Writing for Games with Niina Räsänen


This week's AfterWord comes from the talented Niina Räsänen, a Finnish writer who writes for video games, as well as short stories and prose. I feel like I've learned so much already from AfterWords, and Niina's contribution was no exception. There are so many different ways to be creative, especially when it comes to writing. I hope you are as inspired by this as I am! Now I'll let you hear from Niina:

I’m a story designer at Rx3 Studio, an indie game company. I have always found storytelling and writing fascinating, and games have always been close to my heart, so why not combine those two. I also write short stories and prose, and the genres I find closest to me at the moment are sci-fi, fantasy, new weird, horror and paranormal. I venture a lot within the writing field, and I even do occasional poetry, but only in reasonable amounts. I write in Finnish and English. With my native language, I have also written a short story for a Lovecraftian horror anthology.

What inspires you and/or why do you write?

I think the best reason I’ve come up with, to date, is my love for a good story. I haven’t felt like I’m restricted by writing as a medium like I should only write actual words to tell a story, it could be something else like graphic novels, movies or video games. All those options involve a lot of writing, but their ways to tell stories are not only words on a paper. Story and writing are an integral part of them as storytelling media.

Writing for me have never been about mere words or even – dare I say – about beautifully crafted sentences, it’s about storytelling and crafting something new, something to experience. It’s about immersive stories you can lose yourself in. I’m always inspired by the work that is put in to create a story. Even if it’s not shown in the first glance, when you dive into the story, you find out that a lot of the things that are in the story are thought out.

Describe your process as best you can:

My writing usually starts from an idea of something I would like to study more. “I want to make a cliché fantasy story,” or, ”I think suburban areas have some lingering evil in them,” or ”steampunk sounds fun.” Of course, my main project didn’t start at all like that. It was an early prototype for a mobile game about a captain who tried to fly away, without mashing the plane into walls. It started with a character. And then I usually start expanding it. If it’s an idea, I start to construct a setting around it. If it’s a character, I start expanding the character and then go into thinking where this character would live and why the character would act like the character acted.

After expanding the idea, I like to go into structuring the overall story arc. I know now, here I am, now it’s time to choose what to show, what’s the story that needs to be told. At that point, for me, it’s more about the ending than about the starting point. I want to know where the story is going before any story can happen. There are times when I just start writing and see what happens, but I have enjoyed doing storyline before I start. At least with three story points, but preferably five. I can start without any idea how to end, but the ending usually comes into my mind at a fairly early point of the process.

I like to write in early mornings or late at night and I do not usually write in chronological order, I rather write what I find interesting first and then fill the rest later to form a completed story. Something I'm trying to learn is chronological writing, and I’m using [2017's] NaNoWriMo for it. I like listening music while writing, even with lyrics. Lately, I have been binge-watching the Flash when writing.

Okay, so you write video games. That's super awesome, I think games can have some of the most creative fiction out there. Games, I feel, can often take chances than other forms of storytelling can't. How is writing for games different than writing other prose?

I think the biggest difference in writing for video games is that you have even less control over your work. I guess it’s same with anything that has collaborative effort. You have your initial concept and initial scripts and short stories, but after you give them to the rest of the team, it’s up to change. I’m lucky enough to be a part of the game developing process even on the early stages and see a lot of the code that gets made, and I get to see the graphic designer and get to talk to these people. Writing the initial idea maybe lonely work, but after that, it gets social quickly. I gave my concept and script to the rest of the team and then we started conceptualizing with the graphic designer.

This is not the case usually in video game writing, or at least how I have been hearing it. You have so little control over what your audience is willing to listen to, read and notice. And that’s one difference. It’s a mighty big one. And it makes video games so interesting a medium to write for. You have to stop obsessing over your text and realize that everything contributes to the story that the player is going to experience. The gameplay is a part of the story as much as the NPC characters. What you can do is important, but also how you’re able do stuff. I think it gives more weight to creating a believable world and characters that feel like they matter in their game. A lot of the story can be told by graphic design and gameplay choices. Lore and stuff are not what gamers are usually obsessing over, you can put them inside and give a player a chance to read them if they want to. It’s better to have them than start making them up after the player wants to dwell into them.

