Q&A: Sprung scriptwriter Colleen McGuinness

Backstory behind the DS dating simulator takes one part <i>Sex and the City</i>, one part <i>North Shore</i>, and blends. GameSpot talks to the game's novice, but not inexperienced, writer.

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Colleen McGuinness is a Harvard-educated writer from Long Island, New York. Since graduating in 1999 she's been a writer and director for a short film titled For Mature Audiences Only, a staff writer for NBC's short-lived comedy Miss Match, and a story editor for the Fox series North Shore. She's currently writing a screenplay for New Line Cinema called Baby Got Backhand.

So why are we interviewing her on a gaming site?

It turns out that Ms. McGuinness made her video-game-writing debut last month with Sprung, an odd little Nintendo DS game that simulates the world of dating. Players in Sprung have to navigate a maze of conversation paths to accomplish a variety of dating-related goals with their on-screen conversation partner.

GameSpot talked to Ms. McGuinness about writing, dating and, of course, video games.

GameSpot: First, off, how did you get involved with Sprung?

Colleen McGuiness: I'm with United Talent Agency, and they have an agent over there who deals with the gaming companies. I guess my name came up because I used to write for a show called Miss Match, which was the Darren Star/Alicia Silverstone show for NBC all about a matchmaker and dating, sort of a Sex and the City-ish-type vibe. So my name came up--they'd read my script and asked if I was interested and it sounded really fun and different and it sounded like a great idea.

GS: So you had experience writing about dating before. How did that experience come into play writing for Sprung?

CM: The storytelling, in general, is very close, where you have certain types of archetypes: the good girl, or the bad guy, or someone who wants something, in this case, Brett, who has a crush on Becky--sort of the end-all of the game--so you still apply the same story points and the same kinds of tensions and obstacles that get in the way of love.

GS: Sprung isn't exactly your traditional videogame writing; there are a lot of branching paths and situations. What's the process for writing a game that's so non-linear?

CM: I pitched them a few ideas in terms of where they wanted to set the game--at that point it was just a dating game for a certain age group. They really liked the idea that it would take place in a ski lodge in Colorado--they thought that would be fun and sexy, and I agreed. I tried to come up with some scenarios, wrote some character descriptions, came up with different kinds of adventures the characters would go on or situations they'd find themselves in. I'd pitch them out to the executive over at [developer] Guillemot, and he told me what they liked, what they needed more of, and then I would write the scenes and the dialogue. [The developers] were great, they were awesome, they gave me a lot of feedback. They definitely wanted the humor; that was fun, they wanted it be sort of tongue-in-cheek and campy in places, and all those great things.

GS: In most video games it can be hard to convey humor in the dialogue, but this game, I think, conveyed it very well. Was that a challenge for you?

CM: No, that was fun; I'm glad they said, "More humor." I think the first two scenes I wrote were more straightforward, with a couple jokes thrown in here and there, and they said, "No, no, no, we want it to be funny," and we went with that, so I had a lot of freedom that way.

GS: How long did the writing process take you?

CM: I felt like I was doing most of it over the summer. We had a really tight deadline for this game, and so I would turn in a certain number of scenes every week; we'd check in every week.

GS: And you were on time with every deadline, I'm sure…

CM: (laughs) Writers are never on time.

GS: How different is it writing for a video game, compared to TV and film?

CM: Well, for TV they have what they call a "writers room," so you're sitting in a room around a table and you pitch out a bunch of ideas and you sort of come up with the structure in the group, so to speak. Then the episodes are divvied out--you're writing episode 15, you're writing episode 12--and then the writers are able to make their own personal touches and tweaks to the outline and story that was broken by the group. This, obviously, I was able to do by myself, which is a little closer to film. I guess the main difference was that it was so piecemeal. There was an overarching storyline and everything we had agreed upon, but it was a little bit write-as-you-go, because I think they were also figuring out what they needed in the game--if they needed the antagonist to have a bigger role, or they needed more scenes in a hot tub…

GS: So you didn't know what would happen at the end when you started.

CM: Well, we planned it out, so to speak, but everything changes, of course, as you go.

GS: Do you play video games yourself?

CM: I do.

GS: What are some of your favorites?

CM: Mostly, when I was younger, I grew up on Nintendo--that's why I was really excited when they told me it was for the new Nintendo DS. All the Super Mario Bros. games and the girly games like Sonic…

GS: What makes Sonic a girly game?

CM: I call it girly because they have cute little animals, you know? And in more recent years I guess Tekken or Halo…there was a fun snowboarding game that I played on XBox….

GS: More girly games.

CM: (laughs) Right, right.

GS: Speaking of girly games, what's it like being a female in video game development, which is largely a male-dominated field? Was that a challenge at all?

CM: I guess the guys at the company needed that female perspective, so instead of having to fight to be heard and bring up the female point of view I think that's what they wanted, and probably the reason I got the job. They were really wonderful to work with and it was no departure from regular work.

