How I Became an Interactive Game Writer
Everywhere we go, we carry hand-held computers for instant entertainment, information, and communication. For many, a phone is the last thing we look at before bed and the first we grab in the morning. Attachment to these devices makes us perfect targets for the mobile gaming industry, allowing companies and startups reach a more casual gamer with little interest in traditional consoles or games. At the same time, it provides writers, like myself, the opportunity to reach a new audience through interactive game writing.
When I first quit my traditional 8 to 5 in favor of a freelance career, becoming an interactive game writer was not on the radar. Willing to put in the work and build my resume, I took projects ranging from real estate copy-editing to writing sex toy descriptions for online retailers. It wasn’t always interesting or enjoyable, but I quickly found a nice palate cleanser. Surprisingly, it was the 2 to 4 hours a week I spent writing children’s mobile game descriptions for a company in Japan. Sure, there are only so many ways to describe a puzzle, picture search, or mommy role-play game, but it was a challenge to create something new based on what they sent me twice a week.
A Random Opportunity
After months of writing simple game descriptions, the company approached me about writing an actual game. They provided a general game idea, such as a teen girl competes in the Olympic games, has two crushes, and wins either a gold or bronze medal. Every other plot, character, or choice detail was up to me. I simply could not use inappropriate character actions (drug or alcohol use, pregnancy, etc) for their younger teen target audience.
I don’t have kids and am not the best with romance, but I could not pass up the opportunity. The first game I wrote was “College Love Story: Teen Crush,” a teen romance where the player chooses between the jock and the musician. It was a terrifying experience to write such a large creative project, but when they asked me to write two more (“Magic Love Story: Secret Crush” and “Sports Star Love Story in Rio”), I didn’t care that I was a ghostwriter. I just wanted a career as an interactive game writer.
Published by Bluebell Lush on the Apple App Store and Google Play
The Search for a Home
Over the course of a year, I applied for many remote writer positions with mobile gaming companies. No one hired me with my three-game experience, but looking back, I’m relieved that it held me back. Simply put, every position I inquired about did not work with the types of stories I wanted to tell.
For a brief period, I felt defeated. So focused on my current freelance work, I didn’t bother looking at potential jobs outside of my usual copywriting and editing. Then, a simple “freelance writer” search on Indeed revealed a listing that caught my eye.
The Interactive Writer position was with the startup known as Tales. The company boasted several interesting features, each more interesting than those of my previous applications.
First, they desired narratives geared toward adults. No, not x-rated content; stories with mature themes and plots more akin to what you’d read in a book or watch on, in their own words, HBO.
Second, they wanted to take the popularity of books and ebooks and translate it into success in a mixed-media, interactive format.
Third, they partnered with writers for success and even sponsored them an advance on their game’s income. The only ask was a 25% stake if the story’s rights sold for use outside the company, say for television or the like, a reasonable ask considering the support provided for a game’s success.
Finally, and most importantly, they were looking for people like me.
I applied immediately.
The Application Process: How Did It Work?
The application process for their interactive game writers worked in stages: (1) background information and writing samples, (2) pitch story ideas, and (3) the story treatment. I submitted my info and received the go-ahead to pitch my story ideas rather quickly.
Choosing a Story to Pitch
With the green light to pitch ideas came the head-throbbing worry over choosing the right idea. I wrote six general ideas and committed to two, for which I wrote a hook and synopsis. One of those was Sacred Fire, the story of a female demon hunter who finds that religious order she thought her savior is actually more dangerous than any demon she slays. The second was Ashen Skies, a story of survival, but also that of love, parenting, trust, and hard choices.
“After negotiating with the Taliban and wiping out Isis, it seems the Middle East is in for a period of stability–that is, until terrorists unleash nuclear weapons in the United States. When the United States responds in kind, their actions spark an even larger war, turning hippy mom Rachel’s world gray and revealing one harsh truth: To survive in this world, you must be willing to bathe in blood.”Ashen Skies Cover Teaser
In truth, I had the opportunity to choose between the two stories. Ashen Skies was the story they recommended for me to write. As much as I love the supernatural genre, I now understand why. Not worrying about magic and lore let me focus on writing a first game far more complicated and expansive than I originally planned, and it’s something I’m immensely proud of. I’m glad it is the first game whose story is entirely my creation.
Creating Ashen Skies
After leaping from my chair, scaring my dog, and dancing in elation, I was on to the next step: drafting a story treatment. Tales gives an outline of what they require, and this is how they really dive into your story idea and see how it may work as an interactive game. There are several elements to this because it is the final, full pitch before the company agrees to a 3-episode pilot.
Opening and Pitch
- Summary. One liner teaser, cover teaser, logline, the pitch. This is perhaps the easiest part of the document because you’ve already written one teaser and synopsis for your pitch. Here, I basically revised elements discussed upon acceptance of my pitch and wrote various teasers to market the game.
