The following article was written by Jackie Boyeston from Mega Cat Studios and BSM’s own Jennifer Mendez.
Video games and novels have a long-shared history. In fact, like so many new technologies, it was in science fiction that video games were first conceived. Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and The Stars covered both virtual reality and computer games all the way back in 1956. That’s quite something: although the computer had already been invented by then (the first electric computer was finished in 1942), at the time Clarke published his book, there were no screens yet—those were still several years away.
That didn’t stop the genius Clarke from conceiving of a world inside of a computer, though (and that’s hardly the only thing he envisioned. He also predicted the internet and Skype. Oh yeah, and he also came up with geosynchronous orbits, which have been named “Clarke Orbits” in his honor).
Of course the virtual environments that Clarke imagined had to wait a while. The first computer games were nothing like them. They weren’t virtual; they weren’t even visual. Instead, they were text-based creatures that were closer to interactive books that modern-day movies.
They were also, incidentally, incredibly frustrating, as you had to figure out the exact command to move forward in the adventure. Cue hours spent going through the “combine” command in various combinations of inventory items. And your reward if you did find the right command? Yup, you guessed it: more text. A few lines, a few paragraphs, and then you’d once again have to spend time figuring out how to move the story forward.
So in effect they were like books where you had to work before you could read the next part. No wonder they weren’t all that popular.
Where We Are Today
Over the next few decades, as games advanced, they moved away from novels. They borrowed heavily from movies and you could make a case that they moved closer towards them. Given the prevalence of cinematic cut scenes, voice acting, and orchestral scores, there’s a pretty convincing argument to be made. However, there are still those who would disagree.
For example, the creative writing teacher Cathy Day has this to say about the influence of games on her students: “In my fiction-writing classes, I often read stories and novels that read as if I’m watching someone else play a video game. There’s plot, action, scene, all great, but virtually no interiority, which for me is absolutely necessary in fiction.”
The thing is, that isn’t just important for novels. The narrative arc is equally essential in movies, which will fall flat without it. And yet games can not only do without it, they are sometimes expected to do without it, as any discussion of the inner life of the character will often be interpreted as an infringement of the player’s autonomy. This is because when the audience participates in the story, they change the medium on a fundamental level. In a way, it’s like the difference between Western RPGs and JRPGs: the former gives you endless agency (like in Skyrim) while the latter provides a focused narrative, often with lots of character depth (as in Chrono Trigger).
One strategy we at Mega Cat Studios utilize is, for titles that focus more on gameplay, to have the plot, character story, and setting available yet optional to the player. For instance, Log Jammers is an arcade sports game that has colorful characters and a lot of personality, but the player is not forced to engage with this content unless they want to.
Tom Bissell, one of the writers on Gears of War: Judgement, seemed to agree with the sentiment that games should not infringe on a player’s agency. During an interview with the New Yorker, when asked how long it would take for games to match the literary quality of a novel, he said, “It depends what you mean by ‘quality.’ There’s never going to be a direct one-to-one ratio here, you know . . .
“Now that I’ve worked on a few games, I’ve grappled with the degree to which games are not really a writer’s medium . . . Games are primarily about a connection between the player, the game world, and the central mechanic of the game. They’re about creating a space for the player to engage with that mechanic and have the world react in a way that feels interesting and absorbing but also creates a sense of agency.”
So does that mean a comparison between video games and novels is futile? Obviously not, for though they might be moving further apart, there are still plenty of opportunities for them to interact and influence each other.
On the novel’s side, there are many titles that directly explore games, like the 2011 hit Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, where the world has come apart and the people have retreated into virtual reality. Similarly, there is the Otherland series by Tad Williams, which started in 1996 and talks about people getting trapped in a virtual environment.
On the game’s side too, some games are returning to a text-based environment. Most notable among these might be the iPhone game Device 6. This is a text-based puzzler where you’ve physically got to move the screen around to make your way through the story.
On a more subtle level, books and games keep influencing each other. James Sutter, author of Death’s Heretic and editor at Paizo Studios, touches on this. He says, “Game writing taught me how to build worlds. As someone who comes to speculative fiction primarily to see new places, creatures, and cultures, that’s huge.”
It goes the other way as well, with games having opened up a wide range of new topics and possibilities in novels. This has happened both in terms of the subject matter that novels explore and their audiences. For example, games have offered new source-material that writers can call upon. Similarly, video games have also opened up a huge amount of interest for such genres as science fiction and fantasy. For example, in the UK there was a 20% growth in fantasy and science fiction reading between 2005 and 2010, which was well before Game of Thrones took off.
