Guest Post: “Writing Games vs. Novels” by Brian Hastings

HastingsB-AuthorPicFor some reason, back in college, I had the audacity to think I could become an author. As if that was just one of the options available in the career center. It turned out finding any job at all was a lot trickier than I expected. But I knew how to program computers, so I ended up joining a startup video game company that we would later name Insomniac Games (because of how little we slept back in those days.) And Twenty-Two years later I’m still making video games.

But for the first time in my life, I can now say that I’m an author.

Song of the Deep is both a game and a novel, and each reveals different parts of a mysterious world. But creating a novel in conjunction with a game ended up being a challenging journey in itself.

To give some context, game writing is a unique and sometimes enigmatic art. It’s about working within tight constraints and making the most out of limitations. For instance, there are production concerns, like limits on the amount of story time and animation that can be done. And many times, the writer comes into the process after the worlds and levels are already designed and is simply trying to thread a story through the existing game. Since games are an interactive experience, the story is often a secondary or tertiary concern. You can tell the player they are rescuing a princess and then just make sure a princess appears after the final level and your work is done. But to make a player truly engaged with a game story is a lot of work, because the more “real” you make the story feel, the higher standards the audience has for it. Suddenly people want to know why the hero did one thing and not another. Game mechanics begin to need justification within the world. Why would there be a bazooka on the floor? That makes no sense. Writing a game story is often about making a believable world out of gameplay conventions and making believable motivations to back up design necessities.


But those restrictions and constraints also provide a blueprint to work from. When I began writing the novel for Song of the Deep, free of all such constraints, the blank page was daunting. I knew how I wanted the story to begin and I knew, more or less, how I wanted it to end. I even had some “cool ideas” for fun things that would happen along the way. But when I wrote the first few chapters, I realized I was unconsciously treating it like a game – focusing too much on a constant stream of action and danger, rather than letting the reader become emotionally connected to the characters. I ended up scrapping everything I had written and starting over from the first person perspective. I let the player see the human parts of Merryn’s world and the deeper stories that lay behind and around her journey. In the end, I think the novel and the game complement each other – each containing its own secrets and revelations.

I’ll always love making games – it’s a wonderful feeling, getting to work with a team to create undiscovered worlds, and watching people explore them from the inside. But I now have an even deeper respect for authors, who fashion those worlds word by word. The blank page is truly one of the most frightening obstacles of all.


Brian Hastings‘s Song of the Deep is published by Sterling Publishing, on . The game will be released by Insomniac Games. For more on Song of the Deep the game, be sure to check out the website and follow on Twitter; and also follow the author on Goodreads.

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