This is an ongoing NDE series featuring interviews with Game Writers in the Trenches™. The game industry is riddled with the unsung heroes of interactive storytelling. As game developers are increasingly looking to create meaningful virtual narrative experiences, listening to the real-world wisdom of these writers can help everyone on the development pipeline understand their trials, tribulations, and needs, in hopes of enabling them to do their job as they know best. Today’s game writer is Jeff Spock, I’m hoping to see what we can learn from his experiences in the trenches of game development.
Stephen E. Dinehart: How did you become a game writer?
Jeff Spock: I have always been two things; a video game player and a fiction writer. I started playing games back on the Apple platforms in the 70’s, and have been writing something roughly resembling fiction ever since I was old enough to hold a crayon correctly.
These two passions came together in a perfect storm of coincidence; I met Marc Laidlaw while I was doing the Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2004 in Seattle. Marc is the brains behind the Valve writing (the Half-Life series in particular) and has been writing excellent speculative fiction since the 80’s. Chatting with Marc was an epiphany: “You mean, you can get paid to write stories for games???” Through Marc I met Raphael Colantonio of Arkane Studios, and he introduced me to the Ubisoft Third Party group. Since then I have probably done 80% of my game work with Ubisoft.
SED: Now that you have been working for a number of years in the industry, do you remain as passionate?
JS: Absolutely. Both sides of my fascination are evolving; games are getting increasingly sophisticated and storytelling is getting increasingly rich. As new platforms and tools evolve, we gain new methods for developing and presenting stories.
There is also the state of game writing in general (mediocre) and certain comments in particular that are like red flags to a bull. As long as there are people out there who denigrate game writing and gamestories I’ll be in the trenches, fighting the good fight.
SED: Do you work mostly as a contract writer or do you have a staff position writing for games?
JS: I have always and only been a contract writer. I may some day end up on staff somewhere, but I am currently living far from most European studios so I can’t do the kind of daily commute that would be necessary for a staff job.
Contract writing also fits my temperament and lifestyle; as a writer I’m more of a project-oriented person who does better with short stories than novels. I’m not sure that I would want to spend three years on a mega-project running a writing team of twenty people. I’ve done my time running IT departments; I changed careers to get away from that!
That being said, Ubisoft is one of the companies that “gets” game stories. I tend to be brought on early in the project, and have the good fortune to track and even sometimes influence the way the gameplay and story evolve together during the project.
SED: How do you see game writing as unique?
JS: There are elements of game writing that make it very different fromtraditional fiction (prose or screenplay) writing, though in a surprising number of ways the creative process is similar. Common elements would be developing the characters, creating the throughline (to prose writers) or spine (to game writers) of the narrative, and doing the dialogue writing. Even though a game may need a lot of dialogue options, it’s still the same process. Most prose writers rewrite dialogue scenes so many times that it’s almost identical to doing five different versions of an encounter to account for player choice!
The real differences from my point of view come from the fact that the game writer has little control over some major elements that may have been fixed by the design team, such as the theme or “meaning” of the game as well as the setting. The big one for me is what the game is about, in the way that the Lord of the Rings is about sacrifice and loss or in the way that Huckleberry Finn is about racism and maturity. Too many games are sequences of incidents and set pieces with the obligatory betrayal / hidden identity / deus ex machina event. But what are they “about?” Too often it is nothing; they lack the quality of “aboutness.”
The example I love to use is the Sword of Shannara – it’s almost a scene for scene imitation of the Lord of the Rings, written by Terry Brooks when he was starting out. Same story, same characters. And yet one is a literary classic while the other has faded into obscurity. One had resonance and theme and meant something, as it was written by a man who saw all his best friends die in the trenches of World War I. The other was a beginning author trying his hand at second world fantasy. Q.E.D., dude. As long as game story imitates rather than innovates it will suffer the same fate.
SED: Was this years’ Austin Game Developers Conference a pay-off for you?
JS: It was an enormous pay-off. On a personal level I got to meet some old friends plus make the acquaintance of people that until then had only been names on the Game Writers’ SIG mailing list. Professionally I found out what the best and brightest in the industry are doing, and attended some amazing sessions. I’ll be going every year as long as finances and professional commitments permit.
