Meet Darby McDevitt, Video Game Writer
Darby McDevitt is a scriptwriter for the hugely successful Assassin’s Creed series of games. But he doesn’t only write for games. He’s also released several prose fiction works, has been published in national literary journals and anthologies, and has released several music albums. He’s also written, produced, directed, or designed the audio for a number of successful films.
That should give you a hint about how Darby approaches his career: passionately. The best way to get good at something like writing for video games is to do it, and do it a lot.
Darby talks with us today about how his passion for learning new things and taking on more responsibility got him into the game industry – and continues to open new doors. It’s a lesson he hopes you’ll take to heart.
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How would you describe what you do every day as a Video Game Writer?
My daily workload fluctuates wildly depending on what stage my project is in.
In the early, conception phase of a new game I spend most of my time reading, researching, taking notes, and discussing my findings with the game- and mission-designers. We use this time to figure out what sort of game we’re making, how much writing it needs (narrative and incidental) and how we are going to tell our story and communicate our ideas.
In the production phase of the project, I am writing furiously while working with mission designers on a daily basis to make sure my ideas fuse perfectly with theirs. I also work directly with the cinematics department, rehearsing with the actors and brainstorming with the directors — but this is fairly unique to the heavily narrative-driven franchise I write for.
In the later stages of production, I am furiously proofreading and playtesting to make sure my work is well represented.
How did you get your job as a Game Writer?
I had a few lucky breaks which resulted in me getting a writing gig. In the early 2000s, full time game writing gigs were somewhat uncommon. But when the opportunity presented itself, I had most of the prerequisites needed to convince people I could do the job.
For one, I was already a writer, with a few published short stories to my name. Two, I had some design experience, and enough coding experience that programmers didn’t frighten me. Three, I said yes to every writing task offered to me, and sought out others when I had free time.
Good writing is something many small design teams prioritize last on their big to do lists — game design must always come first — so it’s actually quite easy to offer your services as a writer, even when your official job is something else. It never hurts to ask for more responsibility.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
In my specific case, writing for Assassin’s Creed, I love the extensive research we do before we make any new game. When we finally dive into production, I am passionate about writing dialog. I love the sound, and feel, and scent of good writing, so I take great care to make every sentence a masterpiece. I also love working with actors to get my dialog off the page and into the atmosphere. My background in theatre makes me especially appreciative of thespians.
What aspect of the job would be surprising to people looking in from the outside?
The radically collaborative nature of making a game is often hard for people to grasp from the outside. Good ideas come from everywhere, and everyone on the team must be receptive and open to them if they want the game to succeed. I get some of my best story, character, and line ideas from designers, artists, and animators… and have contributed a number of design and art ideas as well.
It does nobody any good to be closed off in this industry. If you think only about your little slice of the pie, your narrow discipline, you will miss the bigger picture and possible harm the final quality of the game.
What kinds of talents and personality does it take to succeed as a Game Writer?
A strange brew of confidence, thick-skin, and humility is needed to succeed in this job. Be confident about your work and your opinion, but realize that it is only one small part of a larger whole. Sometimes you’ll need to sacrifice your best ideas in service of the larger goal.
You must also have the fortitude and constitution to work, and re-work, and re-re-work your writing to suit the evolving nature of the game. All games change over the course of their development cycle, and writing is often the first to suffer. Thankfully, writing is also the easiest to change (before any actors get their hands on it, anyway) so you must be flexible and willing to work hard.
What advice would you give to somebody who’s thinking about becoming a Video Game Writer?
Number one, make your own games. Small ones, if necessary. The world is full of great tools for burgeoning game writers and designers — GameMaker, Unity 3D, etc. — so just dive in and make a little game. This will look incredibly impressive to a prospective employer.
Number two, learn a trade other than writing. Probably design or coding. If you can’t talk with game designers on their level, you’ll be in a much worse position on the project.
What would you recommend for education, books, or other learning to start down the Game Writer career path?
Ralph Koster’s book A Theory of Fun is one you’ll hear tossed around a lot, and for good reason. It’s engaging, accessible and short. Rules of Play is another academic-flavoured tome it wouldn’t hurt to read.
In terms of writing education, I’m a bit of an oddball in this regard. I think Modernist and post modernist experimental writers — like Joyce, Beckett, Paley, Barthelme, and Lydia Davis – offer the best preparation for learning to write in games. Understanding their unique approaches to literature will improve the quality of your writing while getting you in the habit of thinking outside the box.
In games, writing comes in all forms. It helps to be experimental. To be sure, classic plot-driven novels can be fun too, especially if they have crackling dialog, like a Raymond Chandler novel. But narrative-driven games make up only a fraction of the total types of games found in the wild.
Also, take some coding or digital art classes in university. They’ll help tremendously, even if you don’t major in them.
And lastly, play games with a critical eye. Not to determine how good or bad they are, but to understand how they work and why they keep players attracted.
Check out Darby’s books on Lulu. If this advice was helpful, please return the favor by sharing on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.