Gearheads Interviews GoW Writer Susan O’Connor

Susan O’Connor was part of the three-headed creature that created the storyline for Gears of War, between Cliff Bleszinski, Eric Nylund and Susan.

So I figured the Gearheads would want to hear from the final part of that Holy Trinity about her perspective when it comes to the Gears storyline.

Thank God I did, because Susan gives great interview. Just fantastic. I hope you enjoy this as much as I enjoyed doing it.

Gearheads of War: Give us a little bit of your background and how you came to be involved in the Gears of War project.

I’ve been writing for games since 1998. I’ve worked on about a dozen titles. A couple of years ago, I was at Microsoft, visiting a friend, and I met the writing staff. I spent about ten minutes with this guy, Eric Nylund. Two years later he sent me this one-line email: “Hey, want to write the script for Gears of War?” I should print out that email and hang it on the wall. It was that short, I swear to God. I thought it was a joke.

Gearheads: Tell us what your role has been on the Gears of War project.

Epic had collaborated with Eric to develop the storyline for Gears, and by all accounts the process was an excellent one. When it came time to write the script, though, they needed a writer who could be onsite for long periods of time. Eric had his hands full at Microsoft. I can see the logic. The writer has to understand the game design, the level design, the animation, the music, the AI behavior, all that biznay. How do you explain all that in an email to an offsite contractor? Forget it. The writer needs to be there.

Gearheads: How do you feel about the way Gears of War’s story has evolved?

Solid. Remember, I wasn’t there for the first couple of years! The team probably saw the story go to hell and back a couple of times. By the time I showed up, the story was in place, and we didn’t deviate much. We didn’t need to. The story worked. Eric’s a great writer, and the guys at Epic understand plot & character. That’s pretty unusual in this industry.

Gearheads: How did you get inspired when you were going to sit down and work on key elements of the story?

I spend a lot of time on research. Probably too much time. What can I say, it’s a great way to procrastinate and feel good about it. The short answer is: I played games, read books, watched movies, and talked trash. The long answer is in my Netflix and Gamefly queues. When I was ramping up for the project, I played a lot of Resident Evil 4, Half Life 2, Unreal, and, um, Halo. ๐Ÿ˜‰ And I should point out that I DIDN’T play in front of the team. Ever. I suck compared to them. EVERYBODY sucks compared to them. Anyway.

I play games to get that visceral feeling, but I look at movies and books for story/character inspiration. Movies: off the top of my head, I remember watching Black Hawk Down, Full Metal Jacket, Patton, Platoon, Training Day, Das Boot, Saving Private Ryan, even The Thing and The Warriors (out of left field, ya, but they were surprisingly relevant).

I was looking for movies that pulled you in and made you feel like opening a can of whoopass. And I was looking for ensemble pieces, where you have a bunch of guys working together. There’s always this built-in tension between guys – they’re working together, but they’re also testing each other, seeing who’s the better man. That was important for me as a writer. I wanted to bring multiple levels of conflict to the Gears story, so that the player feels like he has to bring it, every step of the way.

OH and of course The Sopranos. Damn, that show! Their structure is fantastic. They keep feeding you material on so many levels. Cliff and I would talk on the phone after every episode, dissecting every second of the show. I remember one night calling him at 10:01 pm or whenever the show ended. He answered the phone, and before I could speak, he said “DON’T SAY ANYTHING! I’m on Tivo! I’ll call you in thirty minutes!” It was hilarious.

And I also watched every episode of Rescue Me. Jerry O’Flaherty, Epic’s art director, told me about it. That show is so good it’s obscene. If any of the show’s writers are reading this, EMAIL ME.

I also read a lot of books – mostly nonfiction, like Generation Kill, military-theory books, and anything by Mark Bowden (I can’t recommend him enough, he’s a brilliant writer). One of my favorites has to be a book I borrowed from Lee Perry, the lead level designer. It was called “You Are Going To Jail” and that’s exactly what it was about. It was one scary book. I’m laughing now just thinking about it.

