Last Friday my wife and I attended an art gallery reception hosted by the Santa Clarita Artist’s association, of which she is Vice President. During a conversation with another couple, my wife said that we were driving up to the San Francisco area later this week to participate at an outdoor art festival in Los Altos. The couple then asked if I were an artist like my wife, and I rather sheepishly explained that I was just her “roadie.”
When talking to painters and photographers, I never describe that the work I do in video games as art. I suppose that I feel self-conscious about making that claim, knowing that many people still think of video games as a wasteful pastime for children and juvenile adults. I remember reading the late film critic Roger Ebert’s answer when asked if video games were art:
“To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.”
While Roger Ebert did admit that video game art can have artistic merit, he did not make such a concession to video game writing. Of course, now video game writers such as Amy Henning and Neil Druckmann are finally receiving critical recognition for their work from the Writers Guild of America and other writing peers who see that video games can tell meaningful stories about the human condition.
But what about the work as a whole? Is assembling different artistic components together into a video game make the collective work an artistic one. To answer that question, I look to another quote, one from the 2015 biopic Steve Jobs, in which Aaron Sorkin wrote this exchange between the characters of Apple founds Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs:
Steve Wozniak: What do you do? You’re not an engineer. You’re not a designer. You can’t put a hammer to a nail. I built the circuit board! The graphical interface was stolen! So how come ten times in a day I read Steve Jobs is a genius? What do you do?
Steve Jobs: Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.
I suppose that what I do as a video game designer and producer is play the orchestra of programmers, artists, writers, and sound engineers. Yet still I call myself an artist, even in my best work. For me, art is not art when an artist thinks it’s art, but when the critical consensus says it’s art. And until the day when the Producers Guild of America or the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences starts bestowing video game production awards like the British Academy of Film and Television Arts does, I must be satisfied with considering myself to be a video game roadie.
Throughout most of their history, video games haven’t exactly been known for the quality of their writing. When I first began creating adventure and role-playing games in the early 1980’s, game developers like myself wrote their own storylines and dialog for their games, and quite frankly, the game came across as bad fan fiction, peppered with lots of references to Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, and Monty Python. However, the medium was in such an infant state, players had not grown to expect the same level of writing quality that they found their novels, films and television.
Eventually, as the gaming market expanded, game’s production values rose, including the quality of the writing. In the 1990’s, I was executive producer for Cyberdreams, a company that produced games based on the works of famous names from the fields of science fiction, fantasy and horror. We had worked out a deal with author Harlan Ellison to adapt his classic short story I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream into a video game. However, with all the choices players make when playing a game, we required much more content than there was in the story. Harlan was too busy to do all that work himself, and so we brought on game writer David Sears to expand the story into an experience that would occupy players for many hours of gameplay.
After Sears completed his task and moved on to other things, it fell upon me to write all the dialog the story needed. I remember delivering some of my first scenes to Harlan for review, and his reaction was, “Who wrote this s#@t?!” When I told him that I did, he got very embarrassed and apologized. “No, your right,” I said. “It is s#@t compared to your writing. So, go rewrite it and make it better.” Harlan then went off and gave my dialog a professional polish, but although he polished several of my scenes, I wound up writing most of the game’s dialog. However, I knew that the medium had moved past my meager writing skills, and that was the last time I wrote dialog for a major game myself.
Video games have grown into such a recognized field of creative expression these days, that many writers have made the leap from writing novels or television shows to crafting storylines and dialogue for video games, and when I need to hire a writer, I can find candidates who already have an impressive set of writing credentials in other mediums. Yet there are now also many writers specializing in games who produce writing of such a high quality that the Writers Guild of America has given awards for Outstanding Achievement of Video Game Writing to Neil Druckmann for The Last of Us: Left Behind, and this year’s winner, Rhianna Prachett for Rise of the Tomb Raider.
What Does A Game Writer Do?
A game writer is often responsible for not just creating a story for a game, but also in describing in its environments, characters, scenes, music, sound events, event triggers, and possibly even all the possible actions a player can do in any given situation. This is more detail than a film or television script writer is often required to do.
If a writer is involved in the early, conception phase of a game, the writer may be called upon into doing a lot of background or competitive research and discuss his or her findings with the rest of the game design team. During this time, the team may be trying to determine the genre and structure of the game the experience they want to deliver, how much writing will be required, and how much of the story should be conveyed through other game elements, such as levels, art, and music.
As the game moves deeper into pre-production, the writer may be writing storylines, character backgrounds, or level overviews. Once the development kicks into high gear as the game goes into production, the writer will become very busy writing the actual text for missions, quests, dialogues, inventory item descriptions and cut scenes –all while working very closely with the designers to ensure that the text and gameplay are in synch. A writer may also take part in recording sessions with voice-over actors to provide context for the dialogue being recorded.
