My old website was looking pretty dated, so I moved everything over to a (slightly) fresher template. I cleaned up a lot of loose ends in the process. Don’t worry! All of the Ask Anna posts are still available in the archive. I’ll update my Game Writing FAQ soon with material from recent talks, and I’m going to start blogging again, so check back occasionally.
Last week I was delighted to announce that I’m moving to Malmö to work for Ubisoft Massive as Lead Writer. I’ve been sitting on the news for a while now, so it feels good to have it out there. I moved to Helsinki because I fell in love with Control and knew I had to be a part of it. Letting go of the project was hard, but I know that it’s in good hands with Sam Lake and my talented team. I can’t wait to see the final game they create.
The Sudden Stop posted a really sweet farewell message after my announcement on Twitter.
I’ll miss the incredible Remedy fan community a lot, and the friends I made here, and of course annoying the HEL out of everyone with my puns, but a MASSIVE new opportunity awaits me. I’m excited to get started.
During gamescom, Remedy's communications director Thomas Puha walked the folks at GameStar through the Control demo. The narration is German, but the video still lets you experience a mission midway through our game.
The news is finally out: P7 is Control. I finally got to talk about the game at E3. It was wonderful to share the weirdness with everyone. Remedy fansite The Sudden Stop has done an amazing round-up of all the articles, interviews, and videos from the show, so I'll just post our announcement trailer.
We got our nomination certificates in the mail and...I guess the nomination is real! It's incredible, but true. Everyone tells me that Horizon Zero Dawn is going to win, but I stubbornly hope that the WGA will recognize the painstaking care and love that went into crafting DOTO. Even if we don't win, we're very happy and honored to have been nominated. It means the world for our labor of love to be recognized.
Unfortunately, I can't go to the ceremony. It's too far to travel for just one small event, and my schedule is too busy. Sachka and Harvey can't make it either, so Hazel will be there to reprazent for Team Sporty Flamingos. Cross your fingersthat she brings us home an award!
Tonight I was alerted that the narrative team on Dishonored: Death of the Outsider has been nominated for the Writers' Guild of America Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing Award.
Obviously, we're thrilled to make the award shortlist--especially when we're in such talented company.
You can see the list of nominees for all award categories on the WGA website. The presentation ceremony is on Feb 11th, so we'll know then how we did. Cross your fingers for us!
First Things First...
So you’ve done your homework: checked all the job sites, networked your fingers off, and followed up every opportunity. Finally, you find a job posting that sounds perfect. It’s your dream job! Yay! Now, how do you convince the studio to hire you?
The Job Post
First, look at the job description. Read it carefully. Read it again. Is this really the right job for you? Let’s look at Remedy’s ad for a writer.
The key section is "what we expect from you." These are the baseline requirements for the role. Looking at Remedy’s ad, a few things jump out:
- This isn’t an entry-level role. You don’t need to have the extensive experience of a senior writer, but you do need some experience writing games. Writing for AAA games involves unique constraints, and you should know them. If you’ve shipped an indie game or published a book, the burden’s on you to explain how that experience translates to AAA game development.
I encourage you to apply for any job you think you can handle, but be realistic. If you have no games or film experience at all, you’re unlikely to get a senior writing role. Even if you’re an amazing writer, you’ll be competing with other amazing writers who also have experience.
“But, Anna,” you say, “How am I supposed to get experience? All the jobs I see expect you to have it already!” Remedy recruiter Petteri Tuomimaa can answer that question better than I can. Hit him up!
- This is not a remote position. I know, I know. You’re secretly hoping that your work is so dazzling that they’ll make an exception and let you work from home in Kansas. I won’t say that never happens, but it almost never happens. Companies have good reason for wanting you onsite. For senior roles especially, you need to be at the studio leading meetings, driving, schedules, and coordinating with other teams. It’s almost impossible to do those things remotely. The ugly truth is that if they need an onsite writer and you can only be remote, you won’t get the job.
