neWMW

Become a gamewriter

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One of the new creative professions which is gaining space on the IT career market is gamewriting. And no, I don’t mean the programming of the game but the storytelling. Books like Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace by Janet Murray offer a good view on how to tell stories through games and other digital ways, and to use every possibility of the new medium to its fullest. But how to become a gamewriter? How do you tell a story in a game, and what are the qualifications you need for the job.

Below I’ve constructed a list/guide that sums up a couple of important points on gamewriting with some quotes from gamewriters Sam Lake (Max Payne), Sheldon Pacotti (DeusEX) and David Cage (Indigo Prophecy). By the way, don’t forget to check Sam Lake’s photo, looks a lot like Payne huh? This is not the ultimate list, it’s a start if you’re interested. I don’t offer a quick 4 step plan to instant fame, because fame is 0% luck and 100% hard work. Check the further reading links below for some very good articles and interviews on the subject.

Play and play again
If you want to write stories for games, see how people before you have already done it. And don’t start with just the new games; check out how games have developed over the years. A very good game to start with is Another World , which is a game by Eric Chahi who later did Heart of Darkness. Definitely an early visionary in gaming history. But the Max Payne and DeusEX series also have some amazing storytelling. Just play games you like (a lot) and unravel the way the story was implemented in the game (or vice versa!). After that you can make a start with your own script.

Write
You have to love writing because simply put storytelling is still lots of writing. Whatever medium you’ll use. An average script for a game is bigger than your average movie script, mainly because every character you come across needs convincing dialogue. To get an idea check out a part of the script for Max Payne 2. And according to David Cage the script for Indigo Prophecy was about 2000 pages of writing. As a valuable tip for the story he also mentions the creation of empathy, because the player needs to identify with the protagonist, really be it. And don’t forget that you try to write a believable story, even if the main character in the game has multiple lives, which sounds of course absurd in a normal book. Try to play with the options games open up in storytelling.

So you’ve written your first script? If you have, let every friend you have read it and comment it. No matter how strange or personal you think your ideas are, let them read it because they are also your audience. If you’re satisfied enough send it to a professional and let him/her have a go at it, untill you are sure you have gold in your hand and the people who read it agree with you. Make sure you ask people who are objective and have some skill in writing themselves.

Translate it to a game
After this you might want to get in touch with people who are working on (for example) in their spare time. Gather people around you who share your enthusiasm and dedication. A game can be a one man job, but nowadays that is almost impossible: making a game, unlike writing, is becoming more and more a team effort. Still driven sometimes by the vision of one man. They like working with a good story and since beginning gamemakers often do this in their sparetime, you’re often a welcome addition to such a group. If you don’t have a programming background this is also a way of getting to know the programmes used to create the enviroment. If you can’t find the right people, there are also programmes to create text-adventures like the Text Adventure Development System (TADS). Which can give you an insight in the paradigmatic nature of videogamewriting. You need to write out every option, literally.

How to translate your script to a game so everyone knows what you mean? Sam Lake has a very usefull tip for this: “Actually, early on in the development of Max Payne, I was drawing maps of the levels on paper as well. I’m glad we got past that quickly.” It’s good to make leveldrawings from your original script. Make overview maps and if you’re a good enough artist maybe even POV shots.

There are a couple of things that can immerse a player into the game, and a couple that can distract him/her. Sheldon Pacotti for example reacts on the basic idea of pacing: “[…] the more you can slice up story delivery into the gameplay, the better off you are. The opening of Max Payne II, for instance, has a great feeling of narrative movement because of the numerous quick cut-scenes rather than long story-dumps.” Another valuable hint, when using first person perspectives, is that you shouldn’t just randomly switch between 1st and 3rd person perspective, this causes the gamer to break with the main protagonist.

David Cage made a great remark about the combination of narrative and the development of games: “One of the key points in Indigo Prophecy was the idea of getting interactivity and narration to work together. Most games oppose these two concepts or rather, they develop them in turn: a cut scene to advance the narration, then an action scene, then another cut scene for the narration. The structure of this narrative process is very close to that of porn movies.” David Cage is famous for his original and fresh view on videogames, just play his games Indigo Prophecy and Omikron: The Nomad Soul which really bear the mark of Cage as a director and a man with a vision.

Pacotti also shares this vision in a certain way: “I have a strong interest in taking all of the window dressing of games (visual storytelling, character, dialogue, etc.) and bringing it in closer to the gameplay. So that a game can be a truly cinematic experience, and still be a game.” Use this to your advantage when you are working with your group on a game. This seems to be the turn innovative storywriting in games is taking according to the cream of the crop. Storytelling in games not just as window dressing but as an essential cog in the gamedevelopment machineworks. Watch this example from DeusEX for an interesting example, the story sets the demands and motivations for a player.

