what game writers actually do

Fri Feb-12th-2016 // Filed under: Games,Words

I don’t write a lot about my work here mostly because I typically can’t. I can’t tell you what I’m working on or how it’s going, really; I can’t reveal anything we haven’t said before. So it’s generally just easier for me to avoid the topic.

Still, now that we’re very close to shipping Quantum Break, and I’ve moved on to Something Else, I’ve had a chance to reflect on things a little bit, and I feel like talking about writing games in general. Back when I was still busting ass on Quantum Break, which wasn’t very long ago at all, a lot of people — friends and random people on the internet alike — would go, “what, don’t you have the story done yet?” when they heard that I wasn’t, well, not working. Some people were genuinely mystified and/or concerned; others were kind of tongue in cheek, but it’s something I heard a lot.

So while I don’t feel comfortable talking about the specifics of what I was doing, exactly, let me take a step back and talk about what kind of work I was doing — specifically, what being a writer on a video game actually entails. This isn’t a universal experience, I should stress; different studios can have wildly different practices — this is just the kind of stuff I do at Remedy as a writer. Many studios still hire writers as contractors who aren’t directly involved with the team or the game production, and for them the work will be very different. (Not surprisingly, these also tend to be games where the story and the gameplay are not particularly well integrated into each other.) In any case, I’m aware of many misconceptions and assumptions people make about what game writers actually do.

One general point is that writers often write or at least edit a lot of stuff that isn’t directly story-related — mundane but necessary things like marketing materials or error messages. Quite often this involves rewriting things somebody else put in as a placeholder. Developers working in other disciplines often end up entering text into the game in one form or another by themselves, and that can cause a wide range of issues, ranging from using the wrong terminology (there are often internally used nicknames for enemies and features that aren’t actually a part of the intended player experience), to having a voice that’s incompatible with how the rest of the game is presented, to technical things like punctuation and capitalization — yes, there are very, very talented people who still struggle with concepts like “sentences start with a capital letter” and “you hit the space bar after the period, not before it.” It’s just not their field of expertise, just like their specialty isn’t mine.

At companies that have such a person on staff, these things are often taken care of by an editor, but unless your company hits a certain size, you’re unlikely to have an editor working at the office full-time. Thus, the writer also ends up wearing the editor’s hat, and is hopefully up to the task. (Not every writer is; some people are genuinely great writers in terms of constructing story or writing engaging dialogue, but still can’t spell or punctuate to save their lives. It takes a certain anal retentive approach to be good at that.)

So, here’s a list of all the tasks I can think of that I do, as a writer, in no particular order. Some of these are small tasks, some of these are big ongoing processes. Most of them involve dependencies, meaning that somebody else needs to do something before I can do my tasks, or someone else is depending on me to complete my tasks so they can finish theirs. That’s largely how I determine priorities for my work. (And it’s worth noting that I also do a bunch of other things that I won’t go into in here, because while they’re important, they aren’t really “writer stuff” per se.)

