LittleBigPlanet's Dean Wilkinson explains what a video game scriptwriter does

Dean Wilkinson explains what a video game scriptwriter does

Last Updated on April 11, 2024

In 2013, I interviewed Dean Wilkinson, a video game scriptwriter who has worked with Stephen Fry and Matt Berry. At some point in the intervening years, the interview was taken offline.

Now, it’s back.


“In Worms: Revolution… Matt just said “do we have to say ‘guys’ I hate people saying ‘alright guys, let’s go’” so we changed it to ‘chaps’. He liked that.”

If you’ve ever played a videogame that you really enjoyed, you’ve probably spent a lot of time enthusing over the graphics, the soundtrack, the playability and the boss monsters.

The chances are, you haven’t noticed the characters or any speech in the game – or if you have, you probably won’t have considered that they’ve been created, fleshed out and given dialogue by a video game scriptwriter.

Dean Wilkinson has an impressive collection of video game credits, such as Kinect Sports, Fantasia: Music Evolved, Driver: San Francisco, Smart As… (which features John Cleese), and Metro 2035.

Perhaps most notably, is his connection with two long-running franchises, LittleBigPlanet, and Worms. When I spoke to Dean, he had recently completed work on LittleBigPlanet 2 (with Stephen Fry voicing his scripts) and Worms: Revolution (with Matt Berry) and he has continued connections with both game series.

Dean Wilkinson explains what a video game scriptwriter does

Based in Teesside in the north east of England, Dean has been working as a freelance writer since 1989 (with a piece in the cheeky rag Smut), with his work appearing in an amazing array of publications and TV shows in the UK.

Dean’s a successful writer, has won several BAFTAs and his success and any implied glamour arising from this is at odds with both his personality and his low-key workplace.

Bringing games to life with dialogue

“Basically I’ll say ‘look, you might have an idea but I can develop it for you, give it a background, write a script, make it multi-platform’.”

Speaking to Dean you get the impression that the work he’s done previously plays a massive part in the projects he is currently engaged in. Reputation is everything in this industry, something that he gets a little embarrassed about.

“I have an agent in London and they find me work and it’s easy for them to say ‘he worked on Driver: San Francisco, he worked on Little Big Planet, he’s worked on Worms: Revolution’ because there’s a lot of who-ha about that at the moment. But even if a company comes to me I always hand it over to my agent [to] draw all the contracts and things like that.”

Getting the Brief and Researching the Project

[On] sports games, I could be writing the prompts for commentators…I’ve got to write that like fifty times in different ways.

A game with poor dialogue (spoken or on-screen) and characterisation stands out for all of the wrong reasons. Half Life 2 was arguably the game that changed things, bringing a Hollywood level of polish to cutscenes and exposition (parts of the game explaining the plot up to that point) although things had already been heading in this way for a couple of years; witness the full cast Hollywood stars in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Guys like Ray Liotta, Dennis Hopper, Burt Reynolds and Fairuza Balk don’t just turn up to record lines written by the game logic programmer – a real writer has to be involved.

Although developers like Team 17 and already have a past history of quirky humour in their Worms series, bringing in Dean Wilkinson to flesh out Worms: Revolution is both confirmation of his standing in the games industry and recognition of the importance of a compelling background to the in-game story.

In LittleBigPlanet, Dean provided words for the sumptuous tones of actor, writer and comedian Stephen Fry. It was this game and its huge success – achieving a BAFTA award along the way – that has led to many subsequent projects, which usually arrive in the shape of a brief.

This is usually an outline of the game, some screenshots and an idea of what is involved. “It’s different depending on the game: with LittleBigPlanet there’s a stack of text that has to go in. For example Stephen Fry’s tutorials – a lot of information has to go into the words that Stephen says, so I have to simplify it, make it funny but still get the message across.” The famous voice has been extremely complimentary of Dean’s part in the game, noting that “We worked together on a project where he was called upon to use incredible ingenuity and skill to make a long and repetitive script seem fresh and original. He did this quite brilliantly. His mind fizzes with ideas and inventiveness.”

“Other games, such as sports games, I could be writing the prompts for commentators. So for a term like “who’s go is it next?” (on a multiplayer) I’ve got to write that like fifty times in different ways, such as “who’s up next?” It might be a hundred times; they’ll then put it in a loop within the game so it sounds fresher and different. I haven’t got a clue about sports, so I have to look up all these things about baseball, all the terms. But it’s good fun and they keep coming back for more.”

It should come as no surprise to learn that research is a major aspect of Dean’s work; after all, it’s 90% of all good writing. Dean has previously published quiz books so knows the value of good research, although his reliance on Wikipedia for other projects might be worrying to some. But then, as he points out, “I’m largely a comedy writer so it doesn’t matter about facts!”

“It’s good for… you know there might be a word I’m stuck on, so I’ll type something similar into Wikipedia or into Google and you might find a bit of background to it that I can use. When it comes to scripting and comedy it doesn’t really matter. I’ve used it extensively for quizzes but I did go on separate sites to check it, rather than take it at face value.”

Developing a Warzone

“I created this disgraced wildlife documenter called Don Keystone… He’s such a bad wildlife filmmaker, he’s slaughtered billions of animals in mistakes… “Can Pigs Drive Cars?”

News of Dean’s involvement with Team 17’s latest attempt to revive the Worms franchise came along with confirmation of the presence of Matt Berry as the “voice” of the game. You may know Berry as The IT Crowd’s Douglas Reynholm or Steven Toast, and like Fry he has a very distinctive voice.

