Writing Video Games: How To Build a Career in Narrative Design

KEY TAKEAWAYS

From gamer to narrative creator, we explore one writers's journey into the video game industry, with insights around the industry's challenges, the importance of a diverse skill set, networking's impact, and the entrepreneurial leap into founding a game studio. Top tips, books, Discord channels and events to help any budding games writer.

Narrative design — the storytelling of video games — is a notoriously difficult industry to join, and my own journey may be a help to budding gamewriters.

From books, conferences, Discord groups, and networking, there are many ways to increase your chances if you want to start your career, and I’d like to share the resources I’ve found and the challenges I’ve faced on my own path into the industry.

How I Found My Video Game Storytelling Passion

I have been enjoying video games since I was eight. I remember playing Pokemon on my Game Boy Advance with my best friend in the mountains of rural Sicily in the early 2000s.

I also recall, a few years later, going to a small store in Palermo with my dad and purchasing my first PlayStation console. I could choose from two games that would come with my PS1: Pro Evolution Soccer and Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus. I was never much into football, so I went with the latter.

In the meantime, my dad was kind enough to regularly purchase gaming magazines that came with demos of various games. I enjoyed each of them, exploring new titles and reading avidly through the pages of the magazines.

The years passed, and my gaming library grew. My passion for PS consoles remained, and throughout the years, I was lucky enough to own most of Sony’s gaming machines. I met one of my best friends playing Metal Gear Online (from MGS3: Subsistence) on PS2 before meeting him in London years later.

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At the same time, I’d like to think I was always a writer (I know, such a cliche). I was writing horror stories in primary school, had several online blogs on Myspace (none of which were successful), and generally always felt like jotting down my words for one reason or another. This craving for storytelling evolved over the years to the point that I started writing a fantasy novel. This was still when I lived in Italy and was still determining where my professional career would go.

I eventually moved to London and decided to study journalism. I learned to write in English, as well as in a journalistic format. Throughout the past few years, I’ve developed my portfolio and contributed to various publications, both at the national and local levels. I mostly covered technology, which I thoroughly enjoyed and still do. However, I also regularly attempted to write about video games.

Unfortunately, anyone who has ever tried to go down this path knows that in journalism, covering video games is often little more than a passion project than an actual job – the exception being a few prominent but gaming-focused publications with more consistent budgets.

Then, at the beginning of 2023, while I was playing a heartbreaking scene in the JRPG Tales of Arise, it hit me.

I should be writing games. Not merely discuss or describe them but bring them to life.

The State of the Video Games Industry in 2023

Of course, as anyone watching the games industry this year knows, 2023 was an extremely polarising year for games. An influx of unique games and growing funds corresponded in an equally substantial round of layoffs. Thousands of incredibly talented people inexplicably lost their jobs this year despite the industry’s growing riches.

These circumstances make breaking into the industry more challenging than usual (spoiler alert, it is usually quite hard to begin with). The situation was particularly dire when it came to narrative design and game writing. To give a few figures from Statista, in 2021, only 2% of all roles in game development were in narrative design and game writing. This is against 19% in programming, 11% in production, and 10% in 2D/3D art.

Now, it is true that game studios have been increasingly paying attention to story compared to the past. However, I would not expect the figures to have changed dramatically. It also goes without saying that with such fierce competition paired with the rise of generative AI, junior game-writing roles have been rare. In contrast, narrative design ones were almost nonexistent.

For context, game writing refers to creating stories within video games, encompassing the development of dialogue, plotlines, character arcs, and overall narrative structure. Meanwhile, narrative design involves the broader aspects of shaping the player’s experience, including integrating story elements with gameplay mechanics, level design, and interactive elements to craft a cohesive and engaging overall game narrative.

From Journalism to Narrative Design

So, how did I get a job in narrative design in such a crazy industry? I hear you asking. Well, I did, and I didn’t. I ended up creating my own studio, but more on that later. In this section, I want to share what I did to increase my chances of getting a job in the industry (and to increase the reach of my first title).

