How does one get into the business of writing stories for video games?
July 8, 2009 12:26 AM   Subscribe

Tell me what I need to do, or which bums I need to kiss, to write a storyline for a video game.

I love to write, and I am actually pretty good at it. (Yes, more than just my mother, friends and pets have given me reason to believe this, so no worries there.) I also happen to be interested in usability issues and video games, and so I find video game writing fun. The challenge of making an interactive tale somehow sensibly structured and usable for the player is enjoyable to me. I like having to think about what players might do that isn't intended (i.e., them trying to "cheat" the game or find holes in the story). It would be great to write somehow in the gaming industry, even though I know most things are highly competitive and may have poor payment for the amount of work one does. I don't care, honestly.

The thing is, I don't really see a clash for good writing in this field, not always, so I'm unsure of how to get into it. I play a lot of games, and I'll go out on a limb here and say that it seems like only a handful of companies and titles really give much thought to stories and plot lines (e.g., Portal, Bioshock, Braid). There's such a focus on gameplay and visuals at the moment that the writing is unfortunately overlooked sometimes; I think what often happens is the developers write the stories. (It shows.) So, is there even a way to get into this?

I'm specifically interested in stories in first person shooter games, as well as in adventure puzzle games, like the Myst or The Longest Journey series. RPGs can be nice, but the big titles are fairly formulaic ("Our town needs you! Please go collect these items to save the day and go on to the next quest!"), so I'm not sure how much real, creative work would be in that. I love the creativity found in many indie games, so that's a possible outlet, but I'm concerned about just jumping into that culture, as indie games sometimes have a tendency to never be finished. I think I'd rather be involved with an established company, but I can be talked out of that if given enough reason.

So yes, just out of personal interest, I'm curious what the hive mind knows about professional game writing and how one might go about getting involved, particularly on a freelance or contractual basis. I'll take a guess that ass kissing and elbow rubbing comes in somewhere and that it would help to have previous experience of varying kinds. Any information would be greatly appreciated!
posted by metalheart to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
From what I've seen, either be a designer who works full-time on a game (making levels, etc.) and does writing on the side, or be a writer with a good resume (movies, tv, etc.) and get hired as a contractor to help glue things together and punch things up. I would classify Levine (Bioshock) and Blow (Braid) as the former, and Wolpaw (Portal) as the latter (though he apparently works at Valve full-time, so he's a bit of a special case.)
posted by blenderfish at 12:54 AM on July 8, 2009

I worked at a major video game studio. I witnessed first-hand how two different games handled plot content.

Neither game prioritized story, one because it was already known from the corresponding movie and the other because there never was any vision to begin with.

Story simply isn't as important in video games now. The big titles are all X360 games for a casual audience. Unfortunately, games with horrible stories are turning good profits.

That being said, here's what I'd recommend. Figure out your top 5 favorite games that were made recently. Look up what studios made them. Figure out the highest ranking job you're qualified to apply for at each place and apply. Even if you're not qualified for anything, apply to be a tester. Then, stick it out and climb as high as possible. Each studio differs on how they handle story, so just aim to have as much influence as possible.

If this sounds like a really roundabout way to get to video game writing, it sure is. Unfortunately, the state of video games now is hopelessly corporate. Decide now if that's something you really want. A more direct route is to be an indy developer, but I'm not qualified to speak on that.

Something I dabbled in that you may want to try is finding a game on PC that releases modding tools. Some games have very powerful editors and scripting available. With a lot of patience you can create an awesome game experience with whatever story you want.
posted by dualityofmind at 1:42 AM on July 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

I suspect that in order to get the kind of attention which would land you the gig of doing this for a large games producer you would need to establish a portfolio - or at least one really good example - showing you could do this on a smaller scale. You may have wonderful books, films, comics, etc but you need games.

The first problem with this is that to produce something on a smaller scale, that is good enough to catch that attention, you will probably still need to be working as part of a talented team. This may be small but it will need to comprise people who can cover all the visual, auditory and programming bases. The second problem is that it will take a concerted effort from all involved to produce something worthwhile: several weeks of very hard work at a minimum.

About a decade ago I did a Masters degree in Design for Interactive Media. This brought together the sort of people I mentioned above. Because it was a postgraduate degree it was full of people who already had a track record in the various specialist fields. Collaborating together on projects of the kind I mention was an essential part of the course. The final degree show was attended by the sorts of people who recruit for large and small games companies. Sitting through a course of lectures on how to write interactive narratives - often delivered by people who did this for a living - was also a part of the syllabus. These days there are a lot more courses like this around. If you are able to scrape together the time and money it could be a good recommendation.
posted by rongorongo at 2:03 AM on July 8, 2009


How to become a video game designer
Who writes videogames? (not in the programming sense)

Arrgh, sometime in the last few months I feel certain that there was a thread, which was initially phrased a little bit closer to "What do I need to do to get into the game industry? Program? Become an artist?" that ended up being about exactly this topic but I can't find it.
posted by XMLicious at 2:12 AM on July 8, 2009

XML's second link looks like it has some interesting data points.

However, while people are offering some reasonable approaches to becoming a designer, you need to ask yourself whether you'd be happy in that role. From what I've seen, in FPSes as a designer, you would probably spend about 60% moving walls around in an editor, 35% scripting gameplay code, and 5% "writing." Of course, there are no hard rules here.

(Adventure games may be better in this regard, but, of course, that hasn't exactly been a major genre for a while.)
posted by blenderfish at 2:20 AM on July 8, 2009

You might consider learning to write Interactive Fiction, the "old fashioned" text games that have sprung from the classics like Zork. No, there's no commercial potential, but you'll hone your skills and you won't have to compromise on story.

You're interested in catching "what players might do that isn't intended"; IF writers have written entire code libraries to deal with textual responses to the way liquids will interact with containers and objects, so there won't be a single error no matter what the player might try to dunk or pour or fill. And so on.

The annual Interactive Fiction Competition is a good "goal" for someone who wants to start out with an ending in sight. Their site also has really good links to get someone started.

The best programming language (IMHO) to look through to see if you can handle it would be Inform.
posted by bcwinters at 4:00 AM on July 8, 2009

Serious game studios, like Bethesda and BioWare, occasionally hire by asking people to submit samples of dialog or other events which involve actual skill with not only the English language but the ability to create and explore compelling characters and situations. As a matter of fact, BioWare, currently a subsidiary of EA, has such a position open now.

Read the job description. They include not only what they're looking for--this isn't an entry level position by any stretch of the word--but a description of how such a person might have gotten to be where they are. It looks like most people put time in as a tester or in QA. Those are probably easier jobs to get, and many of them are entry level, so I'd say the best way to proceed is to get one of those and then distinguish yourself through your attention to plot and writing.

The mod route is not impossible, but it's kind of like winning the lottery. Plenty of people make mods, but only a handful have leveraged that work into an actual paying gig with a developer. It's generally something you should do for the love of it, not because it's going to get you somewhere.
posted by valkyryn at 4:03 AM on July 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have several ideas for games as well that I think would be good but it does not seem as easy as "Hey I have an awesome idea!" My suggestion if you are flash/computer knowledgeable is to make your game yourself. This way you will have control of your vision and if it turns out good you can take that to the developers as a demo. Now I cannot help you out with the programming but a good test site for your finished game could be . I go there all the time to play various indy games. Most of them are time wasters but sometimes you can play a game that someone put a lot of time and effort into. I have seen some really good games on that site before. Good luck.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 6:15 AM on July 8, 2009

I have absolutely no experience in the gaming industry. That said...

Building on what Mastercheddar said above: if your writing is that good/unique/groundbreaking, it seems to me that some kind of interactive storyboard (using flash or something similar) might be a good way to pitch a story to a studio.

But the first thing I thought upon reading your question was: if you think that RPGs are formulaic (gather these items to save the town, rinse, repeat), then devise a NEW way of sending people on quests.

IMHO, the best way to get 'noticed' would be to write an excellent story as part of an indie development team. How much notice has Braid gotten for exactly that reason? The big studios seem less interested in new ways of telling stories, and more interested in establishing franchises. And from the pros and former pros chiming in, it sounds like going indie is your best shot.
posted by pkphy39 at 8:21 AM on July 8, 2009

The mod route is not impossible, but it's kind of like winning the lottery.

I don't think that's true. Talented modders get jobs all the time, especially in FPSes. (The hard part, though, is actually finishing a mod that you start.)

I agree that RPGs are a potential place (that unlike Adventure or IF, actually happens to be commercially viable right now) where, as a designer, you could reasonably expect to spend a bit more than 5% of your time writing.

And, FWIW, the people I know (game professionals) who played Braid were taken in by the pretty sweet game-play mechanics, but actually found the story a tad overwrought.
posted by blenderfish at 11:22 AM on July 8, 2009

I have never herd of a commercial game driven by the writer. Writing is a small subset of game design.

Not to be overly discouraging about the writing aspect, but to put into perspective: Game players have been perfectly happy playing a plumber rescuing The Princess from Bowser for more than 20 years. That game has roughly 2 lines of dialogue.

When we hire writers we look for freelance copywriters. They don't get to contribute to the story and are brought in toward the end of the project. I'm pretty sure this is standard in the industry. So if you want to have your name credited as a writer in a game, position yourself as a gun for hire. We don't generally care if they have game experience, just that they're competent, reliable, and have a style that we're going for. For the people I work with we're more likely to bring in a copy editor than a writer, the writing being done progressively by the team as the game develops.

However if you want to tell a story through a game you need to become a game designer. 'Game Designer' can be a somewhat nebulous concept, but often it's akin to a producer & director of a movie. They have a vision. He or she is as hands on as they want to be in the areas that they're skilled/interested in. Just as a director might write or act in their own movie a game designer may program, or write, or do concept art for their game. Otherwise they manage a team of people, selling the vision of the game to the staff and keeping everyone in line with that.

This is a senior position. The good ones tend to be at least interdisciplinary, if not polymaths, and not only know how to tell a good story, but how to make a good game. Writing is a small subset of the tools that game designers use. What visual style should be used in a game? What visual shorthand can we use? Interface design. How should saving and death work? Where and what are the rewards? What are the challenges and how should we enable them. Will there be punishments? If so, for what, and what are they? What style of music will it use and where? How is difficulty adjusted? How can the game controls be adjusted to improve the user experience? Does your audience expect collectibles, expansions or side missions? if so, how should they be revealed? Will the hardware support what we need? How will the the ebb and flow of a level effect a player experience and mood. At a big company there are people on staff to handle the details of this stuff. At a small one you'll be doing level design yourself and be very hands on, even with areas you may not be familiar with. But a good game has a single vision that all of these things can answer back to, and a game designer is the keeper of the vision.

Just to drill this into the ground, of the good game designers that I know, or know about, the only thing they have in common is that they have a vision that drives every single thing they do. The only career advice I can give in that direction is cultivate your skills, work passionately on your vision from when you wake up in the morning and when you dream at night. And network. Don't be afraid to share your idea (no one's going to steal it. trust me.) but they will take interest in a person who is passionate and skilled.
posted by Ookseer at 1:56 PM on July 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

I agree with people suggesting getting involved with mods, but I would also say it is worth finding Flash game makers to collaborate with in some way. Could there be an episodic game "famous" for its story and witty writing, in the way web comics made Portal jokes but not really Geometry Wars jokes? Could you make an Escape The Room flash game backed up with really cool writing? Or, you know how in Grow there's a visual environment you have to expand to its maximal state? Could you create a branching narrative world where you have to build "the story" to it's best-of-all-possible conclusions? Stuff like that.

There are also social-type games (e.g Mafia Wars) which are really unimaginative at the moment, but if you found the right people, maybe you could at least bring some wit and verve to the experience if not a particularly emotional narrative arc. You know, Kingdom-of-Loathing level at the very least.

Someone else suggested making interactive storyboards in Flash. I would further suggest mucking about with some machinima because it's a nice visual way to show your work, e.g: you could make quite a slick video demonstrating what your own chapter/subplot of GTA IV would look like, with dialogue and so on. Alternatively you could make something quite funny, like the Team Fortress 2 "Meet The..." videos. Or, you could create a trailer for some fantastically arty game concept, with unreliable narrators and looping narratives and broken fourth walls and sections in medieval Icelandic! My point is that accompanying visuals will help you 'sell' the writing as something that could in fact be in an honest-to-god game.

Also there's alternate reality games, which are extremely writing-heavy. For instance the game promoting Halo 2 had a six-hour radio play written for it! (it was called I Love Bees.) ARGs aren't terribly commercial but the writing is more front-and-center, and a lot of the games are created for clients by advertising agencies, who have more of a tradition of valuing well-written copy. (Think of every film/tv-series/game that now has an associated "interactive online experience", for instance.) Of course you'd need to get into *that* business as well... maybe you could make a sort of Flash/HTML puzzle trail thing exploring something dark and mysterious with a story that unfolds as you unlock each page.

Anyway these are just some ideas, each requiring the development of some secondary skill and, perhaps, the finding of people to do voices for your characters. Ookseeker is right that writing for games is basically like (but less esteemed than) graphics for games, it's just there to facilitate the gameplay and perhaps help differentiate the game from the competition. Hence, punchy dialogue, well-done 'genre writing' (think film rights, Hitman, Max Payne) and quotable/t-shirt worthy comedic stuff.

not hugely qualified to answer this question but this is what I would do in your situation, good luck!
posted by so_necessary at 9:50 PM on July 8, 2009

* Michael Moorcock, the science fiction/fantasy author was collaborating with a video game company. He said that of all the collaborations he's ever done, this one was the best because video game people "get" plot in a way most authors don't - video games, good ones anyway, are forced to do stuff most writers are not - get to the good stuff fast.

* The best lesson in video game design I ever got came from Unlimited Adventures (UA). UA is a video game dev kit for all the old D&D games of the 80's and early 90's. It's every tool the company that had been making D&D games for over a decade felt was needed to make a decent game and playing with the system for a few hours is a master lesson in video game plotting. It's amazingly antiquated by todays standards and focuses on RPGs, but after playing with it for a day or two it revolutionized the way I thought about video game design for everything from Pac-Man to RPGs.

Also +1 Ookseer - you're going to have to work your way up if you want to get involved in writing (e.g. creating) games for a major gaming company.
posted by MesoFilter at 9:55 PM on July 8, 2009

I am a professional games writer. Technically, my current title is "Game Designer / Writer." The industry has lots of /writers who have other skills, and a relatively small amount of "pure" writers. My previous title was "Narrative Designer" which is exceptionally rare. So, several points:

1) It is very hard to break into the industry. Nepotism is more of a problem than "ass-kissing" - but the big issue is just that it's extremely competetive, so it's very hard to get anyone's attention unless you have connections. Maybe you do and don't even realize it - ask your friends and relatives if they know anyone in the industry! Most available positions are not advertised. Every other writer I worked with either had lots of experience (6+ years & multiple shipped games) or had a highly-placed internal connection.

2) Most writers who aren't /writers are contractors. Often they don't get to see their writing in the game before it ships, so are not given context for the dialogue or item descriptions they're writing. That's one of the many reasons writing in games is not stellar! There are other reasons which I will not go into here! But it's true what others have said: the story almost never drives the game, and generally it shouldn't.

3) It's true that there's not a lot of crazy-wild experimentation out there, and true that unless you stumble across Blackbeard's Silver to fund a project... you're probably not going to get to participate in such a project in your first few years in the industry if you're interested in getting paid to write.

So what's available? RPG companies, mostly. But don't look down on them! Games writing is still very new, and so even the process for doing the established stuff - dialogue, quest design, character interactions - is changing constantly! Look at the immense differences between Baldur's Gate I and Mass Effect - both developed by Bioware, both real-time RPGs with pausing, both focused on story & interactions between party members... ten years and a world apart. And if you look at a game like Fallout 3, which incorporates story + open world, you'll see that it's still quite a challenge to keep players from "breaking" things.

Casual games studios are also a possibility - there are a few major companies that are making big bucks. What you'd be working on would be smaller, more manageable games on which you'd need more design skills than writing skills - they will not be epic narratives, and most of the text you'd be writing would be along the lines of "great job!"

4) There are a few companies who do narrative design, which is what you'll need to have a strong grasp of if you want to apply somewhere. In short, you need to both be able to write interactive dialogue well and have a good grasp of the many mechanics involved in making a game fun.

If you can finish a modding project for a released game, it's actually a great way to break into the industry because then you have a portfolio and can show that you understand multiple levels of game design - this stuff is really hard to learn except by doing. However, there aren't many games that lend themselves well to story-based modding, so if you're really set on being a writer you'll probably want the other type of mod: stand-alone.

I recommend purchasing Neverwinter Nights Diamond. You can get it for about $15 US and it should run on any PC less than 5 years old, so most companies will have a copy, and you can send the mods as small attachments in email. The Aurora engine is super-noob friendly. It does require scripting but it's very easy to learn, and the level design aspects are minimal.

I'm recommending this path because western RPGs are the type of game most likely to need multiple writers for quest & content creation, and therefore you're most likely to find a job at such a company. You can download examples of the top-rated Neverwinter Nights mods here. You can also read the Bioware guidelines linked by valkyryn to see a good idea of what you need to aim for - a short, sweet, interactive story. Small stories are the kind of stories you'll get to tell at the beginning of your career unless you're exceptionally lucky - but they're the ones players will remember more than the main plotline, if you're good, because there's more room of experimentation.

Australia, if you're still there, is not exactly a thriving hub of game development. But it's going to be a lot easier to find a job that doesn't require an overseas transfer unless you're willing to pay for relocation. So once you've got a portfolio together it's worth it to apply at any company you'd like to work at, stating your qualifications as a writer and your eagerness to learn about other types of design. Picking up some basic scripting (check out LUA) wouldn't hurt either. If you get an internship offer for any kind of design position, even if it it's level or scripting, even if it's unpaid, go for it - having experience is extremely important.

5) I'm not entirely sure whether your interest is primarily in standard writing (dialogue, cut-scenes, etc) or design (everything else in the game!) or a mix of the two - that's important for you to figure out. Great games writers are exceptionally rare, but good multi-talented designers are much more in demand... and there's no shortage of talented, passionate people trying to break into the industry.

PM me if you want to see my portfolio, have any further questions about the nature of the work, or need information about specific companies.

Good luck!
posted by susoka at 9:01 AM on July 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Get involved early with a modding group.
It's important you learn all the technical things that
go into making a game. That will ultimately help
you tell better stories.

Maybe try your hand at writing comics, first.
That realm has commonalities to games - telling a good story visually,
working in a team (with penciller, inkers, editors). Also, it'll
let you hone your voice.
posted by Sully at 11:37 AM on July 9, 2009

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