When game studios are ready to bring a writer on board, they’re looking for three essential skills.
First, they want to know, "Can you write?" (Meaning, can you create compelling characters, sparkling dialog, and so on.)
Writers from other industries - like film and TV - have a huge advantage here. They already have a stack of examples of their work. (Yes, screenplays, TV pilots and short stories are all legitimate writing samples for a game-writing job.)
Plus, these professionals have been honing their craft for a while now.
Great! But does that mean they’re ready to write for games?
Not necessaily. Because every medium plays by a different set of rules.
Just ask the brilliant, talented novelists from the 1930s and '40s who came out to Hollywood to write movies - and flopped. :(
So the second essential skill you need is the ability to write for the medium of games.
It's a brave new world
If you’re a working writer, this probably makes a lot of sense to you. You already know there are big differences between film/tv and games - but what are they, exactly, when it comes to writing? How does gameplay affect the way you tell stories or create characters?
You probably have some theories about how it all works - but you’re not 100% sure. And you don’t want to trip over your own feet, the first week on the job.
You’re right to be uncertain. Game writing is WEIRD, y’all. The tricks that serve you well in film & TV can completely backfire in games.
For example, when a screenwriter tackles their first game project, they often cast the player as the main character. This seems like a no-brainer move.
(This is the approach I took myself, for many years if I'm being honest.)
The thinking goes, “Well the player drives gameplay, so the player must drive the story, too. Right?”
But what happens when the player doesn’t play along? If the player breaks character, how does the story recover? Can the story still work, even if your main actor is working off-script?
Turns out the player doesn’t always want to be the hero.
Imagine being on set of a movie and hearing your lead actor say, “Yeah, actually, I don’t want to save the princess. That sounds boring. I’m going to go over here and fight dragons instead.”
On a film set, that would not happen. Actors play their parts. They stay in character.
But players play as themselves. And they’re capable of anything. And the story has to be flexible enough to adapt.
Some players play like this:
And other players play like this:
One role, many actors. Agh!
How do you write for this kind of scenario?
You can see how screenwriting expertise can actually get in the way of good game writing.
It’s like that old saying: “What got you here won’t get you there.”
Zen mind to the rescue
So what do we do?
We start unlearning.
In other words, it’s time for beginner’s mind.
The best thing we can do as writers is set aside what we think we know, and pay close attention to what IS.
So where do we start?
Flex new muscles
- Start a game writer's journal.
Be a detective. When you play games, pay close attention. Take notes. How did they tell their story? What structure did they use? Do you like the characters? If so, why? If not, what could they have done better? Are there parts where you think “ah I see how they did that”? Are there elements that leave you baffled? What excites you? Keep a journal of all your observations and random thoughts. This journal will become your Idea Box once you start working in games; you’ll come back to it again and again.
- Start breaking things.
Writers are great audience members. We don’t want to ruin another person’s script. So we often play the game's narrative as the writer intended - but not all players approach games that way. So start experimenting. What happens when you break character? When you ignore the mission? When you drive that car off a cliff? How does the game’s narrative respond and recover? Does it? CAN you break the story? Or maybe they found a way to keep the story going, even for players who are just total Chads.
- Listen to what game designers have to say.
These are your partners in crime. Your story and their gameplay have to work together. Learn how they do their work. Learn how they think about YOUR work. Here’s one excellent place to start: designer Jesse Schell’s GDC talk on “WThe Future Of Storytelling.”
Game development is a constant process of discovery. That’s one of the reasons why this work is so much fun. I remember talking to a playwright a few years ago. She said “It’s so hard to innovate in theater. Everything’s been done!”
I remember thinking that in games, we have the opposite problem. We’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s possible.
Writers like you are going to come up with the breakthroughs and innovations that reshape the medium for decades to come. Look at how far movies have come. Evolution is inevitable - in every medium. Who knows what game narratives will look like in 5, 10, 20 years?
We'll talk more about that next week, when we dig into the third and final skill you need to be a successful game writer. See you then.
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Susan’s first job as a game writer was for “a slumber party game - for girls!” She’s gone on to work on over 25 projects, including award-winning titles in the BioShock, Far Cry and Tomb Raider franchises. Titles in her portfolio have sold over 30 million copies and generated over $500 million in sales. She is an adjunct professor at UT Austin, where she teaches a course on writing for games. A long time ago, she founded the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. Now, she partners with studios, publishers, and writers to help teams ship great games with great stories. She is dedicated to supporting creatives in the games industry so that they can do their best work.