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Mary DeMarle - Game Writer & Narrative Designer

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.

The second most challenging writing task for me was writing the endgame narrations. Many players haven’t caught on to the fact that the game has 12 possible endings, not four: The voice-over monologue within each cinematic changes to reflect how you approached the game. Making those subtle variations work within the context of the broader philosophical ideas we wanted to represent was quite a challenge!

Mary's latest co-creation Adam Jensen of "Deus Ex: Human Revolution"

Is there are part of the experience you are particularly proud of? Could you describe it?

It’s hard for me to pick one, especially now that the project has shipped and I’ve been off it for some time. Memory starts to fade quickly… I guess I’d say that I’m most proud of how we were able to merge story and gameplay into one cohesive game experience. To do this, we had to get the entire team to recognize that no single aspect of the game was more important than any other. Story could not be viewed as “a necessary evil” that was constantly at war with level design and gameplay, or vice-versa. Most of my days were spent explaining the story and its needs to artists, level designers, programmers, sound engineers, etc., so they could focus their own efforts on reflecting and communicating the story across their own disciplines. In the end, everybody on the team worked together to make a cohesive story experience, and I think the end product reflects that.

What is a lead writer’s role in game development?

It differs from project to project, honestly. If story is not crucial to the overall game experience, then you may not need a lead writer. (Or rather, he or she may not need to be as involved in every aspect of production as I was.) On Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the design team decided very early on that story was going to be a core aspect of the game experience, so my role as Lead Writer expanded accordingly.

Basically, the job entailed collaborating with the Game Director to understand the overall game direction, and then designing a story that matched that direction (overseeing a team of writers along the way to get the story written and implemented). It also meant working with the game design team to develop gameplay features that supported and conveyed the story, resolving conflicts between story and gameplay as they arose. But one of the most important aspects of my role was to meet with other departments regularly to communicate the story vision, thus ensuring that all departments maintained a consistent portrayal of the narrative in their work.

How many writers did DXHR have?

If you check the credits at the end of the game, I think you’ll find seven names listed. Most of our writers were external contractors who were hired for a specific task or time frame, depending on our immediate production needs. Some were brought in during preproduction to help with story and world development; others joined much later, during production. The length of their contracts also varied. Some writers worked with us for almost two years, while others were hired for just a few months. Regardless, at the end of the project every writer received credit for their work.

How do you deal with plot in a world that has 12 different endings?

It’s not easy, that’s for sure. Coming up with one good ending is hard. Coming up with 12…!

Basically, though, it all comes down to how you approach writing game stories in the first place. My approach is to plot out everything conceptually first, focusing on a single underlying through-line. (Because when you think of it, all game stories are essentially linear. There may be branches and variations along the linear path that result in different experiences at different points, but every story still has a beginning, middle, and end, in that order.)

Next, I look at the through-line and identify key choice-and –consequence moments along the way that can affect or change aspects of the story in significant ways. I determine how and where the consequences of these moments will manifest themselves in the overall game experience. I don’t start writing dialogs or scenes until I have a clear outline (or blueprint) of the game in its entirety. Once I have this, I can write the script in a linear way, dealing with each branching scene when I get to it and writing all variations of the scene simultaneously. Only then can I ensure that rising action and dramatic tension is sustained in a cohesive way.

Does each ‘branch’ have a unique through line?

In Human Revolution, there’s a single underlying through-line with variations that come up along the way. Sometimes these variations are quite extreme – a character might get killed because of your actions at one point in the story and disappear from the narrative entirely, or be saved in that moment thanks to your actions and then, show up later to supply additional help. But I would consider most of these variations to be distinct “moments” on a larger, unified through-line.

You began to tell me a story which I’d love to hear the full version of. It was at GDC 2004, Austin I believe, you mentioned an episode in the legend of the “Narrative Designer” role. Could you recount that?

It’s a long story! Are you sure you want to hear it?

Yes I am!

I’ve been writing for games since 1997. When I first started, I would introduce myself to other people on the team as a writer, but within a few years I realized that, for a lot of game developers, the word “writer” was a negative term. Writers were often not respected or listened to because they “don’t understand games and/or Gameplay” or because “anybody can write” or because “no one cares about the story; they just want to PLAY THE GAME.” I began to believe that if I wanted to get the team to take the story seriously, I needed to start calling myself something other than a writer. (Sad, but true.)

So in 2004, I started introducing myself as a “narrative designer.” I had chosen this term very carefully because I felt it really did describe what I had to offer as a writer of games: the ability to not just come up with a plot or write dialogs that convey story, characters, and gameplay rules, but also to design how story is told through the gameplay. Ten months later, Susan O’Connor approached me to be one of the speakers at the first-ever Austin Game Writers’ Convention, and the night before the conference began, while attending the Speaker’s Dinner, I introduced myself to another writer using this term. He loved it so much, he immediately asked if he could steal it. I told him yes, because I felt it was a title and a position that needed to exist in the industry.

The next day, he used it during his MMO panel discussion and immediately caused a stir. Many attendees thought it was pretentious, and started saying things like, “We are writers! That’s what we should call ourselves!” But others saw what we were trying to communicate about the writer’s skillset and seemed to take to it.

Six to seven months later (I’m not 100% sure of the timeline here), I remember seeing that Relic Entertainment was looking to hire a “narrative designer” and couldn’t help but smile. Obviously, I was not the only game designer thinking that the role of writers in games needed to be redefined.

That’s great. Ceraintly fills in some of the holes in the legend of the “Narrative Designer” genisis. It was in the zeitgiest I suppose. I co-created that position in the spring of 2006 (not 2005) with Relic Entertianment and THQ.

