Interviewed by Kimberley Ann Sparks
Writer, game designer and cad, Richard Dansky was named one of the Top 20 videogame writers in the world in 2009 by Gamasutra. His work includes bestselling games such as TOM CLANCY’S SPLINTER CELL: CONVICTION, FAR CRY, TOM CLANCY’S RAINBOW SIX: 3, OUTLAND, and SPLINTER CELL: BLACKLIST. His writing has appeared in magazines ranging from The Escapist to Lovecraft Studies, as well as numerous anthologies. The author of the Wellman award-nominated VAPORWARE, he was a major contributor to White Wolf’s World of Darkness setting with credits on over a hundred RPG supplements. Richard lives in North Carolina with his wife, statistician Melinda Thielbar, and their amorphously large collections of books and single malt whiskeys.
I know Richard through the IGDA (International Game Developers Association) Writers Special Interest Group forum, and we first met at the Game Developers Conference. This is a hybrid phone/e-mail interview. It started on the phone, but my recording device broke and I couldn’t record it, so I thought I’d type as we spoke, but that didn’t work out so well. Richard was kind enough to fill in the gaps via e-mail. He’s a swell guy and an awesome writer, whose work I’ve admired for a good long time.
Can you describe what a video game writer does?
What I do is I work on the narrative elements of the game. In a real sense, I create game assets that are made of words. I’ll work on story, developing characters, world-building. I’ll write dialogue and in-game artifacts, such as journal entries, files, radio transmissions, etc. I also write text in menus that aren’t related to story at all for UI (user interface) elements, or I’ll be asked to help name achievements. Whatever’s called for, really.
How did you get started?
It was 1999. A friend of mine, who worked at Red Storm, was a fan of my tabletop gaming writing. I was looking for a new challenge at that time and they needed someone who had a strong narrative background, and so it was a good fit. And I’ve been at Red Storm/Ubisoft ever since.
You have the awesome title of Central Clancy Writer. How did that come about?
Ubisoft bought Red Storm, which had been co-founded by Tom Clancy and which had the rights to Tom Clancy’s games. When Ubi expanded the lineup and production scope, doing games at studios around the world, it was useful to have someone who could serve as a central story and writing resource. And I was in the right place at the right time, with the right skill set.
Did you get to work with Tom Clancy?
I’m sorry to say I only had one direct meeting with him. The thing being, though, that the signifiers of Clancy’s writing are so clear and strong that it’s easy to identify what is Clancy and what is not. We recognize the pillars of the brand and make sure we match them.
How much say do you have in altering the Clancy world?
The Clancy world is set in reality, and you can’t carve reality in stone. You’re going to see the Clancy franchises reflecting what’s going on in the world, and the world changes.
What game are you most proud of and why?
I’ve worked on a lot of games over the years, but I’d have to say I really love what we did with Splinter Cell: Conviction. It had tight storytelling and great narrative that worked well with the gameplay.
You also write novels. Is this something you’ve always wanted to do?
I wrote my first novel when I was at White Wolf, as a tie-in to one of the games I was working on. But I’ve always wanted to tell stories in every medium I could, whether that was games or fiction or LARPing or whatever.
How did you start writing tabletop or roleplaying games (RPGs)?
I started as a tabletop gamer, a game master, and that continued through college where I got into LARPs. One of the folks I LARPed with got a job with White Wolf, and she asked me to write a couple of chapters of a book called “Haunts”, for Wraith: The Oblivion. And that’s where it started.
Can you describe writing RPGs?
Suddenly you go from being a game master for a group and then you’re a game master for all the thousands of people out there – it’s a big change. And when you’re writing in a role like that, you’re really creating possibilities that people can take and run with it. The better the possibilities, the better their experience. And the more possibilities you create by fleshing out the worlds you’re working in, the more places there are for your players to explore.
What games, recent or not, do you think have great writing?
