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Christy Marx's credits in animation range over twenty years and include writing for television, direct-to-video, and computer/console games. She's also served as a story editor for numerous series, and received the Animation Writing Award from the Animation Writers Caucus of the Writers Guild of America in 2000, given "for a writer's overall body of work, and for contributions to the field of animation writing." This article focuses specifically on writing for animated computer and console games.
First off, it's important to establish if there is any difference in writing a script for the screen versus writing a game script, though both are animated. I asked Christy to clarify this, and she replied, "Nowadays it seems that animation has taken over for the 'scenes' in games, after the industry had a fling using live actors and sets. However, that could always come around again in popularity. The useful things to know, then, are the fundamentals of writing any script. If you study tv scripts, film scripts and animation scripts, you will have the basic tools you need."
Christy goes on to explain her personal approach. "I consult with the game company as to whether they want a live-action style script with only master shots, or an animation-style script with the writer effectively doing the advance work of a storyboard artist by calling out every single shot. If the company has an artist with strong skills in storyboarding, I feel it's better to let a visual person bring that skill to the script. If they want you to give more guidance to the artist, then you should do an animation-style script. What this requires of you as a writer, however, is a very strong visual imagination in which you can see the animation shots in your head in order to call them out in the script." She says this advice relates to "writing 'cut scenes' or 'cinematics', which are chunks of story where the player is fed the scene during which he has no control over the game. Gameplay stops, the scene plays, the game continues."
Many games also include elements of dialogue, which are integral to gameplay. When asked what goes into fashioning what characters speak, Christy said, "writing dialogue is a whole different issue. Most companies will have a writing or editing tool for you to use. You need to be technically proficient enough to learn and use such tools. But that's usually easy."
There are a lot of terms bandied about, such as level designer or game designer. Level designer is in fact a programming job. Christy reminded we should be aware of the differences, as these terms are not interchangeable. In fact, a game designer may not even be the person doing the writing. For the sake of this article, I'm narrowing down the definition to "game writer" and asked Christy to define what the difference between "game designer" and "game writer" could be, if the game designer is not actually writing the game.
"Nowadays, what I see under the job listings for 'game designer' is somebody that can do everything from management to programming to art. I think such requirements are unrealistic, personally. My definition of a game designer would be the person who brings the vision to the game, who can guide it on a management level, and who can come up with the storyline, characters, world-building, puzzles, strategies, etc. However, rarely do I ever see companies looking for a designer with genuine writing skills. They seem to be more interested in the technical skills. Back-asswards, if you ask me.
"But nobody's asking me. So under this new set of rules, a game writer would be brought in later in the development process when many components are already created and set by the designer and creative team, such as the world, setting, look and feel, characters, etc. The writer might be asked to come up with story, or evaluate the story, or do some additional world-building, or biographies for the characters, or maybe nothing more than writing dialogue. I've done all sorts of variations on these things."
Christy expanded into writing computer games in the early 1990s, during a slump period in the animation business. That brought her to Sierra On-Line in the Yosemite area (which since moved to Washington State and acquired by Havas, now under the Universal Vivendi umbrella), where the company eagerly pursued writers with Hollywood knowledge. Christy created two acclaimed PC games for them: CONQUESTS OF CAMELOT and CONQUESTS OF THE LONGBOW, featuring the adventures of King Arthur and Robin Hood, respectively. More recently, Christy took her first foray into console games with THE LEGEND OF ALON D'AR for Stormfront Studios, published by UbiSoft, and designed for the PlayStation 2. I wondered what the differences were between designing a PC adventure to designing a console game.
"The one big, overwhelming and significant difference is that the console games I worked on were completely linear, while PC games are expected to be as non-linear as possible. There are technical differences, of course, in terms of interface, how many characters you can have on the screen, etc. But those are only marginally relevant to the writing."
She then shared some of her own industry observations. "I don't know whether the consoles game designs I saw represent the way all console games are designed, but if so, I would say they have put themselves in a linear straitjacket. Don't get me wrong; I love being able to tell a linear story. But there is no technical reason on earth why a console game can't be a non-linear, exploratory game like a PC game. The only restrictor is what the game designers have decided is the mindset of the console game player. But since that's all they feed to the players, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As for current PC games, they suffer from a lack of story sense and a lack of good writing. Nobody's making great adventure games any more."
