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Writing and Game Design are the Same



Jul 05 2021

4 mins read


I spent three years writing, directing, and programming one of the first story-driven virtual reality games ever made. When we started, none of the founders of our game studio had any technical expertise, so I would be understating the challenge in describing it as ‘very difficult.’ It was actually nearly impossible and a miracle (and testament to hard work) that we ever shipped a game, let alone one we were proud of, but we did. Taylor Gray of Star Wars Rebels even played the lead role — a highlight of my writing career, since when we started out, Scott and I were sleeping on futon mattresses on the floor of a recording studio on top of a pawn shop in Le Plateau Mont-Royal, watching Star Wars Rebels on a laptop.

Why am I telling you this? Because there are things I learned designing games for players — some of whom had never even worn a virtual reality headset before — that taught me how to write for readers.

Your Beginning Teaches the Game of your Story

Games have tutorials to teach the players how to play. The best tutorials are seamless and feel like part of the game. You just play, solving simple problems one at a time, and suddenly you've come to understand what all the buttons do while having tons of fun. The same is true for writing. The beginning of a scene, chapter, or the opening to an essay or article all perform the same function. You hook the reader and introduce them to the problem of the narrative. If your tutorial’s boring or confusing you’ll lose the player; the same is true of your opening. In our game, we worked for months at designing the best possible introduction for new players. Be willing to rewrite your openings until you know your readers are satisfied.

If Their Experience is Confusing or Buggy, Fix it.

One of the great values of getting feedback on your writing is the opportunity to ask readers if they were confused, if sections were unclear, or parts of your writing aren’t working for them. In game design you watch players play your game and then ask them questions about what they experienced. It’s an invaluable loop to go through, but as the designer or writer you need to be careful. Most readers and players can point out the bugs but don’t have the tools to articulate the cause of the problem or what the right solutions actually are. A sword that won't slash properly doesn't mean the sword is a bad idea. Game testers may know they’re not having fun, or that they're lost in your beautiful level, or that they just started falling through the floor of your carefully positioned 3d mesh. But they don’t know your code. Only you do. If your goal is to give readers the highest quality experience, you should work hard to diagnose and fix these problems.

The Ending is Everything

If you want people to remember your narrative, finish with a powerful message. We threw the entire kitchen sink into the ending of our game, giving players one epic, final challenge that resolved in emotional catharsis and a quiet moment of reflection that mirrored the game's opening and was charged with new meaning. Our game wasn't perfect but I think our ending was.

Don't lose steam at the end. If your opening hook is good, try to make your ending even better. It's the engine that leaves the reader thinking about your story long after they've left it behind.

Write like you’re designing a game for your reader.

Games are fun to play, easy to get into, and totally addictive.

And just like writing, they're hard work.

Luck is not chance —
It’s Toil —
Fortune’s expensive smile
Is earned —
-Emily Dickinson



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game design