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Gamasutra Podcast host Tom Kim talks with scriptwriter Susan O'Connor (Bioshock, Gears of War) about her influences, aspects of her creative process both practical and intuitive, as well as the difference between writing for games and other media, in this Gamasutra Podcast interview transcript.

Tom Kim, Blogger

January 29, 2007

40 Min Read

Susan O'Connor has been a freelancer in the games writing business for almost nine years. She has done writing stints on Star Wars Galaxies, Dungeon Siege II, Act of War, and, most recently, Gears of War. In the interview she talks in-depth about her influences, different aspects of her creative processes, both practical and intuitive, as well as the difference between writing for games and other media. She has an obvious passion for her work, and her convictions and enthusiasm really come through.

Susan has been writing stories for games since 1998. Her client list includes Activision, Atari, Epic Games, Irrational Games, Microsoft, Midway, Sony Online Entertainment, THQ, Ubisoft and Take Two Interactive. Her portfolio includes over a dozen titles and a variety of genres, including first-person shooters, real-time strategy titles, action-adventure games, role-playing games and massively multi-player online games. She is probably best known for her writing work on Gears of War, and the upcoming Bioshock, developed by Irrational and being published by 2K. In 2005 she founded the Game Writer's Conference, an event dedicated to the art and craft of game writing. (This interview was originally conducted in podcast form for the Gamasutra Podcast by Tom Kim - the specific audio version of the interview can be downloaded from GDCRadio.net.)

Gamasutra: I'd like to ask to ask you about the game writer's conference. Why did you start it and what are you getting out of it?

Susan O'Connor: Sure. So, as my bio said, we started it a couple of years ago and it was really born out of, honestly, just a desire to talk shop with other writers. I've been going to GDC for years now, and I have a great time there, but one of the challenges I always found was a sense of isolation in the crowd. I think GDC is, basically, a studio writ large, and so you can see at GDC.

In any studio you have multiple artists, you have multiple animators, you have multiple programmers, even multiple producers in some cases, but, at best, studios will have one writer. And that one writer may not even be a full-time staff writer, but rather a contract writer, like myself. The challenge with that is that you don't have someone with whom you can share ideas freely. You can certainly talk to other writers, but while you are working on a project you can't discuss that particular project. Whereas artists can go to lunch together and they can talk about, "Well I'm having a problem shading level five," or whatever their problems are, and they can brainstorm, and can collectively come up with a solution.

Susan O'Connor

As a result I think you can see the quality bar, for most areas of game development, has risen dramatically over the last 10 years. The code is rock solid, the graphics are beautiful, the audio sounds amazing. One place I think that we are still struggling is the story telling aspect of it. I think there are several different reasons for that, but one thing that would definitely help that area is if writers could talk shop. So that's why we started the Game Writer's Conference. The goal was not to go broad, like GDC does, but rather to go narrow and deep.

I have to say it's been a really great conference, very successful and really gratifying to see writers speaking the same language and realizing that everyone else in the room understands them. The conversations that then come out of that realization have been really fruitful. And it's amazing to watch other people struggle with the same creative problems and design problems that you do, and the different ways in which they approach it.

Every year that I have been at this event I have walked away with both new ideas but also just feeling inspired. I feel like I am part of a group that is really trying to do something new and exciting and trying to reinvent something which is so eternal as story. It's an exciting place to be right now.

GS: And the Game Writer's Conference is a sub-set of the Austin Game Conference, is that correct?

SO: It is. And this upcoming year it will be run by CMP Group, which is the same people who run GDC.

GS: John Sutherland, a fellow game writer at Microsoft Game Studios, comments that game writing is an emerging discipline, and that he considers you one of the people who are helping to define that work. What are some of the differences between writing for games, as opposed to writing for other forms of media?

SO: Plenty of challenges, that's for sure! Let's see, the ones that are specific to game writing, the first one that comes to mind, of course is agency. So the fact that the player is in charge, not you. You've got the player looking at the game and then, over to the side, you've got the story tellers, everyone on the team really, including the writer, sort of looking at the playing looking at the game.

