The Gamasutra 20: Top Game Writers

By Bonnie Ruberg

[Continuing the 'Gamasutra 20' series, the editors of Gamasutra and Game Developer magazine are proud to name and profile a score of the world's top game writers and story crafters, from Levine to Schafer and far beyond.]

Often overlooked as a crucial part of the development process, writers are the unsung creative heroes of the video game industry. Combining their knowledge of the written word with a knack for the interactive, game writers fill a space that's integral to the artistic future of games, and yet still very loosely defined.

There is no one typical experience for a game writer. Everyone does things a little differently. Some focus on dialogue, some on story arcs, some on character development. Some have complete control over the path of a game, while others are brought in to consult on and add to a project already underway.

However, there is one thing all game writers have in common: they help inject a hint of the real -- of the believable and the personal -- to an unreal environment. They're craftspeople of the new fiction.

This list, made up of those we consider to be 20 of the top game writers working in the industry today, is by no means an exhaustive account of all the writers who have or are currently breaking ground in the field. The list is also not ranked, and only includes writers with recent, predominantly 'published or prominent in the last 12-18 months' work in the game industry - it's not meant to be an 'all-time' best list.

With that said, we have made a conscious effort to include writers from around the world -- including North America, Europe, and Japan -- as well as those whose work falls in very different genres and who come from a variety of experience backgrounds.

In addition to information about their work, the way they approach game writing, and what makes them stand out from the crowd, we've also provided you with commentary from the Gamasutra and Game Developer magazine staff on what makes each of these game writers great.


Chris Avellone

Creative Lead and Co-Owner, Obsidian Entertainment

Notable projects

Planescape: Torment, Fallout 2, Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords

Project focus

Currently the creative lead at Obsidian Entertainment, Chris Avellone got his start writing stories and scripts for pen and paper role-playing games. He moved on to writing game-related books and comics before starting a career in video game design.

In his role at Obsidian, a studio he helped found in 2003, he contributes heavily to story development. As lead designer of Knights of the Old Republic II: the Sith Lords, for example, Avellone was responsible for the game's overarching storyline and scripting.

What stands out

Avellone's background in RPGs as well as his history of perseverance in the face of canceled games gives him a unique perspective and determination that makes itself clear in his writing.

His 1999 Planescape: Torment is still considered by some to be one of the greatest RPGs ever released.

Even a decade ago, Avellone was innovating with his radical emphasis on text and exposition, key writerly elements that have made his work stand out in the industry.

Our take

"When working with such vast and shambling properties as Dungeons & Dragons or Star Wars, an individual writer's voice could easily get lost behind the accumulated lore that has built up over many years of overlapping narratives.

Chris Avellone neatly dodges that trap by always emphasizing his characters' personalities and relationships over back story.

Avellone also understands that dice rolling is the least interesting aspect of role-playing, and in his work, typical "gameplay" activities are often subordinate to character interactions.

While his upcoming Alpha Protocol will undoubtedly have some entertaining action, the real pleasure in the game will come from getting to know the many personalities inhabiting it."
- Jeff Fleming, production editor, Game Developer magazine


Richard Dansky

Manager of Design, Red Storm Entertainment

Central Clancy Writer, Ubisoft

Notable projects

Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six, Far Cry

Project focus

Formerly a developer with White Wolf studios, Richard Dansky now works as a game writer for both Red Storm Entertainment and its parent company, Ubisoft. A fiction author with a flare for horror, Dansky has also contributed to over 130 role-playing books from White Wolf.

In addition to writing over a dozen games for Ubisoft -- most notably the games in the Tom Clancy series, for which he holds the title of Central Writer -- Dansky is the co-author of an instructional book on writing for games, Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Video Games.

He also holds an executive chair on the International Game Developers Association's Writers Special Interest Group. Dansky has gone on record about how much he enjoys one particular element of game writing: composing believable dialogue for bad guys -- like the guards in Far Cry some of his players found too realistic to kill.

What stands out

With extensive experience as a writer of fiction and manuals, the sheer volume of Dansky's gives him an impressive basis from which to approach games.

Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising then that his Tom Clancy series is on of the most consistently praised in video games -- a series not coincidentally also inspired by books.

Of course, what really shines is his believable dialogue, which could even conjure sympathy in a player coming in for the kill: no easy feat.

