Game Writers in the Trenches™ 3: Sande Chen | The Narrative Design Explorer™

Game Writers in the Trenches™ 3: Sande Chen

    Sande_Chen_2008.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 Sande Chen, her experience spans from RPG’s to Serious Games. I’m hoping to see what we can learn from her experiences in the trenches of game development.

    Stephen E. Dinehart: How did you become a game writer?

    Sande Chen: Unlike other game writers, I don’t have a wild breaking-in story.  My professional writing career has only been in games.  Basically, I pursued academic majors that were relevant to game development.  Then, I applied for a job.  

    I was a double humanities major at M.I.T., which is known for its computer science and engineering programs.  After M.I.T., I attended the London School of Economics and USC’s School of Cinema-Television.  I specialized in screenwriting, but I wanted to learn more, so I asked production students to teach me what they knew and I took classes like Avant-Garde Cinema.  I started making music videos and while still in film school, I was nominated for a Grammy in music video direction. During a visit to M.I.T., I chanced upon a flier for a game design contest.  A military contractor was interested in expanding into entertainment.  With this first taste of game design, I started applying to game companies.   

    My first game writing credit is on Vicarious Visions’ space combat RPG, Terminus,
    which won two awards in the first Independent Games Festival at the
    GDC.  I have a very analytical side to me as well as a creative side
    and so, I think that game design successfully merges my strengths.  

    SED: Can you describe your work with Writers Cabal?

    We write for games and we also do consulting on story or game design. 
    Each project is really different from the others.  It definitely makes
    life interesting.  Anne and I have different writing backgrounds and
    diverse experiences in the industry.  I’ve worked as a producer and I
    find that’s really helpful in understanding how to mesh our work into a
    company’s production process.  Meanwhile, Anne has worked as a Head
    Writer in charge of a MMO writing team.  My background is more in
    single-player RPG’s.

    We’re mostly known for The Witcher, which
    was our first joint project.  We were nominated for a 2007 Writers
    Guild of America Award in videogame writing for The Witcher.  Our next
    big game was the kids’ MMO, Wizard 101, which was released recently.

    our consulting work, I find a lot of it comes from the serious games
    sector.  In 2005, I co-authored a book with David Michael called
    Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform.  So, Writers
    Cabal helps companies incorporate learning objectives into fun
    gameplay.  We recently contributed a chapter on writing for serious
    games to the upcoming IGDA Writers SIG book.

    SED: I know you for your ambition and your commitment to writing to
    narrative. Now that you have been working for a number of years in the
    industry, do you remain as passionate?

    I am.  I’m passionate about games.  I play games obsessively because
    I’m always seeking to learn more about games.  I don’t think this
    mindset changes even with many years of experience in the industry. 
    The pace of technological changes in this industry means that there’s
    always the potential for different forms of storytelling.

    When I
    spoke about passionate games at SXSW, it was about translating one’s
    passion for the story into an experience that resonates with the user. 
    When I write for games, I feel that I have to fall in love with the
    story, so much so that I can see the story universe in sequels, in
    books, in comics, in movies, in all of its transmedia glory – simply
    because it’s such a compelling story universe that it could fill all of
    those properties.  This is true even if I’m not the first person on the

    Simply put, as the writer, if I don’t care about this story, why should I expect other people to care?

    SED: Or as I like say, if I don’t believe my bullshit, how can I
    expect to sell it to others? I suppose that’s rather crass, but my
    point is, if I am not creating a illusion I can believe in how can it
    be magical for others? It’s like being a salesman of anything. My
    grandfather sold Rymplecloth to NASA, and dress shoes to your everyday
    joe. He was a believer in the quality of the products he sold, and in
    order to sell your own creations you need to be believe in it yourself-
    and that can take some heavy expressionistic iteration. 

    There’s artistic expression in music, in dance, and in acting.  What
    about artistic expression in game writing?   Will we ever recognize
    that, especially in a collaborative medium?

