Richard Dansky: Game Writing and Tom Clancy

Red Storm's Central Clancy Writer takes espionage and intrigue from the page to the player.

 

"Ghost Recon: Future Soldier" Copyright Red Storm Entertainment/UbisoftGhost Recon: Future Soldier” Copyright Red Storm Entertainment/UbisoftThis past October, thriller writer Tom Clancy died at age 66, leaving us a legacy of best-selling novels, film adaptations, and game spinoffs. Even with the novelist’s passing, Richard Dansky will continue that legacy. Dansky is the Central Clancy Writer at Red Storm/Ubisoft, the game studio co-founded by Clancy that’s charged with developing many of the author’s games. Since its inception in 1996, Red Storm has produced nearly 20 Clancy titles including the top-selling Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon, and Splinter Cell series and garnered game of the year accolades from both IGN and PC Gamer.

For Dansky, Clancy’s death means maintaining the author’s voice without gaining any new reference material. That shouldn’t be a problem, he says. A prolific writer himself, Dansky was already a published novelist and contributed to more than 100 tabletop role-playing game projects before moving over to Red Storm in 1999. Since then, he and the rest of the Red Storm team have been continually expanding Clancy’s universe and characters with minimal input from the author himself.

Get In Media: You have stated in previous interviews that the structure of a Tom Clancy novel has evolved. How so and how has that affected your job?

Richard Dansky: A lot of it really is technology-driven. When I first started, we were very much limited in what we could do in terms of storytelling in a mission. You would get a briefing at the start of a mission that would tell the story of why you were there and what to do and then you’d go in and you’d play the mission. Whatever narrative was there was emerging from the way you’d play it and the mission design, and then you’d get a little text after the mission saying, “OK, you did this. Great job. Here’s what happened. Here’s where you’re going next.”

Richard DanskyRichard DanskyIf you look at games that are being made today, we have so much more power to play with in terms of animation, in terms of how big and how detailed we can make our level spaces, in terms of the actions that player characters can take, in terms of all the tools that somebody who wants to do storytelling can use. What that has done has really integrated storytelling and writing with the moment-to-moment gameplay that was, in a lot of ways, impossible before. As a player, I love it. As a writer, it’s an incredible challenge and also mandates tighter collaboration with folks like level design because your work is impacting theirs and their work is impacting yours, literally second by second. A line of dialogue, it has to be the right length, it has to be placed at the right spot in the mission, it can’t overlap with what the player wants to do or if they want to run off and get in combat, things like that. …

GIM: When you’re creating a game that is a spinoff of another author’s work, how much of a say do you have in things like character development and storyline?

RD: It’s great to be involved in the process of helping to set [storylines] up and iterating on the ideas and finding the story that everybody wants to tell. At the same time, you can’t do that unless you know what sort of features the game intends to be showing off. You can’t do that unless you know the parameters in terms of how many missions, how big the spaces are going to be. Until you know what the game is going to be, you can’t make a story that will work well with it.

I’m a big fan of sitting down with folks on the technical side, with artists, with designers, with creative directors, with sound guys, with everybody who’s involved in the project and getting a consensus for the sort of story that can be told that meets all of their needs and meets the game’s needs. … I’ve never been a big fan of the story versus gameplay dichotomy. I think story and gameplay are both elements of the player experience and a story that’s developed independent of gameplay isn’t going to help that experience. Story and gameplay should both help make the player’s experience better. If the story gets created in a vacuum, it’s not going to be a perfect, seamless mesh with what the player is doing moment to moment. …

GIM: Do you pay attention to feedback from players?

RD: You always want to see what people are enjoying and what they’re not enjoying and what they’re getting and what they’re not getting, what elements worked and what elements didn’t. That’s absolutely vital. You want to write for yourself, that’s great, but making video games that have giant themes and that are mass productions, you’re not making that story for yourself. You’re making it for the players and obviously you want to give them the best experience possible. You owe it to yourself and to your teammates, as well as to the fans, to listen to feedback on what you did so you can do it better next time, so you can make the experience more enjoyable, more seamless, more immersive, and more interesting for the player.

GIM: You mention Susan O’Connor on your site as being particularly influential to game writing. When I interviewed her, she said that one of her big frustrations is that the gaming industry is a story-optional one. Is that a frustration that you experience?

RD: I think every game has an appropriate level of narrative. For example, let’s say Tetris. You need very, very little narrative for Tetris, but it’s a great game. … I don’t think a game like Tetris would have been immensely improved by a deep backstory. It had just enough to keep you interested and amused and going and doing what you wanted to do.

