A Day in the Life of a Videogame Scriptwriter [Feature]
I’m lucky enough to have carved out a good name in the games industry in a short amount of time. The first game I worked on was Little Big Planet and it sort of escalated from there…
If you’ve ever played a videogame that you really enjoyed, you’ve probably spent a lot of time enthusing over the graphics, the soundtrack, the playability and the boss monsters.
The chances are, you haven’t noticed the characters or any speech in the game – or if you have, you probably won’t have considered that they’ve been created, fleshed out and given dialogue by a videogame scriptwriter.
One such writer whose stock is pretty high right now is Dean Wilkinson, responsible for the wonderful instructional dialogue spoken by Stephen Fry in LittleBigPlanet and more recently the pen behind the words of Matt Berry’s Don Keystone in the forthcoming Worms: Revolution.
Working from a high rise office in Middlesbrough, an industrial town in Teesside in the north east of England, Dean has been working as a freelance writer since 1989 (with a piece in the cheeky rag Smut), with his work appearing in an amazing array of publications and TV shows in the UK.
Lately, he’s been working almost completely on videogames (“about 80%”) along with a few TV shows in development with broadcasters overseas. Dean’s a successful writer, has won several BAFTAs and his success and any implied glamour arising from this is at odds with both his personality and his low-key workplace.
So just how does he do it?
Fleshing Out Ideas, Bringing Games to Life
In the first LittleBigPlanet there wasn’t much of a story but in the ones coming out there is. For example in LittleBigPlanet Carting there’s a little backstory with that and the LBG Vita has another story. You can either play LittleBigPlanet as a fun game or you can play through with a boss fight at the end.
When I meet up with Dean, he is preparing for a meeting with Bob Cockerill, the co-creator of a football (soccer) board game called Football Legend and artist Joseph Keen to continue their development of a comedy version of the board game, which they hope will be accompanied by a mobile app.
Although not a wholly digital product, this gives me an insight into just what goes on at this stage. Dean isn’t even a fan of football, but has developed some fantastically barmy characters that have, with his notes, been developed by Joseph into a range of cartoon footballers and managers. The visual results are impressive, and coupled with Dean’s background to each of these characters bring amusing vigour to what might otherwise be considered a pretty dry old board game.
Thanks in part to some of his earlier successes, this is pretty much how it works for Dean now. “A lot of the stuff I’m working on is for Indian and Malaysian companies, animation and pre-school shows, things like that. Because things are so difficult – it’s so difficult to get a TV show off the ground in Britain, or a game, or anything really – I put myself out as a content writer now.” So what does this mean, exactly? “Basically I’ll say ‘look, you might have an idea but I can develop it for you, give it a background, write a script, make it multi-platform’.”
Speaking to Dean you get the impression that the work he’s done previously plays a massive part in the projects he is currently engaged in. Reputation is everything in this industry, something that he seems to be a little embarrassed about.
“I have an agent in London and they find me work and it’s easy for them to say ‘he worked on Driver San Francisco, he worked on Little Big Planet, he’s worked on Worms: Revolution’ because there’s a lot of who-ha about that at the moment. But even if a company comes to me I always hand it over to my agent because she’s they can draw all the contracts and things like that.”
Getting the Brief and Researching the Project
I’ll get a brief through with all of this text and I’ve got to get my head around it, make it friendly.
Over 250 titles were released across popular console and PC gaming formats in 2011 alone, not including mobile games for Android, iOS and Windows Phone.
Gaming seems to be more popular than it ever was; it seems as though there are more games released than in the halcyon days of 8-bit home computing in the 1970s and 1980s, and more games means more work for writers. Let’s face it, a game with poor dialogue (spoken or on-screen) and characterisation stands out for all of the wrong reasons. Half Life 2 was arguably the game that changed things, bringing a Hollywood level of polish to cutscenes and exposition (parts of the game explaining the plot up to that point) although things had already been heading in this way for a couple of years; witness the presence of actual Hollywood stars in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Guys like Ray Liotta, Dennis Hopper, Burt Reynolds and Fairuza Balk don’t just turn up to record lines written by the game logic programmer – a writer has to be involved.