It's a strange triangle. It is important to keep in mind, because I think a lot of times, especially the development team, can get so wrapped up in the story and everyone knows it and forgets that the player will be coming to it fresh. And they will have their set of assumptions, and their knowledge base, or lack thereof, and how do you handle that? Also how do you handle it when you have a thousand players, all of whom have different personalities and who want to assert those personalities on your game? How do you accommodate that, and tell a good story at the same time?

In fact I was thinking about this just the other day. I was reading some interview with Quentin Tarantino, and he was talking about how much he enjoys, and this is going to sound a little funny, I am going to have to paraphrase it, but basically he considers himself sort of a 'film sadist'. He really loves torturing the audience. And you can see it in his movies, they are incredibly fun to watch, but it's kind of excruciating to watch. You know Michael Madsen cut off that guy's ear! They sort of do these horrible things and you really are a captive audience, literally. I mean, if you want to see his movies you have to sit through these difficult things. But there is no doubt that he is in charge and that we are along for the ride. And I think that power dynamic is completely inverted with games.

Players are completely in control at all times. And at any moment they realize they are not in control their frustration level goes up. So the challenge for game writing is to really create a story that the player feels is his own or her own. So how do you do that? I think it involves a lot of context creation and it involves a lot of, you know, who knows what it involves? I think that in 50 years or 15 years people will be able to articulate it a lot better than we can now. But what it involves, at the most fundamental level, is thinking about the player, all the time. What is the player feeling? What is the player wanting? Have we, in this game, inspired some fears in the player, or some desires in that player? And how can we play on that? No pun intended!

Irrational Games' Bioshock

GS: So for games, let's say when you say that you want the player to be in control, what does that leave you, as a writer, in terms of building a compelling narrative for the player?

SO: It's a great question and it's a little different on every project, and I think one of the ways I've addressed it, and this is something I've learned through being a contract writer and a freelance writer, which has its own set of problems. But one of the things I love most about it, is the opportunity to work with several different studios over a short period of time, and seeing what works in different places. Because everyone has a different approach to this. I've come to realize that the best thing the writer can do, in any situation, is completely integrate themselves with the rest of the team, and get everyone on the same page as far as story goes.

And 'story' maybe isn't even the right term, but like 'emotional experience' that the player is going to go through, is maybe another way to put it, because so much of it is going to happen through what they see and what they do, as much as what they hear.

I think sometimes the idea that story equals dialogue, that is really the last step in a long and convoluted process. Story is, and John Sutherland even says this in one of his articles, story is conflict. And that conflict begins well before the game comes together. It happens at the very beginning when you think of what kind of engine you've got, and what kind of genre of gameplay you're going to be working with. For example, if it's a first-person shooter, it's a given what kind of conflict you're going to have. It is going to be really visceral, it's going to be really adrenaline-soaked, it's going to be very intense. Your story has to enhance and deepen that kind of gameplay.

So it's one place to start, thinking about the genre itself, is this an RPG, is it going to be an RTS, is it going to be an MMO? Whatever alphabet soup you're swimming in, using that as your point of reference. And then also of course, obviously, one of the great things about making games in 2007, is that there have been so many games made. So you've got this huge library you can look at of things people have done well or things people have tried and failed at, that is so invaluable.

To get back to your base question, about what can you hang your hat on? I think it's ironic, that your biggest problem is also your biggest asset, and that is your player. On the one had he is not there in the room with you, or she is not there in the room with you, you don't know how that person plays the game, you don't know how to design for them. But because anyone can be the player, that means that you, the writer, can be the player. I think that is a great place to start, which is, as I move through the space of this game, even if it's in this really rudimentary form, how is this game going to feel? Talking with the lead designers and the level designers and the audio guys and the programmers, what's it going to feel like in this game, what is it going to be like?

You start with the high-level story concepts and you bring it together with high-level gameplay concepts and you literally just feel it out.

