How to Write for Video Games

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Profile photo of John Dennis, video game designer writer

John Dennis wants to know: Could writing for video games be your cup of tea?

What does it take to become a Video Game Writer, and how is writing for games different from linear media like books and film? How can a game writer create a story with endless possibilities, adapting to any choice a player might make — whether expected or unexpected?

Those question (and more) are answered today by John Dennis, who has worked in the game industry over 20 years on diverse titles from the beloved Worms franchise to the mega-hit Call of Duty series. He’s currently a tutor at Arvon academy for their course, Writing for Games: The Art and Business of Creating Interactive Narratives.

What are the differences between the Game Writer job, and a Game Designer?

I’m not sure there’s any hard and fast division, and I suspect the roles differ from developer to developer.

Some projects, such as large, story-based role-playing games (RPGs), are based around story. In these cases, there may be a game director steering the whole game who defines what needs to happen on a particular mission and which characters need to be involved in order to fit into the overall story arc. Game writers will have a list of content such as speech or full-motion video sequences to write, while game designers might lay out the level, place enemies, and create trigger locations for conversations to happen according to the director’s plan.

At the other end of the spectrum, in projects in which there’s no overall story, game designers may be free to create level content and rationalize those levels themselves by writing their own story content. It really depends on how much written or spoken content there is in the game, and how central it is to the experience as to whether it’s handled by a game writer or someone else.

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If I have a story I want to make into a game someday, is that a realistic goal?

Sure it’s realistic. What I’d ask any aspiring writer wanting to make their story into a game is: “What’s stopping you?”

There’s a bunch of websites that have tools for creating interactive, non-linear fiction. Sites like Twine or Inform have powerful tools and an enthusiastic community who are happy to help.

Alternatively, there’s a hugely successful app called Episode that provides a platform for writers to contribute stories. There’s no better way to learn about the challenges of creating story-based games than actually making them. If you’ve not had any roles in the industry and you’re looking to get involved, then there’s no better way to demonstrate your skills to a potential employer if that’s your goal.

The other thing I’d say on this point is “Play games. Play lots of games.” How is written content used in other games? Where does it work really well? Where does it work less well? Why? Read around the subject and inform yourself on the state of the art. It’ll give you insight and ideas and maybe some warning signs about mistakes to avoid.

Smaller studios often hire writers as contractors. Is there much full-time game writing work?

The contract-only or “Hollywood” employment model is becoming increasingly common across the industry. As unsatisfactory as it may be for someone wanting regular employment (and regular pay!), that employment model can be the only way for small developers to stay afloat.

For many games, some roles — such as game writer, musician, or character animator, for example — may not be required for the entire duration of the project development. In those cases, it makes financial sense for smaller companies to fill those type of roles on a contract basis. So for game writers seeking full-time work, there are a few options:

  • Find a role at a larger studio in which the role of the writer is integral to the game. Games like “Mass Effect”, “The Witcher”, or “Red Dead Redemption” have huge amounts of written content.
  • Find a role at a writing agency. Developers who don’t employ game writers on a permanent basis need to find writers from somewhere. There are some very good writing agencies such as Sidelines and The Mustard Corporation who supply writers to the games industry.
  • Add another string to your bow. If you can code, create game art, or design content, then you’re increasing your value to an employer — particularly to smaller developers who often look for staff to fill more than one role.
  • Start your own company and make your own story-based games. Not for the feint-hearted, but if you can bring a game to market and it has some success, you can chart your own course in the industry.
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Is there a standard format for the writing within the industry?

The Hurst

“Writing for Games” is set at the historic 19th-century building, The Hurst

I don’t know if there’s an industry standard format like there is for film, but of the games I’ve worked on, each text snippet (called a “string” by game programmers) needs to be in a database labeled with a unique identifier. This is what the programmers will use to look up that string when it’s needed in-game, and it’s how the production team references the line when they need to track changes, have lines recorded by voice actors, and localize the line if the game’s being released in non-English-speaking territories.

Getting the writing into the game is normally a collaboration between several different roles on the team, so the text database is usually held somewhere where all key stakeholders can access it. Getting your writing into this format early on could save someone a huge and painful job further down the line.

What are the top challenges of writing for games, compared to books or movies?

The simple answer here is: The player! The magic of games is that the main protagonist has agency outside of the author’s control, which can be a curse for writers trying to create a linear story. So the magic comes about by accounting for the possible player actions and writing for those possibilities.

Okay, but how can a writer build a story with nearly infinite possibilities?

