Writers, artists, musicians — digital games still need you

What are the career opportunities for artists, writers and musicians in games? And how do you get started?
Writers, artists, musicians — digital games still need you

Wayward Strand concept image. Supplied.

Games development is a growing industry in Australia with many local companies working at the cutting edge of art and technology. But sometimes it can feel like there aren’t many opportunities for more traditional creatives in the digital games sector.

While there are creatives whose entire careers have developed only in games, there are also writers, artists, and musicians who have started in more traditional creative roles before crossing over into digital games. As part of Melbourne International Games Week — the biggest games celebration in the Asia-Pacific — we ask five artists how they got into games, what it’s like to utilise their creative skills in this arena, and how working in games has taken their practice to a new level.

The writer

Storytelling in games takes on many forms. Some games involve elaborate quests and detailed mythologies, others rely on simple linear story strands or tasks for players to complete in order to progress. Accordingly, the process of writing for games is varied. Some people write and workshop entire scripts with developers from beginning to end and other writers come on board at the start in the role of the narrative designer. In some ways similar to the role of the writer, the narrative designer takes on a more comprehensive role and makes sure that the story and game play work together.

Children’s author and illustrator Renee Treml, who is writing the story for the Victorian made game PaperBark, said the experience is unlike any project she has ever worked on. 

‘It is such a dynamic, fun environment. Things are constantly changing and if someone has an idea, little bits get added in. It is very different to a book, which has a very defined beginning, middle and end, with a certain number of pages and a certain number of words you can have. It is a lot more fluid.’ 

When writing the story for a game you need to be flexible and ready to work as part of a team, while also bringing your own ideas to the table. Because you write as the game is developed, there is an opportunity to work closely with animators to solve problems, and even create the seemingly impossible. ‘I added a few things to the story not knowing whether we could do that — could we add these animals? Could we have this thing happen? I kind of thought, “there’s no way we can do all that”. But these amazing people created all these new elements. It was really enlightening to realise there is so much flexibility in the process,’ said Treml.

But it’s not only authors whose skills are in demand in the games realm: film and television writers are also increasing using – and building - their screenwriting skills in games. 

Now working on her second game, Clea Frost came from a very traditional film and television background. ‘I went to VCA, I graduated from there and I worked in a bunch of different capacities in script development and TV and as a writer. It has been a learning curve,’ she said.

The first game Frost worked on was the virtual reality experience Earthlight, a narrative-driven game where the player travels into space as a NASA astronaut.  

‘Putting together a story like that is really different to the fixed point of view you have in TV or film where you basically tell the audience “look here, look there, listen to this thing, watch these characters, this is the important stuff”,’ said Frost. 

‘Once you get into VR and other forms of games, people [players] have a lot more agency in terms of how they interact with the story. You can tell some of the same stories as well but it is about rethinking how you allow the space for the player to do their own thing. That has been one of the biggest things for me to wrap my head around. How do you both tell a story that makes sense and give people this space to do things you can’t anticipate? It’s challenging for sure, but it is also really fun. It engages a different part of your brain.’ 

Frost's advice for those who want to write for games or virtual reality is to familiarise yourself with the technology as much as you can. This will help you think about storytelling structures specific to the medium you are writing for. 

Networking is also important, she added. ‘If writers are interested in moving into that space, they have to try to meet with and have conversations with people who are making their first forays into VR or games and see if there is a small project they could work on together to get that experience and go from there. 

‘Go out there, build a network, meet people, and hopefully be in the right place at the right time.’ 

The artist

‘The current industry is an interesting place because it’s varied,’ said visual artist Marigold Bartlett, who is also Art Director of the upcoming game Wayward Strand – which tells the story of young girl as she explores an airborne hospital and meets the patients and nurses of the aged care wing inside. ‘You’ve got a lot of people who are working on projects with the aim of making it a commercial success, and on the other hand you’ve got a lot of people who are just exploring what can go into a video game and why. The distribution is secondary.’

Bartlett works across real life illustration and graphic design, while also working in art direction for games. The art director’s role in games development is similar to other areas of design and involves making sure all the art assets have a continuous style and fit with the overall vision and story, as well as aesthetic development and research. 

Bartlett started building her games portfolio while she studied at RMIT. In her opinion, artists interested in working in games should be digitally trained and (at a minimum) know how to use a digital tool like Photoshop. But the good news for artists who have a traditional background is that once you master Photoshop and similar programs, it is your traditional skill-set that will help your career.

‘If you have good traditional skills you are always going to stand out. As a pre-requisite you need the digital stuff, but for that extra step ahead you need to have a traditional background or a willingness to learn traditional skills, an interest in the culture of games, and knowledge of art, media and social histories,’ said Bartlett.

The composer

With the establishment of Boss Battle Records, Australia’s first music label dedicated to music for games earlier this year it’s clear that games are a huge growth area for musicians and composers. But it is also a competitive industry said composer Julian Langdon, who has composed for film and television, as well as for live performances ranging from comedy cabaret to performances by the Melbourne and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.

He advises aspiring games composers to seek out students or emerging game developers in order to gain experience working in the medium.

