I’m currently writing for video-games. That’s not the same as actually writing video-games – I’ll come on to that – but thanks to breaking into this interesting and lucrative field I am, for the first time in my life, making a decent living from writing. Which is rather ironic, considering I don’t actually play video-games. Back in the 90s when such things started to take off, I was balancing a soul-eating day-job with the sort of hectic social life required to stop my soul disappearing altogether. At the same time, I was trying to find time to learn to write and hence escape said soul-eating day-job. Oh, and I was writing and running way to many tabletop RPGs. So, whilst I’d played plenty of the early arcade and video-games in my youth (I was a demon at Missile Command), I simply had no time to play the new games that were coming out, and hence got out of the habit.
So, you’re probably asking, how did I get to write for the gaming industry when I’m not even a gamer? Well, I am a gamer – those tabletop RPGs gave me a basic grasp of game structure and I know the language of video-games because Beloved plays them and likes to keep me informed about his characters’ progress – but when it came to getting into this business, as was the case with my original book deal it was largely down to luck, though in this case there was also an element of nepotism.
I’ve known Mike S since … forever … and we meet up with him regularly for The Forgotten Realms Campaign That Will Not Die. He also likes my fiction; he went through a phase of naming his characters in Eve (an online space opera/combat accounting game) after characters from my novels, somewhat to my embarrassment. In the real world Mike is a big cheese in video-gaming: the Total War series is his work, and he’s now director of a major games company (CA). As part of his work he likes to give his minions enrichment, in the form of vocational classes and ways to relax/have fun (life drawing, yoga etc).
Mike had talked to me about possibly running a creative writing course for said minions, and when I got my teaching qualification in 2015 he put the wheels in motion. I started teaching at CA in early 2016; I wrote, and now run, an eight-week course for eight students at a time. It’s currently on its eighth iteration and at some point I’ll run out of minions who want to do the course, but for now, I’m loving it, and the students seem to enjoy themselves too.
Mike started by putting his managers on the course, and when one of them wanted a contract writer for three months last summer to work on the latest game in the Halo franchise, they hired me. Then, at Easter, two other projects (both also led by people I’d also taught) both got to a point where they needed some extra writing done, so I’m now three months into a year-long contract which, whilst technically ‘zero hours’ has enough work to keep me busy most weeks, and was full time for much of July.
I said I was not writing actual games because, not knowing the ins and outs of video-game narrative and design, I’m only doing the peripheral stuff which gets filled in when the basic framework is in place. For Halo, this was mainly writing what are known as ‘barks’, the short snatches of voice-over (VO) that characters say, or more often shout, when they move/fight/die. This often involves trying to say the same thing in multiple ways, so the player doesn’t always hear the same phrase over and over, in not too many words – hence the title of this post. Halo has a lot of established and well-loved characters, and I felt somewhat nervous at putting the words in the mouths of some of them (if you’re a gamer and you’re thinking of a certain faceless military hero … yes, I wrote lines for Him). I also got to come up with a couple of minor characters of my own, including writing ‘casting sheets’ for them. One of the highlights of the contract was hearing recordings of actual Hollywood actors auditioning lines I wrote for characters I created.
The two projects I’m working on now are a little different, and also a pleasing contrast to each other. One is the latest game in the Total War franchise, with short (eight words or less) VO from real historical figures; getting both meaning and ‘flavour’ across in so few words can be a challenge. The other is writing for the Warhammer video-game and here there is no word limit. Quite the contrary, in fact. Remember ‘less is more’? For Warhammer, ‘more is more’. And then some. After years of disciplined writing, it’s rather fun to let rip with All the Adjectives.
As an added bonus, I get to work at home a lot of the time, and on those days when I’m in the CA office – or rather ‘studio’, because it’s a genuinely creative environment – I am amongst my own people. After nearly three decades enduring straight-laced and often toxic offices where I had to hide my true, geeky self to survive, this is wonderfully refreshing. My desk has an alien facehugger coming out of the ducting above it (left over from a previous game). My co-workers have nerf-gun fights during their lunch-breaks and swear even more than me (I know, I know), and on my first day there I had a long and entirely work-related conversation about hard vs soft AI and the brain of HP Lovecraft.
Would I rather be writing my own fiction, and being paid this well for it? Well, yes, in an ideal world I would. But until and unless that happens, I’m happy with things as they are. As day-jobs go, this one’s pretty damn good.
Jaine Fenn studied linguistics and astronomy to a level just high enough to be able to fake it and worked in IT just long enough to never trust computers again. She is the author of numerous published short stories and of the Hidden Empire series of space opera novels, published by Gollancz. She also teaches creative writing and is currently writing for the video-games industry.