Honest tales from the trenches of AAA game writing
Writing for video games is perhaps the most romanticized discipline in the video game creation process.
People who wouldn't know any better imagine an author with a concrete vision, flanked by programmers, designers, and artists unified under that shared vision. They work together like a well-oiled machine to support that narrative vision, and when the game is eventually released, the story is exactly how the writer imagined.
Of course it doesn't work like that, and last week a group of accomplished game writers got together to tell their honest stories from the game writing trenches.
Game writers TJ Fixman, Marianne Krawczyk, and Tom Bissell gathered at the WGA West by invitation of the Writer's Guild Foundation in Los Angeles on a panel moderated by Naughty Dog creative director and writer Neil Druckmann to talk the craft of game writing, sharing stories about difficulties working on their most famous games, theories about the craft and what separates it from so many other forms of narrative.
Speaking for a mixed audience of film writers and game industry professionals, their stories ranged from basic advice on getting into games writing, to anecdotes from the making from their biggest games that show the frustrations, obstacles, and triumphs of telling good stories inside triple-A (and sometimes indie) video games.
On entrances and first surprises
Fixman, Krawczyk, and Bissell all entered their respective careers from wildly different circumstances, which each informed their first surprises as to what would happen when trying to tell tall tales in digital worlds. Fixman, hired up from the QA trenches at Insomniac, remembered a gag in his first Ratchet and Clank game that brought him to a Shark Tank-style meeting with a panel of Insomniac animators and designers.
“I wrote this joke, where Ratchet and Clank are in a ship together and the designers wanted them to fall asleep so they could wake up in a new environment," he explained. "So this gas comes out, Ratchet goes, 'ah cryosleep gas, I'm not gonna fall asleep!' And of course he falls asleep. And Clank says 'oh it’s good that gas doesn't work on robots!' and a boxing glove pops out and knocks him out.”
“They just started peppering me with, 'Why is this funny? What Is the joke? Where does this fall in the hero's journey? Is this the save the cat moment?' I'm wide-eyed and going ‘I thought, I thought it was funny I'm so sorry.’ That's what I realized, as a game writer, you think you have this freedom, but you don't. There are so many constraints and so many moving pieces, and from then on out I was hyper-aware that any time you write anything in a script, that changes the game for 20 different departments.”
Krawczyk, most famous for her work on the God of War games, got her first job at Sony Santa Monica and immersed herself in some quick design courses to help her understand the craft she’d be doing, then worked closely with game director David Jaffe to brainstorm his ideas for the first game and shape them into a cohesive narrative.
“David had a really clear framework for what he wanted, he just didn't know what the story was or how necessarily in text it existed yet," Krawczyk said. "My job was to sit there and talk to him. We'd start cobbling together the story as he was figuring out how to tell it and figuring out the designer and presentation and story twists and everything came very organically.”
Many of the series’ most talked-about story beats came out of those sessions, including the tragic reveal of Kratos’ familicide and his ghost-white skin. Krawczyk observed that even casual references like that would reinvigorate Jaffe. “You could always tell because his eyes would sort of light up, and then all of a sudden we'd have that bullet point in place," she said.
Bissell’s background as a nonficiton writer, then game essayist, then game critic, was possibly the most unconventional of the 3 speakers, but he told a similar story to Fixman’s about being assigned to write an explanation on Gears of War: Judgment as to why a university level would be filled with poison gas emitters. “That's when I began to realize that this is a form of writing that throws some real curveballs at you that probably only a few hundred people on the planet have ever had to deal with," he said.
The game writer’s biggest challenge: No universal tool or format
When quizzed by Druckmann about their different game scripts, all three writers bemoaned and shared the realities of the lack of a universal tool or writing format that they had in other non-game work.
Fixman explained that on the Ratchet and Clank games, dialogue existed in three places: in Final Draft files for the in-game cinematics, in Excel files where dialog was organized by level, and in a third file just called “emergent dialogue” that was organized by character. With no script coordinator, every change Fixman made to a Ratchet and Clank script had to be made in three different places, hundreds of times throughout production.
"Writing is a lot like building a raft with twigs and twine and then riding that raft over a waterfall as designers snip the twine."
On God of War, and her other projects, Krawczyk said she tries to keep it in Final Draft as much as possible, but Bissell shared Fixman’s woes in a story about the opening scene of Battlefield Hardline. What the player sees in that game is a conversation between two Miami cops as they drive down a busy street, hearing snippets of passing conversations from pedestrians and the squawk of the police blotter. What Bissell hears is 48 drafts of that police conversation, 40 pages of ambient dialogue, and 30 pages of police blotter chatter yanked from real scanners in Miami and Los Angeles.
“And so those were all written at different times in different stages of the production," he said, "and once they all get in there and they're all overlapping with each other, the player...they have no idea how immensely complicated all that stuff was.”
Bissell and Krawczyk both expressed a desire to work with tools they could take from studio to studio that could track version changes and keep track of correlating dialogue needed to create a fluid experience.
The horror stories
Druckmann, seeing Krawczyk’s putting a finger gun to her head at the mention of ambient dialogue, asked all three to share the most difficult part of their writing process, and for all three, the biggest nightmare was bark dialogue, (ambient dialogue enemies shout to alert players to gameplay clues), and expository directives (characters muttering to themselves something like “I need to go through that door!”)
Fixman said he struggled to keep directives that came out of playtesting feedback in line with character’s voices, pointing out that the problem really scales up when you don’t just need to solve these once, you need to solve these problems 10 times for the same scene.
Bissell offers up a specific example from his work on Batman: Arkham Origins. Though satisfied with the final story, he remembers one day two years ago when creative director Eric Holmes called him up and said they needed bark dialogue for one of the series’ predator stealth sections.
This was over Christmas.
“The unbelievably difficult part was, say I'm Batman, and I put down an ice bomb trap, and a guy hits the trap," said Bissell. "You have to communicate to the player, 'oh that was my ice bomb trap' without being so obvious...and figure out things for these guys in their various state of alarm, to say "Ice bomb! He got me with an ice bomb! It's cold!" so the player knows it happened. Then you have to do that 10-15 different ways. And that's just an ice bomb.”
"This is a form of writing that throws some real curveballs at you that probably only a few hundred people on the planet have ever had to deal with."
“I thought it would be fun working on a game franchise I loved for a dude I loved and admired, and at the end of it I can say I never regretted my decision to be a game writer more than that. When it's Christmas morning, and it's like, 'Ice Bomb, I dunno,' it gets pretty grim.”
Bissell would later go on to explain some of these darker moments went into his contributions to the Twine game The Writer Will Do Something, a choose-your-own-adventure about surviving a creative meaning of a downward-spiralling triple-A game that was played 38,000 times since published by Matthew S Burns last fall. He laughed at reading Kotaku comments where players would express doubt that developers could be so rude to each other, while developers chimed in that “this is documentary.”
Why it's all worth it
In an industry where Bissell himself got his own job by tearing down the bad writing he saw everywhere, and writers frequently get slammed in negative game reviews, all three still said the work itself is still worth the fight.
Fixman lamented that he couldn’t enjoy his games until months after their release, because all he could see were mistakes until they launched. But meeting fans at PAX who have characters inspired by lines from his Grandfather tattooed on their arm blows him away every time.
Krawczyk explained one of the greatest joys (and tools in a game writer’s toolbox) is how the nonlinear writing path means they have in-game systems and beats written elsewhere that can pull them out of a tight spot during production. She advised game writers to look through what’s already in the game if they’re ever in a crunch and need an asset or a trigger to help them solve a narrative problem.
Bissell’s explanation though, came out swinging in defense of game writing as a specific craft. “There are two things I think that define game writing," he said. "The first is, a lot of it is about coming to solutions to production decisions. They cut an entire level out, and now you have to find a way connect them that wasn't apparent before. And it's really genuinely exciting coming up with a solution.
"The second is, when you write a bunch of systemic dialogue for things that happen on top of each other, you have this grouped unfeeling system, that is going into this spreadsheet and pulling lines out and firing, yet they work beautifully together, and it feels like a moment in a story even though it's just the magic of randomization.
"When it works it feels unlike any other kind of narrative I can think of and it's beautiful and electrifying.”
Advice for newer writers
Fixman spun Bissell’s sentiments into a bit of advice for other writers. “Writing is a lot like building a raft with twigs and twine and then riding that raft over a waterfall as designers snip the twine," he said. "You're just trying to hold it all together. I can't say I ever cracked it, because it's so mercurial and so chaotic, and the best you can do is stay up to date on your docs, and keep the lines of communication open with designers.”
Krawczyk warned against the idea of making anything narratively bulletproof, saying that God of War 3 was the closest they came to attempting this in the planning stage, planning out crumple zones where gameplay could take design precedence over story. “Even that didn't work," she said. "One of the directors on God of War 3 said, 'I need your input on this, this is what design's doing. And I said ‘this is bullet proof, there is no way you can ruin my narrative moment.’
"I come back the next week and they ruined my narrative moment."
Bissell stressed a need to have one-on-one encounters with other team members. “I like playing a level through with a level designer and we go, 'oh maybe this could happen here, or what do you think this is about?'" he said. "I’ll go off and write a level script, and they'll send it back to me, and we bounce it back and forth, and we discover what a section of a game is about.”
The same process, he said, helps when working with artists and environment artists to make environmental storytelling a viable tool when dialogue can’t cut it.
Fixman, Bissell, and Kraczwyk also all advised writers to listen to designers and actors when coming in on pre-existing franchises to help isolate a character's voice and identity.
"When I was making Gears, all the people at Epic would say ‘that doesn't sound like a particular character to me,' Bissel said. "They've been making the game for 10 years, what am I going to say? 'You're wrong'? Listen to the people who have the most experience with the game. And you try to build your way into the tone of the game.”
Fixman added, “Listen to the actors as well. I find that when you work with the actors, they've been living the characters for so long, they'll go ‘I don't know if Clank would say that, or I don't know if Drake would say that.’”
The challenge, Krawczyk adds, is that all these people do have experience working with these characters, but at Sony Santa Monica, even listening to other developers meant she had to ignore advice when it came to Kratos.
“The hard thing is, everybody's been on, but everybody has a different view," she said. "Everybody at Sony Santa Monica studio has a slightly different view of who Kratos might be based on how they see him, how they play him. Then it's about finding the balance.”
For those wanting to get into games writing, all the panelists advised that you need a strong knowledge of games, but Bissell broke down what will get any game writer through the hard times and the good.
“You have to be someone who's addicted to stories," he said. "You love good stories, you love trashy stories, you love literary stories, I will happily soak in the bathwater of just about any story you can imagine, and you just have to be incurably addicted to narrative. The tricks of it, the mechanics of it, you have to be interested on it on a moment to moment basis.”