Interview

Susan O'Connor

Susan O’Connor, game writer

The industry veteran and writers’ advocate has looked into the future of video games, and her frustrations are at a breaking point.

By Steve Heisler • May 28, 2013

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.

BioShock

BioShock

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.

Far Cry 2

Far Cry 2

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.

BioShock 2

BioShock 2

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.

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  • Effigy_Power

    I am conflicted about how I feel here.
    I can’t decide whether I am looking at a justifiably frustrated creative, shunned by the powers that be, who is getting the idea that maybe her talents are wasted in games, or an industry that is, through its desire to have the broadest possible appeal in order to financially be successful, slowly eroding its own creative talent pool.
    The problem is that writers and artists alone can’t make a game, regardless of whether the idea is amazing, but programmers can absolutely make a game, regardless of whether it is a pile of crap.

    Plus I just finished the new Arrested Development and I am very confused as to how I should feel about that, so… jinkies.

    • Enkidum

      Don’t think those two are in contradiction to each other – surely both are true?

      Fascinating interview, and I always appreciate people who swear as much as I do.

      Ahem.. as much as I fucking do.

      • Effigy_Power

        Yeah, in hindsight I muddled my point a bit.
        What I am trying to decide is whether creatives are giving up and therefore perpetuating the creative downfall of the medium they represent or whether the gaming-industry actively wants to shed this part of the process, given how in love with polygons and draw distance it is.

        • Enkidum

          Oh, I get it. Again, I don’t think the two are really in conflict, but I think you might be unduly pessimistic either way.

          O’Connor’s issue, if I read it correctly, is that games aren’t currently at the level where she wants them to be in order to be able to do the kinds of things she wants to with narrative. And I agree. But she seems to be suggesting that in a decade or so they very well might be – it just won’t be soon enough for her.

          Of course if either of the two trends you mention takes over, then that might slow down or even halt the progression towards better writing (where “writing” is the much more complex interplay between level design and player choices that she describes, not just dialogue). I remain cautiously optimistic about that, although now that I think about it maybe I don’t have many good reasons to feel this way.

        • Nacho_Matrimony

          If anything, I find that the indie movement and its luminaries are breaking ground in a few of the ways O’Connor wants. And for all their supposed faults, I don’t think we’ve seen the true impact of games like BioShock Infinite or Journey. People do want meatier, “alternative” experiences, if you’ll allow the poor wording. I also don’t think the older consumer set is wowed by pretty graphics anymore; PS4 and Xbox One reveals have come and gone, and while some of their demos were impressive, most of my peers crave something more than cloud-enabled creature comforts. Fortunately, I think more and more young developers are trying to make an industry that satisfies something greater.
          It would also help if games got their Bazin. 

        • Effigy_Power

          @Enkidum:disqus: I am most definitely pessimistic. Unduly or not is another question…
          I think that idea-wise, despite the occasional great game, gaming itself is in the Reality-TV phase right now, just sort of cruising along to fill the shelves with as much quantity as the sequel-mills can churn out. Anything deviating is considered “alternative” and therefore financially risky and even Indie games appear to be getting a bit formulaic.
          Again, I am looking at this through a very much not rose-colored set of Gunnar glasses here. Having binge-watched AD’s new season and being on my period have not made me more cheerful, that’s for sure.
          I guess I am just concerned that the low value attributed to creative potential will lead more creatives to leave the industry which will lead to a lower value attributed to creative potential leading to more creatives leaving the industry ad infinitum, which the gaming industry’s movers and shakers seem eerily okay with, as long as the money saved can be used to shoehorn Claudia Black into whatever project.
          I don’t think this is a threat for gaming in the long run, but it does seem to be the perfect storm for stagnation. The fact that I just earlier today realized that the zombie-wave has been going on for nearly a decade didn’t fill me with much hope. A majority clamoring for more of the status quo, all the while the adamant minority willing to risk stuff is being depleted, that’s not exactly a fertile bed for evolution.

        • Enkidum

          @Effigy_Power:disqus yeah, you got a point. In general, my outlook on things from politics to video games is short term pessimism, long term optimism. I think (barring the collapse of civilization, etc) that advances will be made in all the right areas, that things will get better in terms of storytelling and so forth. I just don’t think that most of the current trends are really encouraging. (Although the rise of the large-scale indie game scene is, as @Nacho_Matrimony:disqus points out, encouraging.)

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    • The_Helmaroc_King

      Well, this part of the interview stood out to me:

      “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 can see where she’s coming from, considering she’s a writer working in a medium where big companies favor technology over auteurs… but I read that and the first thing that comes to mind is, “Yeah, and… ?” It’s not exactly the kind of attitude that pushes groundbreaking narratives, but without grounding yourself in what the medium is capable of, you get more Peter Molyneux than Ken Levine.

      • zerocrates

        I think a lot of her argument was not necessarily about a flipping of the structure from tech-centric to writing-centric, though that’s in there, but more for integration between these different roles instead of having separate fiefdoms.

        She talks about writing as encompassing more than things like cutscenes and dialogue, but gameplay and level design, the player’s journey through the game, however that happens, and that part of a writer’s job is to advocate for that with the other . By the same token, I think you’d find plenty of tech people pining to work on the new gameplay or technical solutions that you’d need to make the “journey” work right, or to provide some up-front perspective about what’s possible.

        The software development analogy that comes to mind is the idea of “user experience” design, where you don’t so much have a clean and total separation of coders doing functional stuff and designers and artists making the interface. You still have those kinds of specialties, but they’re working together to make things work better for users, rather than working in separate rooms and trying to glue the two parts together at the last minute.

        Still, this vicious cycle where people deride game writing, developers ignore game writing, and writers flee or ignore gaming seems… problematic.

        • The_Helmaroc_King

          She seems reasonable about the whole thing, but that one statement did stand out because the three games mentioned at the start of the article (Bioshock, Far Cry 2, and Tomb Raider) were all big-company projects that probably require a certain software development kind of discipline to get done.

          I suspect the holistic approach would generate more cohesive works, but to me it also seems that it would necessitate smaller teams and smaller works. That’s not to knock smaller projects, but the kind of content that comes with AAA games takes a lot of time and money that need more people with more skill sets, and I think you can see where it might start getting beyond a director’s creative control.

          As a counterpoint, movie directors seem to have a lot more creative control over their works despite similarly growing teams/budgets, but I think that’s because movies have a much different output than video games.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          @The_Helmaroc_King:disqus I think your statement that AAA necessitate structures that require the balkanization of departments (and de facto sidelining of narrative/conceptual content) is precisely why she sounds so pessimistic and is looking to get out of the industry. (And also why I haven’t personally enjoyed a AAA game narrative in ages, but have enjoyed a number of smaller-scale projects…)
          I think when she said ‘software development environment’ she meant basically that the primary creative force in the industry as it’s structured now are programmers and interaction designers, who are used to to solving problems in a certain way. When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. When all you have is a CS degree, every problem looks like a programming issue (or a UI issue), whether you’re working on a CRPG or a word processing suite. (And you end up in a John Carmack mindset where narrative is prioritized about as much as the narrative in pornography, and art is just the skin for your precious system.)

          Conversely, many creatives working in the industry probably approach game design from an equally biased cinematic or literary lens accustomed to solving creative problems in that way. Writer-centered games can be good, but will likely be just as limited (but in different ways) than programmer/designer-centered games. It seems like, as Zerocrates mentioned, she’s angling for more parity/integration in AAA game development, rather than a major paradigm shift to focus on writing exclusively.

      • Zach_Annon

        The gaming industry could use a little more Molyneux right about now (well, maybe not the man himself…)  Black and White and Fable were incredibly conceptually interesting games that were primarily limited by technology; now that technology’s finally catching up, we need more creative types to start pushing the boundaries of what games can do as a storytelling medium. 
        You mentioned movie directors lower down the thread, and that might be a good direction for laying out a AAA game that wants to have some kind of actual story to it.

        • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

          This is sort of why I’m glad that nintendo is still around. The DS in particular really shines when you consider just how goddamn weird some of those games are. Nothing that really pushes storytelling or anything, (except for all the interactive fiction games I guess, which is a weird genre that managed to thrive on the DS) but there are a ton of conceptually interesting games on that thing.

          Also, you see this kind of creativity in indies a lot, obviously. Hell, take a look at the Moly-jam or whatever it was called. Pretty much exactly what you are talking about. I agree that I’d love to see that kind of thing in the AAA scene, but I’ll take what I can get at this point.

        • boardgameguy

          Reading her comments about the AAA industry made me think of Steven Soderbergh’s address at the San Francisco International Film Festival:

          http://blog.sffs.org/home/2013/4/steven-soderbergh-the-state-of-cinema-video-transcripthtml

          Soderbergh argues for the importance of a unique point of view or perspective. It is this, he contends, that separates cinema from movies. The big studio system, concerned with recouping costs and hampered by huge committees, finds it safer to tell the same, broadly appealing stories over and over rather than supporting projects with a more idiosyncratic vision.

          O’Connor’s experience appears to tell some of the same story about the game’s industry, with other unique factors contributing as well.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=16831741 Eric J. Baker

          You know, I don’t always have the nicest things to say about Molyneux, considering all of his grand promises that didn’t pan out, but you’re absolutely right about him. He’s definitely one of the most creative game designers out there, and even though his games rarely live up to his visions, either because of technological limitations or over-ambition, I’m really glad there are people like him making games. I’d much rather a game developer try something really strange and different and ultimately fail than to get yet another third person cover shooter that is only mildly enjoyable because the formula’s been used so many times it really has no excuse not to be.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=16831741 Eric J. Baker

        Why does it have to be technology or auteurs? I don’t think those things are necessarily related at all. I think she was advocating for more of the system of filmmaking: movies require a very large, technically oriented crew to get made, but the artistic product you see on screen is the from the minds of the more creative roles, i.e. director, writer, actor, cinematographer, editor, composers, etc.

