So in keeping with my discussion about writing for videogames as both a writer and (somewhat) designer, I present the second of my great Commandments, to be chiselled on the Internet for all to see and cherished for a few moments before you go to your regular porn site.

I give you:

Commandment II – And Thou Sure as Hell Won’t “Save the Industry” Alone

So you’re not coming into videogames to save the industry, right? I mean, we shot the last great white hope who tried to give us law and religion and infected blankets and stuff. Good, glad we got that settled!

One of the hardest transitions I’ve seen writers have to make in videogames is getting over the bump of treating the story as theirs alone. It’s natural, writing normally being a solitary pursuit, and many writers don’t have the experience of working in a team environment or with machete-wielding editors to understand how to even begin collaborating. They figure the roles are so cleanly defined in companies that everyone is going to say: “Oh cool, the writer is here. Let them do their thing.”

Uhm. No.

In fact it’s now five minutes later and I’ve stopped laughing long enough to continue writing.

Every company is different, and there are many ways a writer might be incorporated into a team. You might be a freelancer brought in to help with initial proofing, or to help with creation, or to write a realized treatment. You might be in-house and working inside a team to conceive, develop, write, or all of the above. You might even be someone in my position, who not only writes, but who thinks of story as a design position and works with a project’s assets and the various cells to create procedural narrative that is interwoven with game systems. Heck, I’ve even attended Ubisoft’s Design Academy and learned game and level design, and (more importantly) how to converse with my team. I’m glad to say we’ve gone past the grunting and hooting at one another and moved on to a more civilized “Me Tarzan” mode of communicating.

All joking aside, the fact is that as a writer, no matter where you are in the process, the story is not yours. It never was. You can be proud of your accomplishments, that certainly isn’t a sin, but you can never claim sole ownership over any narrative success. That would be insulting to the in-house review process (whether you agreed with them or not), who helped refine your material. That would be insulting to the animation team and character modellers who helped bring the character to life, and the animation director and voice director who worked with the actors to bring out their performances, or the realization director who oversaw the merging of the different disciplines to craft something cohesive in the end.

But let’s take a step back and go even earlier in the process. As a freelancer, you aren’t on the floor to roll with the day-to-day maelstrom of game development. As a result, you may have generated the initial concepts, or you may have written the script, but you are always guided by the Creative Director’s vision. Once the work leaves your keyboard, it is in the hands of the team that will modify things as needed. If you’re lucky, they come to you to put out the fires of game development’s impact on narrative. If not, they’ll do the story equivalent of throwing your work through Babelfish; they’ll make it fit by kicking your dialogs right in the dangling participles.

When you start working inside a team, the nuances are for more varied for writers, and far more rewarding when you start learning how to surf the waters. See, every cell tells part of a story, and sure, you can pretend to be their boss and tell them exactly what you want them to say, but that’s not your job. And frankly, you look like a prick for cockblocking other people from contributing to the vision. Crossing your arms and huffing “no!” is not conducive to creating something.

In-house, you might still work for a Creative Director or Producer or even Narrative Director, but now you’re also shoulder-to-shoulder with Level Design and AI and Audio and Animation and Marketing and Art and Programming and even UI and Presentation. And the more you involve the team, the deeper you get not only to explore your own story, but to express it as well.

You help Level Design give reason and mythology to the environments. You help populate the world and they give you tremendous tools to create the story through biomes. You don’t believe Level Design can help you with that, then you haven’t played Journey.

You can work with AI and Programmers to create narrative matrices for NPCs in their idle states and interactive moments. AI populates the world with logical behaviour and Programming defines its boundaries (among their many other Godlike powers). You can work with Animation, Modelling, Cinematics, Art, and Audio to create and enliven characters, factions, interests, moments… they can deepen the theme of the world so that narrative it isn’t just an auditory experience.

You can work with Localization and help other countries and languages make the moments and references relevant to their culture. Or with Marketing to help them with the right tone of the game. Hell, I even love talking to Quality Control testers because their experience and enthusiasm helps inform elements of the world. Honestly… nobody spends as much time in the game world as QC, nobody plays as many games as they do, and the observations you hear from them are likely the ones you’ll hear from the fans.

Regardless, different stages will have you interacting with different disciplines, and everyone approaches the story in their own way. And the great thing about working in a team is that different points of the development cycle will have you working closely with one cell or another. At the start, it’ll be the Directors, then it might be AI and Modelling, then Cinematics, Audio and Game Design, then Marketing and Presentation along with UI and Localization.

The one cell you will always be in contact with, however, is Level Design. They are your partners in crime. Why? Because fundamentally, a videogame story is about the exploration of game space. You may not like it, you may argue it, but there it is. Taken at face value, which is what many games do with story, the subtext of narrative is level design, and you will need to be deeply embedded on teams to better know how to take the story beyond that one-dimensional face; to work with the team so that story isn’t just about level exploration or game mechanics, but that it goes deeper… as deep as the sea will allow. And to do that, you need everyone’s help, and that means listening to what they have to offer.

Hence, this is why the next article is called: Commandment III – Thy Story hath Three-Dimensions

Followed by: Commandment IV – It is Thy Job to Know Thy Job