Although developers like Team 17 and already have a past history of quirky humour in their Worms series, bringing in Dean Wilkinson to flesh out Worms: Revolution is both confirmation of his current standing in the games industry and recognition of the importance of a compelling background to the in-game story.
In LittleBigPlanet, Dean provided words for the sumptuous tones of actor, writer and comedian Stephen Fry (V for Vendetta’s Gordon Deitrich, although you’ll probably be more familiar with his comedy partner Hugh Laurie of House fame). It was this game and its huge success – achieving a BAFTA award along the way – that has led to many subsequent projects.
A new project usually comes in the form of a brief: An outline of the game, some screenshots and an idea of what is involved. “It’s different depending on the game: with LittleBigPlanet there’s a stack of text that has to go in. For example Stephen Fry’s tutorials – a lot of information has to go into the words that Stephen says, so I have to simplify it, make it funny but still get the message across.” The famous voice has been extremely complimentary of Dean’s part in the game, noting that “We worked together on a project where he was called upon to use incredible ingenuity and skill to make a long and repetitive script seem fresh and original. He did this quite brilliantly. His mind fizzes with ideas and inventiveness.”
There is certainly a feeling of this around Dean’s desk. Despite the plain décor and the distinct aroma of headset foam in the air (the office was once occupied by a call centre) Dean has livened things up a bit with material from some of his current projects lining the walls. He shares the office with three other local freelancers, artists and software developers, creating a great atmosphere.
His eclectic collection of colleagues – one is a hugely talented Icelandic illustrator – reflects Dean’s own penchant for working on a wide selection of gaming genres. One day it might be a driving game; the next a sporting title, but the basics of the job remain the same. “Other games, such as sports games, I could be writing the prompts for commentators. So for a term like “who’s go is it next?” (on a multiplayer) I’ve got to write that like fifty times in different ways, such as “who’s up next?” It might be a hundred times; they’ll then put it in a loop within the game so it sounds fresher and different. I haven’t got a clue about sports, so I have to look up all these things about baseball, all the terms. But it’s good fun and they keep coming back for more.”
It should come as no surprise to learn that research is a major aspect of Dean’s work; after all, it’s 90% of all good writing. Dean has previously published quiz books so knows the value of good research, although his reliance on Wikipedia for other projects might be worrying to some. But then, as he points out, “I’m largely a comedy writer so it doesn’t matter about facts!”
“[Wikipedia] is good for… you know, there might be a word I’m stuck on, so I’ll type something similar into Wikipedia or into Google and you might find a bit of background to it that I can use. When it comes to scripting and comedy it doesn’t really matter. I’ve used it extensively for quizzes but I did go on separate sites to check it, rather than take it at face value.”
Developing a Warzone
They said “who do you want to voice it?” but I said I think the best comedic value for this game is Matt Berry; I created this disgraced wildlife documenter called Don Keystone, he discovered these worms in his garden have these battles, these full-scale fights…
News of Dean’s involvement with Team 17’s latest attempt to revive the Worms franchise came along with confirmation of the presence of Matt Berry as the “voice” of the game. The anglophiles among you may know Berry as The IT Crowd’s Douglas Reynholm or Dixon Bainbridge in The Mighty Boosh, and like Fry he has a very distinctive voice.
Many names were discussed with Dean. “I did go down and have meetings with them, and they said ‘who do you want to voice it?’ We were throwing all sorts of names about like Patrick Stewart, [former Doctor Who] Tom Baker but I said I think the best comedic value for this game is Matt Berry, because I could really write some sort of cynical, funny, instructional dialogue for playing this game.”
And here we get another peek into the slightly mad world of Dean Wilkinson, as he talks me through the reasoning for the name of Berry’s character and his background.
“I created this disgraced wildlife documenter called Don Keystone; there’s a thing in Worms called the Stone Donkey, a weapon. Stone Donkey…Don Keystone. He’s the only human who’s ever appeared on Worms. Because he’s such a bad wildlife filmmaker, he’s slaughtered billions of animals in mistakes… “Can Pigs Drive Cars?” that sort of thing, which was in a show called ‘Hamaggeddon’.