        The way I thought of that quote was as if a movie was being made by the technical crew with occasional input from a writer or director. And that’s backwards.

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

      I’ve harped upon this point in the recent XBOne threads, but I think the AAA games industry is getting too big to support itself for much longer. When a game sells several million copies and is considered a failure, something is wrong. When writers want to leave what, theoretically, should be a fantastically interesting and exciting medium to pursue something else, something is wrong.

      • Mercenary_Security_number_4

         This should get all the likes.

      • The_Misanthrope

         Yeah, I’ve complained about much the same thing, which I’ve decided to call the “Everyone Wants To Be Call of Duty” syndrome.  Granted, it is more like “Everyone Wants To Be (Fill in the New Hotness)” as the AAA games industry has been doing this kind of thing for a while.  Whatever the top-seller is–be they mascot-driven platformers, “casual” games, or motion-controlled games–they will chase after those numbers, the exact same demographic, oblivious to the fact that the customer base is already spoken for.  Even when they aren’t churning out carbon copies, they are building sales-expectations around the lofty goal of snatching that much-vaunted demographic.  Modest successes become spectacular failures, all because the AAA games industry doesn’t understand some basic business principles.

        As I watched Sony and Microsoft unveil the new generation, it felt less like a bold new era for games and more like an IV drip keeping the industry going for a couple more years.

      • http://twitter.com/MikoSquiz Miko the Squiz

        Lately it seems like the bigger the budget, the less interesting the game, too. 

      • GaryX

        I’d be very surprised if it went anywhere, really. The same thing has been the case in Hollywood for awhile, but it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. 

        • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

          Maybe the changes to used games will help them make back more of the money than before. It seems like the console makers will take most if not all of that though. I highly doubt we’ll see another videogame crash or anything, but It just doesn’t seem very sustainable to me, a total layman on the subject. 

          I’m hoping that medium sized developers start popping up as a nice middle ground between the big budget CoDs and the tiny indies on Steam and what have you. Would be nice to have larger games with more freedom to experiment without potentially bankrupting a company or whatever.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

      It’s somewhat ironic that these trends are happening as developers are starting to put more of an emphasis on narrative than ever before. If I had to make a guess at what was going on, it’s that previously, writers were literally just the people who wrote the meaningless dialogue that punctuated the gameplay. But over the past decade or so, as narrative has increased in importance, writers have begun to get a taste of what they’re capable of accomplishing with the medium, and they’re frustrated that they’re not always able to achieve it.

      Techie types and studio heads aren’t the bad guys here. They do care about story. I mean, Infinity Ward wouldn’t go and hire Traffic’s screenwriter to pen the new Call of Duty game if they didn’t give a damn about narrative. Whether or not the game will actually have a good story is another matter entirely, but that’s besides the point. What matters is that everybody involved in making a game wants it to have a great story; the problem is that studio heads and managers don’t necessarily know how to make that happen beyond going out and hiring the best talent available. As Ms. O’Connor suggests, perhaps the key to better narrative is in communication between the creative types and the techie types. When writers, artists, gameplay designers, and level designers actually collaborate, wonderful things can happen.

      • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp Unexpected Dave

        One of the problems is, as O’Connor notes, that writers  don’t have enough creative control over the story. It’s not enough to hire the best writers in the world; you have to let them shape the game design. The best game stories (like Portal) are often created by the designers rather than writers. Control is more important than talent. 

        In other narrative media, it generally begins with the script. You wouldn’t shoot a movie without a script. (I’m sure there are exceptions.) Not only would that be a bad idea creatively, it’s a bad idea logistically to invest money in creating scenarios that don’t end up in the finished product.

        The solutions to these problems aren’t new at all. In fact, the problems have only been exacerbated by bloated AAA development practices. 

        • OBO

          “The best game stories (like Portal) are often created by the designers rather than writers.”

          Erik Wolpaw and Chet Faliszek had nothing to do with it?

          “In other narrative media, it generally begins with the script.”

          When “it” begins with anything, it’s more often an outline, then a proposal, then a storyboard, then a series of writethroughs and drafts. Even then, every process is different. And even then, games do often have a script that precedes anything but engine development: http://kotaku.com/the-video-game-script-is-beyond-ridiculous-478433444

          “You wouldn’t shoot a movie without a script. (I’m sure there are exceptions.)”

          Pretty big exceptions. The popular timely one is the first Iron Man movie, which had an outline but very little (if any) formal script and was intentionally shot with large swaths of improvised dialogue. That’s not even getting into the movies that started shooting without a finished script.

        • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp Unexpected Dave

          @obo:disqus : Let’s not underestimate the contribution of people like Kim Swift to the awesomeness of Portal. (She created the companion cube, for example.) And Wolpaw certainly transcended the traditional role of the video game writer and made a contribution to the game design itself.

          As far as “Iron Man” goes, you’re probably right. But I don’t think that video games, even the “Call of Duty” series, can afford to be made that way much longer.  

          The point I made is that in order for video games to have good stories, the overall creative control for the game must rest in the hands of someone who cares about telling a good story.

        • maxonepercent

          I completely agree.  The best video games, even  those that are plot driven, have a story that is totally integral to the game play.  Games that focus too much energy on the story or that totally divorce the story from the gameplay (i.e. excessive use of cutscenes) generally fail.  The problem is that as any good writer knows, to engage the audience you have to “show” them things, not “tell” them things.  In other words, the plot should unfold within the gameplay instead of being shoehorned in through cutscenes or excessive dialogue.

        • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp Unexpected Dave

          @maxonepercent:disqus : Exactly. If the rule for film is “Show, don’t tell” then the rule for games is “Allow the player to experience, don’t just show.” 

          I would appreciate suggestions for how to say that in a pithier manner. 

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=16831741 Eric J. Baker

          Wait, Portal has one of the best game stories? I’d contend the opposite is true, especially in Portal 2: the story is so bare bones that anyone could have written it, but the dialogue, the site gags, etc, were all top notch.

          I mean, come on. The plots of both games are evil computer wants to kill you, so go through these puzzle chambers to get out. Portal is an excellent example of someone in O’Connor’s position elevating the groundwork of someone who is operating outside of their element.

      • The_Misanthrope

        While Infinity Ward’s hiring of a professional screenwriter may seem like a noble attempt to legitimize storytelling, it misses the point a bit.  Stephen Gaghan (yeah, I had to look the name up) may very well be a great screenwriter, but he is not a game writer.  Granted, he may turn out to be a quick study, but as the article about the hypothetical Breaking Bad adaptation, there are fundamental assumptions in writing that change when you go from screen to game. 

        This has long been a problem in the games industry.  Early on, games were small enough that the tech-types that made the game were often also the writers.  As games got big enough to require delegation of these duties, the industry as a whole never quite shook the notion that the story is an ancillary part, something to guide the early concepts and some text/cutscenes to be shoved in at the last minute.  But, really, this is not all on the industry; Part of it actually is on the writers.  Early on, there was no dedicated line of study for aspirant game writers–there may still not be one–so they often came in with experience as screen, stage, or even prose writers, so they wrote what they knew.  By now, we probably have enough game writers (and a few “auteurs”, for what it’s worth), but the thinking is probably still stuck in the old thinking.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          Actually, your first paragraph is kind of my point. The managers at Infinity Ward see a creative problem, and the only way they know to attempt to solve it is to throw money at it, rather than reconfiguring how narrative is crafted alongside gameplay in their design process.

          As for your second paragraph, you make a very good point. It’s not like one can go to DigiPen for a degree in games writing. What I would expect to happen in the next few years is that some of the more popular screenwriting programs in the States will start offering courses in games writing, and they’ll eventually begin offering programs like “screenwriting with a specialization in games writing.”

        • Halloween_Jack

          This problem is also applicable to the influx of writers from other media who have started writing comics. A few of them (Greg Rucka, in particular) have done well; quite a few others have done stories that were mediocre at best, or didn’t live up to the expectations raised by their better-known work, or suffered from blown deadlines, or various combinations of the above.

      • hcduvall

        The guy who wrote Traffic? While I have never been drawn to CoD by the story, now I am repelled.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      I think it varies, depending on the type of game being made. Yes, writers alone can’t make AAA console titles, but that’s becoming a more and more tiny piece of the larger gaming landscape, and there are now more than ever non-programming (or reduced-programming) tools out there that afford creative types to produce games on their own terms (hence the glut of indie Flash/Twine/whatever games out there).

      I think there is a certain degree of soul-sucking frustration that comes with writing for most blockbuster/commercial productions (unless you luck into, say, the writer’s room of a sitcom that also happens to be a genius work of art), but games seem to exacerbate the issue, due to the factors mentioned in the interview – it’s even more unapologetically adolescent-male-centered than TV or film, and it’s largely dominated by technical thinkers who aren’t used to thinking aesthetically.

      (Anecdote alert: I have a lot of programmer friends, but the only one I can collaborate on projects with without losing my mind is the one programmer who’s also a cartoonist and who went to art school with me… While there are definitely true renaissance people out there, most programmers think…programmatically, and a creative enterprise run primarily by programmers lends itself to a very specific kind of innovation. And that innovation won’t be in the writing or aesthetics.)

    • Simon Jones

       To be absolutely blunt, should the creatives actually be in charge? In lot of cases, the creative end of gaming writing is there because other, more lucrative or creatively fulfilling mediums aren’t exactly beating down their door.

      • Fluka

        Well, surely that’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy?  If you value the writing and creative aspects of your games, you’ll attract better creatives.  Likewise, if you demonstrate the effect of good writing in your games, your players might start expecting or demanding better writing in general.

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

        I totally agree.  I’ve always been of the opinion that the best art comes from people skilled in multiple disciplines, even if they have a dominant one.  I’ll use animation and not even art animation.  Bob Clampett at Warner Brothers knew music, animation, comics, and movies, and that’s why he and his team could do The Great Piggy Bank Robbery instead of other companies’ stale crime novel parodies.

        The answer isn’t c-rank specialists, in my view, but making the industry attractive to b- or a-rank auteurs.  Now, do we need to bring in c-rank specialists for a generation to make the ground fertile?  Perhaps.  Unfortunately, that and the other thing that would likely help (make the workweek more manageable) contradict each other; either costs bloat and crunch is constant or we wait around for multidisciplinary brilliance and wait and wait.

        • Simon Jones

           Oh yeah. This is exactly why Portal works so well, for example. Because the two guys doing the writing were the writers of Old Man Murray who actually knew how games worked and how to make the story work in service of that.

          Which is actually kind of my issue with the current ‘Let’s talk about the feels this game gave me’ approach to game criticism, since it doesn’t seem like something we’re going to get good games out of.

    • Professor_Cuntburglar

       I really feel like she get’s to the heart of the problems with video games as an artistic medium: they are made primarily by technical minded people, as opposed to artistic minded people. In film the creatives are in control and the technical guys (grips, gaffer, etc.) are there to do their bidding. This is why most games are designed as a puzzle to be solved instead of as an experience to be had.

  • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

    This is a great interview. Fascinating stuff, seriously. Love reading what feels like a genuinely honest point of view from someone in the industry. That said this line about writing stories to appeal to a male audience gives me pause: “The stories we make are only going to work if it’s something the player is already emotionally invested in.” 

    I’m not a writer, but this seems totally incorrect to me. Great stories MAKE you invested in whatever is going on. Games, in theory, should have an advantage in getting someone invested in something they otherwise would not be, simply by virtue of being interactive. There are even some arty farty games (I’m thinking of Depression Quest and Dis4ia in particular) that use that to their advantage to show people who otherwise might not have to deal with these issues a glimpse of what it is like for someone who does.

    Am I reading this wrong or something?

    • ProfFarnsworth

      I think that she is trying to show that you need to have a “hook” or a compelling reason for the player/reader/watcher to want to keep going on.  Many good stories have little “emotional investment” for me, they do get me to start to feel what the characters feel and understand why they do/think that way.

      • DrFlimFlam

        I agree. It needs something to draw my interest first. Only then can it work its own magic.

      • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

        That makes sense. I think I read too much into it, maybe. I still have some issues with her seemingly post-feminist stance on the matter, but hey, what’reya gonna do? This is really a neat interview. I need to read through it again with less sleepy eyes. Props to both Ms. O’Conner and Mr. Heisler on this one.

  • http://www.facebook.com/deejaytaufiq Mohamad Taufiq Morshidi

    What i personally fed up with is how the AAA industry wants to make money by overestimating sales figures.

    For example:
    -Square Enix estimated 6 million sales for Tomb Raider (They did manage to reach target, but that is due to many factors like 50% price reduction on Steam)

    -Microsoft expects 1 billion sales for Xbox One (Yeah, i know)

    -EA expects 5 million sales for Dead Space 3

    I mean, it’s nuts.

    • ProfFarnsworth

      I agree completely.  I wonder if they have a crystal ball or if they really sit down with an actuary and discuss at what probability there will be for their game of selling that well.  I figure it is the former…or possibly just pulling numbers out of their bottoms and calling that a “estimation”.

      • duwease

        If I were to project from my experience with software projects where the deadlines were set by upper management or the sales team, I would emphatically say the latter.  Numbers, calculations, and actual probabilities are actively hand-waved away.

    • Naked Man Holding A Fudgesicle

      Exactly. Another example is Ubisoft projecting x million sales of Far Cry Blood Dragon but they came up short of sales targets by one single copy. So no christmas party for the poor kiddies of Ubisoft employees this year. A damn shame.

      • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

        The most ridiculously heartbreaking and rage inducing example of this arbitrary metric thing is the New Vegas one. They needed an 85 on Metacritic (!) to get a bonus for making what is probably the best game Bethesda has ever put their name on. They got an 84. So they only got a flat rate payment. They didn’t see any of the money that the game actually made.

        Actually this example is pretty wildly different from the whole projected sales number thing, but I typed this up anyway and it’s vaguely relevant, so whatever. I mean, metacritic? Fucking really?

        • maxonepercent

          I loved New Vegas and I am a Fallout fan from the first game back in the 90′s, but you cannot deny it was buggy as hell and on more than a few occasions the bugs totally ruined my experience.  Also, Skyrim is by far the best fame Bethesda has ever created, nothing else comes close.

        • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

          @maxonepercent:disqus I didn’t play New Vegas at launch but I never encountered any game breaking bugs. Also, as I understand it Skyrim was buggy too. Also New Vegas is better than Skyrim. 

      • http://twitter.com/occono Anthony O’ Brien

        ….Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon outsold expectations, considering it was basically slapped together as a hobby in a month or two. 

        • Naked Man Holding A Fudgesicle

          Oh I don’t doubt it, I just like to poke fun at this guy, as he openly admitted stealing Blood Dragon, even though he pre-ordered it which makes it alright don’t you know.

  • Nacho_Matrimony

    If anything, her take on Katamari Damacy is a bit more apt to the medium’s power to universally captivate from unlikely perspectives. Who the fuck knew that game was going to bring so many different people such joy? The medium needs to stay weird if it’s going to keep winning (and sparking) hearts and minds.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      And, interestingly, the story of that game is pretty perfunctory. Its appeal is largely the visual aesthetic and the mechanics. Which I think goes to show her issue isn’t simply writing-centric, because she’s a writer and looking out for her own interests, but a genuine frustration with the creative climate in the AAA game industry.

      • The_Misanthrope

         Yeah, the story of Katamari Damacy is pretty simple, but it is also a perfect example of how close the story and design of a game needs to be.  A game designer should be able to think like a game writer, and vice versa.  The few shreds of story elements in KD–the prince is very small and put-upon, the King is very big and condescending, everything is just another piece to be rolled up, etc.–are well-served in every detail of the game.  Imagine if the hapless people that you roll up were super-realistic rather than blocky and weird or if the camera kept the prince in frame always at the same size or any number of other hypotheticals; One element askew could make all the difference.

        Of course, bigger games often come with bigger stories.  Unfortunately, they often forget the need to keep the design and writing on the same page.  A good example of this is LA Noire, whose problems probably ran a lot deeper than the matter of writing, but that’s what we’ll focus on for now.  If you were watching a movie about a straight-laced, by-the-book detective, you wouldn’t expect to see a scene where the detective takes to the streets and veers into mailboxes, streetlights, and oncoming traffic.  Yet this is all too common for the protagonist of LA Noire, Cole Phelps.  Even if you are not deliberately driving like a maniac, the driving control are the same loose control scheme from the GTA series, so you are bound to hit something. 

        Obviously, somewhere early in development, it was decided that there should be an open-world element to the game, likely for two reasons:  because it’s kind of Rockstar Game’s “thing” and because they can show off a reasonably faithful version of 40′s LA.  The latter reason may be a good reason to do so–a sense of place is important to the story–but if they couldn’t implement it in a way that made sense for the character, the writer should have told them to excise it completely, early on before it became an integral part of the game.  It’s even possible that the writer did speak up, but it was too late to do anything about it; Hence, we get the imperfect solution of the game allowing you to skip the driving sequences entirely.

  • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

    “It’s going to be just like Call Of Duty, but with apes.”

    SOMEBODY MAKE THIS GAME.

    • Effigy_Power

      Please don’t encourage them. I am sure they won’t make something so…
      Oh, look. Call of Chimpie… hey, it has a dog in it!

    • DanWhitehead

       They did make this game. It’s called Call of Duty.

    • ProfFarnsworth

      Somehow that sounds like the pitch they made when they were proposing the original Donkey Kong.

      • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

        “Awesome! sure! …wait, what’s Call of Duty?”

    • The_Helmaroc_King

      (BWAAAAAMP)
      (Several monkeys watching aircraft pass overhead.)

      This summer

      (BWAAAAAMP)
      (Cut: group of monkeys disembark from helicopter with guns ready.)

      no more

      (BWAAAAAMP)
      (Cut: first person, two monkeys run towards, jump off of cliff.)

      monkey business

      (Rising tone; rapid cuts between explosions, aircraft and gunfire.)

      (Low tone; slow motion scene where a large object flies closely over several monkeys’ heads.)

      (Silence; black screen.)

      (Night visor noise.)

      Call of Duty: Monkey Warfare 3

      11.12.13

      • Enkidum

        All the likes.

        • The_Helmaroc_King

          Consider it inspired by this gem.

      • Halloween_Jack

        All the better for the fact that the ship date is actually in November.

    • Naked Man Holding A Fudgesicle

      Oh my god, I was wrong!
      It was Call of Duty all along!
      You finally made a monkey…
      (Yes, we finally made a monkey)
      …Yes, you finally made a monkey out of me!

      edit~ You maniac, Disqus! You blew up my formatting! Damn you! Damn you all to hell!

      • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

        [This is good]

        Gameological needs to work on shoehorning in more Simpsons references. Seriously!

        • duwease

          I’m still amazed that there’s not a single person here named “Thrillho”..

        • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

          Or at least use Millhouse playing BONESTORM as an avatar. GET IT TOGETHER, PEOPLE!

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          Because of nature of the site, however, they will all need to be references to Simpsons video games. Which were mostly really awful.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          @paraclete_pizza:disqus: I will not let you speak ill of The Simpsons Hit and Run!

    • Jackbert

      Bioshock, but everyone is a rooster. Biocock.

      Mass Effect, but everyone is a donkey. Ass Effect.

      Deus Ex, but everyone is a rhesus monkey. Rhesus X.

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

        Boarcraft.
        Alan Snake.
        Dark Soles.
        The Binding of Insect.
        Ant-i Chamber.
        Humpback Miami.
        Sonic the…uh, nevermind.

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

        “Biocock“? “Ass effect”?

        Uh…

        • Jackbert

          Jeez, someone finally caught it!

      • Halloween_Jack

        Did someone say… Ass Effect? [NSFW, subreddit]

    • ComradePig

      You jest, but be careful what you wish for.