Our take

"Dansky's credits aren't best known for their writing, but his firm hand has helped steer a number of projects into the clear -- with a reputation among game writers as being something of a professional "fixer".

He's a mentor to writers online and in discussions, and enjoys running writing workshops and advocating for better storytelling -- in short, his reputation extends beyond the obvious into behind-the-scenes movement that's just as critical to improving the stories in games." - Christian Nutt, features director, Gamasutra


Tom Abernathy

Writer, Microsoft Game Studios

Notable projects

Heavy Gear, Destroy All Humans!, Saboteur

Project focus

Tom Abernathy wasn't always a game writer. His diverse background has given him experience in acting, filmmaking, even composing. He has an MFA in film production, so it makes sense that he got his start in video games writing cut scenes for Activision's Heavy Gear. Later he became the Senior Writer/Designer for Pandemic Studios where he received awards for his work on Destroy All Humans!

Often handed projects in progress, Abernathy takes his scriptwriting work beyond simply rewriting designer dialogue, infusing his unique sense of humor into his projects and giving them a creative flair through writing.

What stands out

Abernathy brings something to game writing tables other members of the game development process may overlook: tone.

By emphasizing the importance of tone -- adding, for example, satire and wit to an already outrageous game like Destroy All Humans! -- he offers a tinge of irony to his games that make them unique, and uniquely fun.

Our take

"One reason to applaud Abernathy is for doing something that is rarely attempted in games and even more rarely succeeded at: satire.

The original Destroy All Humans! games blended off-the-wall humor with social critique and were the better for it.

He's also a champion of meeting design in the middle, which is the true way forward for writing in games, while maintaining filmic standards for narrative -- knowing when to compromise and when not to is a crucial distinction."
- Christian Nutt, features director, Gamasutra


Patrick Redding

Game/Narrative Designer, Ubisoft Montreal

Notable projects

Far Cry 2

Project focus

Most recently as part of a team of writers who worked on Ubisoft Montreal's groundbreaking Far Cry 2, Patrick Redding has spent the last four years of his career focusing on story design, narrative systems, and scripted events.

Previously the creative director at Vancouver-based studio Blast Radius, where he produced web and video for clients such as Nintendo, Sony, EA and Activision, Redding has over fifteen years of experience in interactive media, including a background in graphic design, advertising, and filmmaking.

Those past projects help color his work in video game writing today. As part of the Far Cry 2 team, for example, he oversaw what he describes as an ambitious dynamic story architecture that emphasizes the player's ability to drive the narrative.

What stands out

Not content to perfect the craft of game writing as we currently know it, Redding has strongly advocated a new approach to presenting narratives in games.

Specifically, he wants to see a "systemic," not a scripted narrative, one that gives the player ownership of the story through the game's "low-level inputs."

He told Gamasutra in an interview, "My job is to kind of enforce the notion that the most important story in any game, honestly, is the story that the player can actually play."

This focus means Redding has to be uniquely equipped to keep his eye on both the big picture and the little details his projects: both the narrative arc, and the minute-to-minute experience of the player.

Our take

"Patrick Redding's development role of "narrative designer" attempts to create a role that deals with story in a way more native to game development, by merging design and writing.

Though at times it can be dense and inaccessible, Far Cry 2 seamlessly weaves together its strings of assignments based on the player's initial character selection and mission choices.

Solving the problem of creating a dynamic or adaptive narrative has been attempted by countless designers and discussed in countless GDC sessions, and Redding hopes that Ubisoft Montreal may be able to expand on the groundwork laid in Far Cry 2 to eventually reach that goal."
- Chris Remo, editor-at-large, Gamasutra


Erik Wolpaw

Writer, Valve

Notable projects

Psychonauts, Portal

Project focus

Eric Wolpaw is a relative newcomer to the game writing scene. Previously a game journalist and freelance writer, he has worked with Double Fine Productions on their acclaimed title Psychonauts, and then joined Valve and worked on projects including leading writing for Portal, which won the Game Developers Choice Award for best writing in 2006.

Wolpaw describes his own turbulent childhood as the "inauspicious start" that gave him the dark sense of humor he's putting to use in award-winning games today.

For him, game writing is like being "the MC at a strip club" -- someone who has to step up in between moments of action (i.e. video game play time) and make moments of waiting (i.e. cutscenes) actually entertaining. Needless to say, it's a tough gig.

What stands out

Wolpaw's humor is what makes him stand out -- and it's also what made the now classic Portal so uniquely effective.