It's not a completely logical process; some of it really has to be intuitive, gut-level kind of stuff, so you are kind of feeling your way in the dark a little bit, but it does seem to be an effective way of making it come together. I hope that makes sense, it's kind of a weird answer, I know.

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.

GS: So let's go in a different direction here. You've done a lot of work on other people's intellectual properties. Stuff that either you've come in the middle of a project where other developers have already realized a lot of the material or thought of the game, or it's a well-known pre-existing property, something like Star Wars: Galaxies or Shrek or Finding Nemo. So how do you pick up something that belongs to someone else and put yourself in their voice or write in that style?

SO: There's sort of two different situations you walked into with dealing with intellectual property, and they both have pros and cons. One is where you have an extremely well-established IP, like, let's say Star Wars, and then another one is where you have original IP that's been developed by the team, that you're then brought in to flesh out, like Gears of War or Bioshock.

So, with Star Wars, the challenge is that it's so well-known, and it's also such a precious commodity, that developers tend to have to kind of tread lightly, which limits the scope of what you can do creatively, right? Because it all has to work within the canon of the original IP. The solution, I think, is to be aware of that walking in, so you don't drive yourself crazy, coming up with great crazy ideas that would never fit because of this thing that happened 15 years ago in this movie.

Also, one of things I've done with projects like that, that's really helped me, is to look at the source material that drove the original IP. For example, with Star Wars, I went back and looked at the old Flash Gordon serials.

I looked at the stuff that George Lucas looked at when he got inspired to make Star Wars. I looked at westerns, and I looked at all kinds of stuff, and I definitely could see an emotional through-line. You know, the same thrilling excitement that I got watching those things even though they were dated and sort of ridiculous they were also great entertainment, and you could see how that informed Star Wars.

PC MMORPG Star Wars: Galaxies

And then I felt like my job then was to think, "OK, what of those essential foundations are still applicable to us today?" You know, some parts of Star Wars for example, have aged and are hard to connect with, but other parts of it are still exciting and thrilling.

Getting back to that idea about how players sort of bring their own personalities to the game, I think it's really invaluable to think about the zeitgeist, and where are people at today, and what are people afraid of, and what do people want, and what are people excited about? And it's finding a way to bring that into something, even something, even something that was originally created 35 years ago. So that's one way that I have found to approach pre-existing IP.

And then, as far as original IP, you sort of have the reverse problem, which is it's not well-known at all, and that the whole studio is working together to sort of bring this thing to life, and everyone has a slightly different take on it, and it's not formed yet. It's actually not a problem, it's incredibly exciting and it's really great to be a part of that, and I think that the way to make that successful is to keep those lines of communication wide open.

For example, I was looking not to bring up Marc Laidlaw again but I was reading something about the development of Half-Life 2, and how Marc wrote a short story for the team. Not for the player, but for the team, to give them a sense of the world and the story and the characters and the people. I thought that was such a great idea, you know? I think care and feeding of the artists is such an important aspect of game development. How do you get your team inspired, and how do you keep them inspired, and how do you sort of give them a vision that they can all move towards? That's not really the game writer's only job, you know, far from it, that's definitely the lead game designers job, but the writer I think, can be a great resource in that capacity and contribute to that.

Because the writer is the person who's thinking about the - above all the emotional experience of the game. If they can get together with the designer, and if they can come up with a shared vision together, the writer I think can really support the designer in helping the team see the game, and feel the game, before it's finished.

GS: I can see that you involve yourself in that process of immersion and preparation for your writing. When you were writing Gears of War for example, you got a lot of inspiration from Mark Bowden, who writes wonderful non-fiction. But, it's ironic that he used non-fiction as an inspiration for what could only be the most fictional of stories.

