Level with Me is a recurring interview series that focuses on demystifying the various roles in the video game industry and equipping the reader with resources to start working towards that job.
Sitting at a posh bar in downtown Vancouver, Brian Woodruff is across me enthusiastically spinning tales of his work history which includes living in China at one point. I've had the fortune to sit with Brian, many times, one cafe or another in Vancovuer during and around our work schedules. In the short time I've known him, one truth is constant: he's perma-busy. Thus, any given conversation with him also means walking through the sprawling labyrinth of projects keeping him busy which includes a TV pilot, bamboo-material boxers, graphic novels, podcasts, anthologies, etc. All of these side gigs are on top of his busy day job of making SEO sorcery at Convertus. Today, he's come to share his story about working as a Narrative Director.
First, a little history on a similar role, Narrative Designer, as it was first coined by Stephen Dinehart for a role in THQ Canada to "champion story". His definition in the post is a good primer for anyone curious in understanding the job. However, given that every game may tweak the DNA of that role, I wanted to hear about this role from Brian who just launched an HTC VR game, Neurowake, and is still busy writing for his own indie game, Simpleton.
Tell me about yourself and what you do in the game industry?
Sure! My name is Brian Woodruff, I've worked in video games for the last eight years, conservatively speaking, as a games designer, writer, and more recently, as a narrative director.
As a game designer, I was primarily responsible for building other people's story into a functional game system. I worked on an MMORPG called City of Steam where we built up an IP from a collection of roleplaying tabletop games by David Lindsay, a fantastic human being from New Zealand. I also worked with a gentleman called Ian Morgenheim whom I've collaborated with on a number of other projects since.
And from there, I went on to do some narrative design for a procedurally-generated game called Darkout. The position required that I absorb the technical components of the game and understand what the game director is interested in seeing and build a story around that.
Beyond that, I've worked on a few other games that didn't see the light of day, but that happens.
Can you run me through a typical session of your work day as Narrative Director?
Creativity, for me at least, comes in bursts that are somewhat inconsistent. That said, I like to have some structure when I'm working on bigger projects and try to get myself a little exercise, coffee or tea, and a small snack before I get started.
When we get down to the actual writing session, I'm pretty caffeinated and ready to put my shaky hands to work. I try to do a couple hours before lunch in free flow format. Just coming up with the ideas I want to explore and do a lot of research online. I take a break around lunch and either go for a walk, listen to some music, play other video games, or otherwise force myself to be distracted for a bit.
That doesn't last too long and is followed by more writing. At this point, however, I tend to go back to pieces from the day before and edit, review, and make more notes. I don't know how long this mangled mess of writing goes on for, but at some point, it all starts to fit together into a larger narrative. Whether or not the game needs it — I do like to make a world story — just to give myself a foundation and limitations to work within.
Before the day ends I collect my new writing pieces (and if I'm in a team, I like to have them send me what they've done, too), revise them if needed, and then organize them for review by the other departments/team members/etc for more notes, opinions, and advice where necessary.
Sometimes, if I'm lucky, I even get a pat on the head and a little praise.
Plug a great industry resource!
This may sound rather simple, but, really, it's all about keeping up with trends, reading about how others have embarked on their writing journey and accepting that there's no 'right way' to be a writer. Keep testing yourself. Do writing prompts. Submit to contest when you want to have some feedback or fun. Work with other writers. Learn about their perspectives and their process.
Personally, I like to sit down and write freeform for about 10 minutes every day to keep my mind from getting too rigid about a specific idea. Sometimes I challenge myself to re-write a story that I knew was working at one point but lost itself somewhere along the way.
Revisit stories that you've completed and turn them into another medium — try it as a script, as a drawing, as an audio story, as a play or something else entirely!
Experimenting with ideas is what works best for me. I love to explore concepts and see if I can rationalize strange notions to make them feel normal and vice versa. The more you're prepared to be fluid with your creativity the more you'll be able to find the best method to meet your mindset and personality.
Can you give an overhead snapshot of the type of writing involved (game bible, quest writing, item description, NPC dialogue, etc.)?
As I noted above, my writing tends to follow a string of excitement and my energy levels. This means that I drift between different areas of the game to allow myself small mental breaks and to control consistency with language and narrative decisions.
Game writing, in my general experience, starts by looking at the source material (if it exists) to see where ideas can be utilized — where limitations prowl — and how to translate it into an experience that players will enjoy and find interesting.
I like to get right into building a Game Bible/Narrative Bible from any of the elements that either pre-exist or have been determined by other members are absolutely important. It takes time to nail down the canon but it's rewarding to be able to have a reference area that you can keep aligned with.
