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Interview with AoC dialog writer Aaron Dembski-Bowden, part 2

Adrian Bott

The original Conan stories had some fairly racist dialog. How did you reconcile a hero who makes a point of never abandoning a fellow 'white man' with the gamers of the 21st century?

I just didn't present that aspect of him. That links into a later question, actually...

Inter-cultural enmity is very much a part of Conan's world, though. Some AoC servers now have 'cultural PvP' where you can attack anyone who's not your countryman. Obviously, much of Howard's original inspiration came from real-world cultures, so stuff like the 'dusky' Stygians being treacherous and decadent is that much closer to the knuckle than, say, a more fantasy-based setting with elves and orcs and so on. How did you feel writing for a world with such a lack of inter-cultural tolerance?

Honestly, I didn't feel bad about writing this world for two reasons: one personal, one professional.

Firstly, maybe I should have felt bad about it on a personal level, but I never did. That's because I have such little respect for Howard as a person, it was easy to dismiss his attitudes as those of a bastard and not feel bad about it all by ignoring them. I have immense and total respect for his skills as a writer and a storyteller, I know his writings very well, but the guy himself was racist, sexist and the reasons for his suicide always unnerved me. I think there should be room in the world to say 'I love Guy X's work, but I don't want a cup of tea with him' without being fired or sued.

Secondly, and far more importantly, because all quests had to be generic for The Player instead of race/class combos, the only intercultural intolerance in the game itself comes from dialog. I did a huge bunch of nation-based dialog options to try and squeeze in the variety wherever I could. That felt great, because it was fun as hell.

Just focus on aspects of the culture that aren't linked in any way to today's cultural climate. Stygians have fewer rights than snakes in their homeland. Aquilonians and Cimmerians can mock that instead of calling a Stygian all manner of names because he happens to have dark skin. And those aspects of the cultures are by far the most interesting and relevant parts of the lore, anyway. The Cimmerians believe their god doesn't even answer prayers. A Stygian in the thrall of Set-worship, who sees his god as all-powerful, would focus heavily on cultural differences like that.

Mentioning that stuff was cool, and was the main way I missed out on the open racism inherent in Howard's work.

On a similar subject, as a dialog writer, how did you tackle the characterization of women in Conan's world? We couldn't help but notice that the second NPC you encounter is a hapless prostitute chained across your path, who begs you for your help!

Yeah. A lot of Hyboria as written by Howard was sexist and racist up to 11. A lot of people who've dealt with Conan in the past use the excuse that Howard was from a different era – a product of a different age. It's something even people on the project have said.

There's an obvious truth to that, but I don't really accept that as an entirely valid justification. I'm of the mind that the year you were born doesn't really excuse you for being a bastard.

I also wasn't overly keen on the way some aspects of the game pander to it. F'rex, calling the whorehouse 'the Bearded Clam' still grinds my gears just a little. The 'boobs and blood' marketing never sat well with me, to be perfectly honest. But then, that's Howardian through and through. Just amped up even further to get attention.

I tried very hard to present Howardian writing in both technical form and getting the spirit right. 'Boobs and blood' marketing has never worked on me overmuch, and I tried my best to resist it in the dialog. Game direction did repeatedly say no to explicit sex, which I always thought was a strange touch given other attitudes on display.

I dealt with it as best I could. Several characters (like the mistress of the Tortage whorehouse; the barmaid Alyssa; Countess Albiona) have dialogue relating to sex. I tried to make it thematic and cool without being gratuitous or sounding like something from Beavis & Butthead. The conversation you can have with Sancha in Tortage, when you can question why the whores are complaining about not being paid for their 'pleasurable job', is some of the stuff I'm proudest of. I feel like Sancha's reactions in that conversation tree bring some of the game's attempted maturity to the fore.

You make it sound as if there were 'creative differences', as the boy bands put it, between yourself and the game's directors.

Not so much. I mean, on a project this size there'll always be differences, but it was actually pretty smooth sailing. Game direction never stamped on any of my pretty-pretty-princess dreams.

However, to explain better: the inspirational quote on our internal homepage, for every day of the project, was 'Combat, combat, combat – the game in a nutshell'.

That's fine; that's what sells copies of the game more than anything. Let's just say that I was always made very aware that the writing on the project was considered overall as something of a side consideration. More like polish, really.

Game direction as regards to the writing was very loose. The strictures I mentioned (no race/class quests, and no sex) were in place, and that was pretty much that. No dream-stamping in view. Besides, I'm sure anyone on any project can point to things they wished they could do differently.

Saddur is supposed to be a eunuch, right?

Yeah. I really dig his voice, too. Before I heard it, I'd always imagined he'd sound like the narrator in Baldur's Gate. You know the one I mean. That guy.

'You must gather your party before venturing forth.'

I put that line in AoC, by the way. And it was freaking worth it, tells ya.

How do you feel about writing for a backstory that the player has no choice in? In a shared world, it seems weird that every single Age of Conan character washed up on the same beach with the same Acheronian mark on their breast. Would you have liked to give players more freedom?

I'd have loved to do more with it. I've got two things to say to that, I guess.

One would be that, well, it's an MMO. We tried hard with the story, but the fact it's an MMO was severely limiting in that regard. It's the same with WoW – you need to suspend your disbelief because the world is populated by a thousand other versions of people on the same story as you. Every Horde character that levels in Eversong Woods and the Ghostlands is 'that one character' responsible for bringing in Dar'Khan's head and getting the Blood Elves involved with the Horde.

Same deal here. We wanted the story to be a personal one, but the necessities of the MMO format mean you've got to...hand-wave a little.

The second thing I'd say is that we've got a dedicated Live team, which (ahem) I happen to be part of. I genuinely have zero idea what the future holds in this score, but if someone ever said I had to do dialog for more starter areas in future patches, I'd not be stunned. Tortage has been incredibly well-received, after all. Most reviews I've seen pin Tortage, its dialog and its varied quests as the high quality point of the game.

I stress, again, that I have no idea. I just wouldn't be surprised at more starter areas in X years. That's not insider info; it's just something I think would be cool.

AoC has had a spectacular reception so far, with editions selling out all over the place. Did you expect this much success?

Honestly, I did. I don't think it's a disservice to say that the main appeals of the game are the GFX (including the blood 'n guts fatalities elements) and the PvP play style. That was always going to sell the game well, and the boobs 'n blood marketing style was hardly a hindrance.

I make no claims to being some erudite, highbrow genius that rules above such things, but the focus on certain aspects of the game meant I was sure it would sell well. I still find the concept of an 18+ game apparently selling game-time cards hilarious, though. What, you have a gaming rig capable of AoC, electricity bills, an ISP, and you buy game cards?) but...whatever. Let's not fight, dear.

What has pleased me is that beyond the incredible GFX and the PvP, a lot of other jazz is getting praised, too. And yeah, sure I mean my work – but also the VO quality, the quest system, the music that's beyond awesome, and a thousand other touches that make the game whole.

Thanks again, Aaron, and congratulations on the ongoing success of Age of Conan!

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