Gamewriting Book Reviews

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. 

Bonus points:

  • Simple, understandable explanations of how game design influences story.
  • Concrete examples that include IF, board games, films, and plays.

VERDICT: Recommended

 

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. 

March Mailbag

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.

A little trimming and tightening and it'll be good to go!

A little trimming and tightening and it'll be good to go!

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.

An accurate reenactment of the first show.

An accurate reenactment of the first show.

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?

Hmm. What would be a good name...?

Hmm. What would be a good name...?

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. 

 

A Million Monkeys and One TV Show

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!


IgDA Event

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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 OsirisMurdered: 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 O’Connor
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!!

Write A Game Challenge

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. 

http://itch.io/jam/wag-challenge

http://itch.io/jam/wag-challenge

East Coast Game Conference

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.

PAX East Panels

The schedule is up for PAX East! You can see it here. Looks like an interesting lineup. I see quite a few intriguing panels I need to catch. 

Both of my panels are on Saturday. One is first thing in the morning; the other's in the late evening.  Going to be a long day! 

The Censorship panel is my brainchild.  Recently, it's been clear to me that many people have no idea what censorship is or how games are made. I tried to find knowledgeable speakers from every corner of the industry—AAA to indie to mobile—and I'm gratified by the expertise and experience represented on the panel.  We're looking forward to dispelling some myths. 

For the empathy games panel, I'll speak openly about Project Untold for the first time. And there are some talented indie devs talking about games like This War of MIne and Always Sometimes Monsters. You can learn more about that panel over on Ken Gagne's blog.  

Here's the info from the PAX schedule.

Dead Scare

I'm delighted  to be part of a stretch goal for Dead Scare.  Elsa S. Henry wrote the game, which is "a 1950s, alt-history zombie apocalypse game where all of the characters are the women and children survivors of a Russian viral attack." The creators sought out "female-identified, non-binary, WoC, disabled, or otherwise not-cis-white-dudes to write 500 city guides" as stretch goals for their Kickstarter. Each guide will provide inside information about a region of the country the writer knows well. I, of course, snagged Washington, DC. 

I had to write up a new bio for the project, and I like it so much that it might become my official resume summary.

Anna Megill spent a decade working on titles for companies like Hasbro, Nintendo, ArenaNet, Airtight/Square Enix, and Ubisoft before switching to indie games. Currently, she's writing visual novels for Project Untold. As the frequent winner of titles like "Most Likely to Die First in a Horror Movie" and "Most Reluctant Zombie Dog Killer," Anna looks forward to helping you learn from her terrible mistakes.
 

                                  Nice puppy! You're just misunderstood...

                                  Nice puppy! You're just misunderstood...

I'll post more information and links to the Kickstarter when they're available.

PAX East Panels on the Horizon

Now that MAGFest is over, it's time to focus on my next set of panels. I'm excited to take part in two panels at PAX East this year.  Both deal with topics I've been itching to discuss.

Censored! Do Gamedevs Have Creative Freedom?

Creative freedom in games has been a hot topic lately. But what's the truth? Do game developers have the freedom to make the games they want? Five industry veterans give you the inside story. From "too much" sex and violence to the ESRB, find out what it takes to overcome industry restrictions and turn creative ideas into games.  Saturday, March 7th at 8:00pm in the Condor Theatre.

Panelists: 

And Ken Gagne already wrote up the details for my other panel on his blog, so here's the info for that:

I hope to see some familiar faces there. If you're at PAX East, please come by and say howdy.

Global Game Jam 2015 Pre-Jam Power Panel at MAGFest

Wow, that title is a mouthful! It sounds so formal when the reality was chill. Alexander Brandon, James, Portnow, Lindsay Grace, and I spoke to a small-but-passionate audience of Jam participants.  It was a lot of fun.

The panel room was intimidating.

GGJ15 PreJam Power Panel room

But the audience was friendly and asked great questions. My fellow panelists offered some sage advice.  I enjoyed it.

As my important notes from the panel show, though, I was distracted the entire time by a bird flying around the room. 
 

I'm excited for MAGFest to post the panel video so everyone can see us watching the bird fly around. Gripping entertainment.

I'll be back at MAGFest tomorrow to judge the Jam games. Looking forward to seeing some creative takes on this year's theme: "What do we do now?"  

Panels Galore!

I'm on a lot of panels in the next few months, so you have no excuse for not seeing me speak. ^^ 

MAGFest 1/23/15, : I'll be giving out sage industry advice with Alexander Brandon (Unreal, Deus Ex), James Portnow (Extra Credits), Lindsay Grace (Mindtoggle Games, AU) on the Pre-Jam Power Panel kicking off this year's Global Game Jam.

http://magfest.org/
http://globalgamejam.org/

I'll also be speaking on two panels at PAX East and a panel at ECGC. Details about those events to follow.

Come say hi to me!

Project Untold and Patreon

Project Untold is underway! I’ve spent the last two months writing up early design documents and writing lore, character bios, plot summaries—all the fun stuff. My next step is collaborating with the artists, designers, and animators to make my ideas into concrete assets and gameplay. I love this part of the game-making process.