SO: I know, it's true. And sometimes it helps to get a little bit farther away from your material, you know it's so far removed that you don't start looking for things to crib. You just sort of get to the kernel of like, "Gosh, why is this so exciting? I love this thing, in and of itself," and then carry that feeling over to your work. But yeah, Mark Bowden, I mean he kills me. He is such a great writer, and he does such a good job of creating characters, almost without you noticing it. His prose is fantastic, he's got such a great grasp of the language, and admittedly it's not fiction and he's dealing with reality. But he is painting a picture for the reader, and he knows just what to put in and just what to leave out. You know, I've read his books like more then once, and every time I just walk away feeling completely satisfied like, "I don't want more, and I don't want less. I got exactly what I wanted."

That gets me thinking, because I guess that's really the job of the game writer too, is to create these what are fundamentally just pixels on a screen and somehow humanize them. I have to say, that's one of the tricks, one of the challenges about the job. Because you don't have a Johnny Depp reading your lines. You have a voice actor, but then the way it's going to look, you're not going to see that actor. You're just going to see the artwork on the screen. So, how do you sort of take these multiple levels of unreality, and somehow bring them together into like, "Poof, it's so real, I'm so in it," you know? It's a trick, it's really challenging.

GS: So you've been a friend to the work of Marc Laidlaw and other writers such as Eric Nylund. Who are some of your other notable contemporaries and influences in terms of game writing?

SO: Well, let's see. You know who I love? I met him once, I was so excited to meet him, I literally started jumping up and down. I'm sure he's forgotten all about it, but, I was so embarrassed. At the same time it was so genuine, I was truly thrilled, like a fan girl! I love Tim Schafer's work. I think he's fantastic. I mean, he's so fearless creatively. I mean if he has an idea, he just goes with it, and he executes it, and it appears in his games fully formed, and I loved Psychonauts. The more I play it, the more I'm captivated by it. So, he really is an inspiration for me, and his writing style and mine are completely different, no doubt about it, but he's fearless. Sometimes when I'm questioning myself, I think like, "what would Tim Schafer do?" and off I go. So, I love him.

And I love the guys, I've never met them, but the guys from Rockstar, I think do incredible work. They've really got themselves into a situation where they're able to do great work, and I'd love to be a fly on a wall at that studio and see what their creative process is, cause whatever it is, it really works. And I love Bully, I think that's a great game, props to those guys for doing it.

Tim Schafer's Psychonauts

GS: Well, today's your lucky day, because I don't know if you've ever read any writing by Clive Thompson? He's a freelance writer in New York City, he does a lot of writing for Wired Magazine, and for wired.com.

SO: I think I've seen some of his articles. I love Wired, it's a great magazine.

GS: Well he did a guest stint on Luke Stapley's cross-platform podcast, where he talks about Rockstar's creative process, so here you go...

Clive Thompson: Yeah, I mean the fascinating thing is that they did exactly what they said they were going to do. In 1999, early '99, I actually visited them here in New York. I was writing for a magazine called "Shift" and probably the single worst decision I'd ever made journalistically, in video game writing.

They basically said, "We want to show you what we're doing," and took me in there and showed me sort of their game development environment, and said, "We've hired all these guys who are like designers, but they're also like skaters, they're graffiti artists, and they're DJs. Because basically, games just dealt with all this weird, geeky dungeon crap - running around, killing aliens, night elves, all this stuff. It's totally, it makes games look completely juvenile, and we want to make them mature and adult, and you do that by, you know injecting all this great street culture and stuff like that, and make them really seem adult."

And I said, "OK, well that's a good philosophy. So show me what games you got here." And they said, "Well, we've got the rights to this game called Grand Theft Auto and we're coming out with this later in '99." And they showed it to me; it was a 2D top-down version of it. And I looked at it, and I thought, "God, in 1999 they're releasing a 2D game, I mean they're screwed. This is going to go nowhere." So, I said, "Yeah, no, I don't really want to write about you." I said, "You're company's going to, yeah no one is ever even going to have heard of it," so that was my early interaction with Rockstar Games.

SO: Oh my God, I love it. It's funny it really comes across in their stuff, you get the sense when you play it it is almost like, same with Tim Schafer, it is almost like someone opened a window.

