11/12/2014

Jobs in gamedev: writer / narrative designer

Having finished my first game and being heavily involved in the story production for it, I now have a general idea what the job of writing for games requires. What's more, I've been neglecting the "Jobs in gamedev" series, so all the more reasons to bring you guys this article.

So you write stories...
Good for you! Unfortunately, it doesn't necessarily mean you will be able to write for games. There are hundreds of professional screenplay or novel writers that have failed miserably while trying to deliver a narrative for a game. And many of them weren't mediocre either. I'm talking awarded writers recognized for their achievements in movies or books. If they were so great, why did they fail in games? To explain that, I have to give you a brief tour, how the writing process for a game can turn into a nightmare, but first let's talk a bit how the narrative designer differs from a game writer.


Not every writer is a designer... and that's fine.
There is a huge difference between a writer and a narrative designer. Basically, a writer is the guy who deals with words. There are lots of game elements that require only that and the writer doesn't have to get concerned about how these words affect the game mechanics. These elements are the static pages in the menu, like bestiaries or equipment descriptions, stuff like that. Sure, the writer has to be careful to make sure they fit the general theme of the game, but these flavor texts won't really break the game or heavily interact with the gameplay. Dialogues and quest descriptions are a bit more complicated, as you have to know what's going on at a certain point of the game. What dialogue options need to be included and what information the dialogue or description needs to give to the player. That's still quite easily manageable if you are a writer, not a designer. As a writer, you have to be great with words. Your sentences have to be brilliant and snappy, your dialogues need great pacing.

The narrative designer kind of needs a higher awareness level than the writer. He has to take into account all these elements the writer doesn't worry about. He needs to make sure all the tools are being used, especially the gameplay, to tell a compelling story. The narrative designer needs to help guard the concept of the game, make sure all quests are in line with the story, all dialogues serve their purpose, all characters have their place. Paradoxically, the narrative designer doesn't necessarily have to be a brilliant writer when it comes to the use of words, although it is very often expected of him/her. Especially in smaller studios, the role of narrative designer is either held by the writer or by creative director or lead game designer. Also in bigger studios, there are many cases where the writer never designs a story, he/she just puts it into words. Let's get back to our story of a potential story development nightmare.

Image stolen from theiddm.wordpress.com

Step 1: World creation and preproduction.
This is the step where the general idea shapes up. Art style is chosen. The development team decides or learns whether they will be doing a game about pirates or ponies. Based on this, further decisions are rapidly being made - all the guys on the team have to start with their work. Concept artists are drawing characters and enemies, 3D artists are starting on the blocking of the locations, game designers are inventing game mechanics. And very often, they are doing it completely independently, exploring on their own based on their individual understanding of the theme. They do coordinate, but mostly on the most "gamey" things. For example, game design coordinates with level design on the metrics used in the game, but they do not talk about how the game mechanics work with the mood of the locations to deliver a story to the player. Of course, the "right way" to do it would be to have a creative director who would make sure every person does his/her work according to the same core esthetic and sometimes this "right way" actually occurs. Still, majority of creative directors focus more on the gameplay than on the story and we see results of that even in big titles.

At this stage, there's usually some kind of problem with a writer. In some cases there's no writer at all and all these assets are just being produced because the team knows the theme and knows there's supposed to be some enemies and some NPCs. In other cases, there is a designated writer, but he/she doesn't really deliver or delivers a first draft of the story that the dev team just keeps filed "for later" while doing their thing. In yet other cases, there are some guys on the dev team that have some story ideas put together in a more or less chaotic document. You as a writer, more often than not, are not present at this stage. 

Step 2: "But our story sucks!" also known as production.
This is the moment when the prototype has been done and accepted. The gameplay is shaping up, the locations are being produced, there's a few characters implemented, maybe some dummy dialogues or even a prosthesis of a tutorial. It's the moment when the general player's path is being decided on and suddenly, the dev team wakes up. They either pull out the story document someone created and realize it has an army of holes and irrationalities in it, that the current gameplay ideas have evolved way beyond the script, that one of the locations has been cut. That a key NPC won't be produced. That there's been a side quest system implemented or that there will be no more side quests. If there was a writer that was hired from outside of the game industry, this is usually the moment he quits, because "the dev team is unable to execute his vision".

The prototype is approved, the deadline for alpha is not far away, and in most cases, the team has no writer and only some general premise of the story. This is the moment when the writer is hired. It might be a full-time position. It might be an oversea freelance. It might be some person within the team stepping up with hopes of doing a decent job.

Whatever your origins are, the writing task before you is not trivial. There's already a lot of things that have been decided without consulting them with you. If you got in early, it's just going to be about getting into the theme and getting around some things, like having a fixed moment when the peak happens or having to meet some character sooner or later. The longer the team waits with bringing you in however, the more things like that get included. Suddenly you have a character that's in a specified place, having to go the specified route and very soon, what could have been a straight walk in the park with going around some trees once in a while, becomes a crawl through a tropical jungle with a rusty machete. Instead of creating a story, you end up creating justifications for what's happening on the screen. And then, whenever you fix the problems of NPCs appearing out of nowhere and doing things that are completely out of of their character, the dev team just comes up with another idea for something that doesn't fit the story no matter how you slice it.