And then, of course, there was the Ginger Man…
SED: Can you describe your writing process?
JS: It’s more than anything a shotgun approach. I throw a lot of ideas at a project and see what sticks; I’m definitely reliant on a good producer or editor to act as an intellectual sparring partner. While I tend to develop my own fiction while sitting alone staring into space, the team-oriented nature of game development and the brainstorming that goes along with it are critical to the process for me.
Once the bare bones of the gamestory are down I get really, really old fashioned; I break out a huge roll of butcher’s paper and start laying out the scenario, the subplots, and the character arcs and tying them into the design of the levels/missions/campaigns.
Seriously. If you’ve never tried it, grab the butcher’s paper. It gives a one-shot view of everything you’re doing, plus it impresses your friends and makes a great mural when the project is over.
SED: When do you tend to become involved with a Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy Franchise?
JS: That’s really Richard Dansky’s turf; he’s the Lead Clancy Writer (yes, that title exists in an org chart somewhere). I only get
involved in projects like that when there is additional development work being done in Europe and they need a resident anglophone. For Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 1 I actually did quite a bit of work; the PC version was done by GRIN in Stockholm and during development
they made a lot of changes to the levels. Ubisoft brought me on board to do the entire prologue/tutorial mission as well as update the levels
where there were significant gameplay changes. That was a lot of fun – it got me out of the medieval fantasy world of the Might & Magic brand and into some modern military slang. I played a similar role, though on a smaller scale, for GRAW 2.
SED: What writing format do you prefer for your gamestories?
JS: As I’ve now worked with six different studios, I have gotten used to pretty much anything. I normally do pitch, character, and
scenario work as normal text documents, but I do 100% of my dialogue in spreadsheets. I learned fast; I did the entire Heroes 5 script – about
200 pages — in screenplay format and then had to laboriously cut-and-paste it, line by line, into spreadsheet cells. Never again!
Spreadsheets seem to be the form that developers prefer, and all of the VO actors I’ve worked with in Paris and L.A. are comfortable with it.
SED: What is the most emotionally effective game you’ve played? Why?
JS: Hummm… I ask this question often of myself and of people I meet. The first game that really got me for atmosphere, for heart-thudding tension and sudden gasps, was Thief: The Dark Project by Looking Glass. For me that remains a benchmark in creating reaction to
ingame events. Half-Life 2 is still my barometer for language — as a writer it’s worth reloading the game just to hear the opening propaganda monologue as you enter the train station.
On the other hand, for human emotions of sadness, affection, joy, etc. I have yet to be moved by a game. The character death in Final Fantasy VII I found to be mostly annoying, the love stories in Baldur’s Gate II lacked resonance and credibility, I thought that Mass Effect had so many errors in story structure and storytelling that I was just as happy that the EA DRM killed my game when it was bugged and I was trying to fix it.
I’m still waiting for that emotionally effective game. I have a short story out in an on-line anthology called Tumbarumba now, and it’s the most powerful and emotionally affecting thing I’ve ever written. But what I really want is to put that sort of power into games and so far, I just don’t know how to do it.
SED: As a contracted writer are you able to have influence on the design of a game?
JS: I have enormous influence over whatever design changes I suggest… does that answer the question?
Joking aside, most developers are smart enough to listen to good ideas wherever they come from (though it’s true that ideas from a non-designer are often viewed with condescension). The simple truth is that on a game project no specialty has an exclusive on creativity. In fact, writers have even been known to listen to story suggestions from designers…
SED: Why is that important?
JS: Personally, I don’t try that hard to influence the design. I do not view myself as a narrative designer in the technical sense; I don’t work with story engines on a technical level (in spite of a Computer Engineering degree gathering dust in a drawer somewhere). I view myself as a story guy; I work closely with the designers to figure out how the story can be delivered in gameplay or with traditional methods – cutscene, voice over, in-game event, text box, camera control, etc. – but I don’t worry myself overly with game design. The exception to that is when game design changes too much and starts to contradict the story or make it irrelevant; at that point it is critical to use whatever leverage I may have developed to try to get things back on track.
