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.