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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 4 of 6 Next
 

When it comes to team structures, you referred to Ubisoft Montreal, where Patrick Redding is a narrative designer. In this structure, he interfaces with the writers and flows the content to the designers. Do you think it's important to have a narrative designer at that nexus point that can interface with the team and manage that process?

SO: Yeah. Yeah, I think so. I think you can have a narrative designer that is more involved with the systems design -- that's huge, especially when you are talking about a game that is as big as Far Cry 2. They can really get immersed in the technical side of things, then translate it back to the writer, and vice versa. It's literally like having a U.N. simultaneous translator. [laughs] I think that's what a narrative designer can be.

Or even just having an editor, who has the band width in their brain to actually go and talk to level designers about the levels, while the writer is in his room sort of noodling on a character. I've worked on projects like that as well and it's great. It's great to be the writer in that position and it's great to be the editor in that position.

Because I think what writers need is a combination of really being integrated with the team, right? Like, that's part of it. The other part of it, is you just sort of need space to do your work. And those don't always work together, because most people on the team are not writers.

So if you sit down and you're like, "I want to talk about writing with you all!" It quickly becomes about programming or about design or about what their expertise is, because that's what they have to offer. It would be as if one level designer walked into a room of writers and want to talk about level design, like how long would you stay on topic?

You wouldn't, because before you know, you would be talking about some HBO show. You would be talking shit about Dexter, because that is what the writers would be interested in. And the level designer is like, "Uh, well guys, you know I got a map here I want to draw." "Dexter is awesome!"

And so, as a writer, how do you find a way to carve out the time and space you need to do your work so you have something good to share with everybody, and also have that work fit with what everyone else is doing.

So to answer your point, I think having a narrative designer, or an editor, or somebody is key. I mean that is it. Because when you try to be both, you fail at both. That has been my experience.

Yeah. I mean it seems to me that it takes a lot of time, and polish, and time to rework bits of writing. And that seems to fall out of the possibility with the way a lot of teams have structured it. "Writing is what we will do when we have time to do it," rather than making time for someone to spend time writing.

SO: Yeah, I know. Yeah, that is true. And I don't think it is willful like, "Screw it." I think it is like, "I got a million things I got to do, so I am going to have to prioritize. I know I need programming. I know I need art."

Someone who is the boss is going to have to be the one to say, "I am going to make writing a priority. We are going to make this happen." Because I do think that... Well for one thing, creating a meaningful story, it takes just as long to get to know fake people as it takes to get to know real people. You [as a writer] really have to spend time with your characters to get to know them.

And it takes time for a story to come to life. It is easy to come up with a clichéd, dumb story. It doesn't take a lot of time. But to make something really like, "My God!" it takes time. And frankly, I think it takes as long to develop a good story for a game as it does to create a good design for a game.

I mean, to me, that is the metric. If it takes two years to do that game design, then you need a writer at least involved in the process. Maybe not on site, but coming in and out those full two years. You know?

Because yeah, waiting to the end is nuts. I think that writers... You get the biggest bang for your buck from your writer if you bring them in right away, for a couple of reasons. One, they have more time to sort of do their work. And they have an opportunity to fail, too. They get to try things, be experimental. Whereas if you come in with like a month to go, they want you to hit the target right away.

So what you do in order to hit a target? You play it really conservative. You don't try anything crazy. So even though what you make is serviceable, it is not great. And sometimes you want to do something great. Every writer wants to do something great. Why else would we do this?

Bringing a writer in early, it gives them a chance to be experimental and play with the story and play with what is possible, because this is a medium where we haven't discovered the full vocabulary yet for telling stories in games. We know a few things that work, but there are probably like 20 more things that would work great. We just haven't had a chance to try them yet, because we don't have a chance to experiment.

So there is that side of it, and there is also this side of getting all the other people on the team feeling like they are part of the storytelling process as well. I mean, not everyone is a trained writer, but everybody understands a good story and everyone wants to create a great experience for the player. So if the writer comes on early, he or she can help give tools to the whole team, to create like a back-and-forth exchange between the game design, the art, and the writing and everything. But that just takes time, right? You've got to trust.

You have to build relationships with the team.

SO: You've got to know who you can jive with and who you can just be like, "Dude, come on. Let's just shut the door for a second and let's talk about this." You know?


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