What You Need To Know About Writing Video Games

The Central Clancy Writer for Ubisoft/Red Storm, Richard Dansky  was named one of the Top Twenty Game Writers by Gamasutra in 2009. His game credits include Splinter Cell: Conviction, Outland, and Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. He is also the author of five novels, including Booksense pick Firefly Rain, and his short fiction has appeared in anthologies such as The New Hero, Don’t Read This Book, and Dark Faith.


So here’s what you have to know about videogame writing.
Unlike just about any other form of writing, videogame writing is not about the story you’re telling the reader. It’s about the story the player is creating by inhabiting the protagonist. What separates game writing from everything else is agency—the ability of the player to choose what happens next, even if the choices in question are limited to “do I use the big gun or the really big gun?” Comics, fiction, movies, television—the audience receives the narrative as the creator chooses to present it. Videogames, the user takes what the creator has done and builds their own story. Nobody ever says “Master Chief did this cool thing” after a hot and heavy game session. It’s always in the first person— “I did this.”

In other words, you’re writing to help the player build their story, not to tell them yours. Rely too heavily on the player sitting still to hear your brilliance and you’ll lose those same players. They want to be playing, after all, not sitting there receiving your wisdom, or letting NPCs do all the cool stuff, or reading. If they want to do that, there are other media out there they could pick up instead; the point of a game, after all, is that it has a player, and that the player has choices.

That is, after all, the essence of play.

Writing for games also means you need to take gameplay systems into account in your writing and your plot structure. Sign on to write for a game that has a character advancement mechanic and you have to tell a story that reflects the player character’s growth in power. Sign on to write a game that starts with a character who doesn’t build skills and you’re writing an entirely different type of narrative. Level design, AI state changes, level load mechanics, mocap technology—all of these affect the sort of writing that you do, on a deep and fundamental level. It’s not just that the words matter, it’s how the words are delivered, and what systems exist to deliver them, and how those words interact with the systems that comprise the other elements of the player experience.

And if you can’t fit your writing into the data structures, if you can’t recognize that systemic dialog is there to be heard to provide information to the player and thus needs to be brief and to the point and willing to hold up to multiple listenings, then you’re not serving the player, and you’re not serving the game. Most of all, game writing is about writing something fun. Games are meant to be played, after all, and even the ones that carry weighty themes* —Shadow of the Colossus, for example—still must give precedence to the idea that they’re enjoyable to spend time with. If you don’t hold onto that quintessential need for joy, even in the darkest hours when you’re crunching and there are a thousand variants on “arggh he shot me in the face!” to write and a level design just changed so that you need to do a last-minute rewrite, then you’re shortchanging the player of joy as well, and that hurts the game.

So go. Play games. Have fun. And have fun when you write them, so that someone else can have fun, too.

*Obviously, there are games that are not intended to be fun per se, and many of them are remarkable creations. For commercial game writing, however, the vast majority of projects are created with the intention that the game will be fun, so lots of people will enjoy playing it, tell their friends, and get said friends to buy it as well.

Origin Awards Interview: Stuart Boon, Author of Shadows over Scotland

The 38th Annual Origin Awards were presented at the Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio on June 2nd. Cthulhu Britannica: Shadows over Scotland, written by Stuart Boon and published by Cubicle 7 Entertainment, won for Best Roleplaying Supplement or Adventure. The transcript of my interview with the author follows.

You’ve been involved in the role-playing game community for the past 30 years. How did that experience aid you when you wrote Shadows over Scotland?

I think it helps on a couple of levels.  First, being immersed in the gaming world allows you to appreciate what works and what doesn’t, to be able to differentiate good writing and good mechanics from bad.  Just having read, played and experienced a wide selection of games, resources, and other materials give you a rich composite picture of what can be done in the genre.  It informs your boundaries and your choice of tools for a particular piece of writing.  Second, my experience running games over 30 years provided me with a clear wish list for Shadows Over Scotland.  I wanted the book to be a really solid resource for Keepers—the people running the show in a Call of Cthulhu game—to meet their needs in developing and managing the adventures in 1920s Scotland.  So, that experience allows me to call upon a breadth of knowledge and simultaneously bring a criticality and focus to the writing.

