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
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.”
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.”
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.”
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 osite Geralt is never too far from his trusty steed, Roach.