  • Andrew_Ryans_Caddy

    It really bothers me how often we see even people in the industry have accepted the line that games are an inherently inferior storytelling medium. I don’t think “games can never be as good as movies” is true at all, and I think it’s sad that we keep taking this as an objective fact. Hell, remember when TV was something that’d never be able to measure up to movies?  

    Games are still working out the kinks and fighting the self-perpetuating idea that they can’t tell emotionally effective stories, and the ones that make an effort to go against the grain can be heavy-handed about it, but they have the potential to do things no other medium can. t’s a different thing with different tools to use, and some of them can be incredibly powerful. Bioshock’s a great example (and a thing I pretty obviously have some attachment to) – even discounting the reveal, the atmosphere wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective if you weren’t the one trying to survive in the middle of. 

    • DrFlimFlam

      I remember when there was supposed to be a BioShock movie, and how I wondered about implementation. Like you said, it’s one thing when you’re the protagonist, trying to survive. It’d be another to see an actor mow through a few hundreds splicers. Even if you cut out most of that, the game offers a level of safety from the narrative, which is incredibly dark, that a movie could not offer.

      • Andrew_Ryans_Caddy

        There was? I’m glad it didn’t come through. I can’t imagine it translating at all. 

        What do you mean by safety from the narrative? If anything, I’d call a game less insulating, since you’re the one doing it. You don’t have the remove of just watching somebody else. 

        • DrFlimFlam

          Within a game, it’s just that – a game. I know I’m mowing down foes because that’s what games involve; the slaughter of thousands so you can accomplish your goal. In a movie, such endless slaughter of insane drug addicts would grow tedious and turn into something far more nihilistic than just being an action movie.

  • nikleary23

    “…movies came into their own when they learned how to talk, for the talkies.”

    No.

    • Effigy_Power

      You want to actually contribute an opposing point or did you just have a spare “no” and nothing else to say?

      • nikleary23

        Sorry, I didn’t think that needed further elaboration. The idea that movies finally came into their status as an entertainment or art form with the advent of talkies is absolutely ridiculous.

        The visual element of movies, arguably the most important aspect of the medium, was extremely advanced and evolving before the advent and popularity of sound changed how movies worked. For quite a few years following the introduction of sound the sophistication of movies actually decreased as the industry concentrated on making sound a viable option. The visual competence of movies fell sharply, leading to an era that lacked the spark and vivacity of the late silent period. 

        Just some examples of pre-sound movies that are examples of cinema at its peak: The General, City Lights, Metropolis, Sunrise, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Earth, Sherlock Jr., The Kid, The Thief of Bagdad, Man with a Movie Camera, Un Chien Andalou, The Man Who Laughs,  The Birth of a Nation, A Trip to the Moon, A Story of Floating Weeds, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Pandora’s Box.

        So, yes, I disagree with that sentiment pretty strongly. It was pretty much a nitpick with the interview so I didn’t really feel the need like going on about it at length like I just have. 

        • Andrew_Ryans_Caddy

          I want an Un Chien Andalou game, except you know it would be mostly quicktime events. 

        • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

          This is fantastic. I personally would have been content with your “no.” Because seriously, NO. But thank you so much for explaining your point so succinctly.

        • Roswulf

          I would even suggest that part of what allowed cinema to so quickly emerge as an artistic medium was the absence of sound. Movies couldn’t reproduce existing entertainment forms of the time (say, vaudeville or realist drama) in anything but an unacceptably inferior form. Early creators developed new ways to tell stories appropriate to the medium in part because they had no other choice.

          This is as contrasted with television, which spent so much of its early years aping cinema, radio and stage performance. Because it could, and the money flows to projects with proven commercial precedents. And as you note, most of the early talkies are DREADFUL as compared to the late silent movies. I watched Broadway Melody last week (Best Picture Oscar 1929) and was floored by its pervasive mediocrity.

          I suppose the the game lesson would be to look for storytelling innovation not from the triple A games with the resources to ape film styles, but from the independents who can’t produce the realist cutscenes that coopt the tactics of film. Hardly a revolutionary idea, but it flags how the lessons of history can point different observers in entirely different directions.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          It was a quote from another developer, and, as you noted, problematic. But I think she was using it as part of a broader distinction that holds more water – most mass media until now (apart from some performing arts) has been ‘talking’ media (whether that ‘talking’ was auditory or visual or whatever), and its development has been a refinement of that ability to ‘talk’ – i.e. to communicate or impart experiences and ideas to the audience. 

          Games/Interactive art, however, are listening media, and what deserves more attention is how well those systems ‘listen’ to the audience (i.e. respond to their input, or afford them rich input opportunities), rather than still refining the ‘speaking’ stuff that is more essential to other media. (Perhaps she’s tired of her work mostly being relegated to dialogue for cutscenes, and would like writing to play a larger role in the design of the actual game.)

        • GaryX

          Yeah, would’ve been OK with the “no” too. I mean, that’s why people flipped out over David Cage’s stupid PS4 shit.

        • Effigy_Power

          Well said. I just think it was actually helpful for you to make your point longer, simply because I know next to nothing about cinematic history.
          Thanks for clearing it up.

  • Naked Man Holding A Fudgesicle

    Fun fact: When Ms O’Connor and her writing partners wrote the script for Far Cry 2 the spacebar was broken on their word processor. 

    • Professor_Cuntburglar

       I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who noticed that.

  • doyourealize

    I like her one-off comment about how we’re “faking it” right now when it comes to games “listening to” players. There’s such an emphasis (still!) on choice in games and how it totally changes gameplay and the world and whatever, but gamers don’t really believe that anymore. I’m playing through Dishonored right now, and even though I’m on the last level and haven’t killed anyone, everyone still calls me an assassin. In Skyrim, you could be eviler than Skeletor and some schmoe will still ask you to fetch 5 butterfly wings or something. The best choices in games, and this is in line with her thinking about how level designers and writers should be working together, are the choices the gamer really feels the choice s/he is forced into. I’m thinking Shadow of the Colossus and the standalone Prince of Persia. It’s the same thing every time you play through those games, but being forced into the “choices” in each endgame doesn’t take away from the impact.

    Also, I don’t know how much she had to do with the story in the new Tomb Raider, but I just want to reiterate how much I love Lara’s character arc in that game. It could have been more in sync with the gameplay, which has you shooting and killing hundreds of baddies out of necessity, but Lara is incredibly impressive as a character nonetheless.

    • neodocT

       I still think choice can be done well in games (and my go to examples for that are The Walking Dead and the Mass Effect series), but I do think there is way to great an emphasis on that. Not every game needs to have a “choice” system, especially when it boils down to an arbitrary binary choice.

      Somes games are better off by limiting your choices and using that to tell a good story, like your example of Shadow of the Colossus.

      And I second your love for Lara’s arc in the new Tomb Raider. I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m impressed not only with how the plot shows her arc, but the gameplay as well. For instance, I like how Lara learns how to climb after getting the climbing axe, but it takes her longer to actually use it for violence, an use that slowly becomes more violent with the Brawler upgrades, as she comes to grips with what she must do to get out of the island.

      • Professor_Cuntburglar

         If games are going to limit choice, they should be designed in such a way where the player understands why they can only make one choice. Putting some debris in the way on a fork in the road won’t cut it. Make it so I don’t notice that I don’t have a choice.

    • GaryX

      Skyrim is very bad about this. The entire civil war has no tactile ramifications on the world at large. I remember being really frustrated that I could be a Dark Elf helping those racist assholes out, and no one ever made anything of it.

    • Aileen MacKay

      Oh man Shadow of the Colossus and the standalone Prince of Persia! Yes! Those two are actually very interesting for me as contrasts in how they set up and deal with the “choices” they force you into, and how they integrate player agency in response. I actually think Prince of Persia 2008 fails at this hardcore, or at least sets itself up for failure.

      *SPOILERS FOR BOTH GAMES*
      Both games have you putting in all your time and effort into accomplishing one goal, and both totally reverse your efforts in the end, but the ending in SoC is specifically focused on letting you respond to this, and the ending in PoP ignores your response to its detriment.

      In SoC, the chances are that your motivations and Wander’s are in sync
      because you’ve been playing the game – you might not care about resurrecting Mono, but you do care that you fought and defeated 16
      colossi to make it happen (especially that fucking last one). When the priest/shaman shows up at the end to ruin everything you’ve worked for, you’ve got that personal stake via your personal efforts, and the ending accommodates that. If you bought into your quest, you can rage and struggle against seeing your efforts fail. If you’ve decided that you feel bad about the things you’ve done and the priest/shaman is right, or that it’s just pointless to try to fight, you can be passive, and it’ll also fit perfectly into the story. You’re not allowed to change the story events, but you are allowed control over your response (like life!)

      PoP 2008, on the other hand, decides how you feel, and makes you perform specific actions as a result. It tries to make gameplay and the immersion it gives you work for it to give the ending more meaning, which is neat. But then it also ignores the impact of the gameplay that’s come before when it factors in whether or not you’ll agree with what you do during the ending, and that’s where it set itself up for failure for me. In PoP 2008 it’s essential to the ending that your motivations and the Prince’s are in sync. I didn’t really care about resurrecting Elika – I liked her, but she seemed to feel pretty strongly about staying dead and keeping Ahriman sealed. I did care about all the damn time and effort I spent fixing all of the damn seals to keep him pent up. Having that personal stake in the work that I’d done made it infuriating to me to have to carry out the Prince’s decision in-game and undo all my work. I’ve never hated doing anything in a game more than I’ve hated doing those last stupid puzzles in that one. I tried throwing myself into a pit just to do something that was my own choice, but then I had invisible walls stopping me.

      I do love that at least PoP 2008 was trying; using gameplay to make it feel like unsealing Ahriman was an actual effort you were performing was great, and clearly effective since it enraged me so much. But it needed to realize that the effort I’d put into the game was more real to me than the relationship between its characters, and I might not want to actively work to undo it.
      *END SPOILERS*

      • doyourealize

        I loved the PoP ending. I wonder how much of it has to do with with what the player would have done anyway. As you say, SotC, though forced into making a decision, is still a little ambiguous. Not so in PoP.