  • Character bios. Important for casting and for character concepting. If you’re looking for a Latino woman in her mid-thirties who can make technobabble sound natural, for instance, you actually need to write it out. What you write early on and what characters you actually end up with can be two very different things, but you have to start somewhere.
  • Story design. What happens, when, where, and to whom, and why. This a big one, and while you typically nail down core concepts early on, it will keep on changing through development for a myriad of reasons. You get feedback from the team and from the publisher, some of which you incorporate and some of which you ignore, but all of it needs to be evaluated and often responded to and discussed. Sometimes you realize what you had early on just wasn’t good enough. Or sometimes you get a better idea.
  • Dialogue. This is the other big one. What the characters say, how much of it they say, and when they say it. Dialogue typically takes a lot of revision — you write one version, then the player objectives change, or the story changes, or user research indicates that people get lost, or you just hear an actor actually say the words out loud and you realize how stupid it sounds, or… so many reasons. So many revisions.
  • Dialogue pacing. Closely related to the previous item, dialogue pacing is something that often ends up being a writing task, even if it’s actually being implemented by somebody else. Often nudging a line’s timing a little can make all the difference — when there’s a loud noise and the character’s reaction is just right, it feels good; if it’s off, it just feels wrong, even if the player can’t quite articulate why. And one thing you often see games screw up is the interruption — you know, the sort of thing where somebody is supposed to be interrupted, but what you actually end up hearing is Person A suddenly just stopping in mid-sentence, a pause of .6 seconds, and then Person B saying something that’s clearly meant to be an interruption. Very distracting. As the people who know how the dialogue should be implemented, writers often end up hunting down problems like this.
  • Revisions. Endless revisions. People often think that writing games is a linear process, where you sit down, write the story, and when it’s done, people turn that into a game. Not unless you’re doing a pretty bad job of narrative design. In reality, the story and the way you tell it keeps changing as the actual gameplay experience is being built. You add dialogue and other things to increase player clarity, to explain plot points, and for player guidance. You remove it if it’s confusing or seems to mislead the player away from their actual gameplay goal at the time. You cut or add or merge or rewrite scenes to reflect the current state of the gameplay. Designers change the way the puzzle works? Usually, the dialogue related to it also has to change. The player character gets a new ability? That can have an impact on the story.
  • Politics. You work in any company with a decent-sized headcount, there are politics. Before you go all House of Cards in your head, this doesn’t mean backstabbing and power plays, unless you’ve done some bad hiring; it just means that you have to negotiate for the things you want and make others see why they are important, and why they make the product better. There are limited resources and not everything can be the most important thing, so it takes communication and persuasion to get people to cooperate. In particular, when you’re the writer, you’re the primary person who advocates for the story. There are people who really hate this, and I can certainly relate to that, but if you can’t deal with it, you’ll always be the one bitching about decisions and never the one making them. Harsh, but true. (Be nice to people. Seriously, don’t be a dick.)
  • Meetings. So many meetings. Some of it is related to the previous item, but a lot of it is just taking care of business. Communication is a key thing. I’m a writer, but very little of my time is spent actually writing; as a joke-that-is-not-really-a-joke I like to say that about 90% of my working hours are spent in discussions where people tell me I can’t do what I want to do and I tell them why they can’t do what they want to do, and then we try to find solutions that satisfy everybody. Compromises, in other words.
  • Optional content. Stuff that isn’t on the player’s critical path (i.e., you can complete the game without encountering this content). This could be anything, really — it can often be text-only content along the lines of discoverable e-mail messages or other content (which, being text-only, is just about the cheapest content you can have in a game), or it can be something a little more elaborate. For instance, I wrote the Night Springs episodes and radio shows for Alan Wake fully aware that the player might decide to just ignore them, or or might not even find them. So while this material is important for the overall game and can be a great tool to bring depth to the game, you probably don’t want to hang anything the player needs to understand the core plot on it. This is something that can be plugged in fairly late in the process, because it won’t affect level pacing, this is often something we do towards the end of the project. It’s also an opportunity to address specific issues that may be raised by the team or come up in user research — if we realize that people are unclear on something or merely very curious about an aspect of the game world or story, we can create a piece of optional content that deals with the topic.
  • Player objectives, achievements, tutorials, menu items, etc. Typically not a part of the story, per se, but these things have an impact on the game’s atmosphere and style. These are often some of the last things we finalize, because you can’t really do it properly until everything else in the game is nailed down — you can’t write a tutorial text about how to use a power if its actual functionality is still a little up in the air. Typically, it’s a good idea to have a writer work on these, or at least do an editing pass on them after a designer’s been through them.
  • Marketing support. Quite often copy is needed, and when they need it, they often come to the source. If you want something to introduce characters or summarize the plot, it’s usually best if I write it, rather than, for instance, some marketing person somewhere who may not even be directly involved with the game, possibly using some two-year-old out-of-date document somebody forwarded to them — which, given a large enough organization and multiple aspects of the project being advanced at the same time, can happen. Often they just need somebody to explain to them what the game is really about, and what kind of stuff they can talk about and what they should sit on so as to not spoil the experience.
  • Ancillary projects. Games are often accompanied by other materials — it could be transmedia fiction, art books, strategy guides, etc. Whether or not I actually work on those directly, they often require my feedback, if nothing else. And if there happened to be something like, oh, a live-action show that was very closely tied to the game you were working on, that might conceivably eat up a huge amount of your time even if you didn’t actually write it yourself. Conceivably.
  • Actor performances. I actually do a lot of things on this front, but many of them aren’t necessarily about writing. That said, when an actor gets involved, they typically have a lot of questions about their character and the story in general. It’s important to bring them up to speed and making sure they not only understand the story, but are focusing on the correct aspects of it in their performance.
  • Audio work. When it comes to people I end up working extremely closely with, the audio team tends to be at the top of the list — getting that dialogue right, or getting proper audio cues or filters in place is something that often requires very detailed discussions. Likewise, they often have questions and concerns about dialogue implementation that only a writer can properly answer. In our specific case, the dialogue I write is actually linked directly to our dialogue database, which grants certain advantages — and imposes certain limitations. Either way, it also creates a need for fairly constant communication with the audio teamk.
  • Subtitles. Do they match what’s being said? Actors often end up saying something slightly different, or in some cases entirely different from the actual line for various reasons. Tracking these changes and making sure they are reflected in the game subtitles is an important task.
  • Localization. This one can be a doozy, because there’s just so much content in most modern games. When you localize a game, it can be a tremendously complicated and time-consuming process — even when it’s being mostly handled by another party, such as the publisher, you still have to lend a lot of support to them, because the people translating the actual text — who often work under incredibly tight deadlines and for not a lot of money (full disclosure: I did translation work for a decade back in my freelancin’ days) — don’t actually know what the fuck it is they’re translating. They have very little or no context — all they get is, essentially, an Excel sheet full of text strings they have to translate. (Because we can’t take the risk of something leaking, we often can’t send them full screenplays, let alone gameplay videos or the like.) So when they don’t know what’s going on, they send queries we need to answer, preferably as clearly as possible. As a practical example, we had a situation where a line of dialogue read “Okay…”, and the the translator sent a query asking what that was in response to. In the language in question, the difference between “yes, I agree to do this” and “yes, I understand,” for instance, was noticeable, so they had to know what it was in response to, and they couldn’t figure it out from the information they had. (In actuality, this was actually a character speaking to himself, reacting to an elevator stopping unexpectedly. But the translator had no way of knowing that.)
  • Bugs. A lot of bugs require my attention, even if they aren’t story bugs per se — often I’m not expected to fix them, but somebody needs advice or a judgment call on whether something is a serious issue, or indeed a bug at all.

