A Glimpse into BioWare: An Interview with Ann Lemay

A picture of a blank notebook and a pen. Let’s talk about writing.

I am extremely pleased to present an interview with BioWare writer Ann Lemay.

Thank you both Ann and BioWare for allowing us the opportunity to conduct this interview. It was wonderful to get a closer look at the writing process at this studio.

 

 

Please introduce yourself and what you do at BioWare to our readers.

Hi! My name is Ann, and I work as a writer at BioWare!

…You know, I think that’s the first time I get to write that sentence. I may have paused and grinned at the screen in a totally goofy way just now.

What does a typical day as a writer at BioWare involve?

Basically, it depends on which phase of the project we’re currently in. If we’re in preproduction, there are a lot of meetings and defining of things, along with documenting all the decisions taken and then expounding on them. And approving said material, then taking it all down and rebuilding it, and so on and so forth. Over and over and over and over again. (I could add a few more “overs” in there. Seriously, iteration is plentiful through our whole process from beginning to end. I couldn’t exaggerate this fact if I tried.)

When we’re in production, there’s a lot of coordinating with other departments, even when we’re in the middle of the most intense bit of writing, because everything we do has an effect on someone else for the most part, and vice versa. So much of our work interrelates that we always have to keep an eye out for what conditional might be tripped, or what line we’ve written that might affect something else on an entirely different level or mission.

For example: Level design ties into banter a lot when using it for directional or specific narrative tied into what’s going on in the level. Cut-scenes with dialogue tie into cinematic design (cinedesign = cut scenes with dialog options), where we have to make sure we’re relating details in the narrative that will match the work the cinematic designers are putting in (actions, character expressions, tone, etc.). The same goes for animation scenes, which involve motion capture budgets, so you really want to get that right. Codex entries provide essential lore; datapads can tie one location to another. An NPC’s story can affect other aspects of the game in ways you hadn’t anticipated or get tied into another system later on in a fun way (minor characters showing up in the Galaxy at War files, for example).

There are phases where we’re mostly writing dialogue, phases where we sit with level design every other day to do full play-through review passes on the banter, and phases where we sit with the lead writer and editing to do a review on All The Things. There are days when we spend more time walking to someone’s desk to make sure line X doesn’t mess up their cinematic or the overall level narrative. And there are days when we block out our calendars with fake meetings so that we can write, write, and write. (Ahem. Don’t tell anyone.)

Interviewer note: Oops, I think it is too late. Now we know ;-)

But the fundamentals that are part of every phase of the process are iteration and keeping clear lines of communication open at all times.

What stories in recent BioWare history do you feel have been done well? This doesn’t have to be anything you were involved with personally.

I enjoyed what was done with Dragon Age II. Moving away from the Hero’s Journey template and focusing on different character narratives (“character” meaning not only the player character, but also party NPCs) made for an experience I found interesting and different from what most game stories traditionally explore.

Usually, the world revolves only around the main character and therefore the player. In DAII, the NPCs had lives of their own – seeing those glimpses was a treat and made me want more.

Interviewer note: This is why I wanted to interview a BioWare writer specifically. I appreciate the richness of the companions in the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series and an emphasis on writing means that they are beautifully complex rather than flat characters.

What is the working relationship like between the writers and developers? How cooperative are different departments when it comes to game creation?

I’m going to speak about what I’ve had the most direct experience with, which is internal to the Montreal studio.

We work in an open-floor office, each in four-desk units with semi-clear dividers that afford some privacy, but still allow people to easily find someone and talk to them. It’s a setup that, in and of itself, promotes an ease of communication. (It’s sometimes referred to as the “Whack-a-Mole” setup.) As you no doubt noted in the “typical day” question, there tends to be a lot of back-and-forth between all disciplines on a regular basis. I’m always conferring with someone about various parts of dialogue or banter I’m working on, to ensure it works with the level. Someone is always walking up to my desk to ask a question or clarify a point (or just chat in general). The communication here is stellar, and it makes for a workflow that’s truly enjoyable. Considering the level of iteration we bring to our process as we work on the narrative – and considering how involved and layered our narrative can get – this level of cooperation is pretty much essential.