I think so much of game development so self-referential and, yeah exactly, like it is going to be orcs or aliens. Sometimes I look at the lineup of top 10 games and top 10 movies and top 10 and look at like the insane variety of content you get everywhere else. Please, please, can we start doing this in games? I think you would want to and I think of the games that are succeeding are starting to bring in some of that crazy out of left field content. I think Bioshock is doing it.

GS: Well people who care about this stuff, like some of our contemporaries who go to the DEC, they are always lamenting the lack of creativity in games. Then again when I go to the store and look at the shelf there's tons of creativity in games. It's there, but maybe people don't find it.

SO: It is there, it is, it's true and it's such a chicken and the egg thing. I mean I meet so many game developers, like I said because I'm a freelancer. So I go to lots of different studios and spend quality time with these guys, and women. They are all incredibly passionate, interesting, well-rounded people.

The developers definitely want to make a variety of content and some actually do, but I don't know where the disconnect happens, for example, with Psychonauts, everyone loved it but it didn't sell well and I don't know why, and I don't know if games just continue to market to a certain segment of our society and therefore they are the only one who think about buying the games.

This is the huge question the people are asking all the time, but the reality is maybe the people who would enjoy this stuff aren't attracted to games yet. There is such a barrier with entry to games, you know, you have to be so good at them, and to a casual person looking at some playing a Xbox 360 game and like hitting all these buttons, it's like, "Oh my God, I don't even know where to begin with that." Whereas if I go to see a movie I can just sit down and sort of just take it in. I think platforms like the Wii are really going to drop that barrier for people who normally wouldn't think about games. Suddenly they're like, "Oh my gosh, this really is fun, what's this all about?" and that is exciting to me that's going to bring new audiences in I think.

GS: Speaking about new audiences, let's talk about your writing for a girl centered projects. What are some of your particular challenges that set your writing apart from traditional male-centric games?

SO: Are you asking about writing for games that are directed at girls or writing as a woman?

GS: Maybe a little of both.

SO: Mmm. OK, well, let's see as far as writing for girls, in some ways it's easier because I used to be one, so I do get a sense a little bit about what's motivating them. I understand they want to be cooperative, in fact that reminds me of a funny story. I was at a studio, which will remain nameless. I was in the testing lab, and a lot of the guys come down to do a round of user testing and I was in the middle of the room watching, because we had just implemented some dialog and I wanted to see how it went.

All the guys had their back to me, of course. They were playing the game and they were just really tearing each other apart, but what I was really struck by was not what was going on on the screen, but what was happening with the players themselves. I mean it was a total carnage and destruction and violence and disturbing imagery on the screen, but the guys who were playing the game, like if you couldn't see what they were doing, it was so incongruous because the guys were giggling like little girls, like with utter and total unselfconscious delight. They were like children again; they were so happy and they were having such a good time. I was really struck by that.

GS: You mean like when you chainsaw one of your friends in multiplayer Gears of War?

SO: Yeah, kind of like that. I know and it's funny, when I read these reviews and I see these guys going berserk where I know I can just hear them in my head, just laughing while they play that game. I want to be careful what I say here, but men and women are probably, in some ways, wired a little bit differently.

Cliff and I use to talk about this a little bit and I think that's not necessarily a barrier into entry, in fact quite the opposite. For example, you know, you look at the musicals in movies and in a lot of ways it's the quintessential American thing, right, Singing in the Rain and all these old things from in the '30s and '40s and '50s, but when you look at the history, a lot of those, most of those movies were made by European immigrants who came over and were able to see America with fresh eyes and translate it in this fresh way in their, in their work.

And you can look at someone like Ang Lee, who makes these incredibly powerful movies in English set definitely in America, and yet he's not from here and English is not his first language. So I think there's something to be said as a female writer writing male characters. It does take a little bit more work to get inside of their heads, but you do have that luxury of being and outsider and being able to see it with fresh eyes.

