An Interview with Annie VanderMeer Mitsoda – Part III

Here it is, the final part of this three part interview with Annie, from SoZ, Alpha Protocol, NWN2 and Dead State fame.

Inspiration & Craftmanship

What’s the trick in keeping the inspirational mojo flowing?

I wish I could lie and say that desperation and deadlines never play a role, but the truth is, having a milestone approaching at warp speed has at times turned my brain into Hypercreative Panic Mode, and somehow I pull through okay (and irritatingly enough, even though I can hardly remember writing some of the things I did while in that mode, often what I write is way better than my usual stuff…). On the whole, I can offer three solid chunks of advice on this:

ONE – write all the time, about anything. Doesn’t matter if you’ll never use it directly – often it helps to bring something else to fruition. I wrote a large backstory for Finch, one of SoZ’s cohorts, and it never appears anywhere in the game: however, in doing so, I learned a little more about who he was as a person, and how that should appear when he interacts with others. Little bits of information like this can help not only round out a character for future use, but help you break through writing blocks and dead ends by giving you a solid foothold in the structure of their personality to back up to and reexamine.

I should add that this step isn’t just about characters and things you know you want to develop – even things that fall by the wayside can be reborn into alternate roles. Early drafts of SoZ’s cohorts included a fire genasi called Reshoone – she didn’t make the cut for the final cast, but what I’d developed of her sly, charming character was reborn into the tiefling merchant Vadin’ya, whom I ended up liking better anyway.

TWO – that which is good is never gone forever. I’ve seen people seethe about good ideas they had and then somehow lost before they wrote them down, and then they proceed to waste a ton of time vainly attempting to reproduce them. If you’re stuck on something, stop banging your head against it – back up, move on to something else, and if what you had before was really worth keeping, it’ll pull itself back up from the tar pit of your subconscious and start lumbering around again. Don’t let yourself get frustrated. And even when you have good ideas moving along at a decent clip, sometimes a break is not only well-deserved, but the best thing to do to replenish your creative strength.

And that leads me to THREE – find what inspires you. Go actively out there and search for it, and keep it on tap for when you need a little kick in the pants. Find a situation that you think helps you, or somewhere you can think. Find out what works for you, and make it so.

After creating hundreds of characters how do you still find inspiration in creating new and fresh
characters? In IGN’s Alpha Protocol interview one of the designers mentioned you as the writer of the game’s colorful and interesting villains.

That’s kind of them, but as much as I wish I could take credit for AP’s characters, they all sprang from Brian Mitsoda, not I… well, except for one, a Russian information broker named Grigori. I originally conceived of him as the polar opposite of what one thought of as an “informant,” which usually meant a thin and frightened little weasely guy. Instead, I saw Grigori as calm, unflappable, intelligent, and tremendously difficult to impress. I don’t really know who Grigori changed in the second version of the game, but he – and all of Alpha Protocol’s other characters that I was allowed to write – was a lot of fun to work on, and a challenge that I relished.

In broader terms of what inspires me to create characters, I think I actually draw a lot of inspiration from stereotypes… not by deliberately defying them (which tends to draw a lot of attention back to the stereotype itself) but by examining where they came from, and unraveling them to find the far more complicated origin – that’s where the meat is. Like Grigori, who is a reaction against the common stereotype of informant – he’s a thought experiment of “well, what if that informant isn’t a young guy, but a old dude who’s been at this for decades? He’d hardly be a cringing little ferret, wouldn’t he? You talk to this guy to find out about the Russian mob, for crying out loud, and he’s obviously had to deal with KGB and international intelligence agents over the years – he’s got to have learned how to keep his cool!” My favorite writers are those who toy with the player’s conceptions of genre and their expectations of how a story will go – I want to do that with characters, and force a player to look past a character’s face value and try to find out how they’re put together.

Another thing I tend to thrive on is culture, and how the character in question is supposed to react to it. World-building is something I’m kind of obsessed with, and creating characters is just an extension of this larger process. Also, I’m admittedly a poor artist, but ever since I was a kid, I’d sketch as I developed stories, and vice-versa: often a single strong image will push me to create a larger tale for what it is, and it’ll snowball into larger and larger concepts as it goes along.

Do you think it’s important to players to see their character change through dialog options? For
example a more experienced character might be more calm in dire situations while a character who is new to adventuring be more immature and be more rash about his own actions.

While I do agree that it’s important, I do so with two reservations: one, that this change is being communicated correctly to the player, so they understand that their character is in fact changing, and two, that this change never feels like less options are available to them. This goes hand in hand with the expression of “don’t write yourself into a corner,” but it’s adding another layer of complexity not only to the dialogue structure, but the systems within a game. I think a good rule of thumb is that dialogue should never be something that the player is scared to engage in, something where any given moment could screw up everything they’d been trying to build. This comes down to working very hard on establishing a level of meta-communication with the player: basically, that players understand the severity of any given situation particularly well, and decisions they make during it are deliberate. Often I’ve selected a dialogue choice in a game only to be startled and annoyed as to where it takes me – unexpected moments like this make it all the more critical that if a character is growing in the way we decide, that we are actually deciding that direction, instead of just hoping that we are… which reminds me again how passionate people seem to sometimes feel about dialogue skills in games. There’s something comforting about numbers there, and the appeal of something we can grow. Communicating through numbers is simple! Getting that across purely through UI and dialogue itself is a great deal more difficult.

That said – while I enjoy greatly feeling that my character is changing through the course of the game, and I as a player am directly advancing that change purely through the decisions I make, I don’t imagine that any RPG has suffered in sales because of either that system’s inclusion or removal. If you’re going to do it – and again, I really like this system – please do it carefully! Take the time needed to communicate the depth of the player’s decisions to them, so if they decide to be a super jerk, they feel they very consciously made that choice, and the game is reacting to it in kind.

What do you think is a key component in a story, that will keep players moving forward?

I think the key lies in establishing a personal investment with the player – solidly answering the “why should I care?” question, and following up on that with moments where the player feels like they’ve got a growing attachment to something in the game. Maybe this is a player character that has a massive web of dialogue options in most conversations, maybe it’s a linear story that blends so well with the action of the game that the player feels that their efforts are truly needed to progress things, or maybe it’s a landscape that beckons you to interact with it. Stories are vague and flexible things, and are so curious that instead of a blank slate scaring away people who want this investment, perhaps it’s the very potential of this environment that draws them in.

This answer almost feels like cheating – aside from “find a good gameplay hook and flesh the heck out of that sucka,” establishing a personal investment in the player is one of the things a game needs to do. If my presence as a player in the game world doesn’t make a difference, why should I bother playing? Establishing that personal investment can begin with something simple – the ability to design the look of a character, for example – but that connection is just planting the seed, and keeping it requires maintenance: new abilities, new choices, new challenges, higher scores, new characters, new knowledge. I’m not going to go totally up my own butt here with concepts about ludology and theories of play, but to me, games seem to be about beginning and maintaining a process of growth – this has a lot in common with traditional story structure, but has access to a lot more tools to keep that connection with the player even when the narrative has perhaps stalled a bit.

I kind of enjoy this concept in operation as it appears in Persona 4: a mystery embroils the plot of the game, but there’s still the day-to-day life of the player character, and the decisions they make about what to do with their time and who they want to hang out with. The plot itself isn’t changing, but you’re still invested in the world of the game – studying improves your Knowledge, talking to someone improves your relationship, and a little bit of grinding in the “dungeon” area grows your level. Conversely, while I was extremely curious about the complex plot of Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter, the fact that you actually had to restart the game multiple times to see that plot and help grow your character’s skills left me with less and less of a sense of impact – I was seeing more of the story, but feeling increasingly detached from the world in which it existed.

As a side note, I think that a sense of personal involvement in MMOs often runs into a number of issues that end up turning many people off from the genre. Seeing someone who might have a character that looks precisely like yours undergoing the exact same experience is something that can be entirely shattering to the other elements of that personal connection the game has been trying so hard to build, and the persistent nature of the worlds therein make it difficult for the player to leave a lasting impression of their personality on anything. Who they feel their character is either gets moved into the realm of the meta – an identity that one builds entirely independent of the game itself in order to prolong their interest in it – or persists in the purely physical, i.e. their phat loots. The former can actually enter into conflict with the story that the game itself is attempting to establish, while the latter can outpace the player seeking it with frustrating ease. Two years ago I was somewhat doubtful as to the ability of MMOs to break that pattern, but now I’m positive they’re going to, and I’m tremendously excited to be a part of that.

What games are good examples of good writing in your opinion?

I really enjoyed Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, Persona 3 and 4, Portal, Red Dead Redemption, and – despite its ridiculousness and tongue-in-cheek ultra-thug pastiche – I did very much enjoy Saints Row 2. In a more old-school vein, I still love Fallout, System Shock 2, and old LucasArts adventure games like Sam & Max: Hit the Road and The Dig (and their descendant via Double Fine, Psychonauts). Overall, I appreciate humorous writing more than serious writing because I think it’s much harder to get right: humor has to sound natural or the joke comes off as false, goofy, and flat.

In your experience do you think players enjoy getting a reward or accomplishing something more meaningful inside the story?

I hate to say it, but by and large, I think players want that reward – as a writer and a gamer myself I would want to experience the something meaningful, but as a designer and someone who knows the average gamer mentality, I know a lot of folks couldn’t care less about the story and just want to go back to smacking stuff around. Even if RPGs really don’t cater specifically to that gamer type, they do exist… and bear in mind as well that even story-loving players don’t mind getting some cool loot now and then, even if their goal isn’t the loot itself but the idea that it might have some influence on the rest of the game (RE: that “personal investment” stuff I mentioned).

Ideally speaking, I think meaningful story elements and rewards work best when they’re paired. Take Persona 4 for example: Social Links are connections with other people that are linked to a specific Tarot suit, which influence the types of Persona related to that suit. However, Social Links are advanced not through fighting, but through interacting with other characters who are associated with that Link. Advancing a friendship with another character and helping them out with their problems grows their connection with the main character – just as in real life – and that Social Link grows in strength. The interesting thing about the Persona series isn’t just that it has some super rad creatures in it, but that your success in the game is directly connected to how much you go out of your way to interact with and care for other characters in the game. The game pushes you to care because of gameplay mechanics, sure – but it’s well-written enough that you’re motivated to pursue Social Links more because you want to see what happens with that relationship almost as much as getting that powerful new Persona. That is the kind of success with writing and game design that I think more titles should aspire to.

What’s important to have in mind when writing Quests?

Not to sound too mercenary about this, but the key thing to have in mind is practicality. For example – while introducing an entirely new combat mechanic for a quest might be interesting, it’s going to be tremendously difficult (if not impossible) to get finished, and players may well actually be upset that it discards the very systems that they’ve worked so hard to get good at. It’s not about thinking small, it’s about thinking ahead, and being aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the tools at your disposal. New systems need to be tested, then taught to the player, then (ideally) supported throughout the game. Knowing those needs ahead of time will save you a lot of frustration and scrambling later on, and allow you to figure out new and creative ways of using what you’ve got.

Second to this is organization. It’s easy to talk about the flow of quests in terms of ideas and vagaries, but actually sketching out ideas not only saves you a great deal of implementation time later, it lets you conceptualize a much greater structure for how quests intersect with one another. And – well – it lets you know at a glance how difficult it is to actually parse what the player should be doing at any given step of the quest, and how to avoid the confusing curse phrase of “designer logic” that can plague any complicated-but-well-intentioned quest idea.

Once you know what your tools can do and what’s necessary to get a quest functional, you can proceed on to those more “B Priority” issues that will elevate a quest from interesting into truly memorable.

So when is Dead State coming out?

When it’s ready! 😉

I’d like to thank Annie over at DoubleBear for this engrossing, exciting and incredibly awesome interview. Thanks!

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