Michelle Clough has worked in the game industry for seven years as a freelance writer, editor, narrative designer, localization specialist, and narrative quality-assurance (QA) playtester. At the April Editors BC meeting, she gave a wide-ranging introduction to the complex and competitive world of writing and editing for video game studios.
Clough contrasted AAA games—big-budget projects produced by major studios with massive creative and marketing teams and characterized by realistic presentation and a cinematic story—with independent games produced by smaller teams, which may be more artistic and experimental or cater to niche audiences. AAA games usually have a lot of dialogue and action that can require hundreds of thousands of words to tell a story, but indie projects can still involve quite a bit of writing.
Writing and editing in different game genres
Some “wordy” game genres require more writing than others:
- role-playing games: This genre comes out of the Lord of the Rings tradition. The player takes the place of a hero in an immersive story, where the worlds are often incredibly detailed.
- interaction fiction: Players use text commands to control characters and interact with their environment.
- visual novels: Games of this genre became popular in Japan, and they are heavy on graphical elements and relatively light on gameplay. Players move the story forward by clicking on various game elements to make narrative choices.
- point-and-click adventures: Players click to pick up objects and interact with them, sometimes to solve particular puzzles or problems. This older genre is enjoying a renaissance.
- walking simulators: A genre where players use clues from diaries, audio recordings, and other artifacts to piece together a story.
Other game genres, like sports games and first-person-shooter games, may not necessarily have a story but must have clear instructions for the player.
Some games have a linear narrative, like movies and books, where events happen in a set order as the player progresses. The player’s skill dictates whether they fail and have to try again or succeed and progress to the next level.
In contrast, many games have nonlinear, branching narratives, where the story can change based on the player’s actions and choices. “Open world” or “sandbox” games are even less defined, allowing players the space to explore and engage at their whim. These games often have a central story triggered by arriving at certain locations within the game’s universe but also has side quests and secrets players can unlock.
In games with nonlinear narratives, the player is the driving force of the story. Editors are used to promoting the maxim “show, don’t tell,” but in video games, it’s “do, don’t show”: the players take the action and may be creating the story as they progress.
As you can imagine, this type of game can pose a writing an editing challenge. Continuity and causality are major considerations, and writers and editors have to keep all of the “what if” scenarios in mind as they write. Clough likens the task to “editing a novel where people could read it in any order and it still had to make sense.”
Writing for the story and beyond
Clough emphasized that writing for the video game industry isn’t limited to the story itself.
Even games with no story or dialogue will have text for game information, player instructions, menu options, and tutorials. This text must be clear. Some games feature cutscenes—mini movies that play at certain stages of the game to explain the story. Some extremely detailed worlds, particularly in science fiction and fantasy games, will have codexes that explain the world’s history and culture. Games will also have “flavour text”—bits of text on items in the game that don’t figure in the mechanics of the game but lend realism to the item. All of this in-game text has to be written.
Games that use environmental storytelling, advancing the story and building the mood through the setting, may not have text in the game itself, but the scenes must be described in detail to the development team. Teams also rely on a ton of internal documentation—such as character biographies, game design documents, level layouts, and world bibles—to ensure continuity and consistency between different parts of the game.
Marketing copy also has to be written, and for high-stakes AAA games with aggressive marketing campaigns, the copy has to be professional and persuasive.
Writing- and editing-related roles on teams
Writers and editors can bring their skills to various roles on game-development teams. Besides being game writers—producing the actual stories or words used in a game—people with a knack for story and narrative can also be narrative designers, who are kind of like movie producers: they champion the story and communicate to others on the team about how the story should advance, through art, mechanics, and sound. Narrative designers combine writing, editing, and design and are often in a management role, overseeing game writers.
Development teams also call on narrative QA testers to playtest the game with a focus on the story, looking for bugs, logical inconsistencies, and narrative discontinuities.
Editors may work on localization, which usually involves editing text in games developed in other languages and translated to English. Sometimes the translations are done by machine or by people who don’t speak English as a first language, so the results can be awkward or non-idiomatic. Localization editors also flag and adapt cultural references and jokes or puns that may not work with the local audience.
Challenges of game writing and editing
- Pacing and length: Players are usually eager to get back to gameplay, so game text and dialogue need to be short. Mobile games, in particular, may restrict text to a certain number of characters.
- Player agency: Writers and editors have to consider all of the possible choices a player can make. If the different trajectories have a shared ending, the tone should match and the story should make sense.
- Coding: Writers and editors have to understand code, particularly how variables in the programming affect causality and story structure.
- Workload and timelines: Project timelines are usually tight, and scenes can cost a lot of money and time to develop, because they involve so many people. There’s not a lot of room for iterations of editing. Some developers also put a low priority on the story. Clough said “It’s not uncommon to be hired as a writer near the end. The gameplay will be done, and they’ll say, ‘Now come up with a story for it.’” A lot of people believe that anybody can write and don’t value the skill as much as they should.
- No standardization: Game writers and editors never know what they’ll be using to work on the text. Sometimes they’re writing in Word or Google Docs, sometimes the scenes are in Excel files, and other times they’re working directly with the code.
- Gender bias: Some vocal segments of the gaming community have developed a reputation for being hostile to women. And although things are improving, only 21% of game developers are women, although women make up half of all game players.
Despite the challenges, Clough enjoys her work because it involves a high level of creative and critical thinking. Because games are one of the newest art forms, the industry is evolving quickly and offers a huge variety of work.
Finding work as a game writer or editor
There aren’t many permanent positions available at game studios, because much of the industry still isn’t convinced it needs writers and editors. But Clough and others like her began building their careers by subcontracting, learning about coding, and approaching smaller indie developers. She suggested that a good way to break in to the industry is from the business and marketing side—editing and proofreading ad copy, for example.
Clough also regularly attends and speaks at game conferences. She suggested attending not just the developer conferences but also fan conferences, where developers often show off games in their early stages and can be approached about writing or editing.
- The Game Narrative Toolbox by Tobias Heussner, Toiya Kristen Finley, Jennifer Brandes Hepler, and Ann Lemay
- Video Game Storytelling by Evan Skolnick