First off, I’ve read books. A lot of them. A very non-exhaustive (but in my opinion essential list here):

Two notes on this list. First, some of these books are incredibly expensive for someone unemployed and looking for a job. I do not know the inner workings of publishing well enough to say whether this is necessary, but I can understand how this could pose a financial obstacle for some people. If that’s the case, look for these books in your local library, and you will most likely find some.

The second note is that information inevitably repeats across different books. In my list, I have tried to pick resources that complement each other, but some information will come back to haunt you. My advice, against the current perhaps, is not to read too many books about narrative design/game writing. It is crucial to gather the foundational knowledge to know how to do this job, but making games and building up your portfolio is more important.

Building Up Your Portfolio

This is probably the most daunting and fascinating part of the process. As a journalist for many years, I was already aware of the importance of having a solid portfolio. Still, in the realm of narrative design and game writing, what elements should be incorporated into a portfolio? Games are a given, and a compelling storyline is essential, but how does one craft them?

Many people are more qualified than me to answer these questions, so I will redirect you to one of them. Emily Short has worked in the gaming industry for twenty years, wearing various hats, such as game writer, narrative designer, coder, and critic. Her blog is a gold mine for anyone interested in starting in narrative design, including software tools to create narrative games independently.

Participating in game jams (where people try to make video games from scratch) is also a fantastic way of creating games to add to your portfolio. Additionally, it fosters collaboration between people from different disciplines, which is the core of making games. Itch.io has a plethora of game jams you can join regularly.

What if you don’t know anyone to join you on this adventure? Go to live events! I’m based in London, so I’m pretty lucky that way, but there are many events worldwide, big and small, for anyone interested in meeting other devs. Some of them are more expensive than others.

I have attended the majority of gaming events in the UK this year, including EGX, WASD, Develop, AdventureX, and a few others. At one of them, I met Colin Macdonald, an experienced producer, and started writing one of his newsletters.

If you shove away your natural writer shyness, you’ll meet incredibly wonderful people to join you on your quest. This Discord channel (Game Industry Events) covers almost all the most significant gaming events in the world, so make sure to join it. On an adjacent note, this channel (Narrative House) is specifically for all things narrative/game writing.

A final note on being social and collaborative: finding a mentor is also great. They may be unable to help you find a job directly, but their guidance and experience can be invaluable. Mentorship schemes for the games industry are still in their infancy. Still, if you’re based in the UK and from an underrepresented background, you should check Limit Break.

I was lucky to participate this year and have learned so much about the industry. My mentor, Matthew Tibbenham, a narrative designer at Supermassive Games, was also incredibly helpful with feedback regarding the game I’m working on.

Setting Up a Game Studio in the UK

After dozens of rejections and seeing how dire the situation in the industry was this year, I decided to set up my own studio. I was lucky enough to have a group of close friends with highly complementary skills who were happy to embark on this journey together.

Releasing a game on Steam is a relatively straightforward process and will possibly give your title more legitimacy than uploading it on Itch.io or similar platforms. However, I can’t stress this enough: Steam is a savagely competitive platform. Back in 2021, an average of 30 games were published daily on the platform. This is to say, don’t expect instant success. And don’t cut corners. By releasing on Steam, you will have a vast audience, but also a picky one.

You can release your game on Steam as an individual, but creating a company will possibly be beneficial, particularly if you plan on making other games with other people in the future. Setting up a limited company in the UK is extremely easy. At the time of writing, it costs approximately £12. You’ll have to spend a bit more to create an international bank account to take Steam payments (I used Wise) and specify a business address. If you have the funds, you can rent an actual office. However, if you are short on funds, you can easily rent a virtual office to scan and send your post via email. We used The London Office to have a London-based address, which can’t hurt.

My team and I are currently working on our first game, All We Need. The title is planned for release in the first half of 2023. I have applied all my hard-earned knowledge into this game and created the whole story for it from scratch. I paid particular attention to story beats, creating credible dialogues, and building satisfying branching endings. Is the game going to be a hit or a flop? I’m absolutely terrified to find out, but I’m really enjoying working on it. If there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that making games is all about savoring the journey.

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Alessandro Mascellino

Alessandro is a freelance multimedia journalist with a focus on emerging technologies. He is also passionate about the world of videogames and currently developing his narrative design skills.