    SED: I’d like to
    think so. You yourself were nominated for a WGA award for game writing.
    I think that says a lot, not only about you but about the begginning of
    the recognition of gamewriting as a special and unique art form.
      How do you see game writing as unique?

    In games, the script is written in tandem with the production.  In
    general, you wouldn’t do that with a play or a film.  Therefore, a game
    writer has to understand production and design realities.  A game
    writer also has to be aware of the user’s interactive experience.  As
    Brian Hawkins points out in his book, Real-Time Cinematography for
    Games, how a video game player perceives an ominous shadow in a video
    game might not be the same as how a viewer perceives the same content
    in a film.   

    Also, the skills involved in game writing
    encompass more than just screenwriting.  Certainly, screenwriting is
    part of the game writer’s skillset, but a writer could also be
    generating content closer to journalism or technical writing.  In
    addition to cutscenes and interactive dialog, there’s other content
    like mission briefings, journal entries, item descriptions, and
    sometimes, quest design.  A game writer needs to be versatile.
    SED: Do you work mostly as a contract writer or do you have a staff position writing for games?

    As of now, I’ve only done game writing on a contract basis, but I’ve
    held staff positions as a producer and could have taken opportunities
    to write for games then.  If you look at the credits of some games,
    producers or designers will take writing credits.  Some APs or
    designers do actually write dialog and so forth, but some other
    producers aren’t really into the details.  In film, there’s a
    distinction between ‘Story by’ and ‘Written by’ credits.  That’s
    something I wish we could have in the game industry.    

    SED: As a contracted writer are you able to have influence on the design of a game?

    Yes.  I’ve worked in situations as a contract writer where I was given
    a blank slate to come up with a story.  I was there from the beginning
    of the process.  I sat into the design meetings.  The design affected
    the story and the story affected the design.  More recently, Writers
    Cabal, my partnership with writer Anne Toole, was contracted to work on
    PAST, a MMORPG for physics education.  Definitely, by defining the
    narrative design, we’ve had influence on the overall design of the game.

    SED: Why is narrative driven influence important to games?

    In the best games, narrative and design work together to ensure a
    cohesive experience.  From a production standpoint, you’d want your
    writer earlier rather than later in the process.  Many companies forge
    ahead with refining gameplay, but without a sense of what is the world
    of the game.  Therefore, they end up with a hodgepodge of different
    elements.  You’d need a really talented writer to try to retrofit a
    story atop of that and make it truly compelling.

    It’s like the
    difference between a chair and a designer chair.  They’re both
    functional and you can use them both as chairs.  But only one might be
    considered for its artistic merits.  If you give the designer any
    chair, the designer might be able to change it into something
    beautiful, but the result would be totally different from the
    designer’s focused vision. Narrative designers are an important part of
    the production process.  I think there should be more of us.

    SED: How does narrative structure help you create a better game?

    Humans naturally like to create structure out of chaos.  Even when
    there’s not a story, humans will try to create a story.  When there’s
    narrative structure, you’re providing a narrative that satisfies this
    human need.  That’s why stories have closure.  They have endings.

    used in a game, narrative can be a powerful motivator to players.  It’s
    just another element of the game design toolbox and it shouldn’t be

    SED: Have you ever been contracted to doctor a
    script for a gamestory? If so, is that a challenge you see often; how
    does it affect or limit your creative abilities?

    Yes, I’ve done script doctoring.  I’ve come across it a couple times,
    but I wouldn’t say it’s a common occurrence.  You do have to be
    careful.  You need to have a uniform vision throughout the story.  If
    that means you’re throwing out a lot of the previous work, then so be
    it.  If the client was happy with the previous work, then the client
    wouldn’t be coming to you.

    I don’t see script doctoring as a
    special case.   In so many cases in contract game writing, you don’t
    get the blank slate.  There will be an existing framework of a story. 
    That’s the same with writing for licenses.  You have to plug into an
    existing world, use those characters and settings, and appeal to that
    property’s fans.

