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Four things you must know to write games

· Writing,Advice,Video Games

A lot of people ask me what it takes to be a game writer. Here's what you need to know.

1. The writing craft, all of it

No joke. Writing games is the hardest kind of writing there is. "So why is so much game writing bad?" you ask. Refer to the previous sentence. A lot of game writing turns out poorly because the process by which that writing travels from concept to the final project is labyrinthine, involving many different departments and crafts, and finally the player's own inputs.

It would be easy to say "focus on dialogue" because so much of the game writing that the player actually sees is dialogue. But behind great dialogue are great characters, with clear, compelling motivations, vibrant personalities and voices (often carrying the narrative without the aid of voice acting--though more and more small developers are adding this to their games.) And those characters must act in a way that is consistent with and reveals more about the world the player inhabits. And a compelling plot must test those characters as they try to achieve what they want, giving stakes to their interactions that make for compelling scenes, not just information dumps. All of this, in turn, should be tied together with thematic elements that combine to create a meaningful story.

It would be easy as well to say "focus on plot" because in so many games, the story is there to drive the player toward the next objective, introducing fresh obstacles to overcome through the game's mechanics. If the player's motivations aren't clear, and the plot action is not exciting, the game's narrative will fall apart. But plot that isn't rooted in compelling characters or a compelling world is utterly forgettable--a checklist of boring tasks to be completed and then set aside.

So you need to be good at all of those things, and great a few of them. Which ones will depend very much on the game you're working on. If you're lucky, you work with a great team that complements each other, with each person bringing different strengths to the table and helping you improve your own work. And if you think that's setting the bar high, wait until you see the rest of the list.

2. How to view the story through the player's eyes

So you've achieved 1, mostly. You've worked on becoming a good writer. When you consider how your characters should act, the pieces of your story start to reveal themselves; the stakes grow out of the characters' choices and motivations, and never feel artificial. Your dialogue sparks on the page, imbuing scenes with tension, subtext, humor, and personality. Even if you don't know the ending when you start, the threads begin to come together by the end; you seize hold of that resonance and revise with that in mind, amplifying it with each draft.

Amazing. Now you have a co-author. Actually, you have a million of them (if you're lucky) and they all want something a little different. And your game gives them the freedom to explore and engage with the story a little, a lot, or not at all.

The vast majority of game writing is about doing all the work in part 1 (knowing your craft) so that you know your story well enough to break it into pieces and reconstruct it in a form that gives the player the sense that their actions are meaningful to the narrative, whether that's doling it out as the player explores, or giving the player the keys to the narrative engine: letting them choose and shape the events of the story.

In a traditional game narrative, your protagonist isn't entirely yours. The player is expected to identify, on some level, with the hero of the story, if they don't step into their shoes and define the character themselves. Think of the experience of playing as Nathan Drake, versus, say Commander Shepard: it's not just that Uncharted doesn't have a dialogue wheel; Commander Shepard doesn't have an established personality outside of what the player brings to her. And yet the Uncharted games are continually giving the player feedback on their actions, using Drake's reactions to the chaos around him as a stand-in for the player.

You see why it's so important for you to know your craft inside and out? In choice-based games, you will not be designing one narrative, but several, and each needs to feel plausible, and rewarding, as if it were the logical result of the player's actions.

But even in largely linear games, there are many ways a writer can fail to deliver a great narrative experience for the player, whether by taking control from them at key moments, failing to convince them of the actions the game forces them to take, offering false choices, or forcing players to win, only to have them fail in the next cutscene. Even the great Uncharted series falls afoul of this sometimes, feeling less like a game that the player controls than like what I presume is an actor's worst nightmare: showing up for opening night having forgotten all of your marks and needing to bumble ahead through the performance anyway.

The best way to master this is to play the games you work on from the perspective of a player, to watch players play your games, and of course, to play a variety of narrative games and take note of the techniques they use to pull you into the story, as well as where they lose you. The thing is, there's no one answer to how to do this, and it is largely dependent on the kind of game you're building.

3. Collaboration and flexibility

As a game writer, you are utterly reliant on other crafts to see your story realized. This is both amazing and, frankly, the worst. But mostly amazing.

It's amazing because you get to work with smart creative people every day, and unlike (for example) working alone on a novel, you get to see professional artists draw the characters and locations you invent as you're inventing them, and draw inspiration from their creativity. You get continual feedback on your work, which can be daunting, but it makes it very easy to identify when something sparks, and you're on the right track, or when something simply isn't working. There's an energy and excitement that comes from collaboration that even this introvert finds invaluable.
It's also the worst because communicating what a story should be, before it actually is, is quite difficult. And often you don't have the luxury of having the final draft of the final dialogue in place before the assets are created. Likewise, games have to do a lot of things, and the more closely your story connects to those things (visual spectacle, smart audio design, moment-to-moment fun) the more likely you are to need to change that story on the fly to accommodate that one feature that just turned out to be un-fun, or that level that turned out to be out-of-budget.
On a good team, these kinds of decisions are taken with the quality of the entire product in mind, and the team feels an investment in ensuring that the story is either a) protected or b) given the resources and time to make a pivot that doesn't impact quality. On a bad team, writers are too often left to patch holes with text.

Either way, the better you are at a) listening to the other crafts and understanding how your work fits into what they do; and b) pitching your work in a way that resonates not just with you and your team, but with the goals of other departments, the easier it is for the team to see story as an integral part of the project, and the easier your job becomes.

4. Sweating the small stuff

Some of the most impactful lines in game writing are not part of a big scene, or the main plot arc. They come about when designers and writers give attention to how the player interacts with the world, and find ways to have the narrative respond to that.

Character barks--those short lines that characters cycle through in various contexts--can be dull, taxing work to write, but the right one at the right time can create a moment of magic for the player, a moment where the illusion that the game, their actions, and their character are all in sync is achieved.
You have to take pride in this work. You have to look for opportunities to make it better (for example, the ability to define more specific contexts for barks, the way Left 4 Dead's characters seem to observe the world around them on the fly). Because this is the stuff that makes the world feel believable and real to your player, that threads the narrative through their game experience, and helps create the illusion game writers are there to create: that you're not just watching or reading a story, you're in it.

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