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
Games that may appeal to writers and editors
Platforms to create and write games
Gregory Younging is a member of Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba and is a faculty member at the University of British Columbia Okanagan in the Indigenous Studies Program. He has an MA from Carlton University, an MPub from Simon Fraser University, and a PhD from the University of British Columbia. He was the managing editor of Theytus Books between 1990 and 2004 and served as assistant director of research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
Younging held a workshop on Indigenous editorial issues last fall for the Association of Book Publishers of BC (ABPBC), and it was one of the most edifying professional development events I’ve ever attended. I learned then that he intended to publish the Indigenous style guide he’s been organically compiling for the past couple of decades. Now that book is available for pre-order. Continue reading “Greg Younging—Elements of Indigenous Style”
Cherie Dimaline, from the Georgian Bay Métis community, is the author of Red Rooms, The Girl Who Grew a Galaxy, A Gentle Habit, and The Marrow Thieves and was the first Writer-in-Residence of Aboriginal Literature for the Toronto Public Library. As a coordinator of the annual Indigenous Writers’ Gathering and founder of the upcoming RIEL Centre, a national Indigenous literary organization, she was the perfect person to moderate a panel on Indigenous writing and working with Indigenous authors at the Editors Canada 2017 conference in Ottawa.
On the panel were:
- Waubgeshig Rice, journalist and author of Legacy and Midnight Sweatlodge, originally from Wasauksing First Nation;
- Evie Mark, Inuit storyteller, filmmaker, educator, and throat singer; and
- David Groulx, who has published ten books of poetry and celebrates his Anishinaabe and French Canadian roots.
Dimaline began by asking the panel about their experiences working with Indigenous and non-Indigenous publishers, editors, and other collaborators. “How do we choose who we’re going to work with?”
Rice said that when he was starting out, he didn’t know how to jump into publishing. The Canada Council was supporting his work, and he asked them for suggestions; they pointed him to Theytus Books, which expressed interest in his writing immediately and assigned him a Cree editor, Jordan Wheeler, who is also a published author. “He opened my eyes to the literary world and helped ease me into it,” said Rice. “He had a good understanding of my background, where I came from, and what I was trying to do. It was important to have that first experience with publishing.”
“Theytus,” in Salish, means “preserving for the sake of handing down,” which is key for many writers who see their storytelling as cultural preservation. And, said Dimaline, “Handing your work over to someone who feels like family is more comfortable.”
Groulx faced challenges with mainstream publishers early on, because his manuscript for The Long Dance was polemical: “Publishers kept saying, ‘We loved it, but we’re not going to publish it.’” He found a home for it at Kegedonce Press. “[Publisher] Kateri [Akiwenzie-Damm] was not afraid to publish it.” With Indigenous publishers, Groulx found that he didn’t need to explain certain allusions to cultural ideas (like tricksters) in his work. For books that didn’t focus so much on the culture, Groulx sent those manuscripts to mainstream publishers like Bookland Press, which published The Windigo Chronicles and has sold translation rights to the book. It will be translated to French by Éric Charlebois.
Mark recently finished editing a book that grew from her travels to 14 Inuit communities to study their history, law, and literature. The book is all in Inuktitut, so working with Inuit collaborators was the only option. “There is a need for literature in the North,” said Mark. “We still have our first language, but we were an oral people. Writing was new to us.” Edmond James Peck, and missionary from England, developed an Inuktitut writing system from Cree syllabary so that Inuit would be able to read the Bible.
“What do you wish non-Indigenous people knew?” Dimaline asked the panellists.
Groulx said that non-Indigenous editors sometimes raise concerns about rez-speak or rez-talk, dismissing it as slang. “But it’s an authentic way of speaking for some First Nations and Métis people,” said Groulx. And if the intended audience was mostly other Indigenous people, there would be no misunderstanding. Groulx would like to see more workshops where non-Indigenous people could learn about Indigenous cultural references and language.
Rice agreed, saying the Canadian education system hasn’t been teaching the history of the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada. We need a mainstream understanding of the diversity among Indigenous people—that there are many different cultures, beliefs, and ceremonies. “I see that lack of awareness in my day job as a journalist,” said Rice. People don’t understand the treaty process or Indigenous peoples’ relationship to the land, for example. Rice would like to see “a willingness to acknowledge what you don’t know and a willingness to be vulnerable, to acknowledge what has happened and what they’re going to do to make things better… With a mutual understanding, we can work together to create something good.”
Dimaline brought up the Appropriation Prize controversy, which began when the Writers’ Union of Canada’s magazine, Write, which dedicated an issue to Indigenous voices, featured an editorial by Hal Niedzviecki calling for an award for writers who can best write about another culture. Outrage in response to that editorial led to Niedzviecki’s resignation but also prompted several high-profile members of the mainstream Canadian media (including some residential school apologists) to defend cultural appropriation as free speech.
