In our game-writing masterclass, we've been talking a lot about job listings. The word "dialogue" appears over and over again. Here are some recent examples.
Job listing #1:
You can brag about: A talent for writing spoken dialogue with emphasis on clarity, brevity, and character as needed.
Job listing #2:
Responsibilities: Write and edit dialogue, backstories, lore, story and expository text.
Job listing #3:
We expect you to: Write dialogues and test them in-game.
So clearly part of a game writer’s job is to write…dialogue! And if we are applying for game-writing positions, we want to be able to show them that we can write dialogue for games. Right? So we set out to create some samples.
And then often we get stuck.
We think, “How the heck do we write GAME dialogue?”
“Don’t we need…a game first?”
Yes, to write game dialogue it does help to have a game. But even when you are writing for an actual game, your dialogue may not work on the page in the same way that film or TV dialogue does. There are a few reasons why:
- In-game dialogue is context-specific. It’s responding to the gameplay moment. Without the moment, the words can fall flat. (Film scripts provide the staging, action, and world surrounding the dialogue. Game scripts don’t.)
- In-game dialog is dynamic. It’s designed to trigger at certain points in the game - maybe multiple points. So it’s not as readable as a linear script.
- And the game dialogue is OPTIONAL! That’s right. Players have the power to skip all the cinematics and mute the audio during gameplay (or simply tune out the blah-blah-blah while they solve a puzzle or fight an enemy). So game dialogue has a different function than, say, movie dialog (that leaves the audience hanging on every word). Game writers know that, most of the time, their words won't do the heavy lifting.
That third point is the most important one.
Players. Ignore. Spoken. Words.
(If you've ever skipped a cutscene or missed what an NPC was saying, you know what I'm talking about.)
That means dialogue can’t do much for us as game writers! We learn to rely on other elements, like gameplay mechanics or world design to convey the narrative.
So game dialogue often doesn't carry the same punch as film or TV dialogue. Writers in those mediums have A LOT of control over context and pacing, so when you reach the climactic moment - "You can't handle the truth!" i.e. - the audience is ready for it. Game writers don't have ther same control over context or pacing - or the player - so game dialogue just reads differently.
So if the dialogue is the weakest tool in the game writer’s toolbox, then why do studios want to see that you can write dialogue?
What studios want
Because as weak and ineffective as dialogue can be at times, it’s still part of the job.
Studios want to see some writing! The visible part of a writer’s work is the words on the page.
But, of course, the words are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more to a writer’s work - thinking through theme, the psychological nature of the characters, the tone, and so on. These are all essential, but invisible elements.
And game writers do even MORE invisible work. They have to think about player agency, mechanics, systems, and so on - and develop a strategy to weave their story into that experience, leveraging elements of the game.
The best thing you can do for your game-writing portfolio is to make your invisible work visible. For example, create flowcharts to explain how the player will experience your playable story. Or, walk through your creative process, from idea to final draft. (We work on these kinds of deliverables in our masterclass.)
In a perfect world, studios would ask to see this “invisible work,” because that’s the lion’s share of the work a game writer does on a project.
But you can’t fight City Hall. if they’re asking for dialogue, you’ve gotta show them dialogue.
It’s not the most important skill a game writer needs, but it's a skill you need to demonstrate in your portfolio.
Here are some thoughts on how to approach this.
A portfolio strategy for you
First, let’s state the obvious: be sure to include writing samples in your portfolio that lean heavily on dialogue (as opposed to stage directions, worldbuilding, action sequences, etc).
And this may sound counterintuitive, but here’s my advice: include samples that are NOT from games.
Because for the sake of your first impression, you want to take gameplay out of the equation (for now) and highlight your ability to write sparkling back-and-forth. Keep it simple. Do they want to see dialogue? Give them dialogue. Plays and screenplays give you plenty of room to do exactly that.
If you have a few screenplays tucked away in a drawer somewhere, this is your chance to use them. Create a pdf of 2-3 pages of your best dialogue exchanges.
And while you’re at it, include a script sample that is heavy on action sequences, with minimal dialogue. Show them what you can do when dialogue doesn’t take up much real estate. (That's great to show studios, because most games aren't very talky.)
If you don’t have scripts, set out to write some! There are plenty of resources out there to help you put together a short, traditional, linear script for film or TV.
This won’t entirely solve your game-writing portfolio problem, but it will get you part of the way there.
Show your game-writing chops
So once you have this writing sample (or samples) in hand - congratulations, by the way! - it’s time to turn attention to “dialogue in games.”
How do you demonstrate that you can do that?
Well, you could write barks. That can be a nice way to show you can do some narrative heavy-lifting, even with only a few words. Good barks convey personality, bring a scene to life, and create feelings in the reader. That’s not easy to do. Studios appreciate writers who can knock out barks with style.
Just know that barks are not dialogue.
By definition, dialogue is “a conversation between two or more people.” And with barks, there is no conversation. It’s one person literally barking lines for the player’s benefit. “Ow!” is not a great conversation starter.
So wait! Do you need to create samples of game dialogue? Like branching dialogue?
The answer is “It depends.” Specifically, it depends on where you want to work.
Here’s how you figure out what you need:
Look at the studios you’re targeting. What kind of games do those studios make? Are they using a lot of in-game dialogue or nah?
Some types of games, like RPGs, use a lot of branching dialog. If these are the kinds of games you want to work on, here’s what I suggest:
Step One: Capture an existing script
Capture a branching dialog sequence from one of your favorite games. I suggest finding playthroughs on YouTube, so you can take notes and screenshots.
Again, pick a game you LOVE, one where you really respect the writing. Don't pick a game that you think is poorly written and then "fix it." This is a small industry. You don't want to be out in these streets, throwing industry professionals under the bus.
So OK, you've got some great material. Let's move on to -
Step Two: Create a monkey wrench
Invent some imaginary change that would require a dialog rewrite. This could be a change to the story, a character, a location, anything. For example, maybe the designers have decided, as a result of playtesting, to cut a level in the game. And for some reason this affects your section of dialogue. And it's your job to fix it! So -
Step Three: incorporate the monkey wrench into your rewrite
Rewrite the branching dialogue to work with that imaginary change. For example, they can't reference the waterfall or the queen anymore (for example) if the waterfall or the queen no longer exists.
This is what game writers do at work all the time. When something in the game changes, the story has to change as well. So this is good practice for the job.
On the other hand, maybe you want to work on games that don’t rely on branching dialogue. For example, let’s say you’re interested in working on the next Diablo game. Well, I just Googled “does diablo iv use branching dialogue” and guess what:
Now that is news you can use. No point creating branching dialogue samples for a Diablo application, right?
If you take the time to do a little research, you can customize your portfolio for the jobs you want.
And the studio will be excited to find a writer (you) that seems like a perfect fit.
P.S. Why am I using the word “dialogue” instead of “dialog?” Am I trying to be fancy or something?
No, it's because I just read this a few days ago: https://getproofed.com/writing-tips/word-choice-dialogue-vs-dialog/
“Technically, “dialogue” and “dialog” are different spellings of the same word, with the former common in British English and the latter more common in American English. But these spellings have taken on their own meanings in recent years.
“Typically, then, people now use these words as follows:
Dialogue refers to a conversation, usually in a play, book, or movie.
Dialog is used in a computing context (e.g., a “dialog box”).
“You will sometimes see “dialog” described as the US English spelling of “dialogue.” In practice, though, “dialogue” is the standard spelling for a conversation in all English dialects, while “dialog” is mostly used in relation to computers.”
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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.