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Community / Off-Topic / Re: The Silver Screen: Movie News, Reviews & Reactions 2015
on: January 27, 2015, 08:49:48 PM
The previous iteration of the FF had a latina playing Sue, so doing it with the other sibling this time is just following precident. But of all the characters they should have raceflipped Reed, showing up Sony (who balked at the idea of testing a black man for the role of Peter Parker) and stealing a march on the MCU (Black Panther with its scientific genius titular character is still something like 2 years away) in the process.
Community / Off-Topic / Re: Beyond Earth (Reactions, stories, let's play setups, etc...)
on: January 27, 2015, 08:22:59 PM
I think Ectogenesis is more an issue of convenience.
The hormone storm of pregnancy has a solid crowd of endorsers as much as detractors, so rather like any normal family the decision to have children has it's external realities to answer to.
Some thoughts on this occur ed to me while bringing the nipper to have lunch at mom: One reason children are born when they are is so that the wee one and mom survive the wee one's exit. How long could you keep a fetus in its pod? You run into trouble with muscle growth and control, eventually, but would it be worth while to extend gestation to have the infant be a bit hardier?
The one inescapable criteria for birth timing is the physical ability to get the little parasite out through the bottom of the pelvis; that's why a baby's skull plates aren't fused, so the head can be squished around that problematically large brain a bit to facilitate the process. Remove that literal bottleneck via artificial womb and extending gestation time shouldn't be a particular problem
Community / Off-Topic / Re: On Narrative Design
on: January 27, 2015, 04:29:58 PM
Could I ask you for some advice on the writing process (in regards to books, not games)? I’m working on writing my own fantasy story, but it’s slow going due to a myriad of factors. I was just wondering if you have any tips on how to get the creative juices flowing, so to speak. As it stands, I write maybe a few paragraphs at most whenever I open up the documents, which isn’t often (time is not something I have a lot of to use, sadly).
Dorothy Parker once said, “I hate writing. I love having written.” I completely agree. Forcing myself to sit down and write, schooling myself to do that and only that and not the hundred other interesting things I could be doing (look! Tumblr!) is a chore. Sure, there’s a story I want to tell. It’s burning inside me and I want to see it take shape… it just kills me there’s this whole intermediary process required to get it from my brain into a form which other people can consume. There’s all that typing, and editing, and more editing, and… bah.
So I can commiserate when someone says they have trouble getting the creative juices flowing. That’s not always the case for me— sometimes the juices are flowing overtime, and it’s all I can do to keep up with where in the story my mind’s already raced… it’s mentally juggling around the climactic encounter at the end and I’m still writing that stupid exposition-laden part in the second chapter. Ugh.
A lot of times, however, the juices are at a standstill. I’d really rather be doing anything but writing. A hazard of doing it professionally, I guess, is that you need to write every day no matter how you feel. You learn to come up with coping mechanisms to keep things going.
First off, I’ll point out that everyone gets their creativity from somewhere different. I’ve always thought that should be obvious, but after talking to some folks I’ve come by the impression not everyone knows that… they think there’s a set process to creativity, to writing. What works for one successful writer should work for everyone, in their minds.
I’ve never found that to be the case. Some people require strict organization and planning. Some people are more stream-of-consciousness and couldn’t write under those circumstances— even if they wrote an outline they’d abandon it by the fifth page. Some people struggle to write action scenes. Others are bored by writing dialogue.
I think it’s all fair, so long as you find what works for you. I don’t know if it’ll help at all, but I can tell you what works for me.Establish a Quota
When I’m writing for a game, it’s a word count quota. When I’m writing a novel, it’s a page count quota. It doesn’t have to be large, and quite frankly the quotas I set for myself are low enough I couldn’t possibly just write that amount every day or I’d never finish on time (1000 words or 5 pages, if you’re nosy)… but the quota’s what I have to write before I’m allowed to stop. I know the quota going in, and I’ve agreed to it. Even if it’s an absolute struggle, I do it. If I absolutely cannot, then I have to add on what I missed to the next day’s quota.
I have a German upbringing, however, so guilt happens to be a great motivator for me. And discipline is its own attraction. Don’t ask.Don’t Expect Perfection
Very important when you’re writing to a quota: don’t expect everything to be perfection. I have too many writer friends who trip themselves up trying to make every page absolutely perfect before they move on. They go back and revise, hate what they’ve written and then revise some more, and then get depressed when they’ve done all that work and still have only written a small amount. Then they give up.
There’s a time and place for revision, and that comes after the first draft. Right now, you just need to write— even if it’s terrible. Putting words down is the only way you’ll defeat the blank page (or the blank screen). You may get several pages in before you’re suddenly struck by a brilliant idea and decide to go back and start over— and that’s fine. You still need to get those several pages out in order to reach that point, don’t you? Tell yourself that not every line is going to be perfect immediately, and that’s okay.Don’t Mix Worlds
Some people are better at this than others, but for me I need to establish a separation between my non-writing time and my writing time. I need a space which is my writing space, and that’s the only thing I do there. I can write on my PC at home, but the only way I can do it is by clearing everything off my desk— I just move all my personal stuff out of sight. Doing that tells my brain that it’s time to work. I need to trick it.
This is why I can’t play games on my PC at work, incidentally. But them’s the breaks. Since I don’t wear a suit and my office isn’t very office-like, I need a way to switch over into “work-mode”… it’s a trick that’s always worked for me, though I imagine others would need their own way of doing it.Rituals Are Your Friends
Yeah, some people might say rituals are a crutch. I don’t disagree. It’s a cheap tactic— but, the way I see it, you’re at war with your lazy brain. Switching over into “work-mode” isn’t always going to go far enough, so you need to get tricksy.
Me, I sit up. I adjust myself so I’m seated properly, back straight and feet planted. Arms on the rests. It’s unnatural for me, as I’m always hunched over my keyboard, but I do it whenever I’m about to write as it’s a nice little “kick” that tells me I’m about to get busy.
I also do a bunch of things online before I get started— I check my email, check the few websites I go to regularly, check the forums… I allow myself a set amount of time to do that (though that can get kiboshed if there are important emails to which I need to respond), but I need to do it. It’s a way of “clearing house”, making me feel like I’ve attended to all the things I need to so I can move on. I have to fight distraction, which is why I only allow myself a limited time, but it’s a ritual that tells my brain “okay, you’ve checked all your stuff… now get cracking.” I’m not allowed to go online again for at least an hour, and thankfully I’m often too engrossed by that point to do it anyhow.Getting Inspired
It occurs to me that the original question may be as much asking how I get inspired, as opposed to solely asking how I task myself to keep on target. If so, that’s a slightly harder question. Inspiration is difficult to manufacture. It’s something that everyone in my profession is trying to do, and often failing at, so if I had a sufficient answer for this I’d be much more successful.
I can give some advice, however, that I’ve given to some of my writers when they’ve hit a wall— they’ve been handed a plot or a character which doesn’t speak to them, or they’re trying to create a plot for which they just can’t think of anything interesting. They bang their heads against the problem, doing it by rote, and then realize it’s as banal as they feared. What do they do then?
My answer: “Find something
interesting in it.”
If they’re writing a character that’s not speaking to them, change it. If they’ve got a plot that seems boring, change it. Put something in there which makes it interesting, even if it’s a small thing. Give a character a quirk. Change their gender, or their outlook. Make them hate something intensely, or love something they can’t have. If it’s a plot, add a complication. Change the location, if you can. Make the plot-giver intriguing, or deceitful. It’s a double-cross… no, a triple-cross! (I did this when I wrote the Drow city in BG2.) Or mix it up! Start the plot in the middle of the action, or reverse the scene entirely. When I was stuck beginning The Calling, I actually cut the first chapter entirely— the book begins in what was originally Chapter 2, and while the cut was painful at the time, it worked. Just add one element that makes you smile, makes it more yours.
This doesn’t mean you need to re-write your entire outline, or throw out the entire concept for the plot/character. As professionals, we don’t often have that option anyhow. It means you play with it, shake it up a little. Quite often my writers get stuck in the mindset that they have to write what they’ve already come up with… I think this happens to other writers, too. They’re so committed to what they’ve already planned out that the idea of actually changing something becomes anathema. They’d rather stick to the plan than realize it’s the plan itself that’s boring them.
Another possibility is some brainstorming. When I’m stuck, I bounce an idea off of someone. I announce it to the rest of the Writers Pit, or I call up a friend who’s patient enough to let me explain my entire plot to her. Maybe the suggestions will spark something, or just the act of my speaking the story out loud will do it. It usually works, though not everyone’s going to have someone with whom they can brainstorm. That’s okay— most peoples’ ideas really suck anyhow, and they’ll never be better than your ideas. It’s just a way of making you engage with your story outside of your own head, to be honest, and sometimes that’s all you need.
If, after all that, you still can’t think of a single thing to change? A single thing that brings you joy as a writer, which makes your scene/character/project cool and something you want to do? Then you shouldn’t be writing, harsh as that may sound. You probably need to re-charge, go back to the well that inspired you to be a writer in the first place… whatever that is.
Don’t worry about it. It happens. Give yourself permission to fail, just like you give your first drafts permission to kind of suck. Try not to be so miserable your roommates threaten to smother you in your sleep should you ever write another novel (sorry, Cori). It’s okay to step back and regroup… so long as eventually you face that blank page again, take a breath, and just write.
It’s a common enough sentiment. I’m contacted on a regular basis by people who say exactly this, and are hopeful I can help them out in some way, give them some advice on how to submit a portfolio, steer them to some information (such as this post), something to help them realize their dream.
I do this knowing most of them will never get the chance— turnover among writers at BioWare isn’t exactly high, and what constitutes a “writer” at other companies can vary a great deal. There are only a handful of companies that have writers who do exactly what we do, while many others either outsource their writing requirements or have people on staff who write as a secondary task.
And of those who do get the chance, they’re very likely to not end up working out. For every candidate we end up keeping full time, we’ll go through several others we had to let go after testing them out. Why? Because writing for games isn’t what you think it is.
Okay, then— what is it? What’s so difficult about writing a story? Anyone with half a brain can write a story. Look, I just wrote a paragraph which details an awesome story that would undoubtedly turn into an awesome game.
And that’s just it. That is, in fact, the least part of what being a game writer is about.
Let’s look at it this way: imagine how you think a story is created for, say, a novel. A writer sits there, puts together the concept and then crafts the story from a series of scenes— all centered around a protagonist who grows and moves through those scenes in a scripted fashion. The writer creates it from beginning to end, with the story being everything.
You could make a game story that way— indeed, there are some very good games which have a set protagonist and a story that moves through a series of scripted sequences in the same way as a novel. “Last of Us” is an excellent example. The one hitch, of course, is that even there a writer would need to bow to the requirements of gameplay and level design. Is the story fun to play? A novel doesn’t need to worry about interactivity, whether the levels it describes are fun to move through… and these are bigger challenges to navigate than you might assume. What is interesting in theory is not always good in practice. You learn this quickly.
But let’s say you don’t know who your protagonist is— or you do, but need to allow for variable motivations, interests, and goals. Agency, in other words. You have only a limited amount of control over the pacing and the order in which they’ll encounter scenes. The more control you exert, the less agency they have. The more agency you allow, the more you need to rely on emergent storytelling at the expense of scripted storytelling.
And that’s assuming you have any control over where on that spectrum your game will actually reside— which you probably won’t. Most of these things will be provided to you, along with major themes, game features that need to be prominent, and other aspects those in charge of the project want to focus on. You might have some input along the way, and you might not— it depends on the company— but at the end of the day you as a writer are making their story and not the other way around.
Hmm. That probably sounds one-sided. I should amend that to say the story is a collaborative effort. You’re doing it as a group, and in my experience a lot of the story elements are going to come from a writer who’s working within the parameters they’re given— they’ll come up with something interesting and cool and pitch it upwards until they’re given a green light to proceed. So it’s not quite like they’re just handed something to work on. But neither is it what many assume: that a writer conjures up a tale and everyone else implements it. That never happens.
And some of you may be nodding your head. “Yes, we already know this.” But you’d be surprised how often this mistaken perception comes up with writer applicants and new hires. People who apply with story submissions that are actually stories for an entire game. Their entire pitch is “I have lots of ideas! So many ideas! I could provide you wonderful ideas for your game if you’d let me!”
Which is great, as fresh ideas are absolutely necessary, but like I said they’re actually the smallest part of what we do. Ideas for a game come from people higher up, like the Project Director and senior leads… they have their own ideas, and don’t need to hire someone for theirs. Ideas for smaller things, like specific plots and ways to make new quests and themes and character arcs, those are better… but, of course, they’re going to need to be in the context of the overall story (which is created early on). You’d be surprised how many new writers are disappointed that they have to work within a much smaller sandbox than they imagined, and that they’re not alone in that sandbox— every idea they come up with has to be tempered by technical and resource limitations, not to mention the discovery that the storytelling ideas of other people on the team (such as the people who make the cutscenes or the art or the level design) are just as important as a writer’s and need to be taken into account. The writer is more ringmaster than creator.
And once the ideas stage is over, the new writer discovers that 80% of their job is actually implementation. Which consists of writing, testing, and iteration— and by “iteration” I mean re-writing. Scrapping your work and starting over, or changing chunks of it because of bugs or issues encountered by other departments. It might be re-writing to make the story better. It might also make the story worse, in your opinion, and there’s nothing you or anyone can do about that. The story is not a princess who gets to complain about the pea under the mattress, after all— it’s one of many mistresses in the house, all clamoring for equal attention. Sometimes the needs of the story do not carry the day.
And that implementation is not easy. Take BioWare’s writing as a specific example. We don’t have narration, which is most of what people think of when they read books. We only have dialogue— and, outside of a cutscene (which is written in the same manner as a movie script), that dialogue is going to need to allow for choice and branching while still remaining coherent and imparting all needed information no matter what path through the dialogue the player takes. That requires a very specific skill set, and not one which has much to do with writing prose.
Indeed, someone who has the ability to write good prose is not necessarily going to make a good writer of branching dialogue. Sometimes they’ll have a too-specific PC in mind. Or the dialogue is fine if you follow one specific path through it, but as soon as you veer from that path it becomes incoherent or you miss important info. Or they focus so much on keeping the mechanics straight their writing loses personality and charm. It works the same on a plot level— needing to account for players choosing where to go either leaves sections in their design which are too vague (and thus need clumsy hacks to force the player in a direction, once they realize what’s missing) or has them trying to include so many options that the plot explodes into something unwieldy that can either never be tested or takes 10x the budget just to write.