According to Rice, the initial ill-conceived editorial all boiled down to an editorial failure that basic journalism could have prevented. “There were no safeguards or checks in place, no second set of eyes.” Rice said that although he has a pretty good relationship with the Writers’ Union (he joined after Midnight Sweatlodge) came out, it does have a well-documented lack of diversity, and when the editorial came out, Indigenous writers, included those who contributed to the issue, were blindsided. The incident highlights a continuing structural failure and power imbalance that “all media and literary organizations need to address,” said Rice. “Are there diverse or Indigenous people at the final gatekeeping level?”
It’s ironic, said Rice, that this level of exposure is something Write had been longing for. The silver lining to the fiasco is that everything is now in plain view, and we can directly confront issues of racism in media and the damage done by cultural appropriation. “We’ve been neglecting these voices for so long, we ended up making everything worse.”
Groulx noted that ignoring Indigenous voices also perpetuated appropriation by people like Joseph Boyden. He recalled being at a reading for The Orenda. “People loved it. Some Aboriginal people were rumbling, but those voices were ignored. People knew their culture—they knew they were being misrepresented.” He added that this issue seems to pop up every twenty or thirty years: in the 1980s, W.P. Kinsella faced similar questions about appropriation.
Said Dimaline, “Knowledge keepers are alive and well and organized and ready to share. All you would have had to have done is go to the community, offer tobacco, and ask them to tell their stories. It’s so easy to get it right that it’s a decision to get it wrong.”
She then asked the panellists about writing in their own language. “Should we have subtitles? Should we write in English and have our language on the side?”
Mark said that a lot of the writing in Inuit communities is still in Inuktitut first, then translated. “I’m very happy that we’re still on that path. When we start losing our language, we start losing our culture.” Mark tries when she works with people outside her community to educate them about Inuktitut: “I am not an Inuit. I am an Inuk. Inuit is for three or more people.” Some words in Inuktitut “encapsulate feelings that do not exist in English or French,” so she teaches those words and uses glossaries to explain them.
Rice said, “When you write about your dialect and your language, that’s what makes your story authentic.” Sometimes non-Indigenous editors will suggest scrubbing that out to make the text more palatable to non-Indigenous people. “I try to put as much Ojibwe language in my books as possible. It’s a personal victory to be able to have those words in my book.”
Groulx emphasized the need to be cautious and respectful when writing about one’s own culture, especially creation stories. “You have to be light-footed. Respect is not a good enough word. Some things are sacred, off limits.”
How do we get it right? Dimaline asked. She suggests that it begins with finding out about the community and especially understanding their relationship with the land. Mark agreed that people should take the time to develop a real relationship with the community. “We have to get to know each other. Quebec is my neighbour; I’m in the north of Quebec. We don’t know each other still. Only in the 1960s did Quebec bother to learn about us.”
“Learn our values and how to show your respect to Inuit,” she continued. “Don’t bring your fear. When someone extends hands, shake hands. Take off your shoes.”
Even within and among Indigenous groups, how to “get it right” isn’t always clear. Groulx described being on the jury for an arts council, and in some submissions people would claim they had special or secret Indigenous knowledge. “There’s no such thing,” he said. “If people use words like ‘secret’ or ‘special,’ check out the authenticity of the voice.”
“Maybe Aboriginal people can come up with a protocol for what to write about amongst ourselves,” Groulx added. “Should I write about this? Who do you ask? Authority can be fluid in Aboriginal communities.”
“Listen to elders,” said Mark. “Get to know each other better—and be mocked.”
“I like the point about being mocked,” said Rice. “If you’re with an elder and they start teasing you, that means you’re in.”
As for what non-Indigenous people can do to elevate Indigenous voices, “Seek out and support as much as Indigenous art as you can,” said Rice. “If you don’t start including those voices, you run the risk of losing relevance.”
“Support the art,” he repeated. “That’s what’s maintained us for so long in the face of adversity.”
Nicki Benson is founder of Esperanza Education and education initiatives manager at Kwi Awt Stelmexw, an organization to advance the language and culture of the Squamish people. She spoke at an Editors BC meeting about Indigenous language reclamation.
As the daughter of Jewish immigrants, Benson is not Indigenous herself, but earlier in her language education career she worked in Peru to research bilingual education for Indigenous children there, and she’s applied the best practices from that experience to her work with Kwi Awt Stelmexw.
First, some numbers
Before colonization, there were an estimated 450 languages spoken in what is now Canada. Today, there are 60. Only three—Cree, Ojibwe, and Inuktitut—are predicted to survive without some kind of deliberate intervention.
