Guest post: Ian Mayor on writing computer games

Hi. My name’s Ian Mayor I’m a writer and I love stories.  
Games writer Ian Mayor

Although I dabble in comic book writing, screenwriting, copy and prose; for about ten years now I’ve spent my weekdays as a computer games designer and writer (a role that’s often called “Narrative Designer”).

Narrative design is an odd gig but an increasingly common one, no two games writers I know of got there the same way. Here’s my story.  

In a prior life I wanted to be a screenwriter. After a degree in Film and Television Production at Manchester Metropolitan University I buzzed around the North West’s amatuer filmmaking scene (which involved a lot of bars) before spending a couple of years writing and directing educational films. If you’ve ever seen the memorable “Manual handling and lifting techniques” by Bolton College Consultancy Services I wrote the opening line “Most accidents in the workplace are due to improper manual handling and lifting techniques”. Around that time I realised that I wasn’t truly pursuing my dream and that a change of day job might be in order. I cold-called a games studio in Warwickshire, who, unbeknownst to me, had recently advertised for a freelance writer.  

Back then, (December 2000, yeesh) computer games seemed like an odd step for someone with serious writing ambition. This was the Playstation era, games were everywhere and I was amongst the first generation who had grown up playing them. Although the medium was being explored as a venue for storytelling, few outside the industry could see the potential or value in interactive narrative. This was never a problem for me. 

Unlike my outgoing, sporty siblings I’d grown up bookish, creative and a bit oversensitive about about it all. I drew, I acted, I obsessed over Batman comics and when at age 8 my brother and I got a 16K ZX Spectrum for Christmas, I played games.  

Gaming requires a greater investment of imagination than you probably expect. Brace for tangent.  

In his book “Understand Comics”; cartoonist Scott McCloud wrote about “closure”, a functions of the human brain which helps us make sense of the world. Although he does it in a very different way, I’ll Illustrate the concept thusly. 

You enter a room with a smashed window, a ball is on the floor surrounded by broken glass.

Think, for a second, about what occurred in that room at some point in the past. Now, you’ve just done a complex thing, effortlessly. You’ve made a story, filled in the gaps with your own knowledge of how the world works and solved the simple “whodunnit” of how the room got in that state.

I’ll bet you did more than that, tell me... what did the room look like? was it day or night? I’m cheating a little, you filled in those gaps as you just read them. Of course, as readers we do this all the time but we rarely think about the mechanics of it, closure is powerful stuff.

Although you use this same function playing current games, back in ‘82 when your avatar could be a small group of pixels allegedly depicting a spaceman your brain worked overtime to make sense of the game. 

Due largely to technical limitations games of the 80’s were usually light on context, “story” was often printed on the cassette case inlay that the game came in (which you wouldn’t have because you’d pirated the game off a school friend). But to me, and many like me, it made no difference, there were stories in games before anyone put them there.  

We all love stories and will invent them where they don’t exist. In what’s left unsaid in prose, between the panels of comic books, the edits in film and in the abstractions of gaming.  

To me, this says something universal about storytelling which everyone who crafts stories should be conscious of. A writer’s greatest tool is not her mastery of words or his understanding of structure, it is the readers/viewers/players mind. Your chosen medium is just a method of delivery. 

And so, nearly twelve years after that first writing job, six weeks in a barn-house office near Hatton Wood, I’m still in games. The writing led to a full time design position with the same company and (a brief break aside) the rest of my professional life.  

Games is still a young medium and an exciting one, games developers have produced some amazing stories, and though I concede we’re yet to deliver a narrative masterpiece, I believe it’s coming.

 Ian Mayor is a Designer and Narrative Designer for Reflections of Ubisoft Studio, he lives in Newcastle Upon Tyne with his wife and cats and you can follow him on Twitter @IanMayor where he’s more likely talking about comic books and risotto.


Thrifty Gal said...

Thanks for this, Ian. I've always been fascinated by what writers on computer games do, so really interesting insight...

DT said...

Ian, it's great to hear about your journey as a writer and the creative way you've combined two loves - writing and computer games. We're always being told to go with our passions and you've clearly done that to good effect.

I think computer games and printed fiction both have the capacity to enchant us and draw us into someone else's world (more likely a team world in the case of games). Either way, it engages and stretches the imagination.

What are your stories about, and do you use the same process to create them as you do for games?

Ian said...

Thanks Tracey and hi Derek and thank you both for the kind words.

Tracey, I'm not sure I've really said anything of what writers on games actually "do" on a day-to-day basis which could be the subject of about a hundred other posts.

As for my own writing, Derek, I have various variously neglected screenplays, treatments and bits of novels gathering digital dust, erring on the side of sci-fi and horror. I have recently been inspired by the swell of quality self published prose and am very tempted to work novel up to completion. For this I blame you guys.

Right now I'm collaborating with an artist friend on a comic book (which is looking quite fantastic) which I'll hopefully be showing off soon.

Generally speaking, my personal work uses the same muscles as writing for games but the whole development process is a collaboration. As such I'm 'supporting' a player experience rather than creating a reader experience (if that makes sense).

But plot is plot, dialogue sparks or it doesn't, there's definitely an overlap.

Gillian McDade said...

I must admit I'm still very fond of Quake and Grand Theft Auto - I'm in a games time warp!

Thanks for sharing, Ian and good luck.

DT said...

Battlezone - that was a game to enjoy. We're talking seriously retro.