Writers know their jobs. Well, they should, though ‘writer’ seems to be the sort of liberal term that many throw around without doing the actual work. But I digress. As writers, we read and write and study the tips and tricks of our craft so that we can improve.  Because in the deepest pit of most writers is that little monster that says ‘you’re an imposter, you’re a fake.” Some of us hide it under a fusillade of bluster and bravado, others seek to learn more until that voice diminishes, and more crumble under the pressure.

Now here’s the rub (wait, crumbling under the pressure wasn’t the rub, you say? I’m afraid not). No matter how many conferences and workshops we attend, how many meetings and critique circles we participate in, we’ve chosen to embark on a solitary process. Writing is an extremely private affair, and we do so in solitude. Except…

…except when it comes to writing for games.

In videogames, writer’s block doesn’t exist and there is no sitting alone to craft the story in the brilliance of solitude and isolation. That part I already discussed earlier, about why the team is vital to crafting a story. Thing is, the writer’s instinct to favor privacy is also a passive trait that works against us in videogames. We cannot sit at our desks. The mountain will not come to Muhammad.

It is thy job to know thy job is about interacting proactively with the team (oh God, I used a buzzword… nothing will ever taste the same again). I’m not talking about how everyone has a role in crafting story, but that a writer needs to get off her chair and go talk to different people to head off problems before they appear. I learned this lesson late in the game, but now I can’t imagine not doing this with every project. We do not exist in a bubble. We are a part of a team, and the part of the job is the team.

It’s easy to think that people will come to you for their writing requests, and maybe some will, but I can promise you that they’ll see the story from the same narrative angles the way you might. And more likely, people won’t make their requests until the last second, when you’re pushed into damage control mode and reacting to situations rather than weaving something into the fabric of the game much earlier. How much of a difference does it make? It’s the difference between sending off your first unedited rough draft and sending your polished manuscript. Now which one reflects your best work?

Therefore it’s imperative you do things like:

  • Level Design: Go talk to the level designers and ask them to walk you through their level before you start writing dialogs. Be aware level designers often clothe a location in mythology or context. It’s part of their process to create a story in their head about the location to give it logic. So find out why they made certain decisions and see which elements you can incorporate. Some things to look out for on walk-throughs include:
    • You might see terrain or a bit of architecture that demands a comment from the characters… a gasp, an annoyed sigh, worry, etc.
    • You might spot places where a clue is in need to get the player past an obstacle or to suggest bits of environmental storytelling.
    • You might realize that some locations are so short that you need to write tighter dialogs to fit a character’s run-through time in that location*.
    • Find out where the action is happening in a level and minimize the dialogs in those locations. Why? Because the player will likely miss the finer script points during a firefight. And because characters in firefights will project more loudly, you’ll either have characters sounding flat compared to the action around them, or you’ll need to record two sets of lines to account for combat and non-combat projection.**
  • Animation: Animation needs to animate a variety of movements and actions throughout the game for every single character and NPC, and there are limits to what they can put in. You need to know these so that your cut-scenes or in-game sequences can use existing animations and skirt shortfalls, for example. If you have an in-game cinematic using the game engine where the good guys race off in a car, did animation account for characters sitting or driving or entering and exiting a car? Heck did modeling even create a car door that could open? What about combat. Companies tend to use a universal rig, but did they account for the female rig getting into combat? I ran into that situation once, where none of the female characters could fight because they used a male rig and female characters looked awkward and unnatural. Now, given time, animation is always willing to motion-capture or key-frame new animations, but it can’t be a one-time animation. You better be damn sure it comes into play at multiple points during the game and if it’s usable in gameplay, then even better.
  • Now what about AI? You’ll need to work with AI to create a system of one-liners that react to situations based in the AI behaviour models. Some enemies may use one type of AI structure with specific animations attributed to them, and other enemies may behave differently. In Far Cry 3, the pirates moved and held their weapons different than Hoyt’s well-trained soldiers. Now suddenly, instead of having to generate one random conversation between two sentries, you have to create two to account for Vaas’s sadistic pirates and Hoyt’s cold mercs. You need to support that difference in the way they react verbally.
  • And Game Design? Did you talk to Game Design about how the player learns to play the game, because you’ll likely write the lines for the tutorials? And the lines to describe the different gameplay types, some in the language of the game and some in a third person. You might have to help with names for weapons, and vehicles, and skills to match the narrative tone, or keep things simple for the sake of immediate clarity.

It’s because the writer wears so many different hats with so many different teams that she must be proactive and talk to the teams first. Otherwise, you’re playing a game of catch-up you’ll likely never win, and are in danger of the following:

1)      You won’t have enough time to properly tackle everything.

2)      Other teams will have made decisions to move forward and all you can do is watch the story die through the attrition of decision-making with which you were never involved.

3)      You won’t have the time to properly edit everything. And before you think that your edit/rewrite time is factored into the process…

..looks like we have our next Commandment for next week.

Next Up:  Commandment – Thou Shall Iterate Fast and Iterate Early

*Rule-of-Thumb #1: Always assume that the player will run through a location or travel through it as fast as possible. Thus time your dialogs to fit within the fastest transit times.

**Rule-of-Thumb #2: If you have to put dialogs in a combat sequence, keep it short, keep it simple, and avoid having critical information unless it’s reinforced elsewhere.