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Friday, 9 April 2010

An Interview with Steve Ince

Game for a Challenge

An Interview with Steve Ince

In case there are any aspiring journalists reading this, I would like to share an important piece of advice with you regarding interviews.

Don’t pick a busy café to do an interview in, no matter how good the coffee.

Totally my fault, I grant you. I met Steve Ince at this really great café called Vanilla in Hull. It’s a favourite place for Hubby & me, and from the looks of things on the day I tried to conduct the interview, half of the city have also discovered the place. Nonetheless, Steve was a great sport and we had a lovely chat over some very nice coffee. Any errors in this interview are completely my fault; at times my recorder struggled to pick up our conversation, but I can tell you in explicit deatail all the gossip about who is dating who in Hull, as told by the girls sitting three tables away.

Steve is an award nominated scriptwriter-designer for the computer games industry. He’s worked on titles such as the Broken Sword games, In Cold Blood and So Blonde. Right now I suspect you are either going, “wow, cool job!” or else you’re mumbling, “they have scriptwriters for computer games?”

Yup, they do. And it is an area that is finally started to get some long deserved attention. The Writers’ Guild now have an award for best computer game script, and there is hot competition for the top jobs in this field. As one of those people who is banned from several games due to a mildly addictive nature (I once spent three weeks believing I was a Jedi Knight after playing Star Wars: KOTOR for too long, and don’t even get me started on my Baldurs Gate II addiction) I was intrigued to find out more about what I can only term as A Very Cool Job. Steve very kindly took the time out to chat about his work and give us some insight into the world of writing for computer games.

Hi Steve! Can we kick off by talking about what computer game scripts are?

Game scripts are the story element of a game. That can include, but is more than just, things like dialogue and characters. It is about motivating the player into finishing a game, it is making sure that story and gameplay are tied together.

What does writing a script involve?

There have been people writing the storylines for computer games almost as long as there have been games on the market. The early scripts were for the text-based games, the ones that said things like “you are in a dark room, there is a door to the left and a staircase to the right. Where do you go?” on the screen, and you typed your response to move the story along.

In those days the guys who were programming the games were also writing them. By the time I joined the graphic advent had taken over, so you now had people walking around and animations. They were essentially the same thing as the text games, though, but instead of writing in the instructions you clicked on the door or the stairs.

Games have gotten incredibly sophisticated over recent years, where you now have everything from highly stylised to incredibly realistic. The games industry has an incredibly diverse customer base, probably more so than any other media. Not just in terms of story style or visual style but actual game style as well. There is everything from out-and-out shooters, which doesn’t need a complex story, to games where story is integral, where the actual game is driven by the plot. Some require a lot of indepth work on things like dialogue, but even those that don’t really need dialogue still need to be scripted, the story needs to be worked out.

The writer has to take into account all the different paths of gameplay. For example, the player may face a choice about whether they kill a character or let them go. That will influence later sections of the game, and as the writer, you need to be aware of that. They may not play the scenes in a set order, either, so you have to be careful that things like dialogue are not referencing a part of the game your player may not have completed yet. There’s a lot to think about.

Games development involves a lot of different people on a project. At what stage does a writer get involved?

It can depend on what the developers ask for. Sometimes they might come and say, “this game has been created in Poland, it’s been translated, can you go over it and make it sound a lot more ‘natural’?” The translation might be good, but dry. Things don’t always translate well if done directly as you can lose the natural flow and the characterisation. That’s a fairly straight forward job as the game is already established; it is just about getting the characters into your head and polishing the dialogue to re-establish the to-and-fro feel.

Other times you can be there right at the beginning. You can be asked to create the whole idea – the characters, the background, the basic structure of the game in terms of chapters and obstacles. You work on how the characters fit together, work out plot twists and so on. It’s great fun. You do work with the developer and it gets passed back and forth; you make changes based on their ideas and polish until they are happy. Once everyone is okay with the basics you take it to the next level, breaking it down to chapters and scenes. Then you start working on dialogue, etc. It can be a long process, about six months of solid work, but it is rewarding. It is sort of a blend between writing tie-in and scriptwriting.

It sound very much like writing for TV, to be honest.

It is to an extent. You can say things like, “this bit needs to be set on a mountain side” and it is up to the game designer to then picture and create that. But for the dialogue it is very much like scriptwriting. You need to think about how the scenes work and the overall sequence. You also need to consider that the scene may take place before or after another scene. So you might have your main dialogue written, but then you also need to have additional lines that are only triggered if the player has completed another section. You need to have a grasp of higher level programming logic. It’s actually quite useful, and you can take it into other forms of writing. I’ve used similar methods to plot my first novel. It gives you the opportunity to move around scenes and sections until you have the strongest possible plot.

So how did you get into this field?

I started off as an artist. I moved into a producer role, which is more to do with overseeing a whole game, and then moved into writing. I worked for Revolution for over 11 years. I am totally freelance now, have been for about six years. Oddly, a lot of my clients come from Europe, not the UK. I’m lucky to be in a position that I have built a good reputation so that people tend to approach me instead of me needing to chase work, although you do have to go looking for it on occasion. Last year I even ended up turning work down or passing it on to writer friends, because there are only so many hours in a day. I got into the writing side quite late. Most people these days join from college. One of the guys I worked with started before he had even left school. I was 35.

Writing for computer games has been a somewhat undervalued part of the writing industry; do you think that this view is changing?

