Game Writers in the Trenches™ 5: Richard Dansky | The Narrative Design Explorer™

Game Writers in the Trenches™ 5: Richard Dansky

    RichardDansky_NDE.jpgThis 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 Richard Dansky, I’m hoping to see what we can learn from his experiences in the trenches of game development.

    Stephen Dinehart: First off, congrats on being named one of the top 20 game writers most recently by Gamasutra! How has the recognition of your craft changed over the pas 15 years of your career?

    Richard Dansky: Thank you! It really is a tremendous honor, particularly being listed with some folks whose work I’ve always looked to as a model for what I’ve tried to achieve. I think the list itself is indicative of how much game writing has grown and matured as a craft  – fifteen years ago, I don’t think you could have gotten folks to name twenty game writers, and now there are energetic debates on message boards as to who else deserved to be on the list. The fact that game writers are getting known for their work – not just within the industry, but by the fans as well – means that there’s more of an understanding of what good writing brings to a game. And that can only be a good thing moving forward.

    End War Box ArtSD: Have you also seen an evolution in the game writing craft, both external and internal to your own writing and story development process?

    RD: Absolutely, and with every project. Obviously every project and studio’s process is different, but we’ve definitely moved away from “here’s our levels, make a story out of them” or “Oh, the lead designer can write the game when he’s not busy.” There’s more attention being given to writing, there’s more assets being given to writers to tell stories with in terms of time and iteration, there’s tighter integration of story and gameplay in ways that reinforce both – it’s great to see.

    SD: Can you tell me what you do at Red Storm Entertainment?

    RD: At Red Storm, I serve in a management role as opposed to a direct production one. I guess you could say that a lot of what I do is making sure that the design staff at Red Storm, which is made up of some crackerjack folks like Jeff McGann, Chris Bray, and Jay Posey, has the direction and support they need to do what they do best, and serving as a gut-check on the management level for the design concepts that the team develops.

    SD: If you don’t mind we’ll leave the management aside. What about writing for video games is most challenging for you?

    RD: The hardest part of writing for games is, I think, not getting the number of iterations to polish that I’d like to do. My last novel, Firefly Rain, went through something like fourteen drafts before it was done. With a game, you don’t get that. It’s for very good reasons, mind you – any studio that can afford to write-record-implement nine or ten  times to make sure that everything is absolutely perfect has my utter respect – but trying to sync up dialog and gameplay and level construction and mission scripting simultaneously on a schedule and a budget means that something potentially has to give.

    SD: What does gamestory mean to you? How does it differ from other forms of storytelling?

    RD: I’ve always contended that there’s a giant player-shaped hole at the heart of game stories, which is something you have to recognize in order to write a good game story. If you don’t allow room for the player’s actions to feel meaningful and decisive, then you’re denying the heart of what makes a game a game – the idea that players have to make choices with consequences. If the player’s not making choices – and those choices can be as simple as “bazooka versus submachine gun” – then it’s not a game, it’s an occasionally interactive movie.

    So I guess that means that a game story is the combination of what the creator/writer/narrative designer/team puts into the game in terms of narrative elements, assets, and narrative structure, and the actual actions of the player to realize those elements in an actual flow of events. It’s the two of them together that makes a game story.

    SD: As a gamewriter how does well-crafted gameplay affect your work and vision?

    RD: Better gameplay makes for a better experience for the player, which makes for better immersion in the narrative. It’s that simple, and it works from both ends. Strong gameplay helps craft strong stories – ideally, you want characters doing interesting things in your stories, after all – and if the gameplay is involving, then the player’s mind has less time to wander and nitpick other things.

    More seriously, a strong vision for gameplay really helps in the crafting and tuning of game narratives. If you have a strong sense of what the player is going to want to do – because that’s what’s fun to do – you can craft the narrative to take advantage of that player desire. Story and gameplay end up reinforcing each other, the player feels like they’re driving the action and doing cool things, and everyone wins.

    SD: What do you seek to accomplish in your gamestories?

    RD: Ultimately, my goal is the same as that of every other member of the team working on the game – to ensure that the player has a good time with the game. Everything else is details. No matter how good the narrative or dialog or characterization or anything else might be, if the player isn’t enjoying playing the game, they’re going to stop. And if they stop, then none of that work ever gets seen, and none of that story ever gets told.

