JULY 2004

By Steve Ince

I once read that Ernest Hemingway, when working on For Whom the Bell Tolls, rewrote the final page thirty-nine times. Such was his desire to capture exactly the right finish to an important piece of work – to give the reader the very best possible experience when reading his book.

Very few of us have the luxury to be such a perfectionist. We do not have Hemingway’s unique gift, his well-established reputation, or his complete artistic freedom, and the pressures of time constantly bear down upon us. Yet the professional writer must accept that they are to deliver the very best possible writing at all times – it is only natural that the client expects no less.

Writing is not easy, even for the Ernest Hemingways among us. Good writing – that teasingly wicked and lofty ideal – can be increasingly elusive the more a writer searches the infinite variety of word combinations to find the one that will convey his intention perfectly. When the pressure of looming development deadlines is added to this, it becomes clear that writing well for games is a monumental undertaking, particularly when the sheer scale of a typical game project is factored in.

That’s a lot of words.
The word count requirement for a game can be huge. Adventures and role-playing games regularly have a line count that is in the high thousands or even tens of thousands, and a word count that can be as high as one hundred thousand or more. It is the writer’s task to create those words and deliver a script that’s dynamic and exciting, but which also matches the style and vision of the project.

For Broken Sword – The Sleeping Dragon, there were 6,600 lines of dialogue – a running time of between eight and nine hours’ worth of samples. Now, if it is assumed that fifty percent of a two-hour movie is dialogue (this will vary greatly depending on the movie genre), then for this one game we have the equivalent of eight movie-scripts, written in less than a year. For anyone who’s ever tried to write a movie script, this is a pretty sobering, and scary, thought.

From another perspective, there were 60,000 words spoken in the game – the equivalent of a small novel, but without a single word of descriptive prose. Just imagine how big that novel would be if it incorporated each and every spoken word from the game as well as the necessary descriptive passages.

Why on earth would anyone want to write for games?
The answer lies in the nature of creativity itself. It’s something that we all have within us to a greater or lesser degree, but which takes on a whole new dimension at the level required when writing for top-quality games.

To be truly creative, a person is driven by the need to create. If not actually directly involved in the creative process at any one moment, then that compulsion will take over their thoughts, distract them in the middle of conversations, and pop ideas into their head while explaining to the bank manager why the loan payment is late. Creativity is their life! They do not have a choice in the matter.

To fulfill the creative urge to its maximum, a person will look for ways to push at the boundaries of their creativity. Games, because of their increasingly changing nature, today offer one of the best chances for a creative individual to explore their own boundaries. For a writer it’s an ideal opportunity to innovate in a medium that devours groundbreaking ideas like no other.

Why would any writer want to avoid writing for games when they offer so many real opportunities to feed the hungry urge of their creativity?

What exactly does a game writer do?
It is a strong misconception that the role of the writer is simply that of writing exciting or humorous dialogue. It’s perfectly valid that a developer only requires a writer to fulfill that aspect of the project, but there could be others where the skills of a writer would benefit the quality of the project.

While dialogue is incredibly important to get right, it is only part of the overall service that a writer can provide. If the story is weak or the characters poorly defined, then even the best dialogue in the world will always struggle to compensate for this.

Of course, not every game has a need for a rich and complex plot or a villain that has a human, angst-ridden side to contrast with his evil nature. But whatever the level of writing required for a project, the earlier a writer can be brought in and contribute to maintaining a consistent vision, the better the final product will be.

Brainstorming sessions are a valuable way of both letting the writer contribute in a broader sense and allowing the writer to start working with the design team in a constructive manner from the outset. It also has the benefit of allowing the team to get to know the writer and what he’s like to work with in general.

There is always an awful lot of documentation that has to be undertaken during the course of the project's development, particularly in the early stages. The design team will write much of the documentation, but a writer can provide a valuable service by offering an objective eye on the documents created. A writer could even be employed to edit or re-write them if there is concern that a lack of clarity may lead to misunderstandings between the various departments in the company. Such problems would be disastrous if they led to re-work and wasted time.

Many, if not all, games are signed up based on a successful proposal document. A writer, particularly one who understands the development process, can be particularly valuable here by helping the developer to write a document that is clear and to the point, delivering the relevant information in a dynamic exciting manner.

