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Upping The Craft: Susan O'Connor On Games Writing

Veteran video game writer Susan O'Connor (BioShock, Far Cry 2) believes that there's a lot of room to improve the writing in games, and talks to Gamasutra about narrative ways to engage the player, alongside the philosophy and craft of storytelling.

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."


I get the impression that people think that with writing -- maybe you don't have the same opinion -- you sit down and you write the whole thing in order from top to bottom. Then you're done. I think people even think that novels are written from page one through page 300, just linear and then it's done. It is really not true.

SO: I don't think that is true. I've heard stories that there are writers like that in the world, but I have never met one. I've never met someone who works that way. I'm not. I'm totally all over the place. I'm the queen of the four-by-six index cards and the push pins.

Every writer seems to have a different process, but especially with games, it's not possible.

You want to experience the story and there is going to be a beginning, middle, and end to it. But how it gets told in the game, when the ground keeps shifting beneath you, I think having a nonlinear approach to writing is really helpful when you're trying to integrate it with game design. You've got to be willing to let go of stuff all the time, but somehow be able to hang onto some skeleton, some thread.

When I work on stories, I try to just get down to the absolute, the most bare bones concept you're trying to get across. That is what has to get protected. The story has some meaning; everything else is up for grabs.

That one core bit has to stay in place, otherwise you have a meaningless story. That happens in games. You're like, "I care, why?" [laughs] when you are playing the game.

One issue is when the writer gets brought in late and there are already a whole bunch of levels that are well into production. You have to go, "How can I contextualize these?" Do you run into that a lot?

SO: Yeah, that can definitely happen. Sometimes it falls into place, and sometimes it doesn't. That's a good question. Like on Far Cry 2, there wasn't so much of an issue because they had an overarching structure for the whole thing. In a way it was designed to be more sandbox than freeform. But other games they are. Each level has its own distinct personality.

I worked with this guy Danny Manley, who was a writer on one of my recent projects. He's a playwright from New York. I love working with him, he's so great. He thought about each level as having its own little short story, which I think is correct. The overarching story had to be an anthology that held it all together somehow.

So, I think in terms of how you tie everything together, it seems that most of the time the best bet is to use a really light touch. You have to do a bit of hand waving. If you really try to get to get literal with it, then people are like, "What? That doesn't make any sense," which is always a danger in game writing. At some point, it doesn't make any sense. That's right. [laughs]

People have been experimenting with structure. Some games more explicitly deal with this, but the concept is that each one is like an episode. It has its own little self-contained story arc in each chunk of the game.

I think that, certainly, if you're dealing with a development where you're going to get or lose pieces or shift things around or whatever, that is obviously beneficial. It's practical. But do you think that's a good way to work, or do you think that you'd rather plot it all out as best as possible?

SO: Well, that's a good question. I don't know. I mean every project is different. This is a copout answer. I don't mean to give you a copout answer.

It's true; sometimes episodic is the way to go. Sometimes having one driving narrative is the way to go, like God of War. That's right. I love that game. I talk about it a lot. I really do think it worked. It was just deceptively simple.

I think there's a lot to be said for keeping the content of the story really simple while trying to make the emotions complex, like not asking people to remember a lot. People are like, "Okay, I get it. I need to go kill the God of War. Right. I got it." or, "I need to save the princess."

You just don't know how much player... Ken Levine called it "player RAM". How protective do you have to be of that? They only have so much room in their head, in their brain, to hold things.

How often do you have to get them synced back up again? Keeping the content simple and the emotional subtext complex, for me as a writer, is the goal, so that you don't get this wall of words when you play a game. You get a simple story that resonates with you and sticks with you.


BioShock

As regards that, something else he talked about is how they cut a lot of characters from BioShock 1. They took the original ideas, and they condensed them down into way fewer characters. "How can we make these four characters, their story functions, descend into one character?" Ultimately, people on the creative side don't always realize what people are actually capable of following and what they're actually interested in following.

SO: Yes, I know. It's funny because you live with this stuff day and night, and you can recite it all verbatim. It's really easy for me, or for anyone, to forget that when you're playing the game, it's just washing over you. People who work on movies kill themselves, but people watching movies tend to just kick back. It's the same with games.

Just trying to find what's going to stick with the player and really playing to that, instead of giving them a massive dose of stuff and trying to make something epic that then becomes noise, none of which goes through.