These can be frustrating things for a writer who comes to work for us. They might write decent prose, have a certain grasp of what our games call for & some ideas to bring to the table… and yet discover that juggling the demands of gameplay and branching narrative is too much. Or they get discouraged by how very much not like writing the job can sometimes be, or how most of the big decisions are made before they even come onto the project. All these things might mean they discover the job’s not right for them, even though they’d really hoped it would be.
Is the job still rewarding despite all that? Absolutely. I’ve written about that at length before, so I won’t repeat it. It’s not quite what some people think a writer does, but once you’ve slogged through the monumental task of wrestling a story to the end— no matter how little it resembles the story you thought you were going to make— you’re incredibly proud of it despite all its bruises and funny haircut.
All I mean to suggest here is that, for people who say “I want to write for games”, they should be aware what they’re actually intending to pursue. Writing for games seems sexy because the writing is a very visible thing when you’re playing— but it’s not all that goes into the storytelling, not by a long shot. Someone who thinks “story” may actually be thinking design, cinematics, heck even concept art or music.
And that’s assuming they aren’t someone who thinks that writing is their calling of choice simply because they don’t have any “real” skills… and anyone can put together a sentence, am I right? Because the less said about those people, the better.
Community / Off-Topic / Re: On Narrative Design
on: January 27, 2015, 01:28:51 PM
You said you blew up your budget, turning a 200-line quest into a 270-line one (if I did the math right). Now, it occurs to me that this quest has a (roughly) 22% chance to happen, since player must be warrior/rogue (2/3 chance) AND Bethany must be in the circle (1/3 chance, since other options are she’s dead in the deep roads or she became a warden). This means that there’s a good chance that 78% of players wouldn’t enjoy this quest unless they play different playthroughs trying to explore all the possible outcomes.
Would a 22% chance be enough to raise your budget by 70 lines (and all that implies in terms of costs and disk space)? What kind of considerations are taken in such a case?
Word budgets are the bane of my existence.
And you’re right, that would be taken into consideration— but let me walk you through why that is.
First off, writing for a BioWare game is considered a bottleneck of development— meaning that every bit of writing we do creates work for other people further down the line. Every line of dialogue has to be edited, translated into several languages, needs voice-over (first in English, and then into at least some of those other languages), very likely needs cinematic design, and—this is no small thing—creates more stuff that needs to be tested. Thus our budget is taken very seriously, as it’s a number derived not only from the amount of work the writers can do but also the work these other departments can do (taking into account the delay caused each time the writing needs to change hands).
So let’s say I’m talking to whichever writer created this plot, and I have to decide whether cutting the scope back down to 200 lines would be worthwhile. On one hand, that might make for a less fun plot… at which point, is it even worth doing? On the other, it would be more responsible to the budget (and other peoples’ time). Let’s say I decide, no, the plot is really cool at 270 lines. Go ahead and begin writing.
The next issue is something called scope creep. That’s the tendency of projects to bloat over time—and it always happens. Every single project I’ve ever worked on slowly gets bigger as time goes on.
Why? Because as we test the game, we run into issues… and, many times, those issues can only be fixed by adding more content. Let’s say we’re testing this plot and it’s felt an extra step is needed somewhere. That requires another conversation of 40 lines. A QA tester feels we missed a really logical step in the end with Bethany, and thus we need to add lines both to her as well as the resolution dialogue with Leandra… another 30 lines, say. Now were up to 340 lines for the plot, 140 over budget.
There’s also the fact that you can’t always quantify writing. I’m putting together a character that I’ve estimated will take 40 lines to write, but by the time I’m done it’s at 55 lines or 100 lines. It’s not like I got to 40 lines and then just stopped. I could look for some places to trim, but maybe there aren’t any. Maybe I needed all those extra lines.
That, in and of itself, is not a problem. It’s just a few lines here and there. But now play this out over every plot and character in the game. Suddenly we’re halfway through the project and our actuals are showing at 35,000 written lines for a game that’s budgeted at 30,000 lines… and we’re not even done yet. That trajectory shows us going to 40,000 written lines or even higher by the time we’re done.
Can the project— meaning all the people downstream from us—absorb the extra 33% added to their schedules? If not, we now need to look for places to cut scope.
It’s painful to do. I never want to cut anything. Sometimes cutting can also cause problems, because cutting narrative in one spot means we’ll need to re-write elsewhere. That one middle plot is cut, but the plots that followed it all referred to what happened… so we need to go in and change them all. It happens quite frequently, but better the writers do extra work once than have everyone else choke on work they can’t swallow.
The most attractive cuts, in those instances, are the things which are fairly isolated. They can be cut in their entirety without affecting anything around them— they’re low-hanging fruit. It’s an unenviable place for a plot to be in, because these gut-checks caused by scope creep are guaranteed to happen at various points in the project… and thus the Eye of Sauron will always turn to them first. A plot like this one, which is seen by a relatively low percentage of the player-base but which costs a fair chunk of work to implement, is going to be at risk.
That has to be weighed, of course, against the idea that branches in the narrative are what makes a game like ours fun. We put the race choices back in DAI, for instance, not because such a huge percentage of players use those other races but because the option to be those races has perceived value even to players who don’t play anything but human
. The same applies to plots… ideally you want to have choices in a plot which are good enough so that a large percentage of players could take opt for any side, but even lopsided choices where almost everyone picks a certain option are still better than having no choice at all.
That is, of course, dependent entirely on the type of game you’re putting forward—since we do RPG’s, that’s always going to be a bear of contention for us. Naturally, we have to simultaneously look at the overall length of the game—a thousand branching choices in a plot which, in one playthrough, lasts only 3 hours is not going to be much fun either, is it?
So you don’t necessarily want to trim every branch until you reach a state where 100% of players see every bit of content. Lots of players didn’t see one of Carver or Bethany at all, for instance, and among those who did many didn’t get to see the route that led to them surviving and joining the templars/Circle of Magi… but, to those who did end up there, that path had meaning and the idea that it could have happened differently had value.
So my ultimate answer to your question is that, yes, those factors would come into consideration. It would come most strongly into consideration at the planning stage when we’re divvying up the overall budget and deciding what we can spend where, and then at the stage when we’re ultimately designing the individual plots— the better we do our planning then, the less we’ll have to worry when scope creep inevitably rears its head down the line. There’s a certain amount of budget that would be totally fine to assign to “edge cases” like this one— and so long as the plot kept itself reigned in on the content side, it would stand a better chance of making it into the final game.
Provided, of course, nothing external happens. There were a few quests that got cut in the course of DA2 through no fault of their own. The situation changed on the project side, reducing our downstream team and thus affecting how much writing we could produce—an entire plot series concerning the Coterie (Kirkwall’s thieves guild) which Mary Kirby had already written needed to be cut. A plot specific to Mage!Hawke in Act 1 where they became threatened by templars and had to make arrangements to assure their secrecy was cut. Others too, all cuts that made me wince and despair for the overall coherence of the story (as such cuts always do) but with which a game developer has to contend.
Because it’s not enough in game development to actually be a great writer. You could put together the perfect plan, have the perfect story arc all ready to go in a wonderful design document… and by the time you’re done it will still all have changed. The majority of the hard work in game development happens in the last 20% before ship, and that’s when you have to be the most agile and judge your word-babies by those you believe are healthy enough to reach maturity…and ruthlessly slaughter the ones which aren’t.
Because, if you can’t, the game won’t ship. And that’s the ultimate death knell for all your efforts.
Community / Off-Topic / Re: On Narrative Design
on: January 27, 2015, 01:23:20 PM
So I picked through the suggestions. Some good ones in there, a few that could certainly be taken and developed into an actual quest. Some were just the start of a quest. Take this one:
"DAO, Frostback Mountains, Duncan and the dwarf Warden run into an ambush while leaving Orzammar."
Now, the player runs into random encounters all the time in DAO… for this to be an actual quest, it would need to lead to something more than just fighting and killing the ambushers. Maybe the Duncan questions one of them and discovers who sent them, but the player doesn’t get the option to follow up on this until after Ostagar. Maybe the ambush is a distraction, and something Duncan was carrying got stolen amidst the hubbub and now he and the player need to get it back— maybe it’s the Archdemon blood he needs for the Joining? Can’t proceed without it!
So with something like that, it just needs some development and it could be made into a quest plot just fine.
For a few other suggestions, the issue was that they lacked something for the player to actually do… or the only thing that would occur was a conversation. A really simple plot could consist of “go to A, speak with character there” …but that’s only barely a plot, and even less of one if the “go to A” part involves no complication. Does that make sense?
So of the suggestions that remained, I’m going to pick this one to develop:
"DA2, Breaking and Entering, Hawke needs to get a letter to Bethany, who’s locked in the Circle."
Before I proceed to do up an actual design document, I’m going to throw out a more simplified version of how this quest could work— but it’s going to be incorrect. I’ll put it together as something I would red light and offer notes toward a revision… and I want you to see if you can tell me what’s wrong with it.
So here it is, in short:
(Condition: player is warrior/rogue, Bethany went to the Circle at the end of Act 1)
Hightown, player’s home. When the player speaks to Leandra after the start of Act 2, she tells the player she’s worried about Bethany. They haven’t heard from her in over a year, and her letters have been returned unopened. She begs the player to get a letter to Bethany, to see her in person so Leandra knows she’s okay. Quest added, letter received.
Player speaks to Samson in Darktown. As a former templar, he knows how to get into the Gallows— but wouldn’t suggest it. If pressured, he’ll tell the player how to get into the cellar through a secret Darktown entrance… but for the rest of the path, the player will be on their own. Their best option, he says, is to go alone and dress up as either a templar or a Circle mage. The player can pick which.
This opens up the Darktown location which the player will need to click on in order to enter the cellar.
After entering the cellar, the player will be switched to their chosen disguise. The player is then allowed to move into the main Gallows area— it’s night-time, and while the player doesn’t need to use actual stealth they do need to avoid opening doors that they can hear voices beyond. If they do so, this will start combat and the player will be forced to run out of the Gallows (placing them outside, back in Darktown, quest failed).
Provided they don’t do that, they can overhear in several places that Bethany has been placed in an isolation cell on the second floor— either that or they can go to the stairs themselves without hearing anything. Before doing so, go to Step 4.
Upon reaching the stairs, an encounter fires— if the player is dressed as a templar, it’s with Cullen. If dressed as a mage, it’s with Orsino. The player has the option to bluff, to plead with Cullen/Orsino to let them see Bethany (both will reluctantly agree, so long as the player leaves immediately afterwards), to lie about something urgent happening elsewhere (giving them limited time with Bethany), or to spectacularly fail— which results in Cullen/Orsino calling the templars, and the player being forced to run out (as in Step 3). Provided the player gets to proceed, go to Step 5.
If the player was taken to see Bethany by Cullen/Orsino, they’re escorted directly there. Otherwise, the player goes up the stairs and Bethany sees them from the door’s little window— Bethany calls out to the player, drawing their attention.
The ensuing conversation occurs through the window: Bethany doesn’t want to be freed, and she’s the one who sent the letters back. She thinks it best that her family forgets about her. The player can argue, convincing her to take the letter & send word back to their mother. Alternatively, the player can angrily walk away. This ends the quest, putting the player back outside in Darktown.
So go ahead, tell me what’s wrong. As a warning, however: the way to correct “what’s wrong” can but should not always translate into adding more content. Every plot can be made bigger and more complicated… and yes, that could make it better, but that can’t be the answer to every issue with a plot. Small plots need to be possible as well, and in this case I’ve got a 2,000-word budget to spread around.
With that in mind, knock yourself out. When I do my next update, I’ll post a revised overview with the actual document I’d use for this situation.
A lot of great comments and analysis on the last write-up. I’ll go through a few of the comments here, and then post my amended narrative overview for the quest.
Thanks to everyone who partook— and note that there is no wrong answer when it comes to quest design. I have experience, and I can say what might work specifically for Dragon Age, but beyond that there’s no magic trick as to what makes for a good quest and what doesn’t. This is all trial-and-error, with a bit of judgement and personal preference. That’s game design in a nutshell, though. What do I gain from this quest aside from potential xps? Why should the player do it? What does it add to the game as a whole?
It’s a good comment, but I’ll point out that— for us— at this stage of plot creation, the writers don’t concern ourselves with what the rewards will be… not unless the rewards are fairly obvious. At best we’ll put in a “insert item reward here” or “give them an XP bonus”. Those are things the Level Designers will look at later, along with adding any needed combat encounters (which they’ll generally discuss with us first, to make sure they fit into the razor).
It is worth noting, however, that what the plot adds is a worthy thing to consider. In this case, I’d call this a “flavor plot”. Other than XP and possibly some approval bonuses, it’s something optional the player might do simply for the story— much like many follower plots. That makes it have less utility than plots which offer more substantial rewards, but that doesn’t make it worthless— and other than the fact this plot is already an outlier by way of it being available only to those players who had Bethany and who had her end up in the Circle, that’s not a bad thing. The condition the player is only a warrior/rogue is a problem. This limits an entire section of players who are mages.
Well, sure, except for the fact that Bethany would have died at Lothering, if the player were a mage. The only way I’d have agreed to add a quest like this was if there were an equivalent quest for Templar!Carver… but we’re focusing on one quest at a time, here. I can’t tell if it’s ‘incorrect,’ but I was thinking about your point regarding getting the player to do something and wondering how the player would know to seek out Samson in Step 2. Presumably Leandra wouldn’t have suggested that, since she doesn’t know him.
Excellent catch! That was indeed the first cardinal rule I broke, and quite a few people pointed it out— the vague connection between Step 1 and Step 2. Technically we could just add a journal entry that said “go see Samson”, and in that entry it could say the player remembered Samson from Act 1 and assumed he could help… but that’s a weak thing to do. One rule we follow is “never have plot-critical information given only via the journal”. When speaking to Samson, what if players don’t pressure him or fail a check to pressure him? Are the players now stuck at this point until they pressure him, or is there an alternate path?