        • Aileen MacKay

          Yeah, when I think about it more, I feel like I should like it. I love story, and I liked the characters, and if I just think about the things the ending is trying to do divorced from the rest of the game then it sounds so awesome! But that ending just made me so mad.

          I think that is the thing, whether or not you would have done the ending anyways  – if not, in PoP they’re making you put effort into making the ending happen when you don’t want it to. In SotC, the actual ending part just happens to you and your character both, so that’s a little easier to swallow.

    • Eco1970

      I am utterly bewildered by the fact that the new Tomb Raider garnered anything other than disdain from critics and players. It was loathesomy bad.

      It was Uncharted, basically. Terrible.

      I ‘raided’ a grand total of 3 ‘tombs’ in it. I’d happily punch all the dev team in the face for making it. Haven’t had a game make me so angry in years.

      • doyourealize

        I liked it. And although I know I won’t change your mind, judging by the vitriol already spat, Lara’s technically not an experienced “tomb raider” in the game yet, as this is her first taste of this kind of thing. Also, don’t forget, Uncharted ripped off Tomb Raider first.

        • Eco1970

          Which made its aping of Uncharted even more pathetic IMO. It was like Cher going all Madonna or a better analogy (you get what I mean, I’m sure).

          The new Tomb Raider was just another 3rd-person cover shooter. The platforming was almost non-existent. Lots of tacked on flavour of the month nechanics (distract the guards with an arrow? Used that once, when it introduced it). Wave after wave after wave of irritating suicidal enemies with no plausible explanation of why they were all doing what they were doing (I dont mean the Big Bad, I mean the cannon fodder – they were all supposed to be cargo ship sailors originally, shipwrecked. I killed over a thousand of them during the game. Cargo ships have an average crew of 20. Do the math. Ridiculous). Vitriol is right, I seriously think all concerned should be ashamed, and I believe history will not rate it as highly as the hype did.

          It’s exactly the kind of lowest-common-denominator catering to what the suits think is popular game that this article takes task with, which is ironic.

  • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

    Being a crotchety coot myself, I found O’Connor’s grumpy pessimism w/r/t the state of contemporary video games bracing and refreshing. It’s also kind of simultaneously heartening and really depressing to hear that game narratives can be as frustrating and unsatisfying for the people making them as the people playing them (maybe this line of thought is influenced by my just having wrapped up Mass Effect 3 this weekend…).

    Part of me wonders if she would have been happier (though probably had much less financial liquidity) outside of the AAA sphere. I think of someone like Emily Short, who did some freelance narrative consulting on larger projects, but most of whose personal work has been in the largely independent IF community, affording her the opportunity to create less typically gendered (or masculine) stories, as well as stories centered around other verbs than ‘shoot,’ and who still seems to be enthusiastic about the prospects for narrative in interactive/game design.

    Her bit on movies learning to ‘talk’ and games learning to ‘listen’ struck a chord with me, too. I just finished reading some of Chris Crawford’s The Art of Interactive Design, and his overarching metaphor for interaction design is one of dialogue – specifically the stages ‘talk,’ ‘think,’ and ‘listen.’ ‘Listening,’ per Crawford is the component that is unique/new to interactive systems, and consequently the one that is still most difficult to achieve successfully for designers.

    I’d wager that the variety (or thoughtful limitation) of verbs afforded the player in a game are the avenues by which the game ‘listens’ to the player. And, in many cases, AAA games have been thoughtlessly limiting the verbs available to the player (typically to ‘shoot’ and ‘duck’). Yahtzee jokingly referenced this tendency when he lamented that “Sometimes I worry that modern gaming is gradually shrinking the wide spectrum of gameplay mechanics into a single narrow red bar with “KILL” written on it sideways. Exploration, navigation, puzzles, platforming, all gradually shrinking away until only one thing remains, being taken by the hand from room to room, moving on only when nothing remains alive in each one.”

    That kind of design limits player agency, and, in narrative games, makes them less engaged/active in the narrative. And, when the narrative is particularly lacking, as it usually is in games, taking away the player’s agency makes the resulting ‘game’ pretty thin gruel.

    • neodocT

       I see your point in how she may be happier outside of AAA games, but, at the same time, it’s nice to see someone attempting to effect change in AAA games. Of course the proliferation of indie games has an effect on the larger big budget games, but getting that change done from the inside is a much more direct approach.

      And I’m really curious about your thoughts on the ending to ME3, as well.

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

        In brief, the ending was flawed, but no more so than much of the rest of those games, which makes the outcry of betrayal slightly baffling to me.

        Yeah, it was a contrived choice with options shoehorned into ill-fitting ‘Paragon’ and ‘Renegade’ categories that don’t really fit the situation, and ultimately connected with the rest of the game in a fairly unsatisfying way. That’s also a fair descriptor of the vast majority of choices throughout the Mass Effect games. It seemed pretty in line with the series design ethos.

        One thing I enjoyed about the endings was that there was no unambiguously ‘happy’ one in the bunch (which I suspect is what rankled most folks). That made the choice a little more complex than a simple Paragon/Renegade role-playing decision, which was neat.

        The actual outcome of the choices was kind of dumb, but, again, generally on par with the level of writing/thought throughout the games. The synthesis ending (my first ending choice, and arguably the ‘happiest’?) was total handwavey TV-grade sci-fi bullshit that makes zero sense, but so was all the business about ‘Mass Effect’ fields and the fact that all the aliens look like humans wearing masks and prosthetics.

        O’Connor’s “This is the mountaintop, and this still isn’t cutting it.” sentiment is super on-point, and immediately made me think of my experience with Bioware games. They’re ostensibly the state of the art in narrative game design, but are actually kind of shoddy from a narrative (and in some respects, a design) perspective.

        • Roswulf

           In which I allow myself to get sucked into debating the specifics of Mass Effect 3 despite the fact that this is the ultimate in pointless games arguments.

          It sounds like much of your problem with Mass Effects moral choices stems from the shoehorning of morality into a point systems with bonuses for consistently Paragon or Renegade decisions. I agree that this created a dangerous temptation to choose based on the Paragon mini-game rather than according to any sort of role-played morality.

          But this ignores the fact that many of the choices themselves were extremely well constructed, with writing that transcended the metagaming temptation. The game’s two centerpiece pre-ending decisions- the Geth/Quarian choice and the Genophage decision in particular struck me as exceptionally un-shoddy. Lots of elements, multi-step decisions, good reasons to pursue multiple paths. And in the latter case involving Mordin Solus, who is the bestest so anything with him is the bestest so SHUT UP!

          I also think the “handwavey-ness” of mass effect fields is of an entirely different narrative kind than the handwaveyness of the synthesis ending. We may not understand the science of mass effect fields, but we understand their narrative purpose. Interstellar travel works, but relies on a mineable element and is facilitated by ancient space stations. The objection to synthesis is that the player is given very few tools to understand what this means, in a game where the integration (as opposed to the coexistence) of man and machine has been a minor theme at best. As for the aliens, I think the prosthetic accusation is wildly unfair to the designers. Krogan don’t look like humans in costumes, nor do Geth or Protheans. Nor do the Volus/Hanar/Elcor background team.

          But I suppose it all comes down to “I connected with the story” versus “you didn’t.” If your example was Bioshock Infinite, I would take the opposite position. I wish it was easier to talk about entertainment and art in a way that expresses dislike, while not operating as an attack on the tastes of others.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          @Roswulf:disqus Krogan absolutely look like a suit whipped up by someone in the Creature Shop, as do the Protheans, and to an extent the Geth. Having every major race be anthropomorphic is a pretty dire crisis of imagination for a sci-fi game presented in a medium where, unlike television or film, there’s no practical need to make aliens unnecessarily human-like (actually, there’s one practical need: the lazy alien design probably facilitated mo-capping rather than hand-animating the characters).

          There were a handful of non-humanoid races, but none of them were represented in the main cast, because then the writers would have had to try and make you care about something that was challenging to care about. So instead they played it easy and you have a cast of awesome dude-monsters and sexy space-nymphs drawn from the adolescent sci-fantasies of every he-dork born since 1977.

          As for the choices, as I said, some had nuance, but that nuance was thoroughly undercut by the boneheaded Paragon/Renegade system which arbitrarily categorized your responses (and not even consistently so – sometimes Paragon was ‘the letter of the law at all costs,’ sometimes Paragon was ‘be kind to others, even when at variance with the law’). There were definitely times when the choices were Walking Dead-style, no-easy-solution situations that were kind of satisfying. Though often that satisfaction was dissipated by the piddling (mass?) effect your choice had down the line (Oh! Legion died in my last game, so instead of Legion, I have…a character who is totally functionally identical to Legion. Great.). Choices would sometimes have a tangible gameplay effect (you could talk your way out of some fights), but as the RPG elements were massaged out of the series, and the gameplay became more shooty, it feels like that connection weakened.

          It had good moments, some fairly affecting. I’d say I ‘connected to the story,’ and felt connected to ‘my’ Shepard in a way I don’t often with non-customizable protagonists (also, it gave me the rare chance to play a game with an awesome female protagonist). But it was hardly something I’d call “great” in the way I do my favorite books, films, TV shows, or even games. The whole experience was very ‘basic-cable,’ a 90-hour episode of Farscape, which was fairly engaging, but far from “classic” status.

        • Halloween_Jack

          If you’ve seen people trying to cosplay as krogans or salarians, you know that, no, you can’t just put on a rubber suit and pass for one of them. I really don’t think that their reliance on more-or-less humanoid aliens (at least, from the neck down) for player characters or squad members has to do with their being on a time and money budget–rather than being “lazy”–and not having the luxury of coming up with a completely different way of animating a character so that you can play as Blasto the hanar spectre.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          The fact that somone can cosplay as a krogan or salarian seems to indicate that, yeah, they’re pretty much humanoid.

