Changing Games - a writers' insight into writing for different mediums

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Read James Swallow’s fascinating account of writing for different mediums and enter our competition to win a signed copy of his new thriller.

“I’m often asked about my work writing for video games and how it differs from writing prose fiction – and that’s never an easy question to answer!

What’s a Games Writer?

People ask what a “games writer” actually is, and that doesn’t have a simple reply. Not all video games have (or even need) a story, but some have a lot of narrative in them. A games writer’s job can be creating the world of the game, creating the characters and the factions the player interacts with; it can be writing in-game dialogue, scripting interactive or non-interactive scenes; it can be writing text that appears in books, on screens, or via overheard audio; it can be localizing the translation of a foreign game script; it can designing quests and missions…and more. Depending on the size of the project, it can be all those things!

Of course, at their core books and games both have stories that follow the same broad narrative structures – but the dramatic needs of the two different media are poles apart. Both tell stories, but the way they deliver those stories to the consumer is very, very different.

A book is linear and non-interactive, but it can provide a uniquely personal viewpoint for characters and events. A game makes you an active participant in the unfolding drama, with a dynamic narrative that changes based on choices you make.

Discovering the story

A book is often an internal narrative from the point of view of one or more characters, and the story comes to the reader as the author wants it to, evolving over the chapters. In games, there’s usually just a single focal character and story can be delivered to the player in many different ways, most crucially in manners that the player finds out for themselves – so you don’t get told something, you discover it. Games allow you to be an active participant in the narrative, and in some cases, even change the direction of the plotline. A good book tells you a story. In a good game, you are the story.

Video games also often have a very long production lead time – I’ve worked on big titles that have taken four years to produce, for example – and the amount of collaboration with other departments and creatives in a game studio that takes place contrasts with the relatively isolated job of penning prose!

What I’ve learned from writing games that transfers to my prose writing – especially with my Marc Dane action thrillers – is the ability to establish and maintain a sense of dramatic momentum through the narrative. I like to say my kind of thrillers are at the hi-octane end of the genre – high speed, low drag stories that carry characters and readers through an exciting adventure – and game stories have that same impetus threaded into them. You want the player to be compelled to complete the game, just as you want your reader to be engaged enough to finish the novel.

The two mediums have very different needs, and some writers find it hard to change gears between them, but for me, it’s an interesting challenge and it can be very rewarding.

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