When asked to paint a picture of the general process a game writer goes through, Christy responded: "There is no one process. It will vary depending upon the needs of the company and the project. With the LEGEND OF ALON D'AR, they needed just about everything done from the storyline to the world-building to character-building. In that case, they showed me the visual designs and left the rest up to me (which they and the client had to approve, of course). On another project, they already had all the visuals designed and knew what their basic story was. I was brought in to rewrite the story to a professional level, and do a lot of work on building the character backgrounds. In that case, all I needed to see was their existing written material and their sketches of the characters." She also had an experience where "they only wanted me to write an opening movie, but to do that I had to read, absorb and understand much of their game design, but I never got to see a single visual. Each project has its own process."
A game writer generally does not remain involved with a project as it proceeds to the rendering stages and beyond. I asked her if she ever got these kinds of opportunities.
"Only back when I was the designer/director/writer on my first two games with Sierra On-Line. I did get to spend a fair amount of time being involved with ALON D'AR, but at a distance, since I didn't live near the company. I loved being the designer on my games. I loved working with my teams, with the programmers and artists and composer and QA to bring it all together. It was immensely satisfying."
From my perspective as an outsider, it seemed to me that it would be tougher to break into console writing in today's market, despite the booming growth of the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube, so I posed the question to Christy. Here are her thoughts on the subject: "Yes, I think it's gotten very tough for the freelancer. If I were willing to move to a major city and go to work full-time as an employee, I could have had any number of jobs by now. I'm just not interested in doing that." Christy further elaborated by saying what she felt was needed to break in as a freelance game writer. "To get purely freelance writing jobs on a game seems to require that you be a big name writer in an associated field, such as TV writing, film writing, or be a sf or fantasy novelist. Even then, the jobs are scarce. Companies still don't seem to understand the need to use professional writers to do their writing. They wouldn't dream of letting a game out the door with amateur graphics or amateur programming, but they think nothing of using amateur writing."
If you're serious about breaking into computer or console game writing, Christy first emphasized that "[o]ne prerequisite that always remains the same, no matter what you want to do in games, is that the companies want people who know the field. You must educate yourself and be able to convince a prospective employer that you know a lot about games, that you have a lot of experience playing games, and that you are highly enthusiastic about games."
When asked if it was better to specialize in writing strictly for computer and console games, or become familiarized with writing for various animation forms, she replied, "[i]f your primary goal is to be a writer who also happens to write for games, you need to choose some field of writing and become an established professional. It could be film, animation, comic books, novels or whatever. Then you would have the means to approach whatever game company interests you, present your resume and try to get writing work. If your primary interest is in becoming a game designer, you need to find an entry-level position and work your way up." As far as appropriate positions to pursue for finding that door into a game company for a non-artist, "[t]hey simply don't have entry-level positions for writers, at least not that I tend to see. You might get really lucky and find a job writing technical manuals, but I don't see that as a good position to work up to game designer. I've heard the opinion that breaking in as a QA tester (Quality Assurance -- play testers) and working up the ranks is a valid route. I can't comment on that, though it strikes me as a tough way to go and a big jump from heading a QA dept. to being a game designer. Still, it's a possibility, if not a strong one." She adds, "[t]here are management jobs also, of course, such as producers and project managers, but those are rarely creative jobs. You'll see for yourself what those entail by reading up on the job listings for those positions."
Christy also emphasizes a long-standing tradition exists for programmers to also be designers, which she finds "problematic" as "programmers rarely have the skills to be good writers and game design suffers without a good writer involved. If you possess both talents, you're in a strong position to become a designer."
There are four major
areas for employment in the computer and console industry within the United
States -- Seattle, Washington; the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles,
California; and Austin, Texas. Though don't be surprised to find companies
in places like Chicago, Las Vegas, San Diego, and North Carolina. Christy's
advice on how to choose a locale is simply this: "If you have a definite
preference for where you want to live, concentrate on companies in that
area. But if you're willing to be flexible, you might find you have a
better chance breaking into companies located outside the four big regions."
Shannon Muir is known in the animation industry for her work as a production coordinator for Nickelodeon's Invader Zim. She also served as a Production Coordinator for Extreme Ghostbusters and a Production Assistant for Jumanji: The Animated Series. Muir is an accomplished writer and often participates on panels or as a guest speaker at conventions like Comic Con International.
Muir moved to Los Angeles in 1996 from Cheney, WA (population approximately 8,000), knowing she wanted to be part of the animation business. Since then, she's never strayed far from making that dream reality, whether it be actively working on a production or writing articles about the industry.
You can email Shannon Muir at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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