Writing for games – ZoinkDay #34

In the recent years, writing and story have become a more significant part of game development. It’s not that people haven’t cared about these aspects before, but seldom have they been in the spotlight the way that they are now. But how do you write for a game, and how does it differ from other types of writing? Today, I’ll tell you more about the writing process at Zoink.

Zoink doesn’t have an in-house writer, like some studios might. Instead, we’ve been working with different writers for different projects. There are of course pros and cons with this approach, but here’s why we’ve chosen it:

  • We have an international fanbase Our games are in English – which isn’t our mother tongue. We simply don’t wish to take any chances and risk the tone to be off.
  • Our writers are funny! We think we are as well, but the people we tend to work with just help us take the humour in our games to new heights.
  • It’s a great way to widen the fanbase This goes for both Zoink and the writers. We cross-promote each other!
  • We can choose the right author for the right project If we one day decide to make a dramatic horror game, we can choose a writer fitted for that project. 
  • Finding the writers

    In our recent titles, Stick It to The Man and Zombie Vikings, we’ve been working with two cartoonists – Ryan North and Zach Weinersmith. We got in touch with Ryan while we were working on an Adventure Time game for Cartoon Network. He was the person in charge the dialogue – and his stuff was F-U-N-N-Y! We really wanted him to work with us, and was really happy when he said yes to joining the Stick It project.

    ryanandzach

    Ryan and Zach.

    When Zombie Vikings was in the works, Ryan was unfortunately not available. But he put us in contact with another writing comedian – Zach Weinersmith, the man behind renowned web comic SMBC! Both Zach and Ryan come from the world of comics, which fits our style and type of humour. And they’re both redheads, so there seems to be something there as well…

    Writing for games is a team effort

    So, can anyone be a game writer? Can you take a cartoonist, put them on a chair and just wait for the thing to be done? Yes, and no. Certainly, anyone with a talent for writing could write for a game. But the process is different, and you’ll have to learn some new tricks! First of all, it’s much more of a collaborative effort. Which, in Zach’s case, was something he found enjoyable!

    “Cartooning is a very isolated form of art, since one person can do the whole thing. Video games are much more of a team effort. So, there was a fun back and forth.” – Zach Weinersmith

    Also, stories in games can tend to be a bit complicated. You might not know in which order the player completes different tasks, and because of that, you have to be very careful with your timeline and how and when you present different facts. You don’t want the player to reach a point in the game where they’re expected to know something that you haven’t told them yet. That kind of thing just ends up very frustrating for your audience.

    Outside of the main story, there’s also a lot of small stuff to write. What should Caw-Kaa say when she attacks an enemy? And what should the enemy respond? All of these small actions need a whole bunch of varied lines, to make sure it doesn’t get repetitive to listen to when playing for hours. You have to go for both quantity and quality!

    The start of the process

    In short, the way we work goes like this: The creative director (and sometimes other people as well) write a short summary of the whole game. This is never longer than a few standard pages. From this, we then start to separate the synopsis into different scenes, creating a very straightforward timeline.

    timeline

    Scene synopsis

    After this is done, it’s time to write a summary for each and every one of the cutscenes. I thought I’d use the intro scenes where Loki steals the eye and Odin resurrects the Vikings as an example.

    Summary_intro

    Work together

    For those of you who have played the game, you know that a lot of these initial ideas didn’t make the final cut. And at this stage, we kind of count on that to happen. This is where the writer comes in. In the case of Zombie Vikings, our CEO and Creative Director Klaus sent over the ideas for the cutscenes to Zach, who cleaned it up and filled the thing with full-grown lines and jokes. And then comes the editing process – done in co-op style with the help of Google Drive.

    Skärmavbild 2015-09-25 kl. 11.32.34

    Polishing

    This process continues until we have a finished script. It might sound easy, but believe me – it’s tough (and includes lot of murdered darlings)! The scripts often get cut down a lot – and still we have around 90 minutes of cutscenes in the game. Eventually, though, the scene is starting to finalize. At this point, it’s very close to the final manuscript used by the voice actors.

    Zombie Vikings Draft

    Eventually (yay!) the whole thing is done and sent over to the animators and voice actors – ready to become part of the game!

    And that’s the whole story! If you have any more questions about the writing process, or writing for games in general, let me know in the comment section and I’ll make sure to answer them.

    Alexandra Dahlberg
    Community Manager
    @dalbergskan