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Video Game Writing Tip #10

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Many games include races that are non-human, and these are the toughest to write for. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking like a human writer, which you are, and writing dialogue that your fictional race would never say.

In order to write for any character, you have to activate your imagination and become that character. For example, when writing for the sylvari race in Guild Wars 2, we have to imagine what it’s like to awaken for the very first time in a dream realm with a flood of data entering your brain from somewhere unknown. You’re an adult already, emerging into a world that’s new to you, with no memory of ever existing before now.

You have no place in that world, yet, but you know so much about it. You know faces and names, but none of those people have never met you. You come from a tree, and you have no concept of family or the complexities of friendship. All you have are images that fill your head and give you the basics you need to survive, language, goals for your future, and a guiding presence in the Mother Tree and those caregivers waiting to welcome you into the world.

How do you write dialogue that sounds real for a creature like that when you have had no such experience?

  1. Flesh out your race in advance.
    Some would say this is the fun part—sitting down and letting your imagination work its magic. Putting yourself in the head of a non-human character can be difficult, but it’s worth the effort. Think, really think about what it would be like to be that character, to be born the way she was born, or to grow up as she grew up. Think about what influence these experiences would have on their culture, on their relationships, and on their views about other races.

    The more you know about your race in advance and the more time you spend thinking through the mundane and extraordinary elements that make up their daily lives, the easier it will be to write for them. You’ll gradually find a list of defining factors or keywords that will help you keep the race’s dialogue in line.

  2. Patrol yourself and your words.
    It’s so easy when you’re writing, especially at high speeds, to fall into writing from a human perspective. You have to be ever vigilant against it.

    Here are some examples of things that a human might say, but that a sylvari wouldn’t, except perhaps as a way of mocking or mimicking a human:

    • God have mercy.
    • That gave me goosebumps.
    • My family is all that matters.
    • All right, brother.
    • When I was little, I…
  3. Have others who read what you wrote and critique it.
    It doesn’t matter how good a writer you are, we all need a good editor. In video game development, we work at a very fast pace, turning out volumes of dialogue every day. It’s so easy to fall out of a racial voice and back into comfortable humanity.

    Game writing should always be a team effort, even if that team consists of only a writer and an editor—or two writers watching each others’ backs. At my job, at ArenaNet, I’m extremely fortunate to have several layers of safety net. The people on the writing team watch over each other, and we also have a highly skilled and alert Quality Assurance (QA) team that catches whatever slips through the cracks.

    The reality of game-writing is that no man (or woman) is an island. Or, to squeeze another cliche, it’s a team sport. That’s why it’s important to document your race and make sure everyone who’s evaluating the writing knows the race’s quirks and perspectives. We use a wiki to do this, and we also discuss the races quite a lot. Part of the writer’s job is to educate others on the lore and social aspects of each race.

If everyone on the team does a good job, then when you play through the game, you won’t have to work hard to get into the character’s head. We’ll have done that for you, and you’ll find support for your imagination in every word you hear.

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