While Wolpaw might not be able to take responsibility for Portal's innovative gameplay, he certainly shaped the game's irreverent, funny, eerily endearing voice.

Without that, it would have been an excellent game, but hardly the cult favorite we know today.

Our take

"The narrative component of Portal is something of an achievement in game writing. It consists almost entirely of the disembodied voice of one character for the course of the entire game, and it couples tightly with the pacing and gameplay throughout.

But all its formal uniqueness would be meaningless were it not one of the most consistently clever and hilarious -- not to mention faintly disturbing -- game scripts ever written.

In some ways, Wolpaw's writing feels like a throwback to 90s-era PC adventure game writing in the vein of his Psychonauts co-writer Tim Schafer, the best of which frequently used humor as a vehicle to deliver seriously compelling narrative -- but the execution here is thoroughly progressive and unusual. It would probably be extremely influential if it didn't seem too difficult to pull off."
- Chris Remo, editor-at-large, Gamasutra


Drew Karpyshyn

Lead Writer, BioWare

Notable projects

Mass Effect, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Neverwinter Nights

Project focus

A writer who has worn many hats within his trade, Drew Karpyshyn got his start as a game designer at Wizards of the Coast, but soon moved on to composing novels and games.

The lead writer on the 2007 hit Mass Effect, as well as the author of the Mass Effect novels, Karpyshyn contributes to story writing, scenario, and dialogue. He was also the lead on Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and, similarly, wrote Star Wars novels.

What stands out

Karpyshyn's experience working with longer form narratives makes itself apparent in the intricacy of projects like Mass Effect.

This game in particular took a number of commendable risks when it came to including content -- like the potential for a lesbian love side story.

Few other writers have dared to be as all-encompassing and unbiased when representing characters and their actions in contemporary games.

Our take

"Drew Karpyshyn's work on Mass Effect reminds us that well-developed characters are not motivated solely by a collection of personal wants and needs.

They are also moved in subtle ways by the deeper currents of history, faith, and blood.

His efforts at constructing the detailed universe of Mass Effect -- a universe that is larger and more ancient than humanity's experience -- helps us to better identify with our character's struggle for respect as she navigates the densities of its various cultures."
- Jeff Fleming, production editor, Game Developer magazine


Ken Levine

President and Creative Director, 2K Boston

Notable projects

BioShock, System Shock 2

Project focus

As the president and creative director of the studio 2K Boston, Ken Levine is able to take a much more wide-sweeping creative approach to the games he works on than other writers who work specifically with dialogue or scenario.

Previously employed at Looking Glass Studios, Levine is most famous for his work on the critically acclaimed 2007 release BioShock, for which, while collaborating with fellow game writers like Susan O'Connor, he played a very significant narrative role.

He has gone on record as crediting his otherwise "useless liberal arts degree" with leading him to works of literature like those written by Ayn Ran and George Orwell -- works which greatly influenced the tone and message of BioShock.

What stands out

In BioShock, Levine was able to offer to the gaming community a title that more closely resembled a piece of literature -- the meaning of each bit of its content carefully thought out -- than arguably any we had seen before.

His unique approach gives new, revitalizing life to genres like the first-person shooter, infusing them with his analytical, liberal arts mindset, and making them all the more interesting for us.

Our take

"When I asked a fairly casual gamer friend of mine, who rarely plays the big holiday season blockbusters, why he enjoyed BioShock so much, he answered, "I loved the art deco style, and I loved that it actually had an agenda."

Video game stories tend to be obsessively plot-driven, but BioShock's narrative was gripping (and particularly unique for the medium) in part because it put so much effort into exploring an idea -- and an ideal.

The game tries to tell you something, and to give you something to consider, beyond the more common game themes dealing with warfare, espionage operations, ancient evil, and urban crime. The fact that the game was so well-received by the gaming public suggests that Levine and his team were on the right track."
- Chris Remo, editor-at-large, Gamasutra


Kazushige Nojima

Freelance Game Scenario Writer

Notable projects

Final Fantasy series, Kingdom Hearts series

Project focus

Kazushige Nojima is most famous for his work as a game scenario writer for monumental series like Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts -- some of the best-loved in all of video game fandom. He worked for Final Fantasy developer Square Enix until 2003, when he left to become a freelance game scenario writer and found his own company, Stellavista.

