An Interview with Annie VanderMeer Mitsoda

Welcome to the first part of a three part interview with game writer Annie VanderMeer Mitsoda. You may know her for her work in Neverwinter Nights 2 – Storm of Zehir and Alpha Protocol, both developed by Obsidian Entertainment and published by Atari and SEGA respectively.

Tools

When you wrote for Obsidian, did you work with any sort of development tools? If so, which ones? And did you find them limiting your work? Or did you simply write a regular word document and sent it over to the programmers?

It depended on the project. For Alpha Protocol, Brian Mitsoda and I would talk about what a particular dialogue needed to accomplish, chart the basic flow out on a whiteboard, then write the actual conversation in a normal Word file. From there, I’d put it into a Word dialogue template specially-made by our lead programmer, which could get run through a special program to transfer the lines into Unreal 3’s Matinee format. For Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir, everything was done in NWN2’s toolset – the only things done outside of it were the actual in-depth coding and model creation. Designers basically hung out in the toolset constantly – it was pretty much our one-stop-shop for all the development items we needed.

A quick note on tools: I’ve worked with several different types now, and I’d say that their suitability really depends on what the writer is trying to achieve. The NWN2 toolset’s tree dialogue formatting was pretty easy to use, but Brian and I didn’t really need very complicated tools when working on Alpha Protocol because the dialogue branching worked out in an entirely different way.

A quick note on tools: I’ve worked with several different types now, and I’d say that their suitability really depends on what the writer is trying to achieve.

How do you organize a thick web of dialog consequences? I imagine that organizing all those stat checks and branching dialog trees must be nerve wracking.

Absolutely! Writing for RPGs with a extensive amount of player choice involves a lot of careful organization, which is one of those things that doesn’t seem like a big deal until you really realize how massive an amount of text your average RPG deals with. One thing we did for AP – that I would recommend to anyone working on dialogue – is we charted out the direction the conversation would take ahead of time. Brian and I would meet up and talk about what each scene was about, what it was trying to achieve, and what the player would want to ask. From there, we distilled the direction of the dialogue into a node structure, and went from there. Tree dialogues – like in SoZ – had a structure that was way more difficult to work out ahead of time, but even jotted notes and charts on notebook paper helped me keep stuff in order.

Aside from the scripting side of setting up dialogues (which I would recommend keeping track of via Excel – I carefully tracked the state of completion for every single dialogue in SoZ that way), I recommend sketching out bare-boned outlines, adding in interesting elements in a quick edit, and then actually attempting to do a solid first pass for readability. Once you’ve got that, try to take a longer view of what you’re trying to do – the flow of the dialogue in the mission, the area, etc. – and run a second pass. Ideally, once you’re on the third, you’ve got the tone of the entire game in mind.

Once you’ve got that, try to take a longer view of what you’re trying to do – the flow of the dialogue in the mission, the area, etc. – and run a second pass.

Do you have any idea how your dialog is converted into the code and then read by the game? Did you mostly use NWN2’s own toolset for Storm of Zehir?

For SoZ, it was only made using the toolset. For AP, it was via a template macro within Word that basically allowed the dialogue to run through our face modeling program (to get the lip-flap right), find and hook up the VO files, and basically put things into pre-made scenes for Matinee. That’s about all I know, regrettably: I’m not familiar on the particulars of the conversion, especially for Unreal 3 – the macro was a necessity since the engine wasn’t originally made for RPGs, and required some retooling for the game mechanics to work properly. The NWN2 toolset was built from the ground-up to make dialogues very easy to create , so that was a lot handier for making quick changes and check them out in the game.

That’s it for the first part, check back tomorrow for more!

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3 thoughts on “An Interview with Annie VanderMeer Mitsoda

  1. Please bold or otherwise differentiate the questions from the answers. Right now it is very easy to for the readers’ eyes to slip and see one large wall of text instead of the questions and answers. From a usability standpoint, this would allow the reader to browse the questions to see what answers they are really interested in. Otherwise, they might end up like me and decided to not read any of it, but maybe that’s just me.

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