As both player and creator, what aspects of the gaming experience are you most passionate about?

I’m most passionate about storytelling and world-building.  In his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’, Tolkien used the terms sub-creation and secondary worlds to discuss the creative potential inherent in stories.  I see that same potential writ large in role-playing games.  Games provide players with opportunities for immersion into fantastically creative, secondary worlds where stories come alive.  One thing that is especially attractive about table-top, role-playing games is the ability to participate cooperatively in the telling of those stories.  Game writers and developers provide the initial ideas, themes, and background, but the story and the world are the creation of those people seated around a table sharing a goal and vision.  That’s exciting.

Shadows over Scotland brings Cthulhu to Scotland in the 1920’s. What kinds of challenges did researching this setting present to you, both as a writer and as an immigrant to the United Kingdom?

In some ways, I think I may have benefitted from not being born in the United Kingdom.  The canvas was uniformly blank to me, if you see my meaning.  It was not coloured by preconceived ideas about what it was like to live in Britain in the 1920s.  I had no close heritage, cultural memory, or recalled stories to draw upon.  I had to research everything, absolutely everything.  The primary challenge was the sheer volume of material to be read and to be careful of unwittingly introducing anachronisms.  But yes, the single greatest challenge was researching the whole of Scottish history, focusing in on what made the 1920s tick, and then making that interesting for readers.  That challenge was offset by the genuine pleasure I took from introducing Lovecraftian themes and the Cthulhu Mythos into the Scottish setting.

What do you feel are critical things to keep in mind while writing Lovecraftian fiction today?

That there is a very real Lovecraftian spirit that we need to be true to.  For me the appeal of Lovecraft comes in his description of the human condition when faced with the unknown or the unknowable.  It is the exploration of that condition that drives my interest in Lovecraft and the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game.  In any form, Lovecraftian fiction should seek to produce more than chills.  What you want, in my opinion, is a hint—or an explosion, depending on your intent—of cosmic dread, incorporating a heady mix of potent themes including mutability, madness, and human frailty delivered via suspense, terror, and awe.  Behind all of this, it is the spirit and ghostly voice of H.P. Lovecraft, at once disconcerting, emotive, and powerful, that you want to animate and haunt your own writing.

What advice would you offer to someone who is new to writing games?

First, be passionate about writing for games: understand why you are doing it and what you want to achieve.  You are going to need strong motivation to get you to 80,000 words or 180,000 words.  Second, stick to your guns:  if you’ve got an idea worth flogging, flog it, and keep flogging it.  Use your group of friends and players to talk through ideas and to playtest everything.  Generating a really good piece of writing is all about development over time: use every bit of feedback and every little experience to make your work richer, stronger.  And, third, enjoy and learn from the process.  Carry your experience forward to new projects and use it wisely.  After that, rinse and repeat.

About the Origin Awards

The Origin Awards are voted on by the attendees of the Origins Game Fair and presented annually by the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design to recognize outstanding achievement in design and production in games and game-related material.

About Cubicle 7 Entertainment

Cubicle 7 Entertainment is a UK-based publisher of award-winning games, including Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space, The One Ring, The Laundry RPG, Victoriana and Qin: The Warring States. For more information visit www.cubicle7.co.uk or e-mail info@cubicle7.co.uk

About Stuart Boon

Stuart Boon was born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He moved to Great Britain in 2002 and now lives in Scotland with his wife Michele. An avid film and music fan, and active role-player, Stuart spends entirely too much time indoors. He is currently working on a number of projects involving the Cthulhu Mythos whilst trying to retain his sanity. He blogs at stuartboon.posterous.com.

