Behold, the game writer’s fundamental paradox:

  • Many people don’t play games for story, meaning game writers can’t assume universal interest in the game’s story and must write for multiple audiences.
  • In no other media does a writer serve more roles than in a video game, meaning story often is secondary to other responsibilities.

I want to focus on the second point — the multiple responsibilities of game writers, things that aren’t directly about telling a story or creating a character — and how these responsibilities add value to the player experience and game at large. Then, I want to take a wider look at other values writers bring to game development and franchise development.

Let’s start with:

Making the Old Feel New Again

Games are repetitive.

It’s not a dig. Repetition is simply part of game development, as there are only so many ways a player can interact in a game, which are called mechanics. The problem is, a game’s mechanics are inherently limited – thus repetition. For example, in your average AAA action game, you can do a smattering of the following: explore, interact with stuff, fight enemies, hide, hack computer consoles, and so on.

Sometimes, you’ll hear these referred to as the verbs.

Most games introduce players to a set of mechanics, and then remix and reimagine how those mechanics are used in various combinations. By the end of a game, you’ve attained a certain level of mastery over these mechanics that feels empowering.

But here’s the rub. Coming up with a completely new game mechanic is incredibly difficult, which is why most games share a majority of common mechanics. Sometimes, a game will come along and introduce a marquee mechanic – for example, the wall running in Mirror’s Edge, which was later used in Titanfall

Imagine sitting down to write a story, and someone tells you that you can only use ten verbs. That’s the challenge of game writing. But fortunately, there are some clever game writers out there who know how to squeeze meaning out of even the most seemingly rote of mechanics.

The best games mask repetitive mechanics by wrapping them in unique narrative in order to make the old feel new again. Enter the writer, who has two main roles with regard to repetition:

  • Contextualize mechanics to leverage repetition, making a player’s actions grow in significance over the course of a game.
  • Mask repetitive mechanics/systems by packaging them with new contexts/missions/fantasies to keep players invested.

Giving Repetition Weight Through Premise and Context

Writers help create player context, which can alter a player’s experience in a game, and how they perceive their actions.

In whatever media you write for, you try to leverage its strengths and shore up its weaknesses. A game writer’s goal is to take something repetitive and make it feel special. For example, how many times have you swung a melee weapon in a game? A thousand times.

Now, there are lots of things you can do to make that melee swing feel more special. You can make the weapon model look visually distinct, or add in sound effects and visual effects to give it weight and power. And if you’re a game writer, you can make the player feel like they’re wielding freaking Excalibur – instead of Prop Sword #25.

Two games that excel at this are God of War and Control.

In God of War, Kratos’ ax Leviathan makes you feel like a god. And you are. But what makes this weapon stand out is its history – Leviathan was given to Kratos by his late wife. Because the entire game is about you as Kratos taking your son Atreus on a pilgrimage to spread his mother’s ashes, the ax becomes the embodiment of this journey. Meaning whenever you swing Leviathan, your late wife is with you, helping out every step along the way.

Or consider the Service Weapon in Control. Yes, it’s got cool animation and feels good to shoot — but let’s face it, we’ve seen these types of guns before in plenty of games. So, what makes the Service Weapon feel special? The mythos of the firearm, and how it symbolizes your role as Director. It’s basically an Excalibur/Harry Potter wand that chooses you – that confirms that only you can defeat the Hiss. And in a game where you’ve got freaking supernatural powers, making an ordinary gun feel special is an amazing feat!

Point being, a shiny new context can make something repetitious feel significant, even mythic, and in doing so, reinforce the central themes of a game’s characters.

Same Set of Blocks, New Shapes

Most mission designers will tell you that the challenge isn’t in creating one engaging mission, it’s in creating the 50th mission that still feels fresh and exciting when you’re forty hours into a game. And the crazy part is that some games even manage to pull this off.


Smart mission designers know they have to dangle something new in front of a player to keep them invested in the game. Of course, the low-hanging fruit is a shiny reward. Kill ten goblins. Get new sword. But bribing the player can only take you so far and really only works on a certain type of player. Sooner or later, players figure out that they’re just doing the same thing over and over again.

