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The Story Thing: BioWare's David Gaider Speaks

BioWare lead writer David Gaider both helped created the story and wrote the just-debuted prequel novel for the firm's key fantasy RPG Dragon Ages, and talks to Gamasutra in-depth about getting his job, BioWare's work methodology, and plans for the game.

Being the lead writer on a BioWare game seems to be one of the most intensive writing jobs in the industry -- the company's mission, after all, is "to deliver the best story-driven games in the world."

Funny, then, that BioWare's David Gaider would go home from work on Dragon Age: Origins and gleefully write its prequel novel, Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne, which was just released this past March, ahead of the game's debut.

Here, Gaider talks about the evolution of BioWare's game making process since he joined the company in 1999 for 2000's Baldur's Gate II through to today, as he moves into that same high fantasy territory with Dragon Age: Origins, which is due on Windows PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 this October.

You worked on Baldur's Gate II, so you've been at BioWare for the better part of a decade.

David Gaider: Yeah, 10 years. 'Ninety-nine, I started.

How much has your role of game writer changed in that time?

DG: I didn't start as a senior writer per se, although back when I started there were only 60 or 70 people working at BioWare in total. We've specialized a lot more since then. Back then, I did a lot more scripting of my own dialogue, and I was involved a lot more in the design side.

I still do have a lot of input on those things, because design at BioWare [is comprised of] technical designers and cinematic designers and level designers -- everybody is grouped into specialties, so it gives us more time to work on our own specialty. The role has changed a little bit.

What was your background before BioWare? Did you have a writing background? Obviously now you've written this whole Dragon Age novel.

DG: [laughs] I have a weird "getting into the industry" story, because it was accidental. Prior to that, I was in the service industry. I managed a hotel. I was an enthusiast.

BioWare at the time had just finished Baldur's Gate 1, and [longtime BioWare designer] James Ohlen was going around to other people at BioWare and saying, "If you know anyone who has some interest in writing and design and who has written something game-related to completion, please let us know."

I had a friend who worked at BioWare, and I hadn't even heard of BioWare. I hadn't played Baldur's Gate at that time. But I had this play-by-mail RPG running on the side, just a little thing I was doing for some friends. I had written a rule book for it to completion -- a printed book. My friend Calvin gave it to James Ohlen -- and I didn't even know he'd done it.

So I got this phone call in my office at the hotel, saying, "We'd like to interview you." I'm like, "Who are you? And why are you interviewing me? For what?"

So I went in, and it was interesting, but it was an entry-level position for half the money I was making at the hotel, and I thought the whole BioWare thing seemed a little fly-by-night. I was like, "I'm not sure I want to leave my hotel job for some game developer... I'm just going to be out of a job in six months or something, right?"

So I said, "Thanks, but no thanks." I went back to my hotel on Monday, and my boss from Mississauga was there in my office, surprisingly. He was there to inform me that the management company that ran several hotels had been taken over, and the new company had their own managers. When a hotel is bought out, normally the general manager is let go. And because I could potentially ransack my client list or whatever, they walk you off the property.

I was shocked, but as I'm walking out of the door with my little box of stuff from my desk, I'm thinking, "You know, maybe that BioWare thing isn't so bad after all."

So, you called them back. [laughs]

DG: I called them back, and they said, "Yeah, let's do it." I think at that point, James wanted to try me out and see how it'd work. When it comes to writing, you never know what kind of background will actually work. We've hired writers who wrote prose books and were completely unable to sort of wrap their head around some elements.

The interactive aspect of game writing?

DG: The interactive nature. If you had picked one particular path of the dialogue -- the one that they had in mind -- it sounded great. As soon as you went off that path, it would fall apart.

And then you'd have people with degrees who had no experience whatsoever. It's weird -- one of the best recommendations for writing seems to be people who as a hobby do a lot of game mastering of tabletop games. They naturally wrap their brain around the interactivity part of that. Who knew?


Even just beyond just having interactivity, there's also of course a very strong tabletop RPG influence in BioWare's games, down to specific rulesets and so on. Dragon Age is still in that vein.

DG: Every BioWare game gets compared to the last one that comes out. And there's potential that when Dragon Age comes out, it will get compared a little bit to Mass Effect. But I hope that the people who do that keep in mind that we're going for something that's a little different here.

Mass Effect is great -- it's more cinematic -- whereas with Dragon Age, we're definitely going to something that's a little more traditional. There's nothing wrong with traditional. We're looking at our Baldur's Gate roots.

I know they whip that out in the marketing a lot, but Baldur's Gate II was my first game. I think nothing compares to your first. For me, it was this wonderful experience where we were working with a tried and true engine, which is a great place to be because you can start creating content and test it right from the beginning.

