In November 2022 I was interviewed by my old friend Andy Walsh to kick off a series of events hosted by The Writers' Guild of Great Britain on writing for games. (I'm a member of the Guild, and sit on the video games committee; Andy is the current chair.)
It was a lot of fun, and well received by the audience. Among the comments afterwards, people called it 'educational' and 'inspiring'. You can watch a video of the event on YouTube.
Speaking of the audience, there were a LOT of them, and they asked a LOT of questions. We didn't have time to get to them all during the event. So I asked the Guild rep to send me the chat transcript, and said I'd follow up the unanswered questions with a written piece. This is it.
Whether you're an experienced games writer, just starting out in the industry, or someone looking to move to games from another field, I hope you find this useful.
(For the sake of decorum I've removed the questioners' names, and have lightly edited the questions for clarity.)
When you come to work on an existing property (such as Resident Evil), how do you prepare to tell a story that is your own contribution?
That all depends on what I'm being hired to do. It's not unusual as a games writer to not be in overall control of the story; we're often hired a ways into the development process, when the broad strokes of the game's narrative progression have already been worked out. Even when we're brought on early, sometimes the player's path through the game is decided by the game director, or level designers, or any number of other people whose decisions carry more weight than mine (often because they're full-time staff on the project, while I'm a freelancer).
One of the most important lessons a games writer must learn is that games is a collaboration, and writers are rarely the highest authority on the team, even when it comes to the game's narrative.
That can be even more true when working on a pre-existing franchise than when writing original properties, because there are expectations that what you're making will conform in some way to the IP. Which brings us to the original question.
When asked to write something new within an existing property, my approach is always to look for what hasn't been done before. An angle, a point of lore, a character, location, whatever it is; to find an aspect of the franchise that hasn't been shown before, and which interests me.
That last part is important, because you need enough enthusiasm for it that you can persuade other people to get on board, and if you don't truly believe in it you'll fail. But if you do, and you can pinpoint to others what about it is new and exciting, then you're in with a chance.
Have you written for tabletop roleplaying games? Does that appeal to you?
I have – in fact, my very first professional gigs were writing about RPGs for Arcane magazine in the 1990s. That in turn led to my first book-length work, writing sourcebooks for indie RPGs, which I enjoyed enormously. Before that I'd been roleplaying since I was 11, and at one point even co-wrote and self-published several small indie RPGs which were sold at Dungeons & Starships in Birmingham (RIP).
I should emphasise that we're talking the 1980s-90s, here. Back then RPGs were not a cool and fun mainstream hobby! It was the dark ages, when to be a gamer was to brand oneself as an outcast and a nerd. The scene nowadays, where the RPG space bursts with creativity and an influx of new gamers applies modern sensibilities to the games they play and create, is an amazing contrast. I love seeing the unbounded creativity people bring to it.
So would I write for RPGs again? Definitely, if it was the right game.
But here's why I wanted to respond to this question in particular: playing RPGs made me a better videogames writer.
Now, the two might seem unconnected at first, but hear me out. I always favoured being the referee/GM/DM/etc rather than a player. Not only that, but I preferred creating and writing my own scenarios and adventures for my friends to play through, rather than using published modules.
(Notable exception: Warhammer Fantasy's legendary campaign The Enemy Within, which remains one of the greatest ever devised.)
In retrospect it's easy to see that this was the fiction writer in me struggling to get out. Writing and refereeing RPG adventures was a way to be creative, to use my imagination, and to do what I loved most: write stories. More than that, it taught me to write stories that were every bit as interactive as a video game – in fact, at the time no video game narrative could hold a candle to a well-run RPG scenario with a group of imaginative players who insisted on being completely unpredictable no matter how much I tried to plan.
Nothing will teach you how to write branching paths, alternative scenarios, and choice-consequence choke points faster than running a role-playing game with a lively group. I highly recommend it as a training ground.
(My Arcane articles from the 1990s remain surprisingly relevant to modern gaming. You can read them all here at my website)
When writing a horror game, are there any specific steps you take compared to other genres? A 'horror pass'? What would that involve?
There are certain steps, but they're not specific to horror, and I'm not sure a 'horror pass' of any kind would work. That implies that you've written something that isn't very scary, then rewrite it to paper some scares over the top. Which isn't going to work.
A good horror story – in fact any specific genre of story — must be devised with the genre, and your approach to it, in mind from the start.
