Writing for Video Games - A Virtually Untapped Market, by Catherine Czerkawska

     This post is adapted from a piece I wrote for the Author, the Society of Authors magazine, in 2013. I thought it might be worth a second airing here, since it isn't something that will occur to most writers or aspiring writers. The only reason I know a bit about it is that it is 'in the family.' My son is a game designer and as I’ve followed his progress in video game design, it has become clear to me that this is a growing but virtually unexplored market for writers.

     Charles grew up with the industry, beginning with early hand held games. Later, I remember trying to install PC games for him, but he soon graduated to dedicated consoles. Two things stand out in my memory: his obsession with games of all kinds, board and card games too, and the point at which his ability to play computer games far outstripped my own efforts. He just seemed to get the hang of them in the way that kids invariably do.

     As a young child he was very fond of Richard Scarry’s incident crammed books with their superb mechanical detail. He spent hours with paper and pencils, making books of his own and drawing heavily annotated pictures. Even back then, he was thinking in terms of scenarios for games. His first degree, from Glasgow University, was in pure mathematics, after which he managed to secure some work in quality assurance for the games industry. This was followed by a postgraduate year at Abertay University in Dundee, studying for a Professional Masters in Game Development.

     A couple of years ago, he and three colleagues started their own small company - Guerilla Tea - with Charles as designer, a role which involves aspects of writing and maths, handling the imaginative, the creative and the functional sides of the game. I detail this mainly to highlight the kind of background from which people might enter this field, but there are no hard and fast rules and increasingly young writers are prepared to engage with this world too, especially those with an interest in film.

     Early video games did not involve much of a story and it was assumed that the role of writers would be minimal. It is only relatively recently that some games have begun to include larger environments with more complex game-play and correspondingly realistic characters and scenarios. Cut-scenes - in-game sequences over which the player has no (or very little) control - often mimic scenes from films and serve to enhance character development and drive the story forward. This has resulted in more opportunities for writers but the differences which set games apart can most clearly be characterised by the notion of interactivity. In some ways, the world of game seems closer to theatre, where a symbiosis between audience and actors often creates the sense of a ‘new’ performance each time.

     Some years ago, the adventure genre developed which centred on a narrative involving slower paced, non-confrontational game-play; problem solving rather than fighting. It was always something of a niche genre although many older gamers still retain a nostalgic interest in it. Not surprisingly, this genre has developed into the interactive film-like experiences we see in modern video games, and has of course spawned films themselves although the influence can work the other way. Heavy Rain - a moodily atmospheric psychological thriller, written by David Cage - is a title which aspiring game writers might usefully explore. It was inspired by film noir but with a strongly interactive element. It was perceived to be a ‘grown up’ game, described by Cage as being about ‘normal people who have landed in extraordinary situations.’ The complex choices the player makes throughout the game change the nature of the experience and the ending. It is possible to replay, making different decisions, but this was never Cage’s aim. He is quoted as saying that he wanted people to play it once and accept the consequences.

From Heavy Rain by David Cage
Because the player generally assumes the role of the hero, the main protagonist used to be seen as an empty shell into which the gamer could project his (it usually was a ‘he’) fantasies. Another common perception of only a few years ago, was that the hero was conceived as a pawn, there solely to be influenced by the other characters. But when we realise that big ‘Triple A’ games will have a minimum of twelve hours playing time, we can see how desirable it is for the player to be able to relate to the hero or heroine on a much more personal and realistic level.

     Playing time influences another aspect of game creation. The parts of a film the audience neither needs nor wants to see are essential to a game: how a hero explores the world in which he finds himself, how he or she gets from one place to another, solving certain problems along the way. It is the difficult job of the writer to make these things interesting, working in close collaboration with the designers responsible for the game-play to create a consistent and engaging storyline.

     In many ways, technology still rules, so the writer may even be asked to write for scenes which have already been created from a technical standpoint. For example, the development team may have created a section where the player character chases another character. Presented with this, the writer must find believable ways of weaving it into the story. At present, the demands of playability, of gamer engagement, are paramount. On the other hand, games don’t have to be linear and this can be a liberation as well as a challenge. There can be multiple narrative pathways, and some tasks may not need to be completed in a specific order, although the actions the player carries out may affect subsequent story sequences and outcomes, as in Heavy Rain.

     There are no easy routes into writing for this industry but immersing yourself in the medium helps, as does a background in writing for film, television and/or theatre. Some UK universities run Film courses alongside Video Game modules, but there seems to be disappointingly little cross fertilisation at present. A spell in quality assurance (which doesn’t demand programming skills) can give the necessary knowledge of what works and what doesn’t, as well as contacts. This is an industry where networking is vital. Fairs are held throughout the UK where working relationships are established, opportunities discussed.

     Income is variable. A writer may be commissioned on a self employed basis, for one project at a time. Royalties are not normally paid, unless you have formed a partnership with other professionals, in which case payment will be on a profit share basis. Some of the bigger companies may employ writers, but this is rare. David Cage, who made Heavy Rain, is a studio director who also writes and in this case there are obvious parallels with the world of film. Most writers within the industry are self employed, with a portfolio of skills and projects.

