Adam Bullied, one of the teachers at CG Spectrum and a game writer with a lot of experience in the industry, shared a great insight into writing for games, how it’s organized, what skills are necessary, and his new class Narrative Design.
Introduction & Career
My name is Adam Bullied, and I have been a designer, writer, and director in the video game industry for twenty-three years, based mainly out of Vancouver, Canada. I started playing D&D at twelve years old, and have played RPG’s consistently since then. It was kind of the big revelation of my life. I studied film at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver. I taught myself Autodesk 3D Studio, the precursor to 3DS Max, because I thought it would be useful in filmmaking. I needed a job and someone suggested that because I could do 3D, I could get one at a video game company. Despite the fact that I played games, I’d never thought of working in the industry. I got hired as a level builder on a snowboarding game at a company called Radical Entertainment, which is kind of a legend in the local industry. When I started working in the industry I discovered this thing called ‘game design’ that I’d been doing my whole life with RPGs but didn’t know the name for. I thought I’d work in the industry for two years to pay off some debt, then go back to film. Then I worked on a game called Homeworld at a startup called Relic Entertainment and working with that team on that game was a really amazing experience. That was when I decided that I wanted to be in this industry.
After that I worked on a number of different games; a Need for Speed game for EA, a couple of shooters for THQ called Frontlines; Fuel of War and Homefront, an open-world game that would become Sleeping Dogs, a bunch of games that never made it to market. I also spent a few years running a small startup game development company making an oddball original IP project that I couldn’t get published. There was a much bigger, more thriving industry here in Vancouver back then and there was a lot of AAA work. I always knew that my place was in narrative-based games, and at that time narrative was much more prominent in games. I had done a lot of screenwriting in university and it was a skill that was easy to transfer to games, there was lots of demand. With a background in game design and writing I ended up, without knowing it, doing a new job; narrative designer. I feel like that discipline caught up to what I had been doing all along.
After that, I served as Creative Director, Game Director, and Narrative Director on a few projects. I was Creative Director on a Resident Evil game called Operation Raccoon City, which was the first RE game made outside of Japan. I created the characters in that game and they are in the RE canon. On my desk, I only have action figures of characters that I created!
Now I live in Vancouver with my family and I mostly work as a freelance game writer. I have a big new IP that I’ve written and I am producing, but I think it will arrive first as an animated TV show before moving into a game.
What It is Like to Be a Game Writer
I feel like being a game writer and director was what I was always internally directed to do. Aside from working in TV and/or film, I’ve never thought of doing anything else. I was really lucky to get into the industry early on, and for the specialization of a game writer to emerge as the industry evolved.
I can’t overemphasize how being a game writer involves skill in two disciplines; you have to be able to write and have the story development and language skills that a classic writer has, as well as be a game designer and really be able to understand how the story and game mechanics are intertwined. Back in an early phase of the game industry, before this was understood, there was a push to bring in ‘Hollywood’ screenwriters to write for games, that these guys were going to ‘grow up’ the stories that games told. The TV and film writers saw games as easy money. ‘I wrote (some film or tv show), writing for these little games will be easy!’ It never worked. Nothing that they wrote worked in games. They didn’t understand the audience, and they didn’t understand the medium. They looked down on both. They would have characters standing around dumping narration in long, unskippable cutscenes. They would try to make cinematics into big-budget action sequences. They didn’t understand that narrative needs to be discovered through gameplay, and that is where the action and the explosions go.
The truth is that Writing for games is MUCH more difficult than just writing a linear script, which is hard enough. Open worlds, branching narratives, progression mechanics, responding to the multiple possible player reactions, all these things make a game script orders of magnitude more complex than a screenplay. I have a metaphor for this that I use in the course; imagine that you’re writing a screenplay in which you cannot predict what the lead actor, the player, will do, and you have to write parts for all of the other characters, and the star, that reflect all of the combinations of possibilities.
So if you want to be a narrative designer or a game writer, you have to be good at two things, writing and game design. By writing, I mean writing seriously. You need to have a writing process and do it a lot. You need to know and have deep knowledge and passion for literature (and read books!), theatre and film. You really need to know about stories, and what makes them good. You need to understand character development and classic genres of fiction. By gaming, I don’t mean sitting on your couch playing lots of videogames, though that is part of it, I mean designing and playing game systems. I really like to emphasize how important pen-and-paper role-playing games, like D&D, are, as well as tabletop fig games, card games, and board games to one’s understanding of how game design works. Computer games and pen-and-paper game systems are fundamentally the same, under the hood, but a lot of that gets hidden from you in videogames. You need to engage with the mechanics on a very fundamental way in PnP games. When I am interviewing designers and writers for jobs, my first question is always ‘what non-videogame games do you play?’
How to Write a Game?
Writing for a game is not like writing a novel or a screenplay, where one sits down at a blank page and has complete freedom to write what they want. At the very least, you have to know something about the game, and that will create limits. For instance, you’re going to have a hard time making a story about a character who is a pacifist if it’s for a first-person shooter. You can’t make a story and then find a game to bolt it onto. You have to weave a story and game together from the start.
