I had a few questions sent to me via a colleague — from their friend who is presumably looking to move into narrative design or writing for games.
I could have written back to them directly, but it struck me that I get these sort of questions a lot, so I thought I’d write out some answers and stick them up here in case they’re useful to someone. And, ultimately, so I don’t have to write the same thing twice. 🙂
“1. How is writing for games different than writing for films and TV?”
There are many answers to that, partly because they are very different mediums, and partly because games vary wildly in approach — some are quite similar to TV or film in structure, some are utterly different. If I was going to nail down a handful of very strong differences, though, they would be these:
- The player is at the centre of the story. Sure, there are some massive generalisations here, but mostly in TV and film, the audience is watching a story happen to someone else. Someone they might identify with, and feel similar emotions to vicariously, but still this is a story that is being told to them. In many games, the story is happening to them, or to someone they have agency over, even if that agency is an illusion. One way to think about this is the difference between sitting back and watching something happen, and sitting forward and participating in what’s happening. As an example, watching someone walk down a spooky corridor is scary. But it’s way scarier for you to have to force yourself to walk down a spooky corridor…
- The story might not be linear. In some (not all) games, the story might change depending on the player’s actions, so the writing needs to accommodate for that. That might be an explicit choice in a game, but it might also simply be “the player went left first, so they encountered character B before character A, so we need to make sure our writing deals with that”. It might also be “at this point in the game, the player might be wearing a different hat, so we need to make sure we include 20 lines about different hats instead of one line insulting their sartorial choice”.
- Story needs to mesh with gameplay. Again, a massive generalisation, but mostly games consist of gameplay with story wrapped around and through it, and I find the best experiences are those where the gameplay is telling the story as much as any dialogue or traditional story beats are. In TV or film, the story is told as much through cinematography, music, sound and acting as it is in the dialogue. In games, that is also true (just as much, if not more), but also the story works best when told through the gameplay. Where, if you remember, the player has agency, and the exact second-to-second beats are completely unpredictable.
- Story is developed alongside the game. In film and TV, mostly you start with a script, then you turn it into a production, tweaking bits and pieces of the script but mostly the writer’s work is done. Games tend to start at least partly driven by gameplay ideas rather than necessarily story ideas, and the exact needs of the script and story evolve all the time as the gameplay implementation evolves. Because in most games you often don’t know what feels good to play until you’ve made large chunks of the game. And until you’ve tested it, for hours and hours, and tweaked and improved. And then you find the player doesn’t understand what’s going on and you need to alter cutscenes or add additional lines. Or the well-crafted tale of tragedy you came up with doesn’t work at all with the most fun bits of the gameplay.
“2. What kind of things does a person need to succeed in writing for games? As in attitude, temperament, personality etc.”
Oh goodness, I don’t know. That’s a complicated question. A couple of things I’d call out specifically though:
- An ability to collaborate. Writing a game isn’t like writing a book. Game development is all about collaboration. You will be working with multiple people across multiple departments, and your job — to tell the story — shouldn’t just be done by you. Sure, you write words, but the artists’ work will also be telling the story, so will the work of the gameplay coders, the level designers, the audio department… everyone! The less you can do in your words and instead push out into other disciplines, the better for the storytelling, imo. This means it is incredibly useful if you can get a solid understanding of what those other departments actually do, and how you can work together.
- Empathy. At the root of game storytelling (and game design!) is the idea that you need to put yourself into the player’s shoes and ask yourself questions: How will they feel here? What will they want to do? What will frustrate them? What will they be looking for, or planning? Okay, sure, but what if they’re not the same sort of player as me — what if they like shooting? What if they have no patience for lots of dialogue? The ability to think from the player’s point of view is incredibly helpful — remember, the player is at the centre of the story.
“3. How stressful is the job on a daily basis?”
That absolutely depends. It depends on the studio you’re with (or if you’re on your own), it depends on deadlines, it depends on the other team members, it depends on how good the production plan is, it depends on you understanding what you’re supposed to do, it depends on the publishers, on how skilled you are versus what you’re aiming for, on how much you click with the characters and situations. It depends whether the game is going to be released next Tuesday.
