“I think THREE KINGDOMS had over half a million words in it by the end”: writing Total War
The product of writing can be seen everywhere in Total War games, from trailer voiceovers to in-game pop-ups. The writing team plays a key role in bringing the Total War games to life, and what better way to get some insight into the writing process than asking them for even more of their awesome words?
We chatted with Pete Stewart and Dion Lay – writers who have worked on THREE KINGDOMS as well as a number of other Total War titles – about how they started out, what makes writing for Total War games different, and how to sneak as many puns into a project as possible.
CA: First of all, could you please introduce yourself?
Pete Stewart: Hi, I’m Pete Stewart, a writer at Creative Assembly, particularly on Total War: THREE KINGDOMS! I’ve been pottering around on Total War titles in various capacities since ROME II, however!
Dion Lay: Hey, I’m Dion Lay, senior writer at Creative Assembly (CA). I’ve worked at CA for ages now and have written for a few Total War games, Alien: Isolation, and Halo Wars 2.
CA: How did you first get into gaming?
Pete Stewart: Well that sure is a big question. I suppose I’ve always dabbled – my brother gave me his hand-me-down Mega Drive when I was very young, and I played Sonic the Hedgehog on a black and white TV in my bedroom a lot. Later on, a friend would introduce me to Final Fantasy VIII which really kickstarted me, but I would say it probably all began with monochrome Sonic.
Dion Lay: My stepdad splurged on a 48k ZX Spectrum to help with the household bills (never happened), so my brother and I hijacked it and we were obsessed with games from then on. I remember saving up my paper round money to buy the Hit Squad collection by Ocean: Robocop, R-Type, Double Dragon and Operation: Wolf – what a killer line up!
CA: And how did you get into writing for video games?
Pete Stewart: I had graduated for several years and was doing odd jobs when I was approached by an old colleague for a role at CA that unfortunately never managed to materialise, but instead he referred me to the QA lead. I ended up working at CA in a QA capacity seconded to the writing team, where I met the rest of the writers. Eventually, when a full-time writing role became available, I was asked to join the team.
Dion Lay: I started out in the QA department when CA was a lot smaller, so I would contribute/annoy people with suggestions, including writing some background NPC dialogue for SPARTAN: Total Warrior (which all went in, I think?). Then I took the Total War writing test and moved onto the writing team, starting with EMPIRE: Total War. I’ve been really lucky, basically, as all my training was in fine art, interactive art, and graphics instead, so it’s not where I expected to end up!
CA: What does a typical workday look like for you?
Pete Stewart: A typical workday can take many forms – it’s typical that they’re atypical! However, you can be sure of one thing, and that’s that there will be a lot of writing in between design meetings, catch-ups, and discussions with other disciplines. There can be a perception that writing occurs in a vacuum when it’s actually a very interdisciplinary process!
Dion Lay: What I like about working in narrative is that there are loads of different jobs, so there are few typical days. Each project has different narrative needs, so I could be writing scripts, dialogue, narrative design docs, environmental stuff like posters and announcements, or a world document for background lore.
CA: How is writing for a Total War game different from writing for other games?
Pete Stewart: Writing for Total War is an extremely broad beast – it’s never any one single thing. Between trailers, cutscenes, dialogue, barks (think “Missiles incoming!”), historical descriptions, traits, abilities, then functional text, there is a huge amount of varied content to create. It keeps us on our toes as we’re never pigeon-holed into one particular type of writing.
That also means, as you can imagine, that there’s a lot of words in a Total War game. I think THREE KINGDOMS had over half a million words in it by the end, so it’s a huge undertaking for the team!
Dion Lay: Total War has a very well-established writing style, so our job is about bringing out each game’s unique flavour by using its setting, characters, and time period. It’s a solid foundation to start from and frees you up to spend more time finding new ways of interpreting it, so it feels like a Total War game, but a fresh take at the same time.
CA: What was it like writing for a game that already has such a rich written history to draw from?
Pete Stewart: A challenge – but a fun one! Unlike any other Total War title before, the two rich sources – the Records and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms – made for a fascinating interplay of fact and embellishment. The two lean on one another and give you license to tell some really fascinating stories while remaining true to the history.
The tales of the Romance are essentially a thousand years of oral histories, operas, and hard fact codified, so we’re working with mythologies so potent many of them have become all-but fact anyway. In terms of writing the “truth” of an era, that’s pretty exciting!