As the game moves toward Alpha and Beta, the writer may be involved in playtesting the game and proofreading all of his or her text. Game writers need the fortitude and constitution to work, and re-work, and re-re-work their writing to suit the evolving nature of the game. Since games are driven so much by gameplay and level design, part of the challenge of being a game writer is making the story work even when the gameplay or levels change or if there is something that is added to the game which would be really fun to play but might not make total sense in the story. Thankfully, although the game’s writing is often the first casualty of such gameplay revsions, it is also the easiest to change, and so you must be flexible and willing to work hard.
Unlike in films, where the writers work is often done when he or she hands of the script to the producer, game developing is a much more collaborative process. The writer works very closely with the game designers, level designers, artists, sound engineers and perhaps even the programmers, because the story is told as much through the game mechanics, level design, animation, and audio as it is through narrative and dialogue.
So what qualifications are needed to get such an important role on a game development team?
Become An Excellent Writer
It should go without saying that you will have to love writing to become a professional game writer, but some young people eyeing the profession think that merely because they love to read, or play games, or run Dungeons & Dragons sessions with their friends, they are qualified to become a writer. After all, writing isn’t all that difficult. Anyone can do it. Right?
Wrong. People who don’t write for a living often don’t appreciate the fact that it is a craft — one that requires practice and dedication. It’s no different than playing a musical instrument. Someone may be talented enough that they pick up playing the piano quickly, but without developing that skill for hours a day, they’re never going to become a concert pianist. Writing is a craft, one that requires not just the technical skill of spelling, grammar and paragraph structure, but also sweat and iteration.
To obtain that technical skill, consider getting a degree in English or similar subject. A formal education is not required to be a professional writer, but having a solid degree in a writing-related discipline be of tremendous value. Completing college-level coursework at the post-secondary level helps to hone writing skills. Writers seeking a formal education should consider degree programs in English, the humanities or creative writing on both the bachelor’s and master’s levels. If you already have a college degree, at least take online or extension classes in creative writing, scriptwriting and grammar.
Then there’s the sweat equity factor. Writer’s write. A lot. They do write because they have to. It’s in their blood. And if the love of writing isn’t in your blood, you’re not going to enjoy writing for video games. But if you are serious about pursuing a writing career, you should be constantly writing and pursue any writing opportunity — working on the school newspaper, entering writing contests, putting out a daily blog — even if it has nothing to do with video games. Write for all kinds of mediums — not just video games, but also short stories, film, even poetry. Writing output is not only key to improving your writing ability, but no one is going to hire you without previous experience or presentable work. Do what you can to get some of your work published or performed.
Have samples ready that you’re proud of, ones that demonstrate not only your own voice and originality, but your ability to match the writing of others with whom you will be competing for the job. Game companies aren’t waiting around for a talented writer to walk in and show them how tell a great story. They have people beating on their doors and begging for those writing jobs, and you need to have the skill to compete with them.
Immerse Yourself In Games
I remember once watching with someone play a game with a writer from the film industry. He stood as far away from the game monitor as he could as though it were a mound of dung. After watching for a while with a disgusted expression on his face, he turned to me and sniffed, “I don’t see how this can be as emotionally involving as a film.” I replied back, “Dude, you have to actually play it to become emotionally involved.”
To become a professional video game writer, you should not only be in love with writing, you should be in love with games. Don’t enter this field if you look down on video games as a children’s medium or because you can’t get a job doing something better. You should eat, breathe and live for video games and as well as love a good story.
You should play games, lots of them. Not just one type, but all genres. Figure out which ones you like and why. Pay attention to character development, how a world is presented to the player, and how the dialogue flows. Think about how you would make the experience more emotionally involving. Jotting down your own ideas for games should be on the top of the list for anyone considering a career in video game script writing.
You also need to speak the language of a a gamer. If you don’t know the difference between FPS and RTS, then you’re too far behind to get started looking for game writing work.. Learn first what you’re thinking getting yourself into. This means not only playing every game you can but reading everything you can about game design and the gaming industry as a whole. Learn who the major players are and understand why they are major players.
Understand Interactive Storytelling
Writing for a game is not like writing for books, television or film. In these so-called linear mediums, the protagonist’s actions are determined by the storyteller, and whenever a reader or viewer experiences the story again, the protagonist takes the same actions and experiences the same outcomes. In games, however, it is the player who determines the protagonist’s actions, and those actions and their outcomes may be different each time the player plays the game. When writing for an interactive medium like games, writers need to understand that the player is their writing companion.
