Gamasutra recently caught up with BioWare's David Gaider for a three-page, article-style interview about the writing process that was used for Dragon Age II and the narrative decisions that the team made along the way. A generous sampling:
It was Laidlaw who first proposed the new game concept. His idea was this: instead of telling a linear, he suggested they modify the structure on a high level and jump between the major moments of a character's life. Instead of telling a story over a short span of time in a wide open world, they would set the game within a single city, and jump through an epic ten-year period. This would be accomplished with the help of a framing device, allowing for the time jumps to be implemented as flashbacks.
"[The new approach] definitely allowed us some unique opportunities," Gaider says. "Sometimes the lack of an ability to hand-wave time passing means we end up with a lot of events happening in an unrealistically short span, or repercussions for a player's actions that either need to occur instantly or be relegated to the epilogue. So this offered us the chance to give a sense of greater scope."
However, there were also unknowns. What would it feel like to play a game where you don't see time's gradual passage? Would jumping through time break narrative unity and pull the player out of the story? And how would this work from an implementation standpoint? Would creative resources get bogged down trying to account for the long-term impact of minor decisions that the player made five years ago in game time?
These questions began to work themselves out as the process unfolded. In some ways, the new concept worked just as planned. But in others, the team found that certain RPG elements emerged naturally, as a function of the genre, rather than as a matter of tradition. The game ultimately came to reflect a blend of these ideas the concept as it was originally envisioned, and the actual limitations revealed by the writing process.
Writing a game like this is a top-down process. "We start with what we call a one-pager," explains Gaider, "which lays out the flow of the plot in general, and then slowly begin expanding on that in more and more detail. We end up with a very detailed overview, break it up into segments, and split the work among writers who in turn break up those segments into workable sections. Any required assets (such as a codex or a description) will be identified as the work is ongoing, and eventually all this information simply accumulates."
Every plot line whether it's the spine, a particular chapter, or a subplot has what Gaider calls its own "narrative overview." The overview lists all the beats for that section of story, including the choices involved, the gameplay elements, and the resources needed along with the required budget. Once approved, the narrative overview serves as a blueprint that can be shared by writers, combat designers, level artists, and so on.
"The trick is to keep track of it all," says Gaider. "We have a wiki on our internal network that houses our accumulated lore, and our in-house editors devote a fair amount of time to trying to keep it all organized and searchable. You get a lot of outdated legacy information in there, which can make it a real challenge to keep up-to-date as things inevitably change over time."