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How to become a better, stronger video game writer
Game studios put out A LOT of new titles every year. According to Wikipedia, 2018 saw the release of 390 new video games. On Steam, the number was even higher: 9,050 new projects!
There’s not enough time to play them all.
So how do people choose their next game?
The Entertainment Software Association asked players what influences their purchasing decision. Over half said "STORY."
It’s not easy to create a playable narrative. But studios that can deliver the goods are the ones that stand out from the crowd. Their games become award-winning best-sellers that stand the test of time.
If you're a game writer, working hard in the trenches, here are some resources that will help hone your craft. Because the industry needs you, more than ever.
Start with the fundamentals
Game writing is a complicated topic. It’s tempting to jump right into the ins and outs of how stories work in games.
But as coaches love to say during football practice, the fundamentals matter.
I once took a writing course from Lynda Barry. It had nothing to do with games. We doodled, and wrote stream-of-consciousness drafts, and tried to understand “what it is.” From the outside, it looked like an adult preschool. But it shaped me as a writer, forever. I use what I learned from her on every game-writing project. Lynda, I bow to you!
Here are some of my favorite books on the art of writing. These are all rooted in dramatic writing - film and theater. These are great for game writers because games are a lot like theater - actors on a stage, pursuing a goal. And these all include useful writing exercises.
"A comprehensive guide to writing stories of all kinds, Truby's tome is invaluable to any writer looking to put an idea to paper." --Booklist
"All good dramatic writing depends upon an understanding of human motives. Why do people act as they do? Premise, character, conflict: this is Egri's ABC."
"...provides plenty of techniques, including the most comprehensive and practical discussion on dialogue that I have seen." -- Script Magazine
But how do we figure out how to turn our plots into interactive experiences? Here's how:
Study how stories work in games
Compared to novels, films or TV, game writing is brand new. In a lot of ways, we’re still learning what it’s all about. Here are some of my favorite guides to this wild west:
Jesse Schell is one of the smartest guys working in games today. He is the CEO of Schell Games and a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He wrote a phenomenal book - The Art of Game Design, go read it - but for the sake of this post, I want share one of his best talks. This is from the 2018 Game Developers Conference:
If you’re in the mood to go deep and nerd out, check out Hamlet on the Holodeck, by Janet Murray. This book has been around for decades, and it’s STILL ahead of its time. She inspired me to start thinking bigger (a LOT bigger) about what’s possible in the world of games.
And if you want to go right to the source, and look at the games themselves, visit the Game Narrative Review! This is a great resource for any game writer. It’s a library full of deep dives into the stories of some of your favorite games. College students submit their best analyses to the competition, and the winners receive passes to GDC. It's a nice way for them to kickstart their entry into the industry. Here are the 2020 winners. (Congratulations, everybody!)
If you REALLY want to grow as a writer, you've gotta be in the room where it happens, so...
Talk to other game writers
Sometimes, you just need to talk shop! It’s the best way to grow as a creative. You’re on the cutting edge, and they are, too. We all have a lot to learn from each other.
So where can you find other game writers?
One option is the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. It’s a two-day event dedicated to storytelling in games. I’ll admit I’m biased, because I founded the event, but it’s a great place to get both informed and inspired.
Passes to the overall event can cost upwards of $2,000, plus travel expenses. But coronavirus has changed all that. This year’s event is going to be held online, at a fraction of the price. Attendees are going to have plenty of opportunities to meet each other - all from the cozy (and safe) comfort of home. I'm looking forward to it. You can learn more here.
Susan’s first job as a game writer was for “a slumber party game - for girls!” She’s gone on to work on over 25 projects, including award-winning titles in the BioShock, Far Cry and Tomb Raider franchises. Titles in her portfolio have sold over 30 million copies and generated over $500 million in sales. She is an adjunct professor at UT Austin, where she teaches a course on writing for games. A long time ago, she founded the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. Now, she partners with studios, publishers, and writers to help teams ship great games with great stories. She is dedicated to supporting creatives in the games industry so that they can do their best work.
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