Not as important, as “pressure” could mean a variety of things, but the fact that Samson is the only way to complete the plot is a bit problematic. Having some other way to do things is always ideal, if you can swing it. If tasked to reach the circle the first logical step a player would do (unless there’s an obvious map marker on Darktown) would be go to the gallows and ask around how to have an audience with a mage. There should be plenty of templars there to ask. The first instinct of a player should be going there and try every templar in sight before giving up in frustration.
Excellent! Asking “why?” is incredibly important— “why would the player go to Samson? Even if told to, is that the most logical thing to do?” Alternatively, I could always counter that question before it’s asked by explaining how Leandra already went to the Gallows and got nothing— and she says the player wouldn’t either, so they’ll have to find another way— but why wouldn’t that be a good first step? I would also make it more simple with the encounter that fires in Step 4. You can replace the need to put an either/or of Cullen or Orsino by replacing the encounter NPC with Thrask. That NPC is a middle ground and would be more accepting of allowing someone in to see their locked up sibling. Depending on how you’ve already interacted with him in Act 1:Wayward Son, the social checks with Thrask would scale from easy to hard to get him to allow you to see Bethany.
An excellent idea. You’ll see in the final version of the narrative overview that I did involve Thrask— though more as a mid-point NPC rather than the one who confronts the player. Even so, having the Cullen/Orsino split was a bit pointless. One would be better off having one character whose reactions varied by the costume rather than having two characters with individual dialogues. The former is good reactivity, the latter is conditional reality— which you should try to avoid. What’s the point of obtaining a disguise if going near any of the door leads to immediate combat and ejection into dark town? Wouldn’t this be a much better time to give more characterization to the Kirkwall Templars?
Indeed! And an excellent point. Rather crappy disguise if it doesn’t actually fool anyone. In the end, I’d look at that quest and think that not only did the “stealth” part not work very well, but that it should be considered what the stealth part added. If one could walk freely around the Gallows, that could be quite interesting— so, in the end, I decided to keep it but change how it worked. Cullen or Orsino. Hawke is no Champion yet, and should have to use their head. Persuading and lying are two wonderful choices, but I’m not a fan of a fight/run against such an important character in such a trivial manner.
Yes, the entire aspect where getting into a fight meant auto-failure was a problem— and not just with Cullen/Orsino. That’s not how combat works in the rest of the game, so you don’t want to surprise players with something like that unless it’s explicitly spelled out for them beforehand. So either combat should not be allowed to happen, or it should work like combat. Since the quest giver was Leandra, Hawke should have a final confrontation with her telling her the outcome, so the quest circle closes and he may comfort the mother over losing contacts with her girl for good or giving her hope she’ll come around and write back to her.
You know, I just forgot about that step, really— very often I just assume “quest turn-in” as something that’s automatically done. But it should have been spelled out, yes.
So I did a revision of the quest, and I should point out that this probably still isn’t perfect. It might need a revision or two, particularly since there’s currently no combat— not that combat is required in every quest, but it’s a good idea to have it for those who enjoy it (and, frankly, letting people talk their way out of combat or otherwise avoid it is also fun for those who don’t like combat at all).
After some thought, I decided that revamping the “stealth” section was a good way to go— and rather than offering other ways to get to Bethany, I focused on having alternate ways to get to the stealth section. The idea is that this is ultimately flavor— really just a small follower quest for Bethany, truth be told. Which isn’t bad at all. For people who liked Bethany, this would be rather cool.
You might also note that I blew my budget. My line count estimates on the individual sections are a bit low (I imagine I could easily go over those totals on the Bethany and Leandra conversations) and even then I’m sitting at about 70 lines over budget. It’s at this point that I would either revisit my plan and figure out if I was too ambitious and had too many steps, or if I needed to go to my Lead Writer and argue that the budget needed to be changed.
Thankfully that’s an easy conversation when it comes to my plots, but even I can’t blow the budget willy-nilly without people eventually coming to glare at me. Eventually, if we went over budget often enough, I’d have to start looking at what plots to cut in order to bring our total line count down enough— and that’s never fun.
You can grab the PDF for the narrative overview here
. Hopefully that link works OK (tell me if it doesn’t).
The next step would be taking one of those conversations and showing you how to actually approach putting together the branching dialogue for it— along with offering some tips and tricks. Naturally this is only good advice for BioWare’s style of branching dialogue (heck, it’s actually specific to Dragon Age, as Mass Effect does it differently too), but whatever… some of you might be interested, and possibly some of those tricks will be transferable to other editors.
Community / Off-Topic / Re: On Narrative Design
on: January 27, 2015, 01:14:32 PM
I’m curious on how the plot conversations work, if a secondary writer is working on a specific character when a conversation with that character comes up are they given the general idea of information that needs to be conveyed? For example in dragon age 2 when Hawke is talking with Merrill about the mirror are the writers for Hawke and Merrill sitting together in a room with the general information in front of them and just passing ideas back and forth?
It took me a few tries to parse this question, and I hope I’ve done so correctly. The difficulty has nothing to do with the questioner— not everyone is going to know enough about the process, and certainly isn’t going to share the same lingo as the developers, to be able to ask the question in a way that gets to the heart of what they want to know.
what’s being asked here is how the BioWare writers share responsibility for character writing— since major characters are going to come up in multiple plots, and thus it might seem awkward to have everybody dipping their toes into everyone else’s pools.
First, the part that gave me pause: a “plot conversation”, as I term it, is a conversation that comes up in one of the major game plots. I wrote “Nature of the Beast” and “Redcliffe” for DAO, for instance, and that meant that I wrote every major conversation that happened in those plots, and would have overseen anything else that needed to go into them.
A “follower conversation”, meanwhile, is a major conversation that’s part of a follower’s plot arc— regardless of where in the game it occurs. A lot of these occur at the hub (a “hub” would be a location intended primarily for dialogue, such as the party camp in DAO or the player’s home in DA2), but need not… there’s a follower conversation with Alistair that occurs right before you get to Redcliffe for the first time, for instance. Now I wrote Alistair as well, so the difference is moot, but since it’s part of his personal arc and not part of Redcliffe that would have been my conversation regardless of who wrote the Redcliffe plot.
The slightly trickier part comes up with regards to what we call “interjections” — these are places in plots where followers speak up. These can be either major interjections, where things happen which are important to that followers’ personal arc but are still plot-related (Shale’s concern over the Anvil of the Void in the Orzammar plot, for instance, or Isabela’s major role in the Act 2 climax of DA2), or they can be minor interjections, where followers are briefly piping up to give their opinion on a player choice or (this happened more in DA2) allow for options to affect the plot directly via the dialogue wheel.
The answer there is that the plot writer will stub in the major interjections if they’re not also the writer for that character. Chances are they’ve chatted with the character writer about it and left room for that writer to go in and do it later ("Shale will have her freak out here— insert when you’re ready, Dave"). It’s also possible they’ve talked it over with the character writer enough that they’ll take a first pass at writing it themselves. The same applies for minor interjections— the plot writer will take a first stab at the ones they think would apply.
Later on, the character writer would do what we call the “voice consistency pass”. They go through plots they didn’t write and look for any existing interjections, filling out the stubs waiting for them and looking at any already-written lines for their character to see if they need editing. They also look for interjections the plot writer didn’t consider (“Morrigan would totally speak up there, I’m adding one”).
You’ll note I didn’t answer about the PC. That’s because no one writer is responsible for the PC’s voice— the PC has to speak in almost every conversation, and thus we sit down as a group early on and discuss exactly how we’re going to write it. No matter how much effort we spend getting on the same page, there are always going to be differences— Mary’s PC will say the most sarcastic things, Sheryl’s PC will be the funniest, Luke’s PC will jerk the player’s chain at every opportunity, etc. Generally we get an editor late in the day to take a pass through all existing PC dialogue (it’s a big job) to smooth out the inconsistencies.
Banter is done a bit separately. We will sit down as a group and talk about how the followers will relate— will they get along? Will their relationship change over the course of the game? Is there a chance for independent romance between them? That sort of thing. When we write the banter, we write a set number of interactions for each pairing… so I, as Alistair’s writer, will first write “Alistair-Morrigan”, followed by “Alistair-Leliana” and so on. You’ll note there’s another side to that… Sheryl, as Leliana’s writer, will also write the “Leliana-Alistair” pairing. Meaning half of the total banters between Leliana and Alistair are written by each writer. When we do our voice consistency pass, we’ll look at those other banters and edit the language a bit.
Every now and again the voice consistency pass results in some contention. It might not be enough to just edit a line’s language, after all, if what the other writer had that character doing is fundamentally wrong. That requires a larger conversation. The writer to whom that character belongs has the final say— with the exception of those times when I invoke Lead Writer fiat. It’s not something I need to do often, but occasionally I need to intervene— it’s that writer’s character, but I’m responsible for determining overall direction whether it be for the plot or for individual followers.
Why would I need to do such a thing? Because it’s very easy for a writer to make their character in a bubble. You focus your efforts on making that character interesting in and of itself, but forget that it also needs to serve a larger purpose. It has a role in the story, and even the game mechanics. A writer might think it’s very interesting to have their character be a philandering ass, but I step in and perhaps say “you don’t think that might make the fact he’s a romance a bit problematic?” Or they forget there’s this larger plot thing that character needs to do later on, and it needs to make sense with how they’re developing the character’s personal arc. That sort of thing.
It all sounds very neat and simple, though it’s really not. We’re talking about a process that covers the entire length of a game’s development— done in fits and starts, and sometimes repeatedly as we realize (through testing) that a character’s thread has been lost or that they’re in dire need of a “voice lift” (ho ho ho) due to some changes sneaking in. God forbid that the writer’s idea of the character evolved as they were writing it, and suddenly they discover that the character they were writing a year ago no longer seems like the one they’re writing now. Ugh.
It kind of helps that the writers are all in the same room (the ones on the same project, anyhow, if not all the writers in the company). We call it the Writers Pit, and we tend to be a noisy bunch— always yelling across the room, posing questions that suddenly lead to big conversations and work stoppage for everyone no matter whether they’re involved in that conversation or not. I’m responsible for a larger share of those conversations than anyone. I call it “de-management”.
But that’s the answer to your question— hopefully.
In case anyone missed it, the “Part 1” at the top means this is going to be a series of posts aimed at the actual day-to-day work of the writers… specifically I’d like to walk people through how a game plot and a branching dialogue is properly constructed, what I as Lead Writer would do to critique someone’s work and what tips I would generally offer.
It may be really boring for some, so feel free to have your eyes glaze over whenever one of these posts comes up. If not, then stay tuned. I’m thinking I might make it a bit interactive and have you guys vote on where the actual plot construction part of the tutorial goes.
When sitting down to craft a plot for a game (an RPG in particular, though I supposed some of what I’m talking about might be transferable— I’m not sure, as I’ve never worked on anything but RPG’s), there are a few central questions you need to answer. What is the player going to do? What experience do you want the player to get out of the plot? What choices are you going to have?
These are not idle questions. Yes, there is a story— and ideally you’re going to have that story in mind when you start— but writing a game plot and writing a story are not the exact same thing. Many beginners make the mistake of only thinking of a story in the exact same way they might craft one for a novel. They give it a beginning, a middle, and an end… and that would work if the player went through the story in the exact manner prescribed and felt exactly about it what you intended the protagonist to feel… but what if they don’t?
Possibly the best way I could explain it is to allude to another type of plot creation— that of a tabletop GM making a plot for his or her intended players. You don’t know what your players are going to do from moment to moment. You set up breadcrumbs for them to follow, things to provide them motivation to go from scene to scene. You set up NPC’s that they’ll encounter (perhaps some they even won’t), and lay it out on a map— and when they play, you offer some gentle guidance to keep them from straying too far (ideally while thinking all along it was their idea).
That’s the same way a game does it. We set up each location like a set-piece, and the player interacts with it in a manner we decide— but we’ll make sure we have enough bases covered so they can interact with it in any number of ways. Ultimately they’ll still move through it, but at a speed and in a manner of their choosing. The best we’ll have is some carrot and stick to keep them going.Where does it start?
First thing you need to do is figure out where the plot begins. What’s the player’s entry point? Is there more than one? Do they come across the quest’s beginning in the middle of their travels, undirected? Are they given the plot by an NPC? Is it part of a chain of plots, and they arrive at this plot from the clues of a previous one? That gives you a “point A” from which to launch.Where does it end?
This is good to figure out before you start plotting out the rest. What’s the endgame for the plot? If you intend to have multiple choices, it’s good to decide them now and reverse-engineer them into the rest of the plot.
Why? Imagine this: you want a plot that ends with the player deciding whether to kill a man or spare his life. You could just insert that at the end of the plot, after the battle with said man is done… but what if you haven’t given the player a good reason to do either of those things? You might want to insert places in the plot where the player could get info on why this man deserves to die, or what he’s done to deserve forgiveness… or provide consequences to the player’s decision which they’ll know about for certain by the time they get to that point. If you don’t do that reverse-engineering, you’ll go through your plotting and likely discover the equation doesn’t add up like you thought it would.What does the player do?
Here’s the biggest mistake that new writers make with plots— they don’t track exactly what the player is doing at every point. They have a solid “point A” and it connects to points B, C, and D… maybe there are even decision branches along the way. But the connection between some of those points becomes… vague.
"The player finds the artifact and then goes to (E) where they discover the zombie eating the corpse" …wait. How did they go there? Why? Did they have no choice, as in it was a hallway and they just had to keep walking in one direction until they came upon the zombie? What if they go the other direction? What if they’re in a city and decide to run off— can they come back to it later? Can they miss the zombie completely?
You need to account for every possible action the player might take. You can close off other paths, but if you close off every path you end up with a hallway and likely a loss of agency. That can even work fine, so long as the player still has some choices to make… and you have to spell those out. Another designer looking at the document you create for the plot can’t be left wondering what’s supposed to happen at any given point. Worse, what if they don’t wonder and implement the plot exactly as you’ve laid it out… and now a QA tester is playing through the plot and does something unexpected, or has no idea what to do next?
Another mistake that often occurs for new writers is that they spend too much time thinking about the story as a thing which just occurs— they have an idea of a plot which revolves completely around the NPC’s (“so there’s this princess and she loathes her father, but her father really loves her deep down and wants the best for her, but that’s complicated by his wife who thinks…”) and no place for the player to insert themselves. Or they have a story which just is (“a meeting between old friends at a bar which gets out of hand”) with no actions for the player to actually perform other than to be present and witness it.
