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Insider Secrets of Being a Video Game Writer

Welcome to Bolt’s insider secrets series! This series will take you behind the scenes into the worlds of writers from different industries. Here, you’ll find out everything from what their jobs are like to how to get started in their field.

video game writer

Nicholas Chan, video game storyteller

Nicholas Chan is the writer responsible for Masquerada: Songs and Shadow, a 2.5D isometric tactical role-playing game. The game is being developed by Witching Hour Studios, a game developer based in Singapore. Their previous game Ravenmark: Scourge of Estellion  was an international success and is currently available on iOS and on SteamMasquerada: Songs and Shadow is currently under development and is set for release in early 2016 on PC and consoles.

How did you get into the business?

I was thirteen and Catholic and it was Lent — the Catholic season during which we’re encouraged to sacrifice something for forty days and forty nights and all that — and I decided to give up video games. Considering what I’m doing now I suppose that’s ironic, but that’s how it started.

For obvious reasons, I was incredibly bored during that period, so I tried thinking of something to do to occupy myself and I stumbled across the idea of writing stories. Fantastic ones, in which characters with funky names flung balls of fire and ice about and all that. They were awful and I will never show them to anyone, but I am proud of them if only for the fact that I’d made them — they were the first things that I had ever really created and they introduced me to the indescribable joy of just creating worlds and telling stories. It was great fun, basically, and I really enjoyed it.

video game writer

Fast forward to my days in Victoria Junior College (VJC), during which I took Theatre Studies and Drama (TSD) as an A-level subject. It was my first foray into the world of theatre — which I discovered was another passion of mine — and laid the foundations upon which my involvement with Witching Hour Studios was to be built.

After I finished my A-levels, I went off to serve NS and it was then that I got in contact with a few friends from VJC, who wanted to do a community theatre project. I said yes and long story short, during one of the (public) writing workshops that I attended for the project, I met Khairul, who was one of the writers working on Ravenmark (Witching Hour Studio’s previous game). We got talking and I sent him and Ian, (Creative Director) and Brian (Executive Producer) some of the things that I’d written before and thankfully they liked it enough that they took the risk and hired me (for which I’m eternally grateful)!

And I think that’s the summary of how I got where I am today, involvement with Witching Hour Studios-wise, at least.

What do you do as a video game storyteller?

Video Game Writer

With regards to my involvement in Masquerada, I wrote the script and the codex (in-game encyclopedia) and did some world/lore building here and there, but that’s just been my experience with this one game. I’m certain different games and different companies will require the writer to put on different hats and do different things, too, so I won’t speak on behalf of ‘game writers’ broadly.

What was unique about writing for Masquerada (and again, I’m only speaking of this one game and not games in general) was the constant struggle that was balancing dialogue-driven moments in the game with more active ones involving combat. Having never written a video game before, I think it’s easy to see why this might have been a problem. The frame of mind that I had when coming in was all about the story — I focused almost entirely too much on crafting the plot or beating out the scenes that I’d lost sight of the fact that this was a game that was going to revolve heavily around combat as well.

So as the story grew, I (and everyone else on the team) had to constantly remind myself that “this section is too long, we need more combat,” or “there isn’t enough action here, we need more action!”

Are game design decisions often made based around the story or is it often the other way around?

Video Game Writer

I think it’s safe to say that in Masquerada we had a healthy dose of both. There are certain decisions regarding the game’s mechanics that inspired certain elements of the story and of the world, and vice versa. I think the best example to give would be that of the Media.

So, real quickly, the Media in the world of Masquerada are the different art forms that the characters practice in order to hone their skills in wielding magic. This idea wasn’t around from the beginning; it was the division of fighters in the world into classes (gameplay-wise) that acted as the catalyst for the idea. So we have the Pavisierres who in the world practice one of the Media forms called Merobusto. Gameplay-wise, these are the warriors. The Sicarios practice Medanza and function as the assassin/rogue-type class and the Dirges practice Merumento and function as the ranged casters. So that’s a pretty good idea of how gameplay influenced the story/world.

But then we went a step further — after the concept of the Media came about, the details of each of the Media began to influence the classes as well. The abilities of the classes grew from the way the different Media were described and explained and the relationship between story and gameplay became deeply intertwined, lending a certain cohesiveness to the game (or so I’d hope).

How do you gather user feedback from your stories?

