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Veteran video game writer Susan O'Connor believes that there's a lot of room to improve the writing in games -- and she would know; she's been involved in many of the top projects in the industry, from both commercial success and narrative quality standpoints.
Epic's Gears of War takes (some perhaps deserved) dings for its storytelling, but Ubisoft Montreal's Far Cry 2, on the other hand, was experimental and deeply considered from a narrative standpoint -- and O'Connor worked on both games, as well as titles like 2K Boston/Australia's BioShock, which she won a Game Developers Choice Awards for co-writing in 2008.
In this interview with O'Connor , Gamasutra had a chance to discuss not just the intricacies of what game narrative is capable of, but exactly how development studios should handle working with a writer. What is the best possible process for delivering story that enhances the gameplay experience rather than simply interrupting it?
The following in-depth discussion considers both narrative "tricks" to engage the player, alongside the philosophy and craft of storytelling. It's intended to help spark some discussion of precisely what games and developers can, should, and will be doing in the future with regard to game narrative.
How did you get into games writing originally?
Susan O'Connor: Well, it was really through the back door. When I started I knew that I wanted to be -- the goal was -- to get a job being paid to be a writer. I knew from the age of four that I wanted to be a writer. Then I was like, "I don't understand how writers get paid. I can't connect the dots here." It was really confusing to me.
So, I started talking to people in all different areas and tried to decide if should relocate to Los Angeles or New York. What kind of writing? Playwriting? Do I want to do screenwriting? Television? Do I want to write haiku? Do I want to write crap like on the back of cereal boxes? It was like everything was on the table.
Then, I met somebody who worked at a studio here in [Austin] who made kids' games. At the time, just coincidentally, they were making a slumber party game for girls. There are these four little girl avatars that were on screen jibber-jabbering the whole time. So, they had this immense need for writing, which they never did for kids' games.
I was qualified because, A, I'm a girl, B, I'd been to slumber parties. I was an expert in this area. So, that's how I got started. There was so much work that needed to be done that they hired me on. I was like a writer/producer.
I did that for a few years. We're talking six to eight month production cycles, really for kiddos, really simple stuff. But it was great because it was a chance to make a lot of mistakes without a lot of people noticing. Kids are a very forgiving audience. You can screw up, and they don't get on the internet and go berserk [laughs], not when they're five.
It was really good. None of us had any experience making games. All the designers had architecture degrees. I had an art history and English degree. Nobody knew anything. We were all just a bunch of doofuses. There were experienced people at the time who worked in games, but we certainly weren't any of them. So, it was really fun.
It felt like college again, just sort of banging around and making a mess and learning some things and kind of getting some things done. [laughs] They're not award winning stuff, but in a way it was some of the best times I've had in games because it was really fun. I liked that. Anyway, that is how I got started.
Gears of War
Obviously all games have text in them, but there is still a sort of lag on the importance of having a dedicated writer in games, as a role. How do you get studios to take it seriously?
SO: Well, I think that it's tricky. In a way the pressure is on the writer to articulate what it is that they do. In a way one, of the problems can be that you treat it like a black art. I'm just going to go into a room and shut the door. Six months later I'm going to open the door and, "Wham! Check it out! Here is a story."
I think that it really helps if you can talk to people who aren't writers about the writing process in a way that not only do they understand, but it interests them. That is, I think, a huge barrier to appreciating it.
It's really analogous to design. It also sort of gets pulled out of the ether, but there are enough designers in this industry that there is an acknowledgement that that is a craft worth practicing. There are not many writers in the industry, so we don't get that sense of legitimacy.
You can look around and say, "Well, there are 47 million designers. There must be something to this design stuff." It's not just that you are making up stuff. There is actually a methodology.
There is one for writing, as well. It's a bit softer than design. You're trying to work more on the right side of the brain than the left, but I think it really helps if you can work with teams and help every step of the way articulating what it is that you do and how it can help them. How you can take what they're doing and run it through this writing prism.
Usually, what tends to happen is that at the end of games, they say, "Gosh, we wish we'd hired writers sooner." Yes! That is correct! But that is starting to get better. The game I just finished, I came on at the last minute, which is rough. But the game I am about to start, I am coming on at the very beginning. So, that is really starting to change.
I guess your question was, "How do you make that transition?" I think that anyone who writes anything good helps other people. It just helps me as a writer if someone else writes a great game. Look, they did it. How did they do it? Well, they spent a long time on that project.
Valve's got a great process. They run through it. They iterate like crazy on stuff. They throw stuff away when it doesn't work. They find ways to rapidly prototype. I think everything else in games gets iterated a gazillion bazillion times. When I look at these poor level designers and how much of their work gets thrown away, it's heartbreaking. But, it's what you have to do to get a piece of art finished.
It's the same with writing. Once people make that connection, "Oh, good stuff takes time. If I want the writing to be good, I'll have to invest some time in it."