I’ve had the chance to work remotely with the Edmonton studio as well (on ME3, general learning process, helping out on some things). Our video-conference setup makes it easy to just talk to someone directly whenever needed, from our desks or from meetings rooms if more people are involved. For example, when Josh (level designer) and I were working with Alan, one of our cinematic designers who was in Edmonton before moving to our studio, we did a conference call from Josh’s computer. We set up a play-through of the very early level by sharing desktops and then basically talked Alan through all the narrative points via the video-conference system. That way, Alan had a clear sense of where we were going and was able to throw in his ideas for ambient events and cut-scenes in the proper context. Similarly, when Graham (level designer) and I introduce a narrative change in another of our levels, we confer with Scotty (level artist) in order to make sure that 1) we weren’t contradicting all of his visual work and 2) he could support the change we wanted to implement. We need art to back up the narrative – but he has his own expertise that he can bring to the mix in order to enhance the narrative we’d like to show, and sometimes can even push things to a higher level of awesome. Josh and Graham also come up with kickass ambient events that they run by me and our cinematic designers to see if we like it, and then they can get banter and/or animation back-up as needed. And sometimes we’ll just sit together in front of a level and come up with ideas, regardless of our respective disciplines.

We all need input and support from others in countless ways, and we all bring everything we can to the table.

Has the greater inclusion of LGBT characters in BioWare stories been an intentional trend by the teams or is it a byproduct of creating larger worlds?

I want to say it’s a result of both. There is (growing) intentionality in BioWare development, particularly when you look at the history of characters developed across our games. (Specifically, see the interview that Patrick Weekes and Dusty Everman did on writing same-gender relationships in ME3, if you haven’t read it yet.) Creating larger worlds also means that you end up drawing inspiration from (we hope – we try) the same equivalent in life. That means looking at real people and situations, which results in LGBT characters whom we try to portray to the best of our abilities. Why would we ignore part of the real world while creating our own? David Gaider’s response to the “straight male gamer” is an example of this approach.

We don’t always get it right. But if we don’t try and we don’t work at being aware of what we do and then work to fix mistakes, then we can’t improve on anything.

Interviewer note: We wrote about this at topic back in May at ME3 and same sex relationships

What is the world-building process at BioWare like? Do you start with a world/main theme, does it all begin with a single main quest line, etc.?

We start at the highest level and then grind down. So – establish the setting you want, in broad strokes. Set up a timeline; start hanging events on said timeline. Then add in all the things that make a culture and individual progression for those things (again, still high-level), before starting to steadily grind down to the details on everything. To give an example: For Mass Effect, we try to ground everything we come up with in reality somehow, which can lead to some pretty wild research and fact-checking with various people before we actually settle down to write anything concrete.

What types of stories do you feel are still underrepresented in video games?

I swung this question by Sylvia, one of my writing colleagues, because all I could come up with at first was “Anything not based off Hero’s Journey.” Sylvia articulated it better than I did: Stories centered on an individual’s problems as opposed to saving the world tend to be the exception to the rule in triple-A gaming. On the other hand, you do see more stories of that type in indie games, so those types of stories aren’t completely absent from video games.

She also reminded me that we have a loooot of high fantasy and military shooters/sci-fi. That may be an artifact of justifying expert gameplay right from the get-go, but seeing something different, or just more games that purposefully diverge from this framework and instead build skill sets for the characters in other ways… that’d be nice. (Again: Not saying none are out there, just that they aren’t the standard.)

There are a lot of smaller developers out there trying to deliver new things or just working on games from the “good old days.” Bastion comes to mind; Legend of Grimrock, Limbo, etc. So many good games are out there without the budget that the bigger companies have – it’s really worth looking for them.

What are some of the difficulties/limitations of writing for video games?

As a writer in videogames, you are never, ever an island. Any writing done away from a team will see revisions to adapt it to the work being done on the floor, I can guarantee you. Any writing that’s done on the floor will see regular revision, tweaking, etc. The more the narrative is important to the team and project, the more iteration you’ll see on all sides. And if a whole level is cut at the last second, then you – and level design and cinematic design and everyone else and their pet cat/dog/jackalope – will have to scramble to adapt and adjust.

