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
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
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
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
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
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.