Dion Lay: It was exciting to work with material that people already knew a lot about and loved, and I was really glad that we decided to use the romance side as well as the history. Total War: THREE KINGDOMS really made the most of the narrative, and having so many iconic characters to draw upon gave us a lot of material and opportunities to get creative.
CA: What unique challenges did working on Total War: THREE KINGDOMS specifically present?
Pete Stewart: Working with not one but two primary sources was the biggest challenge as well as the biggest excitement for me as it’s not something I’d dealt with before, and navigating the fact and the “fact” became an interesting and fun obstacle course! Luckily, we know most of the differences pretty clearly, so it wasn’t too much trouble to find our feet.
Dion Lay: I think it was balancing what the gameplay needed while trying to get across as much flavour and character at the same time. With such a wealth of material, you kind of want to get everything in, so it’s easy to get carried away and write a novel for that one tooltip about the end turn button.
CA: What was[/is] the writing process for THREE KINGDOMS like from start to finish?
Pete Stewart: Involved! So, my work on any Total War title begins with an extraordinary amount of research: getting to grips with, and becoming immersed in, the history and the mythology of the period. As you can imagine, this is a particularly involved task for something as dense as Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Once you know your stuff, it’s time to get to work. We work very closely with designers to figure out what their vision is for each area while suggesting our own and helping to form the best marriage of design and writing we can. We also work with the audio team to create casting scripts and scope out how each script will look for each character.
And then? We write. We write and write and write and write. Until we’re done. Then we test it, iterate it, rewrite it, iterate it, test it… [VOICE CARRIES ON INTO THE DISTANCE]
Dion Lay: I joined the project after it was in full swing, so Pete was already doing a great job steering the narrative, which made it much easier for me!
My process is pretty simple: talk with the designers about what they want, and then do several passes, usually moving to a different task after each pass. I always cycle around a few tasks at once, so each time I return to one I have a fresh perspective on it and can easily see what needs changing to get it up to the quality we want.
At the same time, Total War has a writing team, so we would discuss each other’s work and make sure we were all speaking in the same voice. And make up terrible puns together.
CA: Who is your favourite THREE KINGDOMS character and why?
Pete Stewart: Zhuge Liang is one hundred percent the absolute best boy and I don’t feel I need to qualify that at all.
Dion Lay: Dong Zhuo, simply because he was so fun to write for.
CA: What THREE KINGDOMS contribution are you most proud of?
Pete Stewart: Personally, the dynamic dialogue systems – so the generals’ speeches and battle conversations are my favourite contributions to the game. But broadly, I really enjoy how the game feels very in-the-moment through the writing – the style of writing from the point of view of the time, rather than looking back like a history book, really helps the game’s immersion. Everyone on the team really nailed it in bringing the world to life.
Dion Lay: One of my favourite parts of the job is writing dialogue, but I don’t think I ever got to do it for a Total War game until Total War: THREE KINGDOMS! Pete had already taken on the bulk of the dialogue by the time I joined, but I got to write the dialogue for the campaign map and diplomacy dialogue, which was a fun challenge. So, I’m glad I got to do some dialogue for a Total War game, but I think it may be the dilemmas that I’m most proud of, as they were like little stories and I had a chance for some humour.
CA: Did you ever manage to sneak something particularly entertaining into a game you wrote for (THREE KINGDOMS included)?
Pete Stewart: We definitely may or may not have slipped a few references here and there: a few lyrics, a couple of memes, a pun or five… We are, after all, only human.
Dion Lay: I think Alien: Isolation and Halo Wars 2 lent themselves to a lot of that stuff anyway, so I didn’t have to really sneak anything in!
I did get a Nightmare on Elm Street reference in Alien with an advert for “Neversleep” caffeine pills, and in Halo Wars 2 I wrote dialogue where one of the grunts felt like they were being watched by an omniscient being. Also, I must mention that the other writer on Alien: Isolation – Will Porter – managed to get a Total War reference into the beginning of the game, so look out for that.
CA: Aside from Total War: THREE KINGDOMS, what is your favourite Total War game?
Pete Stewart: FALL OF THE SAMURAI or NAPOLEON. I always loved Japanese history, and SHOGUN 2 through into FALL OF THE SAMURAI were two fascinating, dynamic periods. The way Total War realises them, too, with such vibrant and unique palettes, makes revisiting them a joy, even all these years later.