We haven't really been in that situation since. Mass Effect 2 is there now, which is good for the team. Hopefully, for Dragon Age, we'll get there, too. But [with Baldur's Gate II] we were in this great place where we could just generate content and be a little bit experimental in terms of what we tried. We tried romances -- we just said, "Can we do that?" Or, "I like working on this Drow setting. I'd like to try this."

It was very permissive, allowing the writers and designers to have ownership over what they were working on. The idea was that a lot of the story was told through your followers, the ones you had in your party.


BioWare's Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn

That party-based dynamic is something for which I think Baldur's Gate II still serves as a benchmark in a lot of ways.

DG: Yeah. Well, to this day, there are people who still talk about the followers. And we haven't really done a proper party since. When you only have two followers, there's a limited possibility of banter. Here, we have three, which allows a bit of exchange. For me, writing that banter is some of my favorite parts -- back in Baldur's Gate II, they'd talk to each other and tease each other and develop their own relationships. I think for a player, that's great.

From a writing perspective, when you have these followers, and you get a different range of their own morality and their own agendas, you get to use them almost as a cipher through which the story is told, because we've taken away the morality bar.

KOTOR had of course the Light Side and Dark Side meter. D&D games, of course, have alignments. And as soon as you attach a gameplay element to that, you need to put it into the gameplay and the writing. You need quests that have a very sharply delineated good option and evil option.

Taking that away allowed us to have different options for the quests and the dialogue, but we don't need to always have "evil" and "good." We are allowed to put in options that are just logical. They can be very different. You can think there's a good reason to do all of them. They can be a little in the gray area.


It's an interesting choice, because there's still a morality reflected in your choices to an extent, it's just a spectrum of different moral outlooks, because your party members have their own individual judgments of your actions, and reactions to them, rather than there being one objective "good versus evil" meter. It seems like it will be harder to try and toe the morality line, so to speak.

DG: It's about forcing the player to that point where they're no longer gaming the dialogue and the quests in terms of trying to get their meter to one side or the other. They start thinking instead, "What are the consequences for my choice? What are my followers going to think? How is that going to affect my reputation in the world?"

Sometimes, it's just a matter of the player. They won't know how much of an effect there is, always. Or there's a follower who says, "I don't like this" -- obviously, if you do that thing, they're not going to appreciate it very much. But sometimes, that's something that nobody else will even know about. The player will have to decide based on the emotional reaction.

We're maybe not always going to get to that point, but sometimes that's all [a choice is] there for. And if you get the player away from a mindset that they need to game it, and instead get them to go for emotional moments, taking a look at how this affects the people that they care about in the game, I think that allows us mature storytelling. I think that's what we're talking about.

Battlestar Galactica is a very different genre, but I think what really impressed upon me as a writer was that this was a character drama that just happened to be science fiction. Obviously Dragon Age is epic fantasy, and there is a horde of evil that is affecting the world, but if the entire story was just you needing to fight that evil, that would not be mature storytelling.

What we have is a tale that is being told in the context of this event occurring, but there's more to it. There's a political drama that is going on. There is a human element -- you have these followers that have these big stories of their own. I think that is more what players care about. They want to actually come for the story.

It's very legitimate that some people will come just for the combat, the visuals, or what have you, but for our core fan base the story is what they're going to come for.


BioWare's Dragon Age: Origins

So was the novel part of your job? Did you do it during work hours?

David Gaider: No. We were talking about the possibility of doing the novel early on, and it wasn't like they decided, "We're doing a prequel for Mass Effect. We're doing a prequel for Dragon Age." The fact that both of them have [book-based] prequels was completely incidental.

I actually didn't know what Mass Effect was doing. Drew [Karpyshyn] was just very interested in going into the more David Anderson character [protagonist of Mass Effect: Revelation] because he's mentioned during the game.

It sort of ended up the same thing. We were identifying what we could do with the Dragon Age story. We decided to put it in the Blight tale, because when I made the setting, I seeded various possible stories in parts of the world -- we didn't know at first where we wanted to put this first story [of Dragon Age: Origins].

Eventually we decided, "Okay, it's in Ferelden." There's this event in history that got mentioned a lot [in the game], the rebellion of Ferelden against their allegiance with this empire. When we were talking about what we were doing, we thought, "Wouldn't it be cool if we could tell this story?" For a while, we actually tried to put it into the game itself.


As someone who has had to recently switch back and forth between writing prose for a novel, and writing interactive fiction for a game, what are some of the biggest differences from your perspective?