There’s so much good writing in games now. It’s in all aspects of the marketplace, too; AAA blockbusters like The Last of Us and independent games like Thomas Was Alone. There’s great episodic stuff from Telltale Games such as The Wolf Among Us as well as The Walking Dead. Good writing means a good game experience.
Everyone is always trying to compare games to movies or other media. What’s your take on this? Can they be compared?
It’s easy to understand why they’re making comparisons, but games are simply a different medium and so the direct comparisons just don’t quite work. Movies are great at being movies, but games are terrible movies or else they’re terrible games. It happens every time a new medium comes along. As we have more and more people who’ve grown up playing games, the games become part of the cultural context, and this debate is going to die of natural causes.
You write novels and short stories among other things. Can you describe having to switch from one to the other? What’s your process there? Games during the day, novels at night?
There’s a big difference between the two. Game writing is incredibly collaborative. Everything I write touches a dozen people on the team. It touches audio, level design, etc. Before I sit down to write, there’s a lot of discussion and collaboration. I’m giving them what they need to do their jobs, and they’re giving me what I need to do mine, and together we make something. It’s the opposite of what a stereotypical writer does – locking myself in a room, going head down and hammering out words. That’s a solitary process, and the only limit is my imagination. If I write 10,000 orcs come over the hill, boom, all those orcs come over the hill and that’s that. It’s just a very different process, which helps me keep them distinct and productive.
Which genre do you like to write in most?
I default to horror – according to another horror writer I know, it’s maybe because I got beaten up a lot as a kid. But regardless, that seems to be where my voice naturally is. I’ve written in a broad range of styles – fantasy, science fiction, academic papers, book and movie reviews – but if I’m left to my own devices, most of the time what comes out is something I can’t read out loud with a small child in the room.
Have you written any horror games?
In 2005, I wrote Cold Fear, a Ubisoft game set in the Arctic where you’re trapped on board an abandoned ship and oil rig with evil critters. The fun part of writing it was that the hero wanted no part of it and had no interest in being a hero.
Can you tell me a little bit about the current novel you’re working on?
The novel I’m working on right now is a collaborative book with J.C. Hay. It’s a sasquatch private detective novel. The working title is The Big Feet. It starts with a dead fish wrapped in newspaper, which of course is what our detective is having for breakfast, and things sort of go downhill into murder, fraud and wood-knocks from there.
Where do you see the future of game writing?
As game writers, we’re not just writing something. We’re collaboratively creating part of an experience, in conjunction with all the other aspects of the game. Narrative is just one part of that, and that understanding is part of where we’re going.
And as the technology gets better, the more tools we have that let us build stronger, more immersive narratives. We’re getting to a place now where I have more things in my toolbox that I didn’t have even five years ago – good facial expressions on characters, for example. And those let me do things as a writer that I couldn’t before, like let characters’ reactions help tell the story in a way they couldn’t before.
When I started in the industry we basically had giant walls of text to play with, at least in the games I was working on. Now, we’ve gone so far beyond that, and it’s helped writers improve their craft so much.
Any advice for someone interested in pursuing game writing?
It starts with playing games and looking at the choices the writer made for the narrative. Don’t just be a passive player. Think about why every narrative choice was made and what effect it has.
Beyond that, get your hands on a toolkit and use it. See how your words play in a game. There’s a difference between linear writing like fiction and game writing. What looks good on a page may not work with a player playing it. There are so many nuances that occur when you’re playing that are hard to foresee with just the written text that there’s really no substitute for getting it in game. Ultimately, the best way to become a game writer is to write for games, and to talk to the people who are actively doing the job. Go to conferences and become part of that professional community. The things you learn from just being in conversation with them are absolutely invaluable.
Is there a toolkit you would suggest starting with?
I would say start with Twine. It’s easy and accessible. But anything that works to help you start actually making games is the way to go.
Kimberley Ann Sparks is a second year MFA student at UBC who writes for television, film, and video games. She’s currently working on a feature film script and a children’s book, and she teaches Media Writing at Seneca College.