30,November
2015

5 Top Tips For Games Writing

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In work news, I’ve recently written the in-game text and narrative for the new app game Score: Hero. Previously, back in 2007, I wrote the dialogue for the first Colin McRae: Dirt rally game. I get asked every now and then to write a post about games writing but as I’ve only done two games, I thought it’d be better to ask a real games expert.

Step forward one Steve Ince, propah gaming legend. 22 years in the biz, BAFTA-nominated, author of Writing For Video Games (check out more on his website). He’s kindly agreed to guest blog his top tips for writing games. Take it away Steve!

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For those writers who play games, writing for the medium is probably something that many of you would love to try your hand at, particularly if you’ve already developed strong writing and storytelling skills.

But it’s not something to be undertaken lightly. The interactive nature of games means that the way you apply those skills and the approach you take when thinking about the stories you want to tell, make the writing in games a different beast to writing for other media. So here are five key points that potential game writers should bear in mind when contemplating the subject.

A games writer must play games

This may seem self-evident to most, but there is still a fairly substantial number of people who think they can write for games without actually playing them. At all.

Like any medium you might wish to write for, you’ll make a far better job of doing so if you know and understand that medium – games are no different. However, there is also a deeper understanding a games writer needs to know: an appreciation of what it is to be a player and how players differ from one another depending on their favourite types of games. The Candy Crush fans are very different players to those that love Call of Duty.

These players may also have different expectations when it comes to the way they engage with the narrative a game contains. The story in a meaty roleplaying game is delivered in a very different way to that of a casual hidden object game.

Being able to plot is essential

Some writers hate the idea of plotting and structuring their stories in advance, preferring to let a story grow more organically, but this approach will never work with games writing.

Games are highly interactive, so their stories need to embrace that interactivity. Some may have multiple endings while others only a single ending but multiple paths to get there. With lots of other possibilities, too. So a game’s narrative must be plotted out and structured at a high level, taking into account the interactivity, in order that the various paths can be followed through.

Usually, the writer must work with the design team to ensure that they’re seeing the same vision. Working up details incrementally from a high level is a huge help in this respect because there’s less chance of basic issues causing problems later.

Story and characters must fit with the gameplay

A game is not a game without gameplay, and because the style and nature of this can vary so greatly from genre to genre (and even within a genre), the story and characters must fit with and complement the gameplay. For instance, can you really have a pacifist character running violent covert ops missions in a game based on the war in Iraq?

Writers should always have a good idea of the style of the game and the kinds of gameplay mechanics involved before setting out to create even a high level story. If the narrative doesn’t marry with those things it’s likely to feel disconnected or simply bolted on.

Games have different constraints

I was recently asked, “Doesn’t gameplay restrict the ability to tell stories?”

All media have some kind of restrictions and constraints. You’ve only got to look at the way that a television serial has a number of episodes that each contains a structure of its own, often with a need to accommodate advertisement breaks. Yet we continually get quality drama within those constraints.

The biggest restriction in games, one might argue, is the way the writer must give up all control of the pacing because it’s impossible to know how long a player is going to take to move between key scenes while solving puzzles or fighting the bad guys. Multiple viewpoints are difficult to do, too, unless the game gives the player the chance to switch characters for parts of the game.

However, whatever the constraints are, understanding that particular type of game will help you maximise the story quality within the framework. Look on such parameters as a challenge to your storytelling skills.

Games writing can be what you make of it

Game development is an exciting industry and we not only have a great variety in gameplay style but an immense range of options in terms of budgets and team sizes. And because this is such an experimental medium, writers have a great opportunity to work with like-minded people to craft games and stories with unique visions. You only have to look at games such as Her Story, Thomas Was Alone, Device 6 and 80 Days to see how writing can be a strong component, and even a powerful driving force.

There are also opportunities to create your own games like never before, with inexpensive and even free software that allows you to develop games to your own vision. Admittedly, you’d need to learn at least a few skills outside of writing and storytelling, but you can use that to feed into your creative process and be a part of moving the medium forward.

Learning game design and development – even at a high level – can also benefit your writing because you’ll better understand how games are put together and why the constraints exist in the way they do. But it also helps you to connect your story and characters to the design of the gameplay.

You don’t need to fit a particular time slot or script page length so it’s possible to make your games writing whatever you want it to be.

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Thanks, Steve! Visit Steve’s website here.

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