Well we have a few awards now. I was nominated for the Writers’ Guild award in 2008, which I am really proud of. I went along to the awards and it was this really glamorous event full of TV celebs and writers and things. You can tell how important they think your award is, though, by where you are in the list – we were first, long before the important awards. There were a couple of derogatory jokes made about the value of games writing, which was a shame. I suppose that is how we are seen, although it is changing. Oh well, at least we have an award, even if I didn’t win it! Rhianna Pratchett won that time, and to be honest I don’t mind losing when the person who did win deserved it!

Yes, games writing doesn’t have the kudos attached to it that other forms of writing do, but if you approach it from that angle then you will never make it as a games writer. You might be the best writer in the world, but if you don’t appreciate the genre you write in, or that you are providing entertainment for people, then quite frankly, why are you writing?

People in the industry get that games are fundamentally for everyone. But then a lot of the decision makers and journalists, etc, don’t play games. As such, they see them as something for children. They don’t understand that a lot of games are aimed at adults – and not necessarily violent ones. There are a lot of puzzle games out there whose target audience is 30+ female. As more people accept that games are for everyone, then the perception of games writers will improve.

Does scriptwriting mean you are a detailed planner when it comes to writing? Does this spill over into the other types of writing that you do?

I always start with a high level story, almost a synopsis. I know a lot of people write organically from a premise or scenario, which is great, but I need to know where I am going. I like to know where we are going to end up. I write a two or three page overview which can be shared with the developers – they make changes from that, which means I’m not doing an excessive amount of work that then needs scrapping. When you write a novel, you are effectively your own client. You need to be happy with your own work.

The problem with planning, though, is that you need to be flexible within it. Sometimes your characters come to life and write their own path, so they don’t “fit” exactly with your original plan. Characters will come out with lines of dialogue that make you sit back and think, “Wow, I never expected that!” They take on a life of their own. You need to be flexible enough to deal with that.

Dialogue is a key part of writing game scripts. Is there anything that you’ve learnt from developing games dialogue that writers could take over into their own formats, such as novels or plays?

If you want to work on your dialogue, turn off your ipod and get the bus more often. You’ll learn more there than anywhere else. You will learn about flow, about how we go off on tangents and how people interact. The art of good dialogue is making a written conversation feel like a real conversation, but without letting it run off track.

The ultimate test of good dialogue is whether or not your character would actually say that line. It is too easy to make a character say something the author wants them to say rather than something they would say if they were “real”, but that is poor dialogue. Get the characters in your head first, the dialogue should flow from them easily.

There are a couple of other issues with games writing, though. Obviously some people will totally ignore the plot when playing and want to get on with the action. As such, you can’t have cut scenes that are too long or dialogue that is too heavy. I was once asked to edit a scene that was over 100 lines long. When you consider that most games only have maybe 1100 lines of dialogue, it was too much. I think I cut it down to 10 lines or so because most of it was waffle. There is a danger that you fall in love with your own words, but you have to be ruthless.

What is the hardest part of writing for games?

Writing puzzles can be hard work, as they need to be challenging but not impossible – it isn’t your job to stump the player. You don’t want them to give up because they can’t get past a certain point. The game has to be written in such a way as to get the player hooked.

What is your proudest career moment so far?

Getting nominated for the award was huge, because it was recognition that I’m doing something right! A personal high, though, was a small thing. I’d gone along to the recording studio when they were recording my script, which is something you occasionally get to do, just to help out by giving the actors context, etc. I was sat next to the voice director, doing quick edits and so on. He just turned to me and said; “this is a great script.” Now this guy has recorded hundreds of scripts, he didn’t have to say that. That was probably the biggest compliment anyone could have given me.

What is your ultimate career goal?

I’d really like to work on some really good story, deeply character driven games. I would love to explore character as part of the gameplay. I have a story idea for a romantic comedy game that I’d like to work on. There isn’t much of a market there at the moment, but it is going to come.

I’d like to write for television, too; I’ve worked on a couple of things including a sit-com idea. As I’ve said I’ve plotted out my first novel, too. I just have to write it now!

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to build a career writing game scripts?

This is a hard one for me to answer because I didn’t actually set out to do this job, I sort of fell into it over my career. It is difficult to get into because there is a lot of competition. I would not aim for the top straight away – start lower. Find developers who are starting out from scratch themselves. Be willing to get involved with amateur projects, work unpaid to build up a portfolio. There are lots of independent and amateur developers and programmers out there. A lot of the small projects are only going to involve a few hours a week work on your part, but are excellent experience. Games journalism is a good way in as you get to meet a lot of key players, but then breaking into that market as a whole lot of difficulties of its own!

Steve's website can be found here, where you can find out more about his various projects in computer games, cartoons and other writerly pursuits. If you would like to know more about writing for computer games, then Steve has very handily written a book on the subject, Writing For Video Games. You could even follow him on twitter if you like!

Muchos thanks to Steve for taking the time out to be interviewed by me - especially since I tend to ramble on and draw people off on long, convoluted tangents. Writing for computer games is certainly an area that interests me, but I think it might be one I personally am better off avoiding. Look at it this way; Hubby had to hide my copies of Baldur's Gate II and Dawn of War, I was that addicted. Could you imagine what I'd be like if I was writing them?


Queenie said...

This is a fascinating insight into yet another type of writing I didn't know about. Thanks, both of you!

katyk said...

A revelation. Thanks Gem. One of my friends is a games tester. That's one of your dream jobs, right?!x

Deborah Durbin said...

What a refreshing interview! Good to hear about another area of writing, thank you:)