You might think that because you love writing and you love video games, a job as a writer in the games industry would be your dream come true. But writing for games is a totally different ballgame to penning your novel or a short story, or any other writing you have complete creative control over.
Writing in the games industry means that your writing is only one part of a completed project; instead of a reader, you’re writing for a player; and your medium extends beyond words to the game environment, the characters, and the rules.
Here are what we consider to be the five most important things to get your head around what writing for the games industry is really all about.
Not all writing jobs are the same
What is required of a video games writer can vary radically between different studios, and even between the games produced by those studios. You could be asked to to write a story for a particular part of a game, or you could be asked to write the story from beginning to end. You could be creating character biographies, or scripts, or instructions which tell the player what to do.
Very generally, the kinds of work you might be asked to do can be split into two types: narrative design, and games writing.
Narrative designers shape the overall arc of a game. They design quests, figure out character arcs, and make sure there is an overarching story to the game, all of which dictate how a player experiences the game. This has to be maintained throughout the course of the game’s development – which might involve scenes being cut, gameplay changes which affect the storyline, or reworking pacing.
By comparison, a games writer is asked to create a story within a game which has already been designed. You get a brief which tells you what the game is about, who the characters are, and what the world is like, and then it’s your job to write the story from there.
Writing for video games is a collaborative job
You’ll read it everywhere, because it’s true: writing for the games industry means that you are working as part of a team. Your story needs to work alongside the work that the designers, artists, animators, programmers, and sound team are also doing on the game.
This is radically different from the writing you might have done before, where you can shut yourself off from everyone in order to carefully refine your prose for as long as it takes until you’re ready to share it with the rest of the world.
The plus side of this is that it forces you to be less precious about your writing, and means that there’s a decreased risk of ending up fused to the sofa, living off cereal and not getting out of your pyjamas for three days solid as you perfect that opening passage…
… the downside is that you're not going to have total control over your writing
The fact is, there are other elements of game design which are more important than writing. Gameplay and level design, programming, artwork, and even budget cuts can all mean that your story has to change.
All of this means that a large part of your job as a writer is going to involve reworking your original idea so that it works with the way that the game production is progressing.
You will end up with some of your story cut because the decision has been made to scrap a level, rewriting what happens after those scenes because the story doesn’t make as much sense without them, and removing some of your favourite dialogue because the art department no longer have time to build the dramatic backdrop required for it.
If you want to write for the video games industry, you have to accept that a significant amount of your time will be spent trying to fix problems caused by your collaborators on the game.
You need to actually play games to write for games
It might sounds obvious, but if you’re interested in writing for the games industry you need to play games. A lot of games.
Just being a good writer isn’t enough. You need to understand everything about video games to think broadly enough about how to use that medium to tell your story – beyond just using words.
We recommend playing as many different games as possible, and really paying attention as you do. Look for the visual cues which help progress the story. Look at when and where text is used. Listen to the dialogue. All of this will help you to learn about what makes a great story for a game.
Even better than playing games... you should get some experience making games
The best way of learning is doing – so once you think you’ve got your head around what makes great game narrative, then why not try it out for yourself?
Working on a project like this gives you valuable experience of seeing just what goes in to writing for the games industry, adds to your portfolio, and gives you first-hand experience of what other members of a game dev team are doing (who knew that as a writer you were going to need to learn about computer programming?). This can be something which really makes you stand out when you’re pitching yourself to a studio.
In the age of indie games, luckily you can gain this experience even without being hired by a games company.
If you’re not based in the East of England, we recommend looking up a local game jam or check computer science department bulletin boards for game dev groups.
I've read all this and I'm still keen – so how do I land a job?
It’s hard. And because every studio is looking for something different from their writers, no two writers have broken into the industry in quite the same way.
For some general advice, this is a great article by a narrative designer for BioWare with some advice on how to get started.
If you want to know more about becoming a video games writer, there’s also really detailed information available from the Writers’ Guild.