GS: Sprung is one of the first dating-simulation games widely released in America. They're very popular in Japan, but do you think this kind of game has a chance with American audiences?

CM: Yeah, absolutely. The way they first described the game to me was that it was almost a running ground for dating, and what would happen in these situations if you used your best pick-up line. Especially, I think, for guys it's a real challenge and for the girls, supposedly, they get to pick and choose a little bit more, so I think it was a good chance to sort of simulate all these different scenarios and tactics and see what worked. I sort of liked that idea that you could practice dating without any real consequence.

GS: Do you think video-game players need a testing ground for dating, as it were?

CM: I would assume everybody does. (laughs) I would assume that's a mode of insecurity for everyone, something sort of human.

GS: Was it hard trying to convince people this kind of game would work? Were people receptive to the idea?

CM: Well, the first time I played it, Nintendo held a big launch party, and they were giving out some DS systems, so some of my friends were able to try a sample of the game. They were all excited and having a great time. Occasionally I'd run my stories by my friends--"what do you think of this?"--and they all seemed pretty excited. I think anything that's geared towards your age level and anything that has an element of what your real life is like appeals to people. So when you're in your teens or twenties, that youthful age group that they're targeting, I think dating and the opposite sex are pretty prevalent.

GS: A lot of people still think of video games as kids' stuff. Are games like this indicative of gaming "growing up," as it were?

CM: I think so. I live in Los Angeles, so I feel a little bit uneven--a lot of people play video games down here that are older, maybe, than usual, so I'm living in a world of arrested development anyway--but obviously, a game like this is not as juvenile and has some older themes. Video games have worked themselves into the pop culture, sort of our vernacular, so it makes sense to grow with that, broaden the age groups and horizons.

GS: Would you say the Nintendo DS is a good platform for unconventional games like this?

CM: Absolutely, like when they were giving out the system at the party, a couple of people were saying, "Oh, this is really cool," because you can also use it for other functions, Palm-Pilot type stuff…

GS: The touch screen…

CM: Yeah, yeah, so it feels like it's sort of an older, sleeker, cool toy, and everyone's obviously into their gadgets and this new level of communication going on, so I think the guys think it's a sort of a cool, functional, but also fun thing. A lot of my friends play little games on their cell phones, so this is a sort of nice step above that.

GS: What kind of reaction do you get describing this game to people who haven't played it?

CM: They all think it sounds cool. They're all sort of excited that this is what's being put out there. I think not every game has to be about guns or cars or whatever, this is obviously a different take on it.

GS: Not quite what they're expecting from a video game, I guess…

CM: Yeah, there's definitely surprise and definitely questions, but all sort of enthusiastic and encouraging.

GS: Have you heard any response from people who have played the game?

CM: I haven't heard that much. I checked in with the gaming company and they said things were going well. It's definitely an extreme reaction one way or the other, but people think it's funny, so to speak, so they were happy about that, as far as my role.

GS: Another somewhat unique thing about Sprung is that you get the option to play as a boy or a girl at the beginning. Which character is more challenging to write for?

CM: It's funny, because you'd think a girl would be pretty easy because I know that dating world, but a couple of the screenplays I've written have had a major male-protagonist point of view. Both were fun…I guess the easy answer would be to say the girl is easier, but I have a lot of male friends and I love listening to how they sort of think about women and how they speak, so that was almost the more fun part to write.

GS: In Sprung, the characters' facial expressions are a big part of the gameplay. How much was the game's art influenced by the writing and vice versa?

CM: It was funny, they started sending me little bits of the animation when they were working on it. I did rough descriptions of the characters, gave them all backgrounds and bios and habits and tics, and they sort of went with that. The animation came later, so I didn't really know what the characters were going to look like until the very end.

GS: One thing that kind of bugged me about the game was that you can only really go down one path. There was one point playing with Brett that I was able to get two girls into a threesome…

CM: …Well, good for you!…

GS: …but then I got a "Game Over!" because I had lost a scavenger hunt? What's up with that?

CM: I guess that's really left to your imagination. (laughs) There's nothing that could be that great on screen, so you just have to come up with it yourself. To be honest, I didn't understand a lot of the components of creating the actual game; they're real experts at this sort of thing. My job was to just come up with the characters and the dialogue, create an atmosphere and a mood.

GS: Are there any plans for a Sprung sequel?

CM: I'm not sure. I suppose it depends on how the game does.

GS: Would you be interested in writing one?

CM: Absolutely.

GS: How about other types of games, besides "dating sims"?

CM: Yeah. Like I said, it was a really fun, sort of unique job assignment. Writers are always complaining that they're being squelched and they don't get to put their full expression on the page, so this was a whole different process where I felt they were really into my ideas and vice versa. It was a really nice working relationship.

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