Upping The Craft: Susan O'Connor On Games Writing
November 20, 2009 Page 6 of 6
I think that a lot of games that I play have bad stories. In the end, it might still be bad, but what's really bothersome to me is not so much that like the story is dumb; it's that it lacks craft. You can tell there weren't many drafts of the dialogue, or it's just jammed together. Just stuff like that. That's what I think is missing actually, is craft.
SO: Well, right. And it's funny. As a writer, you have to find the nerve; you have to steel yourself to sound like a total geek in these meetings. You can talk about exposition and rising action, and all these English terms, that really have to get applied to create great stuff.
You can definitely just write, just [makes quick gibberish noises], but to apply a certain craft to it and structural underpinnings to it, so it works for reasons you don't really see; you're not supposed to see it. It's the scaffolding and it's the foundation and it's the lode-bearing walls. All you know is that the room is bright and sunny. You don't have to think about how they get the windows in. That's the builder's job, right?
I try to take a similar craftsman approach to the work that I do, because I've made that mistake myself. I'm just like, "Well, I'll just write some stuff, and it'll work itself out." No, it's crap. "Why was that crap? I need to learn from that."
And so you're like, "I think I'm not taking craft as seriously as I should be." Because, again, you're not surrounded by other writers, so you don't talk shop very much, right? That's one of the reasons I even started this Game Writers Conference [at GDC Austin]. I wanted to be able to talk to my colleagues about stuff that they would take the ball and run with it.
I think one of the important things about writing is what you leave out. I think that's something that people cannot perceive easily, if you don't know about writing.
SO: Totally agree.
I think people are tempted, if they're not experienced, to just keep shoving things into the narrative. And what you leave out, it could be like what we're talking about with Ken Levine condensing characters, or it can be like, "What does this scene do? Nothing."
SO: Yeah, I think that's right. Especially with games. Because you're building around a void, which is the player. You've got to leave space for the player to insert himself or herself, because they're going to do it anyway. Why fight it, if they're going to take it and make it their own?
And creating a structure that allows that, I think, is really huge. And looking at structure, and finding ways to protect the story from the player. Things like inciting incidents, like "When does the story really start? When does the world get turned upside down?" I think, personally, looking at stories, you really have to have it happen before the game begins. If you do 20 minutes where you're doing your thing, and then suddenly something changed, it wouldn't traumatize you.
You wouldn't be motivated to make it go back the way it was. You'd be like, "Oh, cool, right on. I'm underwater. This is great." Or like, "I'm a bat, sure", you know what I mean? Whereas in a movie, they do that very thing.
Starting in medias res is popular in movies, but usually games are like, "Well, we need to do the tutorial first" or whatever. I've brought this up with other people who work in games before.
I felt like Final Fantasy VII had a really strong start. You know you're going to go blow up the Mako reactor, and then escape. And you go through that part and play the game and it's very easy, and it tells you how to play it, and then it stops. That's like 45 minutes or a half an hour. Then the game grinds to a halt, and starts like a normal game, and it's slow.
But the thing is, you're pretty interested because you had that episode of high-intensity gameplay-focused narrative. The game has built up this good will with you as a player, and then it can slow down again. That's such a really good trick. Tricks like that, I think, are important.
SO: Me too. Did you see Up? I thought, in Up, the story with the wife, not having children, blah blah blah, never living her dreams, was so devastating.
It was the best part of the movie, though.
SO: It was. It was so impactful, so powerful, I think it pinned all the adults in the audience to their seats, because they had to process that. And then, while the adults are stunned, and letting it in and having no influence on what they just saw, the kid story starts. It's like, "Whee, fun!", and it's stuff that normally would have bored an adult. They're too stunned to be bored. They needed that time. The adults needed the time to gather themselves. I had that experience when I watched.
Yeah, it was a very elegant part of the film, really elegant filmmaking.
Honestly, I don't think the rest of the film is anywhere near as good as first 15 minutes.
SO: But yes, I think you're totally right. Tricks like that, and just thinking about stuff structurally. And knowing that everything in the game is totally and completely made up -- I would love for us to free ourselves more and not be trying to create hyperrealistic situations, or treat stories as though they're hyperrealistic -- as if they're documentaries? Why? That bullshit is all made up!
I think the characters have to be realistic, but the situations don't have to be realistic at all.
SO: And the structure doesn't have to be realistic. It is not a documentary. You don't have to turn a camera on. Let's speed this up; let's do backwards, Where is the Memento? Where is the game version of Memento? Why don't you mess with us a little bit more? This isn't reality! Tell us at the end of the game that I was 50 feet tall. Reality is really overrated. Let's make it up, here.
That's easy to say. Production realities are crazy. Trying to get a bunch of people on board is crazy. It's hard work. You want to be able to tell a story internally that everybody can understand and get behind.
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