Susan O’Connor has been a games writer for almost 10 years, working on high-profile projects such as BioShock, Far Cry 2, and the recent Tomb Raider reboot. She is also a tireless advocate for all games writers, having launched the Games Writers Conference, now a staple of the annual Games Developers Conference. O’Connor has produced numerous talks and articles about the process of writing for games—including a piece that walks a hypothetical studio through adapting Breaking Bad into a console game—making her one of the leading thinkers in the field. As it turns out, her thinking had reached critical mass when I spoke to her, and she was sensing roadblocks that kept her from doing her best work within the industry. O’Connor spoke candidly to The Gameological Society about her desire to integrate writers more deeply into development teams, the upsides and downsides of working on games with primarily male audiences, and her frustrations with a profession where writing is often a side concern.
The Gameological Society: You posted a link on your website to an article about comedian Amy Schumer’s new show, Inside Amy Schumer. You effusively praised the piece because it highlighted her writing staff. What in particular struck a chord?
Susan O’Connor: I loved it because it was about a group of writers working together. I was having lunch with a friend of mine who’s a game designer. I was talking about this very issue, and he was like, “Yeah, I understand you want to work with people who are interested in more than just answering the question of ‘What am I shooting?’” Which is true. I think games are all for good story, but they really have to justify “Why am I shooting everything?” I was really excited that [Schumer] had this luxury of the back and forth with these crazy ideas. The conversations they were having were just as violent as the ones we have in games, but it had a different set of priorities. It really was more about the story. A lot of times when it comes to writing for games, unless you’re the studio head, you’re really hemmed in by a lot of different peoples’ needs. It feels like a bigger playground that [Schumer’s] guys get, and I guess I’m jealous. [Laughs.] I was just reading something like, “Every game starts with the story and the script,” and I just laughed and laughed and laughed. Like, “Ahhhh, wrong, wrong, wrong.
Gameological: What do you mean? What specifically about it do you find to be the most frustrating?
O’Connor: I feel like I’m a little bit like that chick in Minority Report. People project the future of games, and I’m the one who’s got the other version of it, like, “It could go like this!” The part that’s most frustrating for me as a creative is that the industry tends to attract people who are really interested in technology, because you need a ton of programmers to make a game. You don’t need a lot of writers to make a game, or animators, even. The percentage of the creative in the game versus the percentage of technologists you need is totally out of whack. A lot of times, what ends up happening when you have a room of primarily tech-oriented [staff], it becomes like a software development environment.
I don’t know if games are the right kind of place for the stories I want to tell.
For me, I always want to focus on the entertainment side of it. This is supposed to make people feel something. It’s supposed to be fun, or be scary. But when I look at conversations that creatives are having, like in television or film or theater or freaking mimes, everyone else, the conversations they’re having are totally different. You listen the director’s commentary on the DVD, and they’ve got the actor and the director there, and they take the character seriously, they take the reaction the audience is having emotionally very seriously. It can be hard to bring that stuff up in a game studio. Talk about being the weirdo in the room—like, “What is this chick talking about?”
Gameological: How much of that pushback are you willing to chalk up to a need to market the game? Or, I guess another aspect of this is, how comfortable are you being a writer on a team you don’t get credit for—like with BioShock and how everyone thinks of Ken Levine?
O’Connor: I think it depends on the career arc that people are choosing. In a way, I’m excited to see that people’s names are getting attached to projects because I think that has shifted from that software development mindset to the entertainment mindset. That’s not a bad thing. I think the key is where a person’s passion lies. Like, “Do I want to head up a studio like Ken Levine?” No. I totally don’t. For me, it’s always been writing first. That’s where my passion lies in storytelling. I don’t know. I’m at this point in my career where I’m looking around and asking myself where I can do my best work. I’ve been working in games for a long time, and I’m grateful for the success, and it’s been great, but I really want to tell different kinds of stories, and I don’t know if games are the right kind of place for the stories I want to tell.
Gameological: When you’re talking about story in games, what do you mean?
O’Connor: When I think about my job as the writer, I think about it not in terms of being in charge of the dialogue and the words per se, but really an advocate for the player’s emotional journey. I see it encompassing both gameplay and cutscene or whatever you want to call story elements. It’s not always that way, but I try to think about it that way. I try to interact with other people on the team that way. The people who are the biggest storytellers in games are level designers. Those are the people who really have control over what the player is going to feel. The way to really make the story meaningful is to collaborate with them, and to make sure the stuff you’re thinking and what they’re thinking is at least aligning or resonating on some level. They have to talk to each other, but when they don’t, it’s just random shit followed by random cutscene followed by random shit.