Origins Awards Interview – Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple

During the Origins Awards this year Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple won the Vanguard Award. This award is significant in that it is not given every year and honors highly innovative games. I recently interviewed Dan Solis, the game designer, along with Ryan Macklin and Lillian Cohen-Moore, the editors. The following is the transcript of that interview.

Bear Weiter: Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple is both a game and an exercise in storytelling. How did you design something that balances creative writing with the use of mechanics?

Daniel Solis: Working in advertising, I often get called on to write within constraints. If it’s a TV script, I have to include certain language or disclaimers while promoting a brand. If it’s a billboard, I usually only have three or four words to communicate a much larger idea.

Then occasionally I’ll get a client who says “do anything” and I suddenly go blank. It’s the constraint that inspires creativity. Constraint is the pressure that creates heat. That is a very ancient idea, of course. It goes back to haikus and sonnets.

In Do, I designed a game that is all about constraints and writing prompts. First, the players are all writing a story together. Second, a player can only write one sentence at a time on her turn. Third, the players win by using all of the “goal words” in their story, but can only often only use one word per turn.

As you play, you may get opportunities to use more than one goal word, but at the price of your hero getting into trouble. This acts as yet another prompt for the next player’s turn, as she must decide whether she will rescue a companion even if it means taking his place.

With all these constraints, I was worried at one point that it would hinder a player’s creativity. There certainly are a lot of factors to consider in a single turn. Yet I’m always amazed at the players’ imagination during the game. They’ll come up with the zaniest ways for their heroes to get into trouble or to rescue a friend in need.

BW: As editors, how does your approach differ when you edit a game versus other kinds of manuscripts?

Ryan Macklin: I’m primarily a game editor. A game has many different contextual channels, more than fiction or even most text books. Games books need to serve as instructional text (along with examples and other methods that facilitate learning) and sources of inspiration. That means text flow is as much of a page design consideration as what’s on a given page.

Since people learn by different methods, including having others read a book and teach, a given section needs to take that into account, as well as blend in evocative tone and color to facilitate learning the context of the game and giving additional points of reference to remember a given rule or piece of advice.

Lillian Cohen-Moore: Since I’m primarily a copy editor for games, I have to pay attention to whether I’m reading something with mechanics in it. If I don’t keep that in mind while changing passages to fit a style guide or clear up unclear text, I run a risk of taking a machete to text that’s essential for understanding gameplay.

BW: What were the first games that truly grabbed you? How have your past experiences playing games motivated you to get involved in game development? How did playing games influence you as storytellers?

DS: I played a lot of D&D as a teenager, then other role-playing games in college.

In most RPGs of the time, the critical question was “Does my character succeed at the action I just described?” You rolled dice to find the answer to that question and modified the dice results in various ways to get your desired outcome. This creates very decompressed narratives that, in total, take many hours to describe very little.

My whole perspective changed thanks to two games: octaNe by Jared Sorensen and The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen by James Wallis.

In octaNe, the question was “Who gets to decide what happens next in the story?” There were some constraints on scope and character ownership, but otherwise you were given very broad license to just narrate to your heart’s content. You still used dice and still modified those results, but the meaning of those results was very different than a traditional RPG.

By the same token, Baron Munchausen gave even broader license to each player. In that game you’re simply asked to tell boastful lies about one of your amazing, heroic accomplishments. Occasionally other players may ask prying questions that poke holes in your story, to which you must respond with wit and grace. It’s a challenging game partly because you must think quickly without many prompts.

Both games put you much in the position of a writer. That’s probably what influenced me most in developing Do.

LCM: When I was a kid my parents would buy my siblings and I board games every year. We’d get bored of the regular rules and start inventing our own “hard” modes. From there I get into table-top and live-action role-playing as I grew up. Games were always a part of my social circle, but I didn’t realize I could actually get involved in games development till a few years ago. Playing games has had a very noticeable influence on my sense of pacing. Both when I’m writing and when I’m telling stories in casual settings.

