Friday, June 11, 2010

GUEST POST: It's a Good Time to be a Writer … and a Gamer

Ricardo Bare is a video game developer and a writer. He maintains a personal web site at that is about writing, and he posts a “Writing Level Up” feature that is sort of like a “lessons learned” along his writer’s journey. Occasionally it crosses over into game design, because the kind of game development he does makes heavy use of story-telling and gameplay.
His  first professional short story sale comes out in the next issue of Shock Totem Magazine, and he is currently editing a Young Adult fantasy novel.

If you asked a bunch of people, "What do writers write?" you’d get a lot of answers like: novels, short stories, poems, articles or movie scripts. We're familiar with novelists, journalists, and scriptwriters. But, it's probably not common knowledge that writers also write for video games. Maybe the last time you saw a video game was in a mall arcade in the 80's. If so, you might be wondering what the hell storytelling has to do with Frogger, but if you've played a modern game on your Xbox 360 or PS3--something like Infinity Ward's Call of Duty or Irrational's Bioshock--then you know games deliver sophisticated and compelling narrative experiences. 

Like the movies industry, games employ people with a wide variety of professional skills: designers, programmers, sound engineers, musicians, concept artists, animators, 3-d artists, producers, voice actors and writers just to name a few. The games industry is gigantic, growing larger every year, and generates content for a wide variety of audiences. A lot of that content makes heavy use of storytelling, and wherever there's a need for story, there's a need for storytellers.

So, what does a writer do in all this? Let me describe a few examples of the kind of work a writer can contribute to a game's development:

1. Story Treatment: At the beginning of a project especially, a lot of effort goes into fleshing out the central story arc of a game. Who is the player character? What's his goal? Who are the main antagonists? What are the key locations and major plot twists that occur as the player progresses through the game? The end result is a document that reads somewhat like a long-form synopsis of a novel or a movie treatment. This is typically an effort between the game’s lead designers and an external professional writer. Occasionally it’s an in-house writer, depending on the studio. (It just so happens that where I currently work, Arkane Studios, we have at least three developers who fancy themselves writers--one of which is Anthony Huso, author of The Last Page. Did I mention you should pre-order his book? Because you should. It will rock your socks off.)

2. Dialog & Cut-Scenes: Many games use “cinematic” scenes between action segments in which the player is a passive observer, such as Halo 3. A few allow the player some measure of freedom. Games like Bioware’s Mass Effect 2 let the player choose from thousands of lines of dialog to say to the world’s inhabitants. Either way, writers craft the dialog and block out the action (working hand in hand with designers and animators). Those kick-ass scenes in Half-Life 2? Written by the excellent Marc Laidlaw. 

3. Character development: I posted a little bit about writing character bios on my site here. If a game is character-driven and has a significant plot, then you’re going to spend time developing character bios: what everyone looks like, their background, how they talk, and anything else that might be relevant to the game and story. 

4. World Building/Lore: Remember all those apocryphal encyclopedia-like tomes that detail the world of Lord of the Rings--the stuff that wasn't part of the main trilogy, but described things like the creation of the world, side-legends, the history of a particular nation, or the ecology of a bizarre creature? Creating content like that is the bread and butter of Massively Multiplayer Online Games such as World of Warcraft, which tend to have humongous, richly detailed settings for players to explore. 

So, how do you get into writing for games? I asked my game writer friend, Susan O’Connor, to share her thoughts and she made two suggestions. First, many cities have local associations such as the IGDA which provide great volunteering and networking opportunities. I’d add that you should also find out about trade shows or conferences like GDC (some cities have local versions) where you can attend informative panels and meet other industry folks. Second, if kid’s games are your cup of tea, Susan commends it as a great place to start since the development cycles are shorter, allowing you to quickly experience several projects to completion. 

One last word of advice from my coworker, game designer and writer, Harvey Smith: if you’re thinking about dipping your toe into the world of games, turn back now unless you love the dynamics of play as much as you love predefined drama. In a novel, you are the author. But in a game you have to abdicate that authority, more or less, depending on the game. That might sound scary, but I’ll tell you right now, that’s where the magic is.
Much more can be said about this subject, but that’s probably enough for an introduction. I’ll stick around for questions, so fire away!


Joshua McCune said...

Thanks for the interesting post, Ricardo. The wif and I are currently co-opping on Gear of War 2 (yeah, a year late and a few dollars short, I know), but in terms of dialogue, the GoW series is one I've always appreciated. The writing, in general, for vid games has gotten to the point of amazing (particularly in comparison to those early D&D RPGs... though I always had a sore spot for the Wizardry series).

Sounds like you've got the best of both worlds, muxxing the developing and writing aspects... hopefully provides a bit more freedom.

L. T. Host said...

Wow, Ricardo, this is fascinating!

I have several friends/ relatives around here that work in gaming and I never once thought to ask them about the writing aspects of it. Never. But someone has to be doing it, huh?

Way cool post. Thanks for breaking it down for us, and thanks for guesting!

Ricardo Bare said...

Bane -- Co-opping makes that game (most games, actually) much more fun. It's easy to make fun of storytelling in games, but as the industry has grown, that part has gotten better and better.

Also, I should point out that my examples above are skewed towards the stereotypical (prob mostly male) power fantasies of warriors, soldiers, aliens, etc. But there also a bunch of games with great storytelling that don't use those tropes, like the recent Heavy Rain, and the wonderful arcade/platformer style game, Braid.

L.T. -- You're welcome. Happy to do it. That's cool that you know other folks in the industry.

Adam Heine said...

Fantastic post! Makes me miss my days in that world.

Other ways one might get in:
* Search for job opportunities. Companies like Bioware, for example, often post job openings, like this one for a contract writer in Texas.
* Practice on things the game industry would notice. Create modules in Neverwinter Nights 2. Write fan fiction for D&D or Magic: The Gathering (they're not video games, but there's a lot of overlap).
* Join the trenches: become a game tester. It's kind of a crap job, but if you work hard and show a propensity for game development, people notice.

Though in my experience, it's rare to meet a "pure" writer in the game industry. Usually they're expected to be involved in other aspects as well -- game design being the most common. Still, if games are what you love, there's no better writing gig.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Very interesting post, Ricardo! I've heard people talk about the connections between gaming and writing before, but since I'm not a gamer it's always interesting to hear about.