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Working in Games

I often get questions about breaking into game design, so I wrote this up for my own convenience and (hopefully) your amusement. I update it every few years to reflect on new ideas and trim the word count. These are my personal experiences and lessons I learned along the way. Results may vary. 

"The Bridge Ablaze" from Beast of Winter (2018)

After studying creative writing in college and grad school, I went to work at the call center for a dot com. My life plan was to have an unfulfilling daytime career and work on my groundbreaking novel after hours, but after a few years I was getting pretty sick of the "unfulfilling" part. So I started hunting for a career that could make better use of my creative, problem-solving brain. 

I started by applying to every "Copy Writer / Editor" job within a hundred miles of Los Angeles. Career Builder, Indeed, Monster, and even Craigslist. None of them did me any good. All I got were a few strange interviews in parts of the city I could never afford to live... and a tour of a secret erotic commune. But that's a story for another day. 

Then I found a Narrative Design posting through a friend. I assumed that anyone writing for games needed some deep programming skillset, so the career path wasn't even on my radar. But I applied anyway since I had nothing to lose, and I had gotten very comfortable with rejection. 

Much to my surprise, the studio sent back a writing test. 

 

Not to dwell on this point, but writing tests are inherently unfair and borderline cruel. Timed, unpaid work with little consideration for responsibilities one might have outside of the day job. They can be a colossal waste of time. A trough for lapping up false hope and empty promises. 

 

But in this case, I saw the test as a preview of what the studio wanted in a Narrative Designer. That got me excited, because there was nothing in the test that I couldn't do. Having played Baldur's Gate / Icewind Dale / Planescape: Torment more times than I could count, my brain was hardwired with a love of branching conversations. 

As it turned out, my application was respectable enough to land me a phone interview. Probably just a quick chat with a recruiter, I thought. Just crossing their t's and making sure I can speak in complete sentences. But when I took the call, the other end of the line was filled with veterans of the game industry, people with names you'd recognize. 

Reader, this was not my best interview. The call dropped twice (yes... twice) thanks to my apartment's terrible cell reception, and once I misheard a question and went off on a long tangent about an unrelated topic before anyone stopped to correct me. Not good. Not good. 

(Years later I was told the interview wasn't that bad.) 

Needless to say, I didn't get the job. But I could tell that it was within reach. So I made a conscious decision to become a better candidate for the next opportunity. 

Here is where the story languishes in uncertainty for a while, because Narrative Design vacancies are few and far between. We're all clinging to this career with both hands. 

After a little investigating, I discovered Twine - a flowchart editor for making branching stories. First I took a chapter of a writing project and cobbled it into a short, interactive experience with a few grainy stock photos. Now I had a writing sample to pass around. Years later I would write this Twine story as a promotion for the Beast of Winter DLC. It has a small text formatting error, but is otherwise all right. 

I was preparing myself to launch into a different career, but until then I was stuck at the call center. When my spirits were particularly low, a close friend and mentor told me: "Writing is like religion. You go there to pray, you don't work at the church." In other words, think carefully before you make a career out of this. Even if you get what you want, it might not be what you need. I disregarded that advice, but I still think about it. Often.  

 

I even considered giving up and becoming a Salesforce Administrator (this was the 2010's, and Salesforce was doing well), where I could vanish into the corporate ecosystem. That was my backup plan, and I'm grateful it didn't turn out that way. 

 

Every few months I'd email that original developer, asking if they needed help with their project. Politely testing the waters. And one day, they gave me an answer. They wanted a freelancer to write a book coinciding with the release of their next game.

A book? A book? 

More of a coffee table book, but a book nonetheless. 
 

ReaderI had never written a book before. 

After giving it some thought, I cashed in all of my vacation hours to work at the developer's office in person. For two weeks I shared a room with the QA lead, where I caught sneaky glimpses of the game I was writing about. I was present at company meetings and daily check-ins. Acting like I belonged. Playing it cool, all the while in total disbelief that someone was paying me to write. And not just write stale copy. Write fantasy. 

 

When my two weeks were up, I retreated back to my regular life and finished the book. Two things had changed for me: 1) I knew people at the studio, and 2) I knew the game's deep lore like the back of my hand. Even though I had circled back to where I started, the difference was palpable. Now it wasn't a question of if this career was going to happen, but when. 

