It’s 2016. New Year. New goals. To bring in the new year, I have a book review on this gem I came across called Writing for Video Games (© 2006) by Steve Ince.
Steve Ince is an acclaimed game writer and designer from the United Kingdom with 22 years of experience. He currently resides as the Video Games Chairman for the Writer’s Guild of Great Britain. He is most readily known for his work in the games Beneath a Steel Sky (1994), The Broken Sword series (1996, 1997, 2002, 2009, Remastered in 2010), but he possesses even more credits including In Cold Blood (2000), Wanted: A Wild Western Adventure (2004), Agatha Christie: And Then There Were None (2005), Mr. Smoozles Goes Nutso (2006), and recently Survivors: The Quest (2015). That’s still only to name a few. As an assiduous artist, incessant writer Ince proves himself as a worthy adviser to take you into the world of gaming in Writing for Games. He shows you what it takes to work as a professional game writer in an approachable manner. It’s easy to tell that Steve Ince has a true passion for the creative arts, and seeks to encourage and shape those individuals who have the gusto to spread their own wings, achieve their own goals to be a game writer, and maintain the work ethic to do so.
Writing for Video Games paints broad strokes at its beginning with the history of gaming, the overview of game types, and the story building blocks; but Ince then moves into the specifics of how to write for genres and offers tips for writing dialogue. He even offers templates for how to structure scripts in terms of Boolean (i.e. True/False) variables when writing (i.e. fundamental game design logic). In addition, Ince isn’t finished when the script is over. Instead, he moves on to discuss other forms of post-script writing. Post-script writing includes helping in the voice recording room once the script is locked, localisation, technical writing, and even writing strategy guides and manuals for games. In the appendices, he even offers up design documentation, a sample game script, a list of further reading, websites, must-play games, and a glossary of video game jargon.
From the first part in his book, Ince stresses the importance of interactivity in gaming. Interactivity is a basic concept that separates old media from new media. This concept has been around for a while now (though keep in mind this book is ten years old), yet as Ince outlines – it is really important for any person working in the video game industry to grasp. Video games allow a person to enter into a story as either a predefined main character, or a character that the player personalizes. Either way the outcome is the same. The people playing will discover or decide their character’s identity as a game continues. Games possess freedom unparalleled in movies and novels. People cannot interact with a movie or novel’s environment on screen or on the page, respectively. People can only passively absorb what is happening. As Ince states, that is not to say passive absorption is a bad thing. Interactivity is simply what separates movies and novels from video games. For a game to stay a game, maintaining interactivity throughout is essential.
Gameplay is the first selling point of a game, and it should go hand-in-hand with writing. That means that the game writing is integral to game design. The writing is not just an accessory to be tacked on at the end – granted some projects may require heavier writing than others. For the most part, though, writing – to be valuable writing – should coincide with gameplay and enhance it. People primarily buy games based on the fact that they like the gameplay style, but they will love a game that has the right gameplay style with a great story, memorable characters, and snappy dialogue. According to Ince, a good writer knows the games in the genre – or gameplay type they are writing for – and knows how the structure of said games work. For instance, if you are writing an adventure game, play games like The Longest Journey or if you are writing a First Person Shooter play Call of Duty. Only by first knowing a genre can you seek to enhance it, or effectively break its rules. Writers must also keep up with game development as it progresses.
“At all stages of working with the design team, the writer should keep accurate notes to keep track of the game’s progress…also write up and summarise meeting notes, e-mail communications should be archived and any design or story changes clearly flagged.” (Ince 42)
Keeping track of these things may sound tedious, but it is a necessary precaution in case a previous draft or comment needs to be referenced later on. These are not the only things a writer is responsible for on top of a script. There is more:
“The types of documents a writer will be expected to create will depend on the project and where the writer is brought in. Some typical documents could include but are not limited to, the following: pitch proposals, story overview, full story, character profiles, story and game background, story and game timeline, dialogue scenes, help files, and instruction manual.” (Ince 42)
If you didn’t notice, that’s a lot of work. And that is what game writing is – a lot of hard work. Luckily for readers, Ince hasn’t left you in the dark as to what these documents should look like, but instead he discusses formatting and offers up examples. He also has diagrams of the varying narrative structure from linear to controlled branching. I will not post these documents on here. If you are interested though, I recommend you check out the book.
The volume of game writing is often times 5-10 times more than that of a regular movie script. A great deal of writing is involved in video games, and it doesn’t stop when the script is written. Writers can still be helpful when it comes to the recording studio if for instance the voice director doesn’t get the intention of a line. Or perhaps a line needs to be fixed; the writer can make an adjustment right then and there. Writing also has to be tailored to other regions of the world through a process called localisation. During localisation a writer combs a script line-by-line in order to translate words, convey the same meaning but in different languages, and edit for cultural differences, so that a game is as welcoming to play in one region as it is in another. Ince even highlights how to do technical writing and the Technical Design Review (TDR), which was a new concept to me personally:
“The…TDR is a collection of documents that outline all the technology – hardware and software – that will go into making the game the best ever. It should cover, where appropriate, the player interface, the use of simulated physics, the audio system specifications, graphics rendering techniques, the use and incorporation of middleware, outlines of various target platform differences and how they will be resolved and many other details specific to the project.” (Ince 122)
Lastly, Ince moves onto tips for writing strategy guides, and ends with a lot of practical advice on how to market yourself and put your name out in the world as an aspiring game writer.
Writing for Video Games is only 140 pages long – not counting the appendices. As a person who is really interested in this field, I don’t think a 140 page book should be the end-all resource for all things needed-to-know about video game writing. On the other hand, it’s a brilliant overview of the field, and a fantastic starting point for anyone interested in this field. If you don’t know anything about games, you will learn a lot. If you know some, reading this book will be good refresher in the beginning, and I promise you will learn something new as the book continues.
On a personal level, I have a new-found respect for Steve Ince. I admire his service to aspiring creatives and game writers. I love that he doesn’t joke around when it comes to professionalism, and I see him as a model of discipline. I am definitely looking forward to following his work in the future; I encourage others to do so as well.
Ince, Steve. Writing for Video Games. London: A. & C. Black, 2006. Print.
Here is a link to his website and his blog Game Writer Bites: