Hal talks about designing and writing games
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Interviewer: I’m here at Casual Connect and with me today is a special guest. How about you introduce yourself?
Hal: Hi, my name is Hal Barwood. I’m a game developer. I’m a writer and designer. I have been in the game business for about 20 years. Before that I was a screen writer in Hollywood and a movie producer. I followed my true love eventually and became a game writer and designer.
Interviewer: Do you focus then mainly on the writing instead of the design of games, or is it both?
Hal: Actually, I do both. I’ve done a lot of designing and a lot of writing, and they’re separate tasks. Designing is different from writing.
Interviewer: What is the difference in your mind between designing and writing?
Hal: Well, as a designer I focus on game play. I focus on mechanics. I focus on the power ups and the sequences and all that sort of thing. All single player games, by the way; I don’t do multi player stuff. As a writer, I try to figure out a way that we can attach a fictional component to the mechanics in a way that you get to play a story.
Interviewer: So, what can the writing then do for a game? Have you seen this first hand? Does it amplify the experience? What does it do?
Hal: I’ll give you an example. A few years ago there were two games that hit the marketplace. One was called Call of Duty, a shooter, and another was called Medal of Honor: Rising Sun, another shooter. These are both World War II shooter games. One would think if all one cared about was game play that these games would either, one or the other, would take over the marketplace or they would both fail. But, instead they were both successes, and they were successes because they were differentiated solely by the story differences. One of them is set in Europe. That is a story idea that set it somewhere, and one is set in Asia so that’s different.
From a marketplace point of view, they were distinguished by the narrative content which was Europe versus Asia. From a game play point of view, they were distinguished by the tone. Call of Duty is a gritty life-or-death horror story with bullets flying everywhere and all your mentors in the game being killed every time they give you any advice. It’s a sort of semi-realistic scary game. Medal of Honor is an Indiana Jones fantasy where you start as a grunt and become a commando.
Those are story ideas, and they distinguish these two otherwise identical games so that they were both successes. That’s what story can do for games.
Interviewer: It’s really then first picking the right theme or a theme for your game, and then developing a story around that theme.
Hal: Right. Those are story ideas. When you take a mechanic and give it some sort of fictional content, you have enlarged the game to include a story or a narrative, at least.
Interviewer: You know, you have game play mechanics. Are there specific story mechanics that you have in your vocabulary that you’ve used to amplify the story of a game?
Hal: Well, actually, I try to adapt story to game play. I’m an actual game player, a game designer, and I’m not just a writer who is trying to make it in games. So, I’m very conscious the player is an agent in the game, and the story must accommodate that. I try to find ways that the story can be told through the mechanics of the game, and the story has already been developed.
Interviewer: Can you give an example of how you’ve done that in some of the games that you’ve designed?
Hal: Here’s a stupid idea. One of the things you can do is you can have your main character rescue another character, and that way you have the kinds of attachments and love-hate relationships that go on between characters expressed in game play as you try as one of the characters to get another one out of trouble.
Interviewer: What about tempo and timing of the story? How important is that, and how do you balance that to make sure that it progresses in the right way and keeps people engaged?
Hal: In a linear medium like movies or a book or TV, one of the prime things you must learn to do is to put one event in front of another. As a story teller, you must know which event is more important to go first. In a game, that’s not so important. The player might decide that A will proceed and then B. Someone else might want B to go first. If you’re a good writer in a game, you will let either one happen.
What you try to do is to collect all these ideas in some unified form that eventually plays out. In some way it’s partly dictated by the player and partly dictated by the limitations of the technology.
Interviewer: Should it be passive story telling, active story telling? Should there be a guide or a mentor that kind of walks you through, you as the agent, you as the player, as you go through the experience of the RPG? Do you have some other character in the background guiding you, telling you what’s going on? How does that work? What’s the best way to do it?
Hal: I think there’s no single best way. It depends on what kind of game you are doing. Obviously, in a Real Time strategy game you’re not going to have characters who are your mentors. In a character adventure game or a RPG, you might very well have a character who has got some magical insight into the real nature of the game and becomes your mentor.
That happens, for example, in the previous example I used, Call of Duty where there’s a series of mentors to guide you through the game. That’s very commonly done, and I think that’s a good system.
Interviewer: Aside from mentors, is there anything else that, say, an indie game developer can use to make or enhance their RPG story experience?
Hal: Well, people like mechanics, and often people think that the mechanics are what sell games, but I’m here to tell you that’s not true. Almost every game has a mechanic which is shared by another game, and what differentiates your game is some kind of narrative concept. Now, it may not be a full fledged story. It might just be a series of missions. It might just be a chronicle, but some sense of purpose and function that is larger than the mechanics is necessary to make a game interesting.
Interviewer: You talk about missions. Is there a special design or story narrative or skill that you need to develop or design missions in RPGs or something else?
Hal: Well, I’m not very fond of FedEx quests as they are called in RPGs, that’s for sure. I think that in mission games what you are really talking about is a series of requirements of the game to succeed that don’t depend on your inner motivation. They are assignments.
So, you have to understand that the characters in that game don’t have any particular involvement, and the danger as a writer is that you’re going to wind up with a bunch of barks. You are going to wind up with people who either express their unhappiness or their displeasure, and it’s really just a bunch of mood swings.
That’s not very interesting from a character point of view. So, I don’t really like to do them very much, but at least if you’re doing a mission game you must understand your limitations and try and inject some personality into all that.
Interviewer: What suggestions or advice for indie game developers who are going to write their own story now for their own game in terms of choosing the right story, tempo, timing, anything else that you feel is important?
Hal: Well, I think that game designers and game developers are fond of thinking of writers as ignorant outsiders who are used to a linear medium. I’m here to tell you that people doing story telling for several thousand years, it’s a very highly evolved art with a lot of special skills, and it would be worth your while to learn some of those skills instead of just being caught in the little cocoon that you live in as a game player. Learn about the larger world.
There’s some books you can read, and I’ll give you two names. Most of these books are terrible, by the way. Don’t read Story by McKee or any of those crappy Hollywood stories, but it is worth understanding that a game even though you’re the player-agent it’s drama. It’s akin to fear and it’s akin to movies, and it’s not really very much connected to novels. The inner life doesn’t mean anything. Scenes mean everything.
Here’s two books. Read Aristotle Poetics and understand what the hell he is talking about and read a book called The Art of Dramatic Writing, anyway, Lajos Egri’s book. He’s a Hungarian guy. He wrote a wonderful book about theory writing, and it’s the best book on writing that I know of that’s not 2,000 years old.
Interviewer: Do you then focus on twist? Do you think then that twists are very important for story telling in games?
Hal: We call those things reversals of fortune [laughs] in the jargon of writing. Yes, I very much believe in those things. You should do one or two in your game.
Interviewer: What game story has really compelled you or inspired you?
Hal: Well, I don’t want to talk about the games that I’ve made because my favorites are all the ones that I did, but I’ll give you an example of a console game that happened a few years ago for PS2 that I fell in love with. It’s called Ico, I-c-o. It’s by a Japanese bunch of guys. The project leader is the same guy that did Shadow of Colossus. This is a wonderful story game in which it’s a constant rescue. You are this young guy, 10-years-old, you’re rescuing a 12-year-old princess, and there is no language at all in the story. Even the language that they speak is nonsense, and the characters on the screen that you see are gibberish. And yet, it is the most powerful story that I can think of in modern times.
Interviewer: Thank you very much.