Bioshock Writer Fed Up With Industry

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Bioshock Writer Fed Up With Industry

susan oconnor

One of gaming's greatest writers is sick of the medium's attitude towards stories.

Susan O'Connor knows a thing or two about writing for video games. A games writer for nearly a decade, she's worked on titles like Bioshock, Far Cry 2, and this year's Tomb Raider reboot. Those games are often heralded as superb examples of games with good writing, and certainly represent a high point in O'Connor's career. But from her perspective, games still have a long way to go before their stories can compete with other mediums - and if this is the best we can achieve, she's not sure it's worth sticking around.

"I think games are all for good story," O'Connor says, "but they really have to justify 'Why am I shooting everything?'" Speaking with Gameological, she explained that game stories are so often an afterthought, providing only enough effort to keep the player moving from one level to the next. As she sees it, it's a consequence of the lopsided ratios of technical staff to creative staff in development studios - which implicitly shifts the studio's mindset from creating entertainment to developing software. "That's not a bad thing. I think the key is where a person's passion lies ... but I really want to tell different kinds of stories, and I don't know if games are the right place for the stories I want to tell."

As the interview progressed, it became clear that this industry's hurdles are far from a minor issue to her. "I don't want to put up with this shit anymore," O'Connor said. "I'm grateful for the success I've had, but I'm never going to be able to do work that can come anywhere close to the kind of emotional impact the stories in other media have, at least not in the next five to ten years. I love stories, and I just happened to fall into games. I've learned who I am as a writer, and I think my talents and skills are much better used in other places.

"It's been an ongoing dissatisfaction that's always been there. But the more savvy I got - and I've been working on these great projects that are arguably the best ever made - it's like, 'This is the mountaintop, and this still isn't cutting it.'"

That may sound like a letter of resignation to the world of games, but O'Connor says she's still "in the process of making this decision." She does admittedly have a point - games need to prove themselves capable of channeling great stories, or the talent pool is growing to dry up.

Source: Gameological

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But hasn't she disproved her own point in that her game-writing skills are well... pretty damn good? Lead the pack! Show everyone else how it's done. "Good for us" may not be "good enough for you", but when you're offering the best, you can only lead by example.

The phrase "be the change you want to see in the world" comes to mind when I read this article. If she wants to abandon ship and not be a contributor to paving the way for better storytelling in games then good riddance.

shes got a point and the games industry would be a lesser place without her

She doesn't say much beyond the average gamer's opinion, witch keeps track of the gaming industry.
But Susan do present some good points.

So... She admits she has the skills, but doesn't want to do the work to help make the medium better and wants to apply those skills elsewhere...

Pathetic.

It could be she is writing stories for the wrong games too. If she is having a problem trying to justify in the story why the player has to shoot enemies and keep the game moving she could try her hand at point and click adventure games. Personally, I feel some point and click games have some of the best game stories like the Syberia games which I absolutely love.

At the same time though it does sound like she wants games to have better stories but doesn't want to be the one responsible in making the stories better.

Kurt Cristal:
But hasn't she disproved her own point in that her game-writing skills are well... pretty damn good? Lead the pack! Show everyone else how it's done. "Good for us" may not be "good enough for you", but when you're offering the best, you can only lead by example.

unfortunately, game writers have very little say in what happens to a video game. they're given a very restrictive set of rules and guidelines and theyre brought onto the project only towards the end. the sort of change she's talking about is so radical you couldn't possibly hope to change the entire industry within her desired time frame. the only way she could even attempt to is if she made her very own game, which would require investing years into learning to code, years that could be spent improving her ability to write. which in turn she could apply to a medium of entertainment (novels) that would better appreciate her for it

the fact of the matter remains that video games are unimaginably behind in their ability to tell a story than books, because video games (like movies) have more INSIDE them. books are nothing BUT a story, nothing distracts from the writer writing the story and the reader reading. whereas a movie has the visual element to add to it and the game further adds player input (<- this is important).

these differences are why the other mediums even exist. and why video games have the potential to be the best, because A) they're so young (gotta remember our idea of novels has been around since the 11th century! and films been going since the 1800s) and B) that user input adds a level of depth and escapism that books and movies can never have.

so yeah, its a shame she's moving over to books, but its also understandable. playing a game that gamers say has an amazing story, from the perspective of someone who focuses on films or literature, can be downright painful because the game (in terms of story) is just plain dull and derivative.

Not everyone wants to be a trail blazer, if she feels she is held back by this medium and can do better in other mediums then I say I wish her well. Following where your passions lie does not make you a bad person, we don't need to jump on this persons throat for making a career choice. Calm down people.

To borrow/modify a line from Idiocracy:
"There was a time in this country when people wrote things like books and videogames. Games that had a point, so you cared who's ass it was and why you were kicking it and I believe that time can come again!"

Kurt Cristal:
But hasn't she disproved her own point in that her game-writing skills are well... pretty damn good? Lead the pack! Show everyone else how it's done. "Good for us" may not be "good enough for you", but when you're offering the best, you can only lead by example.

Corven:
The phrase "be the change you want to see in the world" comes to mind when I read this article. If she wants to abandon ship and not be a contributor to paving the way for better storytelling in games then good riddance.

Desert Punk:
So... She admits she has the skills, but doesn't want to do the work to help make the medium better and wants to apply those skills elsewhere...

Pathetic.

I believe the point she's trying to make is that game studios don't want to put the effort into encouraging good writing, they just want to assembly-line produce games on a once-a-year basis while just tagging some scrapped together story.

Her being involved - even vocal - in the industry doesn't really mean anything if game companies aren't willing to devote more resources to story development (which she brings up by saying the ratio of tech teams to creative teams on games is weighted in favor of the techies). She can stand and preach on her soap box until she's blue in the face, doesn't mean game makers will listen to her. Yes, she stands out as a shining example of what game writers can do...but examples are only effective if people are willing to follow them and not take the easy route for an easy paycheck.

The last thing the industry needs is less creative people. Ms. O'Connor needs to stay in the industry. Regardless of what critics (or even she) say, the story of BioShock 1 and 2 (Infinite...not nearly as much), kicks the unholy hell out of anything Hollywood has been doing in the past ten years. If we have less Call of Duties and more BioShocks, Tomb Raiders, Heavy Rains, Silent Hills, etc., it'll show that the industry and the fans are more open to new ideas and grander stories.

To those that are saying she should just give up if that's what she wants, I humbly say that's the wrong attitude. I mean, I don't make games, I just play them, but I can definitely feel her aggravation. Good games keep being shoved aside for drivel, no matter how great their stories are, and it's only natural she's getting pissed about it. But hang in there, Ms. O'Conner, and all your creative brothers and sisters, keep fighting the good fight, and don't quit no matter how many times CoD takes a sledgehammer to the idea that games are art.

hontestly the problem of video game story telling is that its to often either none existent or written in the same manor as a screen play. the former is bad for obvious reasons the later is a more subtle problem. by treating a game story the same as a movie you lose the most potent component of video games their interactivity. i feel that to create a truly great story in video games writers must be allowed to work closely with designers to merge story and gameplay seamlessly.

puff ball:
i feel that to create a truly great story in video games writers must be allowed to work closely with designers to merge story and gameplay seamlessly.

I 100% agree. A good game story should play to the strengths of the medium; it should be integral to the game's design. If the designer and writer can't be the same people, then they should at least be working very closely with each other.

So er.. I was looking through her Portfolio. Bioshock is pretty much the only games to note, which I would say have a good story. Far Cry 2 was... Well, in short, pretty boring, story wise.

Got the feeling she's a wee bit to far up her own backside if she thinks games don't have good stories, and as people have pointed out, perhaps she needs to work on different games.

I'd recommend you try the Tomb Raider reboot before saying that again, it's really got an awesome story, easily one of the best I've seen in years.

Kurt Cristal:
But hasn't she disproved her own point in that her game-writing skills are well... pretty damn good? Lead the pack! Show everyone else how it's done. "Good for us" may not be "good enough for you", but when you're offering the best, you can only lead by example.

That doesn't work when you're in the AAA industry where ludonarrative dissonance is so, so common because of the segmented way that games are made.

See: Tomb Raider 2013.

One one hand, we have a young woman calling on inner strength she didn't know she had as she attempts to escape a dire situation, and does it by the skin of her teeth. That's the story part that Susan O'Connor is part of.

On the other hand, we have a young woman mowing down baddies in waves. That's the engine, scripting, and actual gameplay part that ruins Susan's best attempts.

It's a trapping of the action genre, really. It's so very hard to have the story she wanted to write in an action game and pull it off well, especially in a risk-adverse environment such as AAA.

If we want story to shine, we have to look to other genres. Personal, character-focused stories are well suited to adventure games. They also work in RPGs, if the story is naturally violent. Epic stories work best in RPGs (due to length) and strategy games (due to scope). Second-rate setpiece-to-setpiece stories are ideal in action games with a shooting focus, and that's where she is right now.

She might have a better time at TellTale, is what I'm trying to say.

