Game writing is something that’s had a wave of popularity and exposure recently, especially following the rise of big-budget, narrative-driven games over the last two decades. And with that, I’ve definitely been getting more questions about my job as a video game story writer — which is exciting!
It also gives me a great excuse to sit and talk for a while with you about how I craft interactive worlds, how you can get into it too, and whether AI should be worrying us game writers.
What a video game story writer does
Game writing is a vague term that most often — and most simply — refers to all of the writing in a game. More recently, it’s come to refer to the narrative side of things in particular: the worldbuilding, the dialogue, the plot, the lore, the choices, and so on.
Game writing enhances games by adding another layer of immersion and interactivity to them. A good story meshes into mechanics, quests and tasks to help players feel like the game is a real, breathing world of characters who will act and react alongside the player’s choices.
The poster-child for gaming’s ability to do this are branching narrative games, where the game’s story splinters and changes depending on choices players make (think Mass Effect, Life Is Strange, and so on).
But even non-branching games do this to an extent. Think Halo, writing you into a level full of enemies, with free range to choose the weapons and approach you want to battle them with, in order to make you feel powerful like the hyper-lethal supersoldier you play as.
Biassed as I am as a video game story writer, I feel like the most interesting writing in a game are branching stories that distinctly impact the game world and the player.
For example, in a puzzle game, you’ll feel better after completing a puzzle to save a cat if that unlocks the branch where its owner becomes elated by their pet’s return. You’ll also feel worse after giving up on the puzzle if this unlocks the branch where the owner grows depressed without their cat.
Maybe the cat even had dialogue begging for your help. Aren’t you a monster?
The point is, game writing at minimum gives some extra meaning to your gameplay choices, and at most allows you to explore the impact of your choices on the emotions and lives of other characters by giving you free reign to make almost any decision you want. It’s a totally unique way to write!
Video game story writer versus narrative designer
If you’ve looked into becoming a video game story writer at all, you’ve probably heard the terms ‘game writing’ and ‘narrative design’ flying around. Honestly, their definition can change from company to company — and I have seen them used interchangeably before. However, I think distinctions are slowly growing.
In my experience, ‘game writing’ tends to refer more to the writers ‘in the trenches’. Game writers write cutscene screenplays, character dialogues, player-facing thematic item descriptions, and the like.
‘Narrative design’ is more high-level, dealing with overall plot direction; planning out the overarching world lore; designing story branches; and ensuring that the art, audio, gameplay and other elements all mesh with the story. Narrative designers also more frequently join producers in the studio with (voice) actors, helping them to match their performances to the story.
On larger projects, narrative designers will often work with other department heads to design a story that plugs into the rest of the game, and then oversee a team of game writers who write the actual words — but that’s not always the case. One person could definitely (and commonly do) do a mixture of both roles. These are the meanings I’ve seen those terms currently taking on.
That all being said, I’ll stick to using ‘game writing’ as an umbrella term throughout this article.
A big misconception about game writing
Regardless of the terms used, almost all of the misconceptions about game writing can boil down to one thing: game writing is ‘easy’.
Maybe it’s because of the lingering stereotype of video games as ‘kids-only’. Or the fact that their narratives used to be somewhat straightforward back in the old days. So, funnily enough, many people I explain my job to seem surprised that game stories carry enough weight to warrant a full-time job.
But this perception has largely left the industry, especially with the introduction of narrative categories in game awards and the growing tendency to hire writers at the start of projects being welcome indicators.
With big-budget narrative games (like God of War: Ragnarok) or adaptations of game stories (like The Last of Us TV series) breaking into mainstream interest, these efforts are going a long way to showing people how compelling video game stories can be.
If that sounds like the kind of thing you want to write, you should! It’s a really unique and rewarding experience. But, there’s no one way to do it: every writer I’ve met took a different path into it.
Some, like me, studied and practised writing all through their education, and managed to land gaming opportunities throughout and following their studies. Others started in different areas of gaming or even different industries, and eventually made their way over. Others still chose neither option, and found another way.
The only thing we all have in common, I think, is a passion and skill for writing, and the determined desire to learn how to turn our stories into interactive worlds. That should be all you need.
Getting started as a video game story writer
If you’re unsure how to get started building a portfolio doing that, I would suggest focusing on making simple text-based story games. Playing games and researching game writing can be helpful, but I feel actually planning and making story games from start to finish goes a long way to teach you things you’ll find hard to learn any other way.
The best thing is, you don’t need to know how to code in order to do that! Apps like Twine and Ink make it relatively easy to create interactive stories, and both can scale from small games to considerably big ones.
