Pixel Shrink: Game Writer Susan O'Connor

In the "story-optional" world of gaming, digital wordsmith Susan O'Connor says that her job is just as much about understanding how players emotionally engage as it is executing the lead developer's ultimate vision of the game.


User-friendly gameplay draws players in, but a compelling storyline is what keeps them engaged with the game’s universe. That’s where Susan O’Connor thrives. A freelance game writer who’s crafted storylines for the BioShock series, Far Cry 2, Blacksite: Area 51, Finding Nemo, and the new Tomb Raider reboot, O’Connor says that her job is a constant battle to provide players with an engaging plot that excites them in a way that seamlessly integrates with gameplay.

O’Connor’s action-adventure portfolio is a literal far cry from the first games she worked on. Graduating with a degree in art history, O’Connor joined business-networking groups for women as a way to figure out whom in Austin, Texas was hiring writers and what kind of writing work was available. Eventually she stumbled across a small studio that was producing a slumber party video game for girls.

All these people applied for this job, but I was the only woman who applied which meant that I was the only one who knew anything about slumber parties,” she says. “That’s how I got the job.”

As game writing evolves and begins to blend genres and test traditional storytelling conventions, O’Connor says that her job also involves understanding player psychology.

I think a good game writer has an instinctual feel for what gamers feel when they’re playing the game and can create a story that amplifies or resonates with that emotional experience,” she says.

Get In Media: What’s the scope of your job?

Susan O’Connor: In a nutshell, I’d say it’s my job to collaborate with a team to give them whatever support they need to tell the story they want to tell. There are basically four stages that I think every project has: You have story, narrative design, script, and story testing. Story is exactly what you think. A story for a video game, on some level, has to work as a standalone. If it’s a dumb story on paper, it’s probably going to be a dumb story in a game. That’s not to say that it has to be as compelling as a book, but on some level it has to be compelling. That’s all the foundational work and then the narrative design part, which is kind of taking over the whole length of the project, is how you marry story and gameplay together. How is the player going to experience the story through the mechanics and the action in the world? And then of course script is obvious—writing the words on the page. A lot of studios historically thought that’s when you need a writer in. Once you need dialogue, it’s time to call a writer, which is crazy. It’s challenging when clients call you at that late date because so many important decisions have already been made.

“My friend calls this a ‘story-optional medium.’ Games don’t need stories. If you choose to put a story in there, then it becomes important, but it’s story-optional, gameplay-dependent.”

Story testing, of course, is what happens when rubber meets the road and it’s all put together. Another part of my job is dealing with disaster because a lot of times, once the story and the game play come together at the same time, all the problems that are lurking suddenly become glaringly obvious. The story is stupid. The story doesn’t make any sense. The story doesn’t mesh gameplay. Sometimes I’ll come in to do a freak-out triage to make some last minute changes to make the story work as well as we can.

GIM: How long is a typical video game script?

SO: It really depends on how the story is told in the level. How much in-game storytelling is happening?  How much of the story is just cinematics? It can really range. It can be anywhere from ten to 50 pages.

GIM: In previous interviews, you’ve discussed how storytelling is something that players really connect to, but they also hate because nobody wants to sit through a cinematic or lengthy dialogue. For you, how much of the desires of the players factor in versus the desires of the developers?

SO: Game developers are gamers themselves, so you can sort of meet them on that level. What’s going to be fun about this [game]? What do you want the player to feel here? What’s the experience going to be like? What happened before this? What’s going to happen after this? If we’re doing a model where it’s like gameplay-cinematic-gameplay-cinematic, in that gameplay that just happened, we’re interested in what did the player learn? How did the characters grow and did they grow? What kinds of skills did they master?

A lot of times the story and the game play don’t come together until super late because cinematic production takes forever and it’s just hard to put them together. It really relies on the overactive imagination of the creative director and the lead designer. It’s my job as a writer to really support that vision as it’s coming together and be flexible. I’ve definitely made the mistake in the past of sticking to my guns too much as a writer and it’s really counterproductive because my job is to support them. My friend calls this a “story-optional medium.” Games don’t need stories. If you choose to put a story in there, then it becomes important, but it’s story-optional, gameplay-dependent. I have to learn how to be smart enough to create a story that can change as game design changes without falling apart. Those are some lessons that I’ve learned the hard way, but the ones you learn the hard way are the ones you don’t forget.

GIM: You’ve stated that one of the challenges for video game writers is learning to talk to people who aren’t writers in a way that makes them understand what your job is and what you do. Are there any tricks that you use for doing that?

