To Hit a Moving Target: Writing in the Videogame Industry

by Brooks Weaver. 0 Comments

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Writing can be easy.  “It is warm in June.”  “Today is Thursday and I think it’s going to rain.”  “Do you want to have pancakes for dinner,” he asked.

We all learned the basics in elementary school, and now most of us write copious amounts of ‘textual content’ everyday to friends, family, coworkers and complete strangers around the world thanks to social media.

But what about telling a story or writing a scene that captures the attention of a reader – making them want to turn the page to see if someone lives or dies?  Here’s a writing sample from a project that I’m currently working on:

She crept into the room to avoid detection from the guards that patrolled the exterior of the old farmhouse.  The door was barely open – swaying back and forth with a consistent cadence.  The sound provided her some cover as she carefully timed her steps to move further into the room.  Dank air hovered at eye level as rays of sunlight protruded through the brown, stained curtains that hadn’t been washed in years.

From the other side of the doorway, she could hear a group of men muttering something in Arabic.  She stood with her left foot pointing at the door and her right foot behind her perpendicular to her left.  Hearing more than four voices, she looked down at the 9mm beretta that she had taken from an unsuspecting guard earlier and remembered that one bullet was chambered and only two were in the clip.  Should she maintain her stealthy approach or kick open the door and try to take down two only to use a third as a hostage against the others?

Before she could make a choice, a gust of wind blew in from the window to her right slamming the door shut behind her.  The voices went silent.  They were coming.

Grabbing the attention of a reader and maintaining that attention for a few hundred pages or more can take years to accomplish and it’s not for everyone.  Richard Dansky, author of such books as Vaporware and Firefly Rain, once said that writing is:

…very much a solitary process.  You sit down, you write, and eventually you have something to show other people for feedback.

The process of writing, getting feedback and then rewriting can feel like an endless cycle.  Many stories are never finished because writing a story takes a lot of time to research, to invent and develop characters (and at times locations as well) that have never been seen or heard of before.  Writing is a challenge.  And just like any other challenge, laboring through the challenge can be both taxing, but also incredibly rewarding in multiple ways.

So then what about interactive entertainment experiences?  To put it another way, what about videogames?

Sure there is usually a lot more people working on a videogame then a novel or a short story.  There’s more aspects to a game (interactive puzzles, cinematic cut scenes, sound effects, etc.) that will keep the attention of the gamer outside of the story behind it.  But what truly gives a game it’s purpose?  It is the story behind it.

Without a story, how would you know who the hero is or the villain?  Without the story, how would you even have a hero or a villain?

Soapbox ranting aside, as a writer I’m always curious as to the writing process that accompanies games of all sizes (indie to triple-A).  More to the point, I’m always curious as to how to get into writing for games.

So a few weeks ago I came across an informative article entitled “On Becoming A Game Writer” by Mr. Richard Dansky.  It covered six topics (including ‘Checking Your Ego’ at the door and ‘Playing Games’ to better understand what you’re writing about) that shed some light on getting into writing for games.  It wasn’t the first article that I’d read on the subject, but it definitely got my attention more than others.  I highly recommend you check it out.

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UbiBlog’s “On Becoming A Game Writer”

Throughout the article there were pictures of characters from the recently released Splinter Cell: Blacklist.  During my first read of the article, I didn’t understand the correlation between the characters and Dansky’s article – except that the article was published on the UbiBlog.

At the very end of the article, I read the summary about Dansky and started to research his body of work.  Needless to say, he has been directly involved as a writer for the Tom Clancy brand of games ever since the first Ghost Recon was published back in 2001.  To top it all off, he was the Lead Writer for Splinter Cell: Blacklist which was published by Ubisoft for PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii-U in 2013.

Knowing that Dansky has been around the block a few times when it comes to writing for games, I contacted him and the following is what we discussed:

W2W: What is your name and what do you do for a living?

RD: My name is Richard Dansky, and I’m the Central Clancy Writer for Ubisoft/Red Storm.  What that means is that I’m essentially a writing and narrative resource inside Ubisoft for the Tom Clancy’s games, with responsibilities ranging from continuity checking to getting elbow-deep into an individual game’s writing.

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Red Storm Entertainment

W2W: How long have you been in this profession, and how did you come to be a professional writer?

RD: I’ve been with Red Storm for fourteen years, and I spent four years designing tabletop games before that.  As for becoming a professional writer, every writer’s got a story that includes odd jobs, weird detours and late hours.  I was lucky in that I was asked to contribute to some tabletop RPG books while I was still in grad school, and that sort of led to short fiction, which led to novels, which led to video games.

W2W: Since you are also a successful novelist, how does the process of writing for games differ from your process of writing novels?