Well you want to tell different kinds of stories you could try writing for different types of games.

Pedro The Hutt:
I'd recommend you try the Tomb Raider reboot before saying that again, it's really got an awesome story, easily one of the best I've seen in years.

She helped write it.

So yes, she tried it... and she's not happy with some elements of it, such as "I am now a gun-toting badass" whenever the player is in control.

"I'm never going to be able to do work that can come anywhere close to the kind of emotional impact the stories in other media have"

As much as I like her, if that's her point of view about games she can leave and try her luck somewhere else. While she has some good points, some of her opinions are really dismissive towards videogames.

She doesn't sound like the kind of person that loves games or really wants to make them better.

Im sorry if I didnt read the whole article, I couldnt get past the whole "Far Cry 2 is an example of good storytelling". No, it was not, in fact, it may be the worst story out of the far cry games. Putting it alongside Bioshock and TombRaider is a joke.

lacktheknack:

Kurt Cristal:
But hasn't she disproved her own point in that her game-writing skills are well... pretty damn good? Lead the pack! Show everyone else how it's done. "Good for us" may not be "good enough for you", but when you're offering the best, you can only lead by example.

That doesn't work when you're in the AAA industry where ludonarrative dissonance is so, so common because of the segmented way that games are made.

See: Tomb Raider 2013.

One one hand, we have a young woman calling on inner strength she didn't know she had as she attempts to escape a dire situation, and does it by the skin of her teeth. That's the story part that Susan O'Connor is part of.

On the other hand, we have a young woman mowing down baddies in waves. That's the engine, scripting, and actual gameplay part that ruins Susan's best attempts.

It's a trapping of the action genre, really. It's so very hard to have the story she wanted to write in an action game and pull it off well, especially in a risk-adverse environment such as AAA.

If we want story to shine, we have to look to other genres. Personal, character-focused stories are well suited to adventure games. They also work in RPGs, if the story is naturally violent. Epic stories work best in RPGs (due to length) and strategy games (due to scope). Second-rate setpiece-to-setpiece stories are ideal in action games with a shooting focus, and that's where she is right now.

She might have a better time at TellTale, is what I'm trying to say.

It seemed like the writers weren't able to change the story as the development process moved forward.

The whole Tomb Raider 2013 thing is the perfect example, why didn't she get some input to change maybe a few things with the story to fit that situation. Maybe insist that during the firefights Lara was having mini panic attacks about all the people she was killing and those attacks reduce or slowly disappear until at the end of the game she's killing people in a more matter-of-fact way. The story could remain essentially the same but the character of Lara would be different in some regards.

It's why I will often hark back to Far Cry III and how Jason Brody's character changes from a white rich adrenaline junkie way out of his comfort zone into a deranged B-movie action hero... or how Captain Walker changed during Spec Ops: The Line. The characters REACTED to what they were doing mechanically.

Maerx:
She doesn't sound like the kind of person that loves games or really wants to make them better.

That's the other thing that people have to keep in mind about her and why she wants to leave the game industry...she's not a game writer, she's just a writer. She says so herself that writing for games is just kinda how things turned out for her. She doesn't have any real attachment to games or the gaming industry.

Just saying to those that are wanting to throw stones at her. Granted, this is the internet, but do we REALLY need to hate and insult everyone who has a different opinion/goal than us?

RJ 17:

Maerx:
She doesn't sound like the kind of person that loves games or really wants to make them better.

That's the other thing that people have to keep in mind about her and why she wants to leave the game industry...she's not a game writer, she's just a writer. She says so herself that writing for games is just kinda how things turned out for her. She doesn't have any real attachment to games or the gaming industry.

Just saying to those that are wanting to throw stones at her. Granted, this is the internet, but do we REALLY need to hate and insult everyone who has a different opinion/goal than us?

I would falcon punch a Polar Bear to get a full time job writing for video games.

I recently got to do a small project writing for a F2P game and it was so damn fun. The challenge of matching the narrative to the game itself is really neat.

Bioshock Infinite (for example) was beautifully done, I think people are really hungry for a solid story. If they aren't I know I certainly am. Can't get enough of it.

Abomination:
It's why I will often hark back to Far Cry III and how Jason Brody's character changes from a white rich adrenaline junkie way out of his comfort zone into a deranged B-movie action hero... or how Captain Walker changed during Spec Ops: The Line. The characters REACTED to what they were doing mechanically.

Incredibly jarring for me in FC3 when my character bitches about skinning a tiger but happily guts 30 soldiers seconds later.