A writer’s challenge is to present a mission that feels different to the player, even if it uses all those same mechanics you’ve been using for hours. We do this by tapping into various fantasies, with the goal of repackaging them with a new context.

For example, consider the kill mission where you help a farmer seek revenge against a cow thief. It feels different from the kill mission where you hunt down a serial killer, because there are two separate fantasies at play.

Same blocks, new shapes

Creating Discourse through Choice and Character

Add player choice to the equation and you’ve got a whole different aspect of a writer’s value – the possibility of creating discussion outside the game.

Presenting players with interesting moral choices in games is, to me, one of the fundamental advantages of interactive media — I’m talking to you, Bloody Baron mission chain in The Witcher 3. I’m willing to bet that games that do this well end up increasing their franchise’s value, because player-led conversations on tough choices inevitably make their way to forums and other social media, and ultimately result in a more long-term success for the game.

Writers help architect and promise these types of conversations. No one writes a mission or character for them to be forgotten. When you think about what sustains a franchise from one game to the next, often it’s the fans who are most invested in a game’s characters. After all, it’s awfully challenging to cosplay a mechanic.

But if you create a stand-out moment or compelling character, fans will still be talking about it years later – when you’re set to release the next game.

Building Bridges and Franchise Development

The question then becomes: what makes players pick up the sequel?  Maybe it’s a newly introduced mechanic or twist on an old formula, but I’d argue that there’s a more powerful incentive. The opportunity to hop back into a familiar world.

The stronger your world, the longer players will want to spend time in it.

Writers are always trying to expand a game’s world. We do this because we enjoy world building. We like creating characters. We want to expose the mysteries of a world and unwrap them one by one, always creating new mysterious and unexplored corners of the world in the process.

No matter whether you’re making a game with missions or one of those newfangled battle royales or hero shooters, I’d argue that world building and character development are crucial for enticing players and retaining player.

Why is building a cohesive, fascinating world so important in these genres? Competition. Tons of it. New battle royales and hero shooters are springing up every day. Some have different mechanics or game modes, but you’re still doing mostly the same thing. This make the fantasy you’re offering to the player more important than ever.

Remember, you can’t copyright a mechanic, but you can own your world. 


Writers not only want the current world to be engaging and mysterious; they also always have their eye on new territory. By nature, we want to draw in players and keep them engaged from release to release, and season to season. It’s in our DNA.

One, final thought. You need writers from the outset of pre-production, when a game’s pillars are still being set. World building doesn’t happen accidentally. It’s a process of exploration and planning that can define the bounds of your game, its tone and characters, and how your world presents to players. It can also box in your franchise, if not done judiciously. But done well, a game world becomes your marketing. It sells your fantasy. It does the heavy lifting of marketing a game for you. So do yourself a favor — hire a few writers!

Invisible blockers are everywhere in video games. Blockers are designed to prevent you from going somewhere that might get you into trouble. Could be an area you’re not leveled-up enough to explore. Or just the edge of a level. We’ve all had that experience before — wanting desperately to explore an area in a game, only to run into an invisible wall. Which just makes us want to go there more…

We consume books, TV, and film stories. Then when we turn on a video game, things are different. Certain storytelling conventions just don’t seem to work the same way. And it’s frustrating! Which leads some to say that games will never tell stories as well as other established media.

This sentiment is based on an assumption that games can and should tell stories like other non-interactive medium that have come before. Although I’ve played plenty of games whose stories have impacted me as strongly as any book, TV show, or movie, but here’s the thing — they impacted me in a different way, and for different reasons. Video games operates under another set of storytelling rules, with a host of limitations — some easily apparent to most gamers, some not so much so. Interactive storytelling has its own set of invisible blockers, which come into effect the moment you press start.

Just Press Start

When you sit down to watch a TV show, it’s safe to assume that you want a story. That’s not necessarily the case with a game, even a story-centric game. Storytelling in games isn’t a prerequisite, and strictly speaking, a traditional story isn’t required to make an interesting game experience. Not everyone who plays a game wants to experience a story. To some, story gets in the way of gameplay. Others might feel that game stories simply don’t resonate like stories in other media. Even though I’m a professional game writer, sometimes I find myself skipping through dialogue.

