Ask a Game Writer: February-March, 2015

Ann Lemay, BioWare writer, has graciously agreed to host a Q&A for members of the Game Writing SIG.

Please note: I’m keeping questions not answered in a file. If I haven’t answered you in this batch, your question may yet come up later. :)

—Ann

HM:

What are some best practices for group writing, or writing content when you are part of a writing team?

ARN:

Writers tend to be solitary creatures. How do you interact with a collaborative writing style like a writer’s room like you find in television or some videogame studios? What do you personally do to adapt and flourish?

*** Merging two questions here, since my answer got a bit longer, and things overlap nicely.

Cooperation. Communication. Organization. A clearly structured confluence/wiki setup. Concrit (constructive critique)—both knowing how to give it and how to receive it. I could go on, but really, most of them will keep hitting the same thematic—being a good team player and understanding that your word babies sometimes have to be given up.

Seriously, all of these are equally important. Working with a team means it’s not about your ideas; it’s about the best idea for the story that everyone is working on. It means that sometimes the cool thing you want to do with a character really messes up another storyline, and that you have to sit down to work out the details. Sometimes you need to let go of that really cool thing you came up with. And sometimes that idea you thought no one would like is the best solution for everything, everyone loves it, and you’ve solved a major issue (good times, those!).

It means being aware of what others are working on (or being in touch with whomever is aware of All The Things), and being able to adjust even at the last minute, so that no one is breaking anything within the narrative. You have to be quick on your word-feet, fast to adapt, keeping an open mind. You know to be good at communicating your ideas or thoughts to others, but also good at taking input from others. You also need to be adaptable, in that sometimes someone else’s writing may be passed on to you because of time constraints or workloads, and adapting to another person’s voice is also part of what game writers do. Being able to write your own character, but also being able to write other writers’ characters while staying true to their voice, is a skill you hone—but it’s an important one.

Playing to your strengths (lore, dialogue, barks, long scenes vs. short scenes, drama vs. comedy) is a thing that can be done on a team. Being a generalist is just as valuable, however, particularly during the end of a project when all the things people didn’t have time to do beforehand pop up, all at once.

Having colleagues to bounce ideas off of, to sanity test what you think might be good for a scene, to concrit your work—all of these things are amazing. And contribute to making your writing the better for it.

Editors are amazing people, and when you have them along to help your writing team, it is a glorious thing. Once the writing is done, maintaining the voice for characters that get shared across many writers is one of their tasks, and learning to rely on them (and to listen to them) is vital.

BH:

On days when passion wanes, how do you pull yourself up by your bootstraps to continue to produce quality work?

Taking a sanity break is really, really important for creatives, or anyone even. I can’t stress this enough. It’s ok to step away from the writing when you’re just beating your head on a wall. For my part, I’ll take a walk outside (sunlight—even on cloudy days—is good for you), mug one of my cats, walk on the treadmill if I’m at home, or generally just find another activity I truly enjoy in order to give myself a break. When at work, I’ll bounce ideas off a colleague or another creative, take a five-minute break and walk, etc. Each of us develop tools that work best for us in order to give ourselves that break, that moment of downtime. What’s important is acknowledging it is normal to need those, and to figure out what works best for each of us.

At the same time, particularly as a professional, you should note that writing for a living is, at the end of the day, also your job. Particularly in games, where a lot of downstream folk are waiting on your words, so they can do their own jobs. We can’t afford to wait for some creative muse to grace us with its presence. We can’t afford to wait for passion. We write. And some days, even if the words are shit, we still have to write because, otherwise, we keep a whole team waiting. So, then I focus on the structure of a conversation and just use placeholders (“this happens here,” “something about that is said here”) and get a scene down that way. Writing is rarely perfect on first pass—iteration is what gets you there, or at least working on getting closer to better than the first draft.

MH:

When creating a narrative-heavy game in a fantasy setting, what do you create first? Do you create the characters that will populate the world first, or do you form the world and populate it with characters?

Traditionally, you’ll see the worldbuilding done before character creation. You work from the macro level and wind your way down to the micro, because a lot of the worldbuilding will directly and relevantly impact aspects of the characters who will live in it. That said, honestly, some characters may come to life on you long before the worldbuilding is complete, and sometimes a whole world may in truth be inspired from one singular character. There’s no One True Way to do anything—there’s whatever works best for each individual writer.

That said, if you like structure and organization when you create, which are both helpful tools when you take on something as big as worldbuilding for the kind of game described above, or you are doing this scale of worldbuilding for the first time, giving yourself guidelines and a world within which to drop your characters is generally the better idea.

Ann Lemay has been working in the videogame industry since 1997. Born in Montréal, Québec, she has bachelor’s degrees in art history from UQAM and in design art from Concordia University. More importantly, she was raised on Star Trek and Star Wars (both of which coexist peacefully in her mind) and has been reading, watching, breathing, and living all things science fiction and fantasy for as long as she can remember. She was given an Intellivision II for her birthday in 1982 and hasn’t stopped playing videogames since.

She joined Ubisoft Montréal as a community manager in 1997 and subsequently worked there as a game designer, narrative designer, and writer on a wide range of projects, including Naruto: Rise of a Ninja and the Assassin’s Creed Encyclopedia. In 2010 she moved to BioWare Montréal, where she wrote for Mass Effect 3 and Mass Effect 3: Omega, contributed to Dragon Age: Inquisition, and is now working full time on the next Mass Effect title.

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