Games, Novels, the Future
In this way, novels and games will continue to influence each other and provoke new ideas for both writers and developers. What’s more, as gaming becomes more widely accepted and continues its migration across the age groups and the gender gap, there will be yet more space for novel-like games and game-like novels.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if, much like how novels first conceived of games, games will one day conceive of an entirely different way to create and produce novels. We may even be starting to see this trend burgeoning with the visual novel genre.
Now That The Stage Is Set . . .
Clearly there is a lot of history to pour over with writing, from books and movies, to video games. But what about the people behind it all? How does one go about the process of writing for games, and is that everything you’d expect? How does it differ from authors of books?
Well, for one thing, there are too many instances in which teenagers and those in their early twenties think it’s somewhat easy to become a video game writer. In the AAA sector, no less. Or, perhaps even better, they know it’s difficult but they have no idea what that term actual entails.
Above all else, writers are writers, regardless of what it is they write. They’re people with degrees in the craft, the ones who write on a regular—if not daily—basis. And it’s no different for a games writer than it is for a journalist. The hunt for the next big article idea, the next editor, or the next contract job is something all professional writers can relate to.
So, do you want to be a games writer? Let’s see what it actually means, before answering.
The truth is that games writing is more than scriptwriting: it’s also narrative design (usually). You’d work with actors (if there are any), as well as the other studio departments. Pacing is a primary focus, so writers play and replay the game, gauging where to interject X and where to remove Y.
Furthermore, most games writers are contractors. More often than not, to become a games writer means you’re signing up to be a contractor the rest of your adult life. Stable, in-house writers are multi-talented—and rare. These are people who can design as well as write. Now, they might design better than they write, which explains why a lot of games lack valuable writing these days.
Studios save money by assigning the writing to a designer who “can write,” even if they went to school for illustration, who has very little real writing experience. Some don’t even have publications under their belts and wouldn’t even call themselves writers.
Exceptions to the Rule
Real games writers, those who solely focus on writing, are essentially freelancers. They take on a job, then leave once it’s launched. Then, they repeat this with several other studios. Unless you’re an established name, you’re not making much money. People like Rhianna Pratchett aren’t the rule but the exception to it.
For the most part, games writers are always hustling, marketing themselves in and out of game developer conferences. GDC is a major deal for them and an exceptional place to network. They also manage their social media accounts, websites, and other work for name-worthy publications as a means to line up future prospects.
The Power of Real Publications
Speaking of publications, it’s easy to land a job with a publication that no one really knows about. It often involves signing up for a freelance website or just downright emailing someone on that team. However, to land work with publications like The Atlantic, IGN, or The Huffington Post, you need to master the art of a query letter, and ensure you have super thick skin. Rejections are the norm, and you should be getting hundreds.
How does this relate to gaming? It doesn’t—not directly—but as we said, writers are writers, regardless of their niche. Game studios want to hire writers. When they’re willing to shell out money outsourcing, they won’t settle for someone who’s simply been dreaming of being a writer for a long time. They want someone with a full portfolio to showcase.
Things to Focus On
Good games writers need to be adaptable, since they’re usually jumping from studio to studio. Each game genre will be different, each studio vision unique. Practicing your writing regularly is one thing, but being well-versed in topics like classical literature is another. Both are absolutely essential.
By studying classical literature, writers can better grasp the ins and outs of a heroic tale, the structure of an epic (think Dark Souls), and the ability to flesh out story details like a pro. It helps to incorporate allusions and nods that make your writing more than a simple telling of a tale, but instead a complex narrative.
Think of books as well. Good games writers love to read and often times write much like they would for books. In fact, many games writers are also authors, or journalists, or something else, as writing for games isn’t as stable of a path as others. There’s also a “writing itch,” which is what drives writers to do it for a living. Games writing may be enough for some, but most tend to write for multiple avenues, including video games.
Much like writers of all other niches, writing for video games isn’t for the faint of heart. Those who want a set 9-5 job and little to no major responsibility, move along now! Being a writer means always looking for a better opportunity, a better publication, and some better lighting to finish those five pending manuscripts in. It’s about the craft and constantly seeking improvement. Most just dream, but professionals reach out to people. They connect with their audience and really establish a writer platform on social media.
If you want to be a games writer, you have to love more than games. You have to love writing. And you have to accept that unless you can also design, illustrate or code, you’re not going to have a permanent position within a game studio. There are exceptions to these rules, but overall, keeping these truths in mind is the best tactic you could implement.
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