THE CRAFT OF WRITING FOR GAMES
First, a little about me and how I’m able to give advice about this: my name is Greg Buchanan. I am the writer of over 20+ game narratives across AAA, indie, mobile, VR, and more, including the 30 hour No Man’s Sky narrative update, Atlas Rises, and additional work for Metro: Exodus. I have been freelancing since 2015, starting with work on interactive narrative examinations, and am now spending much of my time producing my own indie titles and working on a novel, Sixteen Horses (Macmillan, 2021). I have a PhD in ethics and identification in novels and videogames from King’s College London and an MA in Creative Writing from UEA.
I’ve looked at writing and narrative from academic, MFA-style, personal, and work-for-hire angles. I have long felt that it’s more difficult to improve in game writing than any other form; I am writing 52 articles to try and get my ideas and methods down in words; to improve and iterate upon them; and to help others / start a discourse where others can also share their ideas.
This first article is an introduction explaining the rough approach of this course of articles, as well as those problems in the games industry and in game writing that make this kind of thing more difficult than it needs to be.
If you’re more looking for careers advice, please see my other guide on the subject.
1. THE NATURE OF GAME NARRATIVE
All narrative is, to some extent, about experience — about readers and audiences exploring the texture and rhythms of other lives, times, and places. About empathy, or a lack thereof.
Videogames use this latent quality of all narrative as their defining feature. Videogame stories are only told through experience. With our avatars on screen (whether they are actual people we can control the movements of, or abstract user interfaces representing the decision making power of large human systems), players have a very different relationship with the characters on screen than in any other medium.
Whether in games where we make decisions that change the course of lives, or in other titles where we re-create and perform a series of linear steps the developers have laid out for us, there is something tangeable and action-based about ‘experience’ in games no matter the extent of plotted story or indeed of branching interactivity.
Indeed, in this exact way, beyond prompts for meaningful action on the part of a player for a story to continue, game narrative can mean and look like and involve and feel like a huge number of different things.
Game stories can be wordless. They can look and sound like movies. They can involve a great deal of choice or they can involve none at all. They can be like novels, entirely text-based. They can be entirely sound-based, no images at all. They can involve other real human beings, or they can just be controlled by one. They can be controlled by fingers, legs, voices, the movement of eyelids, or the whims of strangers. They can be the text in between Match-3 puzzle games and they can be artificially intelligent almost human seeming conversation generators.
It’s hard to imagine how we can become better at writing in such a multi-formed medium, that may not even be a single medium, but a variety of storytelling forms bound by a strong and tangible focus upon player input and experience.
It is hard enough to master cinematic storytelling, for example, let alone any number of the other disciplines and forms that enter into the creation of game narratives.
This quote by the director Akira Kurosawa has been going around recently. It illustrates some important points, more true perhaps of prose or screenwriting than for games, and this difference is a useful one.
In trying to master game writing, there is no peak.
There are only mountains and mountains representing different skills and formats, shifting, rising, and falling as their capabilities, strengths, and relevance become clear over time. Climbing one doesn’t always mean climbing the others; you’ll get higher, sure, but there’s plenty to be done elsewhere, swinging across chasms to lower footholds. It’s all writing, but it’s not all the same skill.
And if there is no singular peak, there is no half way, there is no larger metric of progress, just endless jumps between interrelated but seemingly quite different end-products and processes to reach them.
A ‘good game writer’? What does that even mean? Of what kind of text, or dialogue, or choices, or worlds?
2. THE IDEAL VS THE MINIMUM
We can’t be masters at what we do. We can only be, by definition, jacks of all trades.
This should be embraced as liberating rather than something to be feared. Therefore, this series of articles will embrace two viewpoints on the creation and improvement of game writing work.
By ‘idealised method’ I mean what I think I would do if I had all the time in the world to create and hone a piece of game writing, with all my energy and drive trying to aim towards some noble aesthetic ideal.
