This is a new 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 Haris Orkin. His experience as writer runs the gamut of media types, with a most recent focus on games. I’m hoping to see what we can learn from his knowledge and experience.
Stephen Erin Dinehart: Haris thanks for taking the time to interview with the NDE. Your most recent project was Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3, can you explain your role and duties?
Haris Orkin: I was hired to work with the team on the story for the game and write the script for the live action cinematics. The story was collaboration between Mical Pedriana, who functioned as the narrative designer, Jason Torres, the lead game designer, Mike Verdu, head of EALA, and me. We wanted the tone and the concept to be a continuation of Red Alert 2, which came out about seven years ago. Mical was the audio lead on RA2 and wrote all the unit responses. I was a big fan of that game and the Command and Conquer series in general. So I knew the tone and the story and the characters and was thrilled to be included. A bare bones outline of the basic story was already in place by the time I was brought on board. But I suggested some changes, fleshed out the existing characters, came up with some new ones, and created the relationships and conflicts and many of the specifics. I also wrote and/or rewrote what we call the “Talking Heads”; live action head shots of various characters that appear in game that help steer the player in the right direction vis-à-vis game play. I helped Mical on unit responses and co-op commander responses and barks as well.
SD: Is that a full-time or contract position?
SD: Was there a significant change in the format of your solely the cinematics versus writing for an entire game as you did on Call of Juarez?
HO: I wrote the cinematics for RA3 with Final Draft, a screenplay program. But all the unit responses and barks were written in Excel. COJ was written entirely in Excel. While RA3 has clearly delineated cut scenes (and the talking heads), COJ has fewer cut scenes and more scripted events, so you’re still within the game world. (Much like Half Life 2.) All the cut scenes used in COJ used Techland’s proprietary graphic engine, so it was easier to keep a feeling of seamlessness between the game play and the story. We also told a lot of the story with artwork and audio monologues while the levels were loading. RA3 uses the same story-telling mechanic that Command and Conquer series has always used. I think it still works for an RTS game, since we’re cutting from live action scenes to a top down RTS view. To cut from a live action scene with real actors to a first person view with CGI characters could be pretty jarring and possibly pull you out of the narrative. RA3 does use CGI cut-scenes that show off the units and big story moments and I contributed ideas for those as well.
SD: I am blown away by the quality of the FMV trailers for Red Alert 3 EA is putting out. If the NDE had an award for “Wow factor” I’d been handing it to you. The story, the acting talent, the visual, the sets, it’s all really quite spellbinding. How much involvement were you able to have on the pre-production, shooting and post-production on these sequences?
HO: Well, there’s a whole team at EA putting this together and I was just one element. But I made casting suggestions and shooting suggestions. We had regular meetings with the production crew, the director, the editors and post-production crew. It really is like a movie within a game. The FMV’s were directed by Richard Taylor, who’s on staff at EA. They have a well-oiled machine. Mical Pedriana and I were on set for the entire shoot.
SD: How much involvement did you have with character design and casting?
HO: I made suggestions in the script on everything from set decoration to costumes. I gave EA a list of casting suggestions. They hired a gifted production designer and wardrobe person, both of whom work on Hollywood productions all the time.
SD: Command & Conquer is a series that is known for it’s unique incorporation of live action, or FMV, sequences; how do these sequences affect gameplay?
HO: They’re designed to empower the player and fire him up for the next mission. President and the Soviet Premiere and the Emperor of Japan are talking directly to the player. They’re asking him or her to win the battle, defeat the enemy, and save the world. They’re telling the player what needs to be done and complimenting them when they succeed. (And castigating them when they fail.) There’s shifting alliances and the player is pulled in different directions by different characters. They become part of a life and death struggle with characters they hopefully care about.
SD: Some critics have called for the death of the FMV, but from what I can see it is alive and well at EA, do you see a viable future for this type of content?
HO: Yeah, a lot of critics (and players) believe FMV cut scenes are a clunky way to tell game stories. But I don’t necessarily agree. I think what
people object too are badly written, poorly acted FMV’s. Personally, I’m a fan of a really well done cut scene. Blizzard, for instance, has
made some amazing ones and they really add a lot to the whole Blizzard game experience. Diablo 2 and Warcraft 3 had amazing cut scenes. The
story and cut scenes in Call of Duty Four, F.E.A.R., Company of Heroes, GTA4 and World in Conflict were also really strong. I loved the FMV’s in Red Alert 2. They were directed by Joe Kucan, who plays Kane in the C&C games. Considering the tiny budget, they were very well done. I think there’s room for all kinds of games and all kinds of game stories, including ones with FMV’s.
SD: How does this differ from your role as writer on Call of Juarez?
HO: In some ways it was pretty similar. In that game I collaborated with Pawel Selinger, who was also the lead artist for the game. I was handed a basic structure for a story and the main characters. I fleshed everything out and created relationships and specifics and helped to restructure the story. I’m a western buff and was able to bring a lifetime of research to the game. Pawel wrote a Polish script and I wrote the English version and we used the best ideas from both. I wrote all the English-language barks and AI character responses and in-game text. I also cast all the voice actors and directed the English language version. I even wrote the U.S. version’s box copy, much of the PR, marketing copy, and two short comic book stories.