These days, he's still working on big-name projects, including games for Square Enix and, recently, the Nintendo fan hit Smash Bros. Brawl, as well as penning the scenario for the upcoming Final Fantasy XIII.

What stands out

Nojima is a noted name in game writing -- indeed, in all of video game development -- for good reason.

His work on Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts games has helped produce some of the most classic, most long-lasting series in video game culture.

What makes them unique: the complexity and emotionality of the narrative and character threads that can be traced from game to game, and the scenarios that bring players back.

This is what Nojima has to offer, and it's a rare gift.

Our take

"Though Nojima's stories often become overly convoluted, they always have functioning internal logic that sees them through -- and, of course, he's responsible for giving a personality to some of the most iconic characters in gaming.

Unafraid to tell a love story in gaming, Nojima takes stories from adrenaline-soaked battlefields to tender, more personal moments, and back again, with ease and grace. A list of memorable moments that has come from the games he's worked on is far too long to attempt here.

But with work ranging from Smash Bros. to Final Fantasy, he has established himself as one of the strongest and most widely-consumed voices in the industry."
- Christian Nutt, features director, Gamasutra


Marc Laidlaw

Writer, Valve

Notable projects

Half-Life, Half-Life 2

Project focus

Marc Laidlaw is no stranger to weird fiction, and that's nowhere more evident than in his creative work on Half-Life and Half-Life 2. The author of multiple novels, Laidlaw has experience as a science fiction and horror writer.

Before joining Valve as a staffer, he was the sole writer on the Half-Life games. It was even further back, in 1997, when he began his first forays in elements of game design. These days, he works hand-in-hand with a team of fellow writers (which he refers to as his "literary posse") on Half-Life 2 episodic content.

What stands out

Laidlaw's experience as a horror and science fiction author colors his work in a unique light that makes it stand out from other first-person shooters.

What other writer could give us a dystopian future setting filled with head crab zombies and explored by -- of all people -- a scientist?

These strange gifts from Laidlaw have entered the general gaming mythos, leaving us to wonder where we'd be, for example, without creatures who threatened to suck our brains while riding our heads like deadly crustacean hats.

Our take

"The success of Marc Laidlaw's work on the Half-Life series demonstrates the creative gains that the game industry can enjoy when it embraces voices outside of its own insular world.

As an author with a talent for writing anarchic science fiction (see the 1989 anthology Semiotext(e) SF for an object lesson in dangerous writing from a variety of authors, including Laidlaw) he brought a subversive edge to Valve's shooters.

Neesless to say, his talents resulted in a story that resonated with players long after the gunfire was over."
- Jeff Fleming, production editor, Game Developer magazine


Emil Pagliarulo

Lead Designer, Bethesda Software

Notable projects

Fallout 3, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Thief 2: The Metal Age

Project focus

Though he has gotten a lot of attention recently as both the lead designer and the writer on the much-anticipated Fallout 3, Emil Pagliarulo spent several years as a journalist before joining Looking Glass Studios as a level designer.

There, he contributed to Thief Gold and served as a designer on Thief 2: The Metal Age. He followed the Thief series to Ion Storm in Austin and continued to work as a senior designer on Thief: Deadly Shadows.

For the past several years, however, Pagliarulo has been at Bethesda Game Studios, where he served as a senior designer on the Bloodmoon expansion to Morrowind, and the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, on which he was responsible for the Dark Brotherhood and Arena quest lines.

While it may sound like Pagliarulo has more experience as a game designer than as a game writer, it's important to remember his time in non-fiction before entering the game industry.

Culminating with his work on Fallout 3, he's returning to writing and combining it with his newer craft: video games.

What stands out

Pagliarulo has clearly brought to Fallout 3 a solid combination of writerly and gaming mentalities.

The game combines a familiar landscape -- a post-apocalyptic wasteland of society -- with elements normally found in a novel, like a cast of believable if minor characters and details that make this world, far from cliché, colorful and alive.

Our take

"Pagliarulo disproves that old theory that game designers shouldn't write their own games. That adage only holds true when the designer isn't a good writer to begin with.

Though "game journalist" certainly doesn't translate to "good writer" in a one-to-one ratio, it does indicate an interest in writing. And it doesn't hurt that after writing what many thought was the best part of Oblivion, the company saw fit to let him lead the charge in Fallout 3.