In the real world game industry, you will have LOTS of constraints within which to work. The most common is working within an existing or licensed IP. Original IP’s are RARE these days, you could spend your whole career only ever writing within existing IP’s. You have to work within the existing constraints of an already existing narrative universe. The IP bible for Resident Evil is an actual book, there are only two, they are HUGE, and they contradict themselves internally. The Star Wars IP has a database of all the things that are canon, and a whole department that every creative decision must be cleared by.
So when you start writing a story for a game you start within the constraints that the project has, the existing design, the budget/scope, the publisher, the director’s vision. You need to answer a number of questions about the properties of the game, like openness versus linearity. You need to have some ideas about how the story will be presented. Armed with this foreknowledge about the game, you start writing the story from the top-down, with the simplest summary of the story. You should be able to write a summary statement, an elevator pitch, of approximately fifty words, that conveys the character, the action, the struggle, and the conclusion. “A young knight who is a skilled swordsman fights an army of undead warriors who are invading his enchanted homeland, and eventually confronts their Lich King leader who killed his father”. Not very original, but you can imagine that whole game from that summary. Once you do that you start to refine the details. What is the army of undead warriors like? You should be working with the artists and game designers who are designing both the young knight, the undead army, and the bad guy. You should be working with the level design team to design the enchanted homeland and the mission environments where all of the action will take place.
Many people think that game writers are lone, singular creatives who work behind closed doors then emerge one day and say to the dev team ‘here is the story for the game that you are making!’ That is nonsense. Game writers are the MOST collaborative creatives on an often huge team of creatives. You need to have a back-and-forth with so many other people. You need to be able to take and filter feedback and suggestions. Balancing an open mind and razor-sharp critical thinking is the hardest, most important part of the job. At some point in EVERY development process, someone who you least expect it from, some AI programmer or QA guy is going to bring you a suggestion that you don’t initially recognize as brilliant, and if you don’t put your ego aside and recognize it as such, you might have missed out on a key improvement to your game.
Joining CG Spectrum
First off, I’d like to thank CG Spectrum for giving me the opportunity to grow so much as a writer. The whole thing continues to be one of the most difficult and rewarding experiences of my career. I have always given guest talks at different schools, and I continue to mentor at local universities on occasion, but I have never thought of teaching a course or writing curricula. I’ve just always thought of myself as a working game writer.
As a freelancer, you’re always promoting yourself, looking for new opportunities, ‘shaking the tree’. And thus, one day I answered an ad. I didn’t know anything about CG spectrum, and to be honest, I didn’t expect much to come of it. Jeff got back to me right away, you’d have to ask him why, and offered me a job. I think the thing that sold me was that he wanted me to keep working in the industry, and to do this part-time so that my knives stay sharp. I like that. I’m not sure I would have taken it if he wanted it to be a full-time gig. What I didn’t know is how challenging and rewarding it would be to take over twenty years of experience in this discipline and to structure it in a way to teach it to others. For me, at this point, while I am still improving and learning things, writing game narrative and screenplays is something that, fundamentally, I feel like I know how to do. Writing a curriculum for a course, that is new to me and has required me to stretch myself, as a writer, out of my comfort zone.
Narrative Design Course is Coming
Let me start by saying just how excited I am to show this course to people and get their feedback. Designing and writing the course has resulted in a lot of personal examination, and I hope that folks find it of value.
Now let me continue with what the course is not, or ‘not just…’, and that is a technical training course. This course is as much about ‘macro’ skills, as it is about ‘micro’ ones. This course is not as much about ‘making stories in games’ as it is about ‘making good stories in games’. It is also, and this is shamelessly self-serving, about teaching the kinds of skills and producing the kinds of narrative designers that I wish I was finding when I am interviewing potential hires. To this end, the course is really two courses in one.
The first part of the course is about tearing apart game narrative, stripping it to the fundamentals, examining where game narrative comes from, and developing a professional language to talk about game narrative. We start with the fundamental question of ‘why do games have stories’, which is so often something we take for granted. The answer, I suggest, is that stories are, like games themselves, intrinsic in the human psyche, and games are part of the longer tradition of human storytelling, itself a product of human consciousness. Next up we’ll dive into kinds of game stories and look at how types of games and types of stories have an interrelationship with each other. We’ll look at all the ways games tell stories. We’ll look at the special significance that characters have within game narrative. We’ll look at the relationship between story and game design. All of these lessons have underlying questions that you’ll need to be asking yourself in the earliest ‘ideas’ stage of your game conception process.
The second part of the course will delineate the process of writing the game narrative. We’ll talk about narrative design, mapping the fundamental course of story and gameplay. We will move on to the mission and encounter design and eventually get to the most granular part of the process, writing the script. All of this will drive a series of assignments that will require students to keep resolving their designs to greater degrees of detail until you emerge from the course with a set of work samples that show the development of core skills and creative process required to work as a narrative designer. I don’t want you to finish this course able to shove some boring retread of a story, some generic filler, into a game. I want you to be able to make GOOD stories, the RIGHT story for your game, to develop the design sensibilities and the creative process to make something awesome.
The course is for anyone who is interested in game narrative design and wants to do a deeper dive into the subject matter. Certainly, CG Spectrum’s game design course would be very helpful, and the courses should mutually enhance each other, but this course would also be great for anyone who has worked as a designer, perhaps in core mechanic design, or in tuning, who wants to upgrade their skills to work in the narrative.
Adam Bullied, Game Writer
Interview conducted by Daria Loginova