Over the past ten to fifteen years, the quality of writing in games has transformed. Unsurprisingly, the main agents of this transformation are professional writers.
Some of these writers come from backgrounds in linear forms of entertainment such as novels, films, television and theater. Some have learned their craft entirely through games. But they all agree that writing for games comes with different challenges and emphases than other forms. Writing for games is a specific skill, and it takes a specific type of writer to thrive.
In part one of this two-part article, we talk to five successful writers in the history of storytelling in games, and some of the causes for the drastic improvement that can be seen in all areas of gaming. writing in games – from sophisticated environmental storytelling, to intriguing and surprising plots, to believable dialogue, to relatable, diverse and complex characters.
A short story
There are still plenty of games that skimp on storytelling, deeming professional writers an unnecessary luxury. After all, almost everyone can write, right?
“There’s a low barrier to entry when it comes to writing a story,” he says GamesIndustry.biz. “As a writer, I can’t start writing code or creating art assets, but any programmer or artist can write a story. It might not be good, but it’s a story.”
In the early days of video games, story was hardly considered necessary. Space Invaders doesn’t require a backstory about a heroic figure defending the world from aliens. Pac-Man is a character with a toy-like personality for a young child, but his quest to eat pills and avoid monsters is never explained as part of the gameplay experience.
As games became more sophisticated, characters and stories began to appear – most often as part of marketing campaigns – there were some flimsy narratives nonetheless. Often these took the form of mascot marketing, borrowing heavily from fairy tales. The princess is kidnapped by an ogre and after many trials and dangers, she is rescued by the hero. But neither the hero nor the princess are altered in any way by this trauma, and the monster’s motivations are essentially a lust for power and an infatuation with the princess – which are not investigated.
Other games borrowed heavily from genres favored by game makers, mostly Gen X men who had grown up in the era of Star Wars and its imitators. Dungeons & Dragons and fantasy novels were heavily looted, as the games sought to emulate the movies through text dialog sections or cutscenes. Many of them were, at best, clumsy and amateurish. Today, they make for entertaining humorous fodder on YouTube.
“People wrote for games but only did it because they had the time or wanted to try”
Big game franchises sometimes used stories or scenes to spark media outrage; a cheap form of marketing that is still used today, often generated by executives more interested in the bottom line than cohesive storytelling.
“When I started journalism over 20 years ago, I never met a game writer,” says Rhianna Pratchett, who began her career writing about games for magazines. She’s written for dozens of games, including Heavenly Sword and the Tomb Raider reboot trilogy, as well as comics and books.
“People wrote for games,” she recalls, “but nobody really talked about it. And it was usually their side job. They just wrote because they had time or felt like it. try. This was an area of daily development that was not regularly done by a professional in this field.”
Of course, there were exceptions to the general doldrums of mediocrity. Early point-and-click text and graphical adventures relied heavily on storytelling, sometimes to great effect. But if these genres had a commercial golden age, it was short-lived.
It’s almost impossible to pinpoint the precise moment in this century when writing for games started to be taken seriously. But the place is easier to find. Digital distribution stores like Steam have given independent developers an outlet to express themselves and tell their own stories. And they seized this opportunity.
Big-budget games now invest in writing teams, which work in conjunction with other development departments. Some are even supported by the hard power of directors from the writing world. Others – as was the case with the brilliant Elden Ring – work from narrative templates created by world-renowned writers like George RR Martin, and alongside revered game creators like Miyazaki Hidetaka, whose writing game is second to none.
However, these are the exceptions. Business-trained executives are always subject to marketing interference or a Dunning-Kruger belief in their own storytelling abilities. Writers with intimate knowledge of their characters are sometimes forced to make changes they know are absolutely wrong, leading to friction and, quite often, quits.
“I spoke quite openly about the fact that I was not a fan of having Lara [Croft’s] father will be a big storyline in Rise of the Tomb Raider.” says Pratchett. “But it was dictated from above and I had to find peace with it to do my job. But you have to be prepared to receive advice and direction from people who do their jobs well, but who don’t necessarily have experience in history.”
Jedidjah Julia Noomen has written for dozens of games including the upcoming A Plague’s Tale: Requiem, as well as television and theater. She says: “These horror stories are still there, but I don’t think they’re exclusive to games. The bigger the company, the more people are involved, and the harder it will be to have influence at a lower level.
“AAA games cost a lot of money. There are more stakeholders and hierarchy than there are more at stake. Also, a lot of games are run by people who have managed to do things in a way, and they tend to stick with what’s worked for them in the past.”
Of course, the past is very different from the present, in terms of audience demographics and desires. Until relatively recently, games were meant to be purchased by teenagers and young men. They were manufactured and marketed accordingly. Today, the gaming audience is much older and more diverse. While demographic generalizations are tricky, it’s probably fair to say that women in their thirties have different expectations of the games they play than boys in their teens.
In other words, the changing tastes of the gaming public have transformed to such an extent that even senior business leaders and game directors are now required to put serious effort into hiring, empowering, and rewarding skilled narrative designers.
“One of the main reasons for this change is the fact that many games in between have been saved thanks to a unique narrative approach that has created a connection with their community,” explains Xalavier Nelson Jr., creative director of his development label. Strange Scaffold, and most recently writer and creator of An Airport for Aliens Currently run by dogs and stranding witches.
“On the other hand, how many otherwise great games are rung for major narrative missteps? When you have professionals in the room, they can save you from yourself. So even to insure against a disaster of public relations, people see the value of having a professional storyteller in the room, to bring nuance to the subject.”
He adds, “There will always be people who think they’re game writers because they can type into a Word document. And to be completely fair, a lot of good ideas and even good lines have come from people who aren’t [professional] game authors. But the role of a storytelling professional is to create a cohesive experience and solve the natural problems that arise from game development. You’re always going to have an exponential positive impact when you get that kind of person in the room, even at a relatively junior level.”
Tomorrow, we’ll share these writers’ tips on best practices when crafting stories for games and how to stand out in this industry.