If you talk to different people, you get very different approaches on what even game narratives should be. Even games you've worked on, from game to game to game, like Gears of War.

Obviously, it has a very straightforward narrative presentation. It's basically cutscene, mission, cutscene, mission, and then the barks are character-building, but they don't really contain much narrative, everything from just "Shit, yeah!" to a little bit more than that. It's basically about adding tone.

BioShock doesn't stop for cutscenes. There are character interactions, but there are a lot of the recordings that you find. And then you've got Far Cry 2, which is an open world game. It's all different.

SO: I think on Far Cry 2, they tried some really great stuff. One of the things I really loved... They had a narrative designer on that game, Patrick Redding, who's just unbelievable. How does this man's mind work so fast? It's ridiculous.

He and [creative director] Clint [Hocking] really had some smart ideas about trying to change the way we tell stories in games. They developed incredibly complex systems, which I cannot do justice to.

I can give a really simple example. One of the things I really loved was how they talked about... You have one triangle this way and one triangle that way. You can imagine a Star of David, basically, and then you bisect it twice.

The triangle that's going this way is gameplay information, tons at the beginning and very little at the bottom. The opposite is story information. You've got two lines running through it, right?

So when you walk up to an NPC, you're at the top end of the gameplay triangle. He'll say, "Go across the hill. Go in the hut. Shoot the dude." End, right? You've got almost no story there. You've got tons of mechanics. For players who are interested in just that, that's all you needed to know and you could walk away. If you stay and you hit X, then the next thing he says is going to be equal amount of gameplay and story information.


Far Cry 2

So you've got sort of the inverted pyramid, which is how you write news stories. And then on top of that you have the... I've never heard of the "right side up pyramid", but that's how it is.

SO: Yes, so the first, the middle part of that triangle would be like, "Grab the ledger. It's got all the bribes," you know what I mean? So like there's an equal amount of mechanics and meaning. And if you stick around again, what he says is all story. Like, "I don't give a shit if he's my brother, kill him anyway."

And because it's a pull model, the player asked for it, then that is the story he wanted to hear. That's the biggest challenge for games stories. How do you tell it to them when they want to hear it in a way that means something to them? That's huge.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about cutscene-based narrative, because initially when I started going to conferences, I started to hear people say, "Cutscenes suck. Don't use them." I would always go, "But they don't always suck. Sometimes they are good, actually."

Originally, my first thought was then like, "Well, some games just have bad cutscenes. Some have good cutscenes." It's not that simple, either. It's also about pacing. Pacing is probably even more important. Quality is important, but pacing is super important.

SO: Yeah, I totally agree. Yeah, absolutely. And that involves so much more than the writer. That's why it's really great to have an opportunity to have the writer working with the team for an extended period of time. They don't have to be staffers, but just have them around.

First of all, I think it really helps to have a sense of trust with each other. A sense of respect for what the other person brings to the table. When I work with a designer who I really come to really respect and admire, I just want to know what he thinks about things. And we can talk back and forth.

If I can get their respect as well, then you can really do some great stuff together. And you can think about things like pacing, and "How are we going to integrate?" and "What kind of gameplay experience are we talking about having here?"

Is this the level where we take a deep breath, because the story went nuts in the last level? What do we do here? The last level was a flight of fancy -- so are we getting more into reality, with cold water in the face? Because we're almost at the end, and it's like, "Let's get this done"?

And then we can start to get a sense of momentum, how the designer wants to drive the car. And then how you can build a story to really enhance that. And sometimes, in counterpoint to that. What experience is he trying to create, and then, how can I expand on that, make it more meaningful?


When it comes to team structures, you referred to Ubisoft Montreal, where Patrick Redding is a narrative designer. In this structure, he interfaces with the writers and flows the content to the designers. Do you think it's important to have a narrative designer at that nexus point that can interface with the team and manage that process?

SO: Yeah. Yeah, I think so. I think you can have a narrative designer that is more involved with the systems design -- that's huge, especially when you are talking about a game that is as big as Far Cry 2. They can really get immersed in the technical side of things, then translate it back to the writer, and vice versa. It's literally like having a U.N. simultaneous translator. [laughs] I think that's what a narrative designer can be.

