(This interview was first published on Default Prime back in 2012. As the site isn’t online anymore, I decided to republish the interview I held with Steve Ince on my personal website.)
Away from the dubstep-infused entertainment floors and between the business halls of Gamescom, we met up with industry veteran Steve Ince at the juice bar to talk about his work and thoughts on video game storytelling.
Can you please introduce yourself to our readers?
I’m Steve Ince. I’m a games writer and designer and I’ve been working in the industry for 20 years. I’ve worked on various projects for various companies.
Can you tell us some of the titles you’ve worked on?
I started at a company called Revolution Software and did some background art and sprite animation for Beneath a Steel Sky. Then I was producer on the first two Broken Sword games and co-wrote and co-designed the third Broken Sword game. I worked on In Cold Blood, So Blonde and various casual titles. I also script-edited both Witcher games and I wrote a book on writing for video games.
You started with sprite-work, but how did the transition to producer and writer go from there?
The transition to producer came as a bit of a surprise to be honest, because I started doing some organization within the office just because no-one else was doing it. And suddenly I was asked if I would be the producer, purely to expand on that role. Because I was producer, I got to interact with the programmers, the artists, the designers, everyone involved, basically. I started sitting in on design meetings and so forth. So when we started working on In Cold Blood, I started getting involved more and more in design and in the writing. And it just seemed to be a very natural transition, because I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I just seemed to side-step into it.
These days, modern AAA games approach writing for most part as if they’re writing for a movie. People quote “cinematic experiences” and stuff like that. What’s your general approach to writing for games and narration in games? What do you think sets games apart from movies that should be emphasized?
Any game writer should be writing for a game. And it’s my view that game writers should have a knowledge of how game design works. It’s not necessarily that they should be game designers, just know how game design works and how a game is player-led. Even if you’re dealing with a very linear story, that story, I believe, should be triggered by the actions of the player. And so any writer should be mindful of the gameplay and the role of the player within the game. And I don’t see how you can write a game story without that, because a game is primarily about gameplay. And regardless how valuable I think the story is, and I think that stories are very important in games (not all games, obviously. Simple puzzle games don’t need stories), but in games that do need them, it’s important. But nothing is more important than the gameplay, because without gameplay, it would not be a game. So I think game writers need to bear that in mind at all times. And that’s the biggest distinction between game writing and writing for film: the fact that you really need to be mindful of the interactive nature of a game, the fact that you don’t really know what the player is going to be doing. You can’t control the pacing like you can in a film, where you know how long things are going to last on screen. You can’t do that with a game, because the player may pause at any time, or just get stuck. “How do I get past this obstacle?” So you can’t rely on definite pacings and so on.
Sometimes, while designing a game, developers decide to slap on a certain element. For example, they start with the gameplay, they focus on graphics, then on story, but in the end sound design gets the shaft. And sometimes that happens for the story, sometimes for other elements. Do you think that, at least in regards to story, developers are making enough of an effort to intertwine it with actual gameplay? Or are we not seeing enough of it?
I think for those developers that want to have a story that’s important, I think they really need to intertwine it very much. So, the gameplay objectives are linked to the story objectives. And so the way the character moves through the game, it needs to tie in with the way that character moves through the story. The more they are intertwined, the better, because then you have a seamless experience. You’re delivering the story as part of the whole gaming experience, it is not running parallel or anything like that – it is very much an integral part of the whole experience. And I think that is vital, really. And I don’t think that developers particularly are against it being integrated. I think that part of the trouble is that no-one has as fully worked out the best procedure. And possibly because there are different procedures for different games. Some games need an awful lot of prototyping and it’s difficult to establish a story when you’re prototyping the mechanics. So, you can’t really bring a writer in for that, but once you start thinking of the structure of the game, then I think you need to think of the structure of the story and how to get it interlaced with the gameplay. In other games, it can work if you add it down the line, because the story is perhaps a little more superficial. It doesn’t matter where the characters are or what they’re doing during a level in regards to the story, because the story is only ever going to get in between the levels. And so it’s less necessary to think in those terms. It does really depend on the type of game: what the developer wants from the story and how best the writer can integrate with the team to maximize both character development and story development and the dialog and whatever else they’ve been meaning to do.
Can you name some recent titles that impressed you either with the whole process of integrating narration or handling narration, or maybe just by using specific solutions in parts of the game that you thought were important or noteworthy?
It’s not very recent, but one of the things that struck me about Half-Life 2 were some of the little things in the background and things that kind of weren’t contributing directly to the story, but were contributing to the impression the player got, the setting up. Right at the beginning of Half-Life 2, there is one point where the player passes this couple sitting on a couch. They’re cuddling together and they have this really scared and worried look on their faces. You knew at that point that it’s a kind of oppressive regime and these people are worried for their lives and worried for their freedoms. And so much is put over it and you have this one little glimpse at this couple. And that, to me, is brilliant. There’s no dialog needed at all. But somebody had to come and think “Alright, we need that”. It’s a very specific type of storytelling. It’s like saying “We’re not going to go into a lot of backstory exposition, we’re just going to have this couple here.” And really, that is very, very good storytelling.
