STARTING THE JOURNEY
The first session of the PGW Incubator was a blast! Not only did we get to gorge on delicious snacks left over from the previous day’s Pixelles Meetup, but we also got acquainted with some wonderful women who brought diverse professional and life experiences to the group.
Many of us were meeting each other for the first time. Three of us were members of the first Pixelles Game Writing Group, which had held session over the last year. This group was somewhat less structured than the current incubator, but was still very useful to all of us in developing our writing practice.
When we decided to open the group to new applicants, we developed it as an “incubator” along similar lines as the Pixelles game creation incubator, with the goal of helping people build strong game writing portfolios. With five times as many applications as the year before, we were amazed to see how many people wanted to take part!
In each of the first five months, we will address a different type of game writing. Guest critics from the games industry will also be invited to our Incubator sessions to review our written submissions and speak about their experiences as game writers.
During the final month, we’ll be polishing our two favourite pieces from the previous months, which will then be ready to appear in a professional games writing portfolio!
GAME WRITING Q&A
Game writing is still a very new field; we began our meeting by discussing the particulars of this type of creative writing.
What are some of the specific parameters of game writing?
• Non-linear story: Some games have linear stories, but many rely on probability trees. Through their choices and decisions, players are sometimes offered the opportunity to explore more than one story ending and multiple character arcs.
• Incorporating the player’s actions: Game writers must take into account the player’s actions at all times; these affect the outcome of the game, sometimes offering opportunities to create branching points in the narrative. Capacity for replayability is also an important aspect of game writing.
• Working closely with a diverse team: Developing a video game is almost always a collaborative effort. Games are intrinsically a multimedia art form. Every game element — graphics, programming, UI — will help a game writer push the story forward.
• Specific formats and technical challenges: Game development follows a specific pipeline with strict deadlines; usually, once your development team validates your text, you will not be able to make changes to it afterwards. You’ll usually need to adhere to a lot of rules when writing your text.
• Matching the story to game mechanics: If you’re writing for a fast-paced top-down shooter, your story needs will be radically different than those of the writer on an RPG. Mismatches of pacing between the story and the mechanics will create cognitive dissonance for the player that detracts from their enjoyment of the game. At all times, your story must support the intended player experience.
What skills and qualities make a good game writer?
• Flexibility: You’ll need to be ready to adjust your style to the technical constraints of video game development.
• Precision: Gamers usually don’t like walls of text. Brevity is your friend.
• Clarity of expression: “Write less, say more,” and say it very clearly, because the player’s attention will always be divided between your story and other game elements.
• Versatility: Whether you’re working in a studio or as a freelancer, there’s a good chance you’ll be writing for very different projects and formats simultaneously. A game writer is not only expected to write engaging stories, but also effective tutorials, economical menu text, quest titles, loading screen tips… and sometimes even funding applications!
• Efficiency: You’ll need to think fast when you have hundreds of quests to adorn with unique titles. Production timelines will demand that you produce quality work quickly.
• An ability to communicate visually: As in scriptwriting for TV shows or movies, visually-based documentation like flow charts are often the easiest way to communicate with members of your team who do not share your skillset.
• Knowledge of scriptwriting: Any background in scriptwriting or creative writing will help you build a foundation as a game writer. No specific degree is required to become a game writer, but post-secondary education is usually considered an asset.
• Knowledge of other game development disciplines: The more familiar you are with the work your colleagues do, the better you’ll be at communicating your ideas to them. You’ll also have a more accurate perception of how easy or difficult it may be to implement your ideas in the game.
• Scoping: Though a realistic understanding of scope is relevant to any type of creative writing, this is especially true of game writing. Your perception of the project’s size needs to match your producer’s.
• Strong communication: You’ll need to share your ideas with people who may not know much about creative writing, or just… don’t like to read. Communication and teamwork are crucial for success in any game development environment.
• Systemic thinking: In programming, processes follow a logical order, and the more exceptions you add to these processes, the more difficult the programmer’s job becomes. You must be able to design simple, yet robust systems for communicating the story to the player that work in harmony with the game mechanics.
Why does genre fiction appear so often as a framework for video games?
Our first unit focuses on Genre Fiction, and we discussed why video games are so often based on settings and themes found in this type of fiction.
• Most literature would be boring in video game form: Not all texts are action-oriented enough to be engaging as games.
• Touching on tropes suggests the larger philosophical themes beneath: Genre fiction is one of the most efficient ways to express complex philosophies and real-world ideas. The language of symbolism functions as an economical method of visual storytelling. Building your game on genre conventions allows you to explain less and show more.
• Genre fiction sells! The characters and storylines found in genre fiction are usually more glamorous, glitzy and high-stakes than those found in non-fiction, making it easy to market and promote.
• Escapist fantasy: Genre fiction often suggests great adventures, allowing people to take a break from their day-to-day routine.
“Structure dictates function.” One of our participants quoted this maxim of the life sciences, which can apply equally well to game narrative. Though people often think of game narrative as being in opposition to mechanics, the parameters of storytelling have much in common with gameplay: both incorporate objectives, obstacles and rewards to generate a satisfying cycle of tension and relaxation, or “fun pain.”
Our PGW participants asked a LOT of questions about how to become a professional game writer. The most truthful answer? There is no clear path into the games industry as a writer. Writers come from all backgrounds and walks of life, meaning they can “choose their own adventure.”
Now, perhaps it’s time for you to begin writing your own adventure…
- From Failbetter Games: “I want to write for games”
- Game Career Industry Guide: What does a video game writer do, and how can I begin pursuing that career?
- Alexander Freed’s blog: Every game is its own medium
- Darby McDevitt: “A Practical Guide to Game Writing”