Depending on the game, I tend to write based on the expectations set by the director/producer. This means being malleable and willing to leap into the area that requires work to be done so other departments/individuals have what they need.
Sometimes this might mean doing a quick write-up for social media — other times you might be asked to put your opinion forward on ideas for character design, stages/levels/etc.
It really is a wonderful and ever-moving experience. If you love to be a fluid creative it doesn't get much more chaotic neutral than it does with early and later-stage writing.
Of all those tasks, which is your favourite?
It's difficult to describe which part I love the most — but if you have me at the point of a sword — I suspect I'd say that I get a thrill out of the world and history building. There's just something magical about being part of imagining and manifesting people and places, events, experiences, feuds, friends, and everything that helps iron out the edges and make a game's world feel alive and surreal.
Interestingly, because this is the part where all other elements connect back to, it's often the most taxing. When I was less experienced I dreamt in literary technicolour and wanted to be able to spend as much time crafting even the smallest details about the creatures, locations, and just about everything else I would want in a game. I've realized that it's better to have those parts close in your mind but try to keep attuned to the needs of the product first and keep any relevant notes for possible future involvement.
Sometimes ... people don't care why an NPC has a strange accent as much as I do ... especially if that is a character you only see once and then vanishes from your life for the rest of the experience. It's why I love playing RPGs that really get you thinking. Sure, you might be aware that there's not much you can do with the knowledge that the Stogmari in City of Steam carry ceremonial hammers as a sign of respect when a close relative dies but it's ... still something I like to consider when I write.
On the other side, you want to be sure you stay on schedule with the rest of your team and that might mean pulling some narrative expeditions in favour of something else that needs to be finished sooner and has a higher priority.
How long does writing take for a game writing project?
It depends on how much the creative director or the other writers are involved. When I was working on City of Steam, it was myself, Ian Morgenheim, and David Lindsay, in the beginning. We were joined by Daniel McDeavitt a little into the project as well. A general day would see us sit-down in meetings and chat about the process and ideas on how we could expand the story and what we wanted and needed to focus on.
While working on Neurowake, however, the situation was less about team dynamic and more about correspondence. I worked back and forth on the story development with Luke Chen and Frank Bloemendal. Over the course of the project, I'd say it would be safe to say the draft of Neurowake came to become a 155-page document that took about a month and a half of day-to-day communication to get to a point where we felt pretty good about where we were.
When it comes to VR gaming, what are the biggest changes to your writing as a Narrative Director?
The world of VR Gaming is so new — especially in terms of accessibility — that it's not as much a challenge as it is an adventure! Suddenly you are a character in the world you're building. Your players expect to have a level of immersion to validate the software and the technology.
Especially because in many narratively-driven games you'll be asking players to almost-literally stand/sit/move in your shoes. I think it's quite liberating, though, and the challenges bring huge opportunities for great story telling.
The limitation, however, is the distribution and affordability of the technology. Sure, you can build one for smart phones, and those can certainly be quality experiences, but when you step into the high-end market of Oculus Rifts and HTC VIVES, you're really only connecting with a small player base so you have to wow them.
I am really enjoying participating and watching the industry expand and offer new and novel opportunities for players and developers alike.
Do you think the industry values writers enough?
This is an interesting question.
I want to say "Yes".
But I think it depends on where you stand in the industry. I have heard some truly horrible stories from a number of people who work in 'content pens' where they have very little control and are essentially commanded to do very specific writing that's, well, rather dull.
"Write descriptions for items — no fancy language — just the facts. Use the corresponding art assets as your guide. We need it for Monday." Look at the clock. It's Friday at 4:15 PM. The inventory list — there are over 10,000 items — whelp, there goes your weekend.
"Every NPC needs to have a name and a few greetings." You have 75 people in the town that need to say something interesting. Not too bad until someone in another department decides to push an update that wipes your dialogue index. How was this not something we knew about a week ago?! Goodbye to that vacation you were planning.
"I deleted a quest you made because a tester found that it was broken. Start over." Who put that live? I was literally working on it right now! Were they on the test server? Ahhh! My fingers!
Haha. And so on and so forth.
It's the reason communication is so important and having a good working environment lends itself to that, too.
In short, though, I don't think that the industry undervalues writers. I simply think that there are too few opportunities overall for entry into game writing without also taking on other responsibilities. As a game designer I was able to move smoothly into game writing, however, I wonder how different it would have been if I hadn't also reached out to games in early stages and asked if they were looking for assistance. Little by little I became more involved in the industry and I can say that more than the writing it's finding your niche and locating the opportunity that best matches you is what makes the industry less accessible.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Brian Woodruff is currently working on an indie game, Simpleton, and you can get the hot updates here.