The Bittersweetest Thing

Lead Writer of BioWare's Dragon Age game series, lover of fan tears. This is where I blog about game development, fandom, and narrative design. Anything I say here is my opinion alone.


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On Narrative Design (Part 1)

I find there’s often a misunderstanding regarding what a game writer does— particularly at a company like BioWare, where story features so prominently in what we make. People see the dialogue and the characters, and a writer makes those, so clearly they’re at the top of the chain in such a game’s development process, right? They write the story, and everyone else turns that story into the game. They make the setting, write the codex entries and the words everyone speaks… that’s the part I like, so clearly they’re responsible for it, yes?

Yes… but only to a point. A game is a huge undertaking by a large number of people, and must by its nature be a collaborative process. Game writing has much more in common with screenwriting a movie than it does with authoring a novel. Storytelling in a game involves so much more than just the writing. And that’s not just being kind— if the words we wrote don’t have the character design, the level art, the music and the cinematics (never mind the gameplay and many other things I’m forgetting to write down) to back them up, they’re going to fall flat.

The people in these other departments are storytellers just as we are, after all. They got into games for the same reason as we did— perhaps not to write characters, no, but to create experiences. A level artist has an awesome idea for a level he wants to try creating. A character artist has an idea for a fantastic new creature. A designer has an idea for a new crafting system or a way to make combat more fun. It’s up to the project leads to weave all these ideas (including whatever ideas we writers have for the story) together into the game. The concept. And it’s from that which we all begin our work.

But how do we do that? I’d say it’s the most common question I get asked. There’s so much information to coordinate, so much required to gather together even a moderately coherent story covering a whole game, how do you begin?

The short answer is “in a meeting”. In fact, sometimes I think I spend half my time at work in meetings. There is, however, a longer answer— which I personally think is an incredibly dull process to try and describe, but people keep asking about it so I’ll see if I can’t relate how it goes… at BioWare, anyhow. The process is different for every company, and most don’t employ full-time writers, but the BioWare process is pretty familiar to me by now so I’ll give it a shot.

At the very least, the next time someone asks it’ll give me something to link to. “Funny you ask! I wrote this series of articles on Tumblr…”

Next: Part 2 - The Early Days


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