Gameological: Given all the talks you’ve held, at various gaming conferences, you seem to be an outspoken member of the community who pushes for better writing. Do you feel like those concerns are heard?
O’Connor: I think the industry is extremely passionate about a lot of things. I don’t know if I share a lot of those passions. I definitely have a perspective on this, but I also think it’s a minority opinion. It’s not that I feel ignored. Writing in general has been a little bit slow to the plate. It’s been a lot things that are shinier and more interesting as the game industry has evolved, but there’s a real passion for stories in games. Small but vocal minorities I guess, but people really respond well to stories. I was talking about this at one of my talks, but Spike TV and Entertainment Weekly did their top 10 games of the decade, and I think of the 10, eight had really good stories. Story really connects to the players when it works. It really has to leverage the medium. If you were to say, “Books are a great way to go inside a character’s mind for pages and pages, and movies are a great place to see larger-than-life movie stars and phenomenal explosions that are 40-feet tall,” games are a really kinetic medium. The story is what the player does.
We’re kind of faking it now, but eventually we’re going to be much more responsive to the player.
Jesse Schell gave this incredible talk at Game Developers Conference, and he talked about games and compared them to movies. He talked about how movies came into their own when they learned how to talk, for the talkies. Games have been talking for a long time, but he argues they’re going to come into their own as storytelling when they learn to listen and respond to the player in a really meaningful way. We’re kind of faking it now, but eventually we’re going to be able to be much more responsive to the player. That’s when the player’s going to feel like he’s playing with the game. That’s going to be really exciting. The way it is now, it’s like an antagonistic relationship between the player and the game, like, “I’m going to beat this game!” [Laughs.]
Gameological: Are there moments in your games career that you feel like you’ve really captured that in a way you’re really proud of? The part of not creating this antagonistic relationship. A symbiotic relationship.
O’Connor: I worked on a game—and it’s really easy to say because the game never came out—but I was really happy with this game. I can’t say what it is, but I was really proud of it because it was an open-world game about this guy building his empire. I got really interested in the idea that this character is an immigrant, and he was choosing what kind of man he was going to be in the world. I played with a lot of male archetypes. When you moved through the world, you saw firemen, policemen, and boxers. The whole storyline emphasized it, so the game design and the story design gave those seminal experiences that we all have to do to move from one phase of our life to another.
Gameological: So you were seeing these tropes of masculinity and they were changing the person, evolving them?
O’Connor: Exactly. And the challenges that these characters had to go through was antagonistic, but on the other hand it was also necessarily. So it wasn’t, “Fuck you, game,” it was more like, “I’m going to do this, yes!” The other characters were really designed to play their part in that character growth, which I felt really happy with. Part of the reason I was happy with the project was the team was so easy to work with. You’re able to have a great conversation with them for the same reason that Schumer article spoke to me. Having good collaborators is the key to doing good work.
Gameological: How do you personally maintain that kind of relationship with people when you’re working with humongous teams on AAA games?
O’Connor: The trick is to find the people you connect with. There’s usually the animators, who are always thinking in the same way. Often times, there’s a narrative designer or creative director. There’s always those people whose interests might not be the exact same, but if you put that Venn diagram up, there’d be a lot of overlap. I think it’s very important to have people you can bounce ideas off of. Especially narrative designers can be so helpful because you say, “Okay, I want to do this thing,” and the guy with one foot in story and one foot in gameplay says, “That sounds really good, but the game works this way,” so he can build the bridge to explain why the idea doesn’t work, but helps to modify it.
Being a really good communicator and having a good advocate for story is really important as well. When I first started out, I was like, “I’ll write a good story, and they’ll love it!” But no, not at all. It’s more about communicating and more about making the rest of the team feel like they’ve got a part to play in making that story come to life. I can’t just dork out about character and theme and plot, and explain it like that. I have to figure out where what I’m doing voids what they’re doing. Whenever I’m thinking about how to talk to the game team, I think about the overlap of player experience.
Gameological: When you’re talking about the player, you’ve used “he” a lot, and you’ve also mentioned that you were really proud of the moment when you were able to use male archetypes to tell a story. What about the female perspective? When do you consider that audience?
O’Connor: Of course there’s this huge issue in gaming, and women have their place in it, but for whatever reason I’ve worked on games catered to an audience of primarily males, and you can see it in our user testing. I’ve never seen a woman in a playtesting room, ever. I don’t think that means there aren’t women who are interested, but for whatever reason they’re not getting invited or signing up.
I try to connect with the player who’s interested in story, and character and people. I remember reading this awesome quote from The New York Times, and this is back when The Sopranos was still on the air, and they were like, “The Sopranos is the best women’s programming on television,” and I was like, “Fuck yes, dude, it is.” Because that show is totally about characters and relationships. If you just put it down on a piece of paper, it could sound like a soap opera.
Gameological: Friday Night Lights, too.
I’m definitely a stranger in a strange land when it comes to games. I’m really fed up.
O’Connor: Exactly! But the fact is, everyone is interested in other people. Even monkeys. Monkeys are interested in other monkeys. For me, it’s gender-neutral. I don’t want to be a salmon swimming upstream. I get hired by these games, and I look at who they’re targeting. Whenever you talk to them, I’m like, “Who’s this game for?” and they say, “It’ll be mostly dudes.” And once I know who the target audience is, I try to think about their inner life. The stories we make are only going to work if it’s something the player is already emotionally invested in. I think that I would love to see more games that are talking more about the interior life of female characters, but for whatever reason, that doesn’t happen very often. That’ll change when more women get into the gaming industry, and become creative directors and EPs.
Gameological: It must still be a struggle to keep things gender-neutral. I got a weird email right before we spoke, about a Leisure Suit Larry reboot. They were talking about a new female character being introduced to the franchise. She had an entire past, interests, hobbies, everything. But the weird part was that in the back of my mind, I was thinking, “This is all well and good, but the point of the game is to have the main character fuck her.”
O’Connor: I try to choose projects for the likelihood of not having to have an argument. There’s lots of really thoughtful game developers out there. I’m definitely a stranger in a strange land when it comes to games. I’m really fed up. I don’t have the deep-seated passion for games that is strong enough to overlook all these things you’re talking about. Whereas, I feel a lot more passionate about what’s possible pretty much anywhere else. That’s why when I look at Ken Levine or Rhianna Pratchett, I’m like, “Go with God.” I don’t want to put up with this shit anymore. I’m grateful for the success I’ve had, but I’m never going to be able to do work that can come anywhere close to the kind of emotional impact that stories in other media have, at least not in the next five to 10 years. I love stories, and I just happened to fall into games. I’ve learned who I am as a writer, and I think my talents and skills are much better used in other places.
Gameological: You’ve been in the industry for a number of years. What was the moment that crystallized this revelation for you?
O’Connor: It’s been an ongoing dissatisfaction that’s always been there. But the more savvy I got—and I’ve been working on these great projects that are arguably the best ever made—it’s like, “This is the mountaintop, and this still isn’t cutting it.”
Gameological: I gotta say, I feel weird asking some of the other questions I had planned. It sounds like I caught you at a pivotal moment.
O’Connor: I know. I’m in the process of making this decision. I’ve got the angel and the devil on my shoulder. On the one hand, part of me is like, “Oh my God, you have to keep going. This is how you pay the bills,” and the other part is like, “Agh, who cares? Take a leap of faith, come on.”
Gameological: What is it you would like to be doing?
O’Connor: I’m way more interested in telling stories about different kinds of characters. I don’t want to tell stories that involve shooting or being shot at. I’m all for violence at some points, but I think game stories can be black and white, because of the way the stories are told. You don’t have a lot of time to get a lot of stuff across. It’s a lot easier to be like, “Here’s a guy. Go shoot him.”
What really gets me excited as a consumer of stories is something [like Breaking Bad]. That’s some phenomenal shit, and that show’s got more than its fair share of violence. But that doesn’t bother me because it’s very rounded in these characters, and you really understand their dilemma. In the second episode of the first season, he’s got that one guy chained up to the basement, and he’s like, “Oh my God, what am I going to do? I can’t let him go because he’s going to kill my family, but I can’t kill him because killing is wrong.” That’s a genuine fucking dilemma. I want to see how that’s going to resolve, and I guess that’s what frustrates me about games. I want to tell more thoughtful and complex stories than games really allow us to do.
