GDC 07: Gears writer offers tips, tricks

Gears of War presented as a model on an effective, nonintrusive, and compelling story.

Susan O'Connor offers up wisdom for writers looking to emulate Gears of War.

SAN FRANCISCO--At a GDC session targeted at writers and developers today, Epic Games' Susan O'Connor drew on her own experience to offer suggestions on how to synthesize narrative and gameplay cleverly and effectively. With games like Gears of War and BioShock on her resume, the audience sat in rapt attention, hoping to learn how to leverage O'Connor's experience to the success of their own games.

O'Connor first articulated the challenges facing storytellers in the video game industry. "There's only one Marcus Fenix [the protagonist of Gears of War]," she said, "but there are three million guys playing Fenix. So you've got one hero but three million faces." The logically minded thinking of game designers, she added, is often in opposition to the truth of a story, pitting writers against developers when it comes to trimming down story content. "Logic and truth are not the same thing," O'Connor asserted, arguing that human behavior is far from logical.

So how can storytellers successfully connect with such a wide array of players and not hinder gameplay? O'Connor had three primary suggestions: mirror neurons, backstage storytelling, and the use of a throughline.

O'Connor briefly described the study that led to the discovery of mirror neurons: Monkeys were presented a pile of peanuts, and scientists noted that certain neurons that fired when the monkeys reached for the peanut also fired when someone else reached for the peanut. The relevance to game writers? Mirror neurons help players feel as if what is happening to their avatar is also happening to them.

Accordingly, O'Connor suggested, game narratives should be designed such that the player and the avatar want the same thing; the player experience and the avatar experience should match as closely as possible. For example, a noninteractive cutscene in Gears of War depicts one of Fenix's teammates being killed by an enemy boss, but Fenix is separated from his comrade by a large fire and is unable to help, being forced to defend himself from an enemy onslaught. O'Connor suggested that players might feel frustrated at their inability to interact and help, just like Fenix. Said O'Connor, "If the story mirrors the player's experience, then the story amplifies the gameplay."

But O'Connor also cited the unfortunate fact that story can hinder gameplay if the player is assaulted with narrative. She then presented her concept of backstage storytelling--telling the story in the background, in small, bite-sized chunks, early and often. The underlying idea is that the story should be told around the player, rather than to him or her. Gears of War did this effectively by communicating the majority of the narrative through fragmented radio chatter during gameplay.

Engaging in backstage storytelling, she said, renders the narrative much more portable and flexible in the likely event of game design changes, especially if the narrative is tied only minimally to the gameplay. With the story's development parallel to the gameplay, the player is less subject to extended bouts of noninteractivity (which many players find insufferable), and the story is allowed to build more naturally.

The last tool that O'Connor described as indispensable for effective storytelling is a throughline--what the story is really about, at its core. "The throughline is your story's engine," she said. "It's what pushes your story forward." She used a new favorite film of hers, Children of Men, as an example: Though its plot is about a dystopian future where humans are unable to reproduce, the throughline is a man's transformation from despair to hope. (O'Connor conceded that Gears of War didn't effectively define a throughline.) In a broader context of game design, throughlines can help the writing team maintain focus and help them make informed decisions about drafts and edits.

At its core, O'Connor's session seemed to suggest that the effectiveness of using mirror neurons, backstage storytelling, and throughlines indicates that the principles of good storytelling align perfectly with game-design practices in general. As conceptual as well as analytical tools, they can offer closer connections with players, fewer script revisions, flexibility in the face of fundamental changes to a game's design, and a strong narrative foundation for franchises.

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Discussion

136 comments
sailingmanuel
sailingmanuel

What story in GOW? I played it two times through and I did not catch any story.

artiebillymac
artiebillymac

BigDaveyDogz and most of you are missing the point. She is talking about HOW THE STORY IS TOLD. Not what the story is or about. totally right

xxpyromonkeyxx
xxpyromonkeyxx

quite frankly i couldnt give a bannanas buthole about the story unless it was like a rpg or mgs, when it comes to shooters, its all game play

grope2
grope2

It was a **** story, she can contact me and i'll tell her how to make a good story.

bluepuma71
bluepuma71

Hey guys! This is Susan O'Connor. Thanks for covering my talk! I really appreciate it. FWIW, I wasn't trying to stand there and present Gears as a model for game storytelling. It's cool in some ways, but it's not perfect, that's for sure. My goal for this talk was just to talk about what I've learned on my recent projects, including Gears. Hope this helps the guys in your forum understand where I was coming from. :) Your GDC coverage has been kickass. Thanks.