In BC alone, there are 34 Indigenous languages, reflecting a cultural diversity made possible by the province’s challenging geography and abundant natural resources, which meant populations didn’t have to travel far to find what they needed. These Indigenous languages are in seven language families, with Haida, spoken in Haida Gwaii, and Ktunaxa, spoken in the Kootenays, being language isolates. The Indigenous languages are not necessarily the first languages of people in these communities anymore; many people lost the use of their language because of forced assimilation policies.
Within Vancouver, traditionally the shared territory of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish people, two languages—Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ (one of the three dialects of Halkomelem)—have been spoken for thousands of years. However, today each of those languages has only seven first-language fluent speakers each.
Why reclaim a language?
Benson is careful not to use morbid language like “endangered” and “dying” to describe languages like Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓. Even “revitalization” implies that something has died and that you’re bringing it back to life. Instead, she talks about “reclamation”: the language is there to be taken back.
Language is an important vehicle for culture and identity, and reclaiming a language can contribute to community health and healing. These languages were not lost as part of a natural process: Indigenous people were killed or displaced, they died from diseases introduced by colonizers, or they were subjected to attempts at assimilation like residential schools or the Sixties Scoop. Culture and language influence health outcomes: communities with higher numbers of Indigenous language speakers have lower rates of substance use and teen suicide.
Other reasons for reclaiming languages are that they carry important historic and scientific information and that, according to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), maintaining one’s traditional language is a human right. There are calls to protect Indigenous languages just as French is protected in Quebec, Acadia, and other French-speaking parts of the country.
How does language reclamation differ from other kinds of language education?
Indigenous languages have historically been marginalized, and that marginalization continues: whereas it’s easy for people to understand why someone would study Mandarin or Spanish, say, for travel or trade, learning Indigenous languages to promote the survival of the language and culture seems to have fewer practical advantages, so Indigenous language reclamation can face a shortage of funding and learning materials.
Also contributing to the lack of learning materials is the fact that most of the languages were oral, with no tradition of writing. Many Indigenous groups are sensitive about committing their language onto paper: historically, when Indigenous people were asked to sign paper, they were unknowingly giving up their rights and lands. Further, many cultural traditions are meant only for ceremony and are never meant to be recorded or transmitted in writing.
Today, different Indigenous languages use different orthographies: many were adopted after non-Indigenous linguists and anthropologists worked with the communities to develop them, and so they carry residues of colonization, but most communities acknowledge that their language has a better chance of being perpetuated if it is written down. Some languages, like Dene, use a syllabary, whereas others use some form of adapted alphabet, whether based on the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) or an alphabet that makes it easier to type the language on mainstream keyboards. hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, for example, uses a system close to IPA and so is transparent about its pronunciation, but Hul’q’umi’num’, the Vancouver Island dialect, opted for an orthography that would be more practical to type.
Another challenge for reclamation is that there are few teachers, and many of them are elderly. They’re limited in how much time and energy they can devote to educating new speakers.
How does language reclamation work?
Linguist Joshua Fishman travelled the world studying reclamation and, based on what he observed, developed the Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (GIDS) to describe the various stages at which a language can be. Other linguists expanded the scale, with level 0 being “International,” where the language is used in several countries for many different functions to 10 being “Extinct.” When reclaiming a language, you want to meet languages where they are, then support them in reaching the next level up. It is too ambitious for a language at level 7 (“Shifting”) where the child-bearing generation knows the language but are not transmitting it to their children, to move directly to level 4 (“Educational”), say, where the language is taught through public school and literacy is considered sustainable. Instead, we want to help it reach level 6, where the language is used by all generations but not necessarily outside the family.
At this point, when the language is being spoken in the family but not at school or in the media, it is considered orally sustainable. The opposite is not true: language taught in school but not used in the home is not considered sustainable.
What works in British Columbia?
The First Peoples’ Cultural Council has supported a number of language reclamation initiatives:
- Language nests began in New Zealand to help Indigenous groups reclaim Māori and have been incredibly successful there. Some communities in BC have adopted the model, in which parents bring their children to immersion preschools, where elders speak the language to both parents and children and only that language is used.
- Master–apprentice programs pair a teacher with a single learner or a small group where participants must learn for a certain number of hours but can do so on a flexible schedule. These programs make the most of the masters’ limited time and availability.
- FirstVoices released a series of keyboards for Indigenous orthography that can be used on desktop and mobile.
Across the province, Indigenous communities have established school programs, which vary across the province. In some districts, Indigenous languages are offered to all students, including non-Indigenous children. Squamish students can opt out of learning French and learn Sḵwx̱wú7mesh instead. The most successful programs are immersion programs, such as the one at Chief Atahm School in Chase.