Gearheads: Any insight as to why Sera was created as an alternate universe whereas it could’ve simply been set on Earth?

Well, since I didn’t write the story, I don’t know for sure, but I can speculate just like any other fan. ๐Ÿ™‚ The team has more creative freedom with an alternate universe. Any story set on Earth is going to be limited by real history. Can’t you just see the fan boards? “Dude, no way could that have happened, I saw this History Channel show, and that part of…” blah blah blah. Gives me a headache just thinking about it. IT’S A STORY! Just go with it!

Gearheads: Give us a little insight into the personality of Marcus Fenix. Since you were one of the writers, you must know him very well.

Ha! Fenix isn’t an easy guy to know. He’s a cipher. Here’s somebody who started life with a bright future. He was destined for great things. Not because he was a member of the lucky sperm club, but because he was just That Guy. Then history intervened, and things changed. So here’s a guy who’s starting from scratch – worse, really. He’s starting in a deep hole, abandoned in a prison cell and left to die. Where do you go from there? Do you give up, or do you step up? Obviously, Fenix is going to step up. And that means he is laser-focused. He’s not going to make jokes or try to be your pal. That’s not who he is. What he IS going to do is Bring It, and he’s gonna expect the guys with him to do the same. He’s a born leader. He reminds me of Russell Crowe in Gladiator in some ways. But he’s darker, and tougher, if that’s possible. I love playing Fenix. In real life, I’ll never be able to chainsaw a monster in half, or command respect from elite soldiers. But as Fenix, I’m The Man. That is a fun feeling.

Gearheads: What is it like creating a universe that you will eventually see come to fruition?

Fucking magical. There’s no other way to describe it. It’s a chance to be a part of this long tradition of “making cool shit for people who like the same stuff you do.” I remember RUNNING out of the theater after seeing Indiana Jones as a kid. I thought I was going to die, I was so excited. I wanted to just grab a vine and swing the fuck outta the parking lot. That was the greatest feeling. And now I can help create that experience for somebody else. Wtf. You can’t beat that. You cannot.

Gearheads: Is there a lot more pressure developing a storyline for a game that has such mammoth expectations?

Nah. Well, OK, yeah, a little. Who am I kidding. But the game story isn’t the lead, ya know? It’s about gameplay first, last and always. Cliff’s in the hot seat, not me. He handles it like a champ. I don’t know how he does it.

Looking back, I can see the pressure. But at the time, we were all just focused on the work.

Gearheads: Talk about how you collaborated with Eric Nylund and Cliff to develop the story. Give us some insight on the process.

The chopper would come in low, I would fast-rope down to the level-designer pit, kick in the windows…just kidding. I wish! That would have been sweet. They actually do have a big meadow next to the building. I should have rented a Black Hawk one day and freaked everybody out.

Anyway, I digress. I worked closely with Eric at the beginning, as he handed the project off to me. He had given me this fantastic opportunity: I wanted to do right by his story.

Once the project started in earnest, I worked with the design/art/level leads on each level. We would look at the story events, the characters, the gameplay, the level architecture, the monsters, the weapons, the vehicles…you name it, we looked at it and thought about how it would tie into the story & the game.

Once we had that information on paper, I could develop the script template, which was a tool we used to block out the story. It was a good way to present the story without getting bogged down in actual dialog. Once dialog comes into the picture, everybody latches onto it. It’s really the least of your worries. What’s important is the underlying story – does it make sense? Is it cool? Does it make the gameplay more meaningful? Once we had those design problems resolved, I could start writing the script. We probably ran through a dozen drafts for each level. That’s a lot of rewriting, but you know what, it has to happen.

I also spent a lot of time with the level designers. Poor guys. I was probably the bane of their existence. When I showed up, they knew they were going to lose two hours of their day. But it was worth it. For me, anyway. Ha!

Gearheads: How emotionally invested are you in how well the game does in terms of sales?

