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.
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.