“So no one takes him seriously and the WWF have put a kind of fatwa on him. When he was in hiding, he discovered these worms in his garden having these battles, these full-scale fights… so that was the story behind it. We’ve finally acknowledged that there’s a war going on all around us with worms!”
Although based in his small office in Teesside, Dean enjoys travelling to meet developers and particularly enjoys watching the performers recording his lines. This happened recently with Worms: Revolution, although Dean wasn’t there for fun – he still had work to do…
“The script had been through some legal thing they have to do, and all the one liners had been clumped together in paragraphs. So Matt had the script in the booth, I had the script and I went through it splitting them off. So there might be a line saying ‘when I look at you I don’t see that rookie from several months ago… because it wasn’t you’ so I would have to read through it in my voice so Matt could put a line through so he could pause. Because they were for different screens there would be different reactions from worms; some would be nodding.”
It’s fair to say that Dean’s entry into the world of videogame writing, through LittleBigPlanet, came as a result of his involvement with the award winning shows of Britain’s favourite TV presenting duo Ant & Dec. He’s also worked with many other British personalities, comics such as Harry Hill and Charlie Chuck; his early years writing for bawdy comics and eventually editing one of them make it clear just where his writer’s hat really lies.
“It was so funny because I would read it out in my Teesside accent and get no reaction, and then he’d say exactly the same lines in his Matt Berry voice and everyone would just fall about laughing! If I didn’t understand I’d be thinking ‘well I just said that!’ But of course Matt’s an actor.”
Of course, all of this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the amount of work a videogames writer has to put into a project. From brief through to research, outlining and developing dialogue to submission and recording can take months or longer; it could be years before the game is actually released. “They did that with LittleBigPlanet, saying ‘it’s not going to be out for a while’. But they show me what it is, what it’s got, what it does, just sit and talk about what we would do with it.”
There are various books on the market at the moment explaining the techniques required by would-be videogame writers. Some of these cover the requirement for dialogue to be submitted in a particular format, in a text file within some basic software scripting framework. However, this isn’t something that Dean has come across. “I don’t do that, the companies I work for will do that. They purely just want the ideas, the dialogue, and then they do whatever with it. I think it has to go through loads of different departments, checked for anything legal, but then they format it.”
Naturally the end product will either be text (in the case of a game without a budget for voice artists) or dialogue, but the scale of the game can have an impact on just how much dialogue is required. We’ve already talked about how a sports game might require 50 or more versions of the same phrase, but there is even more scope for further dialogue in other game types, depending on whether they are linear or open ended.
“I’ve done adventure games where the brief will change with every level because it’s getting more intense, for instance a character might have been killed. They might say ‘can you create a background as to why the player has reached this level?’ which was something that happened with LittleBigPlanet. In the first game there wasn’t much of a story but in the new ones coming out there is. For example LittleBigPlanet Carting there’s a little backstory with that and the LittleBigPlanet Vita has another story. You can either play LittleBigPlanet as a fun open-ended game or you can play through with a boss fight at the end.”
This flexibility and diversity in approaches to a project is a key weapon in the arsenal of any videogame writer. While in some writing jobs the creator might never see the work after submission until it is published, videogames will rarely have any “callbacks” – a need for revisions to the original script in order to accommodate a changing plot (or budget). “It’s quite rigid, totally different to TV, especially live TV. Three and half years I did SM:TV with Ant and Dec and there were changes right up until, you know, they might ring me up when the [commercial] break came on, that happened a couple of times: ‘can you think of a better line?’”
Knowing of other titles (thankfully none that Dean has worked on) that have had their budgets severely slashed and the scope restructured, I was pretty sure that this wasn’t completely the case. Surely there must be some occasions when changes are required in videogames?
“When it comes to animation and games, the script’s agreed on and that’s about it. There might be a few little changes – in Worms: Revolution, for example, Matt just said “do we have to say ‘guys’ I hate people saying ‘alright guys, let’s go’” so we changed it to ‘chaps’. He liked that. But 99% of it is set in stone.”
