At the 2007 Montreal Games Summit, veteran game writer and Game Writers Conference founder Susan O'Connor, whose most recent projects include Gears of War, BioShock and Blacksite: Area 51, discussed story structure as applied to games.
In the process, she used parallels between God of War and the film Gladiator to demonstrate how to identify a plot's driving force, the choices writers can make and the key to the structure of a game story.
Began O'Connor, "Someone famous once said, There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. I think it's as exactly true for games. Although," she added, 'the first rule would be 'steal from someone else!'"
O'Connor introduced the audience to the process by which an average game company comes up with a story for a game they're creating. They normally know several things about the game already - its setting and its genre, for example, and from that point they just tend to brainstorm their characters, what the characters will do, and so on.
Without discussing if this method is correct or incorrect, O'Connor established, with a quote from God of War co-writer Marianne Krawcyzk, "Writing is about making choices."
Games, Movies And 'The Middle'
O'Connor revealed that there are writing guidelines that run deeper than simple brainstorming, and held up two "swords and sandals" epics side-by-side; the film Gladiator and the first God of War. "You might wonder, why are we talking about movies? Why am I not just talking about games?"
She explained, "The reason is that movies are the one culture that we all have in common. We don't all watch the same plays or read the same novels. You could say we all play the same games, but in many cases that's not true. After all, games are expensive, we don't all play them the same way, and many of us don't finish them."
Continued O'Connor, "I'm guessing that most of you saw Gladiator, and if you sat down at the beginning you probably stayed there till the end -- although I imagine that many of you didn't get to the end of God of War."
"I could talk about television couldn't I? I mean episodic gaming is really big news now," said O'Connor. "But as the really great writer Aaron Sorkin said, 'TV is all about the middle.'"
And games are really good at that middle, asserted O'Connor. "They're full of small, immediate conflicts that keep things rolling along. Today's talk is going to be about beginnings and endings, which are a key challenge for video game creators," she explained.
O'Connor's main theme? Stories are structured, she says. "And if the story is good, that structure is invisible to the audiences." With that in mind, O'Connor offered three key questions that need to be asked when writing a story; first, how does it begin? Second, what does the main character want? And third, how does the story end?
How It Begins
Susan described the beginning of the film Gladiator. "So the movie begins and we see Maximus, our hero, doing battle. It's very exciting, there's flaming arrows, theres a lot of blood, action... But Maximus is a soldier, and he's been doing this for three years. Maximus does battle more times than I got to the grocery store. So although the film has begun, the story hasn't."
She described how the next scene introduces the characters other than Maximus, and the fact that Maximus is homesick, and how in the next scene after that the Caesar offers Maximus his power -- but notes that even by that point the story still hasn't begun.
The story, O'Connor notes, doesn't begin until the Caesar's son, Commodus, kills Maximus' son and wife and banishes him after finding out power has been offered to someone other than him.
It takes 35 minutes to get to that point in the film, explained O'Connor. So when does the story begin?
When the main character's life has been turned upside down. This point is called the "inciting incident," she explained, and is the first major event of the story. It "incites" the character to do things that he wouldn't normally do.
"So let's look at how this kind of thing happens in a game," O'Connor extrapolated. "Imagine if you played a game and it took 35 minutes to get started. It's a tricky problem, isn't it? But God of War deals with it in an interesting way."
In the beginning of the game, Kratos' first line is "The Gods of Olympus have abandoned me" and with that line, he plunges off a cliff. But, O'Connor pointed out, that's not the inciting incident. In the story, it actually takes quite some time to reach the inciting incident.
She continues, "For example, it doesn't begin when Athena asks Kratos to kill the God of War, as that isn't a point that changes him. The point that changes him is the point that gives him reason to say 'yes.' In fact, the way he says "yes" is revealing, because he says, 'I'll kill the God of War because I want the visions to end.'"
"I think the game does a great job in casting the player in a role separate from the character that they're playing, though it hurts my head to think about it," O'Connor added.
Although promising his life to the God of War when he's at the mercy of barbarians seals Kratos' fate, the inciting incident isn't until [spoiler alert!] Kratos kills his family, O'Connor continued. "Because that's the point that changes him. And we're actually two thirds of the way into the game when that happens."