    Dansky's Dark Messiah SD: Does narrative structure help create a better game?

    RD: Narrative structure absolutely helps create a better game when it’s developed in tandem with the game structure. The game and the narrative need to be aware of what the other’s needs are and support those. If the player’s not going to get the BFG until level 12, then it makes sense to develop
    a narrative that allows for the discovery of the BFG at level 12, and not before. At the same time, if the narrative depends on a twist reveal about a particular NPC, then the game structure should probably put the player in a position where he’s got a chance to blow that NPC away too soon. It’s the synthesis of narrative structure and game structure that creates better games.

    SD: When did you first decide to write for video games?

    RD: I came to video games from tabletop RPG writing, specifically from White Wolf Game Studios. I’d worked there for four years and worked on over a hundred projects in that time, and I found myself running out of things to say, as it were, in that medium. Around that time, a friend of mine named David Weinstein contacted me and let me know that Red Storm was hiring and they needed a game designer who could write. The idea really appealed to me (and also, Dave is very insistent, in a good way) – I was looking for a new challenge, and video game writing more than fit the bill. It was definitely a tremendous shock.

    SD: Can you tell me the story of your first game writing gig?

    RD: The first professional game writing I ever did was a freelance project for White Wolf – two chapters of their supplement “Haunts” for the game Wraith: The Oblivion. A friend of mine from college, Jennifer Hartshorn, had taken the job as Wraith line developer, and she knew I was A)interested in horror and B)trying to break into writing, so she was kind enough to commission me to create a couple of settings for the game. I ended up writing a good portion of it while sitting at a desk designed for 8 year olds in the basement of a church in suburban Boston while proctoring practice SAT tests for the Princeton Review. Mind you, the church didn’t have air conditioning, which gives a whole new meaning to the term “fevered prose”…

    SD: Wow; that is a compelling setting, who ever said limitation don’t help! What is Snowbird Gothic? What does it mean to you?

    RD: Snowbird Gothic is a term I coined to try to sum up my personal take on the Southern Gothic. I confess, I’m a carpetbagger – grew up in Philadelphia and went to school in New England – but I’ve lived in the South for better than a third of my life, and if I haven’t absorbed it, I’ve at least observed it. So “Snowbird Gothic” is my shorthand for the intersection of my Yankee ways with my experience here. It’s something that’s manifest in a lot of my fiction, whether it’s overtly like in Firefly Rain or Shadows in Green, or just sort of under the skin of what I’m doing.

    Dansky's Dark Kingdom of JadeSD: As an experienced writer for ‘pen-and-paper’ RPGs what part of that skill set has carried over to video games?

    RD: The most important shared trait between the two is the recognition that the player has primacy. Traditional storytelling media – fiction, movies, etc. – has the storytelling going in one direction, from the author to the audience. With games, everything depends on what the player does to make the minute-to-minute action of the story, and that’s true for tabletop RPGs and AAA first person shooters alike.

    SD: You also have plenty experience writing fiction in the Horror genre, can you tell me what about the genre fascinates you?

    RD: I blame Ray Bradbury, honestly. I was given a copy of his book The Halloween Tree when I was a kid, and it just caught my imagination.

    Reading – and writing – horror is very much a way of asking yourself the question, “Where do I not want to go? What are my boundaries?” And it’s a way to test the answers you have to that question, which allows for some really fascinating possibilities for character development and, of course, writing.

    For my part, I’m much more a fan of things like Charles Grant’s “quiet horror” than I am of stuff where it’s all about the arterial spray. Gore doesn’t really move or interest me. It’s what’s going on between the characters’ ears, how the extraordinary circumstances of a horror novel that forces them to confront how they act every day, that hooks me.

    SD: Now that I think about, you have written a lot in all the types of writing you do, fiction, RPGs, Video games, and instructional writing. Is there a place you seek to go with your writing that you haven’t accomplished yet? A ground yet unbroken?

    RD: Really, I just like writing. It’s fun for me to put words together, whether it’s fiction, game writing, book reviews, essays or whatever. Hopefully I have something interesting to say in each of those formats. I haven’t really tried screenplays or comics yet, but someday, if I get the opportunity, it might be interesting to take a whack at them. The real limiting factor is, of course, time.