BigDaveyDogz
BigDaveyDogz

and most of you are missing the point. She is talking about HOW THE STORY IS TOLD. Not what the story is or about.

BigDaveyDogz
BigDaveyDogz

GoW has an awesome story. and like walter_k said below that you know only what Marcus knows...and I find that awesome. It makes you more attached to the characters because your as anxious as them to find out wtf is going on. Yeah we'll have to wait for sequels to get more info on the story but thats the way games are made and I love it! GoW 4 life baby!!! You can use Half Life as another example, its knows for its awesome story, yet you have no idea wtf is going on (personally I don't) but I find the story cool and interesting while it develops over the episodic content. So bash GoW for its story if you want, but in the next few years this epic story of Marcus Fenix is just going to get better!

walter_k
walter_k

True_Blue3 pretty much got it right, and adding in what Ms.O'connor said helps. You only know as much as Fenix does, and it adds a lot to it, cause when he finally learns the truth so do you...

humptygrumpty
humptygrumpty

i agree with true_blu3, its a good story but its told in quite a thin way which leaves you asking questions...........which leads to sequels

True_Blu3
True_Blu3

Gears of War's story is actually very amazing and exciting. I don't know what you guys are talking about. Sure, the story may have not explained anything, but don't let that piss you off. It's the first in the trilogy and Epic needed questions for their sequels. I bet GoW's story will be amazing when the whole trilogy is finished. Maybe some novels can be written so the story can become more in-depth and exciting.

yaminoshadow
yaminoshadow

wow..i just realized that gears of war HAD some kind of story... but thats not such a bad thing really. Its better than having a whole lot of cutscenes or fmv tht slows the pace of the game

Doc_Dosman
Doc_Dosman

OK first, you shouldn't have to buy the collector's edition to get the story in a game. 2nd, everytime I got story through my ear piece in the game it pissed me off, cause it would be two minutes of conversation while I walked around at a snail's pace. Give me cutscenes, not that. If I can move around I want to run to the next door, not walk slow and get annoyed. This lady should not be giving advice on story telling in a game, get final fantasy people, metal gear, resident evil, someone, but this game is known for it's lack of story. Honestly, I haven't played a game yet that has incorportated a great game with great story telling. Usually a video game story is cheesy and just moves the game forward, not deep and intricate like it should be.

matrixman2k
matrixman2k

interesting. Hope these blokes were listening without falling asleep...

theKSMM
theKSMM

I think many of you are confusing "the story" with "I understand all the facts that led us to this place." The story was what motivated you and kept you playing from level to level until you reached the end. Several things did happen and change throughout that game even if it wasn't apparent why they happened.

Morphumax
Morphumax

This poor woman, does she believe what she's saying? Does she realize she's been asked to do this solely on the strength of the game's popularity? The game's generally been criticized for weak story. With games like Deus Ex: Invisible War, Dreamfall, Half Life 2, Psychonauts, and--well, the list goes on, is she really the best person to be doing this? She's the best example of who to have if gamers want to SKIP the story. And yes, there are hyperactive ADD sufferers who skip all cutscenes and get irritable at any sign of story. GOW is for them. She's probably there to train "writers" how to write a game that doesn't have enough of a story to annoy this first generation of crack-baby gamers.

peeweeshift
peeweeshift

lol i thought he meant tips and tricks in gears of war

Petri87
Petri87

Well i think that GoW is only the first part of a longer story. Well after you see the end its really obvious that thats the case but i already got the feeling around act 2-3 that this story is impossible to round up in the last to arcs and that probebly what Epic was planing all along to make it into a long running series and as they said in the making of vid that they have released on XBL that if this title sells well and gets good reviews that they are going to make a sequal(s). And im sure that Epic is already well at work at GoW 2 and even GoW 3.