With a bit of persistence and luck, you end up with a satisfactory story that makes sense.


Step 3: Story implementation.
If you were hired as a freelance writer, this is very likely the step you won't be involved in. If you worked closer with the dev team, you are likely to stick around and be able to prevent a shitload of things that can go wrong at this point. Dialogues that you've written might not exhaust all the gameplay options and game designers will try to fill the holes with so-called "designer art". Some tired designers will implement the dialogue trees all wrong and suddenly they will make no sense at all. There will be another change in the game scope and a key character will be cut out, making the current story pointless. Casting for the VO (voice acting) will be done by a deaf person and every character in the game will sound the same or lines of an old man will be played by a young girl. The VO script will be poorly prepared and the actors will read their lines completely out of context. The cutscene that was supposed to deliver the backstory will never be produced. Someone will add equipment descriptions that do not match your story or your world. The letter that was supposed to give clarity after the story twist will be accessible way before it, spoiling everything. The character animations will break and in the middle of a serious, heartbreaking dialogue, one arm of an NPC will start a pop & lock dance. And these are just some of the possibilities.

If you are still with the project at this point, this is the moment where the real video game writing skills get tested. This is where you see how your story holds up its limbs get cut off. How well the rest of the team understands it and how much they feel and agree with your vision of the story. This is where you find out whether you are able to solve the problems that pop out on the fly without generating too much additional cost and workload. This is where you really see the difference between writing for games and for any other medium.

"But I will do it right"
Of course you will. What I described was an extreme case where everything gets out of control, but don't fool yourself - it's not a domain of small and inexperienced studios. If you take a closer look at the stories of big titles with 80+ metascore you will easily find story holes, ridiculous moments, terrible execution and many, many more. It ranges from high-level absurds like going hunting to enlarge your wallet instead of rushing to free your friends in Far Cry 3 to choices between "No", "Not now" and "Not really" in Mass Effect. Most of the games have their narrative sins and most of them aren't necessarily the writer's fault. No matter how good or bad the writer is, it's not the writer that makes all the decisions. A game can be still pretty decent with a crappy writer and it can be a disaster with even the greatest writer in the world.



"So what do I do?"
First of all, the poetic lone wolf writer approach will get you nowhere. You have to be a team player and accept the fact that the dev team is not there to execute your vision. You are to support the vision of the team with your excellent storytelling skills. You have to get invested in the project. You have to be as close to the development team as possible and support them as much as you can. There's no other way to see your script really come to life than to help implement it. Your job will never really be done until the game ships. You can't just assume what you have written is enough and leave it in the hands of others. You have to remember, that the game narrative is way more than words. Gameplay tells a lot of the story too. You can't just write the words completely independently from the rest of the team and then just hope the game mechanics will tell the same story as your words.

Be prepared for changes. Lots of them. Game production is iterative. That means your script will have iterations as well. It will have to be adjusted many, many times. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but you will have to accept it. In the end, the gap between the early draft of the script and what gets shown in the game will be extreme. Way, way bigger than in any other medium. You have to know that from the very beginning.

Oh, and one more fun bonus: you will never be the author of the game, like you would be an author of the book. Your name won't be on the cover. It won't even be the first name in the long list of credits. You won't be able to say "this is my game". Or "this is a game I've written". Or even "I wrote the story for this game". A lot of people will chip in to the extent of making your story not yours. All you will be able to say is "I have worked on the story of this game". If that is not enough for you as a writer, I can't blame you. This is one of the reasons so many traditional writers don't write for games. This is also the reason why good game writers are so rare and so highly valued. If you are able to harness all the chaos that comes with making games to tell your story, the impact your game will have will leave millions of people on their knees. Even, if they don't even realize it was thanks to the writer.

Image stolen from writerscabal.wordpress.com
"So how do I get the job?"
This is actually a very hard question, because writing for games is one of the most blurry areas of the industry. A lot of teams still live by the outdated story = words definition. In other teams, having someone hired as a writer seems like a waste of office space. Games that require vast amounts of words are actually in a minority and the narrative designers often derive from the team of game designers. So here's the first problem. Writer or narrative designer is not a position like a coder or a concept artist: not every studio needs one.

Another thing I have mentioned before is that just being a good writer doesn't necessarily mean you will be a good games writer. There are some personal traits that might help you in succeeding. Like being a team player, being open to feedback and being able to scratch or tweak your ideas according to the requirements of the project. All the time you have to remember you are the writer or designer for the game, not its author.

As for how to break into the industry as a writer, keep a portfolio of your writings. Preferably short, brilliant stories that show off a lot of your skill in a short period of time. Get published in some literature magazines, win a contest or five. If you have already published a novel, that's all the better. In general - have some relatively objective proof that you're far from illiterate. When you have all that, start spamming the companies with your portfolio, but do it wisely. Studios like Telltale or Bethesda are way more likely to need writers than Riot Games.

There's of course a lot of different ways to get your hands dirty with game writing. I'm working as a producer, but still had my chance to work on the story a lot more than the producer's job description requires. Game or quest designers with a knack for storytelling can move to the narrative section of their team quite easily too. And as always, there's QA, from where you can jump to anywhere in the game industry, if you are good and persistent enough.



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