The question is why? In non-interactive media, the only control we really have is whether we turn a movie on or off, fast forward, rewind, etc. We can reread a passage of a novel, or skip ahead. Pause a TV show while we get a drink. But that’s pretty much it. We have no significant control over the story, and we accept these limitations because we’ve never known anything different. Tell us a story, writer. Go on. And if it’s not engaging, we’ll find something else to watch.

From the moment you press start on a game, you view story through a different set of assumptions. Games are about you. Depending on the game, you’re the protagonist, director, cinematographer, costumer, and so on. You have control. And this control extends to the idea that in most games, you don’t have to care about story. Fundamentally, this changes how we interpret a game’s story — because traditional storytelling is about the suspension of belief, about pacing, about story being delivered to you, instead of created with you as collaborator.

Even for those of us who do play a game to experience a story, it’s worth considering the types of obstacles that makes interactive stories difficult to write, obstacles that are often invisible to the average player.

The Ticking Clock

Some storytelling tools in traditional media don’t work as well in the interactive space. Take a common storytelling element: pacing. Games are player-driven, meaning the time between plot points can vary from five minutes to five hours, depending on where your player decides to go, and what activities they elect to take part in: side quests, additional content, screwing around with your friends, staring at a rock for forever.

All of this contributes to the player’s perception of how a story unfolds. One of the most beautiful aspects of games is that they don’t need to be a linear experience. If you’re curious about what’s over the ridge, follow it, plot be damned!

While there are tools that help alleviate the pacing issue in games (for example, plot-reminders when you load up a game), often brute force repetition is required for clarity. When a Non-Player Character (NPC) tells you that a villain is going to do something for the fifth time, it’s often an attempt to split the difference between entertainment and plot clarity, and this can affect how the player perceives a game’s narrative.

Let’s get more specific with pacing — the ticking clock.

This device often signals that a story is about to reach a crescendo, barreling the audience towards a dramatic conclusion. But a ticking clock can be difficult to implement in a game. If an NPC tells you, “the building is gonna explode, you’ve got to DO something!” they’re almost certainly lying. Unless you find yourself in the middle of a timed event, you can probably go save that dude’s dog first. Pacing is one of the reasons that game writers focus on creating engaging characters, but there are invisible obstacles to creating those, too.

Simulated Characters

Generally-speaking, game writers have more control over how a character speaks and acts than they do the plot the player follows. That’s because main plot is a collaboration between writers, mission designers, level designers, and pretty much everyone else on a development team. And a main plot needs to do more than simply tell a story. As a writer you support tutorialization of new game mechanics, for example. The best games fold these tutorials into pivotal story moments.

Yet even creating engaging character can be impacted by the types of resources a writer has to sell that character. Creating characters is more expensive than you might think!

Building an NPC, for example, requires concept, a 3D model, rigging (how a character moves) and animation (what movements an NPC is able to perform). Custom animations require additional work and resources. That’s one reason why we often see the most important dramatic scenes happen in cinematics. Yet most games use cinematics sparingly. As a general rule, designers try to avoid taking control away from the player. That means that the ability to sell a dramatic scene in-game often relies upon the animations needed to support the conversation. Or a scene must be written to sell character primarily on voice.

Try this. Go start an argument with your friend, but don’t move at all. Make sure to record the conversation. Or reserve yourself to a limited set of gestures. Then watch the video. See what I mean?

A lot of storytelling relies on the suspension of disbelief. Pacing helps with this – you can’t dwell on a plot hole in a movie if you’re swept up in the moment. But games are simulations. If the player wants to test the boundaries of a simulation, they’re free to do so. And because games are about you, and the control you exert over the world, it’s often fun to exert that control! Stare at an NPC long enough, and you’ll realize that they’re as scripted as a character in The Truman Show, repeating the same loop over and over.