We call those “high concept” plots, and generally they have a story which would make for a wonderful book— but don’t make for something that’s fun to actually play.What will the player feel?
Important! This sometimes gets lost somewhere between coming up with the story and plotting out the exact points where the player experiences it. We need to keep in mind what the player is supposed to feel at the end of all this.
Often we come up with what we call the “razor”— a simple phrae or sentence that describes what the plot’s about. “Harrowing race through a demon-infested tomb”, “Indiana Jones meets Hellraiser”, “Sophie’s Choice between two beloved town leaders”… all of these could work. You just need something against which to judge stuff you intend to later add. Does it work towards that razor or detract from it? Often you’ll be tempted to keep adding stuff in, and then be surprised that suddenly your pacing is shot (“how is this ‘harrowing’ when the player wanders around lost for 30 minutes?”) or that you’ve lost the thread of your story (“you said Indiana Jones, but there’s not even a single trap in this dungeon”). If we think about what the player’s supposed to feel, we give some thought into what will make them feel it… and also why the player might not feel it, and what to do about that.Ask yourself “why?”
First thing any good QA tester is going to ask is “why?” Why am I doing this? It might be a simple plot where the player’s explicitly accepted the quest… but do they even have a reason to accept the quest in the first place? Is this something they want to do? Are there multiple ways to feel about it? Try putting yourself in the shoes of players of multiple types— why would a player who’s just trying to be the good guy do this? What about a player that just likes to feel clever? What about a player who likes action? If it’s an optional quest the player could miss, the answer might very well be “they won’t” and that’s fine, but you’re better off giving those different players different reasons to do it and/or different ways of doing it rather than cutting them out of content completely.
Same question applies to the various plot points: why did that NPC do the bad thing? Why would he give up his special artifact? Why was the artifact special? You don’t necessarily need to explain the answer all the time— in fact, doing that constantly (and assuming the player will be questioning every single event and trying to counter those questions before they ask) will lead to the sin of over-explanation, but you do need to know the answers yourself… and if you’re not going to provide answers you do need to make what happens plausible enough that the player’s not left stumped and pulled out of the story.An Example
Best way to explain what I mean is to provide an example— which I’ll do. I’ll create a small plot, step by step, and walk you through the process I’m using (and what the documentation would look like).
I’m thinking a short plot, no more than 2,000 words in total. It’ll be a Dragon Age plot, but here’s where you come in. Let me know whether it should be for DAO or DA2 (I could do a DAI plot, but the context would be pretty much lost on you), where you’d like the plot to take place (as in specific— “the Hanged Man” would be better than “Kirkwall”) and what you’d like the gist of the story to be… and I mean “gist” as in “one sentence or less”.
I’ll pick an answer from the reblogs and work that up— but I might also pick your answer and explain why that wouldn’t work, if it’s a particularly good example of a common error. Don’t worry, I won’t poke fun at it. This is instructional.
Community / Off-Topic / Re: On Narrative Design
on: January 27, 2015, 01:08:31 PM
If it were in your power, would you feature a trans* character as a lead, or do you think that that would be putting too much on the writing team’s shoulders? As someone who is highly involved in the game industry, do you think there would be a backlash from the industry or fans if a trans* character was a lead? Is video game culture ready for a trans* companion?
No, I don’t think video game culture is ready for transgender characters— not as major plot characters, and certainly not as a lead. It’s not ready for major characters that are gay, either. Heck, it’s barely ready for ones which are female.
Does that mean the industry should wait until it is? Probably not.
Yet I am also not the one whose money is being put on the line when it comes to making a major game. With hundreds of millions of dollars now sunk into your average video game title, it could perhaps be viewed as understandable why publishers would be risk-averse. The tried-and-true is safer. The audience they already have, and have had since gaming’s inception, is safer. Or is it?
Here’s the thing: our audience is changing. Has already changed. I mentioned this in my GDC talk— there’s an entire portion of the audience out there which is already playing despite being essentially uninvited. The industry’s happy to have them, I imagine, but views them as gravy. A nice extra, but beside the point… and if they’re already playing, then obviously no extra attention needs to be paid to them when the competition for the real demographic is so fierce.
But what if a publisher did take steps to make them included? There’s the real question, and it’s one without a clear answer. Lacking a clear answer, the prospect of a reward is purely hypothetical. Such risk attached to the unknown means that games which make major strides in that direction tend to receive tepid publisher support at best… and, if they fail, the fault is laid at the door of the direction rather than the tepid support. A bit of chicken-and-egg at work, there, but that’s the industry. Either someone eventually figures it out and answers that question for everyone, removing the perception of risk once and for all, or it will continue as it is.
And I’m certain some would ask: “What would be the point, anyway? Is there such a huge number of transgender players out there we should make a game aimed at them?”
Of course not, because there isn’t. I’m not certain the numbers really indicate there being a huge gay player base, either. The numbers are certainly rosier for female players, depending on the genre and game type you’re looking at, but let’s give the doubters the benefit and say the base isn’t really there to make it financially attractive in and of itself for any minority demographic. My point, and I’ve made it before, is that their comparitive size is irrelevant. It’s not a matter of having one over the other.
Here’s a story.
When the Mark of the Assassin expansion came out for DA2, we included a cameo for our favorite brothel prostitute, Serendipity. Why? Because we like her. We never thought of her as transgender, per se— she’s more of a drag queen, in attitude if not in appearance (lacking the appropriate options, else that’s what she would have been). But the difference is moot when it comes to perceptions, and therein lay the problem: due to a bad line link and the fact we’d only ever included transgender characters as sex workers and comedic relief, it really seemed like she was there to be gawked at and laughed at.
A transgender fan lamented this on the forum, and we felt suitably chastised— because they were right. Our intention was irrelevant in light of the fact we’d erred without due consideration. The question was asked on that thread: “Couldn’t you include a real transgender character? A serious one?” And my answer at the time was: “I wouldn’t include one just to be transgender. That’s a pretty thin premise on its own.” But it did get me thinking: how would I go about it, if I ever did?
That’s around the time I started working on “Those Who Speak”, the second Dragon Age comic title for Dark Horse Comics. I needed a contact character for Varric in the Tevinter Imperium, and at first it was just an “old friend”. Boring. A female old friend, someone with a bit of moxy? Better.
Then I thought: What about someone who’s transgender? How would they survive in the shark-infested waters of Tevinter’s Magisterium, where “different” is a sign of weakness? Where everything beyond the accepted norm must be done in secret lest one become a pariah? How strong and defiant would such a character have to be to not only live but thrive in that environment?
That appealed to me, though I still didn’t want her to be “the transgender character”, to jump into view and immediately announce this aspect of her as if it were the sole reason she was present in the story— because it wasn’t. I wondered if maybe I needed to mention it at all, if that couldn’t come up later? In a way that didn’t read like an after school special? I mean, could it?
I included it as part of the pitch to Dark Horse, and they didn’t bat an eyelash. In fact, they thought it was great. “Do it,” was all I got back. I tossed the idea to Chad Hardin, the artist, along with a picture of Mae West (because I have a thing for Mae West and always have). I said “let’s make sure someone can go back and see it in her hips and her body” and he happily included that in the concept. He didn’t make it obvious. He didn’t sexualize her. Everyone was on board, and though Mae’s part in “Those Who Speak” actually got mostly cut, everyone accepted her return in “Until We Sleep” as a given.
And it did give me pause. Where were the expected objections? Yes, someone could say “it’s only a comic, not even the video game”— and thus not ‘the big time’ insofar as BioWare is concerned. While that’s true, it’s certainly serious business to Dark Horse. They consider what appeals to their audience and what’s commercially viable, too. Was the hesitancy all in my head? Was I assuming resistance that wasn’t actually there? Maybe so.
When I wrote the outline for “Until We Sleep”, I was nervous enough about Mae’s reveal and her part in the story to contact Mattie Brice, a transgender fan (and fellow developer— check out Mainichi, if you get the chance), to ask her opinion. Was the reveal (done via Maevaris being found partly-disrobed in a dungeon) too potentially titillating? Were the things she says in the Fade, or her advice to Qunari-Isabella, going to ring a false note? I had no idea. I’d have hated myself if I’d inadvertantly written something stupid— and I’d once been forced to ask the right adjective for “transgender” on Twitter. What the hell did I know?
Mattie helped, a lot. She suggested a couple of minor changes, but anything more would have required space in the comic which just didn’t exist. Which is sad, as there were things I wanted to squeeze in, and some of Mattie’s suggestions gave me thoughts— and that probably means I’m not quite done with Maevaris just yet— but I was happy with the result even so. After all was said and done, it didn’t seem so terrible to run the subject matter by someone who obviously knows better. Maybe having the option to do so would make more creators less nervous about writing outside their comfort zone? My own comfort zone is not very big. I know whereof I speak.
My point is (and I do have one): it worked out. Maevaris was a small character in the grand scheme of things, but she was included. That part of her identity was “AND”, not “BECAUSE OF”. It added to her character and gave her more depth to me, rather than being a paper-thin soap box. Not everyone noticed, as it was never explicitly stated, but many did. Some were surprised. Many were pleased. As an experiment goes, I’m happy.
I mention it now because I think, were you to mention having more minority characters to the average industry person (or fan, let’s face it) who’s not already inclined to think this way, the image that would immediately come to their head would be the wrong way to do it. The gay character who jumps onto the screen declaring “I AM GAY” before they even offer their name. The transgender character whose only purpose is to trick the straight protagonist into a near-sexual encounter, because what other purpose could such a character serve, right?
So they’d say those character concepts are purposeless and stupid, and they’d be right because they are. But they don’t have to be. I don’t have all the answers (by any means), but surely you don’t have to target minorities to appeal to them, or to include them. It doesn’t need to be that blatant, and shouldn’t be simply because blatant is clumsy— some finesse is called for.
Because, back to my original statement, gaming culture isn’t ready. Yes, that generally means straight boys, but let’s include in that the part of the industry which will assume backlash… backlash that will happen if something like this is done poorly, and which will probably happen anyway (to a degree) even if it isn’t.
With all the expense going into making games nowadays, however, it seems short-sighted not to try— if not because it’s the right thing to do, for the cynical sake of potential earnings. To get all the paying customers you can possibly scramble for from every single corner. To shout from the rooftops “we want EVERYONE to want to play this game”. And if some fans get irked that they’re no longer alone in the clubhouse— well, they can either start ponying up $100 to $150 for their videogames (since games appear to be immune to inflation and cost the same now, if not less, than they did 10 or 15 years ago despite the costs of making them having risen exponentially) or kindly stop being mystified at why publishers are interested in making money from more places than they used to.
Even after all that, though, I still cringe at the idea of introducing a major transgender character. Not for the idea or the potential, but for the character itself. What they will be subjected to in the court of fan opinion, and the ugliness that would inevitably get exposed. What transgender fans would have to read, dare they venture their public support. My heart aches at the weight such a character would bear, far more than any character should ever have to.
Doesn’t mean it shouldn’t ever happen.
While it’s not my money on the line funding the game, it is my livelihood— so I’m hardly without investment in the outcome—and I still think it’s a worthwhile risk. If not transgender just yet, then gay. Or black. Or female. You have to start somewhere. One can see the edges of that change happening in the industry now, and we need to keep pushing at it… or we’ll never get over the backlash that inevitably accompanies this kind of change, and get into a place where fans of all kinds feel welcomed.
Or maybe that can never happen? I’m sure some believe so, but I’m not so cynical that I give up hope just yet. Things are changing all over. In some places, kids will grow up with gay marriage having always existed in their lifetime. They will stare quizzically at their parents when it’s mentioned that it was ever an issue. In that world, something as simple as a video game character who happens to also be transgender doesn’t seem like such an impossible unicorn, does it?
So, not everyone was happy with my post the other day regarding my observations on the industry’s potential with transgender characters. There was Amy Dentata’s response
, among others— some very angry. That’s not altogether surprising, though my impression from reading a few of those responses was that they appeared to interpret my comments as saying I agreed with the industry’s hesitance and that there was nothing I could do.
Which is odd, as I thought I was saying the opposite. Rather than respond directly to any one comment, I’ll add this follow-up post and attempt a clarification on a few of my points.
When I said I still cringe at the idea of introducing a major transgender character, that doesn’t mean I would never push for it— as I’d intended from “doesn’t mean it shouldn’t ever happen [despite my concerns]” and, further down, “I still think it’s a worthwhile risk”.
And, yes, I know that I exist within a bubble— the bubble that is a major development house in the gaming industry. My view from within that bubble is what I was asked for, and thus my comments were on where I see the industry in general going, who they think our audience is, and why things progress as they do. I don’t agree with all of it, but I do understand why it is that way (to a degree). I still think the “pushing at the edges” must occur even so, and that pushing has to come from me and people like me… as well as from indie developers and fans. Indeed, indie developers have a lot more freedom in this regard, though by no means should their freedom absolve the rest of the industry of its responsibility.
Thus I’ll use opportunities when they come up, like with Maevaris. I certainly don’t intend to stop with her. Some of the responders seemed to think my attitude should be “fight for inclusion now and damn the consequences” (whether those be consequences for myself or consequences for the company). Even if I felt that way, my power is limited. I do not decide what I get to write— I make suggestions, but there are many battles I must fight to get what I want at the end of the day, and only so many hills I’m willing to die on.
If that seems insufficient effort on my part, then I apologize. I’ll do what I can, when I can, and can promise no more. I must read the temperature of the company I work for just as it must read the temperature of the industry as a whole and the realities of the market— as they and I perceive them. That’s all I meant to impart— in addition to my hopes regarding the beginnings of change I see happening.
Community / Off-Topic / Re: On Narrative Design
on: January 26, 2015, 07:52:33 PM
So I did a talk at GDC
recently, wherein I discussed how issues of sexuality in BioWare games have tied into larger discussions of inclusivity in gaming: not only of our gay fans, but gamers of colour, women… any group that games are not traditionally aimed at. How inclusivity is not only a moral issue for developers, but also an economic one.
A friend recently commented, “You must have gotten a lot of hate mail for that.” I told her that, no, I hadn’t. The response has been almost universally positive. I included my work email in that presentation, and I’ve received more response than I could ever reply to… pretty much all consisting of thanks and commendations from fans and fellow developers alike. I didn’t give the talk for the warm fuzzies, but I’m quite thankful for all the support.