I think where we run into problems is people not understanding story as part of the player experience. They view it as something separate that can be added or layered on top. This phrase “narrative wrapper” is one that gets used a lot. It drives me absolutely nuts. A wrapper is a thing you put around the good stuff and you throw it away later. I’ve always felt that narrative is something that is integral to the experience. I think we need to be careful that we don’t try one-size-fits-all solutions. Some games benefit from more narrative. Some games benefit from less. Some games benefit from different presentation of the narrative that they already have. I think as we move toward narrative as something that is key to the player experience, a lot of those frustrations I think will be ameliorated.

GIM: For a student who wants to move into game writing, what do you recommend doing to master that branching dialogue and the structure of game writing?

RD: Understand that the avatar is not the hero of any game story. The player is the hero of any game story. As game writers, we work to what I call the player-shaped hole in the narrative. It’s the possibility space of anything a player can do at any given moment and it is absolutely vital to remember at any time that it is the player’s story, not the writer’s.

In terms of practical work, I highly recommend playing games that have a reputation for good narrative and dissecting them. Think about why certain decisions were made. Why this line here? Why did they use that system? Why did they go with tape recordings in BioShock instead of giving you things to read? All of the decisions about narrative, think about them as you encounter them and be prepared to give your own ideas as to why you think those decisions were made.

I highly recommend getting your hands dirty and getting your writing into a game somewhere. There is building something simple yourself or collaborating with a team or finding a toolset and building something with that. Seeing how your words actually play in a game is incredibly vital. It’s a world of difference from the way they look on the page and just the experience, not to mention the portfolio-building, that comes out of actually having your words in a game.

GIM: Are there any games in particular that you would recommend for analyzing story?

RD: There are so many games that have wonderful storytelling and some of them have tremendous amounts of writing like the Mass Effect series, the classics like Grim Fandango, Planescape Torment. You look at stories that have very little formal writings, things like Papers Please or Gone Home or Limbo or Journey. All those have wonderful narrative and they make very, very different decisions but there’s something I think can be learned from all of them.

GIM: Do you have any goals in terms of how much you write per day? For you, what defines a productive day?

RD: I think it’s easy to trap yourself with “OK, I’m going to do this many words per day.”… When I first started, literally my first week at Red Storm, I sat down with my friend Dave Weinstein, who encouraged me to apply for the job, and he said, “How did your first week go?” I said, “Terrible. I’m not producing anything. I only wrote 16,000 words of design docs this week.” He sort of looked at me and his eyes bugged out. He said, “I think you’ll be alright,” because I was still coming at it from the tabletop point of view where you need to make X word count to fill out the book.

[Now] it’s all a question of what’s the deliverable in front of me. There are days when getting two sentences down on a page is sufficient if those two sentences are the right two sentences that will allow me to [move] forward and wrap something up on the next day. If it’s a day of false starts and stops and woops, got to erase this but it was worth looking down that particular blind alley, but now let’s get rid of it, that happens. What matters is keeping your eye on what the ultimate goals are and making sure you hit all the stops along the way and in a fashion that allows you to do your job and the people who are depending upon you for the stuff that you’re writing to do their jobs.

GIM: For students who are trying to follow in your career footsteps, what do you recommend education-wise to break into game writing?

RD: What I recommend in terms of learning is a little bit of everything. If you’re going to be a game writer, you don’t necessarily have to how know to code, you don’t necessarily have to know how to do a 3-D model, but it helps if you’re familiar with the language of those skills so you can talk to people who are doing those jobs professionally. You will need to talk to those people. You will need to talk to them all the way through the project.

Learn how to write. Learn how to write technical documents as well as creative writing. Look at different types of writing. Learn how to do scriptwriting and writing for the stage and role-building and broaden your palate of technical skills in your field of writing. Get a good background in other subjects that you will need to bring to the table when you are doing your writing, a little bit of history, a little bit of statistics and math, things like that so you can write well about anything that you are asked to write about or you can at least fake it until you can get to do your own research.

The other side of it is make games however you can in addition to the formal education. Get to a place where you can make games, build your portfolio, and demonstrate that you want to write for games, that you are not a frustrated novelist or a frustrated comic book writer that’s going to settle for games, that you are somebody who’s genuinely interested in this field and really wants to do game writing. That means working with people that make games. That means demonstrating that you want to do all of the game writing, not just the cool bits, the cut scenes, but the 20 variations on “Argh! He shot me!” that you’re going to need over and over again and that you understand what the job actually is and what it requires of you as opposed to the less realistic but perhaps more optimistic portrayal you might see somewhere else.

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