          Yeah, they had limited resources, so they made their aliens look unimaginative. They’re hardly the first people to ever do that (see also: every sci-fi – and syfy – TV series ever, and most Star Trek movies), but it definitely puts Mass Effect more in the company of cheesy/kitschy TV scifi than anything else, at least design-wise (though the writing is in that wheelhouse, too). It’s solid. Totally. Polished? Yeah. It’s just also pretty unremarkable, boiler-plate TV-grade middlebrow sci-fi adventure stuff.

    • GaryX

      Isn’t grumpy pessimism with the state of the games industry sort of in vogue right now though? I’m glad it’s at least drumming up really interesting and constructive conversations, but people either seem really cranky and cynical about where games are and going or just sound like a corporate shill (ie, next-gen console press conferences).

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

        Genuine enthusiasm occurs in places, mostly around the independent/experimental game scene, it seems.

  • http://twitter.com/MikoSquiz Miko the Squiz

    To be honest, I’m kind of jonesing for less storytelling in video games. I don’t much like cut-scenes, but I like “non cut-scenes” where someone yammers exposition at you while you stand there (or more likely hop around on the furniture and punch walls) even less. And honestly, it’s rare to see plot and gameplay go together at all. 

    It’s hard to create a mood or tell a story in small chunks in between scenes of a protagonist mowing down armies of generic mooks like he’s Arnie in Commando.

    I sometimes feel like the only genres that really have a shot at working in the context of a ‘traditional game’ (as opposed to an explore-em-up or conversation simulator) are surreal comedy (like Psychonauts, which is still the gold standard for me) or Lynchian fever dream (Hotline Miami). I don’t know about you guys, but my disbelief just won’t stay suspended for something like Bioshock: Infinite, never mind Skyrim.

    • Jackbert

      I think there are three ways I can suspend my disbelief while mowing down armies of mooks: non-lethality, protagonist moral status, and antagonist moral status. As examples, I will use the only games I ever talk about.

      In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, where I was merely knocking everyone out, the distinction of non-lethality didn’t detract from Jensen as a good guy.

      In the Infamous series, I played the maximum level of evil the moral spectrum allowed. I was a angry bald white sociopath with lightning shooting out of my fingers in a quarantined city. But unlike other games with a moral spectrum, good side missions were locked out when one choose the evil path. No old woman told me to find chocolate chips so she could make cookies for her grandson who had cancer. And unlike other games with a moral spectrum, people weren’t nice to me. Pedestrians threw stones at me or ran away upon spotting me. In the main stories, the only people on my side were my best friend and a couple people helping me to help themselves.

      Finally, in Persona 3, you only ever fight these things called Shadows. Shadows are pure evil. That’s it. No humanizing, no moral relativism. They’re pure evil that must be eradicated.

      On the other hand are the two games that are most often held up as examples of artistic achievement in video games: Bioshock and Mass Effect. Both of these series ignore the three ways to suspend disbelief. You cannot eliminate enemies non-lethally. The moral spectrum limits your level of evil. Attempts are made to humanize the enemies. Therefore, you cannot suspend your disbelief while you mow down armies of mooks.

      • neodocT

         I’d throw in that at least in the original Bioshock most of the enemies are deranged maniacs actively trying to kill you and that

        SPOILERS FOR THE ORIGINAL BIOSHOCK THAT EVERYONE SHOULD ALREADY KNOW

        the game eventually reveals that you ultimately had no control over your actions, which does a lot in justifying all that violence. I feel the game’s plot explains the main character being a mass murderer, without actually fully absolving him. Then again, I don’t entirely recall the game ever mentioning the many, many people you kill, so I could be forcing an interpretation here.

        • Jackbert

          Well, in most games, enemies are actively trying to kill you. But there’s a difference between killing around two dozen people, like I have through the first four episodes of The Walking Dead, and killing around 1,200 people like I had through my first playthrough of Uncharted 2.

          Good point on the ending, I forgot about that. Maybe we could add that to the criteria? Though I do find the no control route quite a bit less narratively ambitious than the other three.

      • Matthew O.

        That’s one of the reasons why Spec Ops: The Line will always hold a special place in my heart, despite its technical limitations. I love that it takes advantage of the room-clearing mentality of the average gamer, and uses it for the story.

        • GaryX

          I sort of feel like it did that in a very unsubtle way. Though it gets points for trying at least.

        • Simon Jones

           That was kind of my problem with Spec Ops. It was so utterly ham fisted about the points it was trying to make.

      • GaryX

        Perhaps my favorite boss fight ever is the Sorrow in MGS3 and how it presents you with all the killing (or non-killing) that you did throughout the game in a manor that ties into the themes of the overall game without particularly judging Snake one way or the other.

      • PaganPoet

        Shadows in Persona are negative human emotions (envy, hate, fear, etc) made manifest into creatures, correct? Pretty noble to eradicate dem bitches left and right.
        In Persona 2 and Persona 4, the shadow selves of the characters represent the darkest, most terrible secrets and thoughts that they have, and it’s only by facing them are they able to reach their “true selves” (unlocking their ultimate Personas in P2, or their initial personas in P4); God I love those games!

    • Fluka

      I think with games a distinction has to be made between traditional narrative storytelling, with an emphasis on plot exposition and dialogue, and storytelling as something which also encompasses environment, mood, mechanics, player choice, etc.  The former is “story,” while the former is “storytelling.” 

      My favorite example of this is Dishonored.  The game’s main plot and characters are skull-crushingly boring.  If you had to watch a movie based on Dishonored, it would be a generic revenge story populated with a bunch of cardboard cutouts.  But I still love the game’s writing.  By this, I mean the writing of Dunwall itself, as I slowly wormed my way through its various layers of decadence and decay, discovering its secrets.  The mechanics helped a lot with this, and my primary memory of the game is making the conscious choice to be the silent ghost on the rooftops, rather than a murderous bull in a china shop.  

      Dark Souls (which I admittedly haven’t played) and Portal are probably even better examples of games like this.  Both have fairly minimalist central narratives (though Portal arguably has some of the best dialogue, or rather monologue, ever written for a game).  But both are at least in large part told through their fantastic environments, and in through gameplay.  They’re both stories than could only exist as games.

      Tl;dr: I think the issue is that we need less movie storytelling, and more game storytelling. 

      • Enkidum

        I’ve always said that Portal (and Portal II) is pretty much the best-written game I’ve ever played. Which is not a statement about the dialogue at all, as you say. (Although, also as you say, the dialogue is fantastic.) Its the use of level design as a storytelling feature. The way you can occasionally crawl behind a wall and find the graffiti left by other poor bastards, which has no impact on game play at all. Or just the way the quality of the test chambers in Portal II changes with the company’s fortunes.  It’s all so bloody well done and I wish I could marry Valve. 

        The End.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          I remember reading the Bioshock folks (maybe including O’Connor?) tried to focus more on passive narrative through the environment than overt dialogue cues and cutscenes. Like, creating an office full of clippings and detritus, a space that told the story of the person who used that office, without having to listen to an audiolog from them.

      • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

        Yeah, methods of storytelling that leverage the medium’s potential for interaction would be great (beyond perfuctory ‘branching points’ structures, though that can be done well).

        I’ve started playing a bit of Dragon Age (the whole series was $10 on Amazon), and while the game has its flaws, the ‘morality system’ is interesting and way more engaging (and, frankly, realistic) than the typical Bioware good/bad stuff.

        And I find that system works a kind of narrative alchemy that is fairly effective. The characters themselves are largely genre cliches, and the story is a thoroughly generic high-fantasy paint-by-numbers scenario. BUT going through each quest or scenario, weighing my choices not by abstract, arbitrary good/bad distinctions, but by the subjective response of the other characters in my party, is really interesting to me.

        The narrative of my interaction with the (paper-thin) squadmates consequently is tied into more of the gameplay than just my between-mission dialogue trees or dating-sim scenarios (ahem, Mass Effect), and the narrative of my (paper-thin) adventure in this (paper-thin) world is rendered more complex by my looking at each situation and choice through the eyes of my disparate party members as well as my ‘own’ role-playing eyes.

        It’s still mostly better in concept than in execution, but it struck me as pretty cool.

        • Fluka

          Only problem, with Origins at least, is that the GOOD/BAD mechanic shows up in a similar way with the character interactions, with Approval Level.  I often found myself avoiding certain people, or saying certain things, to avoid having squadmates stomp off in a huff.  The whole “gift” system makes the romance system seem even weirder than Mass Effect to me, in a “feed in enough coins and they will love me!” sort of way.

          I feel like Dragon Age 2′s one indisputable success was in replacing Approval with Friendship/Rivalry, which rewards more consistent characterization than calculated approval-seeking.  At least in that respect, it feels more immersive.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          @Fluka:disqus 
          Yeah, but I like how the approval level system admits that ideas of good/bad are subjective. So you’re not deciding your actions based on what The Universe has decided is good/bad, but based on what your peers think is good/bad – and you have the option of respecting some peers’ ideologies more than others, and certain other pressures (“I’m shagging him, I’ll throw him a bone this time.” “She’s a really good member of the team, I’d rather pacify her than have her storm off, even if that compromises my ideals a bit.”) might affect your choices.
          The whole thing feels much more like actual moral thought, which is inherently (inter)subjective, and it adds complexity to otherwise somewhat simplistic/banal systems and characters. Even if the approval system is just grafting a ‘jedi/sith’ counter on each party member, that simple adjustment makes the system so much more veridical, complex and interesting. (If only the actual plot, characters, and setting were inherently interesting, too! But, at any rate, it’s a neat little mechanic.)

        • Simon Jones

           Morganna and Sten don’t like anything you do.

          Ever.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          @google-aa3d3e69ad6ac05b510b07fa7ce00830:disqus : She likes when I give her creepy grimoires, and I think she’d like it if I were a dick to everyone that asked me for help.