There are numerous ways of managing this (and to be fair, it’s a subject that’s much larger than this interview), but one of the most common ways is to have some sort of branching game structure. This means that at certain points in the game, the outcome of the player’s actions either sends them down one path or another. This structure is normally invisible to the player but manifests itself as the game world feeling responsive and alive. For example, “I accidentally attacked the king’s son and, consequently, the king has put a bounty on my head.”

The practical problem of this approach is redundancy. For every branching point in the game, the developer needs to create two lots of content: for example, one for if the player attacks the king’s son, and one for if he doesn’t. Assuming the player only plays through the game once, the developer could potentially be creating a large amount of redundant content that the player doesn’t see and doesn’t even know exists.

That still seems like it would get out of hand rather quickly…

So normally in a branching game structure, there’s some sort of compromise between how much the world can react to the player’s actions and how much potentially redundant content needs creating. Often this is done by engineering branches to re-join the main story arc.

If the player did attack the king’s son, maybe the player meets the king shortly afterwards and gets to explain it was all a mistake. The king says that’s fine but he must go on a quest to redeem himself. If he didn’t attack the king’s son, the king says he’s heard good things about the player and asks him to go on a quest. Either way, the situation in the game world is now the same whether or not the player attacked the king’s son and the two branches have both re-joined the main story arc.

I like to mess with games by refusing to “play along” with the story.

[Laughs] That’s another challenge of writing for games. While the writer can give the player goals and provide context for their actions, the game mechanics will also be providing goals for the player, and there’s risks and opportunities when those two sets of goals aren’t exactly the same.

For example, if the game mechanics are telling the player that they need food to survive, the writer could present the player with a situation in which they meet a starving non-player character. Does the player follow the goals the game has given them, and keep their food? Or do they follow the story goals, and act against their game goals and do the moral thing?

“Pitching story goals against game goals can make for really interesting player decisions”

Pitching story goals against game goals can make for really interesting player decisions, however the danger here is that if those goals are pulling in different directions too often, the engagement of the player can suffer, or the game can feel disconnected from its story. “Dishonored” is a wonderful game in many ways, but it gives the player ever more effective ways of killing enemies while the story stresses that the player shouldn’t use them which becomes ultimately detrimental to the experience. Clint Hocking (creative director on “Far Cry 2” amongst many others) coined the term “ludonarrative dissonance” to describe that phenomenon.

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What aspect of the job would people find most surprising?

Speaking personally, I suspect the amount of tea and biscuits consumed would raise some eyebrows. ?

Why did you decide to get involved with the Arvon “Writing for Games” course?

Firstly, I love the idea of the environment that Arvon provides on its courses. As a residential facility isolated from everyday life, the courses become spaces in which writers can create, free from distraction but within easy reach of support and positive feedback.

Secondly, the chance to work on the course as co-tutor with the incredibly talented David Varela. David has worked on a number of award-winning games, theatre and radio productions, and I think coming at game writing from almost opposite directions is going to be an intriguing experience.

And lastly, I was actually a teacher before joining the games industry (a long time ago!), and there’s maybe a bit of an itch there that I’d like to scratch. Creating games and teaching actually aren’t so different, I mean, games are really a learning environment, the fun comes about when the player understands the challenges you’re asking them and learns and optimizes strategies to overcome them.

What sorts of things will you cover in the course?

We’re going to touch on many aspects of where writing meets video games: character arcs, environment and world design, story structure, writing for tutorials, writing for interesting context and meaningful player decisions, writing for cut-scenes and mission design. Each of these will be backed up with real-world case studies to get a feel for how developers and writers have dealt with those challenges in released titles.

We’re also going to look at a lot of great examples of story games in action, so for any writers new to the idea of working in videogames, it’s a great opportunity to get a picture of the standard of writing in the games industry and sample some of the best story games on console and mobile first hand.

Additionally, if people are coming to the course wanting to focus on particular aspects of game writing and it’s something within mine or David’s experience, then that’s absolutely something we can accommodate too.

What additional resources do you recommend for learning how to write for games?

A quick search of Amazon reveals that there are many books on writing for videogames, so there’s really lots to choose from. If you’re a writer wanting to learn more about game design, then you could do a lot worse than The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses by Jesse Schell. I’d recommend it not only because he is easily the best writer on the subject of game design I’ve read, but also because he covers pretty much all aspects of game design. If you wanted to learn about game design from just one book, this is it.

Thanks to John for this insightful interview! Learn more about the Writing for Games course at Arvon. Get in touch with John via LinkedIn.

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