Building Your First Writing Portfolio For Games: A Very Friendly Guide with Amy Shaw
I met Amy when we were working on Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League and she was a joy to work with every day, bringing energy, inspiration and a huuuuuge talent. Obviously we were already big fans of her, but when I saw Amy’s portfolio I was genuinely blown away. Not only did it show off her writing and narrative design skills, but it demonstrated an understanding of how games are made more broadly, and of the different elements it takes to get a story across.Her writing sample has become a document I return to a LOT when helping folks get their portfolio together, so we’ve asked her to tell us a little but about how she made it.
Kim Belair, CEO
Hey! I’m Amy, I’ve worked in Games, TV and film for a good few years now, and last November I became a Junior Writer at Rocksteady Studios.
A few months before that, I built my own writing portfolio for the first time. There was a lot of trial and error, it sometimes felt a bit daunting, but eventually I found a rhythm that really worked for me, allowed me to have a lot of fun, and produced a document that I’m extremely proud of. Some other people really liked it too, and so the mysterious forces over at Sweet Baby Inc asked me to put together a guide, for anybody who might be in the process of creating a portfolio of their own. If that sounds like you, then hello! Welcome! Hi! I hope you get something from what I have to say.
1. The Research
Okay, so, you’re ready to build your first portfolio. You open up a blank page and stare at it for an hour before taking a break to watch a documentary on coastal erosion. Then it’s pretty late so you just head to bed. Blank pages can be tough. If you struggle with beginnings, you’re not the only one. Not only that, but learning healthy ways to get past it are an important part of writing anything. In this case, the best way to find your first foothold is by doing some research.
Start by reaching out to people with established reputations for nurture and support in games (like Sweet Baby Inc!) and see if they have any examples of portfolios they’d be happy to share with you. I was given my first example portfolio by the Lead Writer I was working with at the time, Grant Roberts. He’s talented and meticulous, so I trusted the content of his portfolio to be a good baseline for me. I went through his document and broke it down into a skeleton: doing that helps you to clearly see structure and think about the reasoning behind it. From there, you can start to build your own skeleton. This will be the order of what you include, based on how you arrange it. For example, mine begins with character bios and story breakdowns, followed by in-game dialogue (scripted conversations and branching interactions) laid out as two missions, and then finished with a cinematic sample. Your skeleton should differ from your example’s, simply because you’ll have different strengths. Which types of writing do you want to showcase? What do you want to save for last? How can you make the structure work for you?
2. The Plan
You’ve researched, you’ve got your document skeleton, but if this is your first portfolio, there’s a good chance you don’t have any published writing to share. This can feel a bit disheartening, especially if you’ve just read a glorious portfolio full of great lines from a game you know. The thing is, this is actually a bit of an opportunity. Why not pick a genre you know you’re passionate about (I went for spy stuff), create your own scenario (came up with my own awkward spy pal), and show off some of your world building skills? This can be the perfect chance to tailor your samples for scenarios too, creating a few different versions of portfolio to suit the genres of various studios you might apply to!
Having total control of your content allows you to structure scenarios for your characters that show off a wide range of content types (barks, cinematics, banter) while introducing them to different and interesting voices. Plot a couple of missions around the document skeleton you developed earlier, and Bob’s your protagonist’s uncle!
3. The Assembly
You can really make the world of difference to how enjoyable and understandable your document is by setting yourself some simple formatting rules. Choose a couple of colours. Choose a couple of fonts – one for script text and one for document text. Decide how you are going to display script fragments, dialogue trees, mission objectives, headings. Put together a front page and get your name on it in big, bold letters. Put together a contents page that is clear and simple. Number your pages. If you have any other projects you want to link to, games you’ve made or writing you’ve done, decide where you want to put it now. It can go here or in your CV, depending on where it fits the best! Doing all of these things makes it much, much easier for people to open, enjoy and navigate your work, which can only be a good thing, right?
Final formatting tip, the simplest, but one that I learned from people in TV, actually: always, always save your portfolio as a PDF. That way, no matter which device it’s opened on, no matter how busy or sleepy the person opening it is, it will almost always be legible. No jumbled up letters and pictures over here!
4. The Writing
Hopefully by now, the bit that seemed the most daunting when you were looking at that blank page is actually the most exciting. You’ve got your own structure, tailor-made content, and now you can just sit back and enjoy creating it.
So here’s the important thing to remember while writing: context is key. It’s a great idea to begin your portfolio with some short, clear outlines that quickly get your reader up to speed on where they are, what they’re doing and what the bigger picture is. Then it’s up to you to “play through” your missions for them, leading them through your game from example to example with short explanations of how they thread together. In my own portfolio, this is done through a combination of bullet points to describe player action, and mission updates to describe gameplay reaction. The whole idea is to give your reader the experience of gameplay – with any luck, gameplay they enjoy!
5. The Feedback
By this point, congratulations are in order! You have a portfolio! Sleep on it, proofread it with fresh eyes, and then… remember all those lovely people we met in step one when we were asking for examples?
Choose a few people you trust or respect, who you know have an awareness of industry portfolios, and ask them if they’d be willing to give you feedback on yours. Chances are, you’ll find lots of lovely people willing to help you out, and before you know it, you’ll have a veritable plethora of notes to consider! This is the best bit: read through any notes you’re given and think about whether they’re for you! Sometimes they’ll be a lightbulb moment, sometimes you won’t be a fan, and sometimes they’ll make you think of something else completely, but they’ll all encourage you to polish your work.
So that’s about everything! With any luck there’s something in there that’s been helpful to you, and if not, then I hope at least you’ve had fun reading. If I can offer one last thing to you, it’s this: if you’re worried about finding games writers you can talk to, ask for advice or examples, ask for feedback, don’t be! You already know one person in the industry who’d be happy to chat! (It’s me, you can’t tell but I’m waving.)
The world is full of people who want to see you succeed, I promise!
For more delightful insights from Amy, you can follow her on Twitter at @DiveAmyDive.
Stay tuned via our Twitter, @SweetBabyInc, for more industry FAQs answered by experts and friends of the Baby posted here on our website!