The dialog here is relatively consistent, with impressively nuanced trees and choices that feel important within the game world. Pagliarulo gets my vote for most ambitious game writer of 2008."
- Brandon Sheffield, editor-in-chief, Game Developer magazine


Dan Houser

Vice President of Creativity, Rockstar Games

Notable projects

Grand Theft Auto IV, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Grand Theft Auto III

Project focus

One of the two infamous British brothers behind not only Rockstar Games, but also its most successful and controversial series, Grand Theft Auto, Dan Houser is the writing half of the equation.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the cinematic quality of Grand Theft Auto IV, Houser has gone on record as calling himself more of a movie fan than a video game fan: someone who focuses on using his writing to make his games give players an experience similar to watching film.

He isn't making this all up, though. Not content to make small games -- or mediocre ones -- Houser did tireless research for GTA IV, obsessively exploring the New York City area. The result: the game's pedestrians have 660 speaking parts with 80,000 lines of dialogue (yes, 80,000!) alone.

What stands out

Houser makes no bones about it: he wants to be groundbreaking. That Houser and Rockstar are doing something different in the industry is obvious from their unapologetic approach to controversy.

But it's also obvious from the impressive scope of their latest Grand Theft Auto game, which many critics have speculated may bring us as close as we've yet come to combining video games and art.

Though he may have once wanted to be a rock star himself, these days Houser pushes attention away from himself and onto the world he creates in his games.

Our take

"The Grand Theft Auto games tend to be characterized by a strange blend of both reverence and revulsion for American culture, from the Miami neon 1980s caricature of Vice City to the subtle pang of immigrant desperation in GTA IV.

Though the games' themes and stories draw ire from parents groups and social right-wingers so easily you'd think they solicited it deliberately, the true signature here isn't the way these narratives have drawn exaggerated comparisons to classic film drama.

Rather, it's how beneath the games' ludicrous talk radio, unapologetic violence and exaggeratedly vile casts of characters lurks surprisingly shrewd and uncomfortably truthful social commentary."
- Leigh Alexander, news director, Gamasutra


Jerry Holkins

Writer, Penny Arcade

Notable projects

On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness

Project focus

Most famous for his work as the writer of the game web comic Penny Arcade, which has spawned in recent years the now enormous fan event Penny Arcade Expo, Holkins also writes about games on the Penny Arcade blog.

In both forms he gives insightful -- and funny -- responses to the video games and the industry, leaving no one safe from a little playful ridicule.

However, Holkins put himself in the hot seat when he became the writer on the Penny Arcade adventure RPG game, On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness. Following in the tradition of old-school adventure games, On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, which talks the same facetious, succinct tone as the Penny Arcade comics, was released this year on PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3.

What stands out

Holkins' strong point -- whether he's writing a comic, blogging, or working on a game -- has always been to bring intelligent humor to the video game community.

In the same way, Holkins is bringing that humor to his games themselves, injecting the old-school adventure experience with a little bit of that Penny Arcade snark, and reminding us that game writing in and of itself can be entertaining -- it doesn't have to be just a means to an end.

Our take

"I find Holkins' strength to be his imaginative wordplay, and juxtaposition and combinations of terms. His skill with the metaphor is unparalleled in game writing (an odd statement, but a true one), and he will waste no opportunity to add a clever turn of phrase, and a double (or triple) entendre.

Through the keyboard of another writer, this could be profoundly obnoxious, but Holkins does it with a certain humility and a wink toward the viewer. He's letting you in on the joke, not showing you how smart he is.

I can only hope that this is the beginning of his game writing career, and that he tries his hand at properties that are not his own."
- Brandon Sheffield, editor-in-chief, Game Developer magazine


Hideo Kojima

Head, Kojima Productions

Notable projects

Metal Gear Solid 2, Metal Gear Solid 3, Metal Gear Solid 4

Project focus

Kojima broke into the video game world with his first title, Metal Gear, in 1987, which became a hit for Konami not least because of its military/espionage theme, which meshed well with the movies of the decade. Since then, he has branched out to form his own company, Kojima Productions, and brought his series to a crescendo with this year's Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.

Consistently considered one of the most influential and important personalities in game design for his work on the Metal Gear Solid series, Kojima has also turned his pen to other little-known but highly-praised narrative games such as Snatcher and Policenauts.

These are games that may not have made a splash in the west, but which successfully brought mature and complicated narrative to the medium years before it was widely attempted by console developers on this side of the Pacific.