Try this. Go outside and repeat the same actions on a one minute loop. Are your neighbors staring at you? Congratulations, now you know how an NPC feels!

Interactive Mindset 

So, what areas of storytelling can video games excel, or even exceed traditional media?

World-building. Games are character-filled theme parks where players often spend dozens, if not hundreds of hours. And perhaps as importantly, as a game writer you can allow players to choose for themselves how much of a game world they experience. Main plot. Side missions. Lore. Games have tons of room to build a world, as well as the mechanics to allow you to experience that world on your own terms, based on your interests, at your own pace.

Despite certain limitations, creating characters is another avenue where games have some important advantages. In a game, characters we meet can actually help us progress — and help us feel more empowered as a result. When an NPC gives you a new ability or power, or helps you explore the world, it establishes a connection between you and that character that’s wholly different from traditional media.

In the end, experiencing a game’s story depends, in part, on your mindset. Sure, an NPC might loop animations from time to time. And it’s possible I’ll try to talk to them too much and exhaust their conversation. But just as I try not to pause a TV show or movie, I’ve taught myself to sink into the world of a game, rather than poke around for the seams. So if an NPC tells me the building is about to explode, I’ll take them at their word – and hope they forgive me if I stop to stare at a rock, or save that dude’s dog. 

But the invisible obstacles don’t stop there! In no other medium does a writer have to serve more roles than in a video game, juggling not only plot and character, but tutorials, new mechanics, unfolding systems, inherent repetition of player actions/missions, the list goes on. I’ll explore all this in the next article. Coming soon!

The following article contains major spoilers for Borderlands 3.

I wasn’t sure whether fans would love or hate Typhon DeLeon. After all, the Vault Hunter is one of the most pervasive myths in the Borderlands Universe. It’s an aspiration. Vault Hunters come in all shapes and sizes of course, but one thing they all have in common is that they’re badass, which—contrary to how he is portrayed on theater posters and such—isn’t an obvious descriptor for Typhon DeLeon the first time you see him.

His journey from son of a turd farmer to legendary Vault Hunter is less Indiana Jones and more Forrest Gump. Typhon is a genuinely good guy and not a natural fighter; to survive, he follows his intuition and rolls with the punches. He doesn’t let the darkness of rival corporations and wars and betrayals get him down. He’s a different kind of hero, one who fails but keeps picking himself back up again. Unfortunately, Typhon went missing decades ago searching for the Eridian homeworld. Or so we think.


We first hear of the legendary explorer Typhon DeLeon early in the game when we come across a historical marker – the first of a series of ECHO logs documenting his journey from Pandora to becoming the First Vault Hunter and beyond. In addition to serving as advice for new Vault Hunters, Typhon’s journals are a narrative delivery device for lore, delving into topics we as players have been curious about since the first game.

Pandora’s a strange and harsh place. Sometimes, I get the feeling the whole planet is tryin’ to shake us off like a tick-infested skag. But I’ll tell ya one thing: if I do find the Eridian homeworld someday, I’m gonna finally get some answers! “Hey, aliens,” I’ll say. “What’s so freakin’ special about Pandora?”

In order to sell the idea that “heroes come in all shapes and sizes,” we needed Typhon’s voice to be down-to-earth, the Pandora equivalent of blue-collar. Part of the charm of characters like Forrest Gump is that they survive, even persevere, in spite of their limitations. In Typhon’s case, being from Pandora is that limitation. But it’s also his advantage. From his humble upbringing, Typhon gains curiosity and instinct, traits that serve him well throughout his adventures.

Unlike many traditional heroes, Typhon DeLeon’s pursuit of the Vault isn’t for fame or glory. He’s driven by curiosity itself. He’s an explorer’s explorer, driven to unearth the secrets of the universe. But as Typhon quickly realizes after finding a Vault for Atlas, the corporations don’t share his values.

Wish I could say finding that Vault did some good for the people of Promethea, but that ain’t true. At first, it sure seemed like it, though. Atlas started building subways and planetary tracks. But when they didn’t find another Vault, the corporation stopped investing in the planet, and Promethea became a craphole again. Be careful who you work for—corporations, they’re like assholes. They ain’t any prettier from the inside. And, if you stay near one long enough, they’re gonna crap all over you.


