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So you want to be a game writer? Top 10 tips from #GDC 2014

Writing for video games is not as easy as you might think. Matter of fact, Wendy Despain, game writer, and instructor at Full Sail University, says the biggest frowns she observes from incoming students is when they discover that learning to code is a prerequisite to learning how to write well for games.
At this year’s GDC 2014, Despain gave a rundown to a packed audience of her top ten priorities for wannabe game writers, which I’m going to share with you now.

Story design versus game design

10) The story is not the same thing as the game design. According to Despain, many students assume narrative design is the only design. Not true. Beginning game design has more to do with math and statistics than the actual story. How students experience the game is much different than how a developer experiences the game. While the backstory to any game plays an important role, it’s not the first priority for a game writer. Understanding how to work with designers of the actual game is front and center.

Story/Mechanic conflict

9) The story does not stand independent of the game development. If the story and the mechanics conflict, the game will feel broken. Writers who develop their own games frequently skip the mechanics of the game to focus purely on the story. By doing so they risk alienating their users.

You must know the medium to craft effective narration.
You must know the medium to craft effective narration.

Know your medium

8) The story has to work within the constraints of the code. For game writers, knowing the medium is essential for writing narratives that work. Constraints exist in order to help writers understand how programmers must work within an interactive format. Programmers are trying to make the code work. If writers understand coding then they can understand how the writing will work for the story of the game.

Collaboration facilitates great game writing.
The writer does not work in isolation.

Separation versus collaboration 

7) Collaboration is essential. Many students imagine writing for games is a solitary job. In fact, it’s just the opposite. A typical day for a writer will involve meetings with programmers, including focused discussion on how the game will be conveyed to users. The idea of sitting in a cubicle staring at a computer screen composing your next line of dialogue isn’t the reality of game writing.

You’re a script doctor not a novelist

6) Game writers are hired to work more as script doctors than anything else. A game’s story elements like setting (levels), action (mechanics), in addition to characters are defined before a game gets a writer. When a game writer is hired, the main character, plot and setting are already defined. You’re part of a team and will be given pieces. Many times the artwork is already done. As a writer, you might get to devise the plot for existing characters, for example.

There is no game canon.
Games still come in all shapes and sizes.

The language of games remains fluid

5) There is no game canon. Students don’t have a common experience or language for games. What is a game? Students respond differently. PC games? Many students say they don’t play video games. But games on mobile are video games. They count. Students may have to create a Twine game, or an adventure style game.

Classic plot structure applies to game writing

4) English language concepts such as thematic structure apply to games. Applying knowledge across disciplines is essential in game development, but doesn’t come naturally to today’s students.  The classic plot structure for any story taught in English class is similar to that of a video game story. While game formats can vary, as a game writer you will apply some of the very same traditional literary concepts.

Cross your T’s and dot your I’s

3) Grammar and spelling are gatekeepers in games. In the game industry, bad grammar can kill a writing career.  Some students might think that if they just hit the main points than spelling can take a backseat. Not true. You can misplace a semi colon in the code and it can break up the game. You must be an excellent proofreader of your own content. When applying for game writing jobs, make sure your resume is free from typos. Otherwise, you risk being thrown into the dustbin.

Learning never stops

2) Students who struggle most are those who know the most. Prevalent misconceptions about game development mean an open mind is the most essential starting point. Understanding how designers view games versus how players experience those games will help you grow as a writer.

Game writing can challenge the gaming status quo
Does game writing give you the opportunity to confront issues such as racism and sexism?

Storytelling is universal

1) Storytelling in games changes the world – for better or worse. Writers are in a position to see the injustices and fight to fix them. Students need to learn how to do this in a team environment. Video games are part of the media landscape. Writers can confront stereotypes head on and make changes to established norms. Racism can be subtle. How as a writer might you change this? Women play games. What if all male characters posed like females? Stereotypical video game protagonists are white males, twenties, sporting stubble. Do all heroes match this description?

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Byron is a content marketing specialist, blogger, and consultant to businesses looking to expand their visibility via the social web and increase their levels of engagement and sales. His personal blog focuses on the topics of content and social media marketing, including cats. You can find him on Twitter @ByronG.