Get in the business
There are many ways to get into the computergame industry, but all involve hard work and getting your ideas out there. David Cage started out as a musicproducer, Sheldon Pacotti spent a lot of time as programmer in the game industry and Sam Lake was a writer and got asked by his friend Petri Järvilehto at Remedy. People with storywriting talents are needed, as David Perry from Shiny Entertainment also acknowledges in an article by Paul Hyman: “For me, writing is like gold. […] It saddens me a lot that many video game companies don’t hire triple-A writers and that they use their game designers instead. That’s why, when real writers look at video game stories, they kind of roll their eyes. But that’s something that I see changing, I really do.” To get a good view of how things can work in a developement sphere read this interview with David Cage about his Quantic Dream studio: Postmortem Indigo Prophecy.

While all the writers mentioned work with a company, many gamescripts are also done by outsource scripting agencies. This is different for every country though, so make a list of the most important scripting agencies, who also work with videogamestudios, and contact them if you’re convinced that you have that golden script in your hand. You need to have knowledge of the industry and send your work out into the world. This is all after you have the recognition from people close to you. Don’t send mass mails though, keep the contact on a personal level and show your involvement and dedication! For more info on this check the How do you become a gamewriter page at the International Game Developers Association webpage. If you want to know what the part of a gamewriter can be in the game development process also check IGDA’s What is a gamewriter? page.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, there’s lots more to learn on gamewriters and gamewriting. A big thanks to the following websites for their inspiring articles and interviews. For more info I really recommend that you read the full articles on these websites. Great reads on the subject! I’ll update this list as I come across more articles on this subject.

Further reading
How do you become a gamewriter? by IGDA from igda.org
Postmortem Indigo Prophecy by David Cage from gamasutra.com
Reminescing Deus Ex with Sheldon Pacotti by Jonathan S. from evilavatar.com
Sam Lake: On videogame storytelling by Andrey Summers from jivemagazine.com
Video games’ write stuff by Paul Hyman from hollywoodreporter.com
What is a gamewriter? by IGDA from igda.org

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9 Responses

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  1. WOW!! that is some excellent work! really loved the post. although i havent had the time to read the whole thing, its well researched and with lots links!

    keep up the good work 🙂

    SRi

    August 14, 2006 at 7:18 pm

  2. Thanks! I’ll keep this post updated with interesting interviews/sights on the subject when I come across some more.

    newmw

    August 15, 2006 at 12:10 pm

  3. Thanks for the comment! I also liked what I read on your blog and I also added you to my blogroll. Seems a bit tricky at the moment to comment on my post but fingers crossed!

    Looking forward to reading you and sharing ideas

    Laurence-Hélène

    August 15, 2006 at 9:51 pm

  4. This is a very well written, researched, and thought out article. In fact, it’s quite eye opening. I enjoy writing and have only recently begun to put my thoughts to keyboard in hopes of creative a fun story for middle-graders to young adults. I would love to be able to do so and then turn it into a gaming script. Definitely bookmarking and blogrolling your site. Thanks 🙂

    storymask

    August 25, 2006 at 1:40 am

  5. Oooops… I made a typo. I should have put “creating” instead of “creative”… my bad.

    storymask

    August 25, 2006 at 1:45 am

  6. This is exactly what I was looking for ! I’ll probably get links to this page a lot from the forums i posted all my questions on. Excellent advice and a nice shout-out on the need of creativity. Respect to that
    by the way, you were so right on Max Payne and Deus Ex ! My favorite games and a storytelling examples for gaming- and film business alike. Guess I’ll need to give ‘indigo prophecy’ a go.

    phaltor

    January 17, 2007 at 2:53 pm

  7. Thanks for the props, and ‘indigo prophecy’ by David Cage is definitely an original game to check out.

    newmw

    January 17, 2007 at 3:04 pm

  8. i’ve checked out the demo. Looks great ! By the way, there’s a new ‘writing’-forum on dutchgamedevelopment.nl, feel free to check it out sometime since there’s limited space in here to discuss greater things. I’ve been asked to help improve the forum so if you know any Dutch or Belgian developers or writers who’re interested. There’s no point in not uniting

    phaltor

    January 18, 2007 at 6:20 pm

  9. I’ll check it out and perhaps join up since gamewriting is an interesting topic to discuss and talk about. Like you said, there’s really no point in not uniting.

    newmw

    January 18, 2007 at 7:01 pm


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