When I started teaching my masterclass, I reached out to colleagues for input. These are people with job titles like Narrative Lead and Creative Director. They run writing departments. They hire and promote game writers - and sometimes they fire them, too.
I asked them, “What do you wish writers knew before they walked through your door?”
I was sure they were going to say, "Unreal blueprints!" or "Branching dialog!"
But nope, here was their #1 concern (direct quote):
“I think you should give more time to the 'soft skills' part of the job. That's where I see a LOT of writers fuck up their careers.”
Huh! That was not what I was expecting to hear.
So of course I said, “Tell me more.”
And as I listened, and heard about the mistakes they saw writers making - fighting with the team, being stubborn about notes, only sharing the final drafts of scripts - I developed a theory about why these things were happening:
It's probably because the writers cared about their work. A lot.
And they felt - understandably so! - that it was their responsibility to shepherd the narrative through the minefield of game development. Isn't that part of the job description?
Features and systems are always changing. And those changes impact the story. Sometimes they break the story. So it makes complete sense why some writers might decide to protect their work, as much as possible. "Let the rest of the team figure out their stuff, while I work on the narrative."
This sounds good on paper, doesn't it? But it's the worst decision a writer could make.
This approach separates the writer from the rest of the team. It leads to clashes and misunderstandings and throwaway work. It also wastes a lot of time and money. And it leads to the dreaded sentence, "This person's just not a team player.”
Love is a battlefield
On one level, we all know that game development is a group effort. So how do we fall into these bad habits?
Well, of course, we want to do good work. The best work possible, in fact.
And sometimes, lurking under those high standards, there’s a bit of confusion. We’re not always sure which parts of the story we should protect, and which parts we can cut.
And sometimes our stubbornness masks imposter syndrome. I know when I started out, I had ZERO training and suffered from a severe case of imposter syndrome. I used to worry that they made a mistake, letting me in the building. I did not feel qualified.
And that’s the thing: hardly anybody teaches writers how to write for games. In particular, nobody teaches us how to think about gameplay and story at the same time. But we have to figure that out. We have to know how to build a story that is both strong and flexible.
Here's some good game-writing advice from Bruce Lee: “Be like water.”
If it helps lessen the sting, please remember that it’s not just the writer’s work that goes through the wringer from time to time. EVERYBODY goes through it. Ask game designers. Ask programmers. Ask artists. They all have had to throw some of their work in the trash. It doesn’t mean the work was bad; it just means the game changed. And that's what games do during development. They change. On every project.
So how do we handle this constant chaos? How do we learn to become the writer than can listen to feedback and make changes, while still delivering a kickass story experience to the player?
As is so often the case, long-haired dudes with guitars have the answer.
Hold on loosely
Start this video and let it play as you finish reading this post.
(Confession: I wrote this entire post with this song on repeat and I'm not even lying. I love this song. Don't @ me.)
As the man says,
Just hold on loosely / But don't let go / If you cling too tightly / You're gonna lose control
In other words, you’ve gotta learn to pick your battles.
And how do you do that, exactly?
By leaning on story structure.
Brick by brick
Story structure is not sexy. It is not glamorous. But it will save your bacon. It will remind you how everything fits together. Sounds simple, but in the heat of development, sometimes we forget the big picture!
What do I mean by structure? I mean desire and obstacle, for starters. Somebody wants something, very badly, and is having a hard time getting it. Structure builds from there.
There are plenty of great books on how stories are structured - for example, I recommend 20 Master Plots as a starting place. It’s a quick read and it’s full of good insights.
With this foundational knowledge, you can start thinking about how to apply those concepts to your game's narrative. (Great game stories all have some kind of underlying structure. It's why they work.)
Once you understand your story’s underpinnings, you’ll know how everything fits together. You’ll know where you have to stand strong and where you can be flexible & let go.
Here’s one way to think about it: imagine your story’s structure as a set of Legos. Other departments rely on structures, too - systems design, code base, and so on. So they have their own Legos. Your Legos and their Legos need to fit together. If they don’t, it doesn’t mean the Legos are bad - it means they need to be moved around a bit.
When you start relying on structure, you can be much more open to feedback and ideas. You can see how design changes could work inside your big picture. You can see how their ideas could actually make your story better.
Huh. Look at you, being a team player.
You're the writer that every studio wants.
This is a big topic. We've only scratched the surface - I go into a lot more depth in my masterclass - but hopefully this has given you some good food for thought.
I have news: this is my last blog post for a few weeks! I have a lot of great stuff to share, but I'll only be sending it to my mailing list.
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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.