Writing a Novel, p1

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Part 1 of 3, by David Gaider

I am rather fond of the word “dubious”.

When you’re going through every single spoken line of a very large game and writing instructions for how the voice actor is meant to speak that line, sometimes you have to get a little creative. It isn’t enough that someone act simply “angry” or “sad”… the actors require some nuance, some context. They need to know if their character believes what they’re saying, or if they like the person they’re talking to, or if they’re muttering something to themselves as opposed to shouting out to a crowd of hundreds. In game writing you learn very quickly that you need to communicate with exact language for this purpose, lest the audio director get tired of compensating for your lazy butt and starts having everyone read their lines as if they’re onto their third Prozac of the afternoon.

Me, I like “dubious”. It’s an uncommon enough word that the actor reads it and is still puzzling out its exact meaning as he reads his first take. Hence the slight confusion in his voice and voila! Very dubious.

It also helps break up the endless string of “sarcastic” notations I am forced to write, until finally I am faced with the self-realization that some of my characters really need to mix it up a little. One of my tech designers commented to me the other day that a character I wrote was really sarcastic.

“She’s supposed to be sexy,” he said, “but really she’s just sarcastic. Everything she says is pure sarcasm. Was that on purpose?”

“Maybe,” I said dubiously, suddenly wondering if “dubious” meant what I thought it did. I am easily distracted, it appears. “Thanks for your amazing insight,” I replied. “I’ll be sure to run future characters I run by you for a quick check, just to be safe.” I was bitter inside, however. I think he saw through me.

Dubious was also how I felt when the prospect of writing the Dragon Age novel came up. (See what I did there? Nifty, huh?) As I have said many times on our forums, writing prose is not the same as writing for a game. Unless you’re writing Planescape: Torment (here we pause for a moment as I place hand over heart and sigh, ever so regretfully) you just aren’t going to have access to narrative. You’re not going to be able to peek inside the protagonist’s head. Even then, games require that the story be flexible. Even if you know exactly who your protagonist is, you’re not always going to be able to control where he is at what time. You don’t know the order in which he’ll experience events. Most of all you don’t know what his reaction to those events will be.

Not that this is a deal-breaker, per se. It’s just that writing for one or the other involves a very different skill set. You can be an excellent author and yet never quite wrap your brain around the multiple paths required for branching dialogue. It’s true! It might be odd but I’ve always found one of the best qualifications for a game writer is someone who’s spent lots of time as a tabletop gamemaster. You think on your feet, and learn to accommodate the player while simultaneously guiding them. Too far in either direction, however, and you’re screwed.

Yet I digress. I’ve always thought that the reverse must also be true: having lots of experience writing games is probably not going to make you a better prose writer. So the fact that I’ve written games for almost ten years, now, hardly made me qualified to write a novel (aside from those early High School attempts which are better off staying in the drawer where they are currently collecting dust).

But Dragon Age was my baby. I was the one who first formed the world. With direction, sure, but beyond that it was my vision. My footprints are everywhere. I’ve watched it grow, cringed as other hands touched it and tweaked it and sometimes I was even amazed as something I’d barely considered had life breathed into it and became something better than I’d ever hoped it could be. But suddenly there was the suggestion that maybe someone could write a novel, something that for many would be their first look at that world, their first dip into the dark and epic swimming pool that is Dragon Age.

What would you do? I said give me that bad boy and clutched my baby to my chest like an overprotective gorilla. Or so I’m told. I wasn’t to become truly dubious, however, until – rather like changing one’s first diaper – I began to consider just what this baby was about to get me into.

David Gaider wisely prepared for a career in the games industry by first suffering from terminal boredom as a hotel manager. During that time he gamed as much with his friends as he could, and that paid off with a sweet little job writing for a company he’d never heard of before on a sequel to a computer game he’d never played. “It’ll last a few years, I guess,” he thought. Nine years later he is still at the same company, working as the Lead Writer on Dragon Age: Origins. Who knew?

Author: BioWare Community Team

BioWare Community