I mean the kind of theories and practices aimed at the development of lasting art. As you’ll see in the below, however, I do not necessarily mean better by this, as the irony of aesthetic self-improvement is that regardless of one’s intentions or theories, even accidents can often produce better results than what is planned. The creation of art and player responses to art are not entirely logical, as is proper. So we need more than just idealism.
Minimum Viable Method
By ‘minimum viable method’, I mean the kind of faster, more instinctive work I would do if I had a limited amount of time or resources to finish a particular piece of game writing — not just for work-for-hire, where such limited resources are common, but for my own work also.
This kind of method tries to figure out how to get to a minimum level of acceptable quality to you as an artist first of all, and worries about improvement/raising that quality level after the fact. It is not always inferior to ‘idealised’ work, however; I would say it is just different - even if ideal conditions exist, it can produce a more chaotic, unpredictable element and mood to your work.
3. THERE ARE PROBLEMS WITH GAME NARRATIVE CULTURE THAT MAKE IT HARDER TO CREATE, SPREAD, AND LEARN FROM ADVICE
Games are one of the hardest narrative mediums to improve one’s skills at. As said above, there is no peak, but a series of peaks; but the problems aren’t just with the nature of the medium or its use of many different forms. There are problems with the games industry itself which it is important to be aware of and which, although we can’t necessarily solve these things right now nor should always reject opportunities tied to the below conditions, knowing what may or may not be limiting our improvement efforts may give people the clarity to counteract them and move past them in their own work.
So, here are some of the many problems that make it difficult for game writers to create and gain access to the same kind of practice resources and training that most other narrative-driven disciplines take for granted.
Everything I’ve said above about the multiple forms of our medium making it difficult to master or focus on any particular strand.
The length of most videogame development talks being around 30-60 minutes, which, out loud, is often not enough for more than a handful of points, locked behind paywalls and lacking much in the way of centralised curation.
The frequent and widespread (though not universal) lack of understanding and interest in game writing in the actual games development industry itself.
The way in which many writers rarely work in well-organised, nurturing teams, and the competitive culture that can exist in freelance meaning many may not be open about their vulnerabilities and wish to learn (when trying to seek jobs that try to demand the best of the best).
The crushing time schedules of most game development projects limiting self-improvement time, and indeed for freelancers, the limited time available in which they already need to hunt down jobs and earn money for rent, let alone improve.
A restrictive culture of non-disclosure agreements that not only prevent people announcing they are working on or have worked on projects, but are often interpreted to be so broad in their application as to prevent people discussing already-released projects, in a way we would rarely find in film.
An even more restrictive internal employment culture at the majority of studios, meaning that any writing work created in one’s spare time is automatically the property of that company or, indeed, that writers need to seek permission from studios and publishers to be able to work on their own games or other projects. Someone making a tiny text based indie game might need to ask a AAA studio for permission, as if whatever they are paid for their main working hours (and any crunch hours on the side) possibly entitles that company to any moral rights to an employee’s free time. Thereby limiting a writer’s output and development solely to what corporate goals mandate and enforce, and giving hope only to those lucky enough to be at studios that care about game writing and the development of individual writers vs the final product.
There are more reasons than the above, and I am sure some will disagree; but these are several I can think of. In producing this guide and distributing it for free in a manner that can be shared and updated, and indeed linking to GDC talks / other articles along the way (your suggestions are much appreciated in this regard!) I am trying to circumvent and account for many of these problems. Hopefully it helps some people and, more importantly, helps continue/promote a discourse of self-improvement and the development of methodologies to self-improve that the games industry and its narrative workers sorely need.
4. HOW THIS COURSE WILL WORK
One article will be released every Thursday, with associated exercises/further reading. By design, these are supposed to take about a week to complete/think about/discuss/send feedback on, while I work on the next part of the course.
There may be occassional delays or alterations in this plan. I have other projects and deadlines to meet, and life will get in the way; I’ll announce on Twitter if I think there will be a delay where I can.