SED: Have you ever been contracted to fix a broken gamestory? If
so, is that a challenge you see often; how does it effect or limit your
JS: That is a very, very common occurrence. I love getting projects like this for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s short-term work that changes my obsessions and thought patterns for a while; a breath of fresh air. It also gives me detailed insight into other writers’ and developers’ styles and tools, which helps me learn and makes me better at what I do. What I like the most, however, is the pure artistic challenge. It’s the confrontation, the obstacle, the WWF cage-brawl tag-team smackdown with your muse and your keyboard in one corner and the story and development constraints in the other. It’s the defiance and the dare of taking those constraints and limits – time, characters, budget, gameplay – and still wresting something better, something you can be proud of, out of them.
SED: What do you envision for the future of gamestories?
JS: There are a number of parallel futures for gamestories, all of them equally valid and largely inevitable. I think that the MMO
space will continue to rely on quest chains, with most of the ‘big picture’ stuff being left to the players. In this case the development
studio provides an environment and a lot of content, but the story becomes the story of the players and the guilds, what they did, and how they did it. Multiplayer, DLC, and expansions are all part of this – story in discrete and related nuggets, rather than single epic arcs.
There will also continue to be more traditional narrative games like BioShock or Half-Life, where the story is integral to the player experience and the gameplay. This is the “Hollywood” game; the linear and immersive entertainment package that takes you on a ride and spits you out, exhausted and exhilarated, ten or fifteen hours later. It’s an entirely different type of play and therefore of story from the casual or MMO style.
I don’t think that these two game styles are compatible, story-wise, as a tight spine and plot-heavy narrative does not lend itself well to open world exploration. Sure, you can do it, but I think that you lose something either in story impact or in story credibility if you try to mix them.
There will also be the technologists’ game story; people like Chris Carter and Andrew Stern will continue their efforts to make story
self-generating and automated, driven by AI in response to player actions. That lends itself well to the MMO type of arena; why not have
self-generating quests and world extensions that grow as the player explores them? I’m not convinced that you’ll get a great cinematic
experience that way, but you could get incredible world depth and immersiveness if it’s done right. On the other hand that means that the
computer will have to auto-generate snappy (or even comprehensible) dialogue that is coherent with the character profile. I’m guessing that this will probably take a few years at best…
SED: As a gamewriter how does well-crafted gameplay affect your work and vision?
JS: It simplifies my life. If there is a clear vision of the game mechanics and the style of gameplay, it automatically suggests characters, plot events, settings, dialogue styles, etc. A game that evolves too much over the course of development often ends up with plotlines and story events that no longer meld seamlessly with the gameplay. That’s when the story turns into a distinct and dissociated layer pasted on top of the game; it’s the worst possible outcome. I should know; I’ve done that.
SED: How do you see game development changing to meet the growing expectations of today’s audiences?
JS: The most interesting developments from that point of view are outside the entertainment sphere, I think. Games in the Ubisoft /
BioWare / Take Two sense of the word will keep getting better, but the end is near – let me give you an anecdote.
Margaret Robertson (the founder of EDGE magazine) gave a great keynote at the NLGD in Utrecht this year. In it, she commented that programmers to whom she has spoken say that they are maybe a year or two away from “doing light.” Real light, like your eyeballs see when you make up in the morning, or step out of the tent at night, or stroll down the pavement. That’s pretty stunning. As an industry we’re close to the point where we have to look in the mirror and say, “Okay, dudes, what’s next? We got light, we got physics…”
So there are two places that I see we can go: Story and real life. The story part is self-explanatory; live the life of Kipling’s Kim or Zelazny’s Corwin of Amber or Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Deeper emotions, more credible NPC’s, more immersive environments – these things will eventually lead us to something that is close to an interactive movie in intensity and presence and intent.
