Getting Into Games Writing

If I’ve pointed you at this post instead of writing you a long response to an email, I apologise, but these enquiries come up so often that I’ve decided to write my answer here.

I get asked this a lot. What’s the career path to become a games writer? If jobs are advertised, they’re normally for experienced writers — so how do you get that experience if there aren’t any jobs?

The first and most obvious answer is that there is no set path to getting into games writing. Pretty much everybody I know in the industry came into it in a different way. There’s no real point in recounting my own experience, because you’ll never recreate the same bizarre collection of circumstances.

However, I have some pointers for you. If you follow the suggestions below you’ll be on the right wavelength for us at Talespinners, and I’d be very surprised if the same skills don’t open doors at other games companies.

1. Read

It sounds obvious, but to be a writer you need a good command of writing. You need to know sentence structure, mood, flow, turn of phrase, metaphor… and yes, all these things can be learned. But they really need to be internalised.

By far the best way I know of doing this is to read, and read avidly, and read material which is well-written. Whether you know it or not, you absorb the styles that you read until they become second nature. It becomes obvious to you when a sentence simply ‘feels wrong’ — clunky, rough, or forced. Take a look at this from Gary Provost for a good example of what I mean.

Then, of course, as a professional writer it’s a good idea to learn the underlying reasons why those sentences sound wrong to you. But without that initial handle on how a sentence should feel, you’ll struggle.

You’re going to have to master many different writing disciplines, so don’t just stick to prose. Absorb dialogue — read screenplays, watch movies, read plays. Absorb rhyme, song, comic book, Twitter conversation, news article, radio broadcast, fact and fiction — whatever you can get your hands on.

The second reason for reading is to absorb information. Information about people, things, times and places. Get to grips with genres, moods and feelings. Seek out good examples of drama. The more you know, the more you have to bring to any project.

2. Play

Again, it sounds obvious, but there are many good writers out there who have absolutely no feel for computer games; in particular, they have a hard time grasping non-linearity of story. Consider player agency, the fact that AI might trigger dialogue, that there are levels of success, that the player may be customisable, and that in many cases you can’t rely on one thing happening before another. If you’re already a gamer, you’ve got a leg up, because you’ll have absorbed examples of how story is delivered in a game and where it works versus where it doesn’t.

Once you’ve got that grasp, dive deeper, if you can, into game analysis — there are plenty of articles by games writers on sites like Gamasutra; there are books, there are online forums, and there are conferences.

Oh, and make sure you play a variety of games — indie, triple-A, action, adventures, strategy, puzzlers, anything and everything. Don’t limit yourself to just the genre of game you normally enjoy — you might be surprised! Take notes on what works, what you think could be done better, and how that might be achieved. Don’t just play, learn the medium.

And don’t just stick to computer games. Some of the best-known games writers and designers came from a background in tabletop roleplaying. Acting as a GM for a gaming group gives you a solid grounding in how to adapt to a shifting narrative that’s dependent on the actions of your players and the give-and-take between you.

3. Write

Well, yes, of course. Anyone trying to get anywhere knows you need to write, and write, and keep writing. Practice makes perfect.

But, for games, perhaps you need to think about what you’re practising.

Prose is the first thing. You will be writing text that will appear on screen. But prose is only a one of a range of skills that a games writer needs to know how to use.

Let’s go through a quick non-exhaustive list of other skills:

  1. Dialogue: characters will be speaking to each other; your main character may have lines; there will be narration, cutscenes, drama, conflict, emotion. Screenplay format is a useful thing to get under your belt for starters, but learning to write dialogue is about getting a handle on character voices and the dramatic ebb and flow of a scene.
  2. Character Creation: you’ll be writing character briefs for the game team; these words may never be seen by the audience of the game itself, but you need to be able to create a compelling, deep character based on input from the game designers, and to convey it to every other department working on the game. You may also have to write briefs for voice casting and voice actors.
  3. World Building: as with character briefs, the players may never see these words, but you’re likely to be highly involved in creating the history and culture of the world the game is set in. The whole game will be built on this base; the story will arise from it. You’ll need to care about factions, conflict, drama, integrating game design elements into the game’s world, naming things, mood, and atmosphere. Again, this will need to be conveyed to the rest of the team, and there’ll be a lot of give and take between you and them. Often it’s up to you to ensure it all makes sense.
  4. Story Building: plotting out the game’s storyline, its highs and lows, its branches, twists and turns. Much of this will come from the design team, but it’s up to you to make it coherent and communicate it to the rest of your team.
  5. Narrative Design: some writing jobs require the writer’s involvement here, some don’t, but it’s critical to have a grasp of how your narrative will be delivered to the player, even if it’s the design department working that out.

Many of these skills are completely separate from your ability to produce a well-turned phrase. They require a deep knowledge of story, and a good understanding of everything from drama to politics — or at the very least a willingness to learn and a handle on how to research.

Often similar skills are drawn on for creating novels, but in games the critical thing to remember is that you’re part of a team. Not only do you need to accommodate their input, and to collaborate with them throughout the project, but you’re also likely to be the person in charge of communicating all these story elements to the rest of the team while keeping everything coherent.

Not all these skills will be required by all games companies. Not all writers have these skills. However, having a good grasp of them will be helpful, whatever writing role you end up in.

© Dave Sutherland

4. Write Games

The tools are out there for you to make your own games. To create them, and publish them, without any input from anyone else. Take a look at Twine, ChoiceScript, and Ink — all are free and have minimal system requirements. They’ll allow you to create scenes in prose and link them through choices in the manner of Choose Your Own Adventure books. Some even let you publish commercially. Even if not for publication, these projects make excellent portfolio pieces and can show you have an understanding of cause, effect, branching and choices.

Then collaborate. Get out there and find teams to work with. Sure, you may not find a paid position — but there are many people in other disciplines who are in the same boat as you, teams of amateur games creators working on mods and full games. My general rule is that you shouldn’t work for free if anyone else is getting paid; other than that, dive in. Collaboration is utterly critical for most games writing roles and this is the best way to expand your portfolio and show that you can handle working with others. If you’re struggling to find people, get yourself down to a local Game Jam.

I’ve mentioned portfolios. Create one, put it online, include examples of games you’ve created and collaborated on, and make you show off some of the skills I was discussing in part 3. For some guidance on where to start with assembling a game writing portfolio, The Game Narrative Toolbox is a great resource.

5. Get Out and Meet People

If you’re anything like me — and many writers and game developers are — then this is really tough. Going out, socialising with strangers, finding others in the industry. It is tough. But don’t treat it as the dreaded ‘networking’ — treat it as going out to chat with other people who broadly have the same hobbies and same cultural references as yourself. You love games, they love games, and you’ve already got something in common.

And don’t use this just to sell yourself as a writer. Talk to people, get to know them, get to like them. When it comes to putting together a team to work on a game, someone you know, like, and trust will always be further up your list than a cold call and a CV, so long as you have the skills to back it up. If an opportunity arises, great, but if one doesn’t — you’ve made some new friends and you haven’t lost anything.

A small note of caution — don’t harshly criticise people in the industry, especially if you’re new. You won’t impress anyone. It’s a small industry, and you’ll be burning your bridges. If you really have to be critical, be polite and constructive. You have no idea what was happening in the background while certain choices were being made on a particular game — you’ll fairly quickly learn that game development is about compromise.

Most cities now have games social events. Check Meetup if you’re not sure. It’s also worth attending BAFTA, TIGA or UKIE talks and events if you’re in the UK, or IGDA events and mixers in other countries. Check out the IGDA Writers’ SIG. And go along to conferences, listen to people in the industry talk, and get to know the people you may one day be working with. Events and talks are great ice-breakers — that stranger in the bar has just seen the same thing as you, so you have immediate common ground.

6. Carry On Writing Games

Congratulations, you are now a games writer. :-) Now all you need to do is to get paid for it…