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AGDC: Interview with game writer Susan O'Connor

Kevin Kelly

One thing that regular readers of Joystiq know is that we don't tend to delve too deeply into the mechanics behind the games, mostly because we're far too busy getting the news out. However, we got to sit down with games writer Susan O'Connor at Austin GDC and she provided an excellent insight into games from the writer's point of view.

Click through for the full interview with Susan to find out why she thinks short games are better than epic ones, why the cinematic model isn't the best for games, and what she did on BioShock.

How did you get into writing for games? What's your background?

"They needed a writer so my timing just lucked out. Cheap games, quick turnaround, super low profile."

I always wanted to be a writer. So, in the late 90s, I got out of college, and I was like, "How about I wait tables and figure it out?" I was waiting tables and it wasn't leading to any glamorous writing career. I just started hitting the pavement, and there was a small game studio here in town that made kid's games. They needed a writer so my timing just lucked out. Cheap games, quick turnaround, super low profile.

It's funny because I see how eager people are to get into the industry and they sort of want to jump right away into the Triple As. Oh, my gosh! I think, it's crazy. You've got to start with the little dinky games, because it's harder than you think. The place to screw up is on small games. Fail small, fail early and often. In the late '90s, no one had a degree in games. All the designers had architecture degrees. All the writers had art history degrees.

People were just like, "Hey, I'll try this dumb thing for six months and see how it works out." Ten years later, I'm talking to you.

It's a major at colleges now.

It's a major and a competitive major, God bless them.

So, I started out with that, and we were acquired. We were all laid off, and I figured I'll just start freelancing. My timing was good, although at the time I had no idea. When I started freelancing was when I really became interested in let's try and raise the bar a little bit for storytelling. It has not been a graceful climb in the industry, there's been lots of stupid stuff done, but I think the fact that people are still trying is what matters.

What would you consider your first big writing job in the industry? What put you on the map?

Gosh, that's a good question. Gears of War put me on the map, but I don't think that played to my strengths as a writer. Story wasn't a priority for that title in the same way that, say, BioShock was. I've worked on lots of different titles. In a way, it's such a small industry, the smaller games that put me on the map which is probably made of up 10 people. It's probably a game that's really made for me more than, say, Gears of War, or BioShock even.

Which games are those?

I'm trying to think. I worked on an RTS a few years ago with Atari. An action adventure game for Atari. I can't remember the titles, it's been so long. But, one thing led to another.

Do you have your resume up somewhere?

Yeah, and Mobygames lists my titles and all that stuff.

Are you working on the sequel for Gears?

No, I turned it down. They offered it to me and I said no.

I wonder if they're trying to put more emphasis on the story in that game?

Well, I wonder how much the players want story.

Right, they sort of know what they're going to get.

Sometimes I think story can get in the way of epic, kinetic stuff. I don't know, I wish them luck because they're a great team.

How did you get involved with AGDC?

I actually started ... I founded the Game Writing Conference four years ago, and that was a different organizer. Then, that organizer was also organizing the MMO conference and something else. And they were, at the time, separate conferences that just ran concurrently.

Then, CMP, Think Services, whatever, bought them. They really liked what we had done and asked us to keep going. So, they kind of asked us, which is great.

It's really exciting. Because when we started, it was an uphill battle just to justify it, like, "We swear, someone's going to be interested in this besides me."

The Game Writing Conference -- was that entirely a game writing conference or was it just writing in general?

No, it was specifically for games. People who write for games, and not even journalists. Although that definitely qualifies as game writing, we're talking in terms of creative.

Sure. Does that still happen, that conference?

It's a track now with GDC. So, they've got three tracks now. The audio track and the game design, it's an umbrella of like design and whatever. And then, we have a game writing track. We have 24 sessions in that track alone, just on game writing.

Ok, right. I attended a couple on Monday. I saw D.B. Cooper's panel.

"So, post mortems are a huge hit; everyone loves them. It's like, 'Here's what just happened.'"

