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!

The Golem

On the night the golem rose in Prague there was a storm. The sky was dark and loud and thunder rolled between the sick beats of my heart, the heartbeat of the city. I wandered the old Jewish cemetery, weeping for those gone long before I was born. Hidden in an iron-bound garden, I found an intense young man: a cut-rate Dracula accompanied by two crow-like goth girls, all glittering eyes and twitching fingers. I saw these magicians whispering by an ancient grave, saw them call and cast, rocking and weaving over a small book.

The fever which had already begun took fierce hold of me that day. Staggering back to the austere hotel, I shook and vomited, alternating hot and cold, head stuffed full of feathers and blood and tar.

Sometime in the never within the night, I awoke in fear, in wonder. I parted the curtains and looked out across the city and felt him rise beneath the full moon, felt the golem stalk the streets. Watching for him, I almost but not quite saw his lumbering bulk in the shapes unseen just behind the buildings and the clouds. Listening close, the weather spoke for him. I was consumed with a portentous feeling so strong that, years later, I can still recall it easily.

Trembling, I tried to wait for more but then I fell asleep and dreamed and tossed and turned too long and woke to another day of weaving the streets glassy-eyed: looking for meaning, looking for medicine... 

Praise the Sun!

Back in May, I wrote a little piece for Existential Gamer on yoga and Dark Souls 3. If you like either of those things, you might like it! Read it here.

In Memory of Joe O’Rorke

  Joe being led away wounded from the Four Courts in 1922.

Joe being led away wounded from the Four Courts in 1922.

My beloved grandfather Kevin O’Rorke (1910-1990) was only a little boy of 6 in 1916, but he had three much older brothers who all took part in the Irish Easter Rising: Joe (1893-1980), Freddie (1899-1985) and Jack (1898-1943).

Of Freddie and Jack, I never heard much as a child, but Joe was a constant presence. After a revolutionary youth in Ireland and an adventurous middle age in Africa, he lived with my grandfather and his family as an invalid for the last 23 years of his life. He died just one month before I was born.

I was as strange and superstitious a child as I am an adult, and for the longest time I believed the world operated on a sort of “one in one out” system. I was convinced that I was the replacement for Joe, sure that this meant something. My grandfather was strange like me too, a retired Garda with many little crafting and studying obsessions. Grandad would sit for hours engaged in one of his very specific activities: drawing lilies, making extremely intricate lavender sachets, rolling cigarettes … while reciting poems and tales of wars long past to me, a rapt audience of one. These stories gave me a lifelong fear of soldiers (as a child, even a man wearing camouflage trousers would send me screaming) and a parallel appreciation of revolutionaries.

Joe was 17 years older than my grandfather, and by the time my grandfather was a toddler, he was already the secretary of the Dublin Irish Republican Brotherhood Circle (known to the outside world as the “Clarence Mangan Literary & Debating Society”). He was in the GPO and Fairview for the 1916 Easter Rising (while two of his brothers were stationed at Jacobs). He was jailed at Frongach and returned to fight (against his brothers) in the Irish Civil War, after which he escaped custody and went to Africa.

 Joe at home in the 1950s

Joe at home in the 1950s

In Ireland, it’s not really the done thing to wave flags around, except at football matches. For me at least, proud nationalism seems like an awkward, distasteful, even a dangerous thing. There are too many associations with the horrors committed by the IRA. I often think of myself as European. As beyond nationality. As a citizen of such a tiny country, I am instead a citizen of the world.

Even celebrating the beginning of our country seems complex. An armed resistance, taken up against the will of many people, that led to civilian deaths. The Rising is not far enough in the past for mythology to allow the rebels the title of “hero” but it is far enough that the majority of the populace do not disdain them, as they did in 1916 - spitting and shouting insults at the rebels as Joe and his comrades surrendered. Not heroes, not villains: human beings.

There will always be those ready to defend the status quo, those afraid of change, those who would prefer to live in misery than uncertainty, those content to mutter bitterly and throw stones at those who stand up lest the “masters" punish everyone for the rebellion of the few.

On Easter Monday 100 years ago, a small band of idealists - mystic poets and dreamers - occupied Irish government buildings demanding a fair and equal society. Of course, they didn’t get it. They were jailed or killed, along with many innocent civilians.

Despite 100 years of progress, we still don’t have that fair and equal society now. But we are at least closer. Decade on decade, year on year, we’re inching ever closer to the beautiful socialist vision read out by Padraig Pearse on that day: "The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation."

To achieve that vision, we'll need more idealists, not less. More mystic poets with their eyes on the horizon, full of belief in a better world for all, willing to stand up against the injustices rampant in the modern world, in our modern Ireland.

Maybe in 2016 we can do it peacefully. We can stand up by voting for candidates who won’t sell us out to the banks, we can stand up by attending protests, we can stand up by refusing to accept that greed, cronyism, injustice and poverty are necessary or acceptable in a first world country blessed with an educated populace and myriad natural resources.

Not heroes, just human beings.

'Long since I played with ball and blade, the major wager staking;
Now almost all my comrades sleep the sleep that knows no waking.
And soon enough I, too, will seek them over the Divide;
To share their sober epitaph, “They failed, but, sure, they TRIED!”’

- extract from ‘Ave! Atque Vale!’ by Joe O’Rorke, 1979 (full poem text below)

You can read Joe’s full military deposition online here, including his accounts of 1916.

Global Game Jam 2016

I had a total blast at Global Game Jam 2016 in Dublin. The best part was seeing a huge posse of my DT508 students really enjoying their first jam!

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Speaking of my students, you should play their games!

After the excitement of arrival, I spent the first evening absorbed in learning Stencyl. After creating a basic maze game and thinking "Hmm, this ain't no Witness" ... I decided to make a narrative game instead. I spent the first half of the second day reading magick books and getting lost down occult rabbit holes. Finally ... as dusk approached on Saturday, in a fugue state of panic, I eventually opened up Unity and set to making a narrative game using Fungus.

My game, "The Promise of Spring", is inspired by the Celtic festival of Imbolc (which is tomorrow, February 1st!) and the Irish goddess Brigid who heralds the beginning of Spring. It takes the form of a ritual to chase away the winter and call in the daughter of summer. Miscellaneous notes:

  • I made a custom colour palette based on the Thoth deck tarot card of The Empress (the card which most closely corresponds to the goddess Brigid).
  • I used this custom palette along with Super Pixel Time to smush images into some pixelated semblence of uniformity.
  • The ritual I wrote is based on an amalgamation of many forms of worship of the goddess Brigid (also known as Saint Brigid) in Ireland, from the distant past to modern times.
  • The choice at the end is based on personal attraction to one of the alchemical symbols for the elements, and the "individual" advice is based on the four Aces of the Thoth tarot as they correspond to the elements.
  • I did not get everything I wanted to get done in time at all!! It's missing audio and I had two additional puzzle gameplay elements planned, but had no time to include. Next time! It was great to get back into Unity though, especially with Fungus!

You can play it here!