The Average Gamer

Susan O’Connor on Writing For Games

Arstechnica has put up a series of articles on writing in games, including an interview with Susan O’Connnor. Susan wrote Gears of War and (as I’ve only just found out) Bioshock, in collaboration with their respective development teams. Her opinion of current games writing sounds much like Gordon Rennie’s. I linked to his ScottishGames interview back in January.

I thought that the Gears of War scripting was just about perfect for the genre. There were tiny hints of a greater story but they were never shoved down your throat. In fact, you didn’t really know what the greater story was at all and that was okay. It didn’t matter. Your job as Marcus was to get in, complete your mission objectives and get out. The cut-scenes were short, established your reason for being in that location, popped in a bit of world-building and then left you alone.

Gears of War - Augustus ColeThe real beauty of the Gears of War story was in the characters. Cole was an absolute maniac and every interaction with him showed that. His introduction was a voice screaming “Yeah, baby!” over the sounds of gunfire as you clear the corridor nearby. Even when you were pinned down outside a building with Troikas firing at your squad, Cole was always the first one over the sandbags to take out the operators (with varying levels of success). That’s the kind of integrated characterisation that you only get from considering the story in the early stages of development

Here’s a quote from Susan’s interview:

I see the same two problems crop up on Every Single Project. They are:

  1. Non-writers write the story, and
  2. There is no time allotted for testing the story, once it’s in the game

Everything in software dev is iterative. EVERYTHING gets tested. But not the story. On most of my projects, I don’t hear the dialog in-game until I literally rip the shrinkwrap off the package. It’s a heartbreaker. You see the problems, and there’s nothing you can do to fix them. All you can do is take two aspirin and lay down on the couch.

Read Ben Kuchera’s full article: Why writing in games matters: Part III—creating character with Susan O’Connor

[via Psychochild’s blog]


  1. Mr Butterscotch

    5th Jun, 2007 at 8:51 pm

    Yes, okay, so the characterisation was well written. However, the overall story was hardly spectacular.

    As Susan alludes to, there’s a greater story at play in Gears. Frankly, I don’t think it was touched on enough. At times I genuinely thought ‘why are we doing this bit’? and ‘what am I meant to be doing here?’

    Gears was a great game, but not on a storyline front particularly. It was however a huge improvement over such incomprehensible nonsense as Resident Evil.

  2. Weefz

    6th Jun, 2007 at 8:58 am

    Yes, I’ve been playing it through again on Insane – I had forgotten that most of the story only makes sense in hindsight. On replay, you can see the concept is there but it’s not fleshed out enough to bridge the gaps between acts. Seems like a little too much of the backstory is left to out-of-game sources or just mentioned once in passing.

    For example, in Act 1 they actually talk about the resonator and how it can map out the locust tunnels. Fine thing but on the first play-though I’m thinking a) Resonator? Locust? Yeah, whatever, I’m saving Alpha Team. Hey, what’s that round thing that the camera keeps lingering on? And b) I’m in the middle of hostile territory here. I’m worried about whether Locust are gonna pop out of the floor, not concentrating on plot points.

    The instructions and explanations are there in the script but get completely buried in the character banter and action.

    A fuller mission brief to reference would have helped a lot – e.g.
    Act 1 Mission Objective: Rescue Alpha Team. We need their resonator to detroy the Locust tunnels.
    Act 2 Mission Objective: Get to the mining facility. It’s the ideal place to set off the resonator.
    Act 3 Mission Objective: Enter the facility. Go to position xyz to maximise damage caused by the resonator.

    And so on. Instead, the director focused on the short-term objectives (as Marcus would) and lost the story arc.