What stands out

As a series, Metal Gear is a staple among video games, one that's helped define the genre of stealth action.

What makes it most memorable, though, surprisingly enough, isn't its sneaky challenges; it's the characters -- like Solid Snake, of course -- as well as its strange bursts of humor and its byzantine plot twists.

A favorite character among fans, Snake stands on his own as a character whose history and experiences a huge number of gamers have followed reverently over the years.

Kojima, the man who made Snake, has the craft and skill to fill each game with enough unanswered questions to leave us wanting more.

Our take

"In the Metal Gear Solid series, Hideo Kojima has presented a decade of nesting metaphors, parallel symbols and cyclical in-jokes in such a dense, even convoluted, fashion that audiences are polarized.

In fact, some are just as fatigued and perplexed as they are helplessly fond of the enduring themes the director's so carefully crafted. But despite the inimitable, distinctive quirks, in Kojima video games might have their first true postmodernist.

Simply, his stories offer a degree of complexity and sophistication virtually unprecedented in video games."
- Leigh Alexander, news director, Gamasutra


Jonathan Blow

Founder, Number None

Notable projects

Braid

Project focus

With a notable background in experimental game design, Jonathan Blow has won the hearts of the video game community with his simple but beautiful 2D platformer Braid, released at the end of summer 2008.

The host of the Experimental Gameplay Workshop at the annual Game Developers Conference, a longtime columnist for Game Developer Magazine, and a regular participant in the Indie Game Jam, Blow has for years been presenting the new ideas of others to the world.

Now he has presented his own, and the results are stunning -- such as when Braid won the Innovation in Game Design Award at the 2006 Independent Games Festival. Blow's team for the game, like the game itself, was modestly small, giving him creative control over gameplay and written aspects simultaneously, while others helped with aspects like art and music.

Braid is therefore predictably a very well-integrated game, the result of an artistic vision executed by game designer, level developer, and game writer all in one.

What stands out

Braid, which so impressed the game community when it came out earlier this August, uses text in a way less like traditional video games and more like a work of literature.

This leaves the player to find the story, read the comments left by its author, and decide what it means for himself.

Our take

"Before releasing Braid, outspoken independent developer Jonathan Blow developed a reputation for himself by challenging -- vocally and often -- the standard narrative conventions of video games.

Although plenty of Braid's story is told in dreamlike written interludes between levels of playtime, the predominant mode of storytelling is the unfolding of the game's environments alongside the time-bending gameplay.

Critics continue to debate whether Blow served his own ideals by dividing static text from gameplay narrative the way he did. But the result of his work not only motivated a new depth of discussion around game stories, but compelled players and thinkers alike to seek their own conclusions to Braid's tale."
- Leigh Alexander, news director, Gamasutra


Susan O'Connor

Game Writer, Susan O'Connor Writing Studio

Notable projects

Far Cry 2, BioShock, Gears of War

Project focus

Susan O'Connor has been writing for games since 1998, and is now recognized as one of the most original and influential game writers currently working in the industry. Over the last ten years, she has written for more than 20 titles in a variety of genres, from first-person shooters to action-adventure games.

Her clients have included companies like Activision, Midway, and Microsoft Game Studios. In 2005, she founded the Game Writers Conference, now part of Austin GDC.

As a freelancer who joins other companies on specific projects, she has filled many of the game writer's roles -- changing her approach as her games change, but always paying careful attention to the importance of craft.

What stands out

With her attention to creative, quality game writing, O'Connor has re-infused mainstream, blockbuster games with the energy of her art.

The games she has worked on, including most recently Far Cry 2 and BioShock, have been major examples of innovative storytelling, pushing the boundaries of game content and the line between mainstream gaming and art.

O'Connor also stands out for being a game writer's game writer, sticking up for the craft and spreading the word about words in video games.

Our take

"O'Connor's approach to writing is to create believability, in the most unbelievable of situations.

While Far Cry 2, BioShock and Gears of War are games that, to put it mildly, have varying levels of plausibility, they all have veracity.

Like it or not, Gears of War's beefy banter set the tone for a generation of fist-bumping bro heroes; Far Cry 2 takes things the opposite direction, filling a difficult world with realistically desperate characters."
- Christian Nutt, features director, Gamasutra


Jesse Stern

Writer and Co-producer, CBS's "NCIS"

Notable projects

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

Project focus

Strictly speaking, Jesse Stern is more a television and movie writer than a game writer. It was his recent work on Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare for Infinity Ward that marked his first foray into the video game world.