Gameplay and Story Combined: the DXHR Augmentation System

How do you see the “Narrative Designer” vs. “Game Writer” argument, are there any differences?

Until working on Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I would have said, “No. They are one and the same.” And I still believe that, fundamentally, writers are narrative designers: they’re deciding what to reveal, when, in order to create dramatic tension and keep an audience immersed (in addition to designing characters and coming up with the underlying plot in the first place!). Writers do not just “figure out what words to use” to convey a story detail or communicate a gameplay requirement.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution involved so much story design and writing, however, that I’ve begun to wonder if there might be a range of skills that writers/narrative designers can have, to greater or lesser degrees. Can someone be more of a narrative designer and less of a writer, for instance, and vice-versa? Depending on the needs of your project, you might want a narrative designer who deals exclusively with the technical aspect of storytelling in games (i.e., implementation and scripting; designing and setting up specific narrative situations within the gameplay environment, etc.). Or you might want a writer who is less technically adept but more skilled at communicating story through traditional writing means (i.e., dialogs and texts). As with everything, I guess, it depends on the needs of the project.

What about writing interactive content for games is most challenging for you?

You know, with every game I work on, I find a new “most challenging thing” — I can never really put my finger on “one.” When I first entered the industry, I learned quite quickly that I, the storyteller, didn’t have 100% control over the story I was building. How could I, when the player is controlling the hero and doesn’t enjoy being forced into certain decisions or actions at specific times just because “my” story needs him to do them? Figuring out how to ensure narrative pacing and build dramatic tension while simultaneously ceding control of the narrative structure to players was (and often still is) a big challenge.

More recently, I was confronted with challenge of having to create a truly memorable hero character from scratch; one that every player, regardless of individual personality or play style, could identify with and would want to embody for 20 to 40 hours of gameplay. Knowing how some players want to step into the skin of a distinct, predefined hero character and others prefer controlling a “blank slate” (so that nothing comes between them and their gameplay), the challenge seemed daunting at the time. If I started by defining a strong, distinct personality and then ceded control of how that personality develops shortly after gameplay begins would players find the hero character compelling or frustratingly incomplete? And on a more basic level, if I did attempt it, how would I write dialogs that stayed true to the hero’s personality while simultaneously enabling players to choose the direction in which his personality evolves? Striking the right balance between too much personality and a “blank slate” character is a really intriguing challenge that never grows old.

An early title of Mary's, "Homeworld 2" by Relic Entertainment

How much classical story structure do you use in the creation of your game stories?

A lot, I would think. Stories need structure. Without it, you just have disparate elements of story (character, plot, pacing, theme, etc.) combined into something that might better be described as an essay, a ‘slice-of-life’ description, or a colorful and very detailed collection of scenes. But you don’t really have a Story.

Having said that, the interactive nature of games often requires me to put less emphasis on some aspects of the classical story structure than on others. They’re still there is some form, but just because I needed to de-emphasize some elements and put more focus on others, doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned classical story structure all together.

Having a motion-picture background, do you use a screenplay format?

It depends on what type of dialogs or text we’re writing. For cut scenes and most critical path dialogs, I use a modified screenplay format. Most actors are more familiar with this format and it takes less time in the studio to get them up to speed with what’s happening in a scene if you start from a familiar template.

However, actors aren’t the only ones using the script. Level designers, artists, sound engineers, and programmers are also using it – and they’re looking for important information that most screenplay formats don’t track. (Things like: what are all the possible actions players can take in any given moment, and how will their choices affect specific game systems or events?) This information needs to be communicated in the script in a way that is clear and easy to follow. Thus, the need for a modified screenplay format.

Do you seek to communicate theme in your games? How do you do that?

Absolutely! (Although I’m going to be nitpicky here and say I seek to “explore” themes, rather than “communicate” them in my games.) Theme is an essential part of good storytelling; if you want your story to be impactful, it must explore some kind of controlling idea or central insight. In my opinion, this is as true in games as it is in other story-telling mediums. In fact, I’d be tempted to say theme is even more important to explore in a game story – because it can unite the gameplay and story together!

Good stories use a variety of methods to explore their themes: metaphor, symbol, irony, allusion, etc. Game stories use these methods too, but they also have several more tools to add to their toolbox. Things like interactivity, environmental exploration, and the concept of player choice. Choosing a theme for your game story that can be explored conceptually through dialogs, character interactions, and gameplay mechanics combined can make for a much more powerful gameplay experience.

In my opinion, game stories that don’t try to explore some kind of unifying theme are inevitably going to feel disconnected from the gameplay and end up coming off as flat.

Mary is a fine example of the exemplary talent with thier sights on a new form of entertainment, one that fuses classical drama and interactive specacle into one form now known as video games. I have little doubt her work will continue to create waves as it is released into the mainstream of popoular culture. For The Narrative Design Explorer, I’m Stephen Dinehart; thanks for tuning in. Remember, it’s only through play great stories happen.

3 Responses

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  1. Ambs

    I just typed in ‘Narrative Design’ and found this amazing interview, didn’t expect that!

    This is a really good account, IMHO, about the most important aspects of game storytelling that, given attention and further development, will elevate the interactive entertainment medium to its peak. Nothing is as poorly developed in games as the design of the narrative, which often takes second-fiddle to features, gameplay and technical proficiency. Not enough people seem to realise that these elements should incorporate the narrative design. It bugs me about games.

    But I believe the Deus Ex Games, renowned for their branching story lines, especially Human Revolution, are really paving the way for the right kind of immersive, cerebral gaming. One day, all aspects of the story will be considered with such detail.

    Thanks for a great interview! :)

    December 19, 2011 at 2:20 pm

Continuing the Discussion

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