Arkinsweets
Arkinsweets

When I first saw that headline I was gobsmacked. Okay, offering tips on gameplay is fair enough for them, but their storytelling was non-existent! It was a classic game to make people wait and play a sequel - they finished as if you'd just been introduced and the first episode was over... of a 23 episode season. They didn't use narrative or characterisation to further the storyline in any way really; it relied on action IMO. 'Course this is just my .02, but I think it should be the other guys that tell Epic how to create a compelling and poignant plot. They seemed to go down the Halo 2 route in this game I felt. Also I don't know a single gamer that finds long bouts of non-interactivity "insufferable" when there's a skip button.

Sanguis_Malus
Sanguis_Malus

Gears is certainly not deep or intellectual from a narrative perspective, the tale could have been developed much more. However, the game is great fun to play and that's the most important aspect which is clearly achieved. The next game would benefit from a more developed story and a longer campaign. The fact is the game provides on the action front, big time, a true classic !

Andrew451
Andrew451

I haven't ever felt like a game conveyed a great story to me since MGS on ps1. Gow was utter crap from a story standpoint and anyone who says different has poor taste and no respect for what video games could achieve with better writing.

gryphon23
gryphon23

I personally like stories in action games, even the one in GoW. I watch cutscenes through to the end (at least on the first time through), in GoW I was so interested in the chatter that was going on that I often stopped walking or shooting just so I could hear it better. I agree with what she said about scattering the story in with the gameplay, it was a much better way than Lost Planets boring cutscenes. This really defines the action.

SteyerSmurf
SteyerSmurf

i think alot of people play games not just to blow crap up but to get a good story. its definatly something that can make an OK game an awesome one. It gets u alot more involved and anyone that has played the Halo games and then read the books knows what I'm talking about.

Zcrimson07
Zcrimson07

everyone is being much too picky about the story. games arent really for great stories. if you want a great story read slaughterhouse-five or another great novel. movies too! but games are for killing people and thats really all stories are there for: to give you a reason to kill things....lots of things

danof76
danof76

Maybe GoW has a good story, but they didn't implement it, so despite this woman's efforts the developers failed to properly flesh it out without cutting into gameplay. Or maybe GoW shouldn't have such an in-depth story, quite frankly it was only played because of the action and the insanely good looking graphics. Everyone that bought it could probably care less about the story, I know I could. I just wanted to kill really big things.

comthitnuong
comthitnuong

Gears isn't really a story that others would want to emulate :?.

nkaiton
nkaiton

Maybe Ms. O'Connor should play through God of War before giving lectures on narrative in video games. Gears' story/writing is o.k., nothing worth writing home about.

redgopher
redgopher

For me, one of the main reasons Gears of War was so immersive for me, was that I bought the Collector's Edition and read about the back story in the art book that isn't present in the standard manual (i.e. Imulsion, Sera, etc.) Reading about Imulsion, it's discovery, etc. fleshed out things a bit more. I'm perfectly OK with this kind of story telling, because Gears probably would have suffered from lots of in-game backstory, but this kind of information shouldn't be kept from people who just want the standard edition.

Codemonkee
Codemonkee

Gotta agree with several posts here, the Gears of War story wasn't the most involved story every, but it didn't get in the way of the game play, like some games' stories have a tendency to do (see MGS2, equal parts playing time and cut scenes, geez). I loved playing GOW, and the story was enough to get me interested in the next chapter, which is all they need to do. Stories are great, and definitely needed, but they shouldn't overshadow the game itself.

Darruk
Darruk

GoW was a an engrossing and compelling story. Like other have said it's ovbiously not over. There is nothing to complain about here. The story is awesome! It's better than the same old space marine shoot-up like quake always is. Atleast the designers and devs of GoW took the time to think about what drove the characters in the game to do what they were there to do. Anyone who says this game didn't win in all categories is wrong.

Riverwolf007
Riverwolf007

The story in gears is so unintrusive that I failed to realize it had one. To be honest though when I want to hear a good story I am not going to look for one in a game.

s3lFc0nTr0l
s3lFc0nTr0l

i love gears, but the storyline was lacking. luckily, i got the collectors edition used, so ihad the mini book. that filled me in a little more

epormada
epormada

Gears story was the games only part that should have been better, that and vehicles.

