The Lore Masters
Graphics, gameplay, level design, fun – it takes a healthy balance of all these things to create a truly engaging game experience, but storytelling is becoming more and more important as games compete with movies, TV, and books for consumer attention.
One of the often overlooked pillars of gaming enjoyment comes from writing. Imagine Mass Effect without a galaxy-spanning narrative; Bioshock without Andrew Ryan, or a Final Fantasy VII where Aeris doesn’t die. It’s pretty obvious that those games wouldn’t amount to much without compelling stories, and creating those tales are the responsibilities of game writers.
Becoming a video game writer is considered by many to be the elusive holy grail of employment, right after candy tester and right before astronaut. So here’s the question, is it possible?
Types of writer
Understanding video game writing requires us to first take a look at the kind of roles needed to get the job done. From lead writers to content writers to narrative designers, many different individuals make up the writing team of today’s best-selling games. Companies also use different types of writers depending on the type of game being developed and the resources at their disposal.
A new Call of Duty game might feature a Hollywood screenplay writer at its head, while RPGs and MMO writing might be more suitable for novelists for example. A mobile game with a small team may employ none or only one writer (usually on a freelance basis), while AAA developers may employ an entire team.
As technology has matured game developers have more story-telling tools at their disposal than ever before. Gone are the days of simple text boxes – games today feature everything from animated cutscenes to scripted events filmed with real actors, to changing environmental details to convey story to the player, and the more experience and flexibility a writer has to utilize these tools, the better their success in the industry.
This explosion in both technology and the budgets of AAA games means that many companies today make use of TV/film script writers and popular Hollywood actors in the story department. The larger market sees both an increase in jobs and a massive increase in competitiveness for anyone dreaming of writing for games in the future.
The gig however isn’t limited to screenplay and dialogue writers. Most companies also staff content writers whose roles may vary widely from company to company. These guys and girls can be responsible for everything from writing website and marketing content to item descriptions, side-quests and background lore. Then there’s also the niche of technical writer, the people who create internal design documents, user manuals, and any other technical writings related to the game at hand.
Finally, we have a somewhat rare beast in the shape of lore writers, those responsible for creating a rich world to support the game’s main narrative. This job is usually split amongst the other writers on a team, but every once in a while a role for a dedicated lore writer does pop up. Their duties can include writing in-depth histories for their fictional game worlds, or otherwise creating lore that makes the player feel like they’re part of a living, breathing world. One filled with grand history, evocative plotlines, or deeply rooted political dynasties.
How do I become a game writer?
To many of us, getting paid to create intriguing stories and histories for games sounds like the greatest job in the world. Unfortunately, it’s also extremely rare, and a lot of the work is freelance or project-based, meaning you’re probably (definitely) going to need a few other skills up your sleeve for backup.
As far as qualifications go, one of the most important is networking (as I’m sure you’ve heard before). It’s true though, there are many success stories out there of down-on-their-luck individuals being showered with a dream job simply due to knowing people in the industry (this applies to all fields, not just writing). Networking means getting your name out there, using whatever means possible to create awareness of yourself in the industry.
Secondly, you will need some form of formal education 99% of the time. This can include everything from taking creative writing classes at college level, to holding degrees in English literature, Journalism, or other communication-related fields. The most useful will be to have studied script writing for films/TV, or even doing a course at an institution specializing in game-related education, such as the game design program at the Vancouver Film School.
Most companies also require some industry experience even for entry-level positions, something to prove that you know what you’re doing. Of course being a published fiction writer or having a screenplay writing credit will be the best, but it’s not the be-all-end-all of writing. One of the easiest ways to gain something to put on your portfolio is to start creating quests/campaigns for already released games. Titles like The Witcher 2 and Neverwinter provide good downloadable toolkits that can be used to this effect, allowing players to create their own narratives using pre-existing tools.
An inside look
Advice and overviews aside, what is it like to actually work as a writer for a successful AAA game developer? To answer this question we had a chat with Jakub Szamalek, one of the writers on CD Projekt RED’s upcoming The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
Jakub is no stranger to the world of writing, having published two critically acclaimed crime novels (among other things) before joining the writing team for The Witcher 3.
Artistry in Games: What is the most enjoyable part of your job?
Jakub: I think it’s definitely seeing what I come up with taking shape (sometimes within just a few days). Most writers dream, I think, to see their work adapted to different media, be it movies or games. And this is my everyday experience – how awesome is that? Characters I invent are later designed by concept artists and then turned into 3D models by our kick-a** artists, and the dialogues I write are recorded by some of the best actors out there, like Charles Dance, who lends his voice to emperor Emhyr var Emreis. I wouldn’t trade the satisfaction I get from this for anything.
AiG: Do you have any advice for someone trying to break into the industry?
Jakub: My first advice is this – build up a solid portfolio. If you want to become a game writer – write, and write a lot. If you get a chance to collaborate with someone on a game mod, doing dialogues or designing quests – that’s great! If not, write short stories, novels or novellas, articles or reviews, start a blog, whatever. This will not only allow you to improve your skills and gain experience you’ll later need, but also make your curriculum stand out of the crowd when the time comes to apply for a job. Secondly, I think that in order to be a creator, you also need to be a consumer – so if you want to make games, play them and think about them critically while you’re at it. See what you like about them and what you don’t, what you’d change if given a chance and so on. This will allow you to work out what you really want to do in game dev.
AiG: Do you think there is a demand for creative writers in games right now?
Jakub: There certainly is and I think it’s likely to grow in the coming years. Not only because the gaming market is constantly expanding, but also, I think, because gamers grew to appreciate good writing and would like to see more of it in the coming years. And the writer team at CD Projekt RED is working hard to satisfy this need!
So there you have it, writing for games is definitely one of the harder industries to get into for the budding story weaver, but it’s certainly not impossible. As technology, and thus storytelling techniques increases in complexity, as well as games making more use of Hollywood-style scripting techniques, the future of game writing is without a doubt looking brighter than ever before. As always, the best jobs will go to the hardest, and luckiest writers out there.