The following advice applies to anyone. It’s primarily aimed at small indie game developers, often operating on shoestring and for whom a writer is a far-flung luxury/the last thing they need.
If you’re not a small indie developer, and you’re trying to get by without a proper writer, hire a damn writer.
1. Keep It Simple/Stupid. (K.I.S.S)
It’s an age-old adage, but it’s woefully surprising how often people forget it. The vast majority of the time, no-one has the time or inclination to read a lyrical epic.
Edit: In the years since I wrote the below point about Darkest Dungeon, I’ve come to see the overly purple prose as probably a deliberate, stylised approach. I’m still not sure it quite works, but I was probably too harsh at first. Still — it’s a fine line, be sure you know exactly what tone you want to strike before risking such verbosity!
I love Red Hook’s Darkest Dungeon, but the creepy V.O. monologue is often so verbose it veers from evocative to hilarious.
“Ruin has come to our family. You remember our venerable house — opulent and imperial, gazing proudly form its stoic perch above the moor. I lived all my years among that ancient, rumour shadowed manor — yadda yadda.”
The narrator, whoever he is, has a lovely, Scandinavian tinged accent but it usually sounds like he’s almost swallowing the more extravagant vocabulary and it ends up sounding like an angsty teenager writing their first fantasy novel.
Just, keep it plain. If you want the writing not to get in the way, keep it simple. If you want the writing to be more central, dialogue in an action game or RPG for example, keep it simple — and focus more on making the content interesting. Bear in mind localisation, and players who might not have attended Arch Vocab 101 and might actually feel excluded by overly complicated chatter.
Also, originally this phrase wasn’t meant as an insult, but if you want to use it as a harsh reminder to yourself, it works on that level too. Classic advice.
2. Be fucking hilarious, or don’t try to be funny at all.
Uncharted 4 and Life Is Strange both suffer from the tongue-twisting malady I call ‘flippantitis’. Many novels — especially SFF — also fall into this trap in the form of the wry aside.
Uncharted 4 has some brilliant dialogue, but the chatter between bros when you’re clambering across a rock face or scaling a tower is usually so try-hard I’d rather they didn’t talk at all. “That’s the first in time years I’ve had two showers in one day” Sam says as you splash through a puddle in your jeep. Great.
Or this, as you explore a magisterial pirate island, basking in the ambience and enjoying the lapping of the waves, the call-and-response of tropical birds and …
Sam: “You gotta admit, this is pretty cool”
Nate: “What, climbing this cliff?”
Sam: “Yes climbing this cliff on a giant secret pirate island, I mean c’mon!”
Nate: “Huh. Right.”
For the most part, Life Is Strange is a brilliant game, but it occasionally chokes on its uber-twee hipster parlance. I clocked multiple, agonising instances of “hella”, “bizarro”, the wanton, inappropriate use of ‘-fest’ as a suffix, and phrases such as “lets get to bidness”, “sad face”, and “are you cereal?”
The game, much as I love it, does not get a free pass for having French writers. There’s no excuse for this kind of desperately pretentious dialogue. One or two instances of it uttered by a character you’re supposed to hate could have been a great writing tool, but the fact everyone in the game basically speaks this way, it’s just grating as hell when it doesn’t need to be.
Be funny, or keep it simple, and let the characters speak for themselves. Figuratively.
3. We Speak In Different Voices
Probably the most important aspect to giving your characters life is giving them distinct voices. I’m not talking about V.O., rather, making sure it would be really clear, even if the player could only see dialogue and no characters, they’d know who was speaking. Let me give you two examples.
Bob: Hey Dani, how’s it going? Have you heard about the haunted castle that appeared conveniently the other day?
Dani: Hey man. No way, that sounds cool, shall we check it out together?
2 Bob: Sup Dani, dig this — some crazy ass haunted castle sprung up outta nowhere like a fuckin’ jack-in-the-box or some shit!
Dani: Bob? Hmm. Intrigued. Curious. Investigate?
Now, it’s not the best dialogue I’ve ever written, but hopefully you can see the difference.
In 1. I gave no thought to voice and just wrote very much in my own natural voice. For 2. I took pains to make the pair feel different, from their vocabulary to their punctuation.
You learn nothing about either character from 1. From 2, you at least get the idea that Bob is probably a beatnik, a bit of a renegade, excitable and maybe a bit pretentious. Dani on the other hand is more pensive, thoughtful, and clearly doesn’t enjoy small talk — but she’s still decisive.
Just be careful to steer clear of stereotyping as a shortcut to this. It’s never ok to racially or sexually stereotype as a way of differentiating. Unless you’re confident you can subvert that stereotype in a meaningful way down the line. Still, you should absolutely be able to make sure you write (simple, stupid) in different voices wherever necessary.
That will do for now. More as I think of it. Would love to hear if you have any suggestions or questions — holler over Twitter, I’m always happy to help, or to deftly deflect any criticism.