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Dragon Age: Inquisition

David Gaider: Storytelling, Dragon Age and BioWare

The studio's senior writer on writing characters, inclusivity, The Witcher and Star Wars.

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David Gaider is a veteran writer working for EA studio Bioware. After taking part on titles such as Baldur's Gate 2, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic or Neverwinter Nights, he became one of the main writers responsible for story creation, script writing, and dialogue in the Dragon Age trilogy. During Gamelab 2015 in Barcelona, Gaider sat down with Gamereactor to talk all these topics and more.

What is the main feedback you took from players on Dragon Age: Inquisition?

It would be just the players want to see the exploration areas sort of incorporated a lot more tightly into the story, have a bit more fleshed out writing. I was playing The Witcher 3 recently and I think they actually did a really good job with their side quests, sort of making them feel alive, have interesting characters, and things like that. People are accustomed to BioWare games just being sort of chock-full of story, and I think that's going to be the team's main goal. I'm not on Dragon Age anymore myself, I passed it off to Patrick Weekes, he's another senior writer who works with the company and I think they're very excited about the direction that they're going to go next; we all learned a lot from Inquisition.

What would you say about what goes into character-specific writing and the dialogue between characters, NPCs, etc?

A lot of writing. We had about eleven or twelve major characters [in DAI], and each of them had a long personal character arc, some had romances... So I have a team of up to seven other writers, but it's not just the writers. We're working in conjunction with tactical designers, with artists, with the programmers, there's an entire team of people. I think everybody who came to Bioware did that because they wanted to be storytellers. So it starts with the writers, we're proposing the ideas, and if it catches on with the rest of the team, then we start breaking it out further. These characters all have quest arcs, there are cutscenes involved with cinematic designers, so we immediately start to think about how to translate this into a compelling visual story as well as all the dialogue involved.

How do you specifically write the main characters who are returning as NPCs?

We still have the same writers who worked on them originally. We got to the point where we knew these characters would return, so we thought "What are we doing with them next?". Because we want to make sure we're going somewhere with the character, we don't want to bring a character back just to have them there. We have cameos as a nod to players of the previous games, but if it's like a major character, like Berwick... A lot of people loved Berwick, so I sat down with Mary [Kirby] and we talked about what's going to happen with Berwick, and if she was to reply to me that she doesn't have anything for him, that she thinks he's done, we wouldn't have brought him back. It's really a question of what can we do now, is there any place to develop their stories...? And we want those touchstone characters to come back! Because we don't have the same main character, the Inquisitor was new, but we want those characters to sort of connect players to the earlier games.

The inclusive approach on gay characters implemented by Bioware was a new step. What do you think is the next step for being more inclusive in games?

We do have gay characters and we have one transgender character in Dragon Age: Inquisition, and I think we can do better than that. The one [transgender] we had [Krem] was an interesting character. We had major characters that are gay (Dorian was definitely gay), but what about a major character that's transgender? There's also allowing the player, if they identify as asexual, for example, or in any other particular way, to put themselves in their character without being contradicted. You're never going to make a game that's going to encompass the breadth of humanity, but it's a matter of getting everybody on board and thinking about other sorts of players, inviting them actively to play your game.

And it wasn't just a couple of people proposing [including these characters in the game], it was a team-wide thing. When this conversation is held, a lot of people assume that it's a restriction, like if somebody was forcing us to, we wouldn't do it. But it actually expands the possibilities of things you can do with the characters, as long as you're doing it in a respectful manner, and you're not just making something for the sake of it. But at the same time, I don't think you need to justify it either. If you made a character who's white and straight you would never have to justify why they're white. So if the industry as a whole has more characters like that, then we just can stop trying to explain it, it will just be.

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Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

You mentioned The Witcher, and there's people from CDPR here, there's also Chris Crawford with his interactive narrative project. You are all talking about storytelling. How would you compare your methods to theirs? And what would you take from them as inspiration?

When you play other games, you're always taking something from it. In some ways it's kind of hard for me to play an RPG and enjoy it like a player; I'm constantly analysing. There's lot of reasons why making a game is a series of compromises, and when you see that they've done something really well you don't want to copy it, but you look at it and think: "It's interesting that they did that, I wonder what they had to give up to get that, or what was the thought process behind that?".

Chris Crawford's plan with emergent narrative is interesting, I really would like to see where he goes with that, because he's trying to get away from the limitations of branching narrative, which is very prescriptive. It provides agency to the player, but it comes at a really hefty cost, one that's prohibitive to a lot of companies. Bioware makes big games, but they require a lot of dialog to be written, dialog has to be recorded, cinematics have to be created for all those scenes, so it's incredibly expensive. It's a big investment, and what if a game like that doesn't sell that well? Then you're losing money, and games are struggling as it is.

This year is the Star Wars year, you can feel the Force all around! There's the movie (The Force Awakens) at the end of the year and of course the EA game, Battlefront. One game I personally love from Bioware is the first Knights of the Old Republic game, the stories were incredible. How would you imagine a modern take on it? What would you try, story-wise, with a modern offline Star Wars RPG?

If I got put onto such a project it probably wouldn't be up to me. It's not like they turn to me and say "Dave! Here, do any Star Wars story, what would you like to do?", it would be a negotiation of what exactly the story would be, but if I had my druthers, I think a lot depends on where they're going with the movies. If there was going to be a new Star Wars RPG, the question is would it be based in whatever the new timeline is? Because it's following the original trilogy, right? So we're going to head into unknown waters. Then are we talking about the Old Republic? Which is thousands of years prior to the movie timeline, it would also be interesting to see what happened there, because there's this whole period that is between the Old Republic, when there were lots of Sith and lots of Jedi, to where A New Hope begins and you have two Sith and no Jedi... So there's room to look at that narrative, I think Star Wars is a wonderful universe, just thinking about that makes me salivate a little bit, jump back into that. If that would happen, that would be pretty awesome. I think there are so many stories you could tell in the Star Wars Universe.

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SW: KOTOR.

You're working on a secret game, I don't know if that game is Mass Effect: Andromeda or if you can tell us anything about it?

It's not Mass Effect: Andromeda. Mass Effect: Andromeda is being worked on in Montreal, and I work in the Edmonton office, in western Canada, so it's another team. We have some people in Edmonton who are working on Mass Effect as well, but it's a separate thing. I'm working on a brand new world and game, and we haven't announced it yet, so there's literally nothing I can say.

"Storytelling: challenge vs expectation", that's what you're talking about here at Gamelab 2015. What can you share about this speech?

The premise is that when we're making narrative for videogames, there's an expectation for players when they come into it, in that they haven't trained to look on narrative as one type of thing. If you look at narrative in a movie, or a book, it's very linear and it requires no interaction. But that's what most people think of as narrative, so when they think of narrative in a videogame, they think it's like a movie or book but better, and the "better" is supposed to come when you have agency. There's interaction, so there's agency, and that's the "better", but the requirement for that agency puts limitations on a narrative designer that most people don't understand. So it's like they want it to be like a book or movie, but better, yet we're actually restricted in many ways, so we're constantly doing an illusion of agency, not real agency, but we're trying to convince the player like "here's the paths you have", and then we spend a lot of time trying to convince the player that those are the paths they want, not these other things that they aren't actually able to do. If you do that well, they think it's awesome, they have all these choices; if you do it poorly, then they feel very restricted.

Thank you very much for your time, David. Enjoy your time in Spain.

Thank you, thanks!

For more information on interactive storytelling, click to watch Gaider's full panel "Narrative in Games - the Challenge versus the Expectation" right here: