With all the talk about story in video games these days, we thought that key Red Storm employee Richard Dansky might have an interesting point of view - especially since Tom Clancy games are one of the few leading game franchises built on books. Dansky has been with Red Storm Entertainment since 1999, and stayed on when they were aquired by Ubisoft in 2000.
He's worked on more than 15 games and published short stories and novels in the horror genre. But if you ask him, he'll tell you he's an international star of stage and screen, fighting crime from his super secret science base aboard a titanic zeppelin - and Gamasutra quizzed him about subjects including his code of ethics for in-game violence and the biggest shortcomings in game writing today.
Let's start with something easy. What's your official title, and what do you do for a living?
Richard Dansky: My official title is Central Clancy Writer, and Manager of Design for Red Storm Entertainment. What that means is that I essentially wear two hats. On one hand, I work with the design department at Red Storm, and on the other, I'm a writing resource for Ubisoft, particularly as pertains to the various Tom Clancy games. That can mean anything from working on a game from the beginning to serving as a reference to doing a little bit of script polish as needed.
What's it like working with the design department at Red Storm?
RD: This may sound corny, but I really genuinely enjoy working with the folks in the design department. We've got a great mix of people. Some of them have been with us for their entire careers, while others came here with experience on other titles, and that combination gives us a nice blend of enthusiasm, experience, and skill sets.
It's a really talented bunch, and they do a great job of working with the rest of their teams as well as each other – there's no rock stars, just a bunch of really sharp people who are interested in making great games and having fun with them.
Can you say what you're working on right now?
RD: Right now I'm just helping out on a couple of projects, the names of which I'm unfortunately not in a position to divulge.
I know you have a few games under your belt. Do you have any favorites?
RD: From a writing standpoint, Splinter Cell: Double Agent was definitely my favorite. Any writer will tell you that it's more fun to write the villain than the hero, and Double Agent had some great, fun villains to write. It got to the point where I could hear their voices commenting on the other characters' dialogue - they were that fully realized in my head – and believe me, they were not saying nice things about what they saw.
Far Cry probably comes second, largely because the guards were so much fun to write. I had people come up to me and tell me they refused to kill one of the guards in that game because they'd eavesdropped on him while he was patrolling and discovered he was from their home town. As a writer, I just find that pretty ineffably cool, and a great payoff to the player of the effort to put a little personality into guys who could be just walking gun racks.
As for the one I'm proudest of, that would probably be Ghost Recon: Island Thunder. It was a second mission pack, so we had a good handle on what the game was capable of, and that in turn let us push the envelope in some interesting ways.
It was a great team, and we got a chance to take some chances with the mission scripting that really paid off in terms of the gameplay. The fact that the story really seemed to resonate just tied the whole thing together for me - it was a really satisfying project to do.
There's definitely a theme in there. Do you have any ambivalence about glorifying war and violence? Does anything like this come out in your scripts?
RD: I think there's a difference between games that incorporate representations of violence into their play – for example, chess, or cops & robbers, or Stratego – and games that are violent for the sake of gratuitous gore. Yes, a lot of the games I've worked on have a violent aspect to them, but if you look at them closely, you'll find that particularly with the Clancy games, we have a code of ethics that we build into them that I'm comfortable with.
There's a big difference, at least to me, between randomly mowing down pedestrians and innocent bystanders, and working with a scenario where you're trying to save someone or accomplish a goal, and in-game violence is a possible means to a greater end.
For my part, I'm much more interested in things like getting the player involved in the tactical puzzles and intrigue than I am in gore for the sake of splattering bodily fluids on the screen. Every game I've worked on, I've learned something – about games, about the subject material, you name it - and that's really the pull from project to project.
What's your favorite story moment in the Clancy series?
RD: The structure of story in the Clancy games has really changed from the early days, when it was in large part something that happened in between missions, to now, when it's thoroughly interwoven with every aspect of the gameplay. I'd say the story moment I like best from the most recent round of Clancy games is in Double Agent, when Sam is given the choice of letting the terrorists take out the cruise ship – and a lot of innocent people with it – or stopping them, and risk getting someone he's got a personal attachment to killed.
It's the first time a choice really stepped up and smacked me in the face with its potential consequences, and Dan Gordon and Sabi Shabtai, the writers who developed the story – I came on to the project later – deserve a lot of credit for going someplace that didn't pull any punches.
What's your views on the place of story in games? How does that balance with gameplay, especially in action-oriented titles?
RD: First of all, I think what we do isn't really story, per se. It's narrative. We create a narrative framework within a game for the player to act as the hero within, and then they create their own, unique story using the tools and framework we've given them. And that's how it should be – we're an interactive medium, after all, and players should be doing things, not having things told to them.
That being said, I think a strong narrative is an important thing to include with gameplay in action and shooter titles. The better the foundation that the backstory and setting creates, the more believable and immersive the action is, and the more the player believes in what they're doing (as opposed to, say, just mashing buttons).
Providing a strong narrative and strong characters, giving the player reasons to advance and to care about what they're doing – these are important things that narrative can accomplish, and which can benefit a game tremendously if they're done well.
Do players really care about stories in games - for instance, in the Tom Clancy games? Does the action just take over?
RD: If people didn't care about story, there wouldn't be quite so much kvetching about it in reviews, I think.
That being said, for a lot of games, narrative works like an umpire in baseball – if you notice it, it's doing something wrong. In a lot of games, all the story needs to do is to ease you into the fantasy and provide immersion in the scenario. At that point, the fact that the action takes over is a good thing, story-wise – it means the player isn't sitting there thinking "Wait a minute, that character's motivation is totally unrealistic" or "Wouldn't international banking laws have rendered that mission objective impossible?" or, well, you get the idea.
