Welcome to the “Narrator Dialogs”; here we seek to put a face on those who are making interactive narrative design a force to be reckoned with. Today’s dialog is with NDN member, Dr. Michelle Franklin Esquire – Writer and Narrative Designer. Michelle has been rooting on the Narrative Designer’s Network since it’s inception, she is a valuable team member and a fantastic writer. Michelle just released a highly acclaimed fan-fiction novel based in EA Bioware’s Dragon Age Universe and it currently working on a sequel. She also has undisclosed secret projects in the works; maybe we can get her to spill the beans today. She comes to share her perspective on interactive narrative design with the Narrative Designer’s Network.
Stephen E. Dinehart: Please tell me a little about yourself and your interest interactive narrative.
Michelle Franklin: I have been working in the video game industry for 6 years now. I’ve worked on over a dozen titles across multi-platforms. I’m also a published fantasy writer for The.Gloaming Magazine and a fantasy novelist. Since game design and writing are my two passions in life -besides my unabashed love for candy- I’ve have always been searching for new and exciting ways to combine the two.
Can you describe your current role(s)?
MF: I am currently doing game design and game writing for a new itle, which I cannot talk about. I apologize. I’m also finishing one novel and beginning another.
What do your daily duties consist?
MF: Writing characters, writing and developing story, plot development, writing hundreds of lines of dialogue, world and location creation, game mechanics design, game progression defining, learning new tools and editors, and of course meeting with the entire team to make certain we are all on the same page.
Do you call yourself a narrative designer?
MF: I would call myself many things. Narrative Designer can be one of them but I would prefer if there were a Dr. at the beginning and an Esquire at the end. It would make it sound more official.
MF: Because Dr. and Esquire are my two favourite honorifics. And because when there is a game that calls for a narrative, there is an element of design that is weaved into it. Writers and Designer have to work together on that front in order to make the two blend well in a given game. However, since I do both at the same time, I would call myself a Narrative Designer.
How do you define the craft of Interactive Narrative Design?
MF: A story in which a player assumes the role of an avatar and is allowed to make meaningful choices that will impact the story and gameplay. Or, in non-fancy terms, audience participation. It is one thing to sit back and have the story be told to you but it is entirely another to be able to control the “what happens next” feature.
What, in your memory, is the finest narrative moment you’ve help craft?
MF: Figuring out a way to put Chuck Norris in a Hannah Montana game. Yes, that was me and I am extremely proud that I was able to do that. It was a particularly difficult project for many reasons and I wanted to be able to be more creative with that particular title. Chuck Norris talking about himself in the third-person was worth all the tribulations.
As a game designer and writer, how do you see the two roles as being different?
MF: As a writer, I deal with plot, story arc, characters and character development, dialogue, journal information, quest information and overall mood of the writing in the game.
As a game designer, I deal with mechanics, level creation, GDD management and maintenance, scripting, element implementation, gameplay and interactivity, rules, rewards and penalties for the player, and QA.
Two completely separate roles but I love to do both.
You have been writing and designing games for more than 5 years. What has it taught you?
MF: That anything that isn’t fun, exciting and challenging isn’t worth doing. It has also taught me how to deal with stress and value teamwork. As well, it has shown me the zen path to finding something to appreciate in every game.
“The Sten and the Warden”, your fan fiction novel, is based on BioWare’s Dragon Age. Why did you choose this as the setting for your story?
MF: I chose to write about the Qunari because he was what intrigued me most about Dragon Age. I played through the game once on PC and twice on PS3, and no matter which choices I made throughout the game, I always found myself being drawn to join Sten in Seheron. He became my Commander Riker, my number one, and I just could not leave him at camp to sit and twiddle his thumbs while his blade was still dry. I was always very disappointed when the game ended without an epilogue as to what happened to Sten so I decided to do something about that in the only way I really could.
