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.
In that, what is game story and how is it ‘told’?
The only way I know to understand game writing is to compare it to other kinds of writing. So here’s my pitch. Books are internal; they are great vehicles for exploring a character’s inner thoughts. Movies are visual, external. So what are games? Games are kinetic. They’re all about action; the story is what the player does. Tools like cinematics enhance and deepen the actions that the player takes in game. Whenever I think about creating a story for a game, the gameplay comes first.
So then as a game writer how does well-crafted game-play affect your work and vision?
In a perfect world, they evolve together. I draw two circles on the whiteboard. One circle represents gameplay, and one represents story. There’s some overlap, where they’re working together, and that area is “player experience.” That’s where I start when I work on projects. I ask the creative director or lead designer what kind of emotional experience he wants to create for his players. Once we know that the gameplay is going to create fear, or curiosity, or excitement, or anger, we can build a story that resonates with those feelings, and amplifies them.
Can you tell me the story of how and why you founded the Game Writers Conference (now the Game Narrative Summit at GDC Online)?
I started the conference because there was no space in the industry dedicated to writers and their work. Writing sessions at GDC inevitably drifted towards design, because there are so many more designers in the industry and that main conference is for the entire industry, no specific niches. But for the art of game writing to move forward, professionals need a place to talk shop, without having to generalize their comments for a mass audience. The heartbreak of game writing is that often at a studio you are ALL ALONE. You have no colleagues. No one else does what you do. So when you are struggling with a plot problem, or a characterization issue, you often struggle with it alone. Compare that with the plight of programmers, or artists. They can go to lunch every day with ten or more of their colleagues and talk through work challenges, learn tricks from each other, and come back to their desks with new solutions at hand. I wanted to create the same sort of experience for game writers. It took several years of hard work to get that conference going, but now it’s sailing along. I take a lot of pride in the work I did there. I remember sitting in the very first session, the first year. Marc Laidlaw was speaking. I looked around the room, at all these writers eager to meet each other and learn from each other, and thought “Holy shit. This is really happening.”
What does the Narrative Summit at GDC Online mean to you?
I think a tremendous community has grown out of the Narrative Summit. The game writers are a tight bunch. It’s probably a result of all the beer they drink at the Gingerman. Whatever it takes to get those shy writers out of their shells…
All too true. Now, you’ve been co-creating ground breaking works for over a decade, how has writing for games changed since your first credits to writing for more recent hits titles like Bioshock 2 and Far Cry 2?
The code is more stable, the graphics are much more amazing, and player expectations have risen dramatically. The audience has changed and so has their entertainment diet. Gamers do more than play games.
They watch movies & TV shows and expect the same level of content quality in their games. That’s good news for us as game creators. It forces us to bring our A game.
Does that “A game” involve traditional story development techniques, like those of Mckee?
Classic storytelling still has its place, the trick is to bend that structure for this new medium (instead of breaking it). There’s no point throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Classic storytelling structure is still relevant. The medium may be new, but the audience is not. Humans still like their stories. We seem to be hardwired to want to hear a story. It’s kind of amazing when you think about it, really.
What writing format do you prefer for your game stories? Screenplays? Excel?
I am allergic to Excel. The best tool I’ve ever found for game writing is Scrivener. It’s a download, it’s very reasonably priced, and it does everything I need (and more). It has all the functionality I ever used in Final Draft. There’s an entire research section where you can drag images, audio files, videos, anything you need to reference while writing your scripts. It really is a writer’s shed. I know that a lot of studios use proprietary tools.
As a player, I know some of your game titles create catharsis, is that because of your use of said ‘classical story structure’?
I don’t ever sit down with the conscious intention to create catharsis in the audience, but if that happens for the players, then I’m all for it. My goal is to create a complete story arc for the protagonist, and then create a relationship between the player on the couch and the protagonist on the screen.
With that, what do you seek to accomplish in your game stories?
I want to say something true. I want people to play my stories and say “Yes. People are like that. Life is like that.”
Ah, the classic storytelling objective. What about the game industry is most challenging for you?
There is a love affair with tech that rages unabated. I’d love to see more focus on content, specifically a greater variety of content. When the budgets reach $100m, there is an understandable resistance to innovation. But we need it, especially when it comes to story. God bless the indies.
What’s your favorite game story experience?
Katamari Damacy. It was so funny and unexpected and they did so much with so little.
What do you envision for the future of game stories?
As the audience expands, the stories will change. And they’ll start surprising us. The right person, the right project, the right publisher…lighting will continue to strike, and people are going to push this medium forward in directions we can’t even predict right now. I can’t wait.
With that I’ll leave you to it, thanks for taking the time Susan!
Susan is a fine example of industry leadership with their sights on a new form of entertainment, one that fuses classical drama and interactive spectacle 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 popular culture. For The Narrative Design Explorer, I’m Stephen Dinehart; thanks for tuning in. Remember, it’s only through play great stories happen.