Unfortunately, I can’t live off creative energy alone. Giant Spacekat is funding Untold with venture capital, but that takes time. I have to survive in the meantime. So I set up a patreon. Patronage allows me to pay my bills and keep working on Untold while GSK looks for investors.

I'm gratified to say that I'm halfway to my first milestone, thanks to the support of some lovely people. 

You could be one of them.

http://www.patreon.com/cynixy

http://www.patreon.com/cynixy

Writer's Block and Science

Reality flows in. Imagination flows out.

According to the latest scientific research, reality and imagination flow in opposite directions in the brain. Reality starts with low-level processing then moves to high-level cognition, while fantasy starts deep in the brain and flows out to low-level processing areas. It's an enormously satisfying visual representation of how I always thought imagination worked.

When writing, every scene starts with a spare idea. A bar fight, for example. This grain of thought accretes layers of detail as I work on it. Who is fighting, where, why. Then what they look like, the smell of the bar, the motion of a swinging fist, the sound of bone on flesh. All the tiny sensory elements that make a scene vivid come last. The flow from the high tower of ideas to the earthy reality of a fist to the face.

This past year, I had the worst case of writer's block I've ever had. I was going through a bad time personally and was very shut-down and depressed. Cored by grief. And my writing showed it. I couldn't get from idea to detail. It was like the flow stopped before it reached the sensory stage. I couldn't get to that place where I picture the scene as if I'm living it in my brain and transcribing an eyewitness account. My writing was all ideas, no substance. I recognized the problem, but couldn't fix it. Which made the block even more painful.

As I healed, the writer's block eased up. I started seeing the drama again, not just knowing intellectually how it should play out. I could write with my senses again. And now science confirms what I felt all along about how writing  moves through my mind. 

 Writer's block is a terrible thing to suffer through. Losing your means to cope with pain and stress when you're at your most pained and stressed is a cruel joke. I hope this study means that someday it will be curable.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/11/141120141442.htm 



Interview with The Mary Sue

A while back I tweeted something about how great it would be if gaming sites interviewed women about their work instead of always asking us to talk about harassment or what it's like being a woman in the industry. To my delight, Emma Fissenden contacted me not long afterward about an interview for The Mary Sue. TMS is featuring a new series on their site: interviews with women in tech about their work. It's exactly what I was hoping for. Judging by the comments, I'm not the only person thirsting for more substantive chats with women gamemakers. I hope other sites pay attention and follow suit.

Here's my interview.

http://www.themarysue.com/game-changer-anna-megill/

Game Design Textbook Recommendations

A student wrote me for advice on game design textbooks. I didn't go to design school, so I asked the industry professionals I knew on Twitter. They gave me the following recommendations (alphabetized):

Here's a recommended library for designers: 
http://www.boffo.us/gdw/BookshelfByTopic.html

Plus a crash course in hands-on design:
https://stacksocial.com/sales/the-name-your-own-price-game-design-bundle

If you have more recommendations, please suggest them in the comments.

Call for Talent

As many of you already know, a development studio has optioned my games. We're in pre-pre-production now (if such a thing exists) and are putting together our initial team. We'll formally announce the project in the future and will list additional information and positions on the studio website as the project grows. But right now, we're looking to fill only a few key roles.

The Project
The games will be story-focused, mid-size games for multiple platforms. Each game will have a unique visual style. Diversity and inclusivity will be cornerstones of our game designs, so we encourage open minds to apply. Pre-production with a small team is scheduled for January 2015. 

Positions
It's critical that candidates are the right fit for this unique project. A willingness to learn and grow is prized above industry credentials, so don't let a lack of experience stop you from applying. All roles will be full-time, in-house positions at the Boston studio unless otherwise noted. More information about the requirements and responsibilities will be available during the application process, under an NDA. Please email xsecretgameprojectx@gmail.com with resumes and inquiries.

  • 2D/3D Artists: 
    We're looking for versatile artists who can translate their concept art into game assets. Your striking, original work will set the art style for each game. A strong understanding of visual storytelling is essential for this role. Previous game experience is preferred, but not required. Please provide portfolios/links. This can be a remote position.
     
  • PR/Marketing Lead:
    You should be an innovative thinker, willing to explore unusual and nontraditional avenues to reach our audience. You will form and help maintain a large, active online community. Experience with user acquisition, promotions, and social media is required. Familiarity with video editing software is a plus. This position will start immediately upon hire and can be worked remotely through January.
     
  • Programmer:  
    Must know C++ and have experience coding professionally. This position requires strong interpersonal skills. Candidates will be good collaborators and communicators. Visual scripting, Unreal 4, and game development experience are a plus. This will be the senior programming position on the project. 

Kentucky Route Zero In Real Life.

I am in deep, soul-kiss love with Kentucky Route Zero. Having it fray the edges of the real world with phone messages and an ebay auction was a gift from the devs. If you haven’t called the line yet, do it now. Stop everything. Shut the door. Sit down with a whisky-based cocktail, and call.

The “Are you holding a snake right now?’ option is pure delight.

Also, Here's an article discussing the beauty of KRZ0's regional voice: http://www.popmatters.com/post/187760-regional-authenticity-and-video-games/