you’re not the cen­tre of this cre­ative process, but still feel cer­tain that the few lines of de­scrip­tion you dash off is worth the months of work a team of artists and pro­gram­mers will spend build­ing it.”

With that be­ing said, here’s some part­ing ad­vice for those that wish to get into this world for them­selves. “Read a lot, write a lot,” says Sza­małek. “Tinker with game ed­i­tors. Play videogames crit­i­cally - think hard why you like the writ­ing in some games and dis­like it in oth­ers. Then ap­ply for jobs and, most im­por­tantly, don’t give up!”

“Play lots of games, cross-genre, in­die to AAA,” says Pratch­ett. “Come to un­der­stand all the dif­fer­ent ways nar­ra­tive is used. Par­tic­u­larly in the ar­eas which are unique to games. Keep prac­tis­ing your writ­ing, take classes, cour­ses, work­shops. A writer writes.”

“Net­work! Net­work your ass off,” says Megill. “Get on Twit­ter. Talk to other game writ­ers. Go to cons. Meet peo­ple in the in­dus­try. That’s how you’ll get jobs. But also, be re­al­is­tic. Game writ­ing is an in­cred­i­bly com­pet­i­tive field. There are hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple com­pet­ing for, at best, a few hun­dred roles.”

Sadly, writ­ers for games are less well known than game direc­tors, de­sign­ers or com­posers and as a re­sult they don’t get as much recog­ni­tion as they de­serve. But you can change that. “I’d like to ask your read­ers for a favour,” says Sza­małek. “If you have a favourite game story, check the cred­its, see who wrote it, and if you feel like it – reach out to them, show your ap­pre­ci­a­tion. They will be thrilled, trust me.”

Above Rhi­anna Pratch­ett (left) cre­ated a more be­liev­able and authen­tic Lara.right Anna Megill brought even more life to Dis­hon­ored’s no-non­sense Bil­lie Lurk.

Above These En­vi­sioned don’t want to stab you to death, they just want to shake hands.

opp os­iteGer­alt is never too far from his trusty steed, Roach.

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