Dion Lay: SHOGUN 2 – both working on it and playing it. I had written for EMPIRE and NAPOLEON before it, so I really understood writing for the series at that point. I loved the look, the gameplay and the era, so I’ve returned to again and again. Most of all, I loved writing the loading screen haikus with Kate Jarett, and it’s some of my favourite work. I could have done that particular job for months!
CA: What do you think the most important part of writing games well is?
Pete Stewart: Uhhhhh… That’s difficult. Clarity, I think! The idea that, no matter what style you’re writing in – to inform, entertain, etc. – that it should be clear what you’re saying, even if the writing is particularly eloquent. Never lose the reader – you’re taking them on a journey!
Dion Lay: Wait, I have a slide for this somewhere… Ah, yes! Understand exactly what the game needs from the narrative. Is the narrative one of the most important parts of the game, or is its main function to support gameplay? Both are valid, but knowing where your work fits in the scheme of things will inform your choices throughout the project so you can decide where to focus your time.
CA: What do you think is an example of excellent video game writing?
Pete Stewart: Can I say Total War: THREE KINGDOMS?
Some really solid, obvious choices are games like The Last of Us, but the most recent (and still most impactful for me) game that left an impression was Spider-Man. The story was just so solid and well-structured that no matter what happened I was involved and thoroughly invested in the journey.
Dion Lay: The first examples off the top of my head are Bioshock for its characters, dialogue, and world building, Gone Home for a really lovely emotional experience, Papers, Please for continually pulling the rug out from under me, and Sunless Sea for plain gorgeous world building and text.
CA: What’s the most unusual thing you’ve ever written (or project you’ve written for)?
Pete Stewart: Some of the more esoteric quests and dialogue writing for WARHAMMER II definitely rank up with the stranger sides of things. Skaven and Lizardmen, particularly, are a melting pot of miscellany and dark, twisted confusion. The really worrying part, however, is when you write so much of it that it begins to seem normal. You’re not sure where you end and the Skaven begins, yes-yes…
Dion Lay: I think that’s got to be the Halo Wars 2 dialogue, particularly the grunt characters. They were really funny, particularly when they were idling and had space for little conversations! Once we added Yapyap THE DESTROYER for one of the DLCs, it got really weird. Loved those little guys.
CA: Aside from Total War, what video games do you like to play?
Pete Stewart: I play a lot of different types of games, although I do love my strategy games. Recently I’ve been getting back into Monster Hunter: World with some friends and, of course, I have my extremely long-time medical obsession with Final Fantasy XIV.
However, I have also been slowly plugging away at We. The Revolution, a cool and compelling courtroom drama set in revolutionary France!
Dion Lay: Naturally, I’m really into story driven games. I prefer games that have a well-realised and compelling world but with linear gameplay, so I can fully explore them but finish them in a couple of weeks. Although, I did end up having a spreadsheet and multiple saves for Fallout 3 so I could complete all the achievements and that took quite a chunk out of a year (or was it two?). On the other hand, I always make sure I have a few quick, dive-in, arcade-y titles that I can return to, like Cuphead, Burnout: Paradise and recently Tesla vs Lovecraft.
CA: What advice would you give those wanting to get into video game writing/narrative design?
Pete Stewart: That’s a very, very big question, but here’s my short version: write!
Write write write!
Experience is certainly useful, but a portfolio of solid material to show to us is the most important thing. Write, read, play games, but also watch plenty of movies and TV, maybe design little adventures of your own. Just show your eagerness and your talent, then try your luck!
Dion Lay: Just keep practicing your writing (in whatever form), and always look for new inspirations by reading books, comics, screenplays, and watching films and TV. When you play games, don’t just pay attention to the dialogue and text – think of the environment and see where it’s telling a story and ask yourself if there’s any areas where the story could have been strengthened – is there something the loading screen could be doing, for example?
CA: Thank you for your time! Any parting words?
Pete Stewart: Please read the game text! We worked very hard on it!
And be excellent to each other!
Dion Lay: [NOTE FOR SELF: Get writing robot to come up with a witty sign-off before sending, then destroy writing robot to hide evidence]
Check out some of our other Total War interviews here!