     Charlie’s company, Guerilla Tea, has just been working with Cancer Research UK on a game called Play to Cure: Genes  in Space. A new and highly original concept, this is a game during which the players help CRUK to analyse great masses of data – just by playing the game! Passionate gamer Dara O'Briain launched the game in London earlier this month. As a company with a conscience – but with a great love of gaming for its own sake too – Guerilla Tea are hoping to be involved with more of these very worthwhile cutting edge projects over the coming years.

     There are other, perhaps more intriguing, options for writers to consider. A couple of years ago, my son introduced me to a game called Flower, designed by Jenova Chen of thatgamecompany. He downloaded it onto his Playstation, showed me how to use the controller (a simple matter of tilting it this way and that) and left me to it.

I was captivated.

     There have been few experiences, literary or theatrical, that have moved me so much. This is a game with no characters except the player herself (unseen – you are who you are), extraordinary visuals, no dialogue, but with a beautifully interactive soundtrack in which the music corresponds to changes within the game world. It is clearly a work created by somebody who is both artist and poet. Chen, brought up in China but now living in the USA, says that he was aiming to create an interactive poem exploring the tension between the urban and natural worlds. I would recommend that poets especially seek out Chen’s work. This is all so new and exciting that who knows what a little creative collaboration between writers and game developers might produce?

From the amazing Flower by Jenova Chen

     Catherine Czerkawska is a novelist and playwright. www.wordarts.co.uk
     Charlie Czerkawski’s company is called Guerilla Tea. http://guerillatea.com
     His eBook, Breaking Into Video Game Design, A Beginner’s Guide, is available on Kindle

Most important of all, do please download Genes in Space and give it a go. It's available for Android and iPhones and if you spend even five minutes playing it now and then, you'll be contributing immeasurably to cancer research. 


Mari Biella said…
Very informative post, Catherine - thank you. I'm not generally much of a gamer, but I'll download 'Genes in Space' and give it a whirl...
Lee said…
This is fascinating stuff for me indeed, since one of my main characters in my new novel is an interstellar games designer - and no, I can't call myself a gamer. Go figure. Anyway, I've just bought Charlie's book, but if he has any other titles about game theory, game psychology &/or game design to recommend, I'd really appreciate it. (And who knows, but somewhere down the line - years down the line, I unfortunately expect - I may be looking for a beta reader...)
Dan Holloway said…
I find the idea of writing for games incredibly exciting - it seems to be a wonderful way to put the notion of showing not telling into practice to create a point of view that is wonderfully rounded and holsitic.
I alse just adored Richard Scarry as a kid
Mari, hope you enjoy it - I think I need lessons! Dan, it strikes me that you'd be the ideal candidate for looking at the potential of games. There's another Chen game called Journey - I haven't tried it but again it's all showing not telling and very poetic. (I need a Playstation myself, I think!) Lee, how intriguing. Charlie would be the first to say that his little book is somewhat out of date and he is going to do a great many revisions and extensions in the light of experience this year - when he can find the time! At the moment, it's mostly aimed at students who might be considering courses in game development. The Cancer Research game has taken seven of them about six months to make and it's ongoing - but the data is starting to come in now. One writer you should investigate (but you probably already know about him) is Csikczentmihalyi's work on the concept of Flow. It has become a sort of Holy Grail for gamers - the state of total absorption in which time becomes immaterial - and I certainly find his ideas fascinating.
Bill Kirton said…
Fascinating, Catherine. I try (mostly successfully) to stay away from gaming because it's so addictive (at least for someone as displacement hungry as I am). Your description of Flower, however, makes me eager to try it but I know if I bought a Playstation, that would be the end of my writing career - and any other activities.
On the other hand, the idea of getting involved as a writer is quite exciting, except that I get the impression that it's more about manipulating ideas than words. But please keep us informed of developments with Guerilla Tea and the sort of things writers are bringing to the gaming experience.
julia jones said…
Absolutely fascinating. Thank you so much Catherine
Lydia Bennet said…
a new world indeed, I've not got involved in gaming at all, but it's good to know it's out there and doing new things both in story and in the arts generally. Guerilla Tea seem to be going from strength to strength, good luck to Charlie and mates! have you considered doing any writing for them Catherine?
I don't think I could - they don't work on my kind of thing and although I'm intrigued by the whole field, I don't think it's for me. There are so many new companies out there, and some of them are producing the kinds of games and apps that might usefully involve writers - but I suspect you have to be quite passionate about (and familiar with)the whole medium. Film makers and poets might team up with game developers to produce something original - like Flower - but the problem is with the cross fertilisation. Which is why I'm surprised that universities and colleges don't seem to encourage more of it. Yet. (Abertay in Dundee certainly does, but I think they are an exception rather than a rule.) Maybe it will come.
Lee McAulay said…
I'm one of those adventure game fans you mention, going back 20 years or so. One of my earlier novels began life as a game script that just sort of... grew.
I keep thinking I should try to get involved with the game writing gig as I enjoy playing them, but good old point+click adventure games have become hard to find these days. Most games I see advertised seem to be either cartoony platform games or shoot 'em ups, neither of which interest me.
You've jogged my elbow on this. Hmm... (goes off to leaf through old game ideas)
Good luck to Guerilla Tea!

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