    SD: How much classical story structure do you use in the creation of your gamestories?

    RD:  On those projects where I’m involved in the creation or development of the story, I’m at least as much about gameplay development as I am about the classical structure. Because of the demands of gameplay – increasing challenge, the risk of alienating the player with forced failure conditions, ramping up the player’s capabilities in a way that’s compatible with the narrative – you can’t just say, “Right, who’s read Joseph Campbell?” and stamp it out chockablock from there. The introduction of gameplay and the player experience really forces me, at least, to rethink everything about story structure every time I start work on a game’s narrative.

    Dansky's Firefly RainSD: What writing format do you prefer for your gamestories?

    RD: I’m very lucky in that Ubi has developed a fantastic internal tool for  gamewriters that lets us interface extremely well with other disciplines, and which gives me a lot of versatility as to how I
    compose dialog and so forth. Obviously, different projects have different demands, and you don’t necessarily need a full cinematic script format if you’re just writing a few thousand generic lines. That being said, I’ve worked in everything from spreadsheets to dedicated scriptwriting software to proprietary project-specific tools, and what the folks at Ubi has cooked up is really the best thing I’ve had a chance to use.

    SD: Mmm… I’m drooling; propitiatory game writing tools. I just like the sound of it! What is the most emotionally effective game you’ve played? Why?

    RD: Usually when people talk about “emotional” games, they’re talking about a pretty limited subset of emotions, the “higher” ones that get engaged when you read Jane Austen or go to the opera or whatever. Let’s face it, Halo engages the emotions – they’re just not reflective, contemplative emotions, they’re visceral, aggressive, red-meat-chewing ones. So I’m not sure “emotionally effective” is a great way to measure games. If I feel drained after doing my best one-legged Ian Anderson impression playing Rock Band 2, is that not emotionally effective?

    That being said, in the more traditional sense of the question, I’d have to go with Grim Fandango as the best I’ve played so far. It’s wonderful storytelling, with that overlay of humor helping drive home some of the more serious questions the game is asking.

    SD: Agreed, just like any number of other mediums games can affect and engage the player with any range of emtions. It’s a strong signifier with various interpretations, where people draw the line always says something interesting about what the thin games could or should do. With that in mind,
    do you believe video game stories create catharsis? And if so have you ever experienced such catharsis? How and why?

    RD: I think any storytelling medium has the potential for catharsis, and that games, by the nature of the player’s actual involvement in the events of the story, have the potential to be very, very powerful in this regard. Have I experienced it? Certainly, in games ranging from Ico to God of War. Do I think we’ll be able to invoke even greater response in the future? Probably, and I think that’s more a function of the storytelling tools we have at our disposal than of the medium itself.

    SD: What do you envision for the future of gamestories?

    RD: In a word, more. As game writers, we’re getting so many new toys to play with which each development cycle. Better AI lets us tell better
    stories. More emergent behaviors lets us create worlds that feel more natural. Better animation and facial expressions on characters – and being able to direct those animations, as Bioware did in Mass Effect – means that we can start thinking about getting out of the Uncanny Valley in a way that lets our stories be more emotionally resonant. The more ways we have to put what we see in our imaginations on the screen, the closer we can get to that imagined ideal, and the better the narratives we can create and share with the player.

    SD: How do you see story fitting into the interactive entertainment of tomorrow?

    We’re human beings. We’re storytelling creatures. Every time a new medium has come along, we’ve found ways to use it to tell stories, from Lascaux to Gutenberg to Twitter. As interactive entertainment evolves, our ways of using to tell stories will evolve, too. Can I point to specifics? No, because the technology is exploding in so many different directions. But I’m definitely looking forward to seeing where it goes, and hopefully, to being a part of moving it forward along that path.

    Richard has laid a lot on the table for us and I certainly enjoy it. As one of today’s most prominent game writers I know we will see him
    having an effect in the industry for years to come. Be sure to catch his Game Writer Workshop at the Austin GDC. I hope you’ve learned something from this no-nonsense interview straight from the trenches. For the Narrative Design Explorer, I’m Stephen Dinehart, thank you for your time. Remember it’s only through play that great stories happen!