          However, because I am a goody-two shoes, Morrigan is pretty consistently disgusted with me. Leilana and I, however, are totes BFFs forevaaaaah! We’re even both rogues! We hang out, like, all the time.

        • Fluka

          @paraclete_pizza:disqus That’s a neat way of looking at the approval system – I like it!

          Also, don’t be surprised if you suddenly find yourself in a relationship with Leliana, without any prior intent on your part.

          Also re Leliana, OMG SHOES.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          @Fluka:disqus : You’re not kidding. She just suggested in conversation that after the actual quest is over, she and I go on adventuring indefinitely together as travelling companions.

          Also, I think I saw my name written on the inside flap of her Trapper Keeper! OMG!

          Re: OMG SHOES, the version of DA I got came with “Feast Day Pranks,” which are silly gifts you can buy from the dwarf at camp that make your party mates hate you. Leilana’s “prank” gift are the ugly boots, which become an equipable item, which I personally think look pretty snappy.

      • http://twitter.com/MikoSquiz Miko the Squiz

        Yes, Dark Souls is pretty spectacular at how it tells its story. None of it makes a lot of sense to me, but I love how it’s scattered here and there in bits and pieces and you’re never hammered over the head with it.

        On the other hand, there isn’t that much of it to go around, either. There’s a little bit here and there to set the mood, even if you want to you can’t spend hours trawling through lore. Unless you actually leave the game and go poke around a wiki.

    • Professor_Cuntburglar

       This is one of my favorite things about FC3 Blood Dragon. It actually makes sense for you to be mowing down wave of enemies.

  • Canadian gamer

    She’s right on about there being too many stories involving shooting at people. I love clearing rooms as much as the next guy, mind you, but I’d like to have some more choice of basic actions. Look at any games stall in a shop and apart from racing and sports games, much of what you see will be about guys with guns shooting at other guys with guns – or stabbing them. Dystopian post-apocalyptic world? You’ll shoot hobos and zombies in it. Wonderful stranded island? You’ll stealth-kill pirates with a machete there. I want to be able to climb in jungle ruins without having to poke guys in the eye with a pick-axe in slow motion. 

    Whatever the world looks like, whatever the conceit for it all, I feel like it’s always about ending other people’s lives and I think that’s shallow. It does not only look shallow, it is. No wonder creatives feel boxed-in. 

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      Shooting people (in games) is boring as hell. One of the reasons I gave up on Bioshock two levels in was that they gave me this wonderfully-realized world, and then expected me to explore it in the least compelling way possible – as a floating gun. Ugh!

      Interesting aside: Katie Salen, founder of the Quest2Learn schools, did a study with middle-school kids making games using a system she was developing called “Gamestar Mechanic.” One thing she noticed was that the middle school boys tended to fill their levels with monsters, and give their player characters weapons to kills them – and that their idea of making things more challenging was to put in more enemies. The girls in the group – who tended to have less experience with mainstream AAA games outside the club – tended to make games without a shooting character, because, in their words, the game was “too easy if you can shoot the enemies.” Because they were less conditioned by games to see “challenge” as “more shit to shoot at,” they were interested in creating challenge through other means, like making a tricky-to-navigate level, or requiring you to avoid enemies.

      (Note that this isn’t a reflection of some inherent difference between boys and girls – the difference almost certainly falls along gender lines due to socialization and prior experience with AAA games.)

      • Fluka

        I want more people making games who didn’t grow up playing games.  For such a young medium, AAA games seem completely choked right now by a rigid concept of “what a game is.”  The narrow vision of the current game industry begets an equally narrow new generation of gamers.  It’s all very Ourboros-like.

        • DeathBattleFan123

          I’ve seen games that were made by people who didn’t grow up playing games.  They sucked really bad.

      • http://twitter.com/MikoSquiz Miko the Squiz

        I like shooting people in video games. I stuck with Far Cry 3 for a long time largely because the shooting people was so good, even while much of the rest made me roll my eyes. Bioshock Infinite I wanted to stop playing because the shooting people was so poor.

    • Professor_Cuntburglar

       This is why the whole “violence in video games” dialogue bothers me. Gamers are so incredibly defensive of their right to kill stuff in brutal ways in games, yet its that very mechanic that is squelching creativity.

  • Jody Kline

    I can sort of sympathize, but on the other hand, I’m finding it increasingly frustrating that certain schools of thought in game design seem to think that ‘focusing on story’ means ‘focusing on the story the writer wants to tell’ instead of ‘focusing on letting the player create the story he wants to experience’.  

    The Tomb Raider reboot was fun, and the Lara arc well done, especially in the first half, but it was utterly linear.  If I want to read a book, I’ll read a damn book.  I play games because I want to influence the outcome, not sit through extended cut-scenes no matter how good the writing or voice work.

    This trend has been especially bothersome with Bioware.

    • maxonepercent

      I totally agree, video games are not movies, the best games are the one’s where players essentially create their own story.  This is why games like Skyrim, GTA, and even World of Warcraft have been such massive successes while the vast majority of “story driven” games end up on the bargain rack at gamestop.

  • Kyle O’Reilly

    Hmmm, what an interesting read. I feel like examing the two games she’s worked on that Gameo posted images from can show the pitfalls of writing for games.

    In Far Cry 2, the game is very unstructured, and non linear meaning they can go through at their own pace.  Consequentially it’s story has all the personality of a wet-malaria-blanket.

    Bioshock is guided and, other than a few hub spots, mostly a corridor shooter and it’s story is basically worshiped by internet denizens across the web.

    • Professor_Cuntburglar

       While the story they give you in Far Cry 2 is simple and kinda boring, the story you create as you play the game can be incredibly deep.

  • DeathBattleFan123

    I stopped reading where she suggested that there were more engineers than “creatives” on a large project.  I’ve worked on projects like Black Ops and I can tell you that the number of animators, artists, music, sound fx, and scripters VASTLY outnumbers their engineering staff.  And by the way, the ratio is actually skewing MORE toward artists over time, because as hi-tech engines become more widely utilized, it takes fewer engineers to write and maintain a code base and more artists to create the increasingly complex models, environments, and animations.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      I suppose further clarification is how many of those folks are actually “creatives” and how many are just given their marching orders by the engineers/designers?

      • DeathBattleFan123

        Artists NEVER EVER EVER receive marching orders from engineers.  That is blasphemy.  There is typically a lead designer and a lead artist, and they work together as follows: 

        The designer figures out how the game is supposed to play and what the setting is, then the artist figures out what would make that game design look the best.  Ultimate creative control typically rests on the designer for level layouts, character design, etc. but as far as looks go, the artist is in charge.  NOWHERE in that work flow does an engineer have any say-so.

        Once the lead artist comes to a decision, he will divide the work out to the art teams, and they will work largely autonomously until they are finished with a piece.  Then they submit their creations to the art lead for final approval or refactoring.

        Trust me, GOD HELP the engineer who dares change, interfere, or even offer critique to an artist’s work in anything other than the most formal and superficial capacity.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          So, in other words, the artists’ and designers’ jobs are thoroughly compartmentalized, and the artists’ job is mainly to skin the work of the designer? That sounds almost exactly like what she’s complaining about w/r/t writers being relegated to inserting perfunctory dialogue into, or cutscenes between, shooty segments.

          Likewise, it doesn’t sound like, in your schema, artists or writers have any say in the design, concept, or setting of the game, which would mean, to an extent, yes, they are getting their marching orders from the designer. The designer may not be telling them HOW to draw/paint/model/texture their work, but s/he is definitely telling them WHAT to draw/paint/model/texture.

      • DeathBattleFan123

        To Girard (because I couldn’t find the “reply button” to his comment beginning “So, in other words…”)
        Here is the place in her article where I stopped reading:…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….The thing I was responding to was her assertion that she was receiving marching orders from engineers.  That definitely doesn’t happen.  All the engineers are allowed to do is build, maintain, and use the engine.  They have NO say in art, design, music, sales, or PR matters.
        As far as Lead Designers go, yes, you are correct (but that’s not what she was complaining about up to the point I stopped reading).  The artist’s job is to skin the designer’s work.  The engineer’s job is to construct the frame for the designer’s system.  The writer’s job is to put a story to the designer’s gameplay concept.  This is the job of the lead designer.  If you want to do those things, then you should consider a career change from writer to designer, but be warned, the two jobs are completely different.It’s pretty much the same as in movies.  The director is the grand master of the movie, and he is usually not the screenplay writer.  Once the screenplay is written, the director’s job is to make sure it translates well onto the camera, so he’s got the authority to make changes on the fly.  The people on the technical side of movie making have control over the way they construct a scene, but the ultimate decision over how it looks rests with the director.  Have you ever heard of a special effects team complaining that the director doesn’t listen to their story suggestions?  Hell no, that would be ridiculous because it’s not their job.

        Something that this writer doesn’t seem to understand is that a game’s story, while important, pales in comparison to a game’s gameplay.  The gameplay must come first.  Period.  You can take a good gameplay concept, put in some terrible graphics, some irritating sound and music, and completely strip out the story altogether, and guess what… you’ve got amazing hits such as Mario, Legend of Zelda, Mega Man, and countless others.  Not to say story isn’t important — look at games like Skyrim, Fallout, and Final Fantasy.  Games like this are absolute proof of writer/designer collaboration.

        It really just sounds like this lady had some bad personal experiences, wanted more control over the product than she had, and was touchy about people disrespecting and changing her work, so she quit.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  If you don’t like your job, then do something else.  My issue with her statement is this: There are a ton of things to complain about in the game industry, but this is not one of them.  In a large game project with more than 50 people working on it, the workers NEED to have highly defined roles and they need to stick to them.

  • Brian B.

