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.
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
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?
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!
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.