"Ah," she said. "If you’d been a woman giving that exact same talk, I wonder if the response would have been the same?"
I told her that I could almost guarantee that would not have been the case. Which is as sad a comment on the state of things as one can imagine.
"So nothing negative at all?” she was amazed.
Hey now, let’s not get crazy. Of course there was some. Oddly, it did not target the feminist aspect of my talk. Or perhaps not so oddly, since I’m not a woman. Instead it focused on the parts of my talk that touched on sexuality.
Which is a generous way to put it, since it implies those responses actually addressed my talk in any fashion. Mostly it was, and I paraphrase, “you’re a damn fine person of the same sex as me, and you’re ruining games with your faggotry.”
Normally I would ignore stuff like that. Considering the mindset that would compel someone to send me email which is invariably illiterate in its use of grammar, and which does more to prove my talk’s points on privilege than the writers appear to fathom, I’d rather focus on the positive. With the GaymerX convention this weekend, however, I figured this might be a good time to address the issue.
It’s not the first time I’ve seen this sort of response, after all. Even when it’s not frothing-at-the-mouth in its tone, the gist seems to be “why does this need to be addressed at all? This isn’t what gaming is about. It’s stupid that this is even a point of discussion, and focusing on it detracts from the true purpose of games… which is fun, and not social justice. You’re making your own games tiresome and preachy, when the only thing you should concern yourself with is making them good.”
Did I get that right? Does that characterize the general response from those who argue against including gay characters or gay themes in games? I think those who scan the comments section of any article that addresses the subject (a dicey proposition in and of itself, as woe betide anyone who reads the comments) would probably say yes.
So what would be a good response? I’m going to avoid mentioning privilege more than just this once— even though its simplest definition applies here as “I don’t like the idea of developers spending time and energy on things I don’t care about and which don’t affect me”, it’s considered an attack word and most people will simply tune it out as “social justice talk” and stop listening. Which is a bit unfair, as words exist to aid communication, but so does empathy… so let’s look at it from their perspective for a moment.
Let’s say you’re a regular gamer. Ignoring all discussion of what “regular” means in this instance, you think of yourself as the norm— a straight dude who enjoys games that cater to his sensibilities. Violence doesn’t bother you, nor anything else that is generally considered a “mature theme”. In fact, you like games that challenge you, whether via the story or by way of difficulty. You play games for a bit of escapism, to blow off some steam and to have fun.
Being preached at is not fun, and that’s what all this talk feels like to you. Like you’re a bad guy for enjoying games as they’ve always been, and wanting to keep them that way. What’s more, the appearance of gay anything in a game just feels so… awkward to you. It sticks out like a sore thumb, the developers all but yelling at you “SEE? SEE HOW PROGRESSIVE WE ARE??” You hate it. It’s annoying.
Perhaps you take it one step further. All this talk of “accessibility” seems to coincide with games being “dumbed down”. Rather than games being things you have to be good at to win, they’re now made for everyone. Maybe your favorite genre just isn’t what it used to be. You tell yourself it’s because developers & publishers are kidding themselves, spending their time on things that aren’t important. Maybe you don’t consciously add the “like me” to that sentence, but you feel you represent the part of gaming that is honest and true. If games remembered their roots, they would be better.
Does every such guy feel that way? Hardly, but that doesn’t matter. You can find plenty of people online who feel just as you do, and everywhere you go online there are others yelling at the top of your lungs about things that make sense to you. WHY IS NO ONE LISTENING? It’s madness. It seems like the entire industry would rather pay attention to a bunch of screeching harpies, people who aren’t even real gamers, and your only hope is to shout them down.
…an unfair characterization? I don’t think so. I could probably try to dive down into the psyche of those who get truly hateful, who think that the only valid response is to harass anyone they disagree with, but I tend to believe people are generally good. They mean well, for the most part. They do things because they believe they are right. So I assume most of the opposition comes from a place of misunderstanding. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I’m running with that because the alternative is to assume that people are generally petty, selfish jerks… and that’s a level of cynicism I’m not yet comfortable with.What are they picturing, anyway?
I try to imagine what these guys picture when they hear talk about inclusivity for gay fans, what they see games becoming if they were to be inclusive. They can’t be responding to games as they are now, because examples of gay anything in the gaming industry are currently few and far between. So they see this encroaching “gay agenda” and picture… what? What do they think is the desired ideal?
Every male character in every video game from here on is gay? You’re playing Gears of War and your fellow gunner makes constant remarks on how attractive your ass is? Formerly manly lead characters reduced to metrosexuals in angora sweaters, every male character you meet in every game from RPG’s to Grand Theft Auto making passes at every opportunity? Every plot revolves around leather daddies, lesbian love, and drag queens?
Are we even in the same world? In what universe was this even on the table? It’s reductio ad absurdum— picturing the most ridiculous extreme and arguing against that as if it was what’s being asked for. Perhaps I’m even engaging in it myself, and what they’re arguing against isn’t nearly so extreme, though I honestly can’t imagine what it is they feel this discussion will lead to which merits such a response.
The phrase I most often hear with regards to gay content that currently exists, such as the optional same-sex romances in some of BioWare’s games, is “you’re throwing it in my face”. Or “you’re shoving it down my throat”. Ignoring the ironic phrasing, the implication appears to be that the existence of such content at all is an insult or an attack— like slapping the player in the face with a dildo, it’s beyond the pale.Why the focus?
Indeed, the existence of any discussion whatsoever appears to require developers to focus on it. As if this were a conversation we can have only at the exclusion of any other activity. Perhaps that’s due to the strange fishbowl-like nature of any Internet discussion— the more you pay attention to it, the larger it seems. Encounter a few conversations about it online and suddenly the perception is that this is all anyone is discussing. I mention it, and obviously this is all I as a writer at BioWare must concern myself with: I’m abandoning my regular duties to think gay, gay, gay all day long. How can I fit more gay into this game?
The truth is it’s not a focus. It will never be a focus. The focus for any developer is to get their game out the door. Everything else is secondary.
It is not, however, an either/or thing. It’s not like the only two options that exist are “no discussion” or “discuss it 24/7”. Despite what some might think, I suspect all which is being asked for— whether it be from gay fans or any minority among players— is some consideration from the companies making games. Ultimately, these players enjoy the games for the same reasons as everyone else. They want them to be good, and fun, just like everyone else. They would just like to be acknowledged, and not constantly reminded that they are the “other” who plays these games despite them being made for someone else.But what would that take?
So how does a company do that? Complete realignment of project priorities? Committees established to ensure that your game is inoffensive, agreeing to some mandated representation percentage for characters that belies all creative process? Revolution in the industry, where inclusivitiy is a box-listed feature for every single game?
Don’t be silly. That isn’t the world in which we live.
Personally, I think the only extraordinary effort required is the overcoming of the notion that this should be a big deal. It shouldn’t be. It should be the expected norm, and pass without comment when it arises in games. No news articles or online controversy required.
Idealistic? Maybe. The fact is, no single game can be all things to all people. What’s desirable is having more games include diversity where it fits… ideally reaching a point where one can expect that, in any collection of games, one is bound to find diverse characters as par for the course throughout. Since there is no guiding body which can determine which games need to have it, or when the industry has reached “enough”, it’s really down to developers & publishers taking time to consider what would work for their projects.
time, as opposed to none.
If one is looking for causality in why the industry is changing, I think it’s rather odd that anyone would lay that entirely at the feet of games becoming more inclusive of the audience. We willingly divide ourselves into camps of “us” and “them”, when our mutual love of gaming should be a uniting force. We all want games to be good, and embracing the audience should be a way to make them better. It should be a way to show the young that they’re not as “other” as they fear, or that the “other” is not such a terrifying force after all.
The only way we make it normal, after all, is by treating it as normal.
Is it ever going to be perfect? Hell no. I have no magical solution to offer, no wand to wave which will suddenly make publishers less risk-averse, no perfect formula which would make a gay character less threatening or less controversial. I have my own ignorance to overcome and battles to fight, so speaking on behalf of every anything feels a bit odd… and I’m not trying to. Until we reach a point where one doesn’t need to be seen as having an agenda in order to encourage some sanity in our approach to inclusivity, however, the discussion will have to continue… despite how annoying some people find it.
Because it’s not the end of gaming as we know it. I think we can all spare at least a little time and energy on behalf of those who are not like ourselves. It is not too much to ask, and surely needn’t devolve into battle lines being drawn and hateful words being spewed on both sides… because, at that point, who’s really listening anymore?
I look forward to the discussions we’ll be having at GaymerX this weekend. Not because I assume a utopia is nigh where nobody will have anything nasty to say about it or about me, but because such an event is possible at all. We progress on this and other fronts by inches, sure, but as I said earlier I’d like to think there’s more that unites us than divides us. The only “gay agenda” that exists in gaming, after all, is that we’d all like to have a good time doing what we love.
I’ll admit it: I’ve always liked Wonder Woman. I actually collected her comics back when George Perez helmed the 1987 reboot— to me, it seemed like any comic series George Perez got involved in was the better for it. And I wasn’t disappointed. He took a character who had always seemed a bit corny to me (not that I minded, considering I grew up watching Wonder Woman re-runs on TV, and in comparison to other corny TV versions of superheroes I thought it superior in many ways) and made her interesting.
I stopped reading around the time I stopped reading most superhero titles— but I got wind of her again when she killed Maxwell Lord in the OMAC Project series. Brilliant, I thought. As implied by the Trinity comic series, Wonder Woman assumes a missing place among the DC superhero gods— in terms of “how do we defeat evil?” we have the noble-to-a-fault Superman, the take-them-down-but-do-not-kill Batman… and the whatever-it-takes Wonder Woman. Awesome philisophical differences between equals. Rife for conflict, and a worthy role for her, should DC ever choose to pursue that line of thinking.
So where is her movie?
Amidst all the superheroes they’re digging up to make movies for, some being the sort you never imagined them ever turning into movies (Thor? Ant Man? Even Green Lantern is a stretch), it’s hard to believe that Wonder Woman— as iconic as she is— proves such a puzzle for movie-makers.
Watching the latest YouTube video of Stay Geeky
, which talks about the issue, I was struck that a friend and I had just had this conversation. The answer, of course, is simple: it’s the dread “Female Protagonist” issue, the same one faced in TV or games or anywhere that uses marketing folks to sell entertainment.
You’d think the Female Protagonist was Godzilla, considering the amount of panic it inspires.
So what is the issue with Wonder Woman, really? Is it her costume? Her origin? They just don’t know what to do with her? What?
The costume can’t be that big a deal. Everyone knows what Wonder Woman’s costume looks like. Yes, it’s skimpy, but it’s also iconic. She owns it. So long as you don’t cut it any lower so her breasts are half-hanging out and she’s constantly bending over in every second scene, and is instead kicking major ass, what would be the problem?
But if they must update her costume, then update it. They’re updating every superhero costume they bring to the big screen, it seems— even Superman’s. There are lots of costumes she’s had from which to choose… heck, if you’re stuck on one to pick, then how about putting her in armor? Too much? Then go for something inbetween:
See, I think one of the fundamental problems that exists when movie-makers try to decide what to do with her is that they can’t get past the Woman part of Wonder Woman. All they can focus on is her femininity— hey, let’s make her an American teenage girl, fawning over boys when she isn’t crimefighting— when she’s first and foremost a warrior. She’s a goddess, able to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Superman.
"But Dave," you might say, "Wonder Woman’s feminism is completely central to her character!" Sure, I agree. That’s been pretty important in many of her incarnations. I imagine there’s any number of writers who could do a bang-up job of walking that line— but if filmmakers can’t get past the feminism without it tripping them up, without it eclipsing everything else about her, then just make her a hero. Write her like you would any other male action hero, and let the fact she’s a woman take care of itself. Worked for Ripley, after all.
See, I think that’s the problem that some have with female protagonists in general— first they focus on how to make them female. Then they worry about how that femininity will sell to the general public… when chances are they’ve lost in translation the thing that makes most of their male protagonists appealing: generally, they’re badasses. To me, a female protagonist should concentrate on the same things a male one would— not their physical attributes (“Can I show both my breasts and my ass at the same time? Well, gosh, I’ll sure try!”) but their presence
Maybe I’m wrong. Feel free to argue with me, as it’s just conjecture on my part. Probably someone in marketing would point out to me that market research shows men are less willing to identify with female characters than women are willing to identify with male characters. And I’d say sure— that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy which will work every time.
Because what would it take to change that? Think about it.
A friend of mine said she believes there’s a better chance now than ever before that a Wonder Woman movie could be made. Why? Because there are successful action movies with female protagonists. Yet, sadly, I think she’s wrong. It’s far too easy for studios to ascribe the success of those movies to other things— Hunger Games was popular because it was a popular book series. Resident Evil was popular because it’s a franchise, and zombies. Brave… well, probably would have been more successful if it hadn’t been about a female lead.
That last one’s in the back of their minds even if the movie is moderately successful. You know it is. Square Enix is supposedly disappointed by the sales of the Tomb Raider reboot
(despite it being pretty awesome and selling 3.4 million in its first month, they expected more). Do you think they aren’t wondering if it’s because their female protagonist limited their sales? If Remember Me doesn’t sell well, you don’t think the fact it made news because of the publisher’s rejection of its female protagonist
won’t have some going “See? See?”
It almost seems the only way for the idea of a female protagonist to gain traction as something acceptable would be for a game or film with a female lead to have huge financial success— and have no other logical reason for that success other than the femaleness of its lead. Which is crazy. It’s too tall an order to put on any character, and considering games or films with male leads don’t have their failures lain at the feet of the inability of male protagonists to sell it seems awfully unfair. Yet that’s the burden on the female protagonist at the moment, and until someone comes along and hits all the bases in a way that publishers can’t mistake for something else, it will continue to be considered a given. The sort of argument that makes marketers secretly roll their eyes because your precious idealism has no relation to their knowledge of human nature.
And all that’s ignoring the final issue: the origin. “Too complicated,” they might say. Because origins never get changed in superhero movies, or updated.
If you don’t want to deal with the silliness of the Invisible Jet and Paradise Island (Themyscira, properly) and such, if you want to make a dark and gritty version a la The Dark Knight Returns— then what’s so hard to imagine?