SD: You’ve written for TV, the stage, film, and games. Why is game writing different?
HO: While I was writing for TV, stage, and film, I was a hardcore gamer. I’ve played with my son since he was tiny and now he’s not so tiny andcan kick my butt at pretty much everything. But in the process I played many, many games in every genre on pretty much every system. So I was a game player before I was a game writer. I always felt that a great game can survive a mediocre story but a great story can’t save a bad game. But if you have both, you have gold, and my favorite games always have had both. I believe the story for a game has to be totally bound to the play mechanic or it just won’t work. As the writer you have to understand what’s fun about the game and know that the story is simply there to give the player a context and make the game play more meaningful. If you don’t come at it from that perspective, then you’ll produce a story that’s plopped on top of the game and the connection will be minimal. In “Call of Juarez” the personality of the characters directly influences what they can do in the game. Reverend Ray is a balls-out gunfighter who isn’t afraid of
anyone. You run and gun with him, barreling in, blowing away everything that moves. He has a kind of bullet-time mechanic to recreate the reflexes of a master gunfighter. Billy is weaker and younger, but faster and more agile. He can’t fight head on or take as much damage, so he has to use more stealth. He’s also more of a coward as the game starts. As the game progresses, he grows some cajones and, as he does, the character is able to run and gun more like Reverend Ray. So that’s an example of a game mechanic tied into the story.
SD: What was your first venture into the video game industry?
HO: I was hired to write the story and script for Dragonshard, an RPG/RTS for Atari and Liquid Entertainment. Completely coincidentally, Jason Torres, lead designer for RA3, was also the lead designer on Dragonshard and he taught me a lot about how RTS games are designed.
SD: You made the leap from traditional media formats to games, what drove this decision?
HO: As I mentioned before, I’m a hardcore gamer. I still love to play games and I really think they’re an art form in their own right. Interactive narrative is an unexplored frontier. It’s exciting to be on the ground floor of a young medium. There are no hard and fast rules and we’re all still figuring out how to reconcile player agency with story. I write the games I want to play, just like I write the movies I want to see. I love working with game designers and producers and artists and programmers. Plus, so far, there’s been a lot less of the B.S. you find in Hollywood.
SD: You work as a writer in games spans genres, or game-types, do you find that your writing must change significantly for each type (RTS, RPG, FPS)?
HO: Not only must it change for each genre, it needs to change for each specific game, because they all, hopefully, have something unique. I haven’t written a straight RPG, but I’ve played a few. And it’s clearly the most writer-driven genre of the three. Bioware games are all about characters and story and branching dialogue and they even have their own proprietary scripting software. To write any game, you have to understand the genre. If you want to innovate and tell stories in a new way, you need to know how stories have been told in the genre before. When I wrote Dragonshard, all the cut scenes were done with the in-game RTS engine. Everything that needed to be communicated had to be explicit. So it was closer to writing a stage play then a movie. The players were like audience members watching from the last row. They couldn’t see the faces. They could only hear the voices. In Call of Juarez, the player alternates between two characters, and since it’s an FPS, everything is from the player’s perspective. FPS’s tend to be more cinematic and much of the story can be told visually with the in-game engine. (Like Bioshock or F.E.A.R.) So yes, to bring this ever branching answer back to the original question, every game and genre requires that the story be told in a different and unique way.
SD: Do you see narrative design as different from game writing?
HO: Honestly, I think we’re all still figuring this out. There are narrative designers who not only contribute to the level design and overall story structure, but can also write great dialogue. There are others who outline the world, the characters and the story, work with the art department and game designers to bring that world to life, and then hire someone else to write the dialogue. I consider myself more of a writer than a narrative designer, but I did a lot of what is considered narrative design in Call of Juarez. Mical had that role in Red Alert 3, working with every department to keep the narrative on track. But I offered many story suggestions that influenced game and level design as well. It’s all pretty interconnected.
SD: What is the future of storytelling in games?
HO: I wish I knew. I hope that stories in games just keep getting deeper and more nuanced and more interwoven with game play. For this to take place, as much effort needs to be put into the narrative as is put into graphics and game play. A lot of exciting story-centric games are due to be released this fall. I’m especially looking forward to Fallout 3 and Far Cry 2. Far Cry 2 is trying to pull off something that hasn’t been done yet with complete success in a game that’s tied to story. Emergent game play. What you do in the world as player will have a major effect on the story. Not in a “branching storyline with three different endings” kind of way, but in a “no one knows what the hell’s going to happen next” kind of way. I’m currently working on a game that’s trying to pull that off as well, so I can’t wait to see how it works in Far Cry 2.
SD: As am I. Thanks for you time Haris. I really am looking forward to playing Red Alert 3, it ships on October 28th, and I for one will be in line, at least, virtually.
Haris a prime example of a traditional writer that has brought his skill-set to games, and I think the industry will be better for it. While writing for games differs in many ways the toolbox for a writer doesn’t change, it will always lie in his hand, his heart, and his mind. For the Narrative Design Explorer™ I’m Stephen Dinehart.