SO: One of the things I try to do is to figure out where [the designer and my] common ground is. That’s my first thing. What are you and I both interested in? One of the ways that I have found common ground with game developers is that we both want to connect with the player. We both want to create experiences that engage the player emotionally because a fun game is an emotional experience. If I’m not sure where our common ground is, I spend some time in the very beginning of a project talking to the lead about what’s important to them. What are your goals with this game? It’s kind of a business conversation. Is this the game that’s going to score 90 on Metacritic? Is this the game that’s going to sell ten million units? Or is this the game that’s your personal statement on games? People have creative goals for projects and knowing those creative goals help me to know where to start.

“The best way I think to get a job, whether you’re starting or you’re super experienced, is you’ve got to be able to let people know how you can help them.”

Let’s say, for example, we want this game to be the one that sells ten million units. I’m like, “Ok, that’s blockbuster, mass market stuff,” so I spend a lot of time looking at what other projects have done well. In terms of story, it’s very helpful to look at other examples because then it’s very concrete and specific and [designers are] like, “Oh I see what you mean.” If I just talk in the abstract, they kind of glaze over. If I’m like “Call of Duty does this,” they’re interested. I think that having good examples is the way to go and that’s one advantage that people coming out of school are going to have, they’ve played lots of games. Once you’re out of college and once you go to work 60 hours a week, the game playing time gets cut way down. That’s one thing that even someone brand new can bring. If I were applying now, I’d be like, “I have finished all of these games. I can talk to you about all of them.”

GIM: Would you put that on your resume?

SO: Yes! I totally would. I would, I would, I would. Not just that I’ve played them, but that I can say something intelligent about them. People play games, but if you play them with a critical, game developer’s eye, it would be so helpful for you to be able to share your input about what you saw. “Oh my God, I’ve been playing [insert game title here] and I think it’s genius about story and here’s why.” Game developers are really busy. They don’t have time to play games much less finish games.

GIM: What else would you recommend for someone who wants to move into game writing?

SO: Start networking and start writing. In terms of networking, I would start volunteering at game events that are happening in your city or wherever you are. You can do plenty of networking online by joining forums and stuff, but usually you’re probably going to find people like you who are just getting out of school. What you want to do is find people who are super busy. Those are the ones who are working and who can hire you. Where do busy professionals go? They go maybe to that one event per month. That [International Game Developer’s Association] thing. They’ll go to game mixers. They’ll go to conferences for sure and volunteering is a great way to go to these conferences without paying for it. I think getting face to face with people is the most important thing because people want to work with people they like and it’s hard for people to get a sense of you until they see you and talk to you. I would really network my butt off.

In terms of how do you get a good game writing sample, that’s a tough challenge. The way I would suggest doing it is I would take your favorite game, ideally it’s one that’s pretty well known either because it sold a million copies or it’s critically acclaimed or whatever, and I would write two things. One, I would write a review of it that focuses specifically on the story and explain to us why it worked or what didn’t work about it. Do a critical review of it, like a book report, and then I would play game writer. I would look at my favorite game and I would imagine that there was a level that had been cut. Every game in the world has had levels cut so for sure there’s at least one missing level. I would imagine that level and I would write a script for that missing level. What’s great about that is, if the person who you’re applying for a job for has played this game, they have a point of reference and you don’t have to explain the characters. You don’t have to set the tone to get all of that stuff and you can show what you can do as a writer, how you would advance the story. 

GIM: How long would you suggest the writing sample be?

SO: I would shoot for ten [pages] and then if you’re done after five, what you could do is say, “Hey, here’s a writing sample. If you want more, let me know.” Then if they want more, you’ve already thought through creatively what you want to do with that level and you can add onto it.

GIM: How do you market yourself?

SO: The best way I think to get a job, whether you’re starting or you’re super experienced, is you’ve got to be able to let people know how you can help them. It’s not really about what they can do for you, it’s the other way around. So for example, if you love a studio because you love their games, you research them and you find someone who knows someone, you get a friend to make an introduction, and you let them know what it is specifically you like about them. You don’t just say, “Hey, it was cool.” You really try and tell them how your interests and their needs align. Do some research about where that studio is headed and what they might need in the future.

I don’t know, let’s say a studio made a game and you loved it and it was an action-adventure and you knew that their next project was going to be more of a horror game. If you were lucky enough to have a friend who could make an introduction there or somehow through LinkedIn or a website or whatever you make contact with them, I would emphasize that. “Hi. I loved your last game because I thought the character development was amazing. I see that you’ve got a horror project. That’s actually my personal specialty. I’ve spent a lot of time studying how horror stories work and the structure of them…” Help them think how you could be helpful to them.


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