- Flexibility and teamwork are important. Being a team player, rolling with development changes, and being able to handle constructive criticism are non-negotiable parts of this job. Making games is a collaborative process. Narrative—especially in story-driven games—unites all departments, from programming to PR. You have to communicate your ideas clearly, accept critiques, and make needed changes without getting huffy or hurt. I’m not saying you’ll have group hugs with your team all day, but you need to get along with them and not be precious about your writing. If you don’t like working with other people, then AAA games aren’t a good fit for you.
- Write well. This is where most applicants have problems, but it’s the most critical part of the job. You must write well, in English, and be able to prove it. It’s cool that you’ve done a lot of design work, or you’re a master at production scheduling, or you’ve memorized every line from Alan Wake. How’s your writing? You must be able to demonstrate, through samples and a writing test, that you can write a compelling story.
Okay! So far, so good. You’ve looked over the requirements and they’re a good fit for you. What’s next?
Most game studios will ask for a resume and 2-3 writing samples.
- Resume: I won’t go into detail about the resume because that’s more a recruiter preference, but I will say this: focus on relevant information. If you’re applying for a job as a game writer, don’t send in the same resume you used to apply for your barista job. Make sure the experience translates to making games. If you mention taking CPR classes one summer, explain why that matters for game writing. If it doesn’t matter, why include it?
Here's some advice from another recruiter about what to include on your resume:
"Writer positions are one of the most applied to jobs, at least in my opinion. It's good to keep in mind that the recruiters will go through many, many applications. Keep your CV short and clear. If you have years of various work experience, try to pick only the relevant ones for your CV, keeping in mind the role you're applying for. Two pages is a good maximum for a CV. Remember to include a cover letter too, and please don't forget to attach the writing assignment /samples."
- Writing samples: These are tricky. The whole point of samples is to showcase your writing skills. Show your best and strongest work. Keep your samples brief. Nobody is going to take the time to read your 90-page manuscript. (Unless you’re Telltale and that’s what you’re requesting from applicants.)
Here’s a helpful thread about what studios look for in samples.
Okay, you’ve convinced the studio that you can write. Now what? The process is different at every company, but you’ll probably have a brief interview or phone-screening. Recruiters or HR reps will get a sense of who you are as a person and what your expectations are. They’re looking for obvious red flags like, “Does your company offer pants-optional spaces?” and making sure you understand the role requirements. Relax, be yourself, and you’ll be fine.
If your interview goes well, you’ll move on to the next step.
The Writing Test
Most companies will ask for a writing test, even if you have experience and excellent samples. It’s nothing personal. If you’re insulted by the request, then…well, maybe the job’s not for you.
When I asked on Twitter for advice from other writers, they all wanted to talk about the writing test. Everyone agreed that this is where they see the most mistakes. Why? Why do so many people go wrong here? Here’s what one writer said about the writing tests his studio received:
This sums up the biggest problem studios see. By the time you’re asked to complete a writing test, they already know you can write well. What they don’t know is if you can write the kind of games they make. That’s what the test reveals.
So how do you ace it?
- Do your research. Know what kind of games you’ll be writing for. If it’s a huge company like Ubisoft, check the news to see what projects are currently in development at the studio where you’re applying. Your Assassin’s Creed test will be different from your Just Dance test. If it’s a just-announced title like Remedy’s P7 and there’s no information about the kind of game it will be, look at their other titles. You can get a pretty good sense of Remedy’s writing philosophies from Max Payne, Alan Wake, and Quantum Break. Then write your test in the studio style.
- Follow the test instructions. This seems obvious, right? Why would you ignore the instructions? But so many people disregard explicit requirements. If the test asks for “no more than five pages,” don’t write ten. Brevity might be part of the test. If the test asks for a fetch quest, don’t write a long cinematic. Write what the test asks you to. Studios want to see if you can write within constraints.
- Don’t cheat. Look, we get it. Writing tests are time consuming. It’s tough to write a good, sharp script in the short amount of time allotted. You might end up tossing something together at the last minute because your careful planning went wrong. Game studios know this. Professional writers understand. But they want to see what you produce under pressure and how well you write to specifications. If you tweak an existing sample into kinda-sorta matching the test—or worse, outright send pages from a pre-written script—you’re not helping yourself. Studios can usually tell when you fudge the test. Do you think the job isn’t worth the effort? Are you lazy? Will you cut corners on your work if you get the job? Cheating raises questions, none of them good. Just take the test and do your best.
