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Gamasutra Podcast Transcript - An Interview With Susan O'Connor
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Gamasutra Podcast Transcript - An Interview With Susan O'Connor


January 29, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next
 

GS: Not at all, it's a completely reasonable answer, in fact, I think I work out of a similar process. I work as a creative director myself and when we do any pieces we always think first and foremost of who we're communicating with. It's really a process of always keeping you audience in mind at all times.

SO: Yeah it makes me think actually of another interesting aspect to it, which is the inherent conflict between the creative process, which I think is what we're describing here, which is iterate and iterate and muck around and muddle and try things and fail at it and try other things versus the very logic driven programming side of the industry which drives the game development so much.

And trying to find a way to kind of make those work together. Not only in a practical project sense but also in a personality sense. Trying to sort of like carve out time for that noodling with people who are used to dealing with the programming sides of things and just wanting things done and wanting them locked in place ASAP.

I think a lot of times, when I read interviews with writers they talk about getting to know the characters and how the characters sort of reveal themselves to them over time. I mean this is usually a novelist I am reading about. I can't help but be a little jealous, to have that luxury of time to let a character slowly unfold and suddenly you have this realization three months into the process that changes everything you ever knew about that character. And then to have the luxury of time to go back and change it all.

That's sort of one of the balancing acts I think for someone whose doing right brain work in a left brain field which is what I think game writing is about. And it's not just game writing. Admittedly game designers struggle with it as well and so do artist. But that's my own personal take on that sort of tricky project management problem.

GS: In your interview on gearheadsofwar.com, you commented that you would have these high level discussions with Cliffy B. and Mark Rein on the course of the game and you'd do some script changes and the designers would see you coming and hide.

SO: Yeah, they love me.

GS: Because they knew it would require another two weeks of noodling to figure out how to make all that work out in game play. On that point David Jaffe had commented last year in his blog that he was more interested in doing game projects that involved more peer interactivity in the absence of storytelling elements.

And I think a lot of people misunderstood his comments. They thought he said he wasn't interested in doing story driven games anymore and that's not exactly what he said. I'm paraphrasing here but I think what he was trying to communicate is that making a good game with tightly integrated storytelling elements is actually much harder.

So from a point of view of pure exhaustion he was interested in doing games that didn't rely so much on story. But in that light, what do you think is the role of storytelling in games? For instance you talk about the role of characterization, well how do you communicate what you need to do with game play in terms of writing game characters for instance?

SO: Yeah, that's a great question. Let me think how to answer it. What I try and do is work on two separate tracks and then eventually they merge. And then after they merge I have to continue along that merge path, so let me explain what I'm talking about.

So, I think about high level story or script, sort of pure writerly issues like characterization and, "Who is this guy," and, "What does he want in life?" and, "What's in the way of him getting what he wants?" So I did a lot of interviews with actors and I think the Actor's Studio is a great resource for game writers because you get these great actors talking about what they look for in a character. Your player is going to be that actor, so it's a great way to watch that thought process and how does that come together.

So think about purely writerly issues like, I said characterizations and plot points like, "What kind of story are you trying to tell?" and, "How do we bring the story to life?" and, "What would be good to introduce in the player?" and so that's a separate track.

And then in my head I switch over to the other side of my brain and spend time with the game developers trying to understand the game play experience. And that's a huge umbrella under which you've got overall game design and level design and even audio design, which actually a great topic I'll talk about in a second. But all the different elements, AI programming and everything that is sort of going to be on the table as tools that we can use to put the game together including bringing the story to life.


Gears of War

And as I develop them, once I get to a certain point where they're both starting to come to life, then they start informing each other. I think about, "OK, well I want to take this approach with the story, how will that fit into this game gameplay that these guys are designing?" Well, it is not going to and here's why. For example there's a lot of production issues that come up. Does the studio want to use cinematics or not. Of course most studios don't.

So how do you manage that? We need to get the information about the story across here somewhere and we can't explain anything during a firefight, so is there going to be a point where they're going to be walking along here for ten seconds. That's useful information for me to know. So then I can think about, "OK, that's a place where I can put some information in for the player."