    I have to say, as a writer working in the tech industry, it isn’t easy. Whether it is for gaming, the Web or software in general, working with developers is not easy. Don’t get me wrong, I get along with many of them, but I have found that many do not respect anyone who is not a coder. My solution, with some measured success so far, has been to learn how to code and speak in their language. I suggest that O’Connor do the same. Unfortunately, I don’t know the answer to keeping people (developers) out of the areas of the process they are not qualified to participate in (the creative steps.) This must be truly frustrating, especially for a woman in a male-dominated environment. I suspect the answer is coming in the form of poor sales. Never has the industry been bigger, but then again, I see signs of it sagging under its own weight. The producer(s) who embrace a more even-keeled approach to development that is more representative of the broader demographic will reap the rewards.

    For the record, I am a 27 year-old male gamer who is sick and tired of run-and-gun shooters, and games with an all male ensemble of d-bags running amok. On the other hand, I have absolutely loved playing as female characters in Skyrim and Mass Effect. Whether or not the rest of my male cohorts can find enlightenment is a whole ‘nother question….

    • Fluka

      I honestly wish that programming were part of the standard high school curriculum, in addition to math, literary analysis, etc.  It’s such a valuable skill to have these days, but (speaking from experience) it can seem incredibly daunting if you’re coming to it without any prior experience.  I think it would improve communication in these companies (and other tech companies) across the board.

      Likewise, I’d like to hope that all the programmers, level designers, etc on the project have some experience with arts and literature, particularly beyond games and even “geek” culture.  Also better for communication, and cross pollination will make all our games better!

      • Brian B.

         I 100% agree with your comment Fluka! In addition to a second communication language, some basic coding language should be standard curriculum. I think the future of 3d printing and other technologies will kill the remaining demand for people in manufacturing and labor. We must account for this and embrace the need to grow a tech-savvy work force.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ibe.lonegunman IBe Lonegunman

    studio’s, creative directors and game leads create the ideas for the game. writers write dialog so maybe do your job or take on more responsibility and put out a game. i’d love to see how good your game would be lol.

  • Robomunky

    I hope at some point Susan O’Conner has a look at the comments on this page and sees what i am about to write.

    Susan,
      Please don’t leave the industry.  Your perspective on the importance of storytelling in gaming is one you don’t hear a lot, one that is needed and one i share wholeheartedly.
      Without people like you suffering for us and taking hit after hit
    nothing will ever progress, and i truly believe that video games (which
    will one day need a new name; interactive entertainment maybe?) will
    eventually emerge as the most versatile, affecting and creative medium
    we have yet invented.
      Throughout history the people who have elevated any art form have traditionally been sidelined or outright derided during their lifetimes, but in the long run are respected, revered and held up as geniuses. You just have to look at Copernicus, Van Gogh or Shakespeare.
      I just wanted to let you know that the strife and frustration you suffer and feel (and the personal sacrifices you make in terms of job satisfaction or career progression) are massively appreciated by those of us aware of the situation, and that the end result will be all worth it. You are an unsung hero and one of the creators of a better world.

    Thank you.

    • DeathBattleFan123

      I pray to any God capable of hearing me that video games no longer become known as “interactive entertainment” in the manner that you describe above.  If you want something driven by story instead of by gameplay, then make it yourself and call it something different.  DO NOT screw with my video games, because I love them.

      • Robomunky

         You don’t think there’s room for both?

        • DeathBattleFan123

          Yes, there is.  One should not replace the other.

  • kbrownsky

    I once read an interview with a game developer at Bioware that said, “A game with a crappy story but great gameplay is still a great game.  But a game with a great story but crappy gameplay is a crappy game.”  I think it’s sad and I don’t agree with it but this is the mentality of someone who calls the shots.

    • Danny Boy

      How can you not agree with that? Gameplay is the foundation of video games, if it weren’t, they wouldn’t be called video games. Shadow of the Colossus has an incredibly straightforward story, and the actual dialogue is practically non-existent. It’s just you and your horse. Yet that game is arguably one of the best games of all time. Why? Because it’s game design was almost flawless, and very little of it had to do with writing.

      • kbrownsky

        You said “arguably” and I would argue that it is not even close.  What was great about it was it’s atmosphere and level design.  The quest had been done a 1000 times but I’ll grant it did have fun gameplay.  But 25 years from now will people still be playing it?  No way on earth.  But you take a game like Final Fantasy that came out 25 years ago and people are still playing it.  I wonder why?  I’ll give ya a hint, it’s not for the gameplay.     

        • Danny Boy

          Wow, ignorance really is bliss.

    • maxonepercent

      I totally agree with the developer’s point of view.  If my main concern is a good story I am going to watch a movie or read a book.  Video games are all about gameplay.

      • kbrownsky

        Why would they have to be mutually exclusive?  Good stories are basically what made the Playstation and PS2 the most dominant console.  None of those games had crappy gameplay.  If you look on critic’s greatest games of all time’s lists, none of them will have just one area of greatness.  But gameplay changes as technology gets better and better.  Stories are forever.  If I was to pop in Final Fantasy VI or Chrono trigger right now, which are often considered the greatest RPG’s of all time and are also in the top 10 of the greatest games of all time, the gameplay would be dated.  The graphics would look dated.  The music score would sound dated.  But the stories combined with the gameplay of the time etc., are the reason critics consider them the best.  So why can’t more games be like that?  Why is it that what critics consider to be the “greatest games of all time” are 20 years old and came out on a system that’s so inferior in capabilities it’s not even funny?  

  • BobbyMcD

    Hmm…it sounds like her complaint is about game design, and it’s valid, but I don’t think a writer is a game designer. Sounds like she needs to alter her position a bit and design games as well as write them.

    Or, she’s in the wrong medium. Games are about user control and a large amount of writing often gets in the way of that. I’ve met many writers who make terrible, terrible video games, but they can write great novels or movie/TV scripts.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1265220404 Jessica Price

      Speaking as someone who’s worked as a writer, a designer, and a producer in the game industry, if writers aren’t working as part of the design team, the company is doing it wrong. Writing is absolutely part of design. 

      • BobbyMcD

        I mean that she sounds frustrated about the elements of game design that are outside of the writer’s domain. 

        I’ve also worked as a writer, designer and producer on video games and in my experience writers seem to struggle the most with what video games are actually about: user control. They often wish they were writing in other mediums where the writer is controlling the narrative.

  • Danny Boy

    Quite surprised and annoyed by this. Great read, but she’s basically complaining that there’s a divide between the people who ACTUALLY make the game, and the people who DON’T. I’m surprised because I didn’t think most AAA games had this divide. Maybe the problem is AAA studios hiring writers that have zero experience with actual game development, which I think is pretty fucking stupid. The great game directors/writers, such as Todd Howard, Hideo Kojima or Fumito Ueda all had programming skills before they entered the gaming industry, and it’s allowed themselves to understand what it takes to make a phenomenal game. Of course there’s going to be problems when the lead writer doesn’t understand how much work is involved in making a model go from A to B.

    • zhirzzh

      But is Kojima a great writer? Isn’t the fact that the Metal Gear games are poorly paced, and show a fairly limited understanding of good narrative part of the issue? As a rule, good writing in games wouldn’t be of acceptable quality in another medium. 

      • DeathBattleFan123

        That’s because it’s a different medium.  It’s the same as trying to take a great book and turn it into a movie. They had to chop Lord of the Rings to little pieces and only pull over the choicest bits to make it reasonable on the silver screen, and it’s considered one of the MORE PURE book-to-movie translations.  If you tried to take the LOTR screenplay and read it as though it were a book, it would appear watered down and stupid, but it works great onscreen because it’s designed for that medium.

        Video game stories serve to progress the gameplay and keep the viewer interested in character development, objective changes, and personal motivation.  Because a video game is interactive, it allows the player himself to “play out” the story of the game in whatever way he sees fit.  This medium is so radically different than movies and books that if a writer is not trained specifically for game development, you end up hearing the kind of shit that is spewed out in this article.

      • http://twitter.com/MikoSquiz Miko the Squiz

        He’s notorious for getting the “combining game and story” thing tragically wrong, with cut scenes that go on forever until the player is startled that suddenly they’re supposed to interact with the thing.

    • maxonepercent

      I totally agree, video game “writers” really need to have game design experience first and foremost.

  • Marisa Malone

    How did you first get into the game industry? I’m trying to do that right now, but it really seems to be that you need to know someone to get your foot into the door. 

  • maxonepercent

    “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 same 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.”

    This pretty much sums up my opinion on video-game writers.  A good one isn’t a “writer” so much as a “designer”.  I think that the industry needs to stop worrying so much about the nuances of storytelling and just focus on making the games as immersive as possible.  The real power of video games as an entertainment medium is allowing the player to experience a different world first-hand as an active participant, not in “telling a story”.

    • Danny Boy

      Or they could hire writers that actually have experience with Game Design. That way, they know the limitations of their own ideas and know the limitations of the actual developers they work with. I’m genuinely surprised that some AAA studios actually hire writers who have no prior experience with Game Design.

  • Anna Troll

    Play Alan Wake. I’m a writer, and I must say, that game was intoxicating.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=16831741 Eric J. Baker

    “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.”

    That sums up a lot of the problems I have with the game industry right now. It reminds me of a (rather long) quote about animation from an interview a while back with independent animator Don Hertzfeldt:

    “The point of [animation] is you can do literally anything, you can show
    us amazing things we’ve never seen before. I want to see animators
    change the language of cinema! Seriously, we have the means. Push
    animation deep into the wild new places where the surrealists took their
    reaction to photography. Rock the damn boat. If you’re going to strip
    animation of all its subjective power and just show me what things look
    like in real life you might as well be shooting live action.”

    I was reminded of that quote partially because it also makes a point about photorealistic versus surreal art styles, but also because it’s about taking advantage of your medium. Susan O’Connor talked about that, too– if your game is just going to be a string of cutscenes broken up by bland, generic shooter gameplay, why am I even playing a game? You might as well make that a movie, because I don’t feel like I’m an active participant in that experience.

  • josef2012 @dslextreme.com

    kudos to the interviewer for actually listening to the subject’s answers and adjusting on the fly.too few journalist do.