This isn’t necessarily the case for games with a foreign audience, however. Successful games often get translated – so how does this impact on a writer who has a passion for wordplay and puns? “I think LittleBigPlanet only goes to English speaking companies. But I worked on an online game called Crimeville, based in Denmark, and they quickly found out that I like wordplay, but of course it doesn’t translate. For instance it had a joke ‘why does the motorcyclist ride with two slices of cheese in his helmet? Because he likes to feel the bries in his hair…’ but it doesn’t work for Danish, they have a completely different word for ‘breeze’ so it doesn’t work so… I have to be careful of puns, wordplay and just not do it so they can translate it.”
The Videogame Writer’s Toolbox
There are tools for scripting which would come in handy but I just can’t be bothered learning them. I just use Word.
A typical day for Dean will see him communicate with project colleagues, develop ideas and have a few laughs with the other chaps in the office.
What is telling is the lack of high technology about the place. While the designers are running Apple Macs, Dean – whose work, remember, graces PlayStation 3 consoles across Europe and North America – is content to run a word processing app and an instant messenger on a clunky old Windows XP desktop.
Doesn’t he feel that this is all a bit basic? “No. There are tools for scripting which would come in handy but I just can’t be bothered learning them. For example if I wrote a script with a certain character in or he’s all the way through there is software that lets you shortcut the name to a single letter on the keyboard, but I would rather not do that. I just use Word.”
“Skype’s brilliant as well because I can easily work with someone in Malaysia. An up and coming game I’m working on, one of the partners is in America, so we’ll have to pick and choose a time when we’re both awake, but I can talk to him for free as if he’s in the next room.”
Writing freelance is nothing like working for a magazine or newspaper. As with any self-employed profession, there is a need to get into a cycle of self-publicity. While Dean is enjoying considerable success at the moment, it hasn’t always been this rosy – around ten years ago, he had to take an office job to make ends meet.
Over the years, however, he has become a bit of an expert at self-promotion (“I do a lot of my own publicising, a big percentage of my work is letting people know that I’m here”), with a website showcasing his work and recommendations and a proactive attitude to pushing his name. “I’ll buy apps and games mags, find the developer’s website, click on the Contact Us link and send them an email. Eight times out of ten they won’t get back or they’ll get back a year later, but for example I sent something out a couple of months ago, and this morning Big Fish games just got back to me, so it can take a while.”
Dean has clearly learned from past mistakes when it comes to finding new projects. “People in companies move on, so someone who was interested a few weeks ago might have left. I have to keep on top of it, just letting people know that I’m here and bragging about what I’ve done. I don’t like doing that, but, as soon as I mention I’m the writer for LittleBigPlanet all of a sudden they’re like ‘oh, really?’ and it works.”
If you’re reading this and have an aspiration to work in the games industry in a similar capacity to Dean, he’s got news for you: “Don’t bother, I don’t like competition!”
Don’t worry; I don’t think he means it! Certainly I was able to push him to be a little more encouraging.
“If you’re starting from scratch, have other strings to your bow. Don’t think you’re just going to walk in and start writing games at a high level or even for big money. If you want to get in to it you might want to find a local games manufacturer and go and work for them for nothing. Hang around, make the tea, get experience that way.”
“If you want to specifically do writing, creating characters, backgrounds and dialogues my advice would be to try other stuff as well – greetings cards, try radio, TV, short stories, articles, just keep writing and writing. You’ll naturally get better, but you need to get more and more experience because it’s so tough; there are times when there’s no work on so you really need to have a fall-back.”
Many different platforms, many genres, many opportunities – videogame writing is a relatively new career, but one which carries a certain cachet. During his 20-plus years as a writer, Dean Wilkinson has tried his hand at all of the above, even working in TV production at one point. He has the experience and the awards to back up his advice, which he sums up nicely:
“Don’t think you’re going to walk into a huge job. It’ll come in time if you stick at it.”
Find out more about Dean and his work at http://www.deanwilkinson.net