Although Typhon DeLeon’s surely an unreliable narrator (most are), there’s a lot of lore packed into his journals. In writing these ECHO logs, we tried to vary them between explicit lore (Typhon gives Jakobs its trademark slogan, “If it took more than one shot, you weren’t using a Jakobs”) and intentionally abstract lore (Typhon wondering why the Vaults exist in the first place). It’s up to you to determine what’s true and what’s a tall tale.

By tracking down Typhon’s journals, we literally follow in his footsteps. In doing so, we get a rare opportunity to see what the galaxy was like decades ago. What was happening on Pandora before the events of the first Borderlands? How did Atlas Corporation become the dominant power on Promethea? Why did no one discover the Vault on Eden-6? Part of the challenge of writing Typhon’s ECHO logs was the knowledge that some of you wouldn’t rest until you’d consumed the entirety of Typhon’s story, while others will experience far less. So, each ECHO log ideally stands on its own, but also contributes to his larger story.

Ultimately, we wanted Typhon to be an unlikely hero. He’s supposed to be rough around the edges, yet likable. A tad crass, but with a heart of gold. Humble, but a legend. Part of the joy of the Borderlands universe is that despite the dark shadow cast by the ruthless corporations, despite the pervasive greed, some good remains. It’s just a glimmer of hope, but to many, that hope is all that keeps you from giving in to the darkness of the universe. Vault Hunters seek the Vaults for reasons beyond greed and self-interest. To seek the Vault is to discover who you are, what you’re made of, and what ultimately drives you to go on.


If you know what to listen for, Typhon’s journals reveal not only his past journey but reveal some of the game’s major plot points, including the true goal of the Calypso Twins. One of the themes of Typhon’s story is storytelling itself. As Typhon says later on in the game, “A story can be a dangerous thing in the wrong hands.” It’s no coincidence that your race to the Vaults against Tyreen and Troy Calypso follows Typhon’s own journey. Lilith and company sometimes wonder how the Calypsos and their Children of the Vault are always one step ahead.

After defeating Troy Calypso, we learn that Pandora is actually “The Great Vault,” a planet-sized Vault that contains a monster of unimaginable power within: The Destroyer. What’s so special about Pandora indeed, Typhon? Of course, the Calypsos have known this from the very beginning. Our journey to stop Pandora from releasing the Destroyer sends us to the Eridian homeworld of Nekrotafeyo, and once again we follow Typhon DeLeon’s footsteps.

When we arrive, we meet the First Vault Hunter in person. He’s… perhaps not exactly the heroic visage of his movie posters, but he’s still the same decent man we’ve come to know. Typhon fills us in on what happened to him in the intervening decades. As the story goes, he and Leda crash-land on Nekrotafeyo. They learn of the Vault Monster within Pandora that the Eridians trapped, and The Machine. They have children. Special children. Conjoined Twin-Sirens, a boy and a girl. Something the universe has never seen before.

See, when me and Leda first saw Troy and Tyreen’s tattoos, we knew we had to protect ’em. Sirens. The rarest thing in the universe, and there were two of ’em right in our arms. The only way to keep them safe was to stay here. Forever… For a while, we were one happy family. Then Leda, she, well, she died. And I had to raise the kids alone. I thought opening a Vault would be the hardest thing I’d ever do. Was I wrong! 

Typhon must raise his children on his own. And because he knows what the corporations would do if they ever discovered Troy and Tyreen—enslave them, conduct horrifying experiments, and probably much worse—he decides that the best way to protect them is to keep them on Nekrotafeyo forever.

Thing is, Typhon might be a legendary explorer, but that doesn’t mean he knows how to raise two children alone — a heroic undertaking in itself, let alone on a dangerous planet like Nekrotafeyo. Typhon does the best he can under the circumstances, though as the children get older, they start to grow restless and test the boundaries of their planetary cage:

The boy, he got sick all the time. And my daughter talked circles around me! Only time they’d sit still was to hear about my adventures. Killing monsters, opening Vaults, being a hero — they couldn’t get enough! …. I filled their heads with all sorts of stories. Even told ’em about the Great Vault… heh. That was a mistake! A story can be a dangerous thing in the wrong hands.

