The Bittersweetest Thing

Lead Writer of BioWare's Dragon Age game series, lover of fan tears. This is where I blog about game development, fandom, and narrative design. Anything I say here is my opinion alone.


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Game Writing - Nuts and Bolts (Part 1)

I’m curious on how the plot conversations work, if a secondary writer is working on a specific character when a conversation with that character comes up are they given the general idea of information that needs to be conveyed? For example in dragon age 2 when Hawke is talking with Merrill about the mirror are the writers for Hawke and Merrill sitting together in a room with the general information in front of them and just passing ideas back and forth? — fan question

It took me a few tries to parse this question, and I hope I’ve done so correctly. The difficulty has nothing to do with the questioner— not everyone is going to know enough about the process, and certainly isn’t going to share the same lingo as the developers, to be able to ask the question in a way that gets to the heart of what they want to know.

I think what’s being asked here is how the BioWare writers share responsibility for character writing— since major characters are going to come up in multiple plots, and thus it might seem awkward to have everybody dipping their toes into everyone else’s pools.

First, the part that gave me pause: a “plot conversation”, as I term it, is a conversation that comes up in one of the major game plots. I wrote “Nature of the Beast” and “Redcliffe” for DAO, for instance, and that meant that I wrote every major conversation that happened in those plots, and would have overseen anything else that needed to go into them.

A “follower conversation”, meanwhile, is a major conversation that’s part of a follower’s plot arc— regardless of where in the game it occurs. A lot of these occur at the hub (a “hub” would be a location intended primarily for dialogue, such as the party camp in DAO or the player’s home in DA2), but need not… there’s a follower conversation with Alistair that occurs right before you get to Redcliffe for the first time, for instance. Now I wrote Alistair as well, so the difference is moot, but since it’s part of his personal arc and not part of Redcliffe that would have been my conversation regardless of who wrote the Redcliffe plot.

The slightly trickier part comes up with regards to what we call “interjections” — these are places in plots where followers speak up. These can be either major interjections, where things happen which are important to that followers’ personal arc but are still plot-related (Shale’s concern over the Anvil of the Void in the Orzammar plot, for instance, or Isabela’s major role in the Act 2 climax of DA2), or they can be minor interjections, where followers are briefly piping up to give their opinion on a player choice or (this happened more in DA2) allow for options to affect the plot directly via the dialogue wheel.

The answer there is that the plot writer will stub in the major interjections if they’re not also the writer for that character. Chances are they’ve chatted with the character writer about it and left room for that writer to go in and do it later ("Shale will have her freak out here— insert when you’re ready, Dave"). It’s also possible they’ve talked it over with the character writer enough that they’ll take a first pass at writing it themselves. The same applies for minor interjections— the plot writer will take a first stab at the ones they think would apply.

Later on, the character writer would do what we call the “voice consistency pass”. They go through plots they didn’t write and look for any existing interjections, filling out the stubs waiting for them and looking at any already-written lines for their character to see if they need editing. They also look for interjections the plot writer didn’t consider (“Morrigan would totally speak up there, I’m adding one”).

You’ll note I didn’t answer about the PC. That’s because no one writer is responsible for the PC’s voice— the PC has to speak in almost every conversation, and thus we sit down as a group early on and discuss exactly how we’re going to write it. No matter how much effort we spend getting on the same page, there are always going to be differences— Mary’s PC will say the most sarcastic things, Sheryl’s PC will be the funniest, Luke’s PC will jerk the player’s chain at every opportunity, etc. Generally we get an editor late in the day to take a pass through all existing PC dialogue (it’s a big job) to smooth out the inconsistencies.

Banter is done a bit separately. We will sit down as a group and talk about how the followers will relate— will they get along? Will their relationship change over the course of the game? Is there a chance for independent romance between them? That sort of thing. When we write the banter, we write a set number of interactions for each pairing… so I, as Alistair’s writer, will first write “Alistair-Morrigan”, followed by “Alistair-Leliana” and so on. You’ll note there’s another side to that… Sheryl, as Leliana’s writer, will also write the “Leliana-Alistair” pairing. Meaning half of the total banters between Leliana and Alistair are written by each writer. When we do our voice consistency pass, we’ll look at those other banters and edit the language a bit.

Every now and again the voice consistency pass results in some contention. It might not be enough to just edit a line’s language, after all, if what the other writer had that character doing is fundamentally wrong. That requires a larger conversation. The writer to whom that character belongs has the final say— with the exception of those times when I invoke Lead Writer fiat. It’s not something I need to do often, but occasionally I need to intervene— it’s that writer’s character, but I’m responsible for determining overall direction whether it be for the plot or for individual followers.

Why would I need to do such a thing? Because it’s very easy for a writer to make their character in a bubble. You focus your efforts on making that character interesting in and of itself, but forget that it also needs to serve a larger purpose. It has a role in the story, and even the game mechanics. A writer might think it’s very interesting to have their character be a philandering ass, but I step in and perhaps say “you don’t think that might make the fact he’s a romance a bit problematic?” Or they forget there’s this larger plot thing that character needs to do later on, and it needs to make sense with how they’re developing the character’s personal arc. That sort of thing.

It all sounds very neat and simple, though it’s really not. We’re talking about a process that covers the entire length of a game’s development— done in fits and starts, and sometimes repeatedly as we realize (through testing) that a character’s thread has been lost or that they’re in dire need of a “voice lift” (ho ho ho) due to some changes sneaking in. God forbid that the writer’s idea of the character evolved as they were writing it, and suddenly they discover that the character they were writing a year ago no longer seems like the one they’re writing now. Ugh.

It kind of helps that the writers are all in the same room (the ones on the same project, anyhow, if not all the writers in the company). We call it the Writers Pit, and we tend to be a noisy bunch— always yelling across the room, posing questions that suddenly lead to big conversations and work stoppage for everyone no matter whether they’re involved in that conversation or not. I’m responsible for a larger share of those conversations than anyone. I call it “de-management”.

But that’s the answer to your question— hopefully.


In case anyone missed it, the “Part 1” at the top means this is going to be a series of posts aimed at the actual day-to-day work of the writers… specifically I’d like to walk people through how a game plot and a branching dialogue is properly constructed, what I as Lead Writer would do to critique someone’s work and what tips I would generally offer.

It may be really boring for some, so feel free to have your eyes glaze over whenever one of these posts comes up. If not, then stay tuned. I’m thinking I might make it a bit interactive and have you guys vote on where the actual plot construction part of the tutorial goes.

(See Part 2 here)


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