Interview with Senior Writer Jennifer Hepler

Anders and Kitty by Nigalacrima

Who are you and what is your role at BioWare?
My name is Jennifer Hepler and I’m a senior writer on the Dragon Age franchise. I wrote the Dwarf Commoner, Orzammar and the Deep Roads for Dragon Age: Origins; Anders, Sebastian, Bethany and most of the mage-Templar plots for Dragon Age II; and the Act 2 and3 Smuggler and a whole ton of Taris, Tatooine, Nar Shaadda, Balmorra, and Alderaan world quests for Star Wars: The Old Republic. I also handle a fair amount of training for our new and junior writers, and do some pinch-hitting as an editor when time gets tight.

What is the best part about your job?
The people I work with. When I try to watch something like The Big Bang Theory that is supposedly geek humor, it can never even hold a candle to spending that same half hour in the Dragon Age writers’ room. Writing is generally a solitary profession and I spent most of my twenties sitting at home in front of a computer churning out scripts and not talking to anyone. It’s an incredible blessing to get to spend every day with funny, intelligent people whom I respect and who care about the same kinds of things I do.

What does an average day look like for you?
It depends a lot on what stage the project is in. At the moment, we are at the end of pre-production and beginning of production, so I am bouncing between outlining new stories and starting to write dialogue for the larger plots that are already developed. But generally, I have about an 80-20 split between doing my own work and reviewing other writers’ work, either in formal meetings or an informal mentoring role. I have certain stories and characters that I am responsible for writing, so I need to keep on top of any other plots that use those characters and make sure they don’t conflict with any intentions for them. Also, all the writers sit in the same room because at any given time, someone is likely to be stuck or come up with something that we hadn’t considered in outlining (like “hey, what do people call the Champion before he becomes the Champion?”) and we’ll have an impromptu brainstorm.

Can you tell us about one of your proudest moments working in game development?
When I was told that all of the romances in Dragon Age II were going to be available to both genders, I was a little nervous because I had never written (or read) romances for gay men before. I thought a lot about how to present the male-male romance for Anders and I received some nudges that it should be made to feel less important/less emotional than the heterosexual romance. But ultimately, I decided that love and passion were human universals and I was going to write the male-male romance as romantically as the female one. When the game came out, we got a letter from a fan, a young man who was coming to terms with the realization that he was gay. He said that he had never seen a gay romance portrayed positively, and he was terrified that he was never going to be able to fall in love or have a meaningful relationship with anyone. He was considering killing himself, he said, until he played the Anders romance – it was the first time he had seen anyone portray a gay relationship as genuinely romantic and loving, and now he was going to devote the rest of his life to finding that kind of passion (though hopefully not with a bipolar terrorist…) That was an amazing moment for me, because it showed that the characters we create in these games really do have a genuine effect on people, even if it’s just a few of them. Just because we’re making games, it doesn’t always has to be “just a game.”

What’s a geeky thing about you?
Just one? I don’t know if I can narrow it down that far. Let’s see… I fell in love with my husband over a Vampire game, while all the other guys were in the back room having their characters attack each other. I was under contract for a Shadowrun supplement the day I graduated from college; I came home and wrote a chapter of “Cyberpirates” in my cap and gown. I founded a gaming convention (JohnCon in Baltimore) when I was 18, which is now in its 16th year (eek!). I once stood on line overnight for the Star Wars re-releases even though I was leaving town the next day and couldn’t see the movie – I just wanted to hang out with the people on line. My five year old confidently uses the term “idle animation,” when discussing her Dora videogames. I brought my son home from the hospital in a “Hero of Ferelden” onesie…

Is that enough?

Do you have any advice for those wishing to get into the video game industry?
If you don’t have a pressing need to make money, do a little time working for tabletop roleplaying games. It’s fairly easy to break in, because they pay peanuts, but you learn a ton about game design from working with dice systems. And since most videogame designers (certainly of RPGs) are huge tabletop game geeks, it’s a great credit to have when applying for jobs. Most people in the tabletop field end up drifting into videogames eventually, since you can live on what they pay you, so you’ll also make contacts who can end up being helpful down the line.

My entry into games came in college when I met my now-husband and was introduced to Vampire and Shadowrun. Having spent my high school years writing and trying to sell short stories, I immediately thought about trying to do some professional writing for RPGs, and by the time we graduated college, Chris Hepler (now a writer on Mass Effect) and I had written several books for Shadowrun, Earthdawn and Paranoia. We then took a detour in Hollywood for a few years, but it was a very natural gravitation back toward games which brought us to GDC to meet Bioware. After six years in Hollywood, when we were still calling “extras” “NPCs,” we figured maybe we were in the wrong field.

If you weren’t working in the industry, what would you be doing?
I guess I’d still be in Hollywood, begging my agent to do whatever it took to land me gig on Game of Thrones (and hopefully working on Phineas and Ferb in the meantime).

What are you currently playing, reading, or listening to?
I have a five-year-old and a one-year-old, so I don’t have much free time. I am currently playing Star Wars: The Old Republic every chance I get and trying to reach Act 2 so I can see what I wrote. I’m also in the middle of Mass Effect 3 and am backseat driving while my husband plays Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Before that, I played some Skyrim (not a fan) and Batman: Arkham City (which I really liked). And I read pretty much anything put in front of me. Right now, I’m re-reading Tad Williams’s Otherland series, which has a whole different feel now that I’ve actually played some MMOs.

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