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Event Review: Editing for the Video Game Industry

Written by Jesse Marchand; copy edited by Holly Conklin

What does the term video game mean to you? For some, it may conjure up memories of childhood and playing Pac-Man or Mario. Others might be more familiar with tile-matching games like Candy Crush. More still may be deeply involved in the world of video games through multiplayer role-playing games like World of Warcraft or first-person shooters like Call of Duty.

The genres of games are as varied as the roles within game studios. So what does editing for the video game industry really look like? In a recent talk at the Editors BC’s monthly meeting for April, Michelle Clough discussed the role of writing and editing in video games and what the work entails. Clough is a freelance video game writer, editor, narrative designer, localization specialist, and quality assurance tester for both big-budget and indie games, and as she showed at the meeting, she’s a very engaging speaker too. Here’s a rundown of some of the things about editing for video games that she shared at that meeting.

There’s quite a lot of text to edit

If your familiarity with games begins at Pac-Man and ends at Candy Crush, you may not see much of a need for editing. Candy Crush has little text beyond its score dashboard and short text prompts. But other games rely on text to help players immerse themselves in the game world. For example, the very popular role-playing game The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has been reported to contain a whopping 450,000 words! Compare this to the average novel, which is around 80,000 to 100,000 words, and as Clough said, you get “a sense of how big these games can get.” Behind those words are writers, and hopefully editors, who are there to make the story as immersive as possible.

Editing for video games poses several unique challenges

So what do editors actually do? Here are some of the unique challenges that editors face in the video game creation process.

Breadth of content

Text in games can come from a variety of sources, including closed-captioning of conversations; readable diaries, books, letters, and emails; long codices explaining in-game history; and the interface for shops and player inventory. Each of these sources has a unique style and voice.

Translations

Many games are developed in countries where English is not their main language, and game developers “don’t always have access to a native speaker or a native writer,” said Clough. Those who work with translations may be well aware of these issues, but in games, the problems can be even more pronounced than in other media. In games, the translations may even be done using Google Translate. The need for editors is substantial when you consider the types of errors that have made it through to finished games, said Clough, which can involve literal translations of idioms, jokes, and puns.

Rushed projects

As mentioned, many games will have a huge amount of onscreen text that needs to be proofread for grammar, commas, spelling, and so on, but game writing is often run on very tight deadlines. This schedule puts “a lot of pressure on writers to get super intense on their work and rush it out,” said Clough, noting that as a video game writer, “I absolutely need a second pair of eyes.”

Length constraints

However much you, as an editor, work to keep writing short and lean, it needs to be quadrupled when editing and writing for video games, said Clough. From impatient players who don’t want to take the time to read all the text to constraints from mobile devices that make long text blocks hard to read, there are plenty of good reasons to keep text short. On top of that, there are technical concerns, such as the text box. Like the space for a photo caption, the text box may only be so big. “Sometimes adding that comma will make the whole text too long for the window,” Clough added.

Continuity errors

As players choose certain actions in the game, those actions can have consequences in the game world. Some conversations between characters will have a different outcome depending on the choices of the player. That outcome can even affect later events in the game. Editors need to be aware of the dialogue trees and possible reactions to players’ choices.

Budget considerations

“Creating or altering scenes in a game is a heck of a lot of work, which has to be shouldered by the rest of the team, because everything is being created and programmed from scratch,” said Clough. As the editor, if you want to cut a scene because it’s not consistent with the characters’ motivations or because it doesn’t make sense, you could be asking the team to throw away an expensive animation that’s already been made. But if the scene hasn’t been animated yet, you could instead be saving the game studio a lot of money. It all depends on where in the process you are being brought in.

Coding challenges

Even though editing doesn’t usually require you to work in the code base, it still helps to know some basics of programming. This knowledge can help you understand the constraints the game designers are facing, as well as how the dependencies (i.e., actions that happen after other actions) are coded into the game, and why and how they might go wrong.

Okay, so where do I sign up?

If this shockingly brief overview sounds enticing to you, you might want to know where to find work. Despite the need for editors in the video game industry, there are relatively few postings for this kind of work, said Clough. She could think of only three Vancouver companies that had editors employed as full-time staff. And what work there is may not pay well. Still, it’s not a lost cause. Breaking into the industry may just require some creative thinking and networking. Some ways to get in include attending game developers’ conferences or indie development meetups or getting in through the marketing, communications, or business side of larger game studios.

Overall, the reason to get into editing (or writing) for video games is not power, glory, cash, or fame, but the sheer fun of it, noted Clough. In Clough’s words, “Editing calls upon parts of my brain I didn’t even know I had, and I enjoy the element of working through scenarios from an editing perspective.”


Jesse Marchand is an editor working out of Vancouver, BC. She has worked as the associate publisher of Whitecap Books and is currently the managing editor of WorkSafe Magazine. When she’s not reading, writing, or editing, she’s usually talking about cats.

Holly Conklin has a BA in writing and psychology from the University of Victoria. She currently studies publishing online at Ryerson University while working as a freelance writer and editor. During her time off, she enjoys gaming, crocheting, reading, and yoga.

Image by Pixabay.

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