What You Need To Know About Writing Video Games

The Central Clancy Writer for Ubisoft/Red Storm, Richard Dansky  was named one of the Top Twenty Game Writers by Gamasutra in 2009. His game credits include Splinter Cell: Conviction, Outland, and Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. He is also the author of five novels, including Booksense pick Firefly Rain, and his short fiction has appeared in anthologies such as The New Hero, Don’t Read This Book, and Dark Faith.


So here’s what you have to know about videogame writing.
Unlike just about any other form of writing, videogame writing is not about the story you’re telling the reader. It’s about the story the player is creating by inhabiting the protagonist. What separates game writing from everything else is agency—the ability of the player to choose what happens next, even if the choices in question are limited to “do I use the big gun or the really big gun?” Comics, fiction, movies, television—the audience receives the narrative as the creator chooses to present it. Videogames, the user takes what the creator has done and builds their own story. Nobody ever says “Master Chief did this cool thing” after a hot and heavy game session. It’s always in the first person— “I did this.”

In other words, you’re writing to help the player build their story, not to tell them yours. Rely too heavily on the player sitting still to hear your brilliance and you’ll lose those same players. They want to be playing, after all, not sitting there receiving your wisdom, or letting NPCs do all the cool stuff, or reading. If they want to do that, there are other media out there they could pick up instead; the point of a game, after all, is that it has a player, and that the player has choices.

That is, after all, the essence of play.

Writing for games also means you need to take gameplay systems into account in your writing and your plot structure. Sign on to write for a game that has a character advancement mechanic and you have to tell a story that reflects the player character’s growth in power. Sign on to write a game that starts with a character who doesn’t build skills and you’re writing an entirely different type of narrative. Level design, AI state changes, level load mechanics, mocap technology—all of these affect the sort of writing that you do, on a deep and fundamental level. It’s not just that the words matter, it’s how the words are delivered, and what systems exist to deliver them, and how those words interact with the systems that comprise the other elements of the player experience.

And if you can’t fit your writing into the data structures, if you can’t recognize that systemic dialog is there to be heard to provide information to the player and thus needs to be brief and to the point and willing to hold up to multiple listenings, then you’re not serving the player, and you’re not serving the game. Most of all, game writing is about writing something fun. Games are meant to be played, after all, and even the ones that carry weighty themes* —Shadow of the Colossus, for example—still must give precedence to the idea that they’re enjoyable to spend time with. If you don’t hold onto that quintessential need for joy, even in the darkest hours when you’re crunching and there are a thousand variants on “arggh he shot me in the face!” to write and a level design just changed so that you need to do a last-minute rewrite, then you’re shortchanging the player of joy as well, and that hurts the game.

So go. Play games. Have fun. And have fun when you write them, so that someone else can have fun, too.

*Obviously, there are games that are not intended to be fun per se, and many of them are remarkable creations. For commercial game writing, however, the vast majority of projects are created with the intention that the game will be fun, so lots of people will enjoy playing it, tell their friends, and get said friends to buy it as well.

Blogging Through the Doubt

Blogging consistently is hard.

It doesn’t seem hard on the surface. Pick a topic, hammer out some words, spell-check it, call it a day. And to support this thesis, there are tonnes of blogs out there, on every single topic imaginable. Writing, art, money, knitting, the same picture of Dave Coulier every single day. And they seem to constantly have fresh posts daily, sometimes hourly, post after post about new topics, fresh advice, brand new content. Well, except for the Dave Coulier one, I guess.

With this overwhelming volume of words being put online, wave after wave, it might be hard for someone to continue their own blog. It’s easy to ask yourself, “What’s the point? Someone else has probably talked about this. They’ve probably talked about it better. Why should I cover it?” Or perhaps even the more insidious, “Who am I to even blog about this topic? Who on Earth would listen to me?” (I personally deal with this last one quite a bit.)

That first batch of questions, the one where you’re wondering why blog about something someone else has likely blogged about before, has some weight to it. It feels right. Why duplicate information? It’s all already out there.

But the thing is, sometimes it isn’t. Or sometimes it is, but it’s too old, too far back, people have forgotten about it. At the speed the Internet works, something that was new a week ago is already old news. And if it’s a year old? Yeah, go right ahead, that thing needs a refresher. There are very few blog posts that really survive year after year. So go ahead and write about that subject again, with your own personal take.

Furthermore, when it comes to writing about writing, bear in mind: there are new writers coming up every day, who need to hear these things. They haven’t read the blog posts. They haven’t been around long enough to know what the veterans consider obvious. They don’t know, but they want to know. And maybe you can be the one to teach them about the submission process, about editing, about contracts, about whatever a newbie must learn.

But what about that other question? The one that asks who are you to speak on such things?

Creative-types, we all know this voice. This is the voice of self-doubt. It haunts you in all the things you create, asking you who would care about this story you’re working on, who would care to slough through these words. This story has been told before anyway. Nothing new under the sun. Who would bother to read yours?

This is a terrible voice which you have to ignore if you’re going to get work done. Fear and self-doubt are killers of the creative process, and that includes blogging. If you worry about not being an expert on a topic, then do some reading, do some research. Draft your opinions and analyze them critically. Discuss them with others, to get feedback. If you put in the energy into developing a thoughtful opinion on a subject, whether through active effort or through experience, then you are exactly the person who should be discussing that topic.

Don’t be shy about blogging. If you have a subject you feel passionate, disregard the fact that anyone else has done it. Contribute your voice to the conversation, share your own experience. And don’t worry if you’re the right person to discuss the subject. If it’s on your mind, if you have thought-out opinions and clear, researched information, don’t let doubt get in your way.

Editors, Influence, and You

Originally posted at JeffVanderMeer.com. For information about the ReaderCon incident discussed below, see this collection of links.

SF Signal just posted a podcast dealing with the aftermath of the writer Genevieve Valentine being harrassed at ReaderCon, which included the fall-out from ReaderCon not following its own zero tolerance policy. The panel consisted of Stina Leicht, Mur Lafferty, Jaym Gates, and Carrie Cuinn with Patrick Hester asking the questions. Hester didn’t do the best job in the world this time around, in my opinion, but the input from the interviewees is excellent.

One thing that came up during the podcast discussion was a report from a prior World Fantasy Con about an editor trading off of his influence to hit on women writers, especially up-and-coming writers where the power imbalance is very severe. The suggestion being, put up with this because I can help your career.

I mention this because I think it’s important that every writer, beginning or otherwise, know that this is absolutely, terribly, awfully wrong and no one ever should have to put up with this kind of behavior. Or any lesser variant of it. And also that no one editor out there has enough influence to have a dampening affect on your career if you have to tell them where to go. And that most all editors out there will be horrified and pissed off to hear of such behavior by a colleague and want to punch their teeth through the back of their face.

Another thing that disturbed me in the account Genevieve Valentine gave concerned panels, and in particular one in which she was heavily condescended to by the male moderator. This is also not okay, should never be okay, and I don’t think it’s entirely out of bounds for audience members to address such an issue as it comes up—or other panelists to do so. The other general issue being men talking over women panelists, not listening to them, etc. Also not okay. Which should be obvious. (For my part, I tend to get into manic modes that sometimes coincide with being on a panel, and I will happily shut the fuck up if told to shut the fuck up, should I forget to stop going on and on. Although I also do try my best to self-regulate and be a responsible member of all panels I’m on – a good moderator is always appreciated in this regard, too.)