Wonder Woman was born of clay. Have nazi relic hunters searching the ruins of Themyscira. Have Steve Trevor as an American agent who’s trying to stop them and comes across her as a statue, wakes her up. Boom, fight some Nazis. She mourns the destruction of everything she’s known. Returns with Steve to America, but doesn’t like what mankind has become. Fights the evil Nazis (because they’re, well, really evil), but thinks less and less of how the Americans use her as their propaganda poster girl to further their own agenda. A harsh warrior, she judges mankind as a whole and finds them wanting. Cue Steve’s noble death, proving to her that mankind still has some redeeming value (welcome to the fridge, Steve). Waken the vengeful goddess, fighting evil on her own terms without American puppet strings.
Too weird? Too dark? Okay, start with the classical origin: mystical Themyscira— a retreat from the mortal world created by the Greek gods. Hey, it’s no more bizarre than Techno-Asgard. Diana disobeys her mother the Queen in order to fight for the right to be the ambassador to a mankind which has lost its way… or maybe to face a threat which has escaped into the mortal world (Ares!). Cue amazonian gladiatorial battle. Once she leaves, however, she can never come back. Classic fish out of water story, she tries to rally mankind and finds out what they’re really all about, ends up facing Ares down just as it seems all is lost. A new hero is born. Cue the uplifting music.
Terrible? Just my way to pitch ideas for Wonder Woman tales? Well, whatever. I’d totally write that script, I’m not ashamed to say it. Regardless, I have my doubts that a proper Wonder Woman will make her way to the screen for all the reasons stated above… yet I still hope they’ll find a way to do it eventually.
And when they do, for the love of God, she’d better kick ass
Community / Off-Topic / Re: On Narrative Design
on: January 26, 2015, 09:08:38 AM
Do you have a set routine when you’re in writing mode? What’s your secret for working through a block? Are there people you can count on to look over your stuff and give it to you straight when you’ve clearly run aground of what you’d intended?
I imagine that in any position where you need to be creative day-in and day-out, burn out is going to be something against which you have to constantly come up with strategies to fight. This is the case when it comes to writers in game development— we’re not only writing the dialogue, after all, but developing the quests and overall narrative. Even with the basic ideas already planned ahead (or sometimes provided for us) you still have to face that blank screen and figure out where to begin.
It goes beyond simple writer’s block. Writer’s block is something you have to actively manage, as it’ll probably occur anytime you start working on something… unless you have that rare time when you know exactly what approach you’re going to take, there’s that initial hesitation that can sometimes stretch out into a gaping void. Any writer knows what that feels like. Burn out is much worse. You’ve worked your fingers to the bone, poured all your creative juices into a project… and then the next one comes along and you just feel so exhausted you could cry. Not everyone knows where their creative juices come from, after all. You could try resting (if a vacation is even possible), reading, exercising, brainstorming… but what if, after all that, you still come up with nada? You start to wonder what you’re even doing there, and if this is really the job for you.
I’ve faced burn out twice so far in my game development career, looked it straight in the face and felt completely daunted. The first was right after Baldur’s Gate II: Throne of Bhaal wrapped. I’d written so much of BG2 it’s not even funny. James Ohlen nicknamed me “the Machine” because I could crank out dialogue and plots like nobody’s business… 20-odd years of tabletop gaming just poured out of me without restraint, and me a new writer with something to prove. There were others who had been through the first Baldur’s Gate and who were already exhausted, and I just didn’t get what they’d been through. Why couldn’t they keep up? This wasn’t that hard. And then towards the end of work on the expansion I hit a wall. It smacked me full in the face.
I did not know how to deal. It was doubly frustrating for me because the Machine was kind of expected to zoom along at his regular pace… and I was getting nowhere. I forced myself to write, but nothing felt good. I read over my own dialogue and was disgusted. Plus I had health issues which were exacerbating things, since I couldn’t sleep properly. At one point I think James came to talk to me about why I was so far behind on my tasks and I burst into frustrated tears. I thought I should quit, just give it up and move on. Clearly the new project (Knights of the Old Republic, I think?) wasn’t my thing— I was never a big Star Wars fan (horror of horrors!)— so I should just admit it and save BioWare the trouble.
James was patient, thankfully. We came up with some strategies for how I could approach the project— ignore the science fiction thing which was holding me up, just think of it as fantasy if that helped— and that did help. I started creeping forward, writing inch by painful inch, until I hit a plot where I had an idea. Korriban, I think. Or maybe it was when I started writing Jolee Bindo? I don’t recall. But having that idea opened the floodgates, and suddenly it was like my reservoir was full again. I was so flush with eagerness to write it made my heart race. And it restored my confidence.
And then it happened again when I was on the Hordes of the Underdark expansion for Neverwinter Nights. We’d been hit with a bunch of problems on the project, problems which sucked a lot of my enthusiasm out. The project wasn’t going to be this masterpiece I had envisioned, and rather than figure out how to make the best with what I had I dwelled on what I’d lost. My health worsened again, and I hit writer’s block in a big way… and it was this giant wall I just couldn’t get past. I wrote entire dialogues only to delete them in disgust. I browsed the web, telling myself I was just relaxing and waiting for inspiration but really I was just avoiding the truth. This time some vacation helped. Also learning to lean on the other writers… not just to pick up some of the slack, but to bounce ideas off of. Ever so slowly I began to write, painful as it was, and despite absolutely hating the first stuff I produced I went back and edited it afterwards… I let my experience do the talking and pick up the bad parts, figure out what would fix them like working a puzzle in my head, and that was completely different than the process of writing those lines in the first place. It worked, and wasn’t that hard. And the result was good. It was enough to let me move on.
Thankfully I work for a company which does its level best to combat crunch culture. It doesn’t always succeed, but the recognition that its employees have lives and going from crunch to crunch to crunch simply isn’t sustainable… not from an economic standpoint, and not from a human standpoint… is a good thing. We try to make schedules that are realistic and not composed of wishful thinking. If someone busted their ass to hell and back to do a piece of work in a week, that doesn’t mean that the next project should simply schedule a week for that same piece of work. I have bosses that recognize creativity isn’t available on demand. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not. If one of my writers says “I’m just not feeling it today”, I tell them to go home. We all know what the deadlines are. Everyone paces themselves differently, and if they’re willing to put in the time later to catch up that’s totally up to them… and, historically, that’s exactly what they will do. It’s only if their productivity starts breaking down overall that we need to sit down and discuss our options. There are always options.
My understanding is that not everyone in the industry is so lucky. I spoke to a designer once who’d come to us from a string of smaller studios, and he painted a pretty grim picture of what was pretty standard practice at these places: hire young, naive fellows just out of college who were excited just to get the chance to work in the game industry. It was a dream come true. They’d even accept less pay and work long, long hours to prove themselves. And that company would work them to the bone… until finally, burnt out and disillusioned, they were cast aside to be replaced by some new young buck fresh out of college who was willing and able to do the work they used to do, and for less money.
"How could they get away with that?", you might ask. Simple. Game development studios are considered part of the entertainment field, like with movies. The laws governing overtime and maximum work hours are different. So crunch culture is often institutionalized, to the point where many developers couldn’t work otherwise. And that’s ignoring the fact that many developers (and games) simply fail anyhow, no matter how hard they try. Such is the industry in which we work.
I’m not here to discuss industry issues, however, but to discuss dealing with burn out itself. Some things I’ve learned along the way:
1) Pace yourself. Like a marathon runner, you have to know this is a long haul. Yes, you could make that sprint and impress everyone for the moment… but you’ll just exhaust yourself in the long run and thus never reach the finish line. I’ve often found that short bouts of crunch can be helpful, periods where the entire team pulls together to make the next deadline, so long as it’s not sustained. Indeed, I’ve found I can work crunch all week long, and so long as I still get weekends off to recuperate I can sustain that for months. As soon as I work seven days a week (which has happened on occasion), that sustainable time drops dramatically. If occasional bouts of crunch aren’t enough, we should really be questioning whether the schedule was realistic in the first place.
2) Just write. I’ve had some friends who’ve tried writing novels, and the most common problem I’ve seen them run into is they get hung up on making everything perfect right out of the gate. They’ll write a chapter, and then go back again and again trying to tweak it. Or they’ll be stuck at some point because they can’t figure out how to make it as awesome as they’re picturing in their head… and it paralyzes them completely. A novel is a marathon, just like a game. I’ve done this myself, and the answer is to take that next step. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. You may hate what you’ve written, but don’t worry about it. Go back to it later, with fresh eyes. You probably have that one scene you just have to get to, but you’ll get there. Hold it out as a reward. It may feel terrible, but the act of getting words down on paper is far better than avoiding it and making no progress at all.
3) Talk to someone. I love being in the Writers Pit— that’s the big room where we have all the writers on the project. While there are moments where we’ve all got our noses to the grindstone, I’ve never felt hesitant to just grab everyone’s attention. “So, I’m working on this part of the plot, and I just can’t figure it out.” We’ll chat about it, probably joke about it. Chances are good that nobody will make an actual suggestion I can use, but they don’t need to. I just need something to click in my head, and often simply talking about the problem will make me figure out how to deal with it. Or someone will make a suggestion I reject, and in my head I’m already going “BUT if I did it this way, then…” It’s all you need. I imagine not everyone gets this kind of juice from social interaction… but, if you don’t, then figure out what does. And try to distinguish it from things that are just distractions. You may tell yourself that watching TV lets you think… but does it? Or does it just let you avoid the problem for a while?
4) Leave it alone for a while. I don’t mean go watch TV (though you should totally rest when you can), I mean that sometimes it’s best to get up and walk away from something that is really not working for you. I take a walk. I know it’s just me, but getting my blood moving actually helps… some of my best ideas come when I’m pacing, which amuses the other writers as occasionally I’ll get up from my desk and just sort of walk around the room (sometimes ranting and sometimes just biting my lip and considering). If I can, I’ll sometimes leave the part I’m working on and do something completely different. Coming back a few days later I’ll go, “SWEET MERCIFUL ZEUS WHAT WAS I THINKING?” Sometimes you need to crawl out of the pit to realize how dark it is down there.
5) Don’t believe the haters. I know this is pretty specific to me, but the absolute worst thing I can do while writing is go online to read opinions on my work. They don’t know what I go through, or what my responsibilities are. I don’t mean this in a mean or spiteful way at all— they just don’t. Why would they? Opinions are all fine and well, but eventually you’re going to have to decide what works for you. So long as you agree with it, you can be absolutely certain that at least one person does… as opposed to doing only what you think someone else wants, at which point you’re second-guessing yourself. Not that anyone should think every word spilling from their lips is utter gold, but second-guessing yourself is the quick way to hell. I’ve seen others do it— work themselves into such a frenzy of self-doubt that they end up in a tailspin. If you want the world to notice, that means you have to do something. Just do it. Let the ones who aren’t doing anything slip from your mind for the time being.
6) Value feedback. Pursuant to the above, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t appreciate good feedback when you get it. And, yes, there are differences between “good feedback” and “all feedback”. There is a time and place for when you’ll be ready for it. Right in the middle of the process? Probably not that time. At the start, or once you’re done? That’s the time. Every writer I’ve worked with has learned to savage their own work, and distance themselves from it enough so they don’t treat every piece of feedback as a personal criticism. Your work is not you. You can make it better. Chances are that, after the plot is getting reviewed by the rest of the team, you’re going to have to re-write big chunks of it on a regular basis.
7) Learn when to walk away. I’m not going to recite the lyrics to “the Gambler” here, but it’s absolutely vital to learn when “you can make it better” ends. If you can get it to 90%, do you need to struggle to get it to 95%? Do you need to throw out the whole thing and re-write it in order to get it to 96%? Would you know what that is? This is something our entire project has to deal with. When is it “good enough”? Test a plot often enough and you’ll start to get bored with it, for instance. You’ll think of a new idea, and wouldn’t that be better? The longer production goes on, the harder it will be to remember what felt good and new about your story waaaay back when you first wrote it… and remember that the audience will approach it that same way. You have to learn not to trip yourself up. You will never do it completely. At some point, you’ve done what you can and you take your lessons and use them on the next project. Otherwise you’ll keep touching up that painting until you’ve ruined it completely… or, when it comes to game development, that game will just never go out the door. Which is far worse.
I don’t know if I’ve completely answered your question, or if I’ve wandered off into my own tangent. Certainly there are routines we get into which help us. If I’m having a lot of trouble with a dialogue, for instance, I’ll do a “stub” version of it first. It’s completely temp, with no effort at characterization or nuance. All I’m doing is filling in the broad strokes.
NPC: “This is me telling you what’s going on here. Oh, it’s scary. The chillins all need some food.”
PC: “Not the chillins!”
NPC: “It sucks big time. You know— dragons bad. Bad, bad.”
PC: “I shall fight that there dragon!”
NPC: “You are so awesome.”
Okay… I would never stub in a dialogue which was that simple. Normally I do it for the big ones which have lots of branches, just so I can wrap my head around it. I know where the branches are, and where the important information is going to be relayed. I amuse myself with the terrible temp dialogue, making sure that nothing is even passably useable (or I might keep it), and then when I’m done I can go back and re-write it knowing exactly how it’s going to flow.
…and that’s probably the gist of it.
Community / Off-Topic / Re: On Narrative Design
on: January 26, 2015, 08:51:25 AM
Hi. I’m wondering about something. I am currently taking a class on creative writing when the subject of writing novels versus other plot driven styles of writing that are not in book form. Works such as movies, television, or video games. Seeing how you have written both a novel, and worked on writing video game plots, I am wondering if you could enlighten me on the difference between the two.
This is, quite possibly, the question I get asked most often… or, at least, the one I got asked quite frequently in the interviews following my work on the Dragon Age novels and comics. But it’s not a bad one, as there are indeed significant differences in the approach to each medium. In many ways the medium determines what kind of story you can actually tell.
Let’s take the novel. It’s the approach that people are most familiar with, and the one that most people probably think of when they think about writing… and really it’s writing in its purest form. There’s a direct link between the writer and the audience— whatever the writer wills is put into words and directly into the audience’s imagination. You have access to narrative, both internal as well as omniscient, and you can easily change the point of view character. The audience is not required to have agency… they’re a passive voyeur, but not a participant. Any identification they have on the part of the characters you write enhances their enjoyment, but is strictly speaking not required. You know exactly the route the audience will take through the story, laying out each scene as it’s required to occur, and while the audience will make their own interpretation of what you wrote you have far more control in steering them where you’d like them to go.