Part of storytelling is deciding what to make explicit, and what to leave in the imagination of the viewer. We know Typhon feared what might happen if his children ever left Nekrotafeyo. Did he think that his stories would be enough for Tyreen and Troy? Why didn’t he foresee that his stories might have the opposite effect of what he intended? The tragedy we wanted to set up was a man who’s gotten through life by the skin of his teeth, through perseverance and more than a little luck. But as Typhon admits, “I was a first-rate adventurer but a third-rate pops. What kind of hero are you if you can’t even raise your own kids?”

Hidden on Nekrotafeyo are two ECHO logs in which Tyreen and Troy conspire to leave Nekrotafeyo. In these, we discover that the stories have instilled in Tyreen a sense of destiny. Sirens are special, and because her Siren ability is to leech lifeforce, the Vaults represent the ultimate potential manifestation of her powers. Troy, however, is clearly hesitant. It’s not immediately clear to him that Tyreen’s plan is to leave their father behind. But when confronted with the choice, Troy realizes that he’s bound to Tyreen. Without her, he’ll die. What choice does he have but to stay by her side?

Armed with a lifetime of knowledge on the corporations and Vaults, they plan their takeover. As a symbolic gesture, they choose to take their mother’s surname: Calypso. As homage to their mysterious upbringing, they name their cult The Children of the Vault. Their birthright. Meanwhile, Typhon remains stranded on Nekrotafeyo, forced to watch what his children have become, and burdened with the guilt that he shares some responsibility for what they’ve done. Which leads to a central question of the story: Why does Typhon forgive us for killing Troy? It’s no small thing to learn that your son is dead, let alone to meet his killer. In the end, Typhon has been forced to see the truth about his children. It’s not an easy thing to come to terms with, but as he notes, they’ve become monsters. “And Vault Hunters kill monsters.”

Early on in their lives, it seems clear that Tyreen was the instigator, and Troy the follower. But the root of his villainy is in how he enters this world. Conjoined to his sister. A Siren in tattoos only. Troy is broken, and completely dependent on his sister’s powers. That dependency is what twists his view of the world. It’s what compels him join Tyreen in abandoning their father. We can imagine that after his children abandon him, Typhon experiences a type of grief not felt since Leda died.

By the time we meet Typhon face to face, he’s been forced to confront a harsh reality. He chose to tell his children stories to protect them, but in doing so, he might have doomed the universe. His personal grief becomes secondary to the fate of the universe. He knows that if Pandora opens, his home planet will be ripped apart. And if Tyreen leeches the Destroyer, she’ll become unstoppable. Part of Typhon’s uniqueness as a hero is that the moral failure is not on us for killing Troy, but on Typhon for not seeing his monstrous potential sooner.

Ultimately, Tyreen appears to stop us from closing The Great Vault. For a moment, she’s transported back to her childhood, and what it was like growing up the children of the most famous man in the galaxy, the legendary Vault Hunter Typhon DeLeon. But her journey has twisted her. The power and the fame have corrupted those childhood dreams into something darker and more insidious. These dreams of stardom have consumed her:

When Troy and I were kids, we’d stare up at the night sky and dream of becoming stars. The brightest in the galaxy, Troy always said. So we left this place behind. Went to Pandora to become Vault Hunters ourselves. We’d open the Vault of Vaults and become the biggest stars in the galaxy. They seem so small now, our dreams. Not befitting a god. Now I’m gonna devour every last star in the universe, one by one, until nothing shines but me.

Typhon attempts to stop his daughter, but she’s grown too powerful for even him. His generation is fading. It’s up to the new generation. As he dies, he asks us to make a promise. “Don’t be the last Vault Hunters.” To pass the torch, you have to let go.

*This article originally appeared on All images copyright Gearbox Software/2K Games.