The Writing For Games course, run by the Arvon Foundation, can transport attendees from the sterile lights and blaring screens of an office environment to a countryside retreat awash with literary heritage. Taught by freelance games writer and narrative designer David Varela, alongside design consultant John Dennis, the course offers games writers an opportunity to hone their craft in a unique format.
“It’s a five day course in a very beautiful, fairly isolated house in Shropshire which used to be John Osborne’s home,” Varela explains. “We tend to have three sessions a day. Morning, afternoon and evening. Usually it’s taught workshops in the morning, and afternoons are generally there for you to work on your own project, which you’ll be working on over the week. In those afternoons you’ll also have one-to-one tutorials with me and John.”
These laid-back afternoons give the house a fantastic atmosphere, as writers dot themselves around the venue getting words down on paper (or laptop). Or together in groups, discussing their work.
“It’s a nurturing environment and it’s experiential,” adds co-tutor Dennis. “It’s open ended. I’m really intrigued and quite excited about that. It’s a lot more intriguing than a classroom.”
This is about finding the opportunities for free expression within a rigid format
“Everybody eats together,” Varela says. “There’s a communal cooking rota, which helps develop a real sense of conviviality. It helps writers, who are not necessarily the most sociable animals in the world, get to know each other. And then in the evenings we tend to have more informal and fun discussions. We play games, we go to the pub. We have guest speakers too.”
“One of the things we’re planning on doing is sitting down every evening and playing,” says Dennis. “There’s an abundance of brilliant, brilliant story games. I’ve got a few examples that I’d like us to look at because they have moments that people remember.”
Dennis lists a few games, including the original BioShock and Life is Strange as being of particular import. “It’ll be a nice opportunity for some of those writers to play some games and get an idea of the state of the art,” he says. “The opportunities. Different ways writing is used in games. The power it can bring.”
“So, evenings a bit more sociable,” Varela explains. “And on the final evening we all get together, share our work and get through a couple bottles of wine each.”
This is the fourth time since 2011 that the Writing For Games course has been offered by Arvon and a lot has been learnt, both by the students and by the tutors. Varela has been involved since the beginning and is looking to make this year a much more practical experience for all involved.
“I am the still point in the turning world,” says Varela. “This time my co-tutor will be John Dennis, who is a producer with a long 20-year background in games. Whereas previous co-tutors were known for their writing skills, John is much more of a producer, a practical hands-on leader and organiser of game production. I think having him involved will make it a much more practical, much more cold-faced view of how writing actually works in the studio.
“This is about finding the opportunities for free expression within what’s usually quite a rigid format. And that’s a skill. That’s an art in itself. Every restriction is also a creative inspiration. The 14 line sonnet, the three minute single, the rectangular canvas. These are all restrictions but they’re all spaces for almost infinite creativity. Games are the same thing. It’s as much about enjoying the creative restrictions and finding the opportunities in that. Which is something that most creative writing courses don’t cover.”
“I think the course is almost a case of good cop, bad cop,” says Dennis. “David’s good cop and I’m bad cop. What I hope to bring is a little bit of realism, really. The development challenges that face the developers. I very well know the benefits of working with writers. In every one of those projects a writer has brought things that we couldn’t have done ourselves. But there are unique challenges of meshing gameplay and story.”
“But also it’s two years since we last taught this course,” Varela says. “The games industry has moved on. We have constantly evolving platforms. VR being an obvious example. That’s a new format that we weren’t considering, certainly in 2011. There is a greater range of topics and genres of games than ever before.”
This range of voices and viewpoints involved in games is something that Varela is keen to explore.
“Every time we’ve run the course it’s been probably more broad and diverse than your average game studio,” Varela says. “It’s usually been a close 50/50 gender split, we’ve had people from the age of 16 to 60 with backgrounds in the games industry and from way outside. “This diverse range of writers means that, because we do one-to-one tuition, we can really help people express their voices, rather than teaching a broad class where everyone is getting the same lessons, we can really help people and give them confidence in their own voice and helping them find the best ways of expressing that.
“The accessibility of game production is getting broader, so now we can have a much wider range of voices and we’re reaching a much wider audience. An understanding of what makes people tick and being able to convey that in a way that is well researched and realistic and sensitive and emotionally involving, that’s a writerly skill. It’s something that writers have been doing for centuries. Having the tools now to have that nuance in games is relatively new.”
Chella Ramanan, a student who took part in the Writing For Games course in 2014, says it has had a hugely positive impact on her career. “Thanks to the course and the ideas it gave me, I’ve since written and produced a radio play,” Ramanan says. “Last autumn, I participated in the XX+ Games Jam in Bristol, where our game won the audience choice award. I’m currently working on finishing that narrative-led game with a team of two other women, building on ideas about storytelling that I learned at Arvon.
“The important aspect of the course is the full immersion for an entire week. I gained a much deeper understanding of what goes into writing a game and how many aspects of a game are touched by the writing. It’s more than just story and dialogue. Writing for games is integral to the audio, art design and the gameplay.
“I left with friends, contacts and a new approach to writing fiction and the way I review and discuss games.”
But ultimately, the Writing For Games course offers a safe space to come together and discuss the needs and challenges for narrative design in the games industry today. To learn from each other and to collaborate in a supportive environment.
“It can be hard when you’re presented with a blank piece of paper, making that first mark,” Dennis says. “There’s a fear in the act of creation. A risk. I like that idea of ‘here’s a bubble away from the real world. There’s no fear here’. It’s about taking that fear away and allowing people to make that first mark without judgement.”
If you are interested in attending the Writing For Games course run by the Arvon Foundation, you can sign up at the following link. Bookings close on 21st April.