Sales matter. And yeah, I do pay attention. But it’s not the only measuring stick. Look at Psychonauts. That is a great, great game, but the sales numbers were awful. That was probably a marketing failure, not a creative failure. I don’t think Gears is going to have a marketing problem. ๐Ÿ™‚ But here’s the thing: Epic’s going to deliver on the hype. I remember when I came onto the project, and sat down with the level designers to run through the game. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. And that was back in January!

Gearheads: Is it tough to try and convey emotion with some of these characters and how much did tech limitations play into the Gears storyline?

Compared to earlier platforms, there are NO tech limitations on the 360. For me, the challenging factor isn’t the tech – it’s the player. How do you connect with him? It’s his story, but he’s not there when you’re writing the script. That’s a tricky situation.

Writers who work in passive media have to develop rich story arcs, complex characters, and believable relationships. And it either works or it doesn’t, but it’s contained. It all happens there on the screen, and we just watch it unfold. But with a game, the player is the main character. That fourth wall has been vaporized. So now you have the same task list as the screenwriter, along with these new design problems. So when I worked on Gears, I didn’t think about what FENIX was feeling. I thought about what THE PLAYER was feeling. Sounds like I’m splitting hairs, since this is a FPS, right? But it’s an important distinction. For example, imagine if Fenix walked into a room and saw his long-lost dad sitting there. (That’s a theoretical situation, by the way – that doesn’t happen in the game, I swear.) Well, that might be an important moment for Fenix, but the player probably wouldn’t care at all. To him, that Dad guy is a stranger. But what if we met a father figure, like an older officer, and that guy treated Fenix like trash. That would piss off Fenix AND the player simultaneously. That’s the sweet spot you’re always looking for as a writer – those moments when the PC’s emotions and the player’s emotions are the same.

Gearheads: Which character in the game was the most fun to develop? And who was the most challenging?

Baird was my favorite character. He is heavily based on Tommy Gavin, the Denis Leary character in Rescue Me. I don’t know if it’s the Irish connection or what, but I know guys like Tommy, I get him, and I was always looking for ways to channel that black Irish rage into Baird. Gus was pretty challenging, if only because he’s a one-note wonder. He’s hilarious, no doubt about it, but I’m always looking for the material that’s lurking under the surface. Gus is pretty, um, consistent. What you see is what you get. That said, he’s a funny mofo.

Gearheads: As someone who is involved in game story, do you kind of feel like the odd person out when developers are creating their game?

Yes and no. I’m usually the only one in the room who’s focused exclusively on story, which means I have to advocate for my point of view, even if I’m getting lots of blank stares.

But on the flip side, everybody likes a good story, and the game writer can tap into that. I spent a lot of time walking from desk to desk, discussing the story with the devs. They all had ways of expanding and enriching the story, in ways I couldn’t. For example, the animators reveal character with body language. The musicians bring in the emotional undercurrent. The LDs build architecture that can make you feel tense, or claustrophobic, or even pissed. There are all these elements that can work together to bring the story to life.

Gearheads: With the PS3 looming, a lot of the criticisms of Japanese games is that sometimes the story doesn’t hold up over translation to the English counterpart. Is this an area where the Xbox 360 and Gears of War can take advantage of the story development?

Yes, yes, yes. Western developers and Western gamers are living in the same world, psychologically speaking. We all thought long and hard about what this story would mean to the player, in terms of his own world and personal life. The Gears story is going to be successful if the player is still thinking about Fenix, long after he’s finished the game. All those guys in Gears are real people to me. I hope they’ll be real to you, too.

Gearheads: What was your favorite part about being involved in this game and how excited are you to be able to see your story come to fruition?

The best part of the project was the opportunity to work with Eric and the team at Epic. The level designers, the artists, the programmers – they all kick ass.

And then there’s Cliff and Jerry. Those two guys. I don’t know how to describe the kind of respect and admiration I feel for them. Words fail me. Stupid words.

Gearheads: Is there anything else about Gears of War and the process of story development that you’d like to share?

I think I just left it all on the field. Gah.

Gearheads: Thank you so much for taking out the time to talk to some hard core Gears of War fans.

Thank you! I’m a Gears fan, too. We’re all in it together. C’mon, Epic! Ship it!

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