If the narrative – as manifested in the dialogue and the objectives – does nothing except help keep the player in the game and moving forward of their own volition, to create their own experiences, it's doing exactly what it needs to.
What do you see as the biggest failure in game writing right now?
RD: I'd say the biggest failure in game writing that we're facing is the lack of recognition that we are, in fact, doing game writing. Too many games are still trying to be novels or movies or other forms when it comes to their narrative, instead of taking advantage of the things that games can do that nothing else can. Part of this is, I think, a failure of language - we really don't have a frame of reference for looking at game writing, so we have to borrow one from the movies, and it doesn't quite fit right.
I'd also say that we're falling down when it comes to writing tutorials. They're some of the first writing a player runs into in the game, and they provide some of the most important information to the player, but they often feel like they were written last or in a hurry. Plus, they generally talk directly to the player, which breaks the fourth wall right at the time you're really hoping to establish immersion – right when the player first gets into the game.
Is anybody getting it right?
RD: I think there are more than a few people out there getting it right, or at least moving in the right direction. I know that Ubi has really made this a priority, and the results that we've seen in the games that have been coming out are, in my opinion, pretty good.
Other games? Half-Life 2 did an excellent job of it. Bioware's stuff is always interesting, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what they did with Mass Effect. The God of War series – never mind that Edith Hamilton might not recognize it, it manages to find that Euripedean vibe in a way that really works. I'm halfway through Hotel Dusk, and I like what that's doing so far. So it's not that there isn't good stuff out there, it's just that I think that we have plenty of room to keep getting better.
Can you think of examples of games that have really failed in their efforts to incorporate story?
RD: I think where you see the failure to incorporate narrative into games is in games that try too hard to enforce their pre-set storyline. When the flow of the game naturally leads the player to do something – say, to identify the character who's going to betray them – but refuses to let the player do anything about it, then suddenly the story has become detached from the game.
At this point seeing "immersive storyline!" as a bullet point on the back of a box doesn't really tell me anything, because "immersive story" is not something you can quantify or calculate like the number of levels or game modes.
You hosted several roundtables at GDC on the topic of narrative in games. What impressed you most about those discussions?
RD: Two aspects of the discussion really impressed me. The first was the sheer breadth of the debate. People were coming at the issue from all sides and really taking into account all of the aspects of game narrative, from the artistic to the utilitarian. All of that got brought to the table and held up for everyone, and I think the richness of the conversation – let's put it this way, I'm still transcribing the notes – was a direct result.
The other element that I found to be exceedingly positive was the understanding of narrative and the roles it can play in a game. It's very easy to fall into groupthink or repeating the same old complaints, and instead the conversation showed how much people have been thinking about what narrative can and should do. We're moving past talking about game narratives like they're movie stories, and into a place where we can discuss them within the context of games.
Any other sessions at GDC you thought were particularly insightful on this subject?
RD: Susan O'Connor always has great perspectives on game writing, and I thought that a lot of the material presented in the Interactive Storytelling Boot Camp – Daniel Erickson's, in particular – was extremely useful.
Beyond that, I actually spent much of this year's conference looking at non-writing material. One of the points that kept on getting hammered in the round tables involved interaction with other disciplines, so I spent most of my time at the conference trying to soak up as much of those other viewpoints as I could.
I've heard you're going to be involved in planning the Game Writers Conference this fall. Is there anything you can share with us about that?
RD: I'm really excited about the direction that the game writing programming is taking this year. The advisory committee had a long sitdown at GDC about where we wanted to go and what we wanted to see, and I think folks are going to really like the offerings this year.
Dana Fos is doing a great job of putting things together, and there's going to be some surprises – some different directions – from other conferences. I know that's a terrible teaser, but I can't let the numerous, extremely energetic cats out of the bag quite yet…
I've also heard that you write novels in your spare time.
RD: It's less "spare time" than "hours that I probably should spend sleeping", but I do write fiction as well as game material. I've got short stories coming out in a couple of upcoming anthologies, Astounding Hero Tales and Man Vs. Machine, and I've published four novels, with a new one scheduled for release next year. It's a very different type of writing, but that's one of the things I enjoy about switching gears.
Writing fiction makes you focus on mood, on tone, on description, on interior monologue, and all of these things are either covered by other disciplines or not germane to game writing. Doing the different types of writing is really doing different kinds of work. It lets me stretch all of my writing muscles, as it were – I just have to make sure to keep them well-defined and separate. Otherwise, I end up with elves with M203 underbarrel grenade launchers, and nobody wants that.
Can you say anything about the book you're working on right now?
RD: I'll hopefully be finishing up the next novel project shortly. It's a got a little bit of a video game theme to it, so we'll see how that comes out. "Write what you know" is a bit of an overused cliché, but there's some benefit to having experience with and comfort in your subject matter.
One final question - what games are you playing right now, and what do you think of the narrative elements in them? Sorry, I guess that's two questions. Still, it's the last one.
RD: How about we call it a two-part question and say we're even? Right now I'm shamefully waiting on a new video card, so I have a whole stack of games lined up that I really just need to lock myself into my office to play. In the meantime, though, I'm gleefully stomping my way through the Destroy All Humans series.
I think that series does a great job of incorporating wonderful little moments of conversation into the gameplay, and I've been really enjoying just listening to the minor characters – before I zap them, anyway. I'm also enjoying Titan Quest very much. The narrative there does a great job of setting up the action and then letting the player go wild within the fantasy that's been established.