P.S. NPC: Storytelling in Video Games SDCC@Home 2020

P.S. NPC: Storytelling in Video Games

This panel for San Diego ComicCon @Home is moderated by Sam Maggs (Bioware and Insomiac). They will be speaking with Jill Scharr (writer for Destiny 2), Shayna Moon (God of War 2018), Charles Beacham (Blankos Block Party), Milo Smilely (Spider-Man: Miles Morales), and Megan Fausti (Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order).

Sam started with the panel talking about what their credits are and what games they had been playing. She led by example with her credits writing for Bioware and Insomiac Games before she went freelance. She has a pair of books coming out in a few months: Conquest and The Unstoppable Wasp on Hope. She's been playing a demo for Game Director (available on steam).

Shayna started, she worked as an audio producer, also had worked with Santa Monica Studios for a good while. She's been playing through Assassin's Creed Odysessy as Alexios & enjoying it a lot.

Next up was Megan Fausti. Spent the last 2 years with Respawn Fallen Order and before that Battleship Bridage. She and her pattern are working on playing through Kingdom: Two Crowns, playing all the versions of it. Just pulled an

Milo Smilely was next. He had the amazing opportunity to work on Spider-Man: Miles Morales and is just starting a position with Blizzard on Classic Games. He's been playing a lot classic Tetris. He sees it as a great way to unwind and chill.

Charles Beacham was after Milo. He works as a writer for Mythical Games, a relatively new studio. The company has just released the trailer for their first game a week prior to the recording for the panel. He's been working on Blankos Block Party, an MMO with plenty of building elements. Before that he worked as a narrative editor for Activision on the Destiny Franchise. He has a 3 year old and they're playing a lot of Mario Party. For himself, he's playing through Fallen Order in plus mode.

Jill Scharr followed. She works as a project lead writer at Harebrained Schemes. Before that, she worked on the Destiny Franchise with Charles. She worked on Destiny from The Taken King through the Forsaken Expansions. She's presently playing a lot of Minecraft and Don't Starve Together.

Sam started from there, talking about most people think about the writer themselves for the lead on the game. She explained that the job can vary wildly depending on the kind of game. If it has a branching narrative, if it's a battle royale, if you're a junior writer, lead writer, etc. All the writer positions though have them working with other facets of the narrative design, like the Narrative Producer/QA/Editors. She lead this into a “Day in the life” for the panelist, hitting the high level bullet points for expediency.

Jill started this time, it can be many different things dependent on the day. With her switch to a different, smaller studio, she's been able to do a greater variety of things. With the bigger studio, she found they had people more specialized, so she mostly was just writing the words. Now, she's helping with implementation, getting to see and help with the context that the characters are in regarding the scenario. Plenty of dialogue review and helping the team getting. With Bungie, she started as an associate, working on gear strings. This had her naming various implements, working on the UI. From there, she expanded into dialogue, mission dialogue, cinematics, and others. She was a senior writer at Bungie at that point. She switched to Harebrained Schemes about that time to get greater flexibility.

Charles went next. He had started as an insularly content as a narrative editor. He helped launch the comic books, working with the writers and design team. There was a lot of working on the story and sharing it with a few teams. Working at Mythical Games, he is doing a wider variety of things. He's been doing marketing tools, voice over dialogue, game dialogue and much more.

Milo was next in the order, being asked to explain what differences he's noticed working as a Writer Intern compared to a Producer Intern. As a writer intern, it was a lot of reviewing things to make sure he's writing style could mesh properly. Aside from that, it was also working with teams to figure out when a character should talk during missions, what they need to say. After that, just going through the iterations. As a Production Intern, it has been a lot of one on one to learn what people are working on and ensuring that he's aware of what people need to succeed.

Megan was tapped next to talk about Jedi Fallen Order. She was the only in-house writer. There were other contract writers, but she was the only one who could play a build of the game. She would be writing cinematic, writing beats etc. She was involved with virtually every piece of the game with its story. She worked with a variety of departments from Narrative or Dialogue Designers (something different than writers), who work on the technical side of the game. So much collaboration needs to happen to get the tone and timing of many things right.

Sam cut in here, talking about the various levels of production to implement the writing into the game. Getting the time with the game itself to hear the lines as they will appear makes a big difference to figure out the finer elements. This can be very key in the iterative process that is writing.

Shayna followed to talk about the audio production. She tells us that a lot of work as a producer is living in the present to troubleshoot what is happening to slow production itself down. But there is also looking and living in the future, seeing how the present day is helping reach the marks needed for the upcoming Voice over sessions. Producers have a lot going on making it very atypical days. Everything is supported by audio, so an audio producer needs to try to stay out in front of the problems. Just keeping your ear to the ground to make sure that things will not clash or create problems.

After that, Sam lead the panel to questions that they had gotten from Twitter regarding the panel. The first one was, of course, what does game writing actually look like. This is the process of putting thoughts to paper and the tools that the various studios use (since every studio has their own pipeline).

Charles was first here. This is first gig as a game writer. He started in comic books, so he's mostly thinking in script format. Always start with outline to begin the process. When he came on with Mythical and went over things with the CCO to figure out the story. This gave him a lot of notes to figure out the content itself. To get the action and works, to figure out the choices within it. But the words do need to make their way into the game, so it needs to go into the game engine itself. Sometimes its working in a fancy excel sheet or directly in Unity and hoping the connections are all right.

