Creative writing student tapped to moonlight as video game writer

Michael Wahba is a computer science major who is also pursuing a certificate in creative writing at the University of Calgary, and thanks to a job posting circulated through the school's English department, he now moonlights as a video game writer.

Poetry inspires Michael Wahba's dialogue for upcoming game Atrio: The Dark Wild

Computer science major Michael Wahba is also a creative writing student who got a job as a video game writer about a year ago. ( Submitted by Michael Wahba)

Gaming has enjoyed a fresh surge of popularity during the pandemic, and with two new consoles hitting the market this month, there is also a burgeoning need for talent that can create the worlds that gamers immerse themselves in.

However, the craft of developing a video game is not only an exercise in artistry and computer programming — it also requires skilled writers who can pace the plot, weave the narratives and develop the characters.

Luckily for some local creative writers, they are being tapped to do just that. 

Michael Wahba is a computer science major who also happens to be pursuing a certificate in creative writing at the University of Calgary.

Thanks to a job posting circulated through the school's English department, he now moonlights as a video game writer.

He has been working as a contractor for the past year with a Calgary startup, IstoInc, to develop a game called Atrio: The Dark Wild.

"The most important aspect is to write in a way that is in harmony with the game play mechanics and the art and the sound," Wahba told the Calgary Eyeopener on Tuesday. "So that when players play the game, it is one harmonious package that tells a powerful story."

Writing a video game like poetry

Wahba described Atrio: The Dark Wild as an automation/survival game set in a cyberpunk future.

The story it is trying to tell is a hopeful one, Wahba said: the player is trying to build back the future after humans destroyed themselves.

It is his job to write most of the game himself, and he works on it remotely, though there are weekly meetings with the rest of the team.

To write dialogue that keeps players engaged, Wahba uses an interesting trick.

A screenshot from the videogame Atrio: The Dark Wild. (Submitted by Michael Wahba)

"[I] write a lot of the dialogue as if it was poetry, because the rule of thumb is that gamers — or readers, rather — will get rather bored after about 10 to 15 words," Wahba said.

"So the real challenge that I find interesting is trying to pack as much meaning as you can in as little words as possible. And I found poetry to be actually the most representative of how a lot of video game writing actually is."

His creative writing professor at the university, Aritha van Herk, said Wahba's video game dialogue rule wasn't one that he specifically picked up in her class.

"I don't teach them how to write about video games. I teach them how to write well," van Herk said.

"But clearly, writing the narrative for video games is such an important opportunity now."

Refuge in stories

Van Herk, who has never played a video game herself, said she can still appreciate the storytelling opportunities that they provide.

And while she can also appreciate the game play mechanics of a compelling game, the storytelling component is, in her view, a critical one.

"We all love stories. We take refuge in stories. And these games, just as Michael has described, have the opportunity to show us a different future," van Herk said. 

In recent years, games have been shaped by advances in technology that have drastically refined their graphics, Wahba said.

Beautifully rendered and increasingly photo-realistic games have approached the quality of — and found inspiration in — film, which has affected the storytelling as well.

But ultimately, Wahba said, the graphics are not the heart of the story.

"It's not always about how good the technology is, but how well they can convey the emotion in different ways," Wahba said. "You can't have a good story without good writing."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.


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