Or even just having an editor, who has the band width in their brain to actually go and talk to level designers about the levels, while the writer is in his room sort of noodling on a character. I've worked on projects like that as well and it's great. It's great to be the writer in that position and it's great to be the editor in that position.

Because I think what writers need is a combination of really being integrated with the team, right? Like, that's part of it. The other part of it, is you just sort of need space to do your work. And those don't always work together, because most people on the team are not writers.

So if you sit down and you're like, "I want to talk about writing with you all!" It quickly becomes about programming or about design or about what their expertise is, because that's what they have to offer. It would be as if one level designer walked into a room of writers and want to talk about level design, like how long would you stay on topic?

You wouldn't, because before you know, you would be talking about some HBO show. You would be talking shit about Dexter, because that is what the writers would be interested in. And the level designer is like, "Uh, well guys, you know I got a map here I want to draw." "Dexter is awesome!"

And so, as a writer, how do you find a way to carve out the time and space you need to do your work so you have something good to share with everybody, and also have that work fit with what everyone else is doing.

So to answer your point, I think having a narrative designer, or an editor, or somebody is key. I mean that is it. Because when you try to be both, you fail at both. That has been my experience.

Yeah. I mean it seems to me that it takes a lot of time, and polish, and time to rework bits of writing. And that seems to fall out of the possibility with the way a lot of teams have structured it. "Writing is what we will do when we have time to do it," rather than making time for someone to spend time writing.

SO: Yeah, I know. Yeah, that is true. And I don't think it is willful like, "Screw it." I think it is like, "I got a million things I got to do, so I am going to have to prioritize. I know I need programming. I know I need art."

Someone who is the boss is going to have to be the one to say, "I am going to make writing a priority. We are going to make this happen." Because I do think that... Well for one thing, creating a meaningful story, it takes just as long to get to know fake people as it takes to get to know real people. You [as a writer] really have to spend time with your characters to get to know them.

And it takes time for a story to come to life. It is easy to come up with a clichéd, dumb story. It doesn't take a lot of time. But to make something really like, "My God!" it takes time. And frankly, I think it takes as long to develop a good story for a game as it does to create a good design for a game.

I mean, to me, that is the metric. If it takes two years to do that game design, then you need a writer at least involved in the process. Maybe not on site, but coming in and out those full two years. You know?

Because yeah, waiting to the end is nuts. I think that writers... You get the biggest bang for your buck from your writer if you bring them in right away, for a couple of reasons. One, they have more time to sort of do their work. And they have an opportunity to fail, too. They get to try things, be experimental. Whereas if you come in with like a month to go, they want you to hit the target right away.

So what you do in order to hit a target? You play it really conservative. You don't try anything crazy. So even though what you make is serviceable, it is not great. And sometimes you want to do something great. Every writer wants to do something great. Why else would we do this?

Bringing a writer in early, it gives them a chance to be experimental and play with the story and play with what is possible, because this is a medium where we haven't discovered the full vocabulary yet for telling stories in games. We know a few things that work, but there are probably like 20 more things that would work great. We just haven't had a chance to try them yet, because we don't have a chance to experiment.

So there is that side of it, and there is also this side of getting all the other people on the team feeling like they are part of the storytelling process as well. I mean, not everyone is a trained writer, but everybody understands a good story and everyone wants to create a great experience for the player. So if the writer comes on early, he or she can help give tools to the whole team, to create like a back-and-forth exchange between the game design, the art, and the writing and everything. But that just takes time, right? You've got to trust.

You have to build relationships with the team.

SO: You've got to know who you can jive with and who you can just be like, "Dude, come on. Let's just shut the door for a second and let's talk about this." You know?


See, that is why I think it must be hard to really influence the way things are going if you are working externally. I know you move from project to project and you frequently work externally. But sometimes, you spend time at a studio. How does that work? What do you see as the optimal way to go?

SO: Well, I worked on a project that was unbelievable. Oh my God. I loved it. It was partly chemistry. I just really got along with everyone. And that game got cancelled. And I was like... "Print that out." It was like my absolutely all time favorite game. Cancelled!

But I worked with a designer. His name was Pete Low. He was up at Radical. It wasn't like a showstopper, like the world is waiting for it, game, necessarily, but it just worked brilliantly. It was so successful, I thought. And everyone on the team thought so as well.

We got far enough along in the process that the whole story was done and the script was finished. And the cinematics were being made. And everything was sort of integrated, so we could see what we had done. We all felt good about it, which is unheard of, because everyone in games is so critical.

But we were all like, "I think this might be awesome!" And I think it was really successful because I came on early and Pete really set the tone for trying things. He was very accepting. Like, "Yes, let's try that. Let's see how that works."

And we were able to come up with a process where we would take turns. I would spend some time, come up with my story ideas, and then I would present them. And then they would go away and they would come up with some gameplay concepts and come back. And then I would take it. And we would just do this back and forth for a while.

And it was a huge eye opener for me. I mean I had worked on loads of games up to that point. But that process taught me more about what was possible in a game and what wasn't, and how a game designer looked at a story. I could suddenly see my work through their eyes, which was like, "Whoa," and vice versa.

I remember one day having a discussion about the character and how he was going to change at the end. He was going to have a moment of truth. It was going to be like, "What you do in this final moment is going to be who you are," I was like, well, it's because he's a bad guy. And they were like, "What? He is a good guy! What are you talking about?" I am like, "No. He is a bad guy."

Then we had this great discussion about who we thought this guy was, which I thought was so great because we were still getting to know him. It is like we all had different relationships with this guy. And then we all started thinking about how the player would feel about that. "What if he is bad?"


Gears of War

A lot of times when you play a game and you pull back a level, you realize that these characters are the protagonists, but they are not necessarily good people, or doing good things. Usually the ultimate goal is basically good. But they are just sort of running around killing a lot of people in a borderline amoral way.

So when you sort of pull back a level and you think about this on a higher level, then there is more ambiguity. The game situations and the way you actually participate in the game can affect your interpretation of the story naturalistically, but not in a way that is deliberately written.

SO: Exactly. I agree. And that is why I think having a writer in is so helpful, because I think bringing in more ambiguity is great. Like just have things happen and don't explain it. To me, I respond to that as a player, because then I get really intrigued by it. I am not being told what to think; I am just being shown a world. I am being asked to enter a world.

And I think that is the stuff I would love to see more of. And even structurally. Like, whose story is it? Is it the player's story, or is the player going to tell his own story no matter what you do? Why even fight it? Why not let the player tell his story? Screw it! The protagonist is really going to be this NPC. And since you are trying to beat the game as the player, then maybe you are the antagonist.

And maybe what you do really foils the protagonist. We are all protagonists of our own stories. Satan is the hero of his own story! No one thinks of themselves as bad, is my point. And so if you let the player be the hero of his own story...

I just think we have a lot of different ways to think about the antagonist. An antagonist of a story isn't always the bad one. That's what's interesting too. If you get two people operating in shades of gray...

Sure. It's perspectives, right?

SO: Exactly.

Very often I think that stories -- and it's not just in games, but stories in all popular media -- boil down way too far, and that bores me a great deal.

Obviously, something like Star Wars that is bright white versus pitch black, is super popular; it's not like it's not understandable why people like it like that. But I think that very few stories are honestly doing the bright white versus pitch black thing. So, if you're trying to do something with a little more texture, it should be a little less binary.

SO: Yeah, I agree. You know, it's hard to tell a good story in any medium. If it was easy, every movie would be great; every book would be awesome. It's tough. It's tough to find a good story and then tell it well, especially in games, and I think the trick is just having lots of time to get it right.

I think the ones that have been the most successful have been the ones that have really had the chance to learn from their mistakes during production, instead of shipping something that was a mistake.


I think that a lot of games that I play have bad stories. In the end, it might still be bad, but what's really bothersome to me is not so much that like the story is dumb; it's that it lacks craft. You can tell there weren't many drafts of the dialogue, or it's just jammed together. Just stuff like that. That's what I think is missing actually, is craft.

SO: Well, right. And it's funny. As a writer, you have to find the nerve; you have to steel yourself to sound like a total geek in these meetings. You can talk about exposition and rising action, and all these English terms, that really have to get applied to create great stuff.

You can definitely just write, just [makes quick gibberish noises], but to apply a certain craft to it and structural underpinnings to it, so it works for reasons you don't really see; you're not supposed to see it. It's the scaffolding and it's the foundation and it's the lode-bearing walls. All you know is that the room is bright and sunny. You don't have to think about how they get the windows in. That's the builder's job, right?

I try to take a similar craftsman approach to the work that I do, because I've made that mistake myself. I'm just

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