It's not just purely exposition of course. Every second of story telling or dialog in a game is precious, precious, precious, even more so than film where every line counts because, I think, the thing about game dialog and story telling and characters in-game is that they are an element that is really intrusive to the game player. I think you can ignore substandard artwork or you can shrug if it's not the best music in the world. But if the dialog doesn't work, if the characters don't work, if the story doesn't work, it's hard to ignore it because for some reason I think the way our brains work, language sits right at the very top of our brain. And so when we hear someone talking at us it really pulls us out of whatever internal monologue or adventure we're having inside of our head as we play a game.

And so, it's really important I think for the game writer and the entire studio to really be involved in feedback loops to try and understand how the story is coming across to the player and finessing and fine-tuning and iterating until you can't see straight anymore. Because all it takes is one false moment for the story to fall apart. It's a real balancing act. I struggle with it every day.

GS: You're talking about the importance of selling the dialogue and the believability of the voice work, so how much involvement do you have with the dialogue recording process?

SO: The short answer would be, "I want to be as involved as humanly possible with the recording process." And the reason is simple, and that is that I want to learn from the actors because that will make my scripts better. A lot of times when we go to the recording sessions we have multiple sessions, like three or four recording sessions. So, we write a batch of scripts and then we go in for the recording session one and then I go write another batch of scripts. And so on and so forth.

And what's really invaluable I think about voice actors is that they are living completely on the right-hand sides of their brains. And the writer is sort of there as well, but the writer and script have to run this gamut of sort of left-brain processes like, "Does it work with the code? Does it work with the architecture of this level?" And then once it gets into the actor's hands, suddenly you have this fresh, creative energy brought to it by the actor. And if the writer can be there at the recording session and see what the actor does with the character just with his voice.

I mean, gifted voice actors, I have to say I don't even know what they do. Their craft is completely a mystery to me. But, there's no doubt about it. When you hear good voice acting it's undeniable and it just brings something to a script that maybe wasn't there before. And if you have a good script and a good voice actor, the two together can just make magic happen.

So I think it is really invaluable for the writer to be a part of that process. I read an interview with Marc Laidlaw and he said something very similar about how much he learned from the actors. The impression I have gotten from the actors I have worked with is that the actors have taught me about characters that I've created. The actors understand something about them that I did not. And that is invaluable stuff to have when you go back to the writing desk to write the next batch of scripts.

So, I love the voice recording sessions. I mean they are sort of excruciating especially when you get down to the point where you are recording those barks and they're going, "Moving", "Got it", "Yes Sir", "Going" times 500 versions and they are recording each one three times. I mean you do just want to put a gun to your head.

But but even those little crazy pithy moments are really great because it just brings those characters to life. And suddenly you realize it's going to be in a game someday and it's really going to happen and the picture starts to come into focus. And you're like, "Wow this is really working," or, "Wow this really isn't working and what are we going to do to change it." Because that's the time to change it, not once the game is shipped because then you're screwed. Nothing you can do then.

GS: So if you are in the studio and it is just not working out, I would think it would behoove the developers to have the writer there to fix it.

SO: In all fairness I understand you don't want too many cooks in the kitchen. I'm actually working on a project right now and I've been at every recording session and it's been great. I haven't had to contribute a whole lot, but the times I have been there to help out have been really invaluable and kept us from sort of running off the rails. I mean sometimes you have to rework lines right there on the spot. Or the actor has a question about the motivations of the characters. But, most of the time I get to sit back and be an observer and watch the voice director and the actors doing their jobs and sort of bringing it life and seeing what they bring to it.

You know even on a very prosaic level like, "Oh, I need to be careful not to put too many p's into one sentence, that's a problem!" Stuff that doesn't really occur to you when you're writing it, and then once it starts being spoken out loud, all of a sudden, you realize, "Oh, my gosh." I mean, that's something I finally figured out a few years ago, is that I have to read all of my scripts out loud, multiple times.

Actually there's a funny story about that. We were at a script-reading session. The studios wanted to have a table read, which I don't know, at best they're pretty funny; at worst, they're pretty excruciating. We didn't have enough men in the room to read all the male parts, and so I had to read one of the male parts, and we got about five minutes into it, and one of the guys said, "OK, stop. It sounds so ridiculous coming out of your mouth, I can't listen to it."

So not only do I have to read my scripts out loud, but I have to have a lot of privacy when I do it, because it sounds so ridiculous.


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