It's been actually really great. I've learned a lot about asserting myself. Since writing all the dialog for Marcus Phoenix, I found myself apologizing for things a lot less. Saying, "excuse me", "I'm sorry", I don't say "maybe" as much anymore or "I think". That's been actually really helpful in my work to be more confident.

GS: So you've referenced the creative process in film-making a few times. There are definitely some parallels there, for both media at their best are highly creative, but out of necessity they are also highly technical. Many of your clients comment on your thorough knowledge of the game production process. How does that affect your work?

SO: The more I understand about game development the better I can be at my job because so much of it, especially as a contractor, is about quickly and efficiently integrating myself with the team and not having to be told what to do or how to do it. When I first started working on games I was a staff writer. I think if I hadn't had a staff position I wouldn't have nearly the level of understanding about what it takes to make a game.

It's hard to see from the outside. I mean people are just sitting at their desks typing away, like, "I don't know what they're doing." But if you're part of that system and you sort of see that information flow and you watch a project go from beginning to end. There are certain things that happen over and over and over again and you can anticipate them and expect them and have strategies for dealing with them.

For example, it is a given that a level is going to get cut deep in a production. So as a game writer you know it's going to happen, it's just a question of which once. So when they come to your office with that abashed look on their face and they stutter a little bit and they talk about their production meeting, you just sit there with a smile on your face and you're like, "Which one? Which one did you cut?" Theoretically you have strategies for dealing with whichever level they cut.

I think having that experience really helps because, especially when it comes to the game writing process, what I have found is that most studios are still sort of experimenting with ways to make it happen effectively. It's great to be able to get as many of the unknowns out of the way as possible so that you can really sort of attack the remaining problems, which is how to bring the story to life. Because I think as an industry we're all still trying to figure it out.

GS: OK, so let's get around to wrapping this up because I've taken up enough of your time. Here's the last question. Several of your client testimonials: Bob Welch and Henrik Strandberg at Atari and Ellen Hobbs at Amaze, make the point that you're punctual.

SO: Nice! That's my big fame to claim, I'm punctual.

GS: Do you think this might say something about the process of working with game writers or independent contractors in general?

SO: I don't know. It's an eye opener to me. Well I have to say I actually started out as a writer/producer, so I understand that deadlines are no joke especially when you're doing game development where everything is interdependent and everyone's waiting on that script and it has got to be in by certain times and get the recordings and get implemented, blah blah blah. That's the producer side of them talking a little bit although I hope I have more to offer than the fact I'm punctual!

GS: I don't know, I just found it interesting that three separate people made that point. I just thought there had to be something to it, you know?

SO: I guess so, although I have to say I didn't read those things too closely. Maybe I should take another look at them and be like, "Why did you say that? That's so weird!" Well thanks for giving me the heads up.

It's funny. I wanted to say also that I really am so glad that Gamasutra is doing these podcasts because it's such a great chance to listen to people that normally I don't get a chance to hear them wax rhapsodic on their process. I really enjoy it.

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About the Author(s)

Tom Kim


Tom Kim is the host and executive producer of the Gamasutra Podcast on GDC Radio (http://www.gdcradio.net/gamasutra_podcast), an editorial and commentary show covering important issues facing the game development community and game culture. Tom is a lifelong avid gamer going back to 1978, honing his nascent gaming skills on Sears Tele-Games Pong and some of the earliest PC games on the original Apple ][. He has worked as a graphic designer, art director, interactive designer, game designer and producer. He has over 16 years experience as an art director, creative director, and marketing consultant for companies such as BMW of North America, Bungie Software, Circuit City Stores, Konami of North America, LucasArts Games, Nintendo of America, Proctor & Gamble, Samsung Electronics Worldwide, Sony Online Entertainment, Walgreen Co., and others. Tom graduated from Northwestern University with a B.S. degree in neurobiology, and attended DigiPen Institute of Technology's program in Real-Time Interactive Simulation. He is an active member of the Chicago chapter of the International Game Developers Association. He lives in the 'burbs with his lovely wife and son who can both beat him handily in Wii Sports Boxing.

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