The rough plan for the course’s content:
2: Linear storytelling
3: Branching Narrative
4: World Descriptive Text
5: System Dialogue (barks, etc)
6-10: Branching Narrative (Intermediate)
11-20: Write your own solo game, start to finish
21-25: World Descriptive Text (Intermediate)
26-30: Systemic Dialogue (Intermediate)
31-36: Linear storytelling (Intermediate)
37-52: Advanced exercises / scenarios
This course can be completed by beginners and intermediate game writers alike; some parts, such as the 11-20 solo game section, may be less relevant for advanced writers, but can still be followed as a way of creating and practicing an additional short project for your portfolio.
This guide will, however, assume some knowledge and skill at writing fiction and the interpretation of fiction. Over time, I will try and add in extra explanations, steps, and even supplementary articles for any areas or suggestions that end up being too advanced or confusing for people; just let me know and I’ll consider what to work on.
To my knowledge, the exercises in 37-52 have not previously been advised or practiced within games in any organised, publicly disseminated way, so I’m keen to see how people find them.
All of this is a work in progress and open to debate: it’s just my own way of doing things. I’m very open to advice and discussion on both my Twitter and indeed via the ‘contact me’ link in the menu at the top of this screen.
If you have any additional readings or conference talk links to recommend for each week, please send them along and if they’re suitable, I’ll update the list at the end.
The next four articles will each present an overview of a particular rough kind of game writing. The actual course will not follow this sequence; these articles are presenting an overview conceptually of what each kind is; some examples of each; some theories, ideas, and problems with each; and some initial exercises.
That’s it for this week; hope you found some of the above interesting/useful, and make sure to follow on Twitter (click the bird below) for new article updates + discussion of concepts within.
These are totally optional and to have fun with, especially this week. Write as much or as little as you like!
Exercises in many future weeks will be focussed more on the production of actual in-game text. This week, we’ve got a few designed to help you develop your thoughts on what quality game narrative really looks like, and how it compares/contrasts to your feelings about other linear media.
Find two games you think are well-written in the quality of the actual script and/or that tell great stories. Write about why you think they are good.
Do the same for 1-2 games you think are flawed or even bad (that you’ve actually played at least 2 hours of) and write about specific ways in which you’d improve them if hired to work on the game’s script late in development.
For example, is the story too slow? Did you feel like you were supposed to care about characters but the game failed at making you care? Were the twists unearned or silly? Was the dialogue badly written or on the nose?
Once you identify what you don’t like, write it all out in a column. Next to it, imagine what the story would be like if it -did not- have that flaw. If you’re unable to come up with ideas from your own imagination here, think of games or other stories similar to these ones you didn’t like, which achieved the same things better (i.e. you don’t like a sci-fi game because of its characters?
Think of a sci-fi game whose characters you -do- like and which you think the bad game could learn something from). Use these as inspiration for your potential fixes. At some point, with enough practice working on games and producing content, this will become intuitive and you won’t need to actively borrow from other models for fixes; but it always pays to critically think about what you are reading, playing, and watching as a writer, to feed your imagination, taste, and instincts.
3) Repeat exercises 1 and 2, but for one film you like, and one film you do not like. Try and pick films that are roughly or even vaguely similar in tone to the games you selected above.
Compare/contrast your answers for the films and the games. How have you talked about games and films in a similar or different way? How are their successes, problems, and solutions similar or different?
How does the linear or non-linear nature of the games you’ve selected affect these responses, compared to the way in which you watch the linear films? (For example, if one of the games you’ve chosen gives the player branching narrative choices that change the plot of the overall story, do you think this affects how you analyse it vs a linear film?)
I would encourage you to find another writer, or a community of writers, to partner up on these exercises with; do them individually, but share your answers and/or discuss them with trusted individuals.
Find out how you view things in a similar or different manner to each other; you may learn things or at the very least understand perspectives different to your own much better.