RM: I used to play GURPS, back in the day. Mage: the Ascension and Unknown Armies blew my mind, and really got me thinking about writing stuff.

I have a mild reading disability, so looking at the old-school roleplaying games and how they just throw walls of text at you was frustrating. So I started looking to how other books presented information, and have been using that as a guide to developing games I’ve been involved with.

I can’t really answer how games have influenced me as a storyteller. I know that they have, but games are an integral part of my personality DNA. I can’t really remove that to tell you how it’s impacted my life.

BW: You created another game before this – Happy Birthday, Robot! – that is also a mix of storytelling and gameplay. Are there more games to come that feature storytelling so prominently? Do you do any other kind of creative writing?

DS: The irony of all this is that I consider myself more of a board game designer. I just happened to find success with these odd little storytelling games that apply simple board game mechanics to the ephemeral world of creative writing.

I explore this space a bit more with some side projects like the Writer’s Dice. These are dice with the words AND, SO, BUT, IF, AS, and OR on each face. The idea is that as you outline a story, you’ll roll a die between each story-beat to keep the story moving in unexpected directions. You can buy Writer’s Dice from my etsy store at http://www.etsy.com/shop/smartplaygames.

At the moment, I’m developing two new story games using these dice. The first is Pop and Locke’s Last Heist, a storytelling game about a father/daughter heist team recovering supernatural objects from their family of supervillains. The second is tentatively titled Rulers, which is a cross between Fullmetal Alchemist and Hunger Games.

BW: How did you get involved with the project? What were your official roles and were there other aspects you were involved with along the way?

RM: This is the world of game bookmaking; there isn’t much in the way of official roles on small projects. I was the guy who challenged Daniel when he needed challenging on rules presentation, and played clean-up on the text.

It was a collaborative arrangement, not an equal pairing but one of a friend helping another friend make a vision come to life. Daniel had many such folks; I just happened to also be his editor.

LCM: Ryan and I knew each other before working on Do together as co-editors, and was who brought me in to work on the editing with him. Since I was doing copy edits, the bulk of what I did was making sure things looked good after Ryan had come in and kicked the tires.

BW: How do writers who are interested in writing for games get into the business?

LCM: Pay attention to games publishers and industry publications. There’s regular calls for pitches and openings. Just like fiction, those submissions practices are spelled out very clearly. Outside that familiar process, you should be exhibiting the same qualities you do writing fiction. Make your deadlines and don’t be a dick.

RM: This isn’t like the world of fiction. Roleplaying games are a niche market, and you get into the business by doing stuff and being loud. Sometimes, larger companies hold contests or open calls for submissions, always for their established games. But if you have an idea for a game system or setting, just do it and put it out there. Then network. Go to conventions and get to know folks.

Being an independent publisher in the RPG world doesn’t have the dirty stink on it that it seems to have in the world of fiction. There aren’t Big Publishers that will take your new idea. Their resources are stretched working on their own properties. So if you’re going to get out there, you should strike on your own.

That said, places often look for freelancers, but they’ll mostly go with people they know or have met.

Many thanks to Daniel, Ryan, and Lillian for their time, and congratulations on winning the Vanguard Award!

More information about Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple can be found at www.SmartPlayGames.com.

By day, Daniel Solis is associate creative director at Third Degree Advertising. By night, he’s an award-winning designer of storytelling games and board games. He designs in public at www.DanielSolis.com. Follow @DanielSolis on Twitter.

Ryan Macklin is a freelance game designer, writer & editor, and frequently blogs about the creative process at RyanMacklin.com.

Lillian Cohen-Moore is a freelance writer, editor and journalist. Part of the proofing team for “Attitude” from Catalyst Game Labs, Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple was her first project as a game editor. She blogs at www.lilliancohenmoore.com. She is also assistant editor here at Booklife Now.