In a previous article, I mentioned that more and more people are thinking about becoming video game developers. The job market for game developers keeps growing, and more and more indie titles are being released.
But if you are interested only in writing games, not also in other aspects of game development, you are in a tough spot. There are fewer opportunities for persons who specialize in writing than for those who do other kinds of video-game work. It’s harder to see the quality of a writer’s work up front if he does not yet have a published game to show. It also takes time to read a script, more time than it takes to glance at artwork. A more fundamental problem, though, is that many of the skills a writer needs to succeed in gaming just can’t be illustrated by traditional prose or scripts.
So if you’re an aspiring game writer who dreams of crafting great interactive video-game stories, how do you start? What resources are available? How can you exhibit your game-making skills if you are not also a programmer?
Here are some tips and resources to help you get started.
Game Writers and Narrative Designers
In the world of game writing, you tend to see two main job titles: “game writer” and “narrative designer.” Although often used somewhat interchangeably, these terms don’t refer to exactly the same thing. In general, narrative designers work on a higher level. They look at the overarching story, paying special attention to how the story interacts with the game design. Game writers are more focused on writing scenes, in-game text, scripts, and other subsidiary details. On small teams, both jobs may be performed by the same person. In any case, if you want to be a game writer, it would be good to know something about narrative design.
Learning How to Write Games
The differences between writing games and writing scripts, comic books, or novels are significant. Narratively, a game must do three things at once: tell a story; advance the gameplay, letting the player know what to do and where to go; entertain. Game writing is also often nonlinear. Dialogue may need to branch and loop convincingly while delivering a lot of information in short, punchy bits that a player can understand in the middle of gameplay.
To learn the ins and outs of game writing, pick up The Game Narrative Toolbox by Tobias Heussner, Toiya Kristen Finley, Jennifer Brandes Hepler, and Ann Lemay. The authors have worked on games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, and their book is the best primer on game writing one could hope for.
Each section includes thorough exercises to help you internalize the lessons of the chapter. By the end of the book, you will have developed a small portfolio and a big understanding of how to write a game.
In his MasterClass, game design pioneer Will Wright notes that every art has an “emotional palette,” the emotions that the medium is best suited to evoke. Plays are good for evoking terror, novels for evoking empathy. Because of their interactivity, video games are good for evoking emotions that depend on agency, such as, in Wright’s examples, guilt, accomplishment, pride, and self-expression, to which I would add anxiety, satisfaction, and the emotional bonds of companionship. When writing for games, then, keep in mind that they are the best medium for evoking certain emotions.
Building a Portfolio
Once you’ve mastered the basics, how do you demonstrate this knowledge?
Although it’s hard to showcase your work as a game writer, it’s not impossible. Many tools are available that can help you create your own game and so display your game-writing skills—even if you don’t know a thing about programming.
One of the best places to start is Twine, a free tool for writing and designing interactive, nonlinear stories—among the hardest skills for aspiring game developers to acquire. Twine itself couldn’t be easier. Just pick an entry, write in it, and use one of several methods to branch into another entry. If you know any HTML, you can add a little polish. If not, you can still show a prospective employer that you know how to craft interactive stories. Every time you make a new one, archive it on itch.io to add it to your portfolio.
Dreams is a very simple game for the PS4. No programming is involved. You can make beautiful-looking games with only basic stories, which you can then record and upload to YouTube as part of your portfolio. In the process, you also dip your toe into some of the other aspects of game development, invaluable experience for a game writer.
Game Maker Studio 2
Game Maker Studio 2 recently added a free tier. The simple interface gives you with a great way to try your hand at creating games. You can use a visual programming language or the native scripting language, which is easy to use even if you are not a programmer.
These are just a few examples. With a quick Google search, you can find many visual and audio assets that help you create a simple game to display your game-writing ability.
Now that you have developed a portfolio and some skills, start joining communities on Twitter, Discord, and Reddit, and create more games. Make friends, find game jams, look for indie projects that need writers. This is how you will learn the most important thing about being a game writer: working with other people.