Writing for games is vastly different from writing novels.
I should know. I’ve done both.
I love writing novels. I started my first when I was twelve, and have written several others since. Although I’ve yet to publish a novel, I’m currently working my way through my revisions on Dead London, and feel I’m getting closer and closer to having a publishable product.
As for video game writing, well, that’s something else entirely.
First, when I started writing for Sins of a Dark Age, the game had already been in development for years. The fantasy world of Amaranth had been meticulously constructed by the dev team, and by another writer. Because I started out working on the game’s sound, including dialogue, I was lucky enough to work closely with the writing team. I began getting to know the characters, the various factions they belonged to, and the various locations in Amaranth. When the game’s lead writer left the company, I was eager to take over.
One of the biggest challenges was attempting to match the writing style that had already been established. Sins of a Dark Age was a dark fantasy, but it was also whimsical, fantastical, and imaginative. The characters had personality, and they had deep backstories. It was important for me to match that.
One of the first characters I got to work on was also one of the most challenging to write.
Penn, the Boy Mage.
Penn is a precocious shepherd boy with a talent for magic beyond his years. At the Seeker’s urging, Penn has left his home to be trained to use his gifts. Quick on his feet, Penn supports his allies by conjuring helpful spirit manifestations.
Penn was tough to write for a number of reasons. One, because of his age. Even in a dark fantasy, it can’t all be doom and gloom all the time. Penn was meant to be the antithesis of the dark, brooding characters like Lord Dekain, The Plague Bringer, and the bloodthirsty antagonists like Slivus, the Vile. Penn was just a happy-go-lucky kid with a bright imagination and the power to summon sheep and fireflies. Yes, really.
But he was more than just a shepherd. Penn’s lore was the anchor that held the world of Amaranth together, and having been teased in promotional images since the game’s first announcement, fans of the game were eager to play as Penn. So, Penn needed to be more than just a happy, optimistic child with sheep-summoning powers. He had to have a deep, intriguing story.
A lot of Penn’s dialogue had already been written, and it had been recorded by a child voice actor. The actor had done an admirable job with it, but for the new and improved Penn, we needed a bit more depth. A common approach to voice acting for child characters in animation and games is to use adult females. It worked for Bart Simpson, right? We decided to do the same for Penn.
I ended up scratching a number of Penn’s lines that felt too bright or too bubbly for the dark world of Sins of a Dark Age, while attempting to retain his child-like optimism and spirit. I wanted to portray the character as an imaginative young boy with the weight of the world on his shoulders. He’s trying to stay bright, but he’s been forced to grow up too quickly.
Of course, in games, the burden doesn’t fall entirely on the writer. Part of bringing a character to life is the artwork, and the animation. Long before we recorded Penn’s voice overs, he was an animated character. Bringing in a talented voice actress took him to a whole other level.
People always tell me I don’t know when to quit. Which is definitely a compliment.
We also included character interactions. When Penn runs into Ziri, a blade-slinging ninja, he has a few questions for her.
Say, where do you keep all those blades? Do you have hidden pockets or something? Or maybe a magical bag that expands when you fill it up? Or maybe they’re magical blades? Or…maybe you summon them from another dimension?
Penn also interacts with Serewyn, The Forest Guardian, one of Penn’s mentors.
I’m gonna be just like you when I grow up…except, you know, not a tree.
The game also includes Quests, one of which is Slay the Dragon.
Dragon? No big deal.
As a writer, it can be pretty amazing to hear something you’ve written – in an Excel spreadsheet – brought to life by a talented actor
It’s equally amazing to hear a character’s voice in game, to see the character moving around and seeming to interact with the world around them, as you control the character. It really does feel like you’ve brought a character to life. The experience is quite different from writing a novel. It’s also much more collaborative; you rely on other writers, artists, animators, programmers, and voice actors.
To add further depth to the characters, Sins of a Dark Age also introduced Lore Books, collectible stories that revealed the backstories of the playable characters. After collecting all the pages, players could “craft” the lore books and read them in-game. I was tasked with writing Penn’s Lore Book, Chosen.