RD: Writing fiction is very much a solitary process.  You sit down, you write, and eventually you have something to show other people for feedback.  But the fiction is self-contained; it’s its own reason for being.  Game writing, on the other hand, is an endlessly collaborative experience.  In a very real sense, you’re not writing words, you’re creating game assets that happen to be made of words in the same way models are made of polygons.  So you have to be constantly aware of what the people upstream from you want – dialog to highlight challenges for the player, specific reactions, etc. – and what the people downstream from you need – timely asset delivery, etc.  It’s like being a small cog in a large, intricately interconnected machine, whereas when I’m writing fiction, I’m the entire engine.

W2W: How did you get into writing for the Tom Clancy brand and did you ever get to collaborate with the late, great author?

RD: I was lucky enough to get hired by Red Storm on a non-Clancy related project, but even in my early days, I had the chance to help out on one of the Tom Clancy’s Power Plays games (Shadow Watch), which were part of the Clancy brand.  Eventually, the studio focused on Clancy-themed games, and I got involved in both the design (GR: Desert Siege, GR: Island Thunder) and the writing side.  From there, as the brand has expanded across Ubisoft, I’ve had the chance to collaborate with teams all around the world – Bucharest for HAWx and Blazing Angels, Toronto for Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Shanghai for Splinter Cell: Double Agent…the list goes on.  I never did work directly with Mr. Clancy, but I’ve always appreciated the strength of the pillars of his creation, which made it very easy to follow faithfully in his footsteps.

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Sam Fisher from Splinter Cell: Blacklist

W2W: What process do you follow when submitting new content to the Splinter Cell team and how you receive feedback?

RD: Gamedev is really an iterative process.  You sit down with the folks who need content from you, you hash out the needs, you go back and write the draft, you get feedback, and you go and do another draft until it all clicks.  In some ways you’re trying to hit a moving target – everybody’s always improving their stuff, from textures to map layout to gameplay.  So as a writer you need to be ready to adapt to what’s in – or out of – the game at a given moment.

W2W: Are there physical forms that you need to follow when submitting content?

RD: A lot of that depends on the project.  Some games I’ve worked on have wanted scripts delivered in formal film script style.  Others wanted it in Excel spreadsheets, to make it easier to do data wrangling with the sound file when it was recorded.  It really varies on a case-by-case basis – you just have to bear in mind that a line of dialog is also potentially a sound file and a text string and a series of facial animations and foreign language text strings, and so you work with the team to make sure you’re delivering in the format that works best for them.

**Note: To see an example of how textual assets are incorporated into games published by Ubisoft, check out the Polygon.com article on Ubisoft’s Studio Alice here.

W2W: Along with the new content / feedback cycle, do you typically work with other writers on IPs or do you work alone?

RD: Something that’s important to understand is that with extraordinarily rare exceptions, nobody in the game industry works alone.  Everyone’s collaborating with multiple other departments.  Whether it’s AI and Systems Design talking about what they need from the Systemic Dialog or Localization asking for clarification on an idiom so they can translate it correctly, there’s no such thing as working alone.

Now, in terms of the actual writing, the scope of a triple-A game today is so large that you really do need a narrative team to address it all.  When you think about all of the scenes in the main plot, plus all the systemic dialog, plus everything else that goes into a game, it’s really more than one person should be handling, and that’s before you get to the data wrangling and process sides of things.  So I’ve been lucky enough to work with some other excellent Writers, folks like Jay Posey and Matt MacLennan and Taras Stasiuk and Mike Lee, as well as, Narrative Designers like Josh Mohan and Navid Khavari who’ve helped keep the whole thing on the rails.

W2W: Throughout your time writing for the Tom Clancy IPs, what has been your best source of information for the military and spec ops genres?

RD: One of our secret weapons at Red Storm is our Authenticity Coordinator, Travis Getz, who’s really plugged into that world.  Travis’ expertise, along with the subject matter experts he can reach out to, are an invaluable resource.  And you combine that level of dedication with the fact that I’m just a research rat – I love digging through foreign policy journals and things like that for story nuggets – then you get some resources that hopefully make for good, unique and interesting stories.

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The Fourth Echelon team collaborates aboard the Paladin in SC: Blacklist.

Of course that research isn’t fire-and-forget.  We’ve built up some pretty good archives, both of real world material and of the fictional world that we’ve created.  The tricky part, honestly, is keeping ahead of events.  Part of the Clancy signature is making sure our stories are near-future and believable, and that means that sometimes the real world catches up to us.  At which point, you look around a little nervously, and then you go do some more research.

Within the original article that led me to Dansky, there was a section that focused on ‘Talking with Game Writers’ in order to get more insight on their processes and how they came to be a game writer.  This article has been an example of just that kind of discussion.

Thank you to Richard Dansky for taking the time to answer my questions, and to everyone else highlighted in this article for their excellent work in the writing and gaming industries.  Speaking for myself and many others, I know that you keep us deeply engaged in our favorite games.

Follow Brooks on Twitter for more links to articles on the interactive entertainment and personal technology industries.  Thank you for reading.

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