A year and a couple of freelance assignments later, they made me an offer for a full-time Narrative Design role. I've been doing this ever since.

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Companions from Tyranny (2016) and Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire (2018)

So what's the job like?

 

As long as I work within a project's established themes and tone, I have a lot of creative freedom. I've written about war crimes, a steamy fish man romance, dating advice from a bird, an acid trip with a malevolent imp, a skull who mocks the contents of your inventory, an argument about what is or isn't a llama, and more nuanced stories about colonialism than I can shake a stick at. 

No single writer owns the story of their game, but we can claim ownership over small corners of it. Even on a hard day, we all take pride in the minutia. 

Sometimes I hide puzzles in the lore. Unobtrusive little things like anagrams or mysteries that largely go unnoticed. These are endlessly amusing to me and perhaps no one else. 

It's still amazing knowing that people will read the stories I write. I can't shake the feeling that I'm living in a simulation. 

Wilhelmina "Minnie" Ambrose from The Outer Worlds: Peril on Gorgon (2020)

Before this sounds too good to be true, here's a splash of cold reality water: it's still a job, and I'm of the opinion that any form of work sucks in general. 

 

They say game designers burn out after five years. From what I've observed, that's about right. I started seeing a therapist around my seventh year, and should've started sooner. When you wander through your own thoughts, it's nice to have company. 

Game design is all about iteration. You have an idea, you execute on it, you don't like it, you do it again but differently. Repeat. Every department experiences a form of this. Some have it better or worse depending on how costly, critical, or time-consuming their labors are. 

When it comes to narrative design, iteration has one intangible cost: the writer's mental health.

Every time you iterate on the story, you're building atop the ruins of a dead civilization. It's a chaotic, demoralizing mental strain having so many versions of a story coexisting in your head. 

 

Because writing can be developed so cheaply and so quickly, it lives on the chopping block in ways that art or animation don't. The game needs trees, rocks, and monsters more than it needs my NPC's gripping emotional arc. 

I write quickly, but there's no prize for being ahead of schedule. These days I think it's better to keep pace with the schedule, even if I have to force myself to slow down. 

I love my role, the atmosphere, the team, but yes - it's also still a job, and it comes with everything you might associate with jobs. 

Nemnok the Devourer Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire (2018)

I don't really network. I'm not much of a social butterfly. Even in the office I'm more of a wallflower. That said, don't be like me! Do what works for you. 

Engaging with the gaming community can be fun in small doses. I gravitate toward supportive, inclusive groups and don't go anywhere near bad faith discussions. There are ugly corners of the Internet devoted to tearing my work apart and disparaging my colleagues in the crudest possible terms. I firmly believe that you choose your audience by creating what you believe in, and some people will never go along for the ride. 

I don't think it's possible to write something that will make everyone happy, so I try and write things that make me happy. 

Teāna from Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire (2018) and Bekarna from The Forgotten Sanctum (2019)

If you want your application to stand out, I definitely recommend having a finished project to show. A short Twine game, a sample chapter from your self-published book, etc. Preferably not a YouTube video of a highly polished AAA cutscene. I'm a lot more interested in your writing craft, warts and all, than how impressive it looks. 

For the sample itself, I suggest looking at games that offer branching conversation paths and dissecting what works and what doesn't. What sorts of flavorful roleplay opportunities are available to the player? How long does it take to get to the point of a conversation with an NPC? Does the player feel like they have all of the necessary information before moving on? Does the player have a believable motive for accepting the quest, even if it's just some material reward? Learn from unpacking one of these exchange and see what you can apply to your own writing. 

It's possible that none of this is useful to anyone. My path to game design hinged on luck, chance, guesswork, and being in the right place at the right time. Who knows if this would have happened if not for a few unlikely variables lining up in my favor. 

One thing I know is that everyone finds their own way to this career, often at different times in their life, and they each bring unique perspectives and experiences to their role. 

The most important part of the process is being kind to yourself when you falter. Jobs will come and go, as will projects and colleagues, but you'll still be here. So take care of yourself first.

 

Best of luck :-) You'll do great. 


~PK

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