A Game Writer’s Perspective on Game Writing

In yesterday’s guest post, Ubisoft director David Footman addressed the question: “What do game companies look for in hiring a writer?”

Today, here’s a writer’s take on the subject. Many thanks to Richard Dansky, David, and the Ubisoft Toronto team for taking the time to share their ideas.

By day, Richard Dansky is the Central Tom Clancy Writer for Ubisoft Red Storm, which means that in some way, shape or form, he gets his hands on the storylines and content of most Tom Clancy-themed computer games. By night, he writes the spooky stuff.

The most important thing to look for in a game writer is a game writer. Everything else is secondary. If the writer doesn’t understand that they’re writing for a game — not a movie, or a television show, or a comic book, or a novel or a tabletop RPG or a choose-your-own-adventure book or the underside of a Nantucket Nectar bottle cap — then nothing else matters. Game writing really is something different from any other style in terms of what it demands of the writer – it’s the only place where the writer isn’t telling their story, or the protagonist’s story, but rather the player’s story. Yes, the player takes on the role of the protagonist, whether that’s an avatar they create themselves or an established, iconic character like Sam Fisher, but the fact remains that everything that goes into a game is just possibility until the moment the player interacts with it, and thus creates their own story of what happened.

That doesn’t mean that the other stuff — like being able to string words together in an aesthetically pleasing way — is optional. That’s absolutely not the case. Obviously, a good game writer is someone who writes well, who can convey information directly and concisely, who can build characterization through the restricted toolset available to a writer of games, and who actually does all those wacky professional things like meet deadlines, do revisions, and so forth. The best understanding of game narrative in the world can’t help you if all of your characters sound exactly the same (like, say, you), or if your heroic fantasy heroes sound like surfer dudes, or if your idea of a strong story involves people sitting around a cafe in Cambridge talking about how their parents made them totally dysfunctional. The basic skills of the craft are non-negotiable. It’s just that you have to have them and be able to work with them within the parameters of making a game.

A good game writer understands that the game isn’t about them, or their story, or their witty dialog. The rest of the team isn’t there to realize their vision, and the player isn’t there to admire their brilliance. The game writer I want to work with wants to collaborate with the team to create the best player experience possible. That means crafting a story that shows off the features that the game is built around — no setting key plot moments on the featureless Siberian tundra for a stealth game, thanks. That means working with level design to come up with cool spaces for the action to happen in that also happen to make sense within a narrative framework. That means working with sound to get character voice right and concept artists to create the best visual storytelling possible, right on along to double-checking with localization to make sure that you haven’t accidentally named a character something rude in Farsi. (This happens more often than you’d think.) At the same time, the writer I want to work with doesn’t want the player to sit back and enjoy what is handed to them. The game writer I want to work with creates things that the player can pick up and integrate into their own experience of the game, so that everything that player does feels right and seamless and utterly appropriate to the story they create as they goes along.

Something to bear in mind is that games where the narrative and the gameplay are forcibly separated are getting rarer on the ground. They’ll always be there — sports games in particular lend themselves to that sort of bifurcated structure — but more and more, we’re in a position to conflate the narrative and gameplay elements in really cool and interesting ways. And that means making sure that in addition to being good writing and emotionally true writing, any writing that goes in there can’t step on the gameplay. And that means finding writers who can be smart and economical about exposition, and who understand that if it’s a choice between between “hear the interesting line” and “do the interesting thing,” “hear the interesting line” loses — rightfully — every time.

What I don’t look for in a writer is someone who doesn’t know games, doesn’t play games, and isn’t interested in learning anything about games. It’s someone who can’t understand that technical or asset or budget constraints necessitate changing the script because we just can’t do that. It’s someone who won’t take feedback, or who expects the team to just intrinsically understand their brilliance, or who wants to protect every single solitary word they’ve written because they’re under the mistaken impression that they’ve sweated out diamonds in a first draft. I don’t want to work with a writer who thinks their job is done the second they hand in a script — there’s a lot more work to do — or who thinks that only the fun parts demand their full attention. (Here’s a hint — the players are going to hear your systemic dialog a hell of a lot more often than they’ll hear your witty one-liners.) And I don’t want to work with someone who’s not willing to learn, because we all learn, on every project and with every team.

I’ve been very lucky in the writers I’ve collaborated with over the years. Ian Mayor and the team on Driver: San Francisco, Mike Lee on Splinter Cell: Conviction, the mighty Jay Posey on Ghost Recon: Future Soldier — the list goes on. All of these folks understood that we were working on something bigger and threw themselves into that. They did great work with short turn around and last minute changes and sometimes jury-rigged methods of iteration to make sure things were as good as they possibly could be. And they didn’t just do this for the script, but for the game. I’m lucky again with the folks I’m working with now — scripted events director David Footman and writer Navid Khavari — because they get it, because they do great work, and because they’re coming at things from a different angle than I do, which lets me learn. These are the folks I enjoy working with, and I look forward to working with in the future. And if you’re smart, they’re the folks you want to work with, too.

A huge thanks to Jordan Mechner for the opportunity. Good game writing doesn’t just happen, and we need more of it in our industry.

Posted on Jan 25, 2012 in Blog, Guest Post, Making Games | 2 comments


  1. 1-31-2012

    After entering Richard Dansky’s spooky stuff section of his web, I had this feeling he is Garth Marenghi’s twin. [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNfQ0ORwSDM] No offence! That’s a great honor, in fact. Anyway, thank you for both latest contributions. Very interesting read.

  2. 2-9-2012

    Wow. GREAT article. I wish more people in the industry would take this sort of stuff into consideration.

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