Compare that to a videogame, in particular an RPG like the ones BioWare makes. Imagine writing a story where you have no clear picture of the protagonist. You might know a few things about them, and indeed the more things you identify the more you can supply story hooks for them, but often the protagonist is almost a complete blank. You can conceivably switch point of view characters, but doing so makes it harder for the player to connect to their avatar (the Identity Bubble, a GDC talk by Matthias Worch, is an excellent source to look at the concept of identity in games). No matter what you do, you have no idea how your protagonist feels about the story, and if you supply choices you’ll never know their true motivation for making those choices.
You can control the order of events in your story, but the more you do the more linear you make it. A linear story is not necessarily a bad one… and, indeed, linearity can allow a writer to construct a superior story at least from a conventional standpoint. But it doesn’t gel with a game that also allows agency, so the more linearity you require the more agency you remove. The less linearity you put into the story, however, the more content you require. Every conceivable option is not a might have been, it’s something you have to write and fully flesh out because every option is equally valid. There are tricks to make such options less costly than a complete division of the story (such as the use of a bottleneck to eventually bring it back in line with the critical path), but do that too much and again the player’s sense of agency will be affected.
And content is something of which you have to be mindful. Unlike with a novel, you are not writing this story alone. You can’t simply write “They rode on their horses to the castle where the dragon awaited!” unless you have horse models, the ability to have character models ride those horses, an area in which they are ridden, a visible castle towards which they must ride, a dragon model and a combat system that allows fighting such a large creature. If the team comes back and says, “letting the player see the castle from the outside will be really expensive… are you sure you want to do that? If so, we’ll need to cut some other levels.” At which point you change what you wrote to “They rode swiftly through the forest, and then there was a fade to black as they arrived in the courtyard. There the dragon awaited!”
"Hmm. Are you sure you want that dragon? Those horse models are really complex to do properly, especially if we need all the character models and their variations to have all the riding animations. Plus you said you wanted jousting. That’s a whole system. To do that and add a dragon, and dragon combat? I dunno."
Then you change what you wrote again: “They ran swiftly through the forest, and there was a fade to black as they arrived in the courtyard. There the dragon awaited!”
"We have to cut some levels. That castle courtyard is really expensive, especially considering you only need it for the one scene. I mean, they go there and have the fight and leave after, right? Is it really that important?”
Then you change what you wrote again: “They ran swiftly through the forest, and there was a fade to black as they arrived in the forest clearing. There the dragon awaited!”
It’s a constant series of back-and-forth compromises, so even once you’ve written a good story and it’s passed muster with the rest of the team you’re still going to have to make changes on the fly. Big ones that will drive giant dump trucks through your plot, sometimes without leaving you enough time to go in and patch the holes.
Of course, not all videogames need to contend themselves with a variable protagonist or a non-linear plot. They’re not all asking for player agency on the same level. I’m thinking of games like Heavy Rain or Uncharted 2. They have wonderful, very linear stories, and that doesn’t necessarily lessen their experience. Or you can have games that are really open-ended like Skyrim, where agency is everything even if the narrative must suffer. That’s also not necessarily a bad thing, as such a game isn’t about the narrative as much as it is about the player telling their own story. There’s a whole spectrum of linearity vs. agency one could plot out for games, and wherever the game lands on that spectrum means the challenges are incredibly different.
All of them are going to lack access to narrative, however. Imagine a novel where there’s only dialogue and see how far you get. It’s not that games can’t do narrative, it’s mostly that text in games is sadly considered passé these days and thus you’ll have to show everything you want to convey. How much of the story is conveyed through the environment? Can you show complex emotions on a character model’s face? How much work can be done through cinematics or animation?
There are lots of theories for how to approach putting together an RPG story, I have no brilliant one-size-fits-all solution— that doesn’t exist. But mostly it’s like creating a maze and letting the player be your mouse that goes through it. It could be a single path, but that would make for a poor maze. Too much meandering and the mouse gets lost. Either way, the experience belongs to the mouse and you have very little control over what it does or why aside from constructing the paths it can walk. You can predict, and set up places for the important beats of your story to occur, but you’ll never know the exact impact. At best you’ll check in with them and ask them, in the story, how they’re doing.
There are also lots of ways to approach writing a novel, but it exists within its own confines and set of rules. A lack of interactivity means all the weight is solely on you to entertain: you’re doing all the dancing and juggling and not asking anything more from the audience than to watch. There’s also more history, and arguably more schools of thought on what is considered good and bad writing. Really, considering you’re the only storyteller, the success or failure of your writing falls only on you.
Personally I’m not sure I could say which is my favorite approach. I started off writing games, and I’m far more familiar with that medium, but it’s easy to get frustrated with the limitations. Then again, you’re part of a collaboration… when it works, it seems like it’s more wonderful than anything you could do alone, and why would you want to? Seeing the game on the shelf, this monumental story that you took part in, is a wonderful feeling. A group achievement, and something that potentially draws the player in on a far more personal level.
Yet it’s also very fulfilling to write something of your own. “The Stolen Throne” was my first novel, and one I took on mostly to see if I could do it. I’d dabbled in the past, of course (which writer hasn’t?)… but I’d never actually finished a whole book. I didn’t know if I had the endurance to do so. It turned out I did, though I can’t say I particularly excelled at it. I’m sure there’s no shortage of people who would gleefully agree, eager to criticize what was an amateur effort, but that doesn’t really concern me. I was happy to finish it (not everyone gets the opportunity), and I thought each of my subsequent books showed improvement in my technique. A novel is a herculean task to undertake on your own, so the fact I could pull it off at all makes me happily ignore the naysayers— there are people who tell me they enjoyed the books a great deal, and that’s enough for me to keep trying.
Currently I’m quite happy to work on comics, which are another beast entirely… imagine trying to take your customary writing style in novels and games, both of which involve massive and meandering plots, and squeeze it into a medium that is segmented into issues of a fixed size? No extra page here or there where needed? Whoosh. That’s something I needn’t get into, I suppose, but it’s a challenge of a different order (if less of a marathon, perhaps, which is a nice trade-off).
I suppose this is a question about timelines and character development within your games. Take Dragon Age, did you have a really specific plans for where characters would end up? For instance, did you know that the character of Flemeth would save a part of herself away from Morrigan? Or do these kind of developments happen out of necessity to previous games rather than organicly? I like to imagine you have a giant calendar on your wall with any upcoming blights marked down!?
Absolutely we have plans. You know what they say about the best laid plans, however… ours are really no different. Why? Because there are lots of things which come up, and which couldn’t care less that we might have been planning something else. If this were simply a novel we were writing, and all we had to concern ourselves with was the story, it might not be such a big deal. But that’s not the case.
What does that mean? It means the unexpected has happened. These can affect our plans in small ways— suddenly we no longer have a character model we required, or the plot which constituted the middle of the arc needed to be cut and thus required altering the entire chain of events. Or they can be big things: a schedule gets changed, an expansion gets canceled, or a new project gets dropped in your lap which you weren’t expecting. The level art can’t be done like we needed for that story. There are people on the team who’d like to do something else. The new project requires features and locations that need something more interesting than yet another dungeon or forest or whatever the story called for.
Am I complaining? Heck no. Part of being a game developer means you have to think on your feet. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. You’ll find that suddenly the arc you started no longer makes sense because something changed, and had you known that was going to happen you would have started it very differently or not at all. You can go to the Lead Designer and moan about it, but guess what? The writers are not princesses who get their way every time, and even if the rest of the team was totally on board with what you intended it might not even be something they can control. As a developer, you nod and you roll with it… you make it the best you can, and ideally it’ll seem as if that’s what you intended all along. If you can’t do that, you probably shouldn’t work in this kind of environment.
That’s not to say that it always happens, however. Far from it. In fact, with regards to Dragon Age I’m pretty happy to say that the big things have so far remained intact. They may not have happened in the order I originally envisioned, but the progression of events has occurred pretty much as I pictured way back in… gosh, 2004? 2005? I forget how long I’ve been working on this, now. It is kind of funny to look back at the legacy docs and see all the small things which have changed. Some of it seems really bizarre, as in “what was I thinking?” Some of it makes me wistful, things I really wish we could have done.
There’s this thing about Anders we were planning… man, I wish I could tell you about it. I won’t, because it’s possible we might resurrect it (perhaps in a different form), but every time it comes up in the Writers Pit we all laugh and laugh and laugh. It’s evil laughter. It feels good. Trust me, you’re probably better off not knowing. Still, there’s a few of those things lingering in the past which I guess I’ll always regret having gone awry… but if you’ve been reading my posts, you’re probably getting a sense that this isn’t new. Every project has stuff like that, and insofar as plans go no single game looks anything like it did in those first plans and that’s always going to require the larger stuff to be flexible lest it snap in two.
Of course, my perspective of the overall arc of “things we have done” does extend to Dragon Age 3 as well… so it’s a bit different from yours. Still, you’ll see what I mean eventually.
Insofar as what kind of planning we do specifically, we’ve maintained an internal intranet since the project started. Originally this was just a repository for documentation… which, if you’ve had any experience with this sort of system, you’ll know that this can get unwieldy rather quickly. Documents get out of date, and given enough time you’ll have a metric ton of documents kicking around which are all out of date to different degrees. Some of us always knew where the up-to-date stuff was, but to aid communication within the team we eventually moved to a wiki system with links and everything, and an editor devoted to keeping track of all the lore bits. You’ll see the results of his efforts in the upcoming World of Dragon Age book, which incidentally looks AMAZING.
So, yes, the ultimate answer to your question is we do keep plans— Big Picture plans aside from the planning that goes into an individual game— and that, detailed as these might be, it’s something that’s going to evolve organically (if, ideally, never stray too far from the original intention). I saw a thread on the BSN which essentially said “You know what you guys should do which would help you? Plan!” …which made me chuckle. In a slightly painful way, sure, but such is life in the biz.
Community / Off-Topic / Re: On Narrative Design
on: January 26, 2015, 08:35:44 AM
Back at the end of March, I did a presentation at GDC (Game Developer’s Conference, a prestigious event held annually in San Francisco where game devs come together to exchange ideas and network) called “Sex in Videogames”. [See how that came to be in "Sometimes I Do Good" below.]
Some people asked me if they could see the presentation. I requested that GDC make the video publicly available (they do that for some of the recorded presentations), but they declined— so you need a GDC Vault membership in order to see it. You can, however, download the PowerPoint presentation I used— here
. It’s not everything I said verbatim, but it has most of my talk and I think you’ll get the gist.
If you want to check out another presentation, my suggestion would be the #1Reason panel— you can watch the video here
. Brenda Romero is awesome, let me tell you. Clearly a formidable and passionate person, and her discussion was made all the more relevant when— the next day— the whole scandal about the IGDA party broke (after which she resigned from her IGDA post in fury).
Anyhow, over the last number of weeks I’ve taken something of an e-break— I really haven’t paid attention to much of anything online. Barely tweeted, barely visited the BSN or looked at Tumblr. It’s been pretty refreshing, actually. Cleared the cobwebs. Some time in New Orleans helped.
The only thing I did get exposed to was some anonymous hate sent my way— due to my mention of Anita Sarkeesian in that earlier post. I’m not going to relay any of it here— heck, if you want to read stuff like that, take a look at some of the responses to Cliff Bleszinski’s post on the subject
. Mine was much the same, essentially claiming there was “genuine criticism” of Anita’s work that I was ignoring in my blind attempt to “score points” as a liberal male.
I’m not really going to address any of that, except to say three things:
1) You gave up any chance to call it “genuine criticism” when you resorted to abuse and harassment to make your point. I don’t know what kind of fantasy world one would have to live in to believe that people should simply ignore the hateful bile that accompanies one’s “message”— perhaps the kind of fantasy world where one’s communication is entirely comprised of comparing dick sizes? If so, wake up and realize that nobody outside your little world cares how big your dick is. Being a real man involves slightly more than whining about how right you are.
2) I don’t have to agree with Anita to respect her and respect the way she’s borne the abuse with her head held high. If I did disagree with her work, I’m certain I could come up with better ways to communicate that than by insulting her gender and making sure she felt threatened and unsafe. But I suppose I’m an adult, and not one who needs to “score points”. Perhaps that’s why you do what you do, but I’ll warn you: in the real world, scoring points doesn’t make you level up.
3) While I wish it weren’t necessary, thank you for helping prove my points regarding privilege with your own words. Some self-awareness would do you credit.
And with that very-related tangent, I’ll bid you all good day. Have fun on the interwebs. Me, I still have some vacation to burn
Freshly back from San Francisco, after having spent twice as much time lurking in the airport than it actually took to fly back to Edmonton, all I want to do is curl up into a ball and not talk to anyone. I hit the limits of my social endurance (which isn’t very robust to begin with) by about Wednesday, but I soldiered on with all the networking and shaking hands and interviews because… well, because I had to do this.
"Why?" a friend recently asked me, prior to my leaving for GDC. "Aren’t you tired of getting crapped on? This is just going to expose you to even more of it. Why would you do that to yourself?"
I didn’t have a ready response to her worrying, and if I’m honest I’ve had those same thoughts— and expressed them to my friends from time to time. I wondered whether my saying anything would really reach anyone who needed to hear it. Maybe I’d just be preaching to the choir, and all I’d do is stir up more anger from the willfully ignorant and the activists who’d take issue either with my words or any impression that I was a white male looking to be lauded as a Good Guy. Wouldn’t I rather just keep my head down and concentrate on my work? Shouldn’t doing good work be enough?
And I suppose the answer is: no, it shouldn’t.
Some background, for the uninitiated:
I started doing a presentation for fans called “Sex in Videogames”, first at the Pure Speculation Con in Edmonton and then at 2012’s Dragon*Con. My notion was to explain to fans why issues regarding minority representation are dealt with so poorly by the majority of the gaming industry, and offer some insider perspective as to why the industry doesn’t do more about it. These were, after all, things I felt I could speak on. Being a writer who’s dealt with romance and sex in BioWare games since I joined the company in 1999, those are issues with which I’ve come into contact and not always dealt with particularly well. I’m still dealing with them, in fact. And I wanted to talk about it.