Colbster94:
Im sorry if I didnt read the whole article, I couldnt get past the whole "Far Cry 2 is an example of good storytelling". No, it was not, in fact, it may be the worst story out of the far cry games. Putting it alongside Bioshock and TombRaider is a joke.

Agreed. No disrespect to her and I agree with her point, but the Far Cry 2 story was just a shitty rip-off of Heart of Darkness.

Oh for christ sake. They're games, can you really be so dense as to be surprised when the GAMEplay of the GAME take more precedence over story?

And why are we so concerned about being compared to other media? Games have different rules to films and books, and by trying to make games more like them, you cheapen the medium.

If this is the kind of person we have writing games, I'm glad she's gone.

theultimateend:

RJ 17:

Maerx:
She doesn't sound like the kind of person that loves games or really wants to make them better.

That's the other thing that people have to keep in mind about her and why she wants to leave the game industry...she's not a game writer, she's just a writer. She says so herself that writing for games is just kinda how things turned out for her. She doesn't have any real attachment to games or the gaming industry.

Just saying to those that are wanting to throw stones at her. Granted, this is the internet, but do we REALLY need to hate and insult everyone who has a different opinion/goal than us?

I would falcon punch a Polar Bear to get a full time job writing for video games.

I recently got to do a small project writing for a F2P game and it was so damn fun. The challenge of matching the narrative to the game itself is really neat.

Bioshock Infinite (for example) was beautifully done, I think people are really hungry for a solid story. If they aren't I know I certainly am. Can't get enough of it.

And I agree with pretty much all of the above. I'd love to get a job writing videogames. For her, though, it was just a job she fell into (at least as she describes it).

puff ball:
by treating a game story the same as a movie you lose the most potent component of video games their interactivity. i feel that to create a truly great story in video games writers must be allowed to work closely with designers to merge story and gameplay seamlessly.

This is exactly it and it seems to be be forgotten sometimes. It's not just writing it good story, it's marrying it to the strengths of the game. You can write a story that doesn't do this kind of thing, that's essentially only told in cutscenes and it might still be great, but it won't be making use of that one extremely important thing that games are the only medium capable of truly offering, interactivity. And if the game's story isn't making use of the player's input, it might as well be told in a book or film.

Doing this sort of thing successfully must be hard as hell, but when a game does pull it off, making you feel like you're playing the story rather than just watching and listening to it, it can be awesome. Unfortunately, while there are loads of games with great stories I feel there are few which truly feel like those stories can only exist in games. If, for instance, all the main events of Deus Ex were put into a novel you'd still miss out on the many ways that the game gives you information, you'd miss out on the many conversations, newspapers, emails, the player choices and the general feel of being in the game's world created by the myriad of ways story elements are conveyed to the player through gameplay. If Max Payne were a novel you'd miss out on very little, as while I love it that game's way of revealing the story to the player is almost exclusively in it's non-interactive cutscenes rather than gameplay itself.

In short I reckon when it comes to making better stories in games we mostly need better collaboration between game designers and story writers and/or more people who are truly passionate and good at both.

Desert Punk:
So... She admits she has the skills, but doesn't want to do the work to help make the medium better and wants to apply those skills elsewhere...

Pathetic.

Problem is, if all you can get made in the industry (without going indie and risking not being able to pay the bills) is a game that has to have guns and shooting, then it isn't pathetic at all to go elsewhere, but just realizing that the games industry is full of technically-minded people who are not story tellers, or a bunch of publishers who don't think a game can lack guns or shooting people as the core mechanic and still be a game.

Corven:
The phrase "be the change you want to see in the world" comes to mind when I read this article. If she wants to abandon ship and not be a contributor to paving the way for better storytelling in games then good riddance.

The problem is that the people who make games right now, aside from a select few, see video games in a rather narrow field of view, either incapable of being anything beyond mere "fun," or as being stunted by a lack of VR technology.

When the industry sees you as a third wheel to the "main" dev team, you can't exert change without sacrificing something.

Kurt Cristal:
But hasn't she disproved her own point in that her game-writing skills are well... pretty damn good? Lead the pack! Show everyone else how it's done. "Good for us" may not be "good enough for you", but when you're offering the best, you can only lead by example.

I'd say she's more saying that she can't exert enough creative vision within the industry as it stands now. Can't lead by example if you can't get to the front of the pack.

All of these comments are coming from someone who would love to get more liberal arts people into game development, by the way. Her reasons for leaving are the same reasons I had for not going into it in the first place. I'd love to make a video game that stretches the medium, but I think I can tell the stories I want to tell better if the world is of my sole creation, which is why I decided to become a writer and teach English.

lacktheknack:
She might have a better time at TellTale, is what I'm trying to say.