Also, barks (one-liners spoken by NPCs or used to illustrate short reactions to events/attacks/etc) are evil. I’m just saying. Having to write ten variations to “Hi!”, and then doing the same for X number of characters is just plain evil. Anyone who says they loooove writing barks is someone you want to back away from slowly, while salting the earth in front of you to make sure they can’t follow.

Interviewer note:  This sounds like an interesting, but difficult, writing challenge. Challenge accepted! Now I need to figure out at least 10 ways for someone to respond when a characters says “Hello”. I am sure at least several responses would be snarky.

What are some of the things you think video games can excel at versus other media?

Flexibility. Replayability. Fun. Bringing people together to enjoy a game while allowing for different experiences each time due to the interactivity and what the players bring along for the ride.

On your Twitter, you label yourself as a gamer and a bibliophile. So, what games have you been playing lately, and have you read any good books recently?

I haven’t had much time lately, due to a lot of work for the past months and then remodeling my office during vacation time, but I have several games (hello, Steam Summer Sale!) that are on my list of games to play! I may also have a book pile that survived the Great Office Book Exodus with several titles still waiting to be read.

Games:

First on the list is To The Moon by Freebird Games. (http://freebirdgames.com/to_the_moon/ ) I’ll be playing it this week, if my schedule cooperates, as my reward to myself for the office remodeling! Others on the list to be played (hopefully sometime this year) include Alan Wake, Botanicula, The Blackwell Games (four in all!), Capsized, Ceville, Fallout: New Vegas (I know, I know!), Metro 2033, Yesterday. To name a few. I’m a big fan of adventure games and RPGs, as you may be able to divine. Oh! Also, I just wish-listed Deponia and The Book of Unwritten Tales on Steam, too – anyone played those yet? Thoughts, comments? =)

Books:

Among the good books I’ve read recently are Alpha by Greg Rucka, Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines (get his Jig the Goblin books, btw, NOW), and the Eli Monpress series by Rachel Aaron. I’ve reread Going Postal by Terry Pratchett because it is a book that makes me happy. I’ve also been working my way through several manga series lately, with the firm intention of completing full rereads of One Piece, Bleach, and Naruto.

Interviewer note: I also highly recommend Jim Hine’s writing, including his Princess series. His personal blog is also worth reading. He is a feminist ally and often has wonderful posts there including one where he tried to contort his body into the poses of characters on fantasy book covers with hilarious results.

Additional note:

There wasn’t any space for me to mention this earlier, but I’d like to thank The Border House for this opportunity – both the interview by Gunthera1 and the chance to speak here in general. The Border House does fantastic work and it’s an honor to be here.

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Final interviewer note: This interview was a lot of fun to conduct and I am extremely grateful to Ann and BioWare for the opportunity to get an insider’s look into the writers pit. Also, thank you Ann for those kind words about Border House.

I hope you also found the interview as fun and interesting as I did  and that you enjoyed the glimpse into the world of video games writing. Was any of it surprising? Do you have any barks you would like to suggest for NPCs? Are there any games you would like to add to the list of ones that are doing something new or wonderful in the medium? Finally, have you read or played the titles mentioned by Ann at the end of the interview?

About Gunthera1

Twitter name: Gunthera1
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9 Responses to A Glimpse into BioWare: An Interview with Ann Lemay

  1. Alex says:

    Awesome. Great job Gunthera and thanks Ann for doing the interview!!

  2. KA101 says:

    Time to get the bark on.

    Heya!
    Yo!
    “Hoy! Hoy!” <-If you believe Reader's Digest, Alex Bell's preferred way to answer a phone
    It's you!
    Yell-O!
    Grussen! <-German FTW
    What's up, m'lady?
    Fella!
    You're here!
    Glad to see you!
    Keep it going!
    Passin' through?
    Long while!
    Of all the people!
    Joyous return!
    Up to something again?

    …I think I'll stop there. Looks like everyone's backing away for some reason. ???

  3. Doug S. says:

    Responses generic NPCs can give to “Hello”?

    “Excuse me, do I know you?”
    “My mommy told me not to talk to strangers.”
    “Sorry, I’m busy.”
    “I gave at the office.”
    “*sigh* Times are tough.”
    “Spare change, sir?”
    “What are YOU looking at?”
    “Out of my way, I’m late!”