- Minimize Risks. Writing tests are your chance to dazzle the studio. This is where you show off your command of language, your genius for witty one-liners, or your tight narrative design. Tests are not the place to innovate or try to hit the “inverted hero’s journey” beats you saw on a fanfic site last month. Write what you know you’re good at.
- Have fun! No, I’m not joking. Most professional writers I know enjoy writing tests. Treat it as a fun exercise, and write something that entertains you. That way, even if you don't get the job, you'll have another sample for your portfolio.
If you make it past it the writing test, then you’ll most likely have another interview—or series of interviews—with representatives from various studio departments: art, design, programming, audio, etc. These are the people you’ll collaborate with if you get the job. I won’t offer much advice for the interviews, but try to demonstrate your understanding of the game development process. Be genuine and ask questions. This is your chance to learn more about the industry and that studio specifically. If you don't get the job, at least you've made some new connections.
And that’s it. The rest of the hiring process is like applying for any other job. You can handle that, right?
Q & A
Applying from another discipline?
An ND from Telltale games responds:
What tools should you know and use?
Something like Twine, where we can actually play your story, works best. But at most studios, you'll write branching dialogue inside a tool that mimics Word or Final Draft. We definitely want to see how you work with those tools, so have at least one written script sample in your portfolio. On the job, you'll mostly use proprietary game-writing programs, along with Word, Final Draft, Excel, Visio, and Perforce.
What if I'm a good writer with no XP?
I suggest making your own games. Make interactive stories in Twine, Inform, ChoiceScript, or other similar programs. See if you can join an incubator program like Pixelles. And don't be afraid to go for game writing jobs! Good writing is good writing. It's a lot easier to teach someone the game development process than it is to teach them how to write well.
What about applying for jobs in other countries?
Moving abroad is a big step—for you and for the company hiring you. Find out visa requirements to see which countries it's easier for you to work in and to make sure you qualify. Talk to the company early on in the hiring process to find out how much help they provide with paperwork and moving. Some companies (like Remedy) offer generous relocation packages, but I've heard that some other companies expect you to handle moving costs and arrangements on your own. This can be very expensive and complicated, especially if you have a family or pets. Make sure you know what to expect.
Also, make sure you can handle an international move. Culture shock is real. It can be overwhelming to start a new job, in a new country, with a new language and new...everything. If you don't like change or have trouble adapting to new situations, it'll be tough.
All that being said, do it! Working abroad is an amazing, horizon-expanding experience. You'll meet incredibly talented people from all over the world, gain a new perspective on your own country, and maybe learn a new language. If you're a creative person, you'll discover that adventure inspires some of your best work.
So get informed, plan ahead, and go for it! ^^
How do I show that I understand interactive writing? What writing devices should I use?
These are good questions, but studios expect you to know the answers already. If you're applying for jobs at the AAA level, you should be aware of interactive storytelling's unique demands and know how to demonstrate your understanding. As for which plot devices and twists to use, that's a matter of personal taste. Use your best judgment. Studios want to know what you think good writing looks like. There's no point writing a sample that's outside your normal style if it's not how you'll write on the job. Trust your skills, and write stories you like.
How do I break into the industry as a writer?
This question comes up a lot and, I'm sorry, but I don't have an answer for you. I got my start in QA and worked my way up, so that's the route I know. But you're right: that path doesn't exist anymore, not the way it used to. Some companies have internships now. Some people make their own indie games first. But I don't know if there's a defined route into game writing like there used to be. Does anyone have any suggestions?
Don't let this post discourage you! You should pursue your dream and try out for any job you desire. But go into the process prepared and professional. Who knows what might happen? I'll leave you with this thought from veteran recruiter Camilla Taipalvesi:
"Open applications are recommended. Don't be shy to apply even if you feel that you're not exactly what was described in the job ad! You never know if we have some not yet opened position to which you might be a perfect fit. Quite recently we hired a Junior Writer even though we did not have the position open!"