    SED: While the writing process remains an ethereal thing, can you briefly describe your writing process?

    SC: It
    differs from project to project.  However, whatever work we have goes
    through many more iterations because there are two of us.  We pass
    documents back and forth.  We check each other’s work.  We plan a work
    schedule and we collaborate through Skype and IM.

    expediency’s sake, we may split up work but that’s only after we’re
    sure we share the same vision.  Then, there are times when we have
    all-night Skype calls to hash out a story.  Other times, we work
    independently, collaborating on a shared Google document.

    A lot of our remote collaboration experiences are described in our blog, Writers Cabal Blog.  Basically, we’ve learned how to make virtual collaboration work.  If The Witcher
    hadn’t been nominated for a WGA Award, we might have never have met our
    co-nominees.  They were in Poland and we communicated via translator. 
    When we had the kickoff meeting for Wizard 101, Anne was with KingsIsle
    in Austin while I listened in through Skype from Paris.

    SED: What is the most emotionally effective game you’ve played? Why?

    I can’t say I have played an emotionally effective game.  That might be because I’m great at starting games, but don’t get around to finishing them.  At this
    moment, I have 5 games installed on my laptop.  I’ve only played
    through one of them, but I’m not sure that counts because it’s an
    intermediate build of a current game project. 

    The irony of
    working in the game industry is that you have less time to play games
    because you’re always playing the game you’re working on and that one
    isn’t even finished yet.

    SED: That’s a strange conundrum isn’t it?

    It’s an important point, though, because most people do not have a
    habit of walking into a movie in the middle of it or getting up so they
    can miss the ending.  They also do not watch the movie in installments
    in their free time.

    The other weekend, I was watching United 93
    and I had an emotional response to this film.  In fact, I found myself
    creeping closer and closer to the screen because I was gripped by the
    events portrayed on the screen.  When I recall what I felt while I was
    watching this film, then, no, I can’t say that there’s been a video
    game equivalent for me.

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

    SC: First of all, I want my game stories to be entertaining.  If it’s for a serious game, it still has to be entertaining.

    Very true, any good educator would tell you that learning needs to be
    entertaining. I found that to be the hardest part of teaching.
    Knowledge unto itself is meaningless.

    SC: Then, I’d
    also like for the story to be meaningful.  It doesn’t matter if the
    game is situated in a fantasy world; it can still address real-world
    concerns.  I think that’s the appeal of serious games to me because
    they often have real-world immediacy.  I’m not so much for making the
    player cry, but in providing the environment for the player to think
    and question the choices.

    Games can be powerful narrative
    experiences because the player participates in the fiction.  When the
    player-story entwines with the game-story, that’s what generates a
    unique and personal user experience.  How to accomplish that feat is
    what makes narrative design a challenging field.

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

    SC: I’d like to see more transmedial offerings. 

    SED: Amen to that.

    We live in a world of media convergence with several devices to keep us
    connected together.  The way we consume information now is much
    different as compared to a decade ago.  The news ticker on CNN or the
    newsfeed on Facebook would seem like overload to the uninitiated.  I
    think there’s definite potential in that area to explore how game
    stories will play out across different media at the same time.

    Sande, your time is appreciated. I look forward to playing the work of
    Writers Cabal well into the future. Thanks for interviewing with the

    Sande is a fine example of the increasing influence
    that women are beginning to have in game development, but her talents
    don’t stop there. She is a passionate member of the game writing
    community, the IGDA, and WIGI. As an associate she has constantly
    pushed me to more finely articulate narrative design and the tools that
    will help us make narrative experiences more compelling and with
    greater depth. I for one am grateful for it. For the Narrative Design
    , I’m Stephen Erin Dinehart, thank you for your time.
    Remember it’s only through play that great stories happen!