There’s no real way to tie any of this down — your best chances are to try and find out about the studio you’re going to work for by talking to potential colleagues or ex-employees. Beyond that? Play lots of games, understand techniques, genres, practice your craft — the more comfortable you are, the less stressful it becomes. I’d strongly suggest you don’t work on game genres you don’t understand or have no interest in. I had to do a whole load of design and coding for a Fantasy Football system for Sky once. Nobody on the team liked or understood football. It… wasn’t a great experience.
“4. How stable is writing for games as a career path?”
Waves at the state of the Game industry.
It’s not stable.
But then, writing as a career in any medium isn’t that stable. In games at least there’s the possibility of going on staff by joining a games studio, and the development cycles are long. It’s rare to find equivalent jobs in film or TV, and books are a complete minefield. Writing for games is mostly more stable than these things.
My only general advice in this is — don’t specialise. Be adaptable. Learn more than just writing — pick up other skills. Basic scripting (i.e. code scripting) will serve you well. Learn to use level design tools. Or how to process audio. Or work with actors. Or anything storytelling-related, really — and as I said earlier, since you’ll always be collaborating, everything you learn will help you be more effective and useful as a team member.
“Also, my friend has read one of your articles that talks about getting into the industry, saying how everyone’s path to writing for games is different, but he’s curious to know how you got into it yourself.”
I imagine that was this article — and yes, most of the people I know in games writing approached it from all sorts of different angles.
As for me? It’s complicated! I’ll try a short summary:
- I started off working for a cartoon studio. The studio behind Superted, for anyone British and old reading this. I worked on multimedia titles, kid’s education, based on the cartoon properties and on things like Fireman Sam. It was a very small company — I found myself doing everything from scanning in pencil-drawn animations and colouring them, to coding gameplay, to designing the box art and creating master CDs! They called me Head of Programming at one point, but mostly I was juggling all sorts of disciplines.
- I wandered off sideways into working for an interactive TV studio in the early days of red button TV for broadcasters like Sky. I headed up the programming team mostly using C and C++ and Java. The boss was great at wining and dining executives, but not much else, and sold concepts that none of us knew how to achieve technically. I learned a lot, we crunched a lot, we created a lot of early interactive TV technologies and concepts surprisingly successfully, and I ended up running a large team of programmers. I didn’t enjoy that at all.
- I escaped that and went back to working on educational games for young kids — mostly PC, but sometimes books and boardgames too (yay, learning about printing!). I ended up running the technical part of the development team for about 7 years. That was fun but budgets were restricted, there wasn’t huge interest (it was before the iPad existed) and I eventually got frustrated with it and decided I wanted to work in mainstream games.
- I was given a chance to work at TT Games on some of the LEGO Games. Being a big fan of LEGO, I really enjoyed that — I worked as a coder on gameplay systems.
- In my spare time up to this point I had been writing as a hobbyist for years — working on film scripts, books, TV ideas, and writing and running lots of larps (which is a great way to learn about player experience and non-linearity). Sometimes doing theatre. Some of that writing started to be commercial, and to make a little bit of money. But it meant I was coding during the day and writing during evenings/nights/weekends. Something had to give.
- In the next few years, I worked in a few games companies across the industry where I was allowed to do some writing and narrative design alongside coding.
- Eventually, I was finally able to move into full-time narrative design and writing and make a proper career out of it. (But still do lots of writing-related hobbies, so it’s not like I’ve clawed much time back, if I’m honest!)
So a slow migration.
I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else, particularly. It took me a very long time. I learned to code on a ZX81, to give you some idea how long this has taken me. The first game text I wrote would have been on an Apple II.
On the flip side, it did teach me a wide base of skills, and hopefully that makes me useful. I still code, it’s still useful to do so — for narrative pipelines or rapid prototypes.
To be honest? I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.
Anyway, best of luck, original questioner, with your approach to the industry. I hope you don’t mind me posting this and I hope it’s useful.