- Opener. The first scene of the game is the most important. It will float or sink it and determine whether the audience reads on to the next episode, or even finishes the first episode itself. During my treatment, I kept things slim. Then by my first episode draft, I set up the night in question and went into a lot of detail about what happened leading up to the big event that sets everything off. But a story-based game is a little different from a book. You cannot be George R. R. Martin. Something has to happen within the first 10-15 taps to hook the reader, and it has to build from there. I look at my treatment now and see how I was too excited and fleshed the scene out too much when I initially wrote it.
Setting Up the World
- Characters. All major reoccurring characters required details. Five are a huge part of the beginning of the story, but I needed to figure out exactly who they were. What traits do they have? What background might be important to the narrative and explain their actions? How do they relate to one another? What are their motivations? What do they look like? Knowing my main characters inside and out made things much easier down the line.
- World Concepts. Not only does the world need a visual concepts, such as a war-battered city or isolated cabin in the forest, it needs themes. Ashen Skies starts in the city and later explores small towns and isolated rural areas. These settings, however, are the backdrop to the civilian conflict that drastically increases when the government fails and people fend for themselves. I thought about civilians during war. When things are grim and resources scarce, some will band together and others will become wolves. This not only shows in how people react to the characters of Ashen Skies but also in how the player chooses to act themselves. To make it all the more difficult, the conflict of how to raise a child during a society destroying event is ever-present. Do you keep their innocence for as long as possible? Or do you teach them how to survive, even when it means violence?
Gameplay and Tone
- Gameplay. In a choice-based narrative game, factoring in elements that make choices matter is important, and that’s where game play comes in. What types of choices will the player make, and why do they matter? What relationships are important, and how will they impact the story? Are there variables the player can increase or decrease to complete tasks or unlock paths? As a survival game, the choices and relationships were easy. The variables proved a bit more difficult, but I settled on strength, trust, supplies, and endurance. I also flavored episode playthroughs by giving each choice a personality based on survival style; they added up and gave players a survival style at the end of the episode. More complicated were the “under the hood” elements. Every hard choice made and relationship improved or neglected impacted the end of the game. And that’s what is important: the game is re-playable like a good book is re-readable, but unlike the book, you might end up somewhere totally new. It was at the back of my mind with every choice.
- Voice and Tone. I wrote a playful scene that quickly turns serious when the child is fearful for their parent. Not only does it show normal banter and the type of dialogue I’m going for, it includes the physical reactions, which are important during tense situations. Since not everything was a heavy moment in the story, I felt contrasting the good times against the bad showed a better picture of the voice and tone.
- Outline of Episodes 1-3 (detailed). The locations, characters, and main story beats and themes provide a good starting spot for writing the “pilot,” the first three episodes. Having an outline made it less stressful when I sat down to write those first episodes. I broke it down by place and beats that later guided me well in the first episodes.
- Outline of Season. I wrote an outline of 3-episode chunks, and it was extremely helpful later because I knew where I was going. I’m not necessarily someone who likes to write detailed outlines ahead of time, as I write best when the characters take me where they may, but having specific beats to hit kept me sane when the pressure of later episodes hit and the paths got complicated.
- Future Season Ideas. Any ideas for a spin-off or extension of the game were welcome. I cannot share mine here; it would be an Ashen Skies spoiler!
The Fear: Don’t Drop the Ball!
I’ll be honest: I was a wreck during and after working on the treatment. As self-critical as I can be, it never shined as brightly as when I read this document again and again and again. As a professional medical proofreader, spotting errors in documents is my job, so no problem, right? I guess any writer who self edits enough knows that when you read something you wrote, and repeatedly, you miss the simplest mistakes. And I already knew well and good that I miss my own, so that only made it worse. Thankfully, the staff at FableLabs worked quickly and approved my treatment.
From Idea to Playable Game
Now came the hard part: writing the game. Not only did I have to write a normal story, but I had to write in choices that mattered, script everything to run in their program, figure out appropriate sound and visual effects, include and account for gameplay variables, and meet specific benchmarks for playtime, choice counts, and branching.
Details, Details, Details
To make my story pop, sound and visual effects put the reader in the scene. Would footsteps raise the tension here? How do I show the character is in pain, injured, or sick? Is that explosion large enough to “shake the ground”? In this location, what background noise would the character hear? I also used ambient sounds and saved the individual effects to make them count. Sure, we might hear footsteps walking through the woods, but does that matter unless we’re running away or someone is following us?
The player needs to feel as though their choices matter, even the slightest piece of dialogue. My choices ranged from large-scale, where players took a totally different path for the entire episode, to micro, where a simple reply to a friend impacted the relationship. The stakes increased as the game progressed.
The variables that players collect in Ashen Skies were important. For instance, gathering more Supplies allows them to butter up a relationship or trade with other groups. Earning high Trust unlocks paths that require other characters to have confidence in your decision-making. Increasing Endurance unlocks harder paths, physically, mentally, and morally. The goal is for players to think about their choices because each one might impact a variable they want to have on hand.