Mike Capps (the former head of Epic Games) was running the videogame track at Dragon*Con, and is the one who let me speak there. Both he and his wife were wonderful— welcoming, thoughtful, just really excellent people. They helped make Dragon*Con a great experience for me, to be honest, and doing the “Sex in Videogames” panel seemed like icing on the cake. Such a positive reaction from the fans. The wave of emotion through the room… it was pretty hard to describe, and so many people told me how great it was to have someone in the industry talking about this stuff…
You see, that’s what blew me away… just as it blew me away back when I made that post
to the “Straight Male Gamer” on the BSN. There I was, responding to a fan who, while possessing an ignorant opinion, had expressed himself thoughtfully and politely and I endeavoured to act in kind. I didn’t think I could convince him of anything, necessarily, but I thought others on the BSN would appreciate me chiming in. And they did… and, far more, it got picked up by a lot of people. By the media. By blogs. Everyone was saying how very awesome and unusual it was for someone in the industry to have addressed the issue at all— never mind that I took a stance they applauded.
BUT WHY? WHY WAS IT SO UNUSUAL?
That’s what got me. BioWare isn’t the only company facing these issues. Yes, we make a deliberate effort at inclusivity (and flub it as often as we succeed, to be perfectly honest), but surely we’re not the only ones who recognize it as worth addressing? Why would anyone treat my speaking on the subject as worthwhile, when from my perspective there are others who have been speaking about it far longer, far more eloquently, and with more credibility? Was it just because I was someone working in the industry? That this leant anything I said more weight?
And it struck me that, yes, maybe it did. I’m not the only person in the industry talking about the issue, by any means, but perhaps if I had something to say about it I shouldn’t stand on the sidelines and trust that someone else might say it for me. I had no confidence that what I said would actually be noticed, would actually change anything or even that anyone might particularly care what a mid-level lead at BioWare had to say… but perhaps adding my perspective to the conversation would be helpful. Maybe it needs to be talked about more, and by more types of people. That’s why I decided to do “Sex in Videogames” in the first place.
And then Mike Capps contacted me again late last year. He was on the board that reviewed GDC talks, and (having seen my Dragon*Con talk and having liked it) he invited me to speak there. GDC is a prestigious event for the industry— normally you have to apply to do a talk, jump through a lot of hoops, so being invited was quite an honor. I’d get to address not only my peers but the media as well. So, despite a great deal of trepidation, I accepted.
I had to change my talk somewhat— if I was addressing my peers, I couldn’t stop at just explaining why we the industry should consider this a problem… but what we should do about it. I tried to be blase about the whole thing, but in the hours leading up to my talk I all but had a panic attack. Visions of the criticism to which I was opening myself, how this could make BioWare look (as, in the interest of fairness, I have some not-very-nice things to say about my own own company’s track record), about the inevitable death threats and how this might make it look like I was “Guy With An Issue”… or whatever. I tried to keep my talk even-handed, make my suggestions practical rather than extreme and focus on the economic benefits as much as the moral… but would anyone even care?
My concern was amplified when I saw a GDC presentation by Anita Sarkeesian, where she detailed the abuse she went through at the hands of entitled gamers. I can’t explain the helpless, frustrated rage I felt watching her categorize each indignity which had been heaped upon her… not just at the so-called “fans” who perpetrated those acts, but at my own industry for our unintentional complicity. Could I also be a target of these guys? Probably not, as they seem to prefer picking on women (as their vicious targeting of my colleague, Jennifer Hepler, would indicate), but it made me doubt. It also made me doubt the idea that anything could even be done about this situation.
And then I met Anita, and talked with her about it. She urged me to continue, and said that allies were important— guys need to stand up and speak, not just the women and minorities themselves. They’re far too easily dismissed by those who also need to hear it from their peers. And she’s right. I may not be the best ally in the world, but I had to try. I adore Anita, and utterly respect the stand she’s taken… so if I get a little flak for chiming in, I guess I’ll take it on the chin and be grateful for my privilege meaning I’ll likely never have to face what she has.
I was so glad once my talk was done, and gratified that— so far— the response has been positive. PC Gamer wrote an article
on it, and I got the chance to also talk with Rock Paper Scissors
at length— both are great write-ups and worth your time to read. I had people (industry folk and otherwise) coming up to me since who shook my hand and expressed how much it meant to them… so that’s a relief.
For those who are curious, my understanding is that the PowerPoint part of the presentation (the slides and the actual notes that go along with them) will eventually be publicly available (and I’m not permitted to upload the presentation anywhere myself, so you’ll have to wait). The talk was recorded, and normally those recordings are only available as part of the GDC Vault membership… but I’ve heard that they make some recordings publicly available as well, and if that’s true I’ll ask they do the same with mine.
Beyond that? I’ll continue to try. As I said in my talk, a developer’s #1 priority will not be dealing with inclusivity. It can’t be, as our #1 priority is just to ship a game and stay afloat… and that’s a Herculean (and sometimes Sisyphusian) task in and of itself. But that doesn’t mean the issue should fall off the radar completely, or that we shouldn’t challenge some of those preconceptions which keep coming up in our meetings as to who our audience is and should be.
And while a single game can’t be all things to all people, I should remember that the reason people heap those expectations on a game like Dragon Age is because we do try… and, while I think the aggressiveness of some does their argument a disservice, it’s born of frustration… a frustration that I, even as a gay man, will only ever be able to understand in part. They don’t just want me personally to do more (my limited power notwithstanding) or just Dragon Age or just BioWare, they’re yearning for more from the industry as a whole. I could probably stand to be less of an asshole about it when some of that heat comes my way, as it’s wont to considering I have any influence over the subject at all. My preference would be to show rather than tell, but that’s never going to stop them from asking.
And I’d also like to say how thankful I am— to the fans who have shared so many kind thoughts and words, to my co-workers, for putting up with my constantly running off at the mouth (as well as for being such an incredible and open-minded group to work with), my bosses for giving me any opportunity at all to have this kind of influence… and, yes, to Electronic Arts. Despite what anyone might say about them, they’ve been nothing but supportive of inclusivity efforts across the board.
I’m about to head into a much-needed sabbatical, a bit of a break before work on DA3 will shift into overdrive. Overall, I feel positive about what I’ve accomplished, and I hope to accomplish much more. I don’t always do good, but occasionally I do… and, if I’m lucky, that will let me sleep a bit easier. I think that’s really all we can ask of ourselves.
Community / Off-Topic / Re: On Narrative Design
on: January 26, 2015, 12:36:17 AM
If you can think of anything else from the blog that might be worthwhile reading for us Craftyites, present and future, want to stick it up in the thread?
Community / Off-Topic / Re: On Narrative Design
on: January 25, 2015, 05:40:50 PM
I happen to be fortunate. My team of writers on Dragon Age currently consists of nine people— most of which are female. It’s reached the point that, when we consider new hires and transfers, I tend to joke “ummm, we could use some more testosterone in here…” and give a big goofy grin. Mine is probably the only department that could get away with saying something like that.
And I’m not truly serious about it, anyhow. If having such a large number of women on my team has taught me anything, it’s that you can’t lump them into one category of preferences any more than you could the guys. Yes, there are those among my female writers who are more averse to combat and more attracted to the romance plots… but, you know what? That’s equally true for the male writers. Considering there are those among the women who would be seriously put out if a plot didn’t engage in some serious bloodletting, and who roll their eyes whenever the subject of gooey romance comes up, I think it’s pretty safe to say the stereotype of a “female gamer” doesn’t exist outside of the heads of men.
Which meant I was a little surprised when I learned something new the other day.
We were sitting down to peer review a plot— a peer review being the point where a plot has had its first writing pass completed, and whoever wrote it sits down with the other writers as well as representatives from cinematic design, editing, and level art to hear critique. We’ve all read it first, and written down our thoughts, and go around the table to relate any issues we encountered.
As it happened, most of the guys went first. Typical stuff— some stuff was good, some stuff needed work, etc. etc. Then one of the female writers went, and she brought up an issue. A big issue. It had to do with a sexual situation in the plot, which she explained could easily be interpreted as a form of rape.
It wasn’t intended that way. In fact, the writer of the plot was mortified. The intention was that it come across as creepy and subverting… but authorial intention is often irrelevant, and we must always consider how what we write will be interpreted. In this case, it was not a long trip for the person playing through the plot to see what was happening at a slightly different angle, and it was no longer good-creepy. It was bad-creepy. It was discomforting and not cool at all. And this female writer was not alone. All the other women at the table nodded their heads, and had noted the same thing in their critiques. So we discussed it, changes were made, and everything was better. Crisis averted.
All good, right? That’s what these reviews are for.
Here’s the thing: after the meeting was over, it struck me how sharply divided the reviewers were on gender lines. The guys involved, all reasonable and liberal-minded fellows I assure you (including me!) all automatically took the intended viewpoint of the author and didn’t see the issue. The girls had all taken the other side of the encounter, and saw it completely differently— all of them. As soon as it was pointed out, it was obvious… but why hadn’t we seen it?
And this thought occurred as well: if this had been a team with no female perspective present, it would have gone into the game that way. Had that female writer been the lone woman, would her view have been disregarded as an over-reaction? A lone outlier? How often does that happen on game development teams, ones made up of otherwise intelligent and liberal guys who are then shocked to find out that they inadvertently offended a group that is quickly approaching half of the gaming audience?
For the girls reading that, I imagine a bunch will roll their eyes and say “well, duh, pretty damn often.” But what about the guys? Will the idea make them uncomfortable? Will they come up with excuses, or go right to hostility? Guys, particularly in game development, are a pretty privileged bunch. That’s not meant as an insult; it’s just the way it is. The teams consist primarily of white guys and (shockingly) that’s who we assume our audience is— almost exclusively. But the gaming audience is changing, just as the nature of our games is changing, and perhaps there’s value in appreciating the fact that greater female representation in game development teams has a more practical benefit than equality for equality’s sake alone.
"A while back you talked about how there was a scenario in the game that came off as ‘Rape-like’ and needed to be rewritten, I was just curious and wanted to know how it panned out differently and how you made it better for all your fans.”
The post in question was the one where I mentioned a peer review of a plot with a situation that “could easily be interpreted as a form of rape”. During the review, the female members of the peer group mentioned how uncomfortable it made them feel…and because that wasn’t the writer’s intention, he ended up changing it.
Some people took that to mean the writer had actually put a rape into the story, and just didn’t realize it until the female writers pointed it out—which wasn’t the case at all, but since I couldn’t go into detail of the specifics, there wasn’t really any way to clarify.
But Dragon Age: Inquisition is out now, so I’ll clarify. For those wishing to avoid spoilers, this is the point at which you bow out.
Still here? Okay then.
The plot in question was “Champions of the Just”, the one you get if you go to Therinfal Redoubt after the templars and the Lord Seeker. You’ll recall there is a section where Envy has taken the form of Leliana, and is poking and prodding at the Inquisitor’s psyche in order to determine what makes him/her tick.
If I recall correctly, this early version of the plot had it so that the player wasn’t aware they were inside their head. The fight with the Lord Seeker was quickly ended, the templars wrapped up and the player heads back to Haven…almost too easily. Haven is too quiet, and Leliana is there asking odd questions and testing the player’s responses.
One of these things had Envy-Leliana attempting to seduce you. It was creepy and weird, and one of the places where the player was allowed to go, “Woah! This definitely isn’t right!” But the player also had the opportunity to accept.
There were going to be severe consequences for accepting, but regardless of that the thing that was pointed out was how the creepiness of the situation went beyond the demon-seduction itself and more how it seemed to be a sexual violation of Leliana by-proxy. Never mind that it was Envy initiating it, you thought (or seemingly thought) you were sleeping with Leliana, and it made for uncomfortable follow-up trying to imagine whether that was something we could just let slide and/or whether it should be something you could address with the real Leliana…or whether it should be allowed at all.
The circumstances could have been changed, perhaps, and while the peer group discussed it, the fact remained that it wasn’t an element the writer wanted to introduce—it was supposed to be about Envy and its creepy probing only, so he elected to take it out (and, ultimately, the entire set-up of that part of the plot changed anyhow).
I normally wouldn’t discuss an early form of a plot (all of them went through similar revisions on a constant basis), or bring up a plot point which got dropped (which happens a lot), except that in this specific case it felt telling that none of us guys really thought much beyond the author’s intention, and the introduction of an alternate interpretation (gender-based, or at least it seemed such) proved to be an incredibly valuable discussion point that we might have missed if the dynamics on the team had been different…which made me think how much of it might get missed elsewhere. Thus I believed it worth mentioning.
I’m so sad the first version did not make it into the game.
After In Hushed Whispers, all I could think about for the entire playthrough was “She died for me. She died for me”. That just spoke to me on such a deep level. It would be so fulfilling to spend the second playthrough thinking “I seduced her. I used her. I am a horrible person” after Champions of the Just. As it is, I had the impression the templars’ quest was much weaker or, at least, failed to match the horror and mindfuckery level of the mages’ quest. You know nothing is real from the beginning, where’s the fun in that?
But I do understand rape and consent issues would be seen as much more problematic by the audience than torture and sacrifice, which did make it into the game.
A few people have expressed similar things, so I feel I should mention:
The scene was not changed solely because the potential violation could be interpreted as problematic. Yes, that is an issue…but it is an issue of the writer getting across intention. You’re unlikely to ever account for all possible interpretations, but you do have to consider how easy a leap it is for some and whether those interpretations could ultimately distract from what you’re trying to communicate.
I mentioned that in the peer review we discussed ways that the scene could still be done, in order to keep its original intention intact. Something being problematic does not mean it should not be done at all (yes, I’m aware there are people who would outright disagree; I’m talking from a writer’s perspective), but more that you should not do it without knowing what you’re getting into and why.
In this case, the writer felt the road to making the scene work was too far to travel for too little return. Creepy and intriguing in its potential outcomes, yes, but ultimately it distracted from what he was trying to do with the plot as a whole — and thus he scrapped it.
That’s something you have to do when you’re writing — consider if that one piece you feel is kind of cool is really worth twisting the rest of the plot around just to accommodate it. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s not.
Odd that you should mention Champions of the Just being weaker than In Hushed Whispers. I’ve read people say the exact opposite, so it’s really a matter of interpretation. What was more important is that both plots had certain goals to accomplish (show what impact the Inquisitor will have/telegraph the demon army and assassination plots) — and that bigger picture also had to be taken into consideration when determining what was more important. Writers often have many masters they must serve at once.
At any rate — just thought it was worth pointing out.