The Oscar for best original video game goes to…

When she was in high school, Anne Toole stumbled into Tars. It was once a thriving city that now lay in ruins. This was the dragon’s fault. As she picked her way through the abandoned streets, she came across a plaque.  It read, “Weep for Tars.

“It was like one of those cautionary tales,” laughs Toole, who years later still vividly recalls the time she spent playing the computer game “Dragon Wars.” It was one of the first times, she said, that she felt the power of storytelling in a game.

Toole’s own story — she’s a former screenwriter who turned her back on the big screen to embrace the possibilities of creating games for much smaller ones — is becoming increasingly common these days. The video game industry’s explosive growth and growing emphasis on sophisticated story telling has created new opportunities for writers, both for Hollywood veterans and for game designers who want to write for film or TV.

Video games are big business. The industry sold $10.5 billion worth of games in the United States in 2009, according to market researcher NPD Group Inc. According to a report last year for the Entertainment Software Association, the industry  employed at least 32,000 people nationwide. Analyst Stephen Siwek, who wrote the report, said in an interview  that his data showed employment “dramatically increasing.” And Wanda Meloni, founder of digital entertainment consultancy M2 Research, said video games companies are hiring from the traditional entertainment industry “across the board — producers as well as writers.” Meloni said that while there were very few women in the industry at the moment – “handfuls rather than hundreds” – she expected to see more as “gamification starts to take off.”The traffic flows both ways. Brandii Grace is a freelance games consultant who used to lecture in Game Design at DigiPen Institute of Tech and the Los Angeles Film School. Although her education and background were in programming, Grace’s work as a writer and designer led to her joining the Writers Guild. As a result, she has started writing an online series and is at work on a screenplay. Megan Gaiser, CEO of games publisher Her Interactive and a former documentary filmmaker, said she has seen an increase in the convergence between games and traditional media.

Anne Toole knew from a young age that she wanted to make her living telling stories and thought that her future lay in television. After earning a bachelor’s degree in archaeology from Harvard, Toole went to Hollywood. She was earning a living as a freelance writer when she received an offer in 2006 to become the head writer for an online video game adaptation of the popular “Stargate” series.

“I had been writing a couple of episodes of ‘Days of Our Lives’ when all of a sudden I became head writer in charge of 200 hours of gameplay,” she said, adding that it was “the equivalent of five seasons.”

Though she spent seven months on the project, leading four other writers, “Stargate Worlds” ran into funding problems and was eventually canceled. Toole’s appetite, however, was whetted.

For Toole, writing for games is a balancing act. On the one hand, she said, you try to entertain your audience for several, sometimes dozens, of hours. On the other hand, writing for an interactive medium meant that she had to use a lighter touch when telling her story:

“In games you need to facilitate their journey rather than take them on your journey,” she said. “Even in a linear game story, it’s important to give the illusion of choice.”

In 2008, she won a Writers Guild of America nomination for her work on “The Witcher,”  a game that sold more than one million copies in its first year. In the game, the player takes on the role of Geralt, a brooding, brutal monster slayer. The game features a rich narrative but can end in one of three different ways depending on the choices a player makes. For Toole, the challenge lay in making those choices as different as possible but keeping each one in line with the tone of the story and Geralt’s overall character.

Megan Gaiser was an editor and producer of documentary films for 11 years before she became a games designer and then CEO at Her Interactive in 1999. Her Interactive is best known for its popular Nancy Drew series, the most recent of which came out in February for the iPad.

“What we did was really create a game much like a film,” Gaiser said. “We pay attention to all the elements, the voiceovers, the environment, the art, the sound effects.”

Gaiser believed that while film was ideal for her storytelling skills,what she likes about video games is the spirit of collaboration. While a screenwriter may have a solitary job, a team of people works together to create a game.

“I’ve always been a proponent from the very beginning of a variety of disciplines creating together because they bring different perspectives and we’ve been able to build a successful company over the years,” she said.

In Brandii Grace’s opinion, the physical closeness of some games studios to Hollywood also had an effect. When she worked in Seattle, Grace said, the people she met treated games as another piece of software whereas in Los Angeles, where she is now based, people saw games as part of the entertainment industry.

“I feel like the flavor of the culture does seem to flavor the games a little bit to me,” she said. “Here, it’s a lot more about the entertainment aspect, the Hollywood-type franchises.”

Wanda Meloni at M2 Research believes that this kind of mixing between the two industries is inevitable as film and television shows look to create a sense of community with an online presence that might include a Facebook site and web games. The result, she believes, can only be good for both industries:

“Once you start crossing those boundaries more openly, you’ll start seeing some more interesting storytelling and engagement and artistic components as well,” she said.