While this is a perfectly reasonable statement to make, like not everyone can sing, not everyone recognises that they cannot write and this is often where a number of problems can arise.
I’m not talking about the ability to combine words into perfectly good sentences and deliver clear meaning. Creative writing is so much more than that. It’s about understanding that, at a basic level, sentence construction can be tweaked and varied to give subtlety, power and flow to the things you write.
A lack of spelling ability and less than perfect grammar may be seen as a measure of the inability to write, but sometimes we have to see past these things to the heart of what lies behind these things. Of course, poor spelling and grammar may be indicative of a lack of ability, but what if the person has dyslexia and in spite of this has the soul of a true storyteller.
An ability to write is about understanding story, plot, drama, conflict and characterisation. It’s about richness and depth. But most of all it’s about knowing that first drafts are only the start and that editing, re-writing and polishing are the tasks that make your writing rise above simple, well-constructed sentences.
Writers need to be honest with themselves about their ability to write. The desire to write and to become professional writers is not enough on its own to take them to that place.
However, if your drive and passion is strong enough and your self-critique is realistic and non-destructive, you can learn everything you need through study and rigorous application. And if the thought of this amount of hard work puts you off then it will be harder to succeed in the field of game writing.
Game writing is constant hard work but dedication can win you through in the end.
Red Adair, the oil well fire fighter, once said: “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur.”
Obviously, fighting oil well fires is hugely different than writing for video games, but there is still a grain of truth in what he says. Yet every person paid for their talents and skills was either an amateur at one point or had a period of training before they became a full professional.
Of course, shifting from amateur to professional is more than charging professional rates, it’s about showing potential clients that you have what it takes and can always deliver quality work to deadlines.
Experience is often that annoying chicken-and-egg situation – how do you get the experience if you can’t get the work? There is no simple answer, unfortunately. But there are ways of creating your own experience.
Working for a small indie team may be a good starting point, or writing in other media. Sometimes it’s possible to get into other areas of game development and work your way into the writing side of things (as I did). It may also be possible to gain a position as a junior writer on a large project that uses a team of writers
Some game studios are beginning to offer writing internships, which are clearly worth investigating, although I would never recommend any that are unpaid. Anyone doing work on a professional project should get paid for what they do. Anything else is tantamount to slave labour.
An amateur writer may have plenty of talent but their lack of knowledge, confidence and experience could be costly to a project. Not only will that person have to be managed much more closely, it will be harder for them to ensure consistent quality, define their deadlines and hit them. Yet that may all be worth undertaking if you feel that the writer’s talents are a good fit for your project. For the writer, you must convince the team of this.
Most of all, if you don’t want to be regarded as an expensive amateur, act like a reliable professional at all times.
The value of a writer can often be thought of as the quality of the work they deliver, but it is so much more than that. A professional writer knows how to be completely reliable and work with clients in the best way possible.
What this means is that you treat the whole game writing process in an entirely dedicated manner.
You turn up to meetings punctually, even when there may be some who are habitually late.
You keep discussions and brainstorming sessions on track and to the point, working towards specific goals and coming away with agreed tasks on which to work.
You deliver clearly written documents at all times. Ambiguity leads to misunderstandings, misdirection and possible lost time.
You always hit your deadlines. Others are likely to rely on you doing this so any late delivery will have a knock-on effect.
You always take on board any feedback you’re given. Other people in the team may not be writers but they are intelligent people whose views are to be respected.
You defend your ideas in a professional manner but accept when there needs to be change or compromise. Anger and tantrums never help anyone.
The true value of a professional writer should be that they deliver quality at all times and provide solutions to problems through their rich experience and knowledge. Don’t ever become a problem that someone else needs to fix.
It can be hard on any of us when a team member is dismissive of our work. Not only does it hurt our feelings (no matter how much we pretend otherwise) it undermines the value of the writing tasks we undertake.
Over the years I’ve worked in the games industry, things have improved greatly for game writers, though there are still developers or individuals who don’t see the full worth of a writer. And although there are still people who need to be informed of this, we mustn’t rail at them or berate them in any way. We should be smarter in our approach.
You must ensure, therefore, that you are an important service provider and you deliver what the client wants. This doesn’t just mean that you write the dialogue to the best of your ability, but also that you help create a game of richness and depth through the way that you approach the story.