Consider a simple scenario such as, “You arrive at a burned-out house, looking for clues to what started the fire twenty years ago.” There are so many ways that scenario could develop into a story, and depending on the genre – crime, horror, fantasy, sci-fi, thriller, romance – they would all be very different. From the first moment, even before the player sets foot inside the house itself, the genre in which you're working will define what happens and how.
Then within the genre, and remembering that this will be interactive, there are different approaches you can take. Consider horror: is this a violent splatter-fest, or a psychological chiller? Is the supernatural blatantly evident, or is its presence hidden under a veneer of normality? Are there jump-scares? Do you have non-humanoid monsters? Can the player fight back, or must they find safety and hide?
Only when you can answer at least some of those questions can you determine your approach, and the steps necessary to tell your story. Keep those answers in mind throughout development, and at every step ask yourself: does this serve the approach we want to take? Does it further our aims? If not, then why are we doing it? Is there a better way?
Stay true to that path, and you won't need to do a 'horror pass' because the frights will be inextricable from the narrative.
When starting out as a games writer, would you recommend finding a specific genre niche and sticking to it, or being a generalist?
This isn't as much of a concern as you might think. It's true that in books, film, and even comics to an extent, writers can be unwittingly pigeonholed by their biggest success. But in games, that's not a big danger – mainly because games writing is itself such a specialist skill that developers aren't going to turn away someone who can do it just because they're working in a different genre.
Even though the game works of mine most people know best are horror, I've also written sci-fi, fantasy, action adventure, military shooters, and more. Being primarily known as a horror writer has never prevented me getting other gigs, or stopped people approaching me with requests to work in different genres.
At the same time, having those titles on my resume definitely opens doors to other horror writing gigs. I get asked to work on new horror projects all the time, and I'm sure the same would be true if I was known better for sci-fi or fantasy. So if you want to specialise in a specific genre, it's perfectly possible to do so. But don't worry too much about being boxed in. Do good work, show you can write games, and you shouldn't have a problem.
I'm a published writer of science fiction and fantasy, and I'd like to work in game narrative. What steps do you recommend I take, and how should I apply for work?
I'm an aspiring writer in my final year of university. Obviously I don't have much experience, or much of a portfolio, so what would my best way into the gaming industry as a new writer?
What would be your recommendation to beginners who never have written anything in games before? What would be the first step to get started?
We didn't get to these specific questions during the event, but we did answer something similar, and I'm grouping them together because they all boil down to the same essential question: “How do I break into games writing?” It's the most common thing I get asked, and the answer is always the same:
The best way to break into games writing is by writing a game.
I understand that sounds elliptical, but context is important. To elaborate: people will ask you to write bigger games because they like what you've written for a smaller game.
And 'small game' can mean something very small indeed. Write a text-only game in Twine. Attend a game jam and find a team that needs someone to write a story. Watch on social media for small-team indie games in development, and approach them to offer your services. Join online communities of budding game devs and work on a project together.
Some of these games will never see the light of day. Very few of them will pay anything. But they will give you invaluable experience, because nothing teaches you how to write games like writing games. It's such a unique and specialised skillset that you can do all the theorising you like, but nothing can truly prepare you for when the rubber hits the road.
But once you do have that experience under your belt, and you have written a game or two – even the smallest, indie-est, no-budget-est game – then other devs will know you've proven yourself. That small game project is a line on your resume, a feather in your cap, and a battle scar that people will recognise.
You'll also make contacts within the industry by working on those small projects. Games writing is the smallest of small worlds, and before long you'll get to know people.
I'm lucky enough to be employed in the industry currently doing marketing, but want to shift over to writing. I'm aware I already have a head start, but how can I make the final jump – especially as things might differ to breaking into the industry from outside?
This is essentially yet another version of the same question – I told you it was the most common thing I get asked! But I'm breaking this one out separately because the answer isn't quite the same.
You should still look to make your own games, as described above, in your spare time. But if you're already in the industry, then you already come into contact with developers, and you should try to lean on those relationships a little.
Not too heavily. Those people don't owe you anything, and your career is not their priority. But good game writers are valuable, so make sure those devs know that you're also a writer, and you're looking for opportunities to move into narrative. You never know when they might need someone to write barks, or assist a senior writer, and maybe they'll think of you.
But in the meantime, seriously, make your own games too.
Originally published February 2023