Grad life: Writing Was Never a Choice

by Evan Higgins, CMS/W graduate student on March 22, 2017 · 0 comments

in Alumni Life, Grad Life

I spent three busy months last summer as a writing intern in Austin, Texas, at the video game company BioWare. A subdivision of Electronic Arts, BioWare is known for strong writing, engaging characters, and save-the-world speculative fiction plots. In fact, this company’s branching narratives inspired me to come back to school to study video game writing. The opportunity to intern there as a member of the writing team was invaluable for learning how to become a professional storyteller. It was also incredibly nerve-wracking.

During my 12-week internship, the writing staff at BioWare taught me how to create dialogue, review scripts, and draft quests and pitches. The studio and project leads lavished time on my writings, inspecting them for tone, language, accuracy, and creativity. They also taught me that video game writing needs to be pithy, visual, and focused on putting the player in charge. But more than any of that, they often looked at my work as a larger piece of a whole, and, if there were any issues, they sent it back to me as many times as needed.

I’ve always been enamored with the idea of collaborative writing environments and working in one has been the dream of my adult life. When I’ve imagined the inside of TV writers’ rooms or video game studios or comic book offices, I pictured lots of lunches at Formica tables while people in button-downs bounced genius ideas off one another in between bursts of laugher. And to be sure, there was some of that at BioWare. However, there was way more determined silence while people stared at their computer screens and willed words to appear, characters to act out their desires, and plotlines to manifest.

Once this finally happened, the review cycle began. This constant loop of review and editing was ruthless, time consuming and, in the end, taught me more about writing than I ever thought I could learn in a summer—both about the craft and about what it takes to exist in a space where every word is subject to intense scrutiny.

One of my bosses was fond of saying narrative writing for video games is like being “creative with a gun to your head.” I love this metaphor because it captures the frenzied stress of willing your mind into making something from nothing.

Now I’ve also come to view the gun as signifying the lack of choice that many writers have in what they do. I’ve tried at points in my life to stop, to choose a different major, or to go down a different career path, and each time I’ve been drawn back to writing. Of all the lessons I learned, the most obvious was that even at the most stressful times I felt like I was in the right place—doing exactly what I wanted to do.

Grad Life blog posts offer insights from current MIT graduate students twice a month on Slice of MIT.

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