How To Write For A Hit Game Franchise: An Interview with Narrative Director,Darby McDevitt

Friday 7 June 2019

For those not familiar with Darby’s work, he is currently a Narrative Director, and has previously worked as a scriptwriter, designer, and producer on platforms such as Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, Warner Brothers and Disney. 

His short fiction has been published in literary journals and anthologies. He is also a musician with four albums released to date. Darby has directed, edited and produced a number of short films as well as being sound designer for festival-circuit films and professional theatre. Impressive stuff, right!

Those who do know Darby will probably associate him best with the popular action-adventure game, Assassin’s Creed, however he has also worked on Game Franchises such as Pirates of The Caribbean, Lord of The Rings, The Sims, Ice Age and The Chronicles of Narnia.

Q1.Do you have any top tips when it comes to world-building and character creation?

I always start by asking the question: “What is the fundamental player experience we want to deliver?” 

This is key to the whole enterprise of game development, and it implies a lot of related questions: What do you want the player to do in your game? What do you want them to feel? What challenges should they overcome? What dilemmas should they face?

I don’t begin with a story, or a genre, or a character — even as a writer or narrative designer. I first try to understand the role that our players will inhabit, the systems they’ll play with, and the settings they’ll explore. 

It’s important to understand what kind of interactive experience you want to create, because this will highlight the world building and narrative development you should focus on.

It’s dangerously easy when making games to focus on details the player will never see or understand. As writers we tend to follow our intuition and curiosity in the early months of conception, but this can lead us astray.

It’s important to always remember that the gameplay will push players in a particular and prescribed direction – this should be where you spend your efforts. Once you answer the above questions, a waterfall of solutions about narrative design, world building, and character creation will follow. 

The answers to these questions will help you determine what you need to emphasize, and what you don’t need as well.

Q2. How do you handle the task of writing for a well-known franchise such as Assassin’s Creed? Once you’re brought onto the project is there a process you adopt in order to deal with the mammoth writing priorities and challenges of being involved with such an iconic game?

Not all game narratives serve the same ends, so it depends on the scope of the game and the purpose of writing in that game.

In some games the writing exists as flavor, in others a dramatic narrative is front and center. Even over the course of the Assassin’s Creed games, the writing needs have shifted.

When I wrote Revelations I was the sole writer — the scope was small enough that one writer could do all the work. That process went something like this: establish an outline with the Creative Director; work with the Level Designers to turn this outline into 30 to 40 “main path” missions; work with Game Designers to understand any other systems that have dialog needs; write the script; then iterate iterate iterate your ideas until the whole thing comes together. 

Iteration time is the most important and least honoured part of the process – you often have to fight to get it.

The next AC game I worked on, Black Flag, unfolded in much the same way. It was a bigger game, and for the first time in my career I worked with other writers. Even so, I wrote the bulk of that title, and the process was simply a magnified version of what I’d done before. Not much had changed.

When I worked on Origins for a few years, we knew from the outset that it would be a massive game with a different narrative structure than the previous titles — we wanted it to be an RPG with multiple quests you could play simultaneously. 

This required a larger writing team than I had ever worked with previously, and my role as a writer shifted considerably — I was now managing a writing team, not unlike a show-runner on a television series. 

Other writers would write the scripts and I would oversee the content and tone, often doing a writing pass myself to tighten things up. 

I left Origins early to work on a new project as a Narrative Director, a shift that let me focus more on world building and designing narrative systems to help the player get more involved in the world. 

It’s at this level that the narrative and gameplay need to be in harmony, well before the game’s writers come aboard.

Q3. What is the biggest challenge when writing for games and what did you do to overcome it? How would you compare the challenges of writing for games with screenwriting/prose?

The biggest and most interesting challenge for me is the process of finding symbiotic relationships between the narrative and the gameplay. 

It’s not enough to slap a well-trod set of narrative tropes on a suite of common gameplay ideas. The true magic in game writing and narrative design arises when the gameplay and the story exist in perfect alignment, to the point where the player is literally “playing the narrative.” 

If possible, every game system should be reflected somehow in the narrative, and vice versa.

A fantastic version of this symbiosis can be found in the acclaimed Japanese game Nier: Automata, in which the player controls a battle-ready android named 2B. Because the player’s avatar is an android, the game’s UI features — the health bar, the mini-map, the damage indicators, and so on — can be explained as embedded chips in the android’s circuitry. 