There’s much more out there than those two, but those are the two I find myself working with the most to experiment or put a small game together. You’ll find a lot of guides on the internet on how to go about using them and similar solutions.
Becoming a great video game story writer
Once you’ve got some experience under your belt writing games, I think the biggest thing separating hobbyist writers from professional writers is how well they can write for a game. Most writers know that storytelling is about setup and payoff.
And while many other resources online explain storytelling basics better than I ever could, what I will say is, many writers are comfortable setting things up and resolving them in film, prose and/or poetry, but gaming is a different medium. Peaks and troughs need to be tailored accordingly — especially with the element of interactivity to consider.
For example, an emotional battle cutscene between our hero and the villain who took everything from them would be the perfect payoff in a film where we watch the hero lose what they love over and over.
But games can take this a step further: they allow the player to directly participate in that battle. Games instead should give the player the payoff of asking their burning question of ‘why’, of spitting in the villain’s face themselves — or even getting to defeat them in battle with their own controller.
Whether the story branches or not, a good game writer knows when a player should be in full control of a pivotal moment, and inversely when that control should be removed — so that its absence becomes restricting.
Suddenly, you feel superhuman like Master Chief in Halo 3 after you bring down the first Scarab walker with your own two thumbsticks.
Corvo’s helplessness becomes your own in Dishonored, when you’re forced to watch the beloved Empress be murdered in a first-person cutscene, driving you to hunt her killers for the entire game.
You feel Shepherd’s pain in Mass Effect when given the choice of saving one crew member or the other, knowing that your decision could remove them from the rest of the franchise.
The examples are endless.
Put simply, a good video game story writer knows how to use the medium to turn the protagonist’s emotions into the player’s.
Gauging metrics in game writing
But, of course, games are also a business — so good game writers need to be able to appeal to a target audience. A good foundation for this is being able to research popular (and unpopular) tropes and stereotypes within the genre you’re working in, and being able to play up to and avoid them respectively — or maybe even twist them.
But writing isn’t immune to the statistical side of business: stories have a massive impact on player retention, replayability, and spending, to name a few things.
It’s important to set key performance metrics (KPIs) around your stories, so that you know which scenes and characters are most popular, which choices are most selected, and what story beats see the biggest player number/spending uptakes and fall-offs — especially for live-service and interactive narratives.
These responses will tell you how effective your storytelling is, not only as entertainment, but also as a sales tool. It will also tell you what kinds of choices and tropes your audience is coming to expect from that game.
What’s even more important is learning how to respond to this information: do you add more of the popular kinds of choices going forward? Prolong interactions with that fan-favourite love interest? Should you try to make your other choices more appealing to the interests your data imply? When do you try new things?
While the default answer is to try and have a healthy amount of innovation and ‘fan service’, the answers to these questions obviously rely on the data and the kind of project you’re writing for.
Still, they’re the kind of business-orientated questions you need to get used to incorporating into your work as a game writer.
How game writers work as a team
The nature of games also means you’ll almost invariably be working with others — sometimes meaning other writers. As every writer knows, this can be difficult, as can working with any other creatives at times.
The biggest lesson I’ve learnt here is the need to let go of the story and the game as your vision, and start to see it as the team’s vision. A collaborative project. We spoke earlier about a professional writer’s qualities, and I think this is another of them.
In terms of co-writing, what this usually means for me is spending time defining a plot, characters arcs and a tone-of-voice the whole development team agrees on — this is a discussion everyone needs to be present for. Game narratives are solely ever a writer-only job: your story is told through environments, through music, through game mechanics.
If your dark fantasy narrative ends up taking place at the end of a rainbow, with major-keyed music and the central mechanic being a hug system, then either you’re developing a really creative horror game, or no one is on the same page.
With those things agreed on, the writing team will usually then delegate the writing so that everyone is writing what they’re best at. In teams, often one person is better at side quests, and the other is better at romance scenes, so it makes sense to play to strengths.
Still, it’s important that everyone reads everything (or as much as possible) — as writers, co-writers are best-suited to dig out each other’s typos and plot-holes, and can offer skilled solutions to them. Of course, learning to do this politely is a key skill.
However, it’s still crucial that writers are closely involved with the production process of other departments as assets are created, implemented and iterated on. Everyone must maintain a shared vision, and understand how the game is taking shape — with the same space for constructive comment and criticism.
The only difference when commenting on the work of departments that aren’t your own is an increased level of respect. You need to recognise that their expertise is not yours, and trust when the artist tells you they can’t simply ‘give that character model a running animation’ or the programmer explains that a narrative-driven multiplayer system can’t be ‘bolted on’ to your single-player point-and-click game.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t call out problems: if a running character and a narrative-driven multiplayer are integral to the game as you understand it, then you need to say something and come to a solution as a team.
