Given my background as a writer and designer, I thought I’d sometimes share my experiences or insights about writing for videogames. After all, it’s my love of videogames that helped create the core concept of this webcomic, and with the success of Far Cry 3 and some things I can’t share at the moment, I finally feel like I can talk from a position of authority on certain matters. Writing for games is one of them, now that I have 4 major titles under my belt (Rainbow Six: Vegas, Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and Far Cry 3) and over a dozen DS games written.

Thus, I give to you the first of my commandments about writing for the videogame industry. Use them wisely, and should you ever start a religion around me as prophet, please ensure that bacon is the official meat of my faith.

I. Though Shalt Not “Save the Industry”

It seems like a harmless, innocuous thought filled with boundless enthusiasm, believing you’re coming into a videogame company as a new writer or a veteran of another discipline to show them what they’ve been doing wrong. Not only is that incorrect, it’s arrogant, often wrong, and insulting to the people who’ve been in the trenches trying to adapt different principles and approaches to narrative. Unless you’re dealing with a junior company where everyone is just starting out, videogame companies are filled with writers and creators who come from a variety of backgrounds. On the creative end of things, you have television, movies, comics, tabletop RPG designers, fiction writers, playwrights… we got ‘em all.

Companies like Ubisoft send writers and creative heads to seminars like the Robert McKee Seminar on Storytelling, or they bring in writers from television shows, or from companies like Pixar. The Hero’s Journey? We know it. The Hollywood formula? Yup, and tvtropes.org is bookmarked in our browser. The three-act structure, the nine-act structure, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the Aristotle approach to writing, Michael J. Straczynski’s and Syd Field’s books on scriptwriting… we know these too. We use them, or discard them according to the needs of the project.

Unless you created your own system of writing, if someone committed it to pen or screen as a “technique” we know about it already. We even know the techniques of people within the industry who have advanced theories on writing for the genre. We’ve debated them, we’ve applied them, and we’ve ripped their guts out like Dr. Frankenstein realizing he stuffed the wrong-sized organs into his creation.

Why am I saying this? Because I’ve seen far too many writers look at videogames with a gleam in their eye or organizations talk down to us like we should hand over the reins of game writing to them because they somehow know better. I’ve even talked to people who want to write for games, or those who think writing for games is as simple as banging out a script. And I have heard far too often “why do videogame stories suck?” Generally, when I hear that question, I know there’s a good chance they haven’t played as many games as they claim. Sure, videogames have their own story issues and limitations, every medium does, but neither do most AAA companies enter into story blindly.

To them I say there are a ton of games out there trying to advance narrative. Heavy Rain, Bioshock, Grim Fandango, Portals I & II, the Half-Life series, many Bioware games (Mass Effect, Dragon Age & KoTOR), Deus Ex I, Braid… the list goes on and on. And before you ask why I haven’t included Ubisoft games or any of the ones I worked on, it’s because I work for Ubisoft, and including them in the list would render what is already opinion, suspect. Finally, I include games like Journey by That Game Company as the most eloquent argument for narrative through image and action. And I mention games like Hotline Miami for dripping with more mood and style in its 2D and 8-bits than many Hollywood blockbusters in often unnecessary 3D.

At one time, I would have argued that we are in the early days of television, when all they could do was copy radio’s variety show format. That’s not true, anymore. Videogames are no longer the wild west of narrative, where there are no rules or laws. We are finding our techniques, our languages. We write according to the distance of the camera to the character and the distance between the character and the player, whether we’re an FPS or RTS. We know when to spin mythology and when to spin game fact. We are not television. We are not movies. Neither are we comics or novels or theatre. We are exclusive to none of this, but there is room enough to be inclusive of all of them. Show, don’t tell, isn’t enough for us, because now its “Play, don’t show.” Our audience is not passive, and it is certainly not silent. If any medium has a capacity to pull you into a world it’s us, and we make a business of turning the player into the protagonist.

If you’re a writer wondering what it means to write for videogames, come talk to any us. We’re friendly and we’re enthusiastic about what we do and where we think we’re headed. But don’t treat this as undiscovered country either. You’ll learn more from us natives that way.

Next Up:  Commandment II: And Thou Sure as Hell Won’t “Save the Industry” Single-Handily