Of course, there are also invisible variables that the player does not see. I used a ton of them to keep up with items picked up, places possible to visit, last interactions with other characters, level of violence used, parenting choices, injuries had, and so on. Each of these impacted the path of the game on a minor or large level because I kept up with them, I counted them, and I used every single one of them.
While improving these variables should matter, it shouldn’t always be work. In Ashen Skies, almost every action or dialogue choice adds up to a playstyle (in this case, survival style) that reveals itself at the end of the episode, a fun feature Tales requires of its games.
With the teen games I wrote, I used a spreadsheet. With Tales, I actually script the entire story. The process is a bit like writing a play, but you also fill in details:
- Minigames designs
- Changes in locations
- Visual and sound effects
- Choices and branching paths
- Use of a special font or text style
- Actors, sets, and images chosen for use
- Entrances and exits of characters on the screen
- What emotion will present on the character’s face
- Creating, calling upon, adding to, or subtracting from gameplay variables
- All the other bells and whistles that change the details and improve the player’s experience
It’s not like coding an actual program, but you’re writing in a language that a program can pull from and run. Once I wrote a few episodes, the only time I referred to the scripting guide was to review changes or attempt unusual or specialty things within the game.
It’s a Lot, Until It’s Not
It seemed daunting, but it was only hard the first few episodes, and the story treatment was a wonderful tool stay on track. For instance, it took a couple of tries to get the first episode right. It was too long, with too much needless detail, and the action needed to speed up. Luckily, FableLabs has a fantastic Narrative Lead that came on board while I was writing Ashen Skies. It’s often hard to hear criticism of your work, but she was always constructive and helped me find my footing and spot areas to improve.
Afterward, I felt as though I hit my stride and found something I absolutely loved to do. It was a joy to write and figure out how to make the game even better. At that point, it’s never work. It’s a passion.
The Writing Process
With each new episode, I cranked up Sublime and looked at my treatment outline. The portion that applied to my current episode stayed visible for reference. At times, it was in a second window off to the side. Others, I split it by scene and pasted it into my script; I then scripted to a point and deleted the piece of outline I completed. When episodes reached a complicated level, however, a Word document was my best friend.
For long, large splits in the path, and to ensure I didn’t make the paths too similar, I used tables to outline two or more branches and then literally outlined all major choices to the endings. This was how I ventured down 8 paths in the last episode, with more than 16 endings, in multiple locations with different character combinations, and stayed sane. It challenged my usual preparation style, which is I don’t prepare much at all.
Other than that, I sat in front of the computer, put on music, a favorite Twitch streamer, or a TV show, and just wrote. I started at the beginning or where I left off and let my characters lead me. I didn’t fret over it or spend hours contemplating what I should write or edit myself insane; my passion for the project kept me even-keeled.
A Writer’s Doubts and Fears
Still, a passion can wear on you. Even though I loved my story to its bare bones, I did have my moments of doubt. There was one night when I wasn’t so sure of it all. Oddly enough, I sat down to start Episode 25, the finale, and felt overwhelmed. Not much before, only then. The questions kept appearing in my mind. It was like counting an infinite number of sheep.
What have I done to myself?
How did I make this so complicated?
Do the game play variables make enough variance to meet my goals?
Will the endings pack the emotional punch I hoped?
Will I ever finish this gigantic episode?
The doubt gnawed at me, like a colony of termites decimating a stump, until one particular moment. I stared at the blinking cursor as I prepared to write the final scene for the first path; it was just one of many endings, but it was the first I’d write. As the words charged from my fingertips to the computer screen, I felt the emotion of the moment rising. It was one line from a character. One full of anger and pain, but mostly grief.
I pressed the period key, and I cried. I felt as though I was that person in that moment. And that’s when I knew I could do it. I could end it as it deserved. Hopefully, those who play the game feel the weight of their decisions in the end, just like I did while writing it.
When I submitted the last episode, I felt relief and excitement: I did it! I really did it! The hardest part was done, and now only time would tell if it paid off. I was more than ready to see how the game would do once released with all the graphics and other assets. (Spoiler alert: So far so good!)
Still, I took a well-needed break after the monster that was the finale, but only to recharge. Seeing the finished product puts all the long hours and late nights in a glowing light. And it makes you want to do it all over again.
A Future for Fiction?
Becoming an interactive writer for the mobile gaming industry isn’t as far-fetched as one might think. I stumbled into game writing by chance, and my first game is performing well. The success of Ashen Skies even provided me the opportunity to start a second game, Fragmented.
It’s not the novel I’ve been working on since college, but perhaps this is an alternate future for some fiction writers. With more and more startups seeking a foothold in the lucrative gaming world, a writer with interest in designing these hand-held narratives should practice their craft and keep an eye out for even the smallest of opportunities. It may pay off in unexpected ways.