Letter To A Young Narrative Designer

A young man contacted me recently to ask for some advice on getting into games writing. At time of writing, he was working in QA at a AAA studio in the US. He told me he thought I had ‘achieved a lot’ and was keen to glean what he could from my experience. He also highlighted his desire for improved dialogue writing.

I probably ramble a bit, but he’d sent me a promising example of interactive fiction and, when I was growing up, I never had someone that could share the reality of this stuff with me.

Maybe my thoughts will be of help to you too.

(I’ve redacted some stuff for privacy.) 

Hey T, good to hear from you.

I think we can all always improve in the dialogue department. An unfortunate reality of games is that the most believable or stylised dialogue can be at odds with the needs of the player.

Think of the surreal debates of a Tarantino film or the incredibly deft but often very meandering exchanges of a Wes Anderson — it’s tempting (especially for me) to try and recreate those styles, but usually I have to curb my enthusiasm to write something that will deliver the relevant information and not destroy the pacing at the same time. As well as catering for players who may not, a) want to read lengthy, smartass exposition and b) may frankly not appreciate it even if they did.

All food for thought. I would say, in my experience the ability to coherently craft branching dialogue is far secondary to making an effective critical path. What I mean by that is, most games I work on, we end up making the dialogue (if indeed it branches at all) more like a figure of eight than a trident shape, with key, unavoidable narrative beats but slightly different routes to and through them depending on how the player wants to role play.

In my own tastes but so too the industry at large, I see and foresee this trend continuing and I think games and their stories will be better for it.

That said, you are already learning Ink, and it’s the best interactive dialogue script going. Good shit.

I think you’re wise to want to work with smaller teams. Of course you have more control. I’ve not worked with a team of more than about 10 as a games writer, but in my old career in advertising, I worked in a substantially bigger office and I do not think I would do so again.

There is human cost, an energy cost to all that people wrangling, the meetings, etc — as I’m sure you’re already aware, that drains those precious reserves of time, willpower and creativity that a great story requires.

I have never participated in a game jam. I’ve heard them spoken of fondly and I’m sure they’re a great way to meet people, but I worry that time could be better spent finding and working on projects with existing momentum. It’s always a chicken and egg debate.

I will say this, if you see a promising looking jam, consider it by all means but sit down and work out how many hours you think it will take, all told, including travel and such, and think whether that time may be spent more productively honing your craft alone or building relationships with existing devs/projects that may need junior writing help. And rest assured, writers of all levels are needed, it’s just a matter of matching your skills, passions and budget to the right project.

I’m glad it seems like I’ve achieved a lot from the outside! Do remember, it always looks more impressive from the outside….

My journey was a meandering one. I studied literature and film, then worked briefly in experiential marketing for an agency with the Xbox live promo account. After that, I spent a couple of years at an online video start up set up by my friend. I was essentially a new business guy, producer, and cameraman.

Through some chance networking, I met my future boss at Maker Studios (which was bought and absorbed by Disney for more money than I can even comprehend), where I worked mostly as the EMEA and APAC coordinator for our gaming channels, which included the likes of Pewdiepie. Using those connections (actually, before I started the job) I was able to get some games journalism work, my first article being a feature on gaming youtubers, which believe it nor not was a novelty at the time, and included an interview with Pewdiepie, etc.

I tell you these details so you can see the reality — I struggled, I procrastinated. I experimented and I had rent to pay. I had no-one to point me in the right direction and certainly no game specific education. So you’re ahead of me there!

After a few years burning out and selling my soul at Maker, I took the plunge, quit my dayjob, co-founded a studio and then left it for reasons not fair to burden you with after about 3 years to go freelance.

What would I tell my younger self if I had the chance?

Don’t force things. Prepare as best you can, but make sure to enjoy life in the meantime. Opportunities will come when they come. Seize them! But do not chase them endlessly.

Do not offer more of yourself than the other person or people that you’re working with. Do not give in to sunk cost fallacy. Trust easily, but not blindly.

Talent is irrelevant. What people hire you for is your personality, the things you can bond over/a shared vision, and demonstrable experience — especially in ‘finishing’ things. Be that an article, your own short stories, hobby projects.

Continue to develop your complementary skills. It is much easier to work with a writer who is experienced in marketing and/or product management than it is a writer who is also very good at gardening. But do garden – it’s wonderful for the spirit and, according to Miyamoto, for game design inspiration.

Wear your passions on your sleeve. I got my foot in the door in a great project once for essentially saying a game reminded me of a Wes Anderson movie. It helped I’d studied film and could talk authoritatively about film in that instance, but it was the first mention that made their eyes light up.

Study film.

Read. Read. Read. Read. You want to be a good writer? A great writer? Write convincing and compelling dialogue? READ. Write a lot too, but always read more than you write. ‘Reading’ includes comics, films, games, good bad and everything in between.

Do not worry about your ‘profile’. Do not confuse a loud and obvious social media profile with the right people being aware of you.

In fact — I’d probably say just don’t go on social media at all unless very strictly necessary.

Build relationships early. The best way to get on a project is before they know they need you. Never be afraid to say ‘I want to work on this with you. Here’s how I’ll make it worth your while.’

p.s. if you haven’t already, blog — on medium or your own website — blog about game design, writing, etc. Share your process. Don’t put up a facade of ‘perfection’, and forget about perfection in general. Start immediately. Enjoy it. Some of mine for inspiration, if i may be so bold.

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