But it’s difficult. With big titles like Half-Life 2, it’s obviously produced huge and you can get really good stuff in like that. But sometimes with a smaller budget, where the writing often comes out is in the dialog. Storytelling comes out in the dialog. That’s the only opportunity they have, because they don’t have the facial expression, the body language… So you’ll just get a really good line. I think Mass Effect does that very well. I mean, yeah, they also do the facial expressions, but the dialog is not just well written, but also well acted. That’s one of the things I think is key, because when the writers are writing, they’re writing for the performance of the actors. And because if you look at dialogs in a novel, it’s very different from dialog in, say, a film script, or a radio play, or something like this. Because you need different lines when they are spoken. So you’ve got to write for that performance and that’s where the good writing really shows, because when it’s recorded, it sounds natural and you get a natural flow. And I think Mass Effect did that really well, particularly with the way they created the interface for that. It just felt more fluid and I’m a firm believer that the more fluid we can make dialog, the better all of our games will become. But as I said, because you can’t rely necessarily on facial expressions and body language and so on, you have to make the lines count.
And it’s actually how I approached my writing for the So Blonde game. When I was writing the characters, I wanted something that would not only summarize the characters themselves, but give the humor and give the emotion in a strong way. The bad guy in So Blonde was a pirate with only one eye and one leg and it would be quite easy to just go down the traditional “Yarrr, matey!” voice, but I didn’t want that. I wanted him to be menacing, but a little kind of understated in his menace. So I talked with the actor about this and he said “What if I do a kind of Richard Burton-type voice?” And he did this voice and it was just perfect. It was exactly what I wanted. And sometimes, you kind of know what you want, but you have to work with the actor to find it. When you do, then that’s quite rewarding, but again it’s about performance, about delivery, getting those characters playing against each other in the right way. When you get good lines and get the characters working, it sort of stands out.
When I went to work on the first Broken Sword game as producer, the guy who was writing, Dave Cummins, who I learned so much from, the way he wrote the lines for George and Nico and the way they kind of played off each other was perfect. And of course, Rolf Saxon played George brilliantly and created such an iconic voice for the character.
Something that is brought up now and then in this generation is that the developers are using the high production values they have to, so to speak, force-feed the story to players. And then there are many players who don’t care about the story and just go through the game. Do you think that you should make an effort to tell the story to the player in the sense that, even if he doesn’t want to, you should interest him in it, or you should give the player the freedom to completely ignore the story if he so chooses?
Even if you try to force the story on a player, there’s no guarantee they will take any notice. They can just blank it out. I don’t think you ever have control of that. Writers need to take into account the fact that the player is in control, basically. Even in adventure games, which are pretty much all about the story, you’ll find people who will just click through all the dialog. But they’re in control: they’ve paid their money, they can play how they want. And I don’t think the story should ever be foced upon the player. If a player wants to skip a cutscene, let them skip it. It’s their choice, isn’t it? But personally, writers and designers should look for ways to avoid cutscenes. Anything that can be portrayed in the game should be done so. Let’s deliver this story as dialog, as some sort of interaction, something you discover when you’re hacking into a computer, something that keeps tying into the gameplay. Like in Bioshock, when you picked up those tape recordings. I mean, there’s no guarantee you’ll pick them up or even play them, but the game still works. They weren’t vital, but they added. I’m not a fan of that approach – it’s a bit too random, almost. But it was left to the player to choose whether to play these recordings or not. And that to me is fine. I mean, why not give more control to the player? The more that is put into the player’s hands, the better. Even in something like a linear adventure. There’s nothing worse than getting to a certain point and triggering a two-minute cutscene that you can’t skip.
One final question. If you are familiar with Japanese games, what do you think about the Japanese approach to storytelling in games?
Steve Ince: I don’t play as many as I used to, but one of my favorite games is Final Fantasy IX. Which I think has a sort of fantastic set of characters and I love the fantastic locations. And that was a PSOne game, which was a fabulous game. And yet I think they dragged it out too much. It was a four-disc game and it just felt you could have taken one of those discs away and it would have been a better game, because it finally got to a point where you’re just kind of marking time. And I do think there is an element of that with a lot of Japanese games. They can drip-feed the story in small bits and you have an RPG that’s a hundred hours long. They have got to effectively stretch a story that you could probably get into a movie, into something that is as fifty times as long. And I think that works against it in long-term. But having said that, Final Fantasy IX did handle that very well up to a certain point and then it got a little repetitive. And it’s a shame really, beacuse it’s such a good game in many ways. Obviously, their approach to stories is very different and we can’t tell them how to make stories, but it’s difficult to appreciate their stories in the quite same way they do. I suppose many of us are focused on the Hollywood approach to storytelling, where it’s much more dynamic and faster-paced and so on, and I think that we expect something similar from other cultures. I think longer games need to think about how TV series approach their longer stories to match something like 24, which has a sort of longer story spread over 20 episodes. So if you were taking a long RPG, you might split that up into 15 or 20 chapters, or something like this. And each chapter could be treated like an episode of a TV series, so you’d have a little kind of story within that, that’s pieced into a larger story. I think there’s all sorts of potential along those lines.
Thank you for your time.
You can learn more about Steve Ince and his work by visiting his personal website.