I just saw the game credits for Dishonored: Death of the Outsider. I will never feel less than thrilled and amazed to see my name listed as a writer for a video game. That goes double for work I'm as proud of as this project.
Bethesda just released more information about DOTO—which comes out next month, incredibly. There's an interview where Harvey discusses details about why the DLC is stand-alone and what it means for the story.
I'm delighted to announce that I've accepted a job as Senior Writer at Remedy Games. I've been a big fan of their work for years, ever since I played Alan Wake. But I never dreamed I'd move to Helsinki and actually work for them. I'm excited about the project I'll be working on. It's a dream story, for me. I can't wait to get started!
At long last, I can tell everyone about the project I was working on this year. It was a real labor of love for me and the entire team. Such a dream job, writing about Billie Lurk and her quest to kill the Outsider. Look how badass she is!
It was a joy to work with all the smart, talented people at Arkane Studios. I can't wait until the game comes out so you can see all of our hard work come to fruition. Here's a small peek:
The video for my ECGC panel in 2015 suddenly appeared on my Twitter timeline yesterday. I'd never seen it before! It was fun to talk about games with Jesse Scoble, Ann Lemay, Mikki Rautalahti. If you're a game writer, seriously add ECGC to your don't-miss list of cons. It's fun and informative.
Ben Lindbergh at The Ringer asked for my views on why video games don't list play length on the box anymore. Here's my response:
“By the time any major title is released, we know from thorough testing how long the average playthrough takes, how long average leveling up takes, and how long it takes different play styles to play through the game,” says game writer Anna Megill. “We know the times for players who skip cinematics vs. players who read every line of conversation, explorers vs. achievers, and so forth. We even have internal speedrun records. A studio could easily estimate an average gameplay time.”
However, Megill believes that just because a studio could estimate average playtime doesn’t mean it should. “There’s danger in viewing games as a time investment rather than an experience,” she says. “Journey took me four hours to play through the first time, but it changed the way I see games forever. How do you quantify that?”
It's an interesting article with thoughtful responses from some big industry names. Definitely worth a read--even if I don't see gameplay times appearing on boxes again anytime soon.
I get a LOT of requests for gamewriting book recommendations. Some of you want a manual or how-to guide that covers the basics. Some of you already work as designers or artists and want to understand the story side of games better. "Anna," you say, "there's a crapton of gamewriting books these days. How do I find the best book for me? I don't even know what I need to know!"
I hear you. It's tough. But I'm here to help.
The best way to learn is by reading books and playing games—and then tearing them apart to understand how they're made. Learn to read and play games with a critical lens. Always ask yourself how the creator makes the story and characters work—or why they don't work.
"But, Anna," you say, "how do I get that critical lens?" Okay, fair question. I wrote up a list of resources to get designers started, but it obviously won't help non-designers. So, here's my new plan. I'll write short reviews of gamewriting and narrative design books. And by "short," I mean a sentence or two. These will not be in-depth critiques. I'll discuss the book's focus, its best audience, and how practical/useful/accurate I find its content as a professional gamewriter.
I'll add critiques one by one as I finish reading the books. If there's a book not listed here that you'd like me to review, list that baby in the comments.
Basics: These books are not about gamewriting specifically, but many are considered foundational texts. Read them with a thoughtful, analytical eye, and they can provide great insight into storytelling structure and technique. If you can resist the temptation to use them as story templates or checklists, they're fantastic sources of information.
Reviews: Books that I am reading and reviewing.
Slay the Dragon: Writing Great Video Games by Robert Denton Bryant and Keith Giglio - This was a quick and interesting read. It covers writing and game basics like structure and character with lots of bleeding-edge media examples—such as Remedy's recently released Quantum Break. The knowledgeable and well-connected authors are aware of the latest discussions and debates taking place in the gamewriting community. The book includes helpful exercises at the end of each chapter.
Best audiences: Screenwriters making the switch to games or interactive media. Novice writers who already know the basics of good writing.
- Simple, understandable explanations of how game design influences story.
- Concrete examples that include IF, board games, films, and plays.
Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know about Narrative Techniques by Evan Skolnick. - PENDING
DISCLAIMER: I'm friends with many of the authors, but I receive no payment of any kind for these reviews. I pay for the books with my money. I read them on my own time. And I offer these reviews not as a promotion or endorsement, but to help readers find the best book for their needs.
I got some messages recently asking me about Project Untold, my Twitch show, my scratches, and my writing life in general, so I thought I'd give a quick update.
Project Untold: The visual novel and tools are on indefinite hold. I closed my Patreon for it last summer, because I was no longer actively working on it. I did as much work as I felt comfortable doing on my own, but I can't move ahead without a team. I've been working other contracts for the past six months, but those end next week, so maybe I'll pick up Untold again and see what I can do with it.
Story Goes Here/A Million Monkeys: Oh boy. I don't know who all caught the disastrous first episode of the show, but it was not fun. A combo of tech issues and bad timing, the experience was so traumatizing for everyone involved that I won't try it again until I KNOW things will go smoothly. But I'll have more time when these contracts end, so maybe I'll give it another shot then.
Writing Life: I've been doing a LOT of writing. Incredibly, I wrote two novels last year. The novel I fountained out in under three months should never, ever see daylight, but the other one's not bad. I'm reworking it into something worthy of submission. I've also been a guest writer on a couple of games: Dead Scare and a TBA title. That was fun! And of course, I've been doing work for the Corcoran, which was inspiring and a genuine pleasure. I'm excited to see where I end up next.
Scratches: Yes, my cat scratches have mostly healed. Thanks for asking! I have a noticeable scar above my lip, but it makes me look dangerous. In a good way. The only downside is that I might have to change my name to "Snake" or "Bruno" or something.
Wait...is that a downside?
As I mentioned on Twitter, I've started reading a bunch of books on narrative design and gamewriting. I'll post brief summaries and recommendations of them when I'm done. I should have the first mini-review up in a week or two.
I still read every message that comes in, even if I mostly respond privately these days. So please don't heistate to drop me a line if there's something you want to know.
I've had some extraordinary conversations with fellow gamewriters recently about our inspirations and the games that made us choose this medium as the only viable means of expressing our stories. And I thought, "Why not share these conversations?" I couldn't think of a good way to worm out of it (my brain is a pest), so I'm starting a show on Twitch Creative.
Each week (or so) I'll have a guest gamewriter on to play any game of their choosing. They'll walk us through a section of the game and break down what's happening narratively. I think it'll be a lot of fun and very educational for anyone looking to get into gamewriting. Or for anyone who wants a deeper understanding of game story.
The title is tentatively "Story Goes Here," but I'm leaning more and more toward "A Million Monkeys" as a jab at all those people who think gamewriting is easy. That title was suggested by Aaron Linde, who will also be my first guest. We're playing Earthbound, I suspect.
I'll post more details as the show develops, so stay tuned!
I'm hosting an event for IGDA DC this month. My original plan was to have a small meetup of gamewriters who would get together and discuss writing once a month. But then it became an official IGDA event and really awesome devs signed on to chat with us and now it's turned into this:
The event starts at 6pm on Saturday, 9/26, at American University’s Game Lab. If you’re in the DC/Baltimore area, you won’t want to miss this.
Meet the Devs
Lucien Soulban is a twice-nominated BAFTA writer for Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4. He started writing in the stone age of games with a career in tabletop RPGs that spanned 20 years as writer, editor, and developer, with such properties as Vampire: The Masquerade and Dungeons & Dragons. He jumped to fiction, where he wrote novels for Warhammer 40K and Dragonlance, as well as various horror anthologies including Blood Lite 1, 2, & 3. In the last ten years, Lucien has worked on such AAA titles as Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Rainbow Six: Vegas, Far Cry 3, Far Cry 3 – Blood Dragon, and Far Cry 4 as writer and lead writer. He is currently working on an as-yet-to-be named project at Ubisoft Montreal.
