Write Advice - game designer Caroline Marchal
Game designer and Story for Video Games course director Caroline Marchal talks to our students about how she got started in the industry, freelancing and recent changes in this ever-evolving industry.
John Yorke Story: Story for Games
- Learn how to plan a structure your work
- Understand what a development team needs from a writer
- Learn how to see the underlying framework behind all stories, everywhere
Q – Hi Caroline, and thanks for joining us! To begin, how did you get into game writing in the first place?
Caroline Marchal – Hi everyone, I’m very happy to be here! Well, I got into games development in 2001 as a very junior game designer – frankly I had no idea how games were made at the time or what I was doing – and I was lucky enough to work at Quantic Dream, where story was always central to the experiences they were making. So, I learned by doing. However, I’d say I’m more a narrative designer than a writer.
Q – Did you create the story for Beyond: Two Souls? It’s a game I really enjoyed, and I played it as soon as it first came out.
CM – Thanks! Beyond: Two Souls came from David Cage’s idea of having a girl and a ghost tied to each other. I helped him with the writing of some scenes and general character development, and I was in charge of the gameplay and pacing.
Q – Amazing. It really captivated me from the first scene – Jodie was such a powerful character along with Aiden as they explored their environment. The end was very clever, and I had to play it twice to see what changed when chose the alternative! Would you say it’s possible for games writers to work on a freelance basis, with limited travel?
CM – I like the ending especially – it’s quite beautiful. For writers, yes, it’s possible to be freelance, although it can definitely make it tougher. If you’re not part of a development team you’re generally brought in late, and it’s often a challenge to understand where the team is coming from – what their culture is and thus what type of experience they are trying to achieve. It can also make it difficult to be taken seriously and have weight in meaningful decisions.
If you can have at least one experience where you’re embedded in a team and work on a project from start to finish – even a small one – it will stand you in good stead. You learn a lot by doing so, and then if you choose to go freelance you know what you’re getting into.
I both love and hate user tests – I sometimes hate them because it’s painful to see users struggling when you thought you did your best – but I wouldn’t develop a game without them.
Q – When working on games, what non-game mediums would you say influence you the most?
CM – A bit of everything, but especially television – that’s where the best screenwriting is currently, and the format and length is similar to games’. Of course, though, other games are big a influence too. Quality in games writing has gone up in the last few years, and the indie scene is full of super creative people who come up with very interesting and innovative experiences.
Q – How many people get to play games before they’re released? Have you had to radically change anything because a player hit an unexpected obstacle?
CM – We do user tests regularly – it’s mandatory if you want to make sure the game is understood and enjoyed by the audience you’re aiming for. For a big AAA games like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls it means well over a hundred players, at different stages in development.
Yes, we’ve had to change many things thanks to user tests. For instance, tutorials are often redone or tweaked in the light of user responses. I both love and hate user tests – I sometimes hate them because it’s painful to see users struggling when you thought you did your best – but I wouldn’t develop a game without them. They’re much more useful in games than they are for film or TV, although if something is wrong with a story the audience will always notice and lose interest, or get frustrated. That goes for any medium of storytelling.
When individuals and small teams push boundaries in the industry, it makes everyone else work their hardest to create better and more innovative experiences.
Q – What would you say have been the biggest changes in games since you started working in the industry?
CM – The biggest change has been the emergence of the indie scene. So many creators and voices are now heard, and there’s more diversity and audacity in gameplay and stories. When individuals and small teams push boundaries like that, it makes everyone in the industry work their hardest to create better and more innovative experiences – which can only be a good thing!
Q – What games do you think have got closest to the kind of storytelling experience you’re interested in?
CM – I’ve played a lot of very interesting and moving experiences lately – What Remains of Edith Finch, Oxenfree,Life Is Strange Before the Storm, Zero Time Dilemmato name a few – and I’d honestly struggle to pick one which embodies the ‘perfect experience’ for me. I love the diversity and the inventiveness of so many games, but if you were twisting my arm I’d say Shadow of the Colussus: beautiful, sad story, combined with wonderful gameplay and amazing atmosphere.
Q – Caroline, this has been a pleasure! Thank you for your answers.
CM – Thanks for having me, and good luck with the rest of the course!