Upping The Craft: Susan O'Connor On Games Writing
November 20, 2009 Page 5 of 6
See, that is why I think it must be hard to really influence the way things are going if you are working externally. I know you move from project to project and you frequently work externally. But sometimes, you spend time at a studio. How does that work? What do you see as the optimal way to go?
SO: Well, I worked on a project that was unbelievable. Oh my God. I loved it. It was partly chemistry. I just really got along with everyone. And that game got cancelled. And I was like... "Print that out." It was like my absolutely all time favorite game. Cancelled!
But I worked with a designer. His name was Pete Low. He was up at Radical. It wasn't like a showstopper, like the world is waiting for it, game, necessarily, but it just worked brilliantly. It was so successful, I thought. And everyone on the team thought so as well.
We got far enough along in the process that the whole story was done and the script was finished. And the cinematics were being made. And everything was sort of integrated, so we could see what we had done. We all felt good about it, which is unheard of, because everyone in games is so critical.
But we were all like, "I think this might be awesome!" And I think it was really successful because I came on early and Pete really set the tone for trying things. He was very accepting. Like, "Yes, let's try that. Let's see how that works."
And we were able to come up with a process where we would take turns. I would spend some time, come up with my story ideas, and then I would present them. And then they would go away and they would come up with some gameplay concepts and come back. And then I would take it. And we would just do this back and forth for a while.
And it was a huge eye opener for me. I mean I had worked on loads of games up to that point. But that process taught me more about what was possible in a game and what wasn't, and how a game designer looked at a story. I could suddenly see my work through their eyes, which was like, "Whoa," and vice versa.
I remember one day having a discussion about the character and how he was going to change at the end. He was going to have a moment of truth. It was going to be like, "What you do in this final moment is going to be who you are," I was like, well, it's because he's a bad guy. And they were like, "What? He is a good guy! What are you talking about?" I am like, "No. He is a bad guy."
Then we had this great discussion about who we thought this guy was, which I thought was so great because we were still getting to know him. It is like we all had different relationships with this guy. And then we all started thinking about how the player would feel about that. "What if he is bad?"
Gears of War
A lot of times when you play a game and you pull back a level, you realize that these characters are the protagonists, but they are not necessarily good people, or doing good things. Usually the ultimate goal is basically good. But they are just sort of running around killing a lot of people in a borderline amoral way.
So when you sort of pull back a level and you think about this on a higher level, then there is more ambiguity. The game situations and the way you actually participate in the game can affect your interpretation of the story naturalistically, but not in a way that is deliberately written.
SO: Exactly. I agree. And that is why I think having a writer in is so helpful, because I think bringing in more ambiguity is great. Like just have things happen and don't explain it. To me, I respond to that as a player, because then I get really intrigued by it. I am not being told what to think; I am just being shown a world. I am being asked to enter a world.
And I think that is the stuff I would love to see more of. And even structurally. Like, whose story is it? Is it the player's story, or is the player going to tell his own story no matter what you do? Why even fight it? Why not let the player tell his story? Screw it! The protagonist is really going to be this NPC. And since you are trying to beat the game as the player, then maybe you are the antagonist.
And maybe what you do really foils the protagonist. We are all protagonists of our own stories. Satan is the hero of his own story! No one thinks of themselves as bad, is my point. And so if you let the player be the hero of his own story...
I just think we have a lot of different ways to think about the antagonist. An antagonist of a story isn't always the bad one. That's what's interesting too. If you get two people operating in shades of gray...
Sure. It's perspectives, right?
Very often I think that stories -- and it's not just in games, but stories in all popular media -- boil down way too far, and that bores me a great deal.
Obviously, something like Star Wars that is bright white versus pitch black, is super popular; it's not like it's not understandable why people like it like that. But I think that very few stories are honestly doing the bright white versus pitch black thing. So, if you're trying to do something with a little more texture, it should be a little less binary.
SO: Yeah, I agree. You know, it's hard to tell a good story in any medium. If it was easy, every movie would be great; every book would be awesome. It's tough. It's tough to find a good story and then tell it well, especially in games, and I think the trick is just having lots of time to get it right.
I think the ones that have been the most successful have been the ones that have really had the chance to learn from their mistakes during production, instead of shipping something that was a mistake.
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