Writing for Games: Theory & Practice (Hannah Nicklin)

Cover art for Writing for Games, showing an adventurer setting off towards a distant landscape.

Writing for Games: Theory & Practice is a new book from Hannah Nicklin, focused very specifically on the writing rather than the narrative design aspects of the field.

If the difference feels fuzzy to you, you’re not alone: many indie game roles require writers/designers to do a bit of both of those things. There’s a lot of industry conversation about determining what exactly is the difference, how we define roles in studios, what it means specifically to be a “technical narrative designer” or a “narrative systems designer”, etc.

Nicklin lays out the distinction as a difference between “storytelling through design” – what is being told through the game’s structures, ordering, roleplay, etc. – and “storytelling through words”, which includes not only dialogue but also any incidental text.

The book is also aimed at writers building indie games rather than big AAA projects, for the very sensible reasons that indie games are more of an entry point than AAA, and that they afford more freedom to work on different aspects of storytelling.

Overall, the book is readable, well-grounded, and full of practical advice and useful references. There’s enough introductory material that someone who hasn’t worked in games at all before can get started; Nicklin describes the book as representing what she might say to a mentee if she worked with them over the course of a year, and that feels about right. (It also describes the authorial voice throughout: the content is presented as advice offered to a junior, rather than, say, as a presentation of advanced methods described by one peer to another.)

Even for more experienced practitioners, though, there are a number of specific suggestions about methods – things you might like to add to your own toolkit, even if you already have a pretty developed craft.

Writing For Games: Theory and Practice is divided into three major parts: Theory, which contains a lot of the really introductory material; Case Studies, which looks at three specific games (Life is Strange, 80 Days, and Last Stop); and the Practical Workbook, which offers a lot of very specific recommendations about processes, things to consider when getting started, and methods of training oneself. A few of these recapitulate things Nicklin’s made public before, like her excellent workshop on self-training in dialogue.

Part I: Theory

The first several chapters of Part I cover vocabulary. Chapter 2 describes teams and roles in a studio. Chapter 3 covers storytelling structures, which (in my view sensibly) touches briefly on old screenwriting standbys like Blake Snyder and Robert McKee before bringing up a number of additional sources of inspiration especially from traditional theatre. Nicklin’s own academic background is focused on theatre, and this section in particular has some observations that may be new even to experienced game writers.

Chapter 4 talks through story components – plot, genre, story, assorted literary devices, and here Nicklin acknowledges some debt to The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative as well as other, less academic books.

Chapter 5, “Games Writing as a Discipline,” covers everything from the effect of pacing and UI on writing to constraints of scope and the interdisciplinary nature of game writing.

Then we get “Form-Led Design,” Chapter 6, perhaps my favourite chapter in the book. Here, Nicklin moves away from talking about standard knowledge and experience about writing and the games industry (useful though that is), and instead recounts a series of encounters with different art in different media, together with what she took away from each one. These stories are interesting in their own right and contain a number of valuable observations about art and the affordances of different media. But I also especially like how it models for the reader an open-minded, reflective, and exploratory kind of artistic practice, one that’s constantly learning from experiences that might not initially seem at all related to games.

The remaining chapters in this part are short – on comedy, on additional resources, and on the ethics of labour in this industry – but all with valuable thoughts. I also especially liked this observation: “A lot of ineffective comedy writing puts everything in one place – the voices of the characters. It might take its comedy register – ‘self-awareness’ – and put it in all the characters’ quips, all of whom now sound the same.”

Meanwhile, thanks to Nicklin’s background in theatre, her recommended further reading lists aren’t restricted to exactly the same set of novel-writing and screenwriting guides one often finds in other game writing books.

Part II: Case Studies

This is the briefest part of the book: Nicklin’s quite targeted about what to quote and talk about. The discussion of 80 Days also covers things that are probably familiar to IF fans who have seen any of Meghna Jayanth’s talks about the treatment of power and protagonism there. Generally, this section is less about finding new and surprising facts about the work covered, and more about giving some specificity and grounding to the theoretical discussion preceding it.

Part III: A Practical Workbook

Your practice is not your career.

p. 179

Nicklin includes a lot of personal and ethical advice, especially in the final sections of Part I and in the first chapter of Part III. One section on learning your own needs opens with “You are not a brain on a stick”; I know I have often lamented this disappointing fact about myself.

I realise not everyone is looking to a book on game writing to give them suggestions about work-life balance, studio labour ethics, or what we should expect (or not expect) from games as a source of “empathy”. But Nicklin is interested in the deeper implications of what we’re doing when we write (for money, for ourselves, for an audience, etc.) These sections feel very much coherent with the rest of the book, and indeed necessary to it.

The section about current job vs. career vs. personal practice particularly resonates with me, because it’s fundamental to how I’ve approached a lot of my own work, and it’s also something I’ve often struggled to convey clearly to mentees and friends. The way you approach your own work is different from the way you might approach a paid gig, and then the way you want your presence to interact with your industry as a whole is something different again.

After the general advice, Part III has chapters on getting started on a project; developing one already in progress; and doing finish and polish. There are good exercises and recommendations in each, but the “tools for developing” section offered the most new material that I hadn’t seen in other game writing books. Discussions about how to set up a successful feedback session, for instance, draw from theatre practice and writing workshops as well as from games playtesting conversations.

Nicklin says that she wrote this book in order to fill a gap she perceived in what’s available for junior entrants to the industry. I think that’s right: there aren’t many game writing books that focus this tightly on the writing part of the discipline, or really attend to exactly what makes writing for indie games different from writing in any other medium or context (including AAA). Very often game writing books will spend more time on topics like constructing choices and managing branching structure (something Nicklin largely sets aside as narrative design), and will refer readers to resources on other media for guidance about how to write good dialogue.

If you’re a newcomer to this field, or if you’re mentoring newcomers, it’s very much worth a look. And even if you’re not, you will likely find valuable approaches especially in the later chapters of Parts I and III.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

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