I have to say here that there’s so much writing in video games, like conceptualizing, narrative script, quest/dungeon writing, all the kinds of dialogues, item and technical writing. We’re a pretty small indie game studio (5 members most) and I do all the writing for us, but usually those are divided for different writers.

As a storytelling form, video games are easily labeled with movies and tv, which isn’t giving them the credit they need. Nowadays it’s getting easier to accept video games as a storytelling form as more and more games want to tell better stories. It’s now acceptable for a video game to try and tell a story. In some cases, the whole gameplay revolves around the story elements and the motivation to play is to find out what’s happens in the story.

It’s not even about making a clear line between score-based games and story-based games because even the score-based games need to have a strong sense of the story. Otherwise, you’re just playing something like throwing dice around and as fun as it is, it’s not something we start to care about. We care about the stories and to start to care about the basic gaming element, like swiping to bring right numbers together we need a sense of story. It can be as minimal as it gets, but a sense of the story is what keeps us playing.

I was once asked if there are games without stories. I’m pretty sure the answer was yes; there are games that are so much of gameplay that they don’t have a story, they don’t need one. But, I argue that. If there’s a game without a clear sense of story, say, minesweeper, you still have a narrative structure. The game starts, you play, and you die. It doesn’t have characters or anything, but it has inspired user content. So, even if you, as a game developer wouldn’t implicate a story or didn’t care about the story, someone else might and then you have no control over the story.

What is your favorite tool or resource? (Like Scrivener, Grammarly, a blog, etc?)

I use Scrivener for writing prose and short stories, but celtx.com is my go-to tool for video game writing. It has an easy interface, sharing ability, formatting options and you can access it from the web.

I have started using Grammarly for marketing and technical texts, like for the development blog we have. I also like to check my short stories with Hemingway app.

Biggest challenge for you, and how have you overcome it? (Or how are you working to overcome it!)

I think my biggest challenge was to overcome my self-doubt. I can get very critical about my own work and feel that I shouldn’t even try because I have no skill, and someone can always make it better and faster. The best way to overcome that is to remember that it’s not a sprint, it is a marathon. It’s not about how fast you can make it, it’s about how long you last.

What do you consider your biggest strength? (Don’t be shy!)

I’m adaptive and give room for opinions when in process. It’s something I have found very useful in video game development. And I would like to think I have a fairly good understanding of story structuring, that thing about asking why something happens and what it means for the story.

Any other advice for authors, based on your unique experience?

Be patient. And start doing stuff. Nobody is coming to knock your door anytime soon, so you might as well go and start doing stuff you want to do before it’s too late. It’s easier to get to where you want to be if you start your journey now. Do not fall in love with your own work and be thankful for all the critique you may get, but don’t forget to enjoy the achievements.

Where can other authors or readers connect with you?

I’m trying to be social on Twitter, that’s the place to find me and connect with me. I can be found with the name @olenbluu (That’s my name almost everywhere so if you see olenbluu, it’s usually me.)

Game development blog for our team is written by me, mostly, and I sometimes ramble about the story elements and writing so that’s also a good place to see what I’m doing right now: http://rx3studio.blogspot.fi/ (There’s a tag for worldbuilding and story design, those are the places where I get into the story aspect of the development.)

Where can your work be found?

Peace Quarter can be found at www.peacequarterthegame.com Peace Quarter game has a spin-off game GemFall Workforce Inc., that’s free to download from Google Play Store. They share the same setting, characters, and location. I have some short stories on blogs, but they’re in Finnish. You can find some of them at http://novelli.fi/novellisto/sorkka/ & http://novelli.fi/novellisto/viski-valvojaiset/.

I'm so honored to get to know so many great and talented authors and learn from them. There are so many different approaches to the craft and finding that inspiring spark. So good! I can't wait to dive into more AfterWords interviews and introduce you guys to more authors and writers!

Bonus! Niina uses Scrivener and you can too! The fine folks at Literature and Latte have given me permission to offer a 20% coupon code whenever an AfterWord mentions Scrivener! So visit www.getscrivener.com and use the coupon code AFTERWORDS to get this great deal!