The folks over at Fantasy Magazine have cranked out a lengthy interview with Dragon Age II designers David Gaider and Heather Rabatich about their roles during the sequel's development, the framed narrative that was used, why video games continue to move toward a more cinematic design, and more. Let's go with a few questions that aren't entirely related to DA2:
During more than ten years at BioWare, David, you have written for some of the most iconic RPGs of the past decade, from Baldur's Gate II to Knights of the Old Republic, Neverwinter Nights, and Dragon Age. What are some of the big lessons you have learned, and what big changes have you seen in the medium, from a storytelling standpoint?
David Gaider: I think the medium is quickly moving toward being far more cinematic than it was which is both good and bad, I think. It's good in that we can show as much as we tell, now. Bad because we suddenly have to show, and less can be left to the imagination . something which, in many ways, we will never be able to compete with. Far be it from me to be a Luddite, however. This is the direction the technology is moving, and hopefully we'll reach a point where creating the cinematics is inexpensive enough that we can branch out as much as we did when it was primarily text we were working with.
As far as lessons learned? There will never be enough content added to make me satisfied, so it's better to be satisfied that what you put in there is good. I remember right before Baldur's Gate II went out just how anxious we were over all the things that were cut and half-finished in the game, and how certain we were that everyone would hate it. Perspective is a good thing.
What is your process for writing non-linear stories with branching plots? Do you start with a single (correct) path, and then fill in the alternate routes?
David Gaider: We can't start with a single path that would be obvious in the end, and in fact we have a number of writers who apply at BioWare who have difficulty with the branching concept. You can drive the narrative to a single point (in fact, it's difficult to do otherwise) but your story has to accommodate different styles of play much the same as a gamemaster would do in a tabletop game. It's about the player's story more than it is about the writer's, or at least you need to get them to the point where they buy into your story as their own. If you write with a single path and protagonist in mind, then those other paths will only ever feel like (extras) and you will lose the narrative thread as soon as the player deviates from the one you intended.
So we have to write the story a little differently. We start off with a (one-pager,) where we establish what the themes will be and how the player's story will go in a very general sense. Then we go through a process of breaking down that story into manageable (chunks) and thinking about it in more detail: What does the player do in that section? What are their options? How are his choices reflected either within that particular section or later on? Once we have the plans detailed and are confident that the pieces fit together in a satisfying manner, that's when we'll start the actual writing.
One of the criticisms often leveled against BioWare RPGs is the amount of talking heads dialogue. In Dragon Age II, dialogue and cutscenes are rendered with dynamic camera angles and lighting, smoke effects, close ups, inserts. How were these sequences crafted?
Heather Rabitach: Our cinematic design and cinematic animation teams are responsible for implementing the more dynamic conversation and cutscene system in DA2. For conversations we wanted to depart from the static (head on) style that you see in most fantasy RPGs as it didn't fit with the more fluid approach we were taking with gameplay. For our more intricate story-driven cutscenes, the cinematic teams approach the scene as a director would and set the stage with (actors) and cameras to set up close ups, panning shots etc. There is a lot of collaboration with animation, tech design, writers, level art and audio teams to ensure that the scene will fit within the vision for the plot. The whole process of how cinematic design and cinematic animation comes together could fill an entire interview unto itself.