There. A fairly long list, and I have no doubt I’ve forgotten an essential thing or two. All of these things fall under the heading of “game writing” — or at least they do for me where I work. Storytelling is obviously a huge priority for us, but in the grand scheme of doing everything that needs doing in order to ship a game, it’s just one thing among many demanding our attention.

As a final note, as games can be very complex things, just keeping tabs on everything that needs doing can be an intimidating task. I can’t overstate the value of competent producers who can actually track all the crap that needs tracking, and poke you when you need to be poked. I can keep track of my own stuff, but having people in my corner who constantly deal with many disciplines and let me know what they need and when — that’s incredibly valuable. Making games is very much a team effort, and when the team dynamic is humming along, that makes getting through the above list much easier, and will perhaps even keep you from wanting to drink yourself to death. Bonus!


4 Comments

  1. Hello Mikko,

    thank you for sharing this post, I think it is one of the first times I managed to confirm that a job and hobby truly can be combined. I am currently a post-master student in Digital Humanities, with a background in Media, Communication and Psychology. Video games and writing are both a passion of mine, and your job seems to be the lovechild of those two topics.

    My question to you is whether you know some interesting ways for me to differentiate myself from all other applicants to jobs such as yours? Apart from Education that is. What got you into the job? Was it your pen-and-paper RPG experience? A single piece of work you did before?

    Education-wise I would say I am pretty qualified, but I miss the added plus to make myself unique.

    Any tips?

    Thank you very much.