A friend of mine, though, really put me up to it, I must admit. When she finished the game, she was so distraught that she was not allowed to visit Seheron that she commissioned me to write a few chapters. She continually hounded me with questions that drove me to write the next chapter, and then the next, and so on. Eventually, I had come to write a chapter a day and I had my email in-box filled to the brim with fantastic letters from fans all over the world who had enjoyed the story. The response was enormous, one I never thought I would have received from a dinky little 200-page story about the Sten and the Warden visiting Seheron and saving Ferelden from the Imperium.
Of which part of the novel are you particularly proud?
MF: I think of the overall pacing of the Sten and the Warden’s relationship and the strange way in which it develops. It certainly is not a Jane Austen romance. Old fashion war and bloodshed, bouts of shouting and jealousy on Alistair’s part- the extent of their relationship and how it flourishes, I would say I’m proud of. I am surprised at how the story took on a life of it’s own after a while and it really just wrote itself.
I am really more proud of the responses I’ve gotten from people who have complimented me in saying that the characters were very well kept within their personal bounds. I really did not want to deviate from what the game made them out to be. Keeping the characters that everyone loves the way they are is something I hoped to achieve and I did my best.
There are certain passages I do particularly enjoy, ones which I read now and think, “that’s actually not bad”, and for me that’s a feat because I’m hypercritical about my own work. At one point during the war with the Imperium, the Warden becomes injured and while Wynne is healing her, she very lovingly describes the Qunari as “a pensive and laudable creature, somewhere between a man and a mountain.” That’s exactly how I see Sten.
What kinds of stories do games need to tell? That is, what would be your dream subject for a game?
MF: That’s really the magic of games, I find. They can tell any story, really, because there is no other interactive experience like them. From being a mighty pirate with a chicken with a pulley in the middle to being a grizzled space marine with a gun that shoots black holes, games have the ability to suspend the imagination very far. We could make games about rangers who have guns that shoot veloceraptors and it would be an exciting story.
My dream subject for a game would be anything that’s fresh and exciting. The industry is full of games that have interesting and new stories. I would love to see something totally ridiculous done, something like this:
“Famed and acclaimed New York bagel master Morty Loxheart is the greatest bagel master in all of New York. Thousands of customers flock to his famous bagelry each day. One evening, while cleaning up and preparing the dough for the following morning, Morty discovers an old moldy bagel sitting near the radiator. Knowing that this bagel must have fallen from the oven some time ago and landed there by mistake, Morty attempts to throw the bagel away only to discover that the mold has mutated the bagel into a monster! The bagel flares its newly formed fangs at Morty, trying to bite him. Morty does the only thing he can do: he brandishes a nearby spreading knife for a weapon and a stale bagel for a shield. He strikes and kills the enfarinated creature only to find out that there are more to slay! As Morty, the player must journey through the famous bagel shoppe and destroy the mutated baked goods before the night is over.”
As crazy as that sounds, I think it would make for a hilarious game. I’ll call it Bagel Quest: an Adventure of Delicious Proportions.
There are games out there that do dare to make games with stories as zany as these, such as Minotaur China Shop and Jetpack Brontosaurus. Look at Mario: who ever thought that an Italian plumber who shoots fire from his hands and steps on mushrooms would be as popular as he is today? I’d like to see more AAA developers take a stab at something wild. Telltale Games and Double Fine to an excellent job of making great games with strange tales and I’m all for that.
What do you imagine for the future of interactive narrative design?
MF: To be honest, I really have no idea. With Natal and Move coming, anything is really becoming possible. 20 years ago, I thought my Atari 2600 was the greatest the industry had to offer. 10 years ago, I thought my PS2 was the best the industry had to offer. Games are always getting better and better, there is really no telling what amazing things we are going to see in the next 10 years but I consider myself fortunate to be a part of it.
Thanks for taking the time to interview with the NDN!
Michelle is a great example of a positive fun-loving creative person using all her might to forge a new way to tell stories, her fan fiction is taking off, and I for one look forward to reading and playing her new creations. Thank you for reading, I hope you have learned as much as I have. For the NDN Narrator I’m Stephen E. Dinehart.
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