The real life part is maybe more interesting, but not at all about story. It’s about harnessing games to explain global warming, to deal
with drought, to make education more interesting, to improve training, to replace your night out with the boys. I’m serious about the last one; twenty years from now when gas is eight bucks a gallon we’ll all be pretty happy that we can sit at home and still wander through a virtual world, have a virtual beer with our buddies, open a can of whup-ass on a couple of dragons, read the headlines, poke fun at our siblings, help the kids with the homework, and do it all wearing our epic loot because we’re level 250 feral druids in World of Warcraft.
SED: What does gamestory mean to you? How does it differ from other forms of storytelling?
JS: To me the excitement in gamestory comes from the idea of choice. That’s why the future of the industry excites me so much; real
choice that drives real consequences. When you sit in a movie you might see a character do something and you think, “Oh my god, he’s gonna pay
for that.” The power that games will start to have is that the player will be sitting there, faced with either going down to the basement or
up to the attic to investigate the sounds, or maybe running out to the shed to grab more ammo which means leaving the kid alone in the house,
or maybe calling the local police chief for help but he’s the guy who married your ex-wife… Pretty soon we’ll be able to tell stories that
cross Stephen King and Elmore Leonard that can really play out in any one of a number of directions. That is when game story will really come
into its own, and Roger Ebert is going to have to grit his teeth, suck it up, and take it like a man 😉
SED: What do you seek to accomplish in your gamestories?
JS: I can’t help it; though I’m not a churchgoer I was raised in a Quaker family and have a pretty firm point of view on good and evil,
right and wrong, responsibility and consequence. Though it didn’t start out as something conscious, in all my stories I find that I’m trying to explain something about integrity, responsibility, and standing up for what you believe in.
So there is the inevitable desire of the writer as extrovert and class clown to be an entertainer and write great dialogue. But there is also
a deeper and more subtle, maybe even more powerful drive, to say things that I feel are important and to maybe give an insight to the player about love and life and loss and hope.
Yeah, it’s that “aboutness” thing again…
Other than that, it mostly comes down to character. Credible character motivations that drive their actions, interesting character profiles that make them believable, accurate character personalities that differentiate their dialogue. Henry James was pretty much right on the nose when he said “Character is plot,” regardless of how unreadable his books are.
SED: How does narrative structure help you create a better game?
JS: Gameplay structure and gamestory structure have to be looked at like Siamese twins joined at some critical organ; separate them and one will die.
The worst thing you can do is to put together a narrative structure and gamestory that aren’t in lockstep with the gameplay; on the contrary,
having gameplay events and game elements upon which you can hang key story moments is what really makes this so fascinating as a storytelling medium.
This is of course the reason why the most gratifying moments are the ones where at the end of development the team delivers something that makes people go “Whoa, cool!” When the gameplay and the story come together in something seamless it’s like sex, like a rock concert, like winning the lottery.
SED: How do you see story fitting into the interactive entertainment of tomorrow?
JS: It ties in to my answer on the future of gamestories. I think that there will be an enormous wave that combines MMO and virtual reality into The Place Where You Go To Hang Out With Buddies And Vanquish Evil. That will be a gigantic entertainment arena, a space where any and all of your social activities (other than procreation) might happen. Story will be less important here; what will be important is the atmosphere, the quality of the environment, and the quality of the people you meet. Writing will still be critical, but only from the point of view of world bible development, world design, and NPC creation. Story itself will be anecdotal and episodic, delivered via a “pull” format by a consumer who takes it when they want it.
Then there will be the other interactive entertainment; the game industry continuing to do those things that it does so well on the occasions when it manages to tie great world design and great story into a package delivered by great gameplay. That’ll be the future blockbuster, the future Holly/Bollywood extravaganza of money and scope and immersion. Story will have the role it does in a movie or play – good luck without it, pal. It will be a “push” form of story, like TV or a movie, with the bonus of interactivity and player freedom.
SED: Jeff, your time is appreciated. Thanks for interviewing with the NDE.
Jeff is a fine example of a freelance gamewriter, he is smart, creative, and driven. His work and participation in the game development community is an inspiration. I hope you’ve learned something from this no-nonesense interview straight from the trenches. For the Narrative Design Explorer, I’m Stephen Erin Dinehart, thank you for your time. Remember it’s only through play that great stories happen!