Imagine it’s your first day at your new job. ZOMG YOU DID IT. You ran the gauntlet - you wrote your samples, you built your portfolio, you sat through the interviews. And you did great. They like you, they like your work - congratulations, you’re hired! You're our newest game writer / narrative designer. You're in!
Even though they gave you the ultimate sign of approval - they brought you on board, hello - this can still be a nerve-wracking time. Maybe performance jitters kick in. And imposter syndrome. Do you really have what it takes? Are you ready for this? You think you are. You hope you are.
But you’re not 100% sure.
(You don’t even know where the bathroom is yet, for crying out loud.)
It’s at moments like these that we sometimes make our biggest mistakes - we try to pretend like we know what we’re doing.
This impulse makes total sense! We don’t want our new boss to start wondering if they made a mistake, hiring you. (Spoiler: They didn’t, you’ve got this). We want to do a good job. We want to make life easier for the other people on the team, by taking over our share of the work, smoothly and easily. (Even though we’re still really in the dark about a lot of things.)
We forget that everybody knows we're new. If ever there was a time to ask questions, it's now.
In fact, when it comes to games, it’s not only smart to ask questions - it’s essential. And here’s why: game development is a contact sport. Your work affects other departments (and vice versa). There’s so much you can’t possibly know from the outside. But now you're inside. School is in session!
Don’t worry too much about reading the documentation. Talk to people, instead. Talk to them about THEIR jobs. Find out what they do, and what they need, and how you can help them.
I asked my creative-director friends on Twitter what questions they want to hear from their new writers.
This one surprised me, to be honest. It doesn't seem like it would be top priority, does it? But it makes sense. Tone permeates everything. It affects the look & feel, the game design, even the tech. Makes sense that it would impact narrative, too. Tone is the vision that keeps all departments in sync.
What role does narrative play here?
Games are not a storytelling medium in the same way that film or television is. Some studios LOVE story; others really struggle with it. Find out how things are handled - and perceived - at your studio. That will help you develop a strategy for shepherding your work through production. Knowledge is power, yo.
Who owns what?
When I said game development is a contact sport, I meant it. In order to work well with others, you’ve got to know how all the pieces fit together. Does the creative director own the overall story, for example? What role do designers play when it comes to story? How do we share ideas with the design department? What is the approval process like? Lots to figure out there…
Who is our player?
This is one of the best questions you can ask! Your work - everybody’s work - revolves around the player. The more you know about who this game is for, the easier it will be to tell a story WITH them, rather than TO them.
Who are my partners?
In every department you'll find friendly faces - people who love narrative and want to support your work. FIND THESE PEOPLE.
- Where does the audio department sit? (They are your partners in crime when it comes to creating an emotional experience for the player…and they’re good listeners, so they’ll be quiet in meetings. Go find them and sit on their floor and listen to their music! They'll love you for it.)
- Where do the animators sit? (They will bring your characters to life - plus they are inevitably the most fun people at any studio. I bet they’ll take you to lunch...)
And I’ve saved the best question for last:
Is there a demo? How do I play it?
Yes, "How do I play the game?" is a legit and serious question!
YOU MAY HAVE TO ASK! Games in development are not as user-friendly as the final product! You may need somebody to walk you through the control scheme. Or show you how to access the build. Don’t be shy. Ask! Get in there and play that game and see what you’re working with.
(PS - it’s OK to ask where the bathroom is, too.)
And congratulations. :)
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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.