Many names were discussed with Dean. “I did go down and have meetings with them, and they said ‘who do you want to voice it?’ We were throwing all sorts of names about like Patrick Stewart, [former Doctor Who] Tom Baker but I said I think the best comedic value for this game is Matt Berry, because I could really write some sort of cynical, funny, instructional dialogue for playing this game.”

This is where it gets interesting; a peek into the slightly mad world of Dean Wilkinson, as he talks me through the reasoning for the name of Berry’s character and his background.

“I created this disgraced wildlife documenter called Don Keystone; there’s a thing in Worms called the Stone Donkey, a weapon. Stone Donkey…Don Keystone. He’s such a bad wildlife filmmaker, he’s slaughtered billions of animals in mistakes… “Can Pigs Drive Cars?” that sort of thing, which was in a show called ‘Hamaggeddon’.

“So no one takes him seriously and the WWF have put a kind of fatwa on him. When he was in hiding, he discovered these worms in his garden having these battles, these full-scale fights… so that was the story behind it. We’ve finally acknowledged that there’s a war going on all around us with worms!”

“The script had been through some legal thing they have to do, and all the one liners had been clumped together in paragraphs. So Matt had the script in the booth, I had the script and I went through it splitting them off. So there might be a line saying ‘when I look at you I don’t see that rookie from several months ago… because it wasn’t you’ so I would have to read through it in my voice so Matt could put a line through so he could pause. Because they were for different screens there would be different reactions from worms; some would be nodding.”

It’s fair to say that Dean’s entry into the world of videogame writing, through LittleBigPlanet, came as a result of his involvement with the award winning shows of Britain’s favourite TV presenting duo Ant & Dec. He’s also worked with many other British personalities, comics such as Harry Hill and Charlie Chuck; his early years writing for bawdy publications and eventually editing one of them make it clear just where his writer’s hat really lies.

Dean is under no illusions that he is just the writer.

“It was so funny because I would read it out in my Teesside accent and get no reaction, and then he’d say exactly the same lines in his Matt Berry voice and everyone would just fall about laughing! If I didn’t understand I’d be thinking ‘well I just said that!’ But of course Matt’s an actor.”

Of course, all of this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the amount of work a videogames writer has to put into a project. From brief through to research, outlining and developing dialogue to submission and recording can take months or longer; it could be years before the game is actually released. “They did that with LBP, saying ‘it’s not going to be out for a while’. But yeah they show me what it is, what it’s got, what it does, just sit and talk about what we would do with it.”

“They might say ‘can you create a background as to why the player has reached this level?’ which was something that happened with LittleBigPlanet.”

There are various books on the market at the moment explaining the techniques required by would-be video game scriptwriters. Some of these cover the requirement for dialogue to be submitted in a particular format, in a text file within some basic software scripting framework. However, this isn’t something that Dean has come across. “I don’t do that, the companies I work for will do that. They purely just want the ideas, the dialogue, and then they do whatever with it. I think it has to go through loads of different departments, checked for anything legal, but then they format it.”

Naturally the end product will either be text (in the case of a game without a budget for famous or good quality voice artists) or dialogue, but the scale of the game can have an impact on just how much dialogue is required. We’ve already talked about how a sports game might require 50 or more versions of the same phrase, but there is even more scope for further dialogue in other game types, depending on whether they are linear or open ended.

“I’ve done adventure games where the brief will change with every level because it’s getting more intense, for instance a character might have been killed. They might say ‘can you create a background as to why the player has reached this level?’ which was something that happened with LittleBigPlanet. In the first game there wasn’t much of a story but in the new ones coming out there is. For example LittleBigPlanet Carting there’s a little backstory with that and the LittleBigPlanet Vita has another story. You can either play LittleBigPlanet as a fun open-ended game or you can play through with a boss fight at the end.”

This flexibility and diversity in approaches to a project is a key weapon in the arsenal of any videogame writer. While in some writing jobs the creator might never see the work after submission until it is published, video games will rarely have any “callbacks”. “It’s quite rigid, totally different to TV, especially live TV. Three and half years I did SM:TV with Ant and Dec and there was changes right up until, you know, they might ring me up when the [commercial] break came on, that happened a couple of times, ‘can you think of a better line?’”

“I worked on an online game called Crimeville, based in Denmark, and they quickly found out that I like wordplay, but of course it doesn’t translate.”

Knowing of other titles (thankfully none that Dean has worked on) that have had their budgets severely slashed and the scope restructured, I was pretty sure that this wasn’t completely the case. Surely there must be some occasions when changes are required in videogames?

“When it comes to animation and games, the script’s agreed on and that’s about it. There might be a few little changes – in Worms: Revolution, for example, Matt just said “do we have to say ‘guys’ I hate people saying ‘alright guys, let’s go’” so we changed it to ‘chaps’. He liked that. But 99% of it is set in stone.”

This isn’t necessarily the case for games with a foreign audience, however. Successful games often get translated – so how does this impact on a writer who has a passion for wordplay and puns? “I think LittleBigPlanet only goes to English speaking companies. But I worked on an online game called Crimeville, based in Denmark, and they quickly found out that I like wordplay, but of course it doesn’t translate.

For instance it had a joke ‘why does the motorcyclist ride with two slices of cheese in his helmet? Because he likes to feel the bries in his hair…’ but it doesn’t work for Danish, they have a completely different word for ‘breeze’ so it doesn’t work so… I have to be careful of puns, wordplay and just not do it so they can translate it.”

Find out more about Dean and his work at www.deanwilkinson.net

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