Aaron Linde is a writer and game designer currently stationed at Gearbox Software, where he creates hand-forged fart jokes for the upcoming hero shooter Battleborn. Linde’s previous credits include games nobody’s ever played, as well as Gears of War 3, which at least several people played. He’s also an occasional creative collaborator on the web series Hey Ash Whatcha Playin’, and runs a novelty Twitter account about a dad from a 1994 SNES RPG. Expertise: Game writing and editing, narrative design, VO production, game design, fart jokes, localization, and fart joke localization.
Chris Klimas created Twine, an open-source tool for interactive text-based storytelling, in 2009 and continues to lead the project. He also develops indie games as part of Twofold Secret since 2011, which began with Flash games and transitioned to PC titles in recent years. Expertise: interactive fiction, open source, browser-based games.
Grant K. Roberts
Grant K. Roberts began his career in the games industry in 1997 as a writer and editor at Next Generation Magazine. Two years after that, he started in full-time game development. Most recently, he led the design of a culturally important, award-winning game with the Alaska Native community called Never Alone. Before that, he worked on a wide variety of titles such as Marvel Comics games for kids, free-to-play games for phones, big-budget sequels for the hardcore, and casino games for the bargain bin.
John Ryan has been writing either about or for games for more than 10 years now. He’s written for franchises including Fable and Guild Wars. Currently, John edits copy for Destiny. Expertise: game writing, editing, story bibles, narrative design, AAA dev process, world building, transmedia fiction, VO direction.
Kate Edwards is the Executive Director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) and also a geographer and founder of Geogrify, a Seattle-based consultancy for content culturalization. Formerly, she was Microsoft’s Geopolitical Strategist in the Geopolitical Strategy team she created and managed, helping the company avoid costly mistakes in their product content. Since leaving Microsoft, she has provided guidance to many companies on a wide range of geopolitical and cultural issues, and she continues to work on a variety of game franchises. In October 2013, Fortune magazine named her as one of the “10 most powerful women” in the game industry and in December 2014 she was named by GamesIndustry.biz as one of their six People of the Year.
Matthew Moore is a sometimes singing, always writing, multi-format game designer. Formerly with Microsoft and ArenaNet, he now works by day on digital games at Disney Interactive and by night readying the release of his tabletop juggernaut, Bring Your Own Book.
Patrick Coursey is a freelance videogame writer and designer. His recent work focuses on describing real-world conflicts and controversies through the lens of gameplay. He’s currently finishing the upcoming Cloud Chasers with Blindflug Studios, which was an Official Selection for IndieCade@E3 2015 and awarded “Best in Play” at GDC Play 2015.
Phil Salvador is the author of The Obscuritory, a blog about obscure games. He has hosted panels about the design lessons and history of obscure games at MAGFest and Awesome Con and is a member of the game collection committee at the American University Library. Expertise: game history, game criticism, independent work, blogging, community.
Sarah Bergh is a 2D and User Interface (UI) artist. Currently she is web designing for an educational game company called GlassLab, and before that did UI and 2d art for a number of projects including Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris, Murdered: Soul Suspect,Microsoft Flight, and Age of Empires: Online. She also loves to draw monsters in her spare time. Expertise: user interface, user experience, 2d art, concept art.
Tanis is an adventure card game designer with Paizo Publishing, responsible for creating and maintaining the Pathfinder Society Adventure Card Guild organized play program. She previously worked at Wizards of the Coast on Dungeons and Dragons, and at Lone Shark Games as an editor and factotum. She spends her free time harassing cats and advancing the cause of women in gaming. Expertise: tabletop game production, start to finish; design, development, editing, RPGs, board/card games, and user interaction.
And super-secret special guests!!
The IGDA is holding its first-ever gamewriting jam, the WAG Challenge, and I'm delighted to be one of the judges.
As with traditional game jams, participants will design a game based on a pre-selected theme and some optional add-ons. They'll have a month to produce a 20-minute game that will be judged on its narrative and writing. I'm excited to see what people come up with.
More panels coming up. I'll be speaking at the East Coast Games Conference this coming week. I'm on two panels.
It's my first time at ECGC, so I'm excited to check it out. If you have any questions for either panel, you can tweet them to #InsideStory and #diversityECGC and we'll try to answer them.
Check out the adorable graphics for our panels at PAX East. I'm really looking forward to talking about Project Untold.