On that note, as writers, I find we have an extra responsibility to be considerate — for example, it’s much easier to rewrite a scene or two to exclude the protagonist’s side-quest in the indescribable, ‘fully-procederal-for-narrative-reasons’ hellscape than it is for the rest of your team to try and actually create the assets and code to bring that place to life. Writing often dictates the workload for the other departments; you need to consider that.
In practice, this all boils down to a lot of regular ‘creative sync’ meetings, lots of documentation, and lots of space for spitballing. Everyone needs to be up to date on the current state of production, what’s changed, and what the current end goal for each department looks like now. Everyone’s ideas also must be able to shape the story and the game overall into the best version of itself, rather than your version.
Basically, it’s a lot of talking as you work.
The old writing adage ‘kill your darlings’ sums the collaborative process up, I think: you have to compromise on ideas you love if they’re ruining the overall vision — but also know when an idea is worth pushing for.
So, that’s the basics of how to do this job.
The nature of being a video game story writer
If you’re wondering whether those basics change depending on the type of game being worked on (and I hope you are), the answer is… kind of. The fundamentals about crafting a narrative for a game don’t change, but the details do.
For example, the tone and depth in a 300-hour, single-player AAA console cRPG will be worlds away from a casual mobile-based dating simulator. They demand different styles of writing, characters, stories — and, of course the mechanics, along with the narrative weight you can attach to them, will differ massively.
That’s not to say a game writer experienced in one genre and style won’t be able to do another — I recently moved from PC and Console to mobile — it’s only a matter of learning different tropes, differing voicings, and different metrics. Like anything in life, if you’re willing to learn you can go anywhere you like!
Game writing in the Age of AI
Speaking of learning, AI is a hot topic in the game writing space right now. The short answer is your job isn’t at risk, but it is going to change.
It’s true that some companies are using AI to replace basic writing tasks, and even some traditional game writing elements. The results are sporadic — ask ChatGPT to write a scene or two for you to see what I mean — but even if they were great, the effect on our jobs is the same.
Narrative design and game writing will always need a human touch for as long as games and emotional stories need a human touch. A video game story writer is needed to ensure the narrative is coherent and matches not only the game’s original vision, but that it meshes well with the rest of the team’s work.
If you’ve ever spent any time with AI, you’ll know it’s much easier to tweak things exactly the way you want them, rather than spending hours trying to get the perfect generation from the software. Game writing is more than being able to write pretty words.
So yeah, AI might fill in a some scenes of dialogue, or even write entire stories for games.
But the chances are that if the AI work is used raw in the final project, then either the company was never going to hire a video game story writer for that particular job anyway (and make the game designer do it), or they simply aren’t bothered by crafting a high-enough-quality narrative to hire writer.
Either way, they likely aren’t jobs that would have been open to as a video game story writer — if you’d even want them to be. You’re better off in game jams and writing your own narrative games for practice!
Okay. Cool. But… didn’t I say that game writing jobs are going to change literally a moment ago?
The thing is, AI is a massively powerful tool for a writer. From generating some nice concept art to half-decent ideas or even lines, AI is brilliant at smashing through writer’s block, and helping you get your ideas from head to page faster than ever before.
Programmers often discuss a ‘rubber duck’, or some inanimate object they can explain their problems out loud to in order to find solutions. AI is like that for writers — we can explain to it the kind of character or scene we need, and it will spit out something half-helpful in a couple seconds.
You can even ask it for games like the idea you’re working on, or places in the world that match the one in your head. It’s pretty much a super-search-engine.
Of course, it’ll all be fairly rough. You’ll still need to do some work to make whatever it throws out good quality and a good fit for your project. But, I find it gives you a starting point much faster than a rubber duck would.
If I was going to give you any advice, it’s that you could and should be using AI to shorten your brainstorming and rough-draft-writing times. It’ll help you spend more time writing, and less time staring at the endless white void of a blank page. (Though, of course, that totally counts as writing too. I promise.)
And there we go!
In a nutshell, that’s been my experience with being a video game story writer. I hope you’ve found it helpful. If you want to hear any more from me, you can check out my website — and if you live near Surrey, I’ll be giving an introductory class to interactive writing at this year’s Surrey New Writers Festival! Otherwise, keep your eyes on Kwalee and our career options. As always, we have some cool stuff in the works!
Interested in sharing your experience or writing a guest post for us? Chat with us on our social media (TikTok | Twitter | YouTube | Instagram | LinkedIn | Facebook) and we’ll consider something for you! If you found this article helpful, share it with anyone who’d find it insightful or useful.