Oh, that was on the audio side. But, it did involve writing because of the dialogue. This year at the conference we sort of had a theme: The Future of Storytelling in Games. The GDC in San Francisco is always looking backwards, because they need to appeal to the broadest possible audience. So, post mortems are a huge hit; everyone loves them. It's like, "Here's what just happened."

So, we wanted to do it because we think that game writing is only going to get better. I mean, this year already we're seeing this huge story resurgence with Portal and BioShock, and I just feel like there's some kick ass games coming out. And in five years, I think the bar's just going to rise. It's huge.

So, we had a theme and then we kind of tied each day's content to that theme. So, the Future of Storytelling in Games was the big idea. And then, day one was 'The Future is Now.' And that's where we talked about the things that have just happened, but are more forward thinking. And then, day two was 'The Future is Coming,' and that was just games in development, like Tomb Raider: Underworld, and Rage and the Sam & Max episodic storytelling. That was a good on. That was really good.

And today was 'The Future is Out There.' So, we're doing this loop the loop storytelling conference today. We're going to have one that's going to be in a little bit, "Alternative Inputs." The whole idea being that when you can get the controller out of the way, new stories are possible. What if the player can move the game with his mind?

If you can make a game where they can actually move the player with their brain... the Wii is kind of like a kickstart for that whole area. We feel like that's just a start. There's a whole technology out there that sort of in the lab still, but pretty soon it will be out and people can incorporate it in their games, and that's just going to be night and day, I think, when that stuff comes out.

It's interesting that you mention Portal because it feels like the game could have been released just like, "Hey, try to figure out how to get out of this room." No story attached. And it would probably have done OK. But, with that story, it was amazing. It became this incredible game. I talked to some SAG artists on Monday and they said, "Well, we've been doing this for years, but we've noticed over the past few years that more and more of the recording we're asked to do in it, and the way the games are written have become more cinematic and they're big stories." Do you find that's been the case with everything?

I think, that there ... How do I answer that one? Yes, I think, people are definitely going to be more ambitious with their games, and well they should be. I think that they're taking story a bit more seriously up front, which is the only place it can work. I think, if you bring in the writer late, just forget about it.

Sure. Which a lot of people tended to do.

Oh, yeah. They still do. I just turned down a job last week because it was like that.

Where it was a finished game and they said, "Just slap a story on it?"

Well, it was almost finished. It was pretty far along. And they'd had a story they had written and were like, "Can you fix it?" I had no idea. No.

You're not a programmer.

Yeah, exactly. It's done. "I don't like this house I just built. Can you fix it?" Well, yeah I can, but by knocking the whole thing down first.

And starting from scratch.

[laughs] Yeah. So, I think, the characters are becoming more complex. I think that writers are getting smarter. I think, the industry is learning new ways of telling stories. I think, initially they were trying to imitate things they already knew, which is huge. That's no diss on people either.

"You really shouldn't focus on creating a real big complex character for the player, because the player doesn't want to hear it or take on that role."

When movies first came out, they tried to be plays, right? And it took a while to kind of figure out, what can we do here as a movie that only a movie can do? What's unique to us as a storytelling medium? And I really think we're at that turn in the river now with games.

Like for example, one of my big things is that you really shouldn't focus on creating a real big complex character for the player, because the player doesn't want to hear it or take on that role. I don't think the players see themselves as actors; they see themselves as them in the game.

But, the NPC is really the star of the show. Like with BioShock the player's not the hero of the game story, the player is the hero of his own story. But, the player who is driving the whole game action is, of course, your antagonist. And he's the one who's the most fully filled out and the most fleshed out and the most interesting. In a movie, you'd never do that, right? You'd never have this like, "Hello, I'm the hero. Must kill all people." Right?

[laughs] Sure. That would be a great movie.

Oh, yeah. I'd probably pay $10 for that. Right. Yeah, I think, definitely games are getting bigger and stories are getting bigger. When you play a game, it's hard to keep track of an epic storyline. You know, you might have played that level three times already. And it might have been the last time you played it was three weeks ago.