DG: Well, when you write the book, you have access to certain things that you don't read in the game. You peek inside the protagonist's head. It's also a set protagonist. I know exactly what his motivations are. You can switch characters. You can set up scenes.

It's a unique experience. Having worked mainly in the interactive part for ten years, it was a bit novel to be able to do that. It actually wasn't as hard as I thought it was going to be.

I didn't work on the book at BioWare. I had my BioWare job, and then the publisher asked BioWare, "Do you have anybody in mind who might be able to write it?" because Drew had written the Mass Effect novels. BioWare came to me and said, "Maybe you'd like to do it." The benefit of having someone like me write the book was that there's no need to catch me up on the world. I know exactly what a Dragon Age story is supposed to sound like.

So what writer in existence doesn't think, "Maybe I can write a book sometime," or at least plunk away at something once in a while? I hadn't for the longest time because so much of my creative energy was taken up by work.

But this was an opportunity. They hooked me up with Tor [Books], and we had ideas go back and forth. So then I would come to work. For a while, when we were in crunch, I'd work until nine or so at night, rush home, and then by 9:15 I'd be on my computer writing.

For someone who reads it, they'll get some additional context to what some of the characters do without having anything spoiled, so I thought the prequel setting was a good period to do. I certainly didn't want to take the game story and retell it in book form. What's the point?

It was interesting. With a book, and I imagine with a film as well, the writer is the creator. BioWare is good because they value the writing process, and not all of the companies do, but I'm never going to be the sole creator of a game. There are different mistresses that need to be served.

There's gameplay, there's art, there are technological limitations. But the refreshing part of writing a book was that as the writer, I was the sole creator. I molded everything. It was different enough that I didn't feel like I was just working all day, and then going home and doing the same thing. It didn't feel that way at all. They were very different endeavors.

This seems like the first thing BioWare has made in several years that has that really traditional BioWare feeling in terms of its setting and subject matter. With those intervening years, how does it feel to be getting back to that? And are there new things that you have to keep in mind when making that game in 2009?

DG: There's the obvious 2D to 3D difference. The 2D levels we were able to make back in the 2D days were like paintings. Part of me wishes we could go back to that. I don't know how much of a market there would be, but I would think there would be something. I always found that very beautiful and evocative.

However, we're quickly reaching that place with the 3D games as well. We have access to facial animations, expressions, body animations. We no longer have to tell a story through words only.

That can be done well -- [Black Isle's] Planescape: Torment is an example of a game that was told primarily through words, but maybe it wasn't entirely accessible to everyone because not everybody can deal with this wall of text, which is very sad. I wish there were more willingness to do that.

But now we no longer need to do that. There was a transition period where we had 3D art, but not the ability to be emotionally evocative with it. With Mass Effect, we were feeling our way out a little bit with the ability to use facial expressions.

I'm trying to deal with this as a writer. I worked on Baldur's Gate II as my first game, becoming used to telling stories through words primarily. Normally, you'd have to write something like, "I am very angry." Now, you can have him look mad. I may not need him to speak at all.

We've started to get to this point where when it comes to storytelling, it's not a solo endeavor for a writer anymore. We're starting to do this thing where we sit down with, say, a tech designer and an animator. There are people in each of these fields who are story-oriented. There are always going to be some who just want to be told what to do, and that's fine, but there are some who are very creative.

Andrew Farrell is one of the artists we have at BioWare; he's very creative and very story-oriented. I love that we're at a place where I can sit down with a guy like Andrew and bounce ideas off him. He looks at it from a slightly different perspective. He says, "How can I help you tell this story through art?" Then I'll have a cinematic designer. He'll say, "These are the libraries of animations and facial expressions I have. How can I help tell this part of the tale through gestures and interaction?"

It's neat when we bounce up against each other, and I'm thinking, "Really, can we do that? Is that possible?" and they say, "That's totally possible." That's a neat place to be. It's like I was saying earlier about Baldur's Gate II, where our 2D engine had reached its epitome, and we knew what we could do with it, so we had room to be creatively experimental.

I think we're reaching that point with 3D games as well. There are a number of RPG hardcore enthusiasts who I think have been a little embittered from the step away from the traditional style of games. We're still trying to remain accessible to a larger audience, but some of them will just never appreciate it. You can't help that. But I think they can be pleased to see that we're getting to a point now once again where we have the ability to focus more on storytelling and experimentation.

I think we'll see more and more of that as time goes on, and I think it has some really excellent potential. But not every company is going to do it. Fortunately, like I said, BioWare values the writing process a little more. So, if we continue to do that, I think we can see better and better things. At least for a while, I guess -- until the next piece of big technology comes along.

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