Gameological: If you were going to work on another game right now, what is a scenario where the stars align? You’re offered a job working on a game, it has X, it has Y, it has Z, you’re definitely going to take it. What are those variables?
O’Connor: One of the things I find interesting is what’s happening with Defiance, where the TV show and the game are being developed simultaneously. It’s an experiment, so I’m sure there are going to be rough spots, but I don’t care. Good! I would be interested in something that’s really ambitious with storytelling. Even though we have all this talk of stories in games of agency and immersion, we could also combine that with something more authored, that creates a serious experience for the player. Someone swinging for the fences, that’s what I’m really interested in doing.
I don’t think that’s as hard as people think it is. The reason that people shy away from being ballsy about storytelling is that it’s a black box mystery to them. Other elements of game production make more sense to them. And it’s a safer bet, and if you can point to it and say, “It’s going to be just like Call Of Duty, but with apes,” that’s one way to make a game. Again, someone’s going to do it. BioShock’s a perfect example. If you had talked to someone the year before BioShock came out, they would go, “Myah myah, that wouldn’t work,” and then it came out and everyone said, “Oh, this totally works!” I want to see more paradigm-busting stuff.
Gameological: You mentioned firefighting on your website as one of your skills—mitigating disasters during development. How often does that happen? If you created this separate section for it, I assume it has to happen all the time.
A lot of people think, “Oh, writing is dialogue.”
O’Connor: It happens enough, for sure. A lot of time, I’ll see gameplay getting integrated with story late, and then by the time it’s all together, there’s these huge problems, but you’re so far along in production, it’s like, “How am I going to fix this?” And that’s when the firefighting part comes in. You’ve sent your game out, and you’ve gotten early reviews that are like, “Your story’s your worst part of your game! It’s going to cost you 10 points of Metacritic for sure!” There are craftsman-like stuff you can do late in the game to at least have it make more sense, and maybe make it more meaningful. You can’t start from scratch, but there are always things you can do. Having worked in games as long as I have, it’s a useful skillset. I know not to come in and be like, “All we need to do is blow up half the city and move this to Mars.” That’s not a very helpful solution when you’re trying to get the game out the door.
Gameological: Especially not a week before launch.
O’Connor: Sometimes it’s one of those things where they don’t realize until it’s really late what they really need. That can be a really painful learning experience, and some of what I do with some of the articles I write is demystifying the writing experience. I think a lot of people think, “Oh, writing is dialogue.” I would argue that the heavy lifting for story development in games happens in pre-production well before anyone starts building levels. I try to explain it by saying like whatever point you have a game designer brought in, that’s when you want to bring in a game writer as well.
Gameological: When you write these articles and give these talks, who are you trying to demystify your process for?
O’Connor: For studios who are stacking up to figure out how to build out a new series, or a new game. I really want it to make sense to them, because so much of what writers do is invisible. In the same way I think what a lot of designers do is invisible, but they’ve done a really good job advocating what they do. I think it’s writers who tend to be shy.
Gameological: Considering you’ve spoken about your personal grievances with the industry and your desire to work on other things, why do you still feel the need to educate the game studios and push forth game writers?
O’Connor: It’s a good question. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I have this stuff in my head. I feel like I could just walk away and not share it with anybody, and that’s an option. Or maybe no one wants to hear this, and that’s totally fine. But part of me really wants to see games grow, evolve and change. And I still do work in games, at least at the moment, and as long as I’m here, I want to be a good advocate for doing better work. Not just for me, but for all the other great people that I know, that really want to do thoughtful, awesome, groundbreaking work.
Gameological: You mentioned in your TED Talk that when you were growing up, your father wasn’t around much, so you created an imaginary version of your dad to hang out with. I thought that was a touching way to relate to games and the notion of escapism. How important does this remain to your work?
O’Connor: That’s one of the best things about games: that way of making the impossible possible. There’s nothing you can’t do in a game. I wish we were more playful with it. I’ve got such a soft spot for that totally insane Katamari Damacy game. It’s the kind of concept you could only come up with—and make, and publish—high. It’s a fucking Onion article in and of itself, right? It’s funny, because graphics got so phenomenally good in games that hyperrealism got kicked into play, and I feel like games are just like dreams. If we treated them like dreams, we would do a lot more interesting things with them.