So, I think, the best stories are actually the ones that work on a small level, and it only comes together at the very end. I think, it's actually a better medium for small stories than for epic stories. Which is funny, because I think a lot of people in games love Lord of the Rings, love Star Wars, love the cinematic scope. I think we're learning to size it down; and Portal is a perfect example.

Yeah, I agree.

It's a stand alone story totally designed to integrate into the game. It works fantastic in this medium, and that's what I think we should be shooting for.

Although Bioshock feels very cinematic. It's a very cinematic game.

Yeah, it is, but you interact with it. And it's a cinematic experience that you pursue, like you can go through the game listening to any of the tapes. It's a pull model, or is it a push model? A push model is like, "Kiss my ass, it's like a 120 minute cut scene. Step it up!"

Like Metal Gear Solid.

Exactly, yeah. Whereas with BioShock if you're into it, then you can also get that satisfaction like, "I found it." You actively pursued it. And there are some canned moments, but they tie in with the fiction of the world. You lose control when you literally have lost control.

Oddly enough though, aren't they making BioShock into a movie?

Mmm hmm, with Gore Verbinski, from Pirates of the Caribbean.

That sounds huge.

Yeah. I think, you have an opportunity to explore that story in a way that you never could in that game.

Well, it's such a rich story. Moving on, are you involved with BioShock 2?

I'm not, which is fine. You really try and put everything you've got into a title. I'm happy to come in on sequels, I'm happy to come in on the first game, but I don't like doing the game and the sequel. I was just talking to Marianne, the writer on God of War and she's, that's almost ten years of her life. I mean, it's a fantastic title, but still, ten years of anything ...

I guess you just see a game after it's finished, and if it's a game where they have a lot of heavy voice dialog that's been recorded, is that a strange experience for you to come back and finally see the finished product and listen to it? And be like, "Wow, I didn't write it exactly like that," or, "Wow, they nailed it right there."

Yeah, it is a little bit weird. It's one of the things I really try to figure out how to do. Screenwriting's really hard, but one advantage is that the writer's able to deliver something complete; for better or for worse. Once it's done, they can hand it off. In game writing, you're always in process. The game evolves, the story evolves, as it should be for sure. You can't ask a game writer to turn over a script, that's stupid. It'll never work in pre-production, we'll just figure it out later.

"Some games, you get this "My heart is heavy. I miss my princess. I must go forth into the forest." Who talks that way?"

But yeah, especially as a freelance writer, how do you make sure you get to be around the alpha and beta as they're making cuts? Patrick Redding is up, he was the designer on Far Cry 2 and I worked with him as the writer. They're getting down to figuring it out. What can we fit on this disk? How much time do we have? What can we cut? Good stories are just a deck of cards. All you need is one to come out for the whole thing to come crashing down. I've worked on games that's happened.

We cut scenes that might seem irrelevant, but they were the setup for the big payoff at the end. It's a black art. How do you make sure that you're around at the voice session? One of the challenges, one of the things I want to see more of, I'm starting to see game dialog that's off the nose and it's more about the subtext than the text. Some games, you get this, "My heart is heavy. I miss my princess. I must go forth into the forest." Who talks that way?

Thanks for the exposition.

Exactly, right? When you're trying to write a subtle layer of text and you've got zero cues around you, you're just in a room by yourself with this piece of paper.

That's a lot of what DB said. That is boring, this is more interesting. Do you have a lot of people approaching you like, "Oh, I love what you do, I want to do that?" A lot of young people who think they want to do this. What do you end up telling them, to come to ADDC?

This is a great place. It's small enough that you can talk to the speakers, whereas in San Francisco you've got 20,000 attendees. Those speakers are really high profiles, so they're constantly getting bombarded 12 months out of the year. Even here it's a bit like "Oh my God, please. I'm sorry I can't wave a magic wand and get you a job." But, it's a great place to learn. That's the goal when you're putting together the concept of a track, really try and pull back the curtain a little bit.