The value of professional writers
Clearly, writing for games is an incredibly demanding task, and certainly not one to be undertaken lightly. If we are to create games that get even halfway to Hemingway’s standard, writing, and the writers themselves, must be seen as a valuable commodity.

There is a reluctance to embrace this fully, with frequent opinion that to employ the services of a writer is an expensive luxury. Happily, there is evidence of changing attitudes towards this and more developers are using specialist writers to match the high standards expected in all other aspects of game development. Those developers who do not recognise the value of a professional writer will be at a disadvantage if they hope to compete in an increasingly demanding marketplace.

Having been instrumental in developing the design of a number of quality games, I am a firm believer that the writing undertaken should always be approached from the standpoint of how best to complement the gameplay. Only by achieving this will the writer have succeeded in their task. As a professional, satisfactory completion of that task means delivering on a promise made to the client. Just as the best film writers understand the process of making a film, so the best game writers must understand the processes involved in developing a game. Only then will they truly maximise their creativity and prove their true worth to the developer.

Accepting the value of a writer is only part of the issue. Like every other important task in the development project, the correct amount of time has to be allowed for in the schedule if the writer is to maximise the quality of the work he delivers.

Good writing not only requires the skills of the writer, but also the time in which to create it.

So how does a person get to write for games?
Unfortunately, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to write for games without some kind of track record. Greater demands for professional, proven writers means that a developer is going to look first at writers of other quality games or writers from film and television that they believe can work with them in the manner required.

All is not bleak, however, though you may need to be prepared for a hard slog or have to prove yourself from within the industry before being given your chance. The Game Writers' Special Interest Group of IGDA offers some very good advice which basically boils down to four choices – join a script agency; become part of a larger team of writers in an apprenticeship role; work from within a developer; write for other media first.

Of course, getting a book, television or film credit is a difficult proposition in itself, but such are the high standards required of game professionals in all areas, that to say otherwise would ignore the rapidly changing nature of game development.

A more appealing alternative may be to write your own game and publish it yourself. It then becomes your calling card and proof that you can write, particularly if you are able to get strong reviews. Now this may seem a daunting task, but Jonathan Boakes created Dark Fall on his own and received great acclaim for it.

Unlike the film industry, where anyone can write a script and submit it to the film studios, there is no real equivalent in the game industry – they are simply not set up, in the main, for that kind of approach. A writer does not produce the "screenplay" for a game and then a studio makes the game. A development studio creates a proposal for a game, then brings a writer on board as the project requires it, sometimes at the point of developing the proposal itself.

Having said all that, my own path to becoming a writer in the game industry was a somewhat circuitous one. Arriving relatively late in life at the age of 34, I actually entered the industry as an artist, such was the direction my creative compulsion took me at that time. With some published short stories and poetry behind me, I’d always had an interest in and a love of writing, but it was from within the industry itself that I saw the fabulous opportunities that lay before me. My creative drive increasingly shifted from art to writing and opened up within me a depth I’d been unaware of until that point.

Working alongside other talented writers, from the start of my time in the industry, was a great source of inspiration and contributed enormously to my own development. Certainly, without the encouragement and the catalysing effect they had on my development as a writer, I wouldn’t be in the position I am today.

So where does that leave you, the aspiring game writer? Like writing in any field, you have to be prepared for the long haul, with clear goals and a plan that should adapt with the changing face of the industry. The key to your success will be a firm belief in your talent as a writer and the conviction that writing for a highly interactive medium is what you yearn to do.

About Steve Ince
Steve Ince is an award-nominated Writer-Designer with eleven years of game development experience. He has played a key role in the success of a number of critically acclaimed games, including the Broken Sword trilogy, In Cold Blood and Beneath a Steel Sky.

His nomination for Excellence in Writing at the Game Developers Choice Awards 2004, followed on from the three BAFTA nominations that were received for Broken Sword - The Sleeping Dragon: Best Game Design, Best PC Game and Best Adventure.

Steve has just signed up with AllintheGame, the game writers’ agency, and is also an accomplished illustrator. His book, Crescent and Claw, has just been published.

For more information, visit www.steve-ince.co.uk or email Steve directly.

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