What the Character Wants
"This is a simple question, right?" O'Connor began. "I mean, Maximus wants to kill Commodus, and Kratos wants to kill the God of War. But if it was that simple, I probably wouldn't have put it on a slide."
She introduced a concept: "The object of desire: what the character wants above all else. The object of desire is the one thing that would satisfy the character... That would make him stop what he is doing."
For example, in the film Scarface, says O'Connor, "he wants to be rich, but once he is rich, he doesn't stop. So it turns out that isn't really his object of desire."
She continued, "So, sure, Maximus wants to kill Commodus, but is that because he wants revenge? He doesn't talk about that so much during the film - he's not obsessed with revenge. Throughout the movie he has established exactly what he wants. He says, 'I want to go home.'"
"He spends the entire movie, even after his wife and child are dead, pining to go home. He knows his duty is to kill Commodus, but his desire is to go home," she explained.
Continued O'Connor, "In turn, Kratos remembers his inciting incident - so now he wants to kill the God of War right? He wants revenge! No. He wants to forget. He wants to remove his memories of what he did. He will not stop until he finds oblivion."
So once we know what the heroes want, we can ask the question: Will they get it? Says O'Connor, "It's worth noting that in some stories, characters don't get what they want."
How it Ends
"Endings matter: Everything in a story needs to lead, inevitably to the ending," O'Connor stressed. "But that's the hardest part. At the end of the story, you should have reached a point that is both shocking and inevitable."
She continued, "Most writers know the ending before they start writing, but that is especially hard in games. Because game stories aren't finished months in advance. I mean, if you cut level 6, that might make a major difference to the story."
O'Connor recalls that she once heard a developer saying, "oh, the ending doesn't matter, because only 10 percent of gamers are going to get there anyway." Added O'Connor, "I think that's a sort of self fulfilling prophecy."
At the end of Gladiator, Commodus sets up a final battle, ensuring that all of his other enemies are out of the way, and stabs Maximus to make sure that he is bleeding to death before he even begins to fight. In the end Maximus kills Commodus -- but O'Connor notes that that doesn't end the story, as there are a lot of unresolved issues. Maximus still has to return Rome to a Republic, which he does in his dying breath, and return to his family, which he does by dying.
"Why is the ending the fight with Commodus?" Asked O'Connor. "There are many other endings which could have happened: There could have been a slave revolt. The plan from the end of act two, for Maximus to escape and return with a huge army, could have worked. After all, he was a great general. However, if there hadn't been a confrontation between Commodus and Maximus, we'd feel disappointed."
Clarified O'Connor, "The beginning and the ending are connected - and remember, when I'm talking about the beginning, I mean the inciting incident.In good stories there is a connection between the beginning and the ending. We come to expect and want the ending."
The Equation For Endings
O'Connor went in-depth on the twists and turns of the ending of God of War - The God of War punishing Kratos by making him (and the player) think there is a chance for redemption before Kratos finally kills him, and the way in which Athena doesn't hold up her end of her bargain and give Kratos oblivion, leading to him trying to kill himself, as seen at the very beginning of the game - something that is still denied to him.
"Sucks to be Kratos, but it's awesome to play that game!" Exclaimed O'Connor. "The equation for endings is: Because of X, Y had to happen. Because Kratos killed his family, he had to suffer forever."
She continued, "This is hard to do. I have tried and failed, and I will try and fail again. The thing about writing for games is that everyone is involved in the process. The story isn't done until the game ships. And the whole team has to be working towards that. Writing is about making choices, and the right choices are not always obvious. They're often surprising."
After a brief aside on what the story of Casablanca teaches writers about their ability to apply logic retroactively, O'Connor took some questions from the audience.
Questions and Answers
"How do you reconcile the motivation of the player versus the motivation of the character?" asked one audience member.
"A speech could be given on that alone," O'Connor replied. "Games can do things that no other media can do. For example, in God of War, you have a Greek god in your hands and you don't even really care about how he feels. His suffering is your delight. The player achieves what he wants, by getting to the end of the game, but Kratos doesn't get what he wants. They don't need to be reconciled at all."
She then took a question on her opinion of alternate endings. "I don't know, I have mixed feelings," she answered. "If you have multiple [endings], I think two is the maximum. It either works out or it doesn't. When it comes to multiple endings -- well, you might as well just break your writers knees with a crowbar, as trying to make just the one amazing ending is hard enough."