How to write a script for games
When I started teaching my game-writing class at UT, the same question came up, over and over again.
“What does a game script look like?”
My usual answer was “Well, it’s hard to explain.” But what I REALLY felt like saying was something like:
And it’s true! It IS hard to explain what a game script looks like. But I’m going to do my best to give a REAL answer, here and now.
First, let’s start with a type of script we’re ALL familiar with - the film script.
That screenplay format exists for a reason
Thanks to Hollywood, we’ve all seen screenplays. We’ve seen MOVIES about screenplays, for crying out loud.
But why do those scripts look the way they do? Why does every script HAVE to be typed in 12-point Courier? Why are the spacing and line breaks so exact? Who cares?
Because form follows function. Crews use scripts for all kinds of reasons, above and beyond the words on the page.
For example, producers use scripts to build their budgets. One page = one minute of screen time (more or less).
Crews can quickly scan the left hand side of the pages to count the interior and exterior locations, and calculate where they need to be, on which day.
And actors can skim to highlight their character’s lines - and ignore the rest.
Everybody on the team cares about the script - but not for the same reasons.
Most of all, screenplays paint a picture. And movies are all about pictures. Right?
“Producers, agents, readers, actors and development executives - your first audience - need to be able to sit down with your work and imagine your words transformed into pictures and dialogue on the big screen.”
Form follows function in games, too
So if screenplays have to paint a picture, and help producers figure out budgets, what do game scripts have to do?
More. A lot more. Which is why they’re more complicated. More spaghetti-like, even. Let’s take a look.
There are two different kinds of scripts - cinematic and in-game. Good news: you already know what a game’s cinematic script looks like. It looks just like a film script!
Then there’s the in-game script. What does that have to do?
It has to connect with gameplay.
But what does that mean, exactly?
A lot, as it turns out.
For one thing, the lines have to respond to the player. When the player throws a drink in a character’s face, that character better be ready to say something! Even NPCs don’t want to look like chumps. :)
The script has to know who’s actually still in the game. Did the player shoot one of the NPCs? Whoops! Well, all the other characters need to react, right? Not just in the moment (“OMG you killed Kenny!”) but hours/days/weeks later, too (“We hardly knew ye, Kenny boy.”). And plot points have to change too. No point continuing a story about Kenny if he’s six feet under. The script has be able to track what happened, remember what came before, and be ready for what comes next.
The script has to stay in sync with game design. When the game design changes, based on player feedback, the story has to change too. (And vice versa.) That means the designer and the writer have to be able to use game-writing software to communicate with each other, or at least understand each other.
Other people in the studio care about the script, too. Animators need to visualize the action between characters. The programmer needs to place audio files in the map. The voice actor needs her lines. The list goes on. Lots of people on the team interact with the script at different times, for different reasons.
So what kind of script can deliver all that info, to all those different departments?
Tutti a tavola!
Script writing (software) for games
First of all, here’s a shocking fact: there is no industry-standard scriptwriting software for the industry. No Final Draft for games.
It’s wild, it’s crazy, it makes no sense. But that’s where we are at the moment.
You can always do most of your writing on your favorite type of blank page - Google doc, spiral notebook, etc. I'm a big believer in writing by hand - more emotions come through when you're using more of your body to do the work. But at some point, your script has to enter the fray of game development. And that's where some of the tools below come in.
(I'm not even going to talk about Excel. Some people use it; I hate it. "Cell" is right. More like prison cell. Am I right? Bah! Excel is for accountants, not writers.)
There are some off-the-shelf interactive-writing options out there. One is Twine, which is extremely easy to use once you learn the literally ONE STEP - double brackets! - required for use. Its great for game-writing portfolio samples, but it has its limits. Their website include hundreds of examples, so you can see how other writers have used the tool. You can find a sample project here and also here. (Pro tip: Twine can also be a great tool for 'mocking up' story ideas to share with other people on your team.)
Alicia on Twitter tells me she's had good success using WriterDuet, which is designed specifically for collaborating (and game development is all about collaborating). I haven't used this software myself, but they are an awesome team of developers, and clearly they're supporting interactive writers. In fact, they were partners on the Branches Interactive 2020 Script Competition. ($5,000 cash award to the winner - why not submit a script next year?)
Then there’s Articy. I like this company a lot, they’re great guys, and they’re working hard to build the tools that game writers need. In this software, you can start with a digital blank page - and as your script grows, you can transform that script into (brace yourself) a set of nested databases that can expand and collapse, based on what you, or the designer, or the actor, or the programmer, needs to see.
Here are some screenshots. Not exactly a movie script, is it? Wow!
Not everybody uses Articy. Some studios or publishers just write their own, proprietary script writing software. This can be a good option. But sometimes this causes more problems than it’s worth. Homegrown software = buggy software. Plenty of game writers can tell horror stories about losing hours of work when a program crashes.
As you can see, the industry is still figuring things out.
It’s only a matter of time
These tools all have their place in the process. They’re all useful and important.
But at the end of the day, I spend 85-90% of my time working in my beloved Scrivener. Or Google docs. Or old-school pen and paper. I'm not above using colored markers or Post-Its.
And if I worked full-time at one studio, I would probably at least some of my time working inside their copy of WriterDuet or Articy, or the company's own script-writing software.
Writing is writing is writing. The trick is to find the tools that work for you, learn to love them, and then let them become second nature. Remember how intimidating it was to drive a car for the first time? Now I bet you don’t even think about it. It can be the same with these tools.
And as the industry grows, we’ll eventually find better and better ways to create stories for games. It's only a matter of time before these tools become streamlined and intuitive. And then you can be that person who says “I remember when this stuff was really hard!” And then you can tell those damn kids to get off your lawn.
I hope this helped. We're really just scratching the surface here, but it's an important conversation to have. Artists need good tools. Have you ever tried to write a story for a game? What software did you use? Tell us in the comments below!
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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