Sam took advantage of this to talk about the importance of outlines to simply get stakeholders on board for the game itself. She talked about the newly announced Ratchet and Clank game: “Rift Apart.” Not only did she need to get other creative team members on board, but also the executives in charge of the studio. This also includes getting the publisher itself to help fund the game. A lot of this can fall on the outline. She shared her screen to help talk about banter and bursts.

Milo was next to talk about the process of what he wrote getting implemented into the game itself. He'd get the task and then he'd go talk with the designer for the mission or side mission that he's been assigned to, to make sure he's got all the information for the mission. From there, he needs to be sure to make sure the character is reacting to everything in the mission. He'd make a few passes on the writing itself on the first draft. From there, it's reviewed for feedback and then put into the game. He then gets the chance to play it and review itself himself to test the mission. Here is getting the direct feedback on the feel. This took the form of playing the mission 10-20 times just to make sure it was right in context.

Megan was next to talk. There are 2 processes, for the Cinematic and the Voice Over. The studio started with a beats document, something more flushed out than an outline. This was needed because there was more than just the studio involved. They were working with Lucas film and they needed to approve everything that they were doing from early on. With that beats document, they would need to determine what needed to be cinematics and what would be dialogue. The team went from Cinematics to VO, a processes she does not recommend, instead of in tandem. Here is where everyone joked about the fact with game writing you are always up against a horrible deadline that makes no sense to produce and finalize. For VO, she talked about how level design had been on the project for a few years before anyone else had been hiring to work on the game. A lot of the levels were well built for the team. She played through the game, marking places where dialogue and narrative could have a place. She'd then write out her first pass. Then she'd talk with the level designer about it. They'd go through the level together to ensure everything was acting properly. From there, it was iterated on to smooth things out and ensure that the story arcs are playing into the large story arc and the character's development throughout the game. Also providing little reminders to the player in case they started the game then came back after an extended break.

Shayna was next to talk about the audio. She started with just how adaptable that the audio needs to be, and figuring out just how much VO is needed. A lot of what she did as a producer was working with all the sources of information and reducing everything down to one source of truth the audio lead could use as a reference. This would help everyone figure out what the scenes needed. The cinematics script, the combat bark put into an excel sheet, and when working with the actors themselves, it could be mixture of things. Most of the time was the spreadsheet. There is a lot of the actor's performance that the writers help to contribute to. She was surprised working in audio and getting the right projections from the actor to suit the scenery of the scene. How far it sounds that the the person is trying to talk. The combat barks would need to be done in a granular sense. Sam popping to support this, talking about how with Spider-Man there would be 2 versions of each line, 1 with him stationary and 1 with him on the move.

Jill was next to talk about the tools and process. She started with just how much things can change even within the same game. Presently she is working heavily in Excel, plenty of time in Final Draft and other similar (free) ones. Different companies have proprietary engines and others use engines like Unity or Unreal. From there, she talked about how sometimes its building something from scratch and giving the highlights of pitching and specs to get the sign off. Sometimes it was “We have this art and this level, we should use this” or it could be you can only have this actor or that weapon or something along those lines, having to work within constraints. She likened it to the cooking show, “Chopped”, being giving a variety of ingredients and needing to figure out how to make something from it.

Sam stepped in from there to talk about the iterative process of gaming. She worked to drive home how writers can't get attached to things since there will be hundreds of changes to the material over the course of the game's development from design to shipping. She then recommended Twine, a free tool online to help aspiring writers by creating a text-based choose your own adventure style game. Easy to learn and complete a game. This is a tool to show a lot of different elements of the game.

The closing question to the panel was “What is your favorite moment that made it into the game, or a favorite moment in game design. Or simply, what's your favorite thing about being in games narrative.”  She started about how interactive gaming is. This give her a better sense of connection to the character.

Shayna started and she talked about how the reactions of players encountering elements. She did brush on the negative reaction, but also called it out as noise. If just one person gets what the message was, that makes it worth it.

Megan was next, talking about how games allow a certain amount of empathy that other storytelling mediums just don't offer. Just that sense of “This is Me,” in the game. It gives the designers a lot of responsibility to advance diversity and inclusion, but is also the best thing about. They need to push for those elements in such an interactive space.

Milo got to go next on this topic. He agreed with Shayna, getting to see player's reaction to the product itself. His senior capstone project just shipped and he was the lead writer on it. This included a lot of subtle elements he wasn't sure that players would notice. It has been very rewarding.

Charles was next. His favorite moments were more as a player. His love of Ico and Breath of the Wild and Star Wars Fallen Order. The element that drew him in was his connection to the lead character. Games are unique in that we get to put people in place of the character.

Jill was last. She talked about the best part being the intimacy that one can have with the characters themselves than is possible within other mediums. However big the cast is, it is much bigger than that thanks to the player choices. There is the connection of using relics from heroes, being able to use or fight with it in the game. She spent a lot of time working Cal's Lightsaber in Jedi Fallen Order to fit what she felt his mood was in the game. That specific level of interactivity and the minutiae of the interactive world that the character inhabits and figure that out are her favorite parts of game writing.

It was then time to wrap up the panel. Everyone reiterated their credits and their twitter handles. Everyone seemed to have a great time on the panel and sharing their experiences within the world of game writing. Sam encouraged people to get Twine and try their hand at game writing.

The panel can be found in Youtube:

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