- runs workshops to help Squamish people reconnect with their culture,
- works with people in the community to develop a strategic plan to develop their language resources,
- a “Languages in the Homes” project, which recognizes barriers people face in attending language classes and brings the language education to them,
- a Squamish place names map, and
- a full-time adult immersion program hosted by SFU.
Benson elaborated on the place name recognition work at Oh the Places You Should Know, showing, for example, how the name Ch’ich’iyuy (“twins”)—the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh name for what settlers call the Lions—carries with it the story of how a coming-of-age celebration for the chief’s beloved daughters helped broker peace with tribes to the north. “Place names can be really significant,” said Benson. They can give insight into cultures and offer different perspectives on the importance of place.
I asked Benson about the parallels and differences between Hebrew revitalization efforts at the end of the nineteenth century and Indigenous language reclamation. She said Hebrew’s revival is considered a great success story, made possible by the tireless efforts of activists. Indigenous language reclamation is using some of the same strategies—including language documentation and dedicated spaces for immersion—but key differences make it more challenging. For Hebrew (and for Māori in New Zealand), there is only one language that people focus on, and the fact that Israel is an independent political state made it easier for government to enact policies ensuring the language would get used. In contrast, with 34 Indigenous languages in BC, different communities must compete for many of the same resources, and their reclamation efforts don’t have as much political support.
Another audience member asked whether settlers are welcome in Indigenous language classes. Benson said that opinions differ and that the best thing to do would be to consult the community. Some communities welcome everyone, because they recognize that getting as many people as possible to speak the language increases the odds of its preservation. Other communities accept settler learners as long as they are not taking away the opportunity from an Indigenous person.
Related post: Greg Younging—Indigenous editorial issues
Subject trends, like adult colouring books, which peaked in mid-2016 or so and have since declined, or the imported Danish trend of hygge, which was particularly popular in late 2016, can be interesting but usually pass within a year or two. White wanted to focus her talk on the broader changes in the publishing landscape.
“Traditional publishing is great,” said White, in that the industry is committed to best practices in editing and design. But when White and co-founder Jesse Finkelstein launched Page Two in 2013, it was out of a recognition that traditional publishing, which tends to be technophobic and slow to react to change, doesn’t serve everyone or every book. There are legitimate reasons people might want to self-publish, and Page Two wanted to help authors and organizations publish professionally by fully embracing all things digital and being interested in changes in publishing.
White highlighted a few key trends: Continue reading “Trena White—Trends in book publishing (Editors BC meeting)”
Nick Routley is creative director at Visual Capitalist, a company that uses visual storytelling techniques to bring life to topics in business and investing. He spoke at the February Editors BC meeting about what goes into a good infographic.
Infographics are visual articles: they tell a story with graphics and often involve one or more data visualizations. For the many people who are visual learners, text-heavy storytelling doesn’t meet their needs. Infographics offer stories that are engaging, data driven, shareable, and succinct. Continue reading “Nick Routley—Infographics and data visualization (Editors BC meeting)”
Lower Mainland editors have probably heard of the Vancouver Public Library’s Blue Pencil sessions but may not know what they involve. At January’s Editors BC meeting, moderator Wendy Barron and a panel of editors who’ve participated in them—Sarah Robins, Erin Parker, Meagan Dyer, and Nancy Tinari—set out to demystify the program and encourage other editors to volunteer. Continue reading “A behind-the-scenes look at the Blue Pencil (Editors BC meeting)”
October’s Editors BC meeting featured a panel on cookbook editing including
- Jesse Marchand, editing instructor in SFU’s Editing Certificate program and former associate publisher of Whitecap Books,
- Denise Marchessault, a classically trained cook and co-author of British Columbia from Scratch, a cookbook with a focus on local, seasonal ingredients, and
- Lana Okerlund, partner of West Coast Editorial Associates and editor for such cookbook publishers as Appetite by Random House and Figure 1 Publishing.
Greg Younging, member of Opaskwayak Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba and publisher of Theytus Books, led an engaging, eye-opening seminar on Indigenous editorial issues for members of the Association of Book Publishers of BC (ABPBC), which invited Editors BC to join in. Younging was Assistant Director of Research for the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and is chair of the Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus of the Creator’s Rights Alliance. His seminar was a perfect balance of important historical context and practical suggestions. I’ll do my best to recap the highlights, but if you ever get the opportunity to attend this seminar or more in-depth training through the Indigenous Editors Circle (formerly Aboriginal Editors Circle), I’d highly recommend taking it. Continue reading “Greg Younging—Indigenous editorial issues”