An important contributor is more than simply delivering the work, it’s also about working well with other team members and ensuring the project is put above any individual issues. It’s about valuing others’ contributions in the same way you’d want them to appreciate yours.
Most of all, be positive about the project and the team behind it.
When developing a game project, a unified vision is important to ensure that the whole team works towards the same end goal.
This may seem like an obvious thing to say, but it’s surprising how easy it is for one department to work towards a different goal than others and it not be caught until much time and resources have been spent. This is usually down to poor communication between the different teams working on the project, but occasionally there are other reasons.
Ideally, the game’s director should be in control of this vision, document it clearly and ensure that it doesn’t waiver without particularly good reason. All departments will contribute to defining this vision prior to it being finalised and the writer’s part ought to show how the story will fit with and be defined by that shared vision.
It is important for the writer (as well as the rest of the development team) to read the whole vision document to ensure the plans for the story won’t deviate from the stated vision. Of course, if discrepancies are found they should be brought to the attention of others so they can be rectified. Failing to do so may cause bigger problems further down the line.
If there is no vision document (or the equivalent under a different name) for the project on which you’re working, you might want to ask why. How will a cohesive game be developed if there is no defined goal for everyone to work towards?
Developing and adding final details to both the overall story and to the section breakdowns, in line with the design team’s work, is where the whole project’s narrative will begin to shine. It is also where problems and narrative bugs can crop up – particularly the kind that are hard to track down – so be sure to approach these final tasks in a thorough way.
Completing the story and design details is important before embarking on the final version of the dialogue. Only then will you know that everything is in place and ready for those well-crafted lines the characters will speak.
In many ways, the actual dialogue lines are a little superfluous until this stage of the game’s writing, but it’s likely that most of it will have been written by now, even if only in a first draft stage, depending on how you like to work. Editing and polishing the dialogue takes it to a final stage and ready for the voice actors.
QA testing may throw up problems that can only be fixed by editing the work, but that is the nature of game development. Hopefully, if you have been diligent in your approach to all your writing work, such edits and fixes will be relatively minor.
Note: The previous four points are a simplified version of the iteration process and there are likely to be (many) more stages than this, depending on how a team works. Each stage will also likely have its own iterative approach on a smaller scale as specific details are discussed, refined and agreed. Each could have its own iteration pyramid, so to speak.
When the detailed story is complete and approved by the team, the next task is to develop further detail into a series of chapters, levels, missions or episodes (depending on how best they are defined).
It may be that the team want to make the game feel as continuous as possible and want to move away from the idea of clearly defined “levels”. However, that doesn’t mean there won’t be major story and gameplay objectives that define a series of key points during the game that will enable you to see how the larger story breaks down into further details.
Again, working closely with the design team is important to ensure each section works for both sides of the story/design coin. Chapter objectives and obstacles ought to be completely in line with those of the gameplay.
In a serial TV drama, each episode may have its own story as well as adding to the overall story and this could be the case with the sections of the game. This means that each could have a complex structure that requires further flow charts to be created. The design team may also create maps and other diagrams, mostly for their own benefit, but these will also help the writer when visualising certain aspects.
As the level of detail ramps up, keep in mind the overall vision for the game and ensure that everything you create works towards that.
Building on the high level overview in a creative way is where a writer can stretch their writing muscles. This is when the story begins to take real shape, the characters become fully developed, new ones added and where exciting conflict is developed.
This is also where the story objectives and obstacles should be tied into those relating to the gameplay. Developing the detail of the story and plot should never be about the writer going off and concentrating on their own thing, but keeping in constant touch with the design team to ensure both are developed in sync.
The work involved in this step can be both invigorating and daunting. Not only must the story work in its own right, it must work with the game design and must embrace the game’s interactivity. The story should help the game deliver a great experience to the players. The detail added at this stage needs to embrace this completely.
A huge help in keeping track of the story’s growth, particularly if it has branching aspects, is to develop a supporting flow chart. This will enable you to see the shape of the interactive plot you create.
Ideally, a tool would be used that not only enables you to create the flow chart but also runs through it as if you were playing the game. Although not specific flow chart software, Twine can be very useful in many respects. You can see the whole story as a kind of flow chart and play through it to test that your story works.