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  • Derya Dinç

Game Developer: “Oh, no! We need a writer!”

Imagine this: an indie game company has been working on their game for over a year. They've got a solid concept, meticulously crafted maps, stunning assets, and perfectly built mechanics. Every rock, tree, and blade of grass looks just right. But suddenly, they realize—they don't have a story.

They've built a universe filled with landscapes, lakes, and houses, but is it really "full" without a story? It's like sitting in the backseat of your parent's car, watching the scenery pass by. Beautiful, but without context, it's just a pretty picture. A story breathes life into a game, giving meaning to the world and making it more than just a backdrop.

Two Types of Game Developers: When to Hire a Writer

In my brief but enlightening journey as a game writer (about six months in), I've encountered two main types of game developers: those who hire a writer before the project starts, and those who realize they need one only after development is well underway.

Hiring a Writer Before the Project Starts

A writer builds your world on paper first. They create the lore and mythology that form the backbone of your game. The main story intertwines with your characters, both main characters and NPCs, constructing the narrative. Relatable characters are crucial—they shape quests and the world, maintaining player engagement and immersion.

For example, consider a character from the future placed in the Middle Ages. Their struggle to understand and survive in a time so different from their own creates a fascinating theme. The story and character dynamics must work in harmony, even when intentionally creating discord for narrative effect.

Everything in your game, from the sky to the tiniest blade of grass, depends on the story. An experienced writer identifies weak points in your narrative, pushing for a stronger, cohesive plot.

Assets should be created to fit the story, not the other way around.

Hiring a writer early cuts costs and streamlines development. A writer helps craft a Game Design Document (GDD), ensuring your story makes sense before coding and art begin. This unified theme guides coders and artists, preventing the need for costly and time-consuming adjustments later.

Hiring Writers After Development Starts

On the flip side, some developers only realize the need for a writer after coding is nearly done. This leads to a world without context or backstory. It's no wonder many games use "amnesia" as a backstory—it's a shortcut to avoid crafting a strong, thematic narrative.

Consider the cautionary tales of games like Metroid: Other M (2010), Cyberpunk 2077, and Diablo III. Metroid: Other M faced backlash for late writer involvement, resulting in criticized characterization and narrative. Cyberpunk 2077, despite its lengthy development, had to hire additional writers post-release to address underdeveloped storylines. Diablo III's story and dialogue were so criticized that Blizzard brought in new writers for expansions, improving the narrative significantly.

No Man’s Sky (2016) faced similar issues, with critics highlighting its lack of depth and poor storyline. Post-release updates added narrative content, improving the game. Mass Effect: Andromeda and Fallout 76 are other examples where late narrative integration led to backlash.

Bringing writers in late causes story integration issues. The narrative may not mesh seamlessly with gameplay mechanics, breaking immersion. Players notice when the story feels like an afterthought. A late-hired writer has limited influence over key design decisions, reducing their ability to shape the world, characters, and plot meaningfully.

The Importance of a Strong Story

A strong story impacts game mechanics, level designs, and character development. Creating the story after these elements increases costs and causes delays, as existing assets need retrofitting. This process is costly and risks losing players due to inconsistencies in tone, style, and character development.

Players crave well-crafted stories, a weak or poorly integrated narrative results in lower engagement, poorer reviews, and reduced sales. Plot holes and inconsistencies are harder to fix without significant rework.

Players need to care about your characters, and the story is the best way to achieve that. Without a story, characters feel shallow and underdeveloped. Writers need time and freedom to flesh out backstories, motivations, and relationships. A well-integrated narrative enhances a game’s emotional impact. Games built on strong stories have the depth and resonance needed to fully engage players.

As game developers, you're promising an experience, and storytelling is as old as humanity itself. From cave paintings to fireside tales, stories have shaped our cultures and subcultures. They should be an integral part of your game development process from the start.

So, remember, next time you embark on a game development journey, bring in a writer early. Your game, your players, and your story will thank you for it. And hey, who knows? Maybe you'll avoid the dreaded "amnesia" backstory altogether.



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