Megavideogamer
Megavideogamer

Gears of War Storywise may be lacking, but as a videogame it's great. If I want a great story, I'd read a book, or see a movie with a great story. even though these other two mediums can suck as fierce as "Kubuki Warriors" in they own way.

gayguy
gayguy

dialogue seriously blows. A elementary children could say the same lines.

Coelah
Coelah

One thing I can agree on, cutscenes are insufferable.

sirlordraven
sirlordraven

How can you have a an "effective, compelling, non-intrusive story" when you have no story to begin with? And more importantly, where the hell are the Locust getting leather from? I haven't seen one cow in Gears of War.

YukoAsho
YukoAsho

Indeed, webdoom. I didn't expect Gears to give me everything, because I knew it would be a long franchise. It gave me enough to want to play the next one, just like Metal Gear Solid games do.

webdoom
webdoom

ppl saying Gears has no story... this is 1/3 of the story, so thats prolly why the whole story hasnt been given, at the end, u hear a voice saying that the Gears dont know why they fight this war.. but we will fight till the end... think about that as an introduction to the GoW story... still 2 GoWs to come

Summercontest
Summercontest

Ummm, that's funny, a game that had absolutely no story at all being used as the prime example for how story should be told in games. Was it just me, or did it feel like in gears you just went from place to place killing everything in sight? Don't get me wrong, it was a fun game and all(totally over rated tho, definately not deserving of a 9.6 on gamespot), but spar me; this game had a terrible story, or lack there of. It really worries me to hear that this woman penned the story for bioshock, a game that i've been waiting in anticipation for. And when she's talking about avoiding narrartive because it breaks up the gameplay...well, idk if she's ever been in an english class, but that's kinda a major way stories/characters are developed.

buttons2010
buttons2010

Gears hasn't got a great story but you have to admit that the voice acting and cutscenes are actually pretty good and help to build an atmosphere.

maxxorz
maxxorz

"Personally, I'd be more inclined to listen to a Warren Specter session on story." -- Sigma8 I couldn't agree with you more. Warren Spector is one of the GREATEST people in the industry. it's a shame there won't be another Deus Ex, what i consider one the best series ever made.

bybeach
bybeach

I`m a little leery she would use GOW a some kind of sucess story,much as I enjoyed the game itself. I didn`t like those blank holes where you could sense there was suppossed to be some kind of info. Hope that doesn`t happen to Bioshock,which by heritage would be information oriented,with the developing story as important as the action.

subject117
subject117

It would be better if you actually knew what was going on...when you drive out to the rainy area, there's no explanation given. That game has a TERRIBLE story

WillT12345
WillT12345

I think Gears has a deeper story to tell. Kinda like they hired this lady to flesh out the whole story (why marcus was in jail, the things his father was doing, what the locus really are, and ect). But in the first game they just wanted to hint at all this stuff and not overwhelm the player with too much story. Kinda like the first halo and then the second, the first contained story but it didn't overwhelm the game with it. The second got more focus on the story (told it from 2 perspectives) and now the 3rd looks like it will get even deeper.

KamaKase
KamaKase

Gears of War actually paid someone to write that story?

sigma8
sigma8

I'm not sure Gears of Wars is known for its story or setting. She apparently did do stuff for Bioshock though. I hope it's engaging. Personally, I'd be more inclined to listen to a Warren Specter session on story.

marvin7893
marvin7893

"unfortunate fact that story can hinder gameplay if the player is assaulted with narrative." "The underlying idea is that the story should be told around the player, rather than to him or her. " thats why i don't like the Metal Gear Solid games. Gears has a story but it was more like a first chapter of a book. Giving you very little information on Marcus and his father and making you wonder what happened between them that caused Marcus to go to jail.

sascha23
sascha23

Not to be a party pooper, but Gears' story is its weakest quality. The settings and gameplay give it depth, but the story is extremely lacking. I certainly hope they switch up the writers/writing on the next one. 360 seems to get a load of games with less focus on story. I'm hoping Mass Effect changes all that.