Damn, someone beat me to it.

But yeah, TellTale is pretty much a successful company devoted to fixing her issues with the industry, so I imagine she'd do some damn good work there.

I know the industry can eat you up and spit you out, but, as a female developer myself, I cling to my female video game designers, writers, and role models, and change will NOT happen so long as people give up on the medium and give in to the "it's for dude-bro shooter types only" mindset.

You know, not every games needs a bloody narrative. If there is an issue I have with writing in games is that most of the time when a writer wants the player to actually experience something it is done in the vein as movies. Just sit there and watch the plot unfold. I get that and it can be fine at times. I also do acknowledge that sometimes it is silly for a writer to try and take on the challenge that is quite artificial why the player has to shoot everyone. But then again there has got to be a point where you just can't control everything and where a basic narrative is better than having some convoluted narrative that tries to justify everything.

Another issue I have is that most people in charge of writing in video games are oddly enough trying too hard to ground everything in reality. I mean we have these game developers with great concepts and ideas and then in comes the writer that pretty much put a turd in the punch bowl. I mean we've all seen VERY badly written games or VERY convoluted plots but it really comes down to what do you do first?

Do you write the story? Or do you design the game? Both have inherent flaws and often require major changes during the process. Not to mention how us as players act incredibly cynical as adults towards the games we play. I mean okay sure bitch that you just killed 30 soldiers but not actually acknowledge that it was your choice as the player and the part where you say put down an animal was something completely scripted and out of your hands and where the writer took control from you.

Honestly good luck to her on future ventures but honestly it really does seem like she is just throwing in the towel instead of actually taking on the challenge that is meant to be her wild west.

RJ 17:

Maerx:
She doesn't sound like the kind of person that loves games or really wants to make them better.

That's the other thing that people have to keep in mind about her and why she wants to leave the game industry...she's not a game writer, she's just a writer. She says so herself that writing for games is just kinda how things turned out for her. She doesn't have any real attachment to games or the gaming industry.

Just saying to those that are wanting to throw stones at her. Granted, this is the internet, but do we REALLY need to hate and insult everyone who has a different opinion/goal than us?

I have nothing more than respect for her. Although I can't really condone her if she thinks that videogames aren't a good medium for storytelling. Do games need to evolve and get better? HELL YES. But she doesn't look like she wants to part of it.

On top of that she sounds really arrogant, or maybe that's just me.

Maerx:

RJ 17:

Maerx:
She doesn't sound like the kind of person that loves games or really wants to make them better.

That's the other thing that people have to keep in mind about her and why she wants to leave the game industry...she's not a game writer, she's just a writer. She says so herself that writing for games is just kinda how things turned out for her. She doesn't have any real attachment to games or the gaming industry.

Just saying to those that are wanting to throw stones at her. Granted, this is the internet, but do we REALLY need to hate and insult everyone who has a different opinion/goal than us?

I have nothing more than respect for her. Although I can't really condone her if she thinks that videogames aren't a good medium for storytelling. Do games need to evolve and get better? HELL YES. But she doesn't look like she wants to part of it.

On top of that she sounds really arrogant, or maybe that's just me.

Yeah, she really does. But that goes along with the fact that she was never in it for the games in the first place. To her it was just a job, and I'm guessing that's were a lot of her bitterness comes from. Her point, though, wasn't that games can't ever be a good medium, it's that with current industry trends and practices it isn't a good medium right now. Like you said: it needs to evolve.

Maybe she's just in the wrong part of the pool. Of course the competitive AAA-market is going to have a higher proportion of technical people to creative people; pushing the technical side of things has been where the industry staked its claim to expansion for years. But in single-A games like Spec-Ops: The Line, Bastion, and Zeno Clash, not to mention an enormous number of smaller independent titles, story has a place of honor and even reverence.

Things aren't going to get better without good writers, and a "good" writer in the world of mainstream fiction has to struggle against both writers who are better and a publishing world where the risk-aversion of publishers falls directly on the writers' heads and stifles creativity, rather than one where that risk-aversion falls farther up the chain and has less direct influence on their work. If I had a job writing for video games, I'd thank my lucky stars for the opportunity to be sheltered and pioneering at the same time.

"You have to justify why am I shooting everything?" Well... the thing is you don't, You can work around that with the story. I mean, it's not like GAMES have as a main point the GAMEplay. If you cant a story centered product I'd say... read a book. I guess books couldn't really put gameplay over story, could they?

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