Advice for New Game Writers

In the course of posting on Reddit about Necrobarista during our recent trailer launch, I had a number of people contact me asking for advice about getting into games writing. I spent a decent amount of time responding, so I thought I’d republish the questions (anonymized) and answers here so others can benefit from my 7+ years of misery hard-won experience as a freelance narrative designer. These responses have had pretty minimal cleanup work done on them, so please forgive any roughness or repetition.

Commenter 1

When starting on a project like this, where and how do you begin? What’s the first topic you begin working on?

I look at what I’ve got to work with. I joined the Necrobarista team relatively late in the dev process, so in that sort of situation I look at the possibility space of player interaction within the game’s existing design, I talk to the team about scope, I take a holistic look at the art assets we’ve got to see how many I can utilize and reuse to lessen the load on the rest of the team.

That’s where I start – then usually comes a few weeks of talking about the game’s narrative with the team, figuring out aspects or particular themes that they especially care about and would like to have represented in the game’s story.

Then I start writing the game. This process usually involves writing some test/concept pieces, getting feedback/criticism, iterating based on that. Rinse and repeat!

How do you create convincing and interesting dialogue?

It’s something you get better at through practice. I read it out in my head; I also just read it out loud sometimes when the mood strikes me. I think a lot of visual novel dialogue (and game writing in general) is pretty bad because it tries to be too snappy/stylish/snarky (Joss Whedon-style dialogue) or expository (lots of unnecessary explanations for things). Dialogue is just a conversation. It’s up to the writer to make it reflect characters’ motivations, feelings, and their relationships – not just with each other, but with the environment around them.

Is there any advice you once received that’s stuck with you?

I can’t think of anything off the top of my head, but I highly recommend doing as much reading and writing as you can. Make little games. Finish them. Put them up on itch.io or something. Don’t try to make your magnum opus as your first project. It’s likely that your tastes will change as you grow as a creator, and that’s ok.

Recommended reading list:

  • Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino
  • The Game Narrative Toolbox
  • Reverse Design series, by Patrick Holleman
  • Script Lock podcast

What’s your irl morning routine?

I usually lay in bed for an hour or so before dragging myself upright and taking medication, letting my cats out, etc. I work from home usually so I don’t tend to start work particularly early unless I’ve got a meeting or an upcoming deadline.

Hope that helps!

Commenter 2

Hi there! I’m very new to the industry. I have experience writing lyrics, poems, short stories, and reviews. But I’ve never officially wrote for a game.

Recently I was recruited by a very small VR team to help with the writing on the game.

I was looking for any pointers, or methods, that you recommend?

Game writing is a very different beast to prose writing! Some things I’d focus on:

First, you can’t just take big chunks of prose and slap them onto a videogame and have that be an engaging experience. Players hate reading. It sucks, but it’s true. This goes double for VR, where low screen resolutions make reading things ingame pretty annoying.

So, you ask yourself: what the hell am I good for, then? The answer is that your primarily role on this game should not be to write, but to present narrative. This means you need to work closely with the rest of the team, utilizing art assets and gameplay triggers to tell story through gameplay, environmental art, and the utilization of visual storytelling. This is difficult, and you will probably find it pretty rough to adjust to. But it’s a really potent way to convey narrative, and these skills are pretty much obligatory for any narrative designer worth their salt.

This is really intimidating! And initially you’re not gonna have any idea of what actually works and what doesn’t. A lot of it is stuff you’re gonna learn through trial and error, but it’s important to inform yourself on what techniques and approaches are successfully being used by contemporary games. Here’s a reading list:

(see above)

By the way, don’t work for free. Your skills and time are worth money. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. (Unless everyone else is also working for free. But even then…)

Commenter 3

I’m not the guy who originally asked if he could pm you, but I had a quick question. I hope that is alright.

I just wanted to know where you got your start?

I spend a large portion of my free time writing stories. It has always been a dream of mine to be involved in making a game and I figure writing is my way in.

I got my start through unpaid work for a very popular and successful indie game that you’ve almost certainly heard of. I don’t recommend that as a path to follow – I was young, and was taken advantage of pretty badly and I have a lot of regrets/general gross feelings about it.

If I were to give my 18-year-old self advice, I would tell myself to start making small games, finishing small games, and sharing small games. I wasn’t very good at taking criticism back then, so I don’t know if I’d’ve listened to myself, but sometimes you just gotta get exploited and make big mistakes that leave you bitter for a decade.

Important bit: how the hell do you make games by yourself as a writer? Answer: look into tools like bitsy or Twine, play with them, make something little, move onto the next thing. Play other games made with those toolsets to see the possibilities of what you can achieve with them. Learn code! Then write code. Then write code to make your words do interesting things. The possibilities are endless.

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