J.T. Petty, writer of this summer's "Batman Begins" video game, didn't plan on becoming a video game writer. He had been trying to become a video game receptionist.
Five years ago, Petty was an aspiring filmmaker, busy finishing his NYU student film. He was searching for a new part-time job, because his current gig driving trucks had resulted in too many crashes, when he saw a listing for a receptionist with games publisher Ubisoft. "I went to put my résumé in for that," Petty said. "They also had a pile for screenwriters. And I basically didn't want to answer the phone, [so I] put my résumé there."
Petty got the job and was soon writing dialogue for Ubisoft's "Batman" and "Tarzan" games. He would go on to plot the critically acclaimed "Prince of Persia: Sands of Time," and write the first two installments of "Splinter Cell," a credit that included inventing one of gaming's most popular heroes, Sam Fisher.
For years, video games didn't have writers like Petty. Even now, when credits roll, few games list a separate writer. But the small field is growing. Writing credits have become more prominent in game ads and press releases. Vivendi Universal, for example, touts the fact that "Sopranos" writer Terry Winter will pen 50 Cent's "Bulletproof" game. Activision will plug Brian Michael Bendis, writer of "Spider-Man" comics is scripting their forthcoming "Ultimate Spider-Man" title on the game's box. In October, Austin, Texas, hosts the first Game Writers Conference.
While some dismiss this as another example of the game industry trying to seem more Hollywood, the job of writing video games is still a real position — albeit one not well understood. What does writing a game entail? And should those hoping to break into the industry try to get in on the act?
"It's a great job," said Petty, who considers game development to still be in its silent-film stage. "You're trying to carve out a narrative language for a new way of telling stories."
Like Petty, many game writers come from — or still primarily work in — other fields. They say the process of writing games differs markedly from their other work. "In motion pictures, you would hire a writer, and he'd go off in a dark room someplace for a few months and turn in a script," said Dooma Wendschuh, 28, who, along with writing partner Corey May, also 28, has written two video games and is contracted to pen six more for Ubisoft. The two dub their duo SekretAgent Productions and are working on several feature films, including the Guillermo Del Toro-directed "The Wind in the Willows."
Video game writing is a much more team-based effort, requiring active involvement with game developers. "The games are so nuanced and complex," said May. "I can say: 'He walks into a room and something explodes,' but the designer might say, 'You can't do that.' " The level layout crafted by the designers might not allow it. Or the programmers might not be able to allocate processing power to create a big enough explosion.
If the writers really want their ideas to happen, they have to work closely with the team. That need put the SekretAgents, who are based in L.A. because of their film projects, on the road working with Ubisoft's designers for 240 days last year.
Petty typically writes character bibles and level outlines and then puts together a modular script, which details elements such as scripted events, cinematic non-interactive scenes, text pieces (for elements like in-game e-mail devices). The scripts have to allow for the fact that players are the ones triggering each new plot event.
"We write the screenplay like a 'Choose Your Own Adventure' [book]," said Wendschuch. As games get more complex that kind of process makes the writers' workload ever heavier. The SekretAgents' script for their first game, "Stolen" ran 100 pages. One of their newer scripts weighs in at 1000 pages.
Bendis, whose "Spider-Man" is his first games-writing assignment, said one of his writing goals for the medium is to solve a problem that has long bothered him as a player. He recalled being stuck on a level in a "Punisher" video game and having to replay the fight several times. "I was hitting the same lines of dialogue," he said. "If I was writing the game, I would give it more lines of dialogue." So for "Spider-Man," he said, "I wrote 25 versions of 'Ow, my eye.' "
The writers cautioned that all their hard work doesn't exactly result in a glamorous payoff. "If you're a Hollywood screenwriter and you're any good at it you can make five to 10 times the amount of money for a feature film than making a video game," said May.
It's also not an easy field to break into. "Game companies are increasingly assuming some degree of experience or understanding of the production process," May explained. "You should not expect to become a video game writer without otherwise working in either the film/television or games business first."
Petty and May both said that those looking to break into games should shoot for an entry-level job as a game-playing bug-tester and try to climb the ranks. May also said that creating game mods might allow gamers a way to demonstrate their video game visions.
Prospective game writers need to prepare themselves for one other frustration. Because they are interactive, games don't give their writers full authorial control. "I spent a lot of time writing meaningless dialogue for all the non-player characters, talking about affairs they were having or laundry they had to do or maybe they wanted a dog," Petty said of his work on the stealth-oriented "Splinter Cell."
"The idea was to populate this world and make you feel guilty about killing people and try to sneak past everybody," he explained.
"We tested the game and everybody was like, 'Headshot, headshot, headshot.' "
Credit the game's players with scripting that turn of events.