There isn’t a proper step-by-step process of gathering feedback, but in general, it goes something like this: the first person that I have to pass the ideas and the scripts through is Ian, and then he gets back to me with feedback and then I incorporate that into the story in a way we’re both satisfied with. Then once things are hunky dory between the two of us, we pass it around the office and see what people think and then (if there’s time) we decide if we can incorporate the feedback from the rest of the office and then the cycle repeats itself.

How would you like to see storytelling evolve in video games?

Video Game Writer

Coming from a family with two other brothers, I’m really really hoping that storytelling in the future will be able to handle multiple branching interactive storylines in a co-op setting (> 2 players). I don’t know how anyone’s going to do that, but if someone could pull that off, that’d be friggin’ amazing.

What is your greatest moment on the job so far?

Video Game Writer
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This is a toughie. The entire experience of working on the project has just been phenomenal, but if I had to pick a moment, I’d say it was going to LA in June of last year to meet with the voice actors. Firstly it was just mind-blowing to hear the words that’d been penned be given life by these fantastic actors (and they really are amazing), because for so long they’d just existed in my head — when they were spoken, they suddenly felt so much more real. Secondly they’re just amazing people and we had such a fun time with them. We hung out with them at The Edison. It was the greatest.

PAX East 2015 was amazing too (I know, I’m stretching the ‘greatest moment’. Forgive me). Just being out there on the floor and seeing people respond to something that you had a part in creating, no matter how small, is just amazing. Also, Boston has amazing oysters.

OK, now I’m done.

What was the most challenging moment on the job?

Again, a toughie, just because there were so many. Being as green behind the ears as I was when I joined the company, there were many many lessons — personal and professional — that I had to learn. But if I had to pick one that was the most challenging, I think I’d have to say that I went through a period during which I just ran out of ideas. I couldn’t produce any work that I was proud of, and I’d begun burning out and overworking myself. It taught me an important lesson, though, which is that sometimes you need to learn to let go. You need to take a couple of steps back and get out of your writer-room (I had one in the office. It was great.) and breathe in some fresh air. Stop writing for a few days and work on something else. Distance yourself from the story, and once you’ve made a little bit of room, turn around and look at your brainchild again. I found that doing that gave me the energy I needed to tackle the problems and fresh perspectives that I needed to figure out what was wrong with the story.

Tips and tricks for your industry

This is probably a tip/trick for life, but BE NICE! Be professional, and be sincere, but don’t forget to be nice to others. You’d be surprised how many doors open because you remembered to smile.

What are some things you wish you knew before you entered the industry?

video game writer
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I went in knowing very little, so I suppose I wish I knew all that I know now — that would probably have saved me a headache or five — but I don’t suppose that’s a very good answer. More specifically, I think I wish I knew (or at least kept in mind) that as one of many creators of the game, you aren’t solely responsible for its successes or its failures. It helps both ways — it stops you from being too proud and haughty about the work (very easy pitfall for writers, I think) but it also takes a certain stress off your shoulders when you remember that you aren’t the only one that’s running the race. It gives you the space you need to focus on your work and just create instead of constantly worrying. At least, that’s the way it was for me.

Another thing that I wish I knew or realised early on was that criticism is almost always about the work that you do and not about you as a person/creator. It’s very easy to have feelings get hurt in the process of collaboration, but always remember that everyone just wants what’s best for the product and that a critique of your idea isn’t a critique of you (again, a point that I feel is very pertinent to writers).

How would a novice get started in your industry?

If we’re talking about becoming a writer, then write. And read. These two things are the most important things, I’d say. And I’m not just talking about reading and writing video game scripts. Write as much as you can — plays, novels, academic articles, everything! — and read about as much as you can too. If you want to create a world, you need to know about the one that you live in.

Can you recommend some of your favourite books, reference material, essential texts to read?

Video Game Writer
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I love Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy (and most of his work in general) and am also a huge Neil Gaiman fan. In terms of essential texts to read, I think every writer needs to check out Dan Harmon’s ‘Story Structure’ series online. It’s a pretty entertaining read and it covers the basics in crafting a story in modernity. I don’t believe every writer has to follow every single thing that he says, but I think it’s a good starting point for writers to think about the way stories work.

Ultimately, though, I think it’s important for writers to experiment and find out what works for them, especially when it comes to video games, because of the newness of the medium and the lack of centuries worth of storytelling experience within it the way theatre has for example.

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