‘Usually there is only one role for a composer for every game — or maybe a team for the larger orchestral driven games. Sometimes the composer is also the person responsible for audio implementation — the music coding — as well as doing sound effects and voice over, especially on the smaller games. All those things can be done by one highly skilled individual rather than an entire team of people. It is highly competitive.’

If you want to compose for games, you don’t need to know game programming but you should familiarise yourself with the technical requirements of ‘audio implementation’ if you can. 

‘That’s where all of the sound assets — the music, dialogue, and sound effects — are coded to work with the game. That area is quite important for a composer to know, mainly because it is important to know how the music is going to be executed and how it is going to be embedded into the game, and what the coding platforms are to make it work well,’ said Langdon.

Technology aside, Langdon finds there are many similarities between composing music for film or television and games. You write music to enhance the narrative elements and tap into the emotional quality of the idea in the story in much the same way. But the biggest difference is the process involved. 

‘A game is a non-linear experience where you don’t know when the player is going to climb the stairs and bust through the door, so you tend to play more of an overview of an adventure or battle sequence, rather than the individual moments within that. Because of that overview, you don’t really need to wait until the game is nearly finished to be able to make a contribution. Often with games the biggest distinction between the two is that the composer is really able to start delivering things quite early in the piece. 

‘I’m working for a company at the moment and just last week I went out and played their opening level which is basically just some well rendered stick figures moving around. The game itself is fairly underdeveloped, but at this early stage it is useful for everyone to start trialling and figure out what the music is going to do. Basically we get involved earlier on with the benefit of being able to collaborate with the team a little bit more.’

The hybrid artist 

Then there are artists who work at the intersection of art and technology and are exploring the nature of games themselves. 

Melbourne’s Troy Innocent works across sculpture, animation, sound art, installation and digital art. He has exhibited across Australia and overseas and his hybrid practice has led him to develop his own games as a form of digital public art. While Innocent’s public art practice is informed by game design, he is quick to distinguish his practice from the highly technical process of games development. 

‘The reason I differentiate between those two is in game design it’s really about the principles of why people play, what engages people in play, and how you can use those strategies, of which many are centuries old,’ he explained. 

‘We think of games now as being digital and of course that is the primary platform of play right now, but there is a whole history that predates that. When we talk about game design we also talk about analog games, engagement and play, and these translate into games development where you start to use technology and platforms and so forth to deliver these experiences.’

While many are quick to focus on the technology that enables the development of digital games, Innocent encourages  artists to look beyond it and ask: what type of play experience do I want to create? And — whether you’re making a game, creating an installation or a live art event — how can you design an experience for your audience or viewers that encourages them to play?

As part of Games Week, Innocent has launched his augmented reality game Wayfinder Live, a Pokemon Go-style live game that guides players through the Melbourne CBD and slowly reveals a story about a city hidden beneath our reality.

There is a lot more to games than perhaps what you see in the mainstream media or if you walk into JB HiFi and look at the game selection. That’s just the Hollywood of games, all those blockbuster titles. There are thousands of other much more interesting and creative projects that are made by artists, designers, architects, musicians, and they all have a different kind of view or take on the world. When you make a game, you make a way of looking at the world. You situate a player in a scenario and you shape how they see that,’ he said. 

‘I think the best thing is to look beyond that surface and go deeper into the thousands of indie games that are out there, exploring the possibilities of the platforms.' 

Digital games have come a long way from the pixelated parlour games of the 80s and are now fully fledged productions that combine storytelling, visual arts, music, and performance through motion capture and voice work. In Australia, the industry is rapidly growing and while on the surface it might seem like traditional creative skills have no place in this digital world, in reality traditional skills are in demand — working in this space just requires a bit of lateral thinking about how your skills fit with this digital medium. At the end of the day, it is still a space that requires creativity and imagination, something all artists – regardless of their medium — have in abundance.

Where to start

If you want to start exploring the world of indie games but are unsure where to begin, you can learn more about new work being created right here in Australia at Melbourne International Games Week

Other organisations and events in the digital games sector include:

  • PAX Australia – held on the final three days of Melbourne International Games Week, this massive games expo and industry showcase brings together major global players like Sony and Xbox, as well as independent Australian made games. 
  • Freeplay Independent Games Festival – an annual festival that champions indie developers.
  • Kotaku – website that covers Australian and New Zealand games news.
  • MCV Pacific – Industry website for Asia-Pacific region.
  • Weekend Seminar: Interactive Narratives – Digital Writers Festival event on 28 October with game developer and writer Leena van Deventer.

This Inside Creative State Report is brought to you in partnership with Creative Victoria. Creative State is a Victorian Government strategy for growing Victoria’s creative industries across arts and culture, film and television, design, design, fashion and digital games. 

Melbourne International Games Week runs until 29 October, details at gamesweek.melbourne

Brooke Boland

Tuesday 24 October, 2017

About the author

Brooke Boland is a freelance writer based on the South Coast of NSW. She has a PhD in literature from the University of NSW. You can find her on Instagram @southcoastwriter.