It's really amazing how little people know about how it actually happens. A lot of people think they write the story first and then make the game. Never. They also think the writers write the stories. Very rarely. Usually, the game designer writes the story, and then the writer has to figure out how to make it work. Which is tricky, because I think the heavy lifting for the writer is in the story structure. That's really one of my big things.

I'm working on writing a story right now about game writing from the ground up, and trying to illuminate it a little bit. Like creating characters that have weaknesses. Because that creates a good story. Like, let me tell you a story: I'm strong, and I'm going to get stronger and stronger until I'm the strongest. The end.

That's a great story.

Yeah. That's a great story. Don't you want to know what happens next? [laughs]

What's the movie version of it?

I know. [laughs] That's the thing, I think, finding ways as game writers to do a better job contributing, and really help learn the craft and share that new knowledge with other people without being pedantic. You don't want to be lecturing anybody. But, I think everyone wants to tell good stories. And a lot of what a good story is kind of counter-intuitive to games development. They want to talk mechanics, I want to talk emotions. I want to be held. [laughs] You know what I mean?

I just want to be loved.

[laughs] I just want to be loved. Yeah, I was in a meeting just like two weeks ago and we were coming up with some pitch ideas for a publishing meeting, and I said, "Well, the story is really important to them, and the journey, so let's talk about the kind of emotional palette you guys want to work with." I mean, it's like I cut a fart. It was a really awkward moment.


And I'm like, "Powerful? You want to be powerful? We can start there." [laughs]

How many writers worked on BioShock?

Well, there's a lot of people credited, but for example one of them was one of the audio people. It's like a new game is a real collaborative effort. Ken (Levine) was always the big mastermind, for sure. I came on and spent several months touching everything up. I worked on the tapes, I worked on Fontaine's stuff, I worked on Alice's stuff. I worked on plot points, I worked on back stories for people. Just a bit of everything.

But, the nice thing is that Ken's a writer. Like the thing I just talked about that catches some developers by surprise, it's not a problem.

He gets it.

He's already thinking about, both in terms of story structure and compelling characters and really kind of going, "Hmm," beneath the surface to really kind of get to what's interesting about plots and conflict.

So, that's a good example of a game where you were talking about you're brought in and that thing is already shaped as far as it's going.

The main story's in place. But again, usually that's the case. I worked on a game recently where it wasn't really a totally blank slate, and that's happening more and more. It's not uncommon for the developers to go, "Here's my treatment. It's done."

And then you read it and you're like, "Oh, shit. What am I going to do with this." Yeah. So, a lot of times you just say, "No thanks." Because you want to do good work.

Do you game?

Yeah, I do. I mean, I put myself on the clock and do it. I have like, literally, game playing hours. It's weird when you work at home. If I was in a studio, it would be a lot easier. I could just sit down and walk people I'd probably get through games a lot faster.

I'm actually going to put an ad in Craigslist, because I live near campus, like "Wanted, Dude or Dudette who blazes through games. I will provide console and titles. Come over." And pot. [laughs] Just come over.

Dang, where were you when I was going to college here?

I know! It's like a dream job. I'll get no answers because it's too good to be true. But, I'm serious! Please come over.

[laughs] You'll actually get flooded with responses.

When you're on the clock and you want to be able to talk about a game with a client the next day and you're stuck on level three, this is not a joke. I need to know this stuff.

Yeah, watch somebody play and soak in all that stuff.

Yeah. I play games for fun, but I also play games because I have to. And here's the scandal, in terms of game writing you can't talk about a game until you've seen the whole thing. And game developers in general don't finish other people's games. They don't have time. Only journalists do and high school stoners usually finish the games. You want to, but you have to really be judicious about what you choose because it's a huge commitment of time.

And it's a bit of a bus man's holiday. Like, yeah, I just spent 10 hours in front of a monitor, I really want to do this for four more hours. When you get past the age of, I don't know, 18, you have relationships and hopefully a life. You want to go out and live it a little bit.


One reason people can talk about the Portal story is because they finished it. It's didn't take a commitment.

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