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Upping The Craft: Susan O'Connor On Games Writing
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Upping The Craft: Susan O'Connor On Games Writing

November 20, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 6 Next

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?

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 6 Next

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