This is an ongoing NDE series featuring interviews with Game Writers in the Trenches™. The game industry is riddled with the unsung heroes of interactive storytelling. As game developers are increasingly looking to create meaningful virtual narrative experiences, listening to the real-world wisdom of these writers can help everyone on the development pipeline understand their trials, tribulations, and needs, in hopes of enabling them to do their job as they know best. Today’s game writer is the none other than industry icon Susan O’Connor. Susan is arguably the poster child of video game writing, having not only crafted some of the finest interactive stories to date, but also founded the Austin GDC. A regular speaker at UBM’s Game Developers Conferences, she is currently exploring the edge of interactive storytelling in emerging media on various undisclosed projects at Susan O’Connor Writing Studio. I’m hoping to see what we can learn from her wealth of knowledge and wisdom.
Susan, thanks for taking the time to interview with the NDE. What brought you into, and keeps you, writing for games?
I came into games because it was a great (and unexpected) place to begin my career as a writer. I’ve stayed because there is so much potential for innovation in games. It’s a wide open field for anybody interested in narrative. It’s a chance to find new ways to tell familiar stories, and tell them in a way that wasn’t possible even a few years ago. (more…)
Designed narrative, mind I didn’t say story, should drive all acts of creative communication. They are fundamentally expressive communications with the external world though which an author relays a message. Intent is not a question. Great designers always call function and purpose into question and for a game designer or writer seeking to create an engaging user-experience it’s no different.
For various reasons the stage has been set for a uneccessary battle between play and storytelling. Storytelling, via game writing, has been cast as a subservient player to game design in all but a few cases, and yes it’s developed an inferiority complex. The thing is, it’s a dicotomy that just doesn’t exist. Story and play are built out of the same units.
Players tell the story in all play experiences, no matter how scripted. Their navigation though said play system is recorded cognitively over time as an experience. Their actions and the game worlds reactions build over time to create a sense of being; of doing – of infinite agency in a closed system. Even Arcade classics do this, as do pen n’ paper RPGs and FPSMMOs, and everything in between. No matter how shallow the interactivity, the gameplay. They peice together and fill in gaps to create a complete picture of the game.
Just ask anyone that has played a game “what happened?” and you will hear drastically different tales. Most probably not the one ‘penned’. The narrative is an architecture – just ask Jenkins. His “Game Design as Narrative Architecture” essay was one of the pieces of the puzzle when I wrote the “narrative designer” position for THQ in the spring of 2006, just after E3. It provides an interesting context for the understanding of how narrative functions in game systems. Working at Marsha Kinder’s Labyrinth Project on what she called “Database Narrative” deeply informed how I have come to approach interactive entertainment, more specifically games.
This is an ongoing NDE series featuring interviews with Masters of Narrative Design™. As entertainers increasingly look to create meaningful interactive narrative experiences, looking at the lessons learned by these masters becomes increasingly valuable. Today’s master is the none other than Christy Marx. Christy is a lifelong lover of the written word, her works have spanned media formats and franchises ranging from “The Twilight Zone” and “Babylon 5″ to “Elfquest”, “Spider-man”and “The Lord of the Rings”. She is a regular staple of the IGDA’s Game Writer’s Special Interest Group and speaker at UBM’s Game Developer’s Coferences. She is currently exploring the edge of storytelling in emerging media as “Narrative Designer” at Zynga. I’m hoping to see what we can learn from her wealth of knowledge and wisdom.
Can you talk about your role as a “Narrative Designer?”
CM: I consider my role as a Narrative Designer to be two-fold: a) as a game designer specializing in how to integrate storytelling with gameplay; and b) as a writer who carries out that integration. By “storytelling”, I mean all aspects of storytelling, not solely text or dialog — the full spectrum of audiovisual storytelling.
Yet another aspect is working with the design of the UI, as the UI is crucial in how story will be delivered. Likewise, it helps when I have significant input on the Tools side of things, so that implementing narrative is easy and timely to accomplish.
Or to put it more simply, you could say that a Narrative Designer is a writer who understands game design.
With that understanding, does your game writing influence game-play?
CM: In the videogames business overall, story is a low rung on the development ladder. There are happy exceptions, but in general I find that game writing is the first thing to be sacrificed if it inconveniences gameplay. Having said that, without superb gameplay, no amount of story is going to save a game, BUT there’s no reason this has to be a binary choice. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, story or gameplay. Ideally, both should be given equal weight and ways found to mesh the two rather than treating them as separate entities. The games business has a long way to go to reach this mutually beneficial method of development.
This is an ongoing NDE series featuring interviews with Game Writers in the Trenches™. The game industry is riddled with the unsung heroes of interactive storytelling. As game developers are increasingly looking to create meaningful virtual narrative experiences, listening to the real-world wisdom of these writers can help everyone on the development pipeline understand their trials, tribulations, and needs, in hopes of enabling them to do their job as they know best. Today’s game writer is Narrative Desinger’s Network member Mary DeMarle, coming fresh off her latest hit “Deus Ex: Human Revolution”. Having a long career focused on the craft of game story, Mary comes to the table with a long-field perspective on the evolution of our craft. I’m hoping to see what we can learn from her experiences in the trenches of game development.
Congrats on your new title “Deus Ex: Human Revolution” (DXHR)! I have to admit I’m a big fan. What was most challenging about the project as its lead writer?
Thanks for the congratulations! Deus Ex: Human Revolution was a very ambitious project on all levels, and the whole team is happy to see we didn’t “screw it up” (as many fans worried we would ). But to answer your question: as the lead writer, managing the sheer density of story material was a big challenge. We had to create a huge amount of content (both dialogs and texts), and ensure that every little detail remained consistent across the board. Details are critical to ensuring a consistent, immersive world, and when you have a lot of writers working on separate parts of the experience, keeping track of the little things can become a real headache.Beyond that, from a more focused writing perspective, I’d say that two elements of the script proved to be the most challenging.
The first was designing and writing the social boss fights – interactive dialogs between Jensen and various story characters in which Jensen needs to convince the other character to help him in some way. These were challenging because they combined the delivery of character and back story elements with an underlying gameplay mechanic that had both interactive and random components, and which would ultimately generate “win,” “neutral,” or “lose” outcomes at the end of every conversation round. Making all possibilities merge into a cohesive dialog despite the fact that different choices often revealed widely different information, and you never knew which answer was going to come up, was mind-boggling at times. (more…)