Writing For Games

As a writer, there’s really no bigger buzz than when it’s all just working. You’re humming along, cranking out page after page (or… you know, word after word), but you’re enjoying your own work immensely. Well, the A story anyway. The B story? Not so much. You need a Bex and a lie down.

by Ben Lenzo

Now imagine you’re doing that for a video game. Multiple player choices lead down multiple and sometimes criss-crossing paths. It’s not enough to be super invested in the A and/or B Story – you’ve got to get just as excited about creating multiple versions of events and they all need to kick ass to invest the player! That’s a A1, A2, A3, B1, B2, B3 C, D, E, F story and Beyond! You’re gonna need something more than a Bex!!!

Depending on the type of game, these choices can get out of control pretty quickly. Of course, it’s not just these various stories (and 1116902_gamer_542therefore gameplay paths – remember it’s a game) that need to be written, they also need to be coded, animated, voiced etc.

Unfortunately, doing a scene in game (or even a fully rendered animated scene) is not as simple as calling ‘Cut. Reset’ and rolling camera 5 minutes later for a different version of that scene. There’s a MOUNTAIN of work that goes into doing this for games and especially if you’re talking about a more emotional scene – it takes a lot of work!

Sometimes these various gameplay choices allow the story to dovetail nicely. For instance, if you’ve played The Walking Dead* from Telltale Games (I’ll wait. No really, go and play that puppy now – it’s incredible!!!), you’re treated to multiple outcomes for player choice, but those choices mainly end up circling back to a common story point at certain intervals. An absosmurfly awesome, mostly gut wrenching, physically and emotionally painful (I was scarred for days…) story point, but a common point nonetheless.

Depending on the type of game, these choices can
get out of control pretty quickly.

There aren’t many games with story nowadays that don’t do some sort of “dovetailing” with them. It’s a necessity due to time and budget, but probably more importantly, a dev team wants to spend lots of time working on, refining and polishing things that the player is going to see the most. If there are dozens of forks in the road, that means there’s a lot of content that nobody is going to see – unless you replay it and purposely make different choices.

Heavy Rain from Quantic, released a few years ago on PS3, did an incredible job of drawing the player into that game world (I’ll wait some more – go on). It did have various forks and did have multiple different endings and key alternate paths along the way.

Even a game that delivers seemingly no story is still going to have to go through multiple versions of certain dialogue. Take a sports game for example. If the commentator delivers limited dialogue in exactly the same way every time, you’d turn off the sound pretty quickly!

Back in the day, one of my first jobs in games was doing the audio for EA Sports’ Australian Rugby League. This was back in about 1996, and even then, we were coming up with ways to make the audio/dialogue interesting. We characterswere limited by the technology (today that’s not such an issue in this area), so we couldn’t have lots of variation in lines of dialogue, but we could have variation in delivery. So we got Ray “Rabs” Warren to sit in a studio for a couple of days delivering player names and differing line readings on (for example):

“Great run by…”

“Great run by…”


The cool thing was that this was during the ARL/Super League drama and we had to make up player names. So the code in the game basically would stitch that together to say:

“GREAT RUN BY LENZO!!!” And naturally the crowd would go wild!

Even a game that delivers seemingly no story is still going to have to go through multiple versions of certain dialogue.

I haven’t even touched on the writing that’s involved in certain games that draw upon “books” in the game world, or in game text that delivers key gameplay and/or story information. This too is key writing work, but perhaps not so different from how similar things in TV/film should be dealt with.

Writing for games and writing for TV, film and theatre are vastly different. TV, film and theatre (as written at least) stay the same every time the viewer watches it. There’s no interactivity and the viewer is completely passive. That makes it easier to craft an incredible script. Mind on the job – the one job – Beginning, Middle and End! Simple right?

But what the hell do I know? Sure I’ve written for a few games and tv shows, but it’s still only one opinion. So, to get some differing views, I’m going to be bringing you a number of interviews with some kick ass writers that have worked in games to get another take on how it all works. It’s going to be fun to see how other writers do it and how they view games writing vs other media.

It’s interesting to note, that the two games I’ve cited above (The Walking Dead and Heavy Rain – seriously, go and grab both of them!) grabbed me emotionally. They drew me into the game world and caused me to lose sleep because I simply had to keep playing to find out what happens next! But if I think back on the gameplay itself, yeah both of them were ok, but nothing special. The experience of playing these “games” however was nothing short of breathtaking!

Just like a good movie!

* I reserve the right to bang on about this game at any point for as long as needed. Have I mentioned it’s awesome? And no, I didn’t work on it (sadly).

-Ben Lenzo


Ben LenzoBen Lenzo owned and ran a video game development studio in Sydney for approx 12 years. He has directed and produced TVC’s, animation, voice overs and short films.

He has written for the video game Stargate SG-1: The Alliance (MGM), Big J’s Place (Ch 7) and was an early consultant on the animated series Stargate Infinity.

Photo Credits: Stock XChng, Ben Lenzo.

Leave a Comment