Building a Portfolio for Games Writing

I wrote a piece for Хабрахабр on our writing team at Larian. I got a few questions from readers on how to get into writing for games, so I wrote this post to help answer them!

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When I’m out and about and tell people who love games what I do, a lot of them say “I want to do that too!” But when I ask them what they’ve done towards that goal, the answer is usually “Well, nothing, yet … I need to get my foot in the door first.” Which is completely understandable! But, let me tell you: nobody is going to knock on your door and ask you to write for games. If it’s what you want to do, you need to be the one doing the knocking. And when they answer the door, you better have something really good in your hands to show them.

That something is your writing portfolio. If you don’t already have successful credits to your name, the only thing that matters is your portfolio. That’s what you’ll be judged on - the style, the spelling, the grammar, the range. So, if that’s what you need … how can you get started with creating one?

Start Writing

Firstly, you need to write every day. Regularity beats quality, especially as you are getting started. Five minutes every day beats an hour once a week.

But the blank page is a cruel mistress. What should you write about? The only way to find the answer to that question is through sheer practice, through writing every single day until you notice the patterns and the topics that make your pen fly across the page.

Follow the Artist’s Way. Sticky-tape things that inspire you to the wall above your desk. Use writing prompts. Rolling a D10 and a D20 and writing freehand to Jack Kerouac’s 30 rules of writing is a great start!

Buy yourself a really nice notebook and carry it with you wherever you go. Inspiration strikes at the strangest moments, and having a tiny notebook and pen handy to jot down anything that strikes you is invaluable. Then, when you are looking for inspiration - like at a game jam - you can pull out your notebook and see what grabbed you: words you like the sound of, little phrases and quotes, tiny scenes you witness on the bus, small drawings, mini poems, etc. I keep a little notebook religiously. Everything I write down in my notebook surfaces in my work at some point … and it would all have been long forgotten without it

 Snippets from my notebooks

Snippets from my notebooks

Write Stories

Once you have a writing habit established, then start to expand your snippets of text into stories. How to do that? Firstly, realise that all story is conflict. Your character wants something … but there are obstacles in their way. Your story will have a set-up, a confrontation and a resolution: all driven by conflict. Find the conflict and you’ve found your story.

So far, so easy, right? But beyond conflict - story is myth. Story is religion. Story is how we understand who we are and how we relate to others. Story connects us to the past and to the future. Story is the vehicle through which we can release our unique viewpoint to the world and allow others to look through our eyes. We tell stories to ourselves all the time (“I’m not good enough!”, “They’ll love me if I agree with them!”) and we believe these stories. Our stories can uplift the heart or share in your sorrows.

So, if we see stories as a special way to share ourselves with the world, how much more engaging can it be when we do it in an interactive way? When we ask a player to step into our shoes? The interactivity of games changed stories forever … through offering players choice. You’ll want to read up on the mechanics of this on Emily Short’s amazing blog, and watching this great GDC talk from Alexis Kennedy of Fallen London.

 Jack Kerouac's rules of writing

Jack Kerouac's rules of writing

Now … start writing games. Yes, now!

You can begin writing a game today and publish it tomorrow! If you already know how to use Unity, you could use Fungus to make short dialogue-driven games.

If you are a complete beginner, then download Twine, the most popular entry-level tool. It’s free, open-source, works on both PC and Mac and is relatively simple to use. By simple, I mean that if you are familiar with using Microsoft Word and have any experience at all with HTML/code, the learning curve is not steep. With Twine, you create branching stories in a diagrammatic way, and when you are ready to publish, you can upload your game or story as a simple HTML file either to your own website, or for free on philome.la.

In Twine, begin adding in your snippet-based story, node by node. Make it a piece that shows you understand a fundamental principle of writing (story is conflict) and a fundamental principle of writing for games (interactivity changes stories for games through choice).

Keep an eye on what you’re doing while you craft. Use dialogue. Choose the tense you use wisely. Examine the point of view you are using carefully (second person often works well for Twine). Make sure you offer the player meaningful choices - a classic mistake I see often in my students’ first game is the initial choice being ‘Get up’ versus ‘Hit the snooze button’. Think about it!). Be aware of the potentially infinitely branching nature of interactive fiction and prune your branches carefully … choose a structure, rather than walking yourself into a bottomless pit or letting your choices spiral out of control.

Know what’s out there already. Play the good stuff. Play the interactive fiction that’s winning awards. I really like the work of Porpentine and Michael Lutz. Find the stuff that you love and figure out why you love it. Is that special ingredient within your own work?

Now, before you show it to anybody else, read over your own creation with a critical eye and edit like crazy. Be diligent, be ruthless with yourself. Spelling, grammar and syntax aren’t nice extras; they are 100% critical.

 The wise words of my friend & colleague Slava - good to remember when you're deep in the writing woods

The wise words of my friend & colleague Slava - good to remember when you're deep in the writing woods

Publish it!

When you are happy with your creation, publish it through philome.la and get it out there to the readers who are waiting for your voice … share it with your friends, tweet about it, send it to a literary journal, etc.

Ask people you trust for feedback, but be judicious about what feedback you apply - not everybody is going to like what you create, and that’s OK! If you are writing from the heart, some people will love it and some will hate it. The only situation you want to avoid is 100% of people thinking “meh”.

With your first Twine published, you’ve now made a game. You are a games writer! Now bundle that game up with a story, a blog post, a poem or two and anything else you’ve written that you love. Put all of those things into one folder. You know what that’s called? A portfolio.

Good Luck, and if you do go ahead to make something in Twine, I’d love to read it!