    Best,

    Dennis
    The Netherlands

    Comment by Dennis — February 16, 2016 @ 1455629644

  2. Hey Dennis,

    Well, I think this is one of those things where once the hobby becomes the job, it may no longer really feel like a hobby. Or, sometimes but very rarely, a job. I go back and forth on that, perhaps more than I’m comfortable with. =)

    As far as doing this for a living goes, it’s not the easiest career path to get onto. There are several reasons for that, but perhaps the biggest one is this: job opportunities can be scarce. In a decent-sized game project you can easily have a plenty of coders, designers, artists, animators, audio people, producers, etc. — it wouldn’t be at all unusual to have anywhere between five to ten of each. But you often only have one or two writers. Opportunities are just much thinner on the ground in this particular discipline. Also, game studios often just don’t really care about story, or underestimate how much work it takes to tell it well, or frankly believe that writing can just be done on the fly by a designer. Which doesn’t usually work out too well — there are exceptions, obviously, but it’s a specific skillset that people don’t have unless they have worked for it.

    So how do you set yourself apart? Um, well. Education? I don’t really have any. Impostor syndrome — that beloved hugglebunny of people working in creative fields — notwithstanding, I’m just good at what I do, and much of it really comes down to a lifelong interest in games, popular culture and writing. Or, to put it another way, I wasted my life on stupid, useless, and childish shit that somehow turned into a career…

    …which is a kind of a glib and not particularly useful answer, I know. I’ll try to do better.

    If I’m looking at resumes, what I care about is the quality of the writing, obviously, both from a creative and a purely technical perspective. I’ll be honest, if you can’t spell or don’t understand the basics of punctuation, what I see from that is “this person is presumably trying to put their best foot forward and this is what they give me.”

    The other thing that makes a difference for me is experience — understanding how game production works. I think I’m more inclined to think of that as a requirement these days, at least unless it’s a junior position. Having shipped a game — any kind of game, really, as long as you have worked in a team and completed a game — will count hugely in your favor, even if it’s in a non-writing role. An indie game would do. In many cases, even a game mod would do.

    The other thing that matters is getting interactive fiction. There are a lot of very, very good writers who really struggle with writing for games — they write scenes that work the way film scenes work. But players tend to have the option to not do what the scene’s drama requires. They can stop, or go the wrong way, or investigate something else. So how do you still make it work?. It’s a good idea to include writing samples — and writing samples are pretty damn crucial, I think — that demonstrate an understanding of this. It’s quite possible to be a great writer and yet not a very good game writer. Game writing is challenging in a very different way.

    As for what got me the work, I had already worked in games before, so I had a decent understanding of how game production worked, that helped. The pen-and-paper work definitely helped. (I think as a rule of thumb, anybody who designs games is probably gonna be better at their job if they run tabletop RPGs.) I had a lot of writing samples that probably didn’t actually meet the criteria I describe above, but they were pretty decent. In my case, being already in Finland and having certain language skills were also major bonuses. I’m not sure that the circumstances of my hiring are necessarily very reproducible.

    In any case, I’ve been with Remedy for about eight years now, and I think the industry of today and the industry back when I was joining Remedy were quite different, too. Certainly there are more opportunities now than there seemed to be back then, and storytelling is being taken seriously more and more often. So there’s that.

    I don’t know how useful any of this is, which kind of seems to be the case whenever somebody asks me about this. In many ways, I just lucked out — but at the same time, I know I didn’t. It wasn’t luck, or at least not just luck; I made a lot of decisions over the years and focused on certain things and passions, and that paid off. And yet it must be said that if I’d actually had any sense of direction in my early twenties, I’m pretty sure I could’ve had a far easier career path than I did. I spent a decade as a freelancer, with an income small and irregular enough to at times lead to actual crisis situations. That not having an education bit? Having one — and having the dedication and the focus for one when I was much younger — probably wouldn’t have hurt any.

    Anyway! Lots of luck, I hope this helps even a little bit.

    Comment by Mikki — February 16, 2016 @ 1455661786

  3. Thank you very much Mikko, this is very useful. I did not expect you to give me a list of criteria, just a real-life insight into the process you went through to end up where you are. My gratitude for sharing this with me.

    Have a nice day!

    Dennis

    Comment by Dennis — February 17, 2016 @ 1455718757

  4. […] does a game writer actually […]

    Pingback by Friday I'm In Love #150 - Gamerwife — February 19, 2016 @ 1455897647

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