Previously known for his work on films like the 2003 hit Monster, for which he served as executive story editor, Stern is, by day, a writer and co-producer for CBS's television drama, NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service). He's admitted in interviews though that, while he got caught up in television writing, he's always been a hardcore gamer at heart.

What was his process like for Call of Duty 4? Infinity Ward came to him with a story outline in mind, but it was his job to figure out how to best tell the story at hand. The script for the game was a joint effort between writers, but Stern was in charge of making decisions.

Though he wasn't particularly involved in the mechanics or gameplay aspects of development, Stern did strive to bring a cinematic quality to the game, a crossover from his normal work on screens big and small.

What stands out

Stern brings not only his talents as a writer to Call of Duty 4 but also his refreshing break from the industry and the clichés of the series. Unlike previous Call of Duty games, which are set in historical World War II, this one does as it name suggests and breaks away, placing players in a modern setting -- facing more morally complicated scenarios.

It's clear Stern combined the modern approach he's accustomed to in a show like NCIS with an established game model to create a title that received considerable praise when it came out in 2007.

Our take

"Call of Duty 4 took the idea of "blockbuster videogame," in the sense that movies are blockbusters, and realized that concept. Where most games that draw from action movies or military epics have the most inane dialog possible, Jesse Stern's was remarkably inoffensive -- even for a pacifist like myself.

The way the dialog was integrated into the narrative and overall structure was extremely smooth, and remains one of the best-implemented game stories in recent memory, for my money."
- Brandon Sheffield, editor-in-chief, Game Developer magazine


Sohei Niikawa

Producer, Nippon Ichi Software

Notable projects

Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, Disaea 2: Cursed Memories, Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice

Project focus

Sohei Niikawa entered Nippon Ichi Software in April 1995 as a staffer in marketing and sales, but soon took on the role of scenario writer and game producer. The first game he worked on as a writer/producer was the cult-hit musical RPG Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure, released in 1998 to general pleased confusion on the part of gamers, won over by its sheer likability.

From this game he has continued to work on various Nippon Ichi Software titles as a writer and producer, including Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, Disaea 2: Cursed Memories, Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice -- in the process, creating a series known for warped stories, bizarre characters, and an enduringly (and endearingly) macabre universe.

What stands out

Representing the Japanese side of the game writing tradition, Niikawa is one of the few writers on our list who, instead of moving from RPGs to writing for other genres, has stayed there in that field, perfecting the use of words in his medium.

The key to his writing is creating amusing scenarios filled with vibrant characters -- with undead penguins and demon princes motivated to act over deleted save games.

These quirks have helped build an idiosyncratic universe that has allowed a little-known Japanese publisher to become a fan-favorite the world over.

Our take

"Sohei Niikawa gleefully populates his games with characters that are loud, disrespectful, and prone to vandalism. And why shouldn't he?

After all, when you strip away the weak moral justifications (usually conveyed as bullet points on the back of a game box) for why video game characters behave as they do, they begin to look extremely anti-social. Even a straight arrow like Zelda's Link is essentially a murdering thief when examined objectively.

Particularly in world of Japanese RPGs where mawkish sentimentality is the rule, Niikawa's writing stands out for its irreverent wit, echoing across the church of videogames like a very wet Bronx cheer."
- Jeff Fleming, production editor, Game Developer magazine


Yuichiro Tanaka

Scenario writer, Atlus

Notable projects

Persona 3, Persona 4

Project focus

Finding information on Tanaka has been tough; even his own company's PR was unresponsive, and Japanese Google searches proved almost fruitless. But one has to look at his work -- the most recent installments of the Persona series, which has almost completely rehabbed the reputation of Japanese RPGs in the West -- to understand what he's aiming at: character depth, and story/gameplay integration.

Called by some "the perfect RPG," Persona 3 was met by great critical praise following its 2007 North American release. Most striking was its unique combination of traditional RPG elements and the high school backdrop of a Japanese social sim.

That's not all that players found daring about this game -- it cleverly tied growing your relationships to increased power in the RPG side of the game, bringing together two elements that are so often split in other games.

What stands out

Tanaka and the Persona 3 team took a bold creative leap when they decided that their teenage protagonists would switch into their fighting personas by symbolically shooting themselves in the head.