Typically UI elements like these exist in a meta-space between the game’s narrative and the player. But in Nier, because these UI features have an in-world explanation, the characters can talk about them and the player can interact with them in the same way they interact with their character. If the player so desires, she can uninstall her health bar, her mini-map and her damage indicator chips to make room for more useful chips like attack damage and defense. 

The game even allows the player to remove 2Bs core CPU, an action that results in the character’s immediate death. This is hilarious, and helps sell the idea that the game — its story and systems — are a unified whole.

With each new game I help develop, I look for opportunities to create these sort of transversal connections between narrative and gameplay. 

The intellectual challenge is exhilarating and it always makes the experience richer for the players.

Q4. How did your career as a writer for games begin and what are your three tips for writers wanting to enter the industry?

My first job in the game industry found me in 1999. I was twenty-six and working as an office temp at the University of Washington in Seattle. I was five months into my six month work limit and in desperate need of a new source of income.

By chance, I spotted an opening for a “Community Development” position at a company called Humongous Entertainment in Bothell Washington. I applied and was hired within a week. I don’t know why they chose me over whatever other candidates they’d considered, but I had applied on the strength of my writing samples and my love for video games.

I like to think it was these qualities that got me in the door, but it may be they were desperate for a warm body with the minimum skill requirements to fill a seat. That happened quite often in the early days of the game industry. It may still happen, though the skill floor is much higher now for most positions. 

Back then, that particular job wasn’t terribly hard or necessary, but I threw myself at it for a year before I got restless and started looking around for more interesting work.

A year and a half later I found work as an associate producer at KnowWonder in Kirkland Washington. It was this job that sparked my deeper interest in the art and craft of game design.

From that point on I simply said Yes to every task that was asked of me and I actively searched for new challenges within the company. 

This led me from producing to writing and level design, which in turn gave me a deeper understanding about the tricky relationship between narrative and game design. They can frequently be at odds, but with experience and training you can find wonderful ways to make them work together.

My general advice to writers looking to enter the industry is fairly simple: One, write often and try to publish your own work wherever you can — you only get better by doing and sharing. Two, take whatever work you can find, so long as it doesn’t set your moral compass spinning and pays you for your work. (Don’t work for free unless it’s your own work!) And three, learn the principles of good game design so you can have intelligent and fruitful conversations with game designers. 

If you don’t, you may feel as though you’re speaking separate languages when you try to work together.

Q5. What do you believe is the key ingredient in becoming a successful games writer for a popular franchise like Assassin’s Creed?

I wish I knew! 

Whenever I approach a new game, I simply try to tackle the story and world and characters with curiosity, honesty, and pathos. Triple-A games are a particularly tricky breed, since the player-experience is typically built around violence and domination. As a writer, it’s not easy to find a fresh way through these weeds. 

The Assassin’s Creed series has always leaned heavily on historical settings and this has been immensely gratifying as a writer and narrative designer – I’ve written stories set in Ptolemaic Egypt, the Golden Age of Piracy, the Ottoman Empire, the Crusades, and more.

I believe every game has the potential for saying something unique and intriguing. 

You just have to be willing to dig deep enough to find it. 

And when you do, the trickiest part is convincing the rest of your team — all 30 or 300 of them — to follow you down the path. Game design isn’t easy. But when it works, it’s magic!

Emma Pullar is a bestselling and award-winning writer of dark fiction and children’s books.
She also dabbles in screenwriting.

You can find Emma on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook or lurking in the shadows, spying on people in the name of inspiration and creativity.


  1. This was really good - Like Darby says though "the skill floor is much higher now for most positions" - I have been through 'Microsoft', 'Lionshead Studios', 'Grinding Gear', 'Team 17', 'Pretty Simple' and still manage to not make the cut despite the level of my own dedication making films for years - All I'm after is a shot and just to be in the same room as these guys is just... What more do you want me to do?
    Would love a mentor like Darby McDevitt - Even my best feature script, lots of people have said; have you ever played 'x,y or z?" or "have you ever considered what this would look like as a game?" - absolutely! Would just like someone to guide me...
    This was the best interview I've read in ages. Really interesting and an area so many like myself have wanted to read for ages. Thanks so much Emma & thanks Darby (I "love" 'Black Flag' - easily one of the best games I ever played!)

  2. Very insightful read and I'm a big fan of Darby's work on the Assassin's Creed Games.

  3. Enjoyable read!