Confessions of a Games Writer

“I’m a games writer” is never a satisfactory answer when asked what I do for a living – it is either met with complete disdain or the polar opposite of prying interest. I write and edit dialogues, scenarios, back-stories, characters and also item and mission descriptions for every little bit of text that goes into a computer game. It can be quite a lot of words, it keeps me busy. In order to maintain my sanity and interact with the real world, I also keep up a “real” job, lecturing in English part-time at a German university and teaching at various private businesses. But the response to that is usually a bored sigh.

I got into writing game texts about ten years ago while employed as a localization manager at a games publishing company. New game acquisitions from East Europe and Russia contained such lackluster and often questionable text quality, basically very badly written English, that I felt a duty to improve the dialogues before sending them to translators to be replicated into dozens of languages. I discovered I had a knack for it, and since 2010 I have been self-employed as a kind of script-doctor for the industry. I have edited and contributed to some eighty games to date, on every platform, although the nature of my work means I am consigned to far behind the scenes. My name appears on virtually none of these games, and I have preferred it that way until recently.

The confidentiality partly has to do with the question of ownership. Games studios today operate very much in the same ways as Hollywood worked until the 1950’s, before the unions, when cast and crew were paid basic wages and received no billing (credits). Talent is treated as purely a commodity in today’s games branch and, with few exceptions, those who contribute creatively are denied the slightest illusion of having a shared stake in the end result. I have a folder file a foot thick of NDA’s (non-disclosure-agreements) ensuring that I can not legally discuss which games I have worked on until my old age, by which point, if any of the games make the cut, I can only hope they might be worth reminiscing about. Nor do I receive a penny in royalties. Such is the remove from what I create.

The other part of the secrecy is self-imposed – my admitted fear of the gamer community. They are a passionate bunch and can find me when they want to. I have, in fact, received death-threats in the past for plot twists which gamers disagreed with. It’s the kind of backlash better-paid programmers or publishers would never have to experience and traditional book authors could only wish for. As “writer” I am directly held to account, although I mostly have nothing to do with the game concept, just the words.

I eventually dropped reference to my games work from my website as it drew too much unwanted attention. In any case, my services are so niche that I have not had to advertise myself in nearly five years – word of mouth and reputation is enough to keep the work coming. There are very few who do the kind of work I do, it is highly specialized, in a sense. I charge by day or half-day and have a garden house where I go immerse myself in whichever world I am helping create or enliven. It’s an odd routine, shuttling between the laptop creating futuristic fantasy worlds and the cabbage patch to pick out the slugs. I don’t code (a frequent question), but I can interpret code and know how to carefully twiddle the relevant texts in and out in order to mould them.

Working with game developers is a skill in itself – they can be a peculiarly introverted sort, lovely but quite disconnected from reality. They are at the same time the cleverest people I have ever met. My work week involves frequent meetings or video conferences with studios and the discussions we have would be worthy of a few volumes of fascinating report alone. Sometimes story development can be tortuous, requiring the consent of anything up to 15 developers for each minor plot point. Rarely am I given free reign, except when making original game design proposals.

However much my contributions might shine when I submit them, it’s out of my hands whether it all becomes horribly garbled by the time the game finishes development. Text and story is sadly not valued enough by studios, so is mostly overlooked, or only added as an afterthought. It has happened that the released version of a game is unrecognizable from what I have written, and I am resigned to that possibility – game programmers are natural tinkerers, and the logic of what they want to present will change constantly right up to the final day of publication. I have no control over this, they might neglect to inform me, or even each other.

Sometimes, however, I see my hand in a final release and feel great satisfaction. It could be a joke or a turn of phrase, a name or a literary reference, or the whole beautiful mess. I have taken NPC’s (non-player characters) and treated them like blank canvases – given them a life, a history and a voice, and then put them together to bounce off each other in entertaining and engaging ways. I get a creative buzz from the process and the end result, and a slight thrill when I see the community pick up on what has occurred. I follow the forums – they are my reviews. It’s only when certain obsessed gamers take on the persona of one of my characters and start stalking me on social media that it gets weird. Yes, this happens too.

I feel a responsibility for my work because I know so many young people read what I write. I feel the need to show fairness and inform constructively. I try to guide projects towards maintaining good taste, even when it brings me into conflict with my client’s vision. Most under-30’s will have more exposure to games text than actual books – that is society today – it’s not my fault, but at least I can imbue my crafted worlds with some unexpected nuance, some emotional vitality, some reasoning balance. My efforts will not be appreciated if I press the point, but I am acutely aware that words and ideas have influence, and I tread carefully.

I have many literary friends, many published, and we sometimes meet and talk books. They might glow and boast about how their book is going for a second print of 2,000 copies, or another is selling well at 500 copies last year. One game I made was translated into over 35 languages and has over 45 million registered players, but I feel I can’t mention it, even with friends. I’m a hack in the classic sense of the word, and it’s embarrassing, it’s limiting and it is a somewhat lonely profession.

I was recently forced to reevaluate my line of work after reading a literary biography of the Irish writer Brian O’Nolan (aka Flann O’Brien, Myles na gCopaleen) by Anthony Cronin. It highlighted the frustrations O’Nolan felt by having to hide behind pseudonyms; as a civil servant, he could not publish in his own name. His Cruiskeen Lawn column was a regular fixture in the Irish Times for over 20 years, and his identity an open-secret, yet his potential as a great novelist was held back by this confused identity. Lack of recognition and his inability to become a real artist drove him to alcoholism and a fuming despair – a vicious cycle which led to an early death. O’Nolan’s masterpiece was hidden all along, once rejected decades before, locked in the top drawer of his desk, only to be released to the world posthumously.

I have realized that I need to get my work out, to be recognized, in order to reach the next level. In 2017 I will start shopping around a book I have been sitting on for some years and begin work on another. I’m hoping an agent will take notice. I love working with games but increasingly worry that the jobs will stop, that I might be left high and dry without a bankable skill or solid résumé to open new doors. Writing for games has been a fantastic training ground for polishing my skills, but it’s time to get serious. In terms of readers, I have the reach, if I could only transform that into focused interest in what I have to offer. It’s a risky business stepping out from behind the curtain, but there comes a point where it’s necessary. The hand-to-mouth life of a freelance wordsmith isn’t cutting it, I see no happy future in it.

Games are an amazing new medium and studios are wasting their efforts on escapism when they could be using the opportunity to explore aspects of our existence. If I was given a free hand to make any game I wanted, I would make it as human and truthful as possible. Not in a visual or mechanical sense, but in one that engages with real insights and experiences. I would make a game about what I know best – me. I would make an autobiographical game. There will be challenges and missions, traps and bosses, and only one life. The player would have to navigate a turbulent upbringing in the rough parts of Dublin’s Northside, acceptance into film school and college survival without funds, squatting and living in trees for several years while dodging arrest and the pitfalls of drink and drugs, then trying to find a city in which to settle and make a career without going broke or crazy, ride the rapids of loves and break-ups, having a kid, and finally ending up, should the player succeed, with the dream job of writing games, only to discover its frustrations.

Perhaps we will have the technology to all relive our lives, and the lives of others, in game form in the near future, but until then, if there are any studios interested in my version, get in touch!

Photo by Stephen O’Rourke