Persona 4 may have lost the headshot, but won even more praise for deep characterization, with Tanaka to transporting this story out of a typical urban school setting and into the countryside for a more traditional murder mystery -- with a Persona spin, of course.

Our take

"In an era in which traditionally-opaque Japanese fantasy narratives have arguably fallen out of favor outside their home turf, the Persona games managed to quickly gain cult hit status in Western markets precisely for the way in which they embrace distinctly Japanese social tensions around the concept of the self.

Delicate, unparalleled localization played a key role specifically for how it preserved the narratives' particular flavor of "otherness" in careful balance with fantasy-realism.

The result is arresting stories that employ modern, relevant insight into the lives of teenagers as they discover their role in society."
- Leigh Alexander, news director, Gamasutra


Marianne Krawczyk

Freelance game writer

Notable projects

God of War, God of War II, God of War III

Project focus

With experience writing and designing on a number of AAA game titles, Marianne Krawczyk is most often recognized for her work on the the critically and commercially acclaimed franchise God of War.

In addition to working on many games in that series, Krawczyk has written for Area 51, The Sopranos: Road to Respect, and more, including a number of soon-to-be-announced titles for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

Specifically, she focuses on story and dialogue. She has worked with all of the major games publishers, including Sony, Activision, Vivendi Universal, THQ and Midway. In addition to writing for games, she has also written about game writing.

She is the author of Game Development Essentials: Game Story and Character Development. Krawczyk is the recent recipient of the BAFTA for Best Story and Character for God of War II. She has also won other awards for her excellence in character development.

What stands out

As her awards indicate, Krawczyk's strength is truly in her characters, like God of War's Kratos, who has developed a life and a following of his own that keeps God of War fans coming back for more.

She has gone on as saying her strongest characters find her -- and just start talking. Thank goodness they do, because that leaves us with characters to remember.

Our take

"In the U.K., where the equivalent of the Oscars -- the BAFTAs -- encompasses games as well as film, God of War II won the award for Best Story and Character.

That's an impressive achievement, but those who play games are already aware of how instantly iconic the twisted hero of that series, Kratos, has become.

Would the games still have been immensely popular relying on their brutal gameplay alone? Sure. Could he have become an icon without the dark and disturbing story that underpins that action? It does not seem likely at all."
- Christian Nutt, features director, Gamasutra


Tim Schafer

Creative director, Double Fine Productions

Notable projects

Grim Fandango, Psychonauts

Project focus

Schafer is the creative director at Double Fine Productions, the independent studio he founded in 2000 after a decade making graphic adventure games at LucasArts. He began his writing career on the Ron Gilbert-led Secret of Monkey Island and its sequel, moving to a co-design role with Dave Grossman on Day of the Tentacle.

In 1995, he wrote and designed the biker adventure Full Throttle, and followed it up with 1998's ambitious and acclaimed Grim Fandango.

At Double Fine, Schafer headed up the quirky character-driven platformer Psychonauts, which won the Game Developers Choice Award for Best Writing in 2006 -- a distinction shared with co-writer and fellow Gamasutra 20 writer honoree Erik Wolpaw. He is currently working on the heavy metal-themed fantasy action game Brutal Legend.

What stands out

Games by Tim Schafer are relentlessly imaginative to an extent rarely seen in the video game industry.

His games span a hard-boiled film noir take on the Mexican land of the dead, a biker wasteland simultaneously nostalgic and high-tech, even to the fractured yet fully-realized subconscious minds of spies and asylum inmates.

In Schafer's games, we visit places few other game writers seem willing or able to take us.

Our take

"Tim Schafer understands some principles few game writers do: you can present breathtaking imaginary worlds without the aid of plodding text crawls or expository voiceovers.

You can flesh out complex and interesting characters with dialogue that is concise and enjoyable rather than neverending.

More so, you can combine genuine humor and genuine drama without making either seem cheap.

There is a welcome frugality to Schafer's witty writing; though he is known to write extensive back story and character profiles during development, he resists letting too much of it make its way to the game in the form of unnecessary dialogue.

The result is dialogue and narrative that is sharp and always enjoyable, but that also hints at something deeper under the surface."
- Chris Remo, editor-at-large, Gamasutra

[Who do you think is missing from this list? Feel free to comment, and Gamasutra will feature a follow-up story if sufficient nominations are received.]

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