Game writing: it’s a funny job. A lot of the work is unpredictable and counter-intuitive. The best game writers have a long list of skills, only some of which are related to writing.
Narrative directors and lead writers know who the best writers on their team are. They're the ones who can get the job done, even when the job at hand is a weird one.
Want to kick butt at your studio and build a great game-writing career? Here are three capabilities worth developing.
You can create useful flowcharts
Yes! You wouldn’t think a writer would need this skill, but it’s powerful, and here’s why: it’s how you can convince people on the team that Yes, your story will work in the game.
Game writers don’t always have the luxury of starting with a blank slate. Often, our work has to fit within an existing game design, or codebase, or IP restrictions. “Working within limits” is the name of the game (no pun intended). You've gotta know where the guardrails are.
When you pitch your ideas, you want to be able to show the designers how the player will experience the story. “See? The player makes this choice, and then that happens.”
And that’s really the crux of it all. Designers want to see the decision points. That’s where the player gets involved. That’s where the story and gameplay come together.
Designers (and game writers) want those decision points to be meaningful. They want player actions to move both the story and the gameplay forward.
One of the best ways to share your ideas with your designer is to - that’s right - flowchart it out.
Warning: don’t just wing it with flowcharts! Lots of writers do (I know I did when I first started out). Many writers just pick whichever shape looks coolest. But flowchart symbols are a language. Most designers speak this language fluently. That means you want to be able to speak it, too.
For example, here’s the start/end symbol:
The input/output symbol:
And the all-important decision symbol.
Flowcharts are a designer’s love language. Learn to speak it, and your career will thrive.
You can handle feedback
In fact, you learn to crave it, because you know it’s one of the best ways to make your work better.
It can be hard to get used to the feedback process, especially when we're early in our careers and are still finding our sea legs. Feedback - especially critical feedback - can really sting, if we hear it as a judgment call on whether we’ve really got what it takes.
But pros actively seek out feedback at every stage of the process. They know it’s their friend. It’s how they know what’s working and what’s not working.
All writers need feedback on their work, but game writers most of all, and here’s why: their work affects other departments.
When it comes to games, the story doesn’t exist in a vacuum. And there’s no clean handoff of a script, like there usually is in film. All the elements - art, technology, design and story - all develop together over the course of the project. So you’ve got to keep those lines of communication open - and that means hearing what other people on the team have to say about your work.
And then of course there’s the player. Playtesting feedback is EVERYTHING. Designers learn early on in their careers to put their games in front of players as soon as they can. Great game writers learn to do the same.
Part of going pro is developing the ability to hear feedback without taking it personally. And honestly, sometimes the only way to develop this skill is to go through the feedback process multiple times. In this case, the only way out is through.
You know what the job is really about
It’s tempting to think, “Well I’m a writer, so I write!” And most writers, in most other mediums, do exactly that; they write. Their job begins and ends with storytelling.
But game writing is different. The narrative isn’t the main focus, EVEN in a story-driven game (!)
The main focus is the player.
And that means the job is to create a great experience for the player - using story.
The narrative can be incredible, but if it doesn’t involve the player in a meaningful way...if it doesn’t add to the player’s emotional journey through the game...then it’s not working. No matter how good it is.
Put the player at the center of everything you do, and you can’t go wrong.
Want to get these stories delivered straight to your inbox, every week?
Click below to join my mailing list. You'll get my insider's guide to game writing - FREE!
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.