Many writers who are new to working in the game field may have difficulty in wrapping their head around the notion of branching dialogue. Often what happens is that the writer has a very particular path in mind and fails to account for different player “voices”: the player who’s trying to do the right thing, the player who wants to be the villain, or the player who is the reluctant hero. You won’t be able to accommodate every voice all the time, but it is a mistake to accommodate none of them. Because the drama in games centers around the choices that players make, the writer will need to create flow charts and diagrams showing the different situations players can encounter, the different actions or dialog they choose based each of those situations, and how those choices will affect the next situation.
If you want to get the hang of writing branching storylines dialog, there are a number of free resources on the internet that will allow you to practice creating interactive narrative without requiring you to be a programmer. One that’s been around for a while is Twine, which is available as a free download for Mac and PC. Interactive writers lay out story elements using a visual editor which shows the story structure and progression of different storylines. Each passage can include a number of different options for the reader to take, and Twine will keep track of any broken links so the reader won’t run into any dead ends. Another is inklewriter, a free, browser-based program that allows authors to write, visualize, organize, and link complex, branching stories. It can also help track key decisions and apply some conditional logic throughout your story.
A great new resource I recommend is the book Slay the Dragon! Writing Great Video Games by Robert Denton Bryant and Keith Giglio. Aimed at both traditional writers who want to learn interactive narrative, and game creators who want to tell better, more emotionally involving stories, this comprehensive bridges the gap between traditional narrative and non-linear storytelling and makes it easy to understand.
Building A Portfolio
Knowing how to write for games is is one thing, proving it is another. Before looking for work as a game writer, you need to amass a portfolio a portfolio that shows you understand the medium. Yes, you should have a portfolio site that demonstrates a wide range of writing styles from a wide range a mediums, both to show your flexibility and hopefully contain a sample of the type of writing hiring manager is looking for. But you don’t want to present your novel as an example of how you understand how to write for games.
One type of sample you should have in your sample is a quest. A quest is a task the player is asked to complete, and there are responses for when the player returns without having yet completed the task and for when the player has successfully completed it (hopefully resulting in some kind of award for the player. The trick to writing a good quest sample is to demonstrate that you can create vivid characters and an engaging plot without writing a lot of backstory or exposition. Playing a game is about doing, not reading or watching, and so you need to demonstrate that you can get the most narrative bang for the least wordy buck.
Not many game companies have full-time jobs for writers, so you’ll most likely need to work as a freelance writer. That means going out, finding and meeting with people who work in the game industry. Networking.
Start by sitting down at your computer and do some research. Figure out where the people you want to work with have their offices and do what you can to meet the people who work there. Fortunately, there are a lot of game industry conferences held throughout the year, the main one being the Game Developers Conference held in San Francisco each spring. However, conferences can be far apart, both in terms of time and distance, as well as expensive to attend (pro tip: you don’t necessarily have to purchase a badge to “attend” a conference; you can meet people for free in the venue lobby or a nearby hotel where attendees are staying). A more affordable approach to meeting people is to look for local game events on EventBrite or Meetup. Perhaps there is a local chapter of the International Game Developers Association in your area. Go to these events, make new contacts, buy people a beer, and hand out your business card.
Seriously. In every industry, who you know is the key. Game producers are the most important people for you to meet, but anyone else who works in a game industry might prove to be a valuable contact. I’ve gotten most of my jobs and contract work either though someone I knew telling me about an opportunity or referring me to their bosses. Remind people that you exist by blogging, and then posting to Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn ( you are on LinkedIn, aren’t you?)
Getting Your Foot In The Door
Although a growing number of the large studios hire full-time staff writers, getting one of these jobs can be difficult. An alternate approach is finding entry level positions in production, level design and QA (testing). These are all realistic goals for a talented writer and, with some careful planning and a constant eye on opportunities within the company, can be converted into a writing role.
If you must write from the start, but it doesn’t matter what you’re writing, some game companies hire technical writers to create the game design documents and instruction manuals, sparing the designers to do their regular jobs. Game publishing companies also have marketing departments, requiring someone on staff who writes copy for advertisements, packaging, sell sheets or websites.
Another opportunity might be in indie games. The small teams that develop indie games often don’t even hire independent writers; they simply assign the task of writing to a member of the design team. If you want to work on an indie team, you’ll need to wear a lot of hats, so you should learn the basics of design, programming and art to get your foot in the door. Even if the team is very amateur, if they develop enough games, they might turn pro.
Still another option is to start working with non-video role-playing games, which could help you make the connections needed to enter the video game world. Game producer Warren Spector wrote tabletop role-playing games at Steve Jackson Games before being hired as a game producer at Origin Systems, from which he went to eventually produce some of the greatest games of all time, such as System Shock and Deus Ex.
In short, take whatever job you can get in the games industry. Keep trying, take anything, try everything. Build an indie game, write a game mod, write game reviews, write strategy guides, work in testing, build a portfolio. It’s all hard work, but so is writing a novel or film. And if you’re doing what you love, it’s not really work, is it?