Captain's Log: Interview with Star Trek Online lead writer Christine Thompson, part one

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Today Captain's Log continues with the first of two installments of my interview with Christine Thompson, Star Trek Online's lead writer at Cryptic Studios!

I began the discussion by asking Thompson about her background as a writer and journalist before she began working for Cryptic. She stated that she had held positions as a reporter, editor, page designer, and wire editor for 13 years, after which she found herself in a position of "either having to move up into management or having to find something else to do."

Yet she spent a lot of her personal time playing MMOs, reading comic books and fantasy novels, and watching Star Trek. Since she had to find a new career anyway, she thought, "Why not find a career I actually enjoy?" That's when she began to look for writing positions in the gaming industry.

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At the time, she was also playing a lot of City of Heroes and found out that Cryptic was accepting applications for content designers. She applied to be a content designer at Cryptic Studios, which brought her in to interview for that position and later for the position of web writer for City of Heroes, for which she was eventually hired. She helped to launch the websites for Champions Online and Star Trek Online.

It was at about the time when Cryptic Studios obtained the Star Trek license that Thompson approached the CEO of Cryptic, Jack Emmert. "I want to play too," she said. "What can I do for Star Trek? He said that they needed a history for between what happened between the film Star Trek: Nemesis and the beginning of Star Trek Online. So I wrote a bunch of notes for that, which eventually developed into The Path to 2409."

Originally, when the position for writer became available, there was intent to hire an "official" Star Trek author, someone who had either written for the shows or the novels, but that never worked out.

She found herself in the right place at the right time with the right talent. Between her willingness to volunteer on the STO project and the fact that the team was just beginning to formulate its first prototype mission (referred to now as the mission at P'Jem), she was the right candidate to move over to the Star Trek Online team and become its lead writer.

We talked about how overwhelming it must have seemed to her, and yet she seems to fully understand how enviable her position is for many fans, especially those who write and roleplay in the Star Trek universe.

I asked Thompson about the difficulties she may have had filling in the 30-year history. She told me, "First of all, it just seemed too huge. There were a couple of story points along the way that the team wanted upfront. They wanted a breakdown of relations between the Klingons and the Feds; they wanted the return of the Borg; they wanted Iconians to have a presence. So I started to break all of this down, and I started with Romulans -- how would the Romulans react?"

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She admitted that she actually wrote the majority of The Path to 2409 long before the release of the J.J. Abrams-directed film in 2009. She recalled with a laugh that she was very happy with her work at the time. She described herself as a "huge Romulan fan"; she had "built a huge Romulan arc with multiple political factions that was very detailed." Thompson told me, "I gathered all of my notes together and sent them off to CBS and said 'I have this great idea for three Romulan political factions and a series of adventures on Romulus' and all of this really great stuff. I just got this email back from them that said, 'We have to talk.'"

She was informed, before the 2009 movie was released, that Romulus and Remus had been destroyed in the "Prime Universe" in order to provide a foundation for the creation of the alternate universe in Abrams' film. It was then that she realized a large portion of her work was rendered useless. "About 20 pages of work went up in the air, and I went out to my car and screamed for a little bit, then came back in and started over," Thompson said.

The team at Cryptic wasn't given a lot of advance warning about the issue and was told only that the planets were destroyed in the film script. They were also given advance copies of the Countdown comics that CBS asked Cryptic to include in her story as well.

Originally, Thompson became a big Romulan fan due to the Diane Duane Rihanssu novels, which she read while in college. She appreciated Duane's take on the Romulan psyche and the species' particular view of the universe around them. It was this that helped her understand that within the Star Trek universe and the main factions (Klingon, Federation, Romulan, Cardassian, etc.) it's always about a point of view on the world. "No one is really the bad guy," she explained. "No one is really the good guy. The story is about how people look at the world."

We changed subjects to her status as one of the few female employees at Cryptic. She believes there are 10 or 12 women in the whole company, only two of whom work on the Star Trek team. She admits that it's likely due to the fact that video games are a male-dominated industry but is quick to say that, "When it comes to a boys' club or anything like that, at least it's not like that here at Cryptic."

It just so happens that her husband John works in the STO QA department. She says it's nice that they live less than two minutes away from the office and that they can share so much together. She and her husband are not the only married couple employed by Cryptic; there are a few more that work on other teams.

While Thompson's always reading (she has a Kindle that she keeps with her at all times), her most recent reads have been some vampire books, a Star Trek Typhon Pact novella, and the Song of Ice and Fire novels, which she's re-reading yet again. She's also writing a novel that she describes as a "modern take on the supernatural genre" that will include many aspects of Native American and modern American mythology. Understandably, she's reluctant to give away any of the plot.

I asked her what games she's currently playing, and she listed City of Heroes, STO and Star Wars: The Old Republic among those she's played recently. In regard to SWTOR, she's particularly interested in how BioWare dealt with the story. She admits freely that SWTOR was able to do many things that she wishes Cryptic had been able to do in STO, but she was also quick to say there were also other things about the game she would have done differently.

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Thompson likes the fact that there's a lot of interaction with the crew in SWTOR, which gives rise to a lot of side-missions. "I wish we had a crew system that would allow me to write for what your crew was," she said. "Unfortunately, most of the time our bridge officer text ends up being fairly middle-of-the-road because I don't know whether you've got a bridge full of Klingons or a bridge full of Vulcans. There have been times we've injected a little bit of humor into a story, and we get a lot of negative feedback from people saying their bridge officer would never talk that way. So while it's great that we allow players to develop their own bridge officers, it's also a little bit of a drawback in that we're limited. I can't write a story about a player's First Officer's old girlfriend because I don't know if his First Officer would have had an old girlfriend."

This brought up the subject of the Foundry and I asked her whether or not she had any advice for Foundry authors. She answered that Foundry authors actually have quite a bit of freedom that she doesn't. They're not limited to writing missions that could be used by both factions, nor are they limited to writing missions that must be played by all levels; they have the freedom to place limits on their missions that she might not. However, she does understand that Foundry authors do run into the same problems that she does.

As she told me, "We've just gotten the ability to have species-specific dialogues, and it's just sort of an editor trick at this point. While I would love to see this added to the Foundry, I have no idea whether or not that could happen. I would also like to have the ability for gender-specific dialogue in the Foundry. I don't even have that! You don't know how much it was killing me to write for Scotty and not have him able to use the words lad or lassie!"

Join me next week when I wrap up my interview with Christine Thompson. Until then, live long and prosper!

Incoming communique from Starfleet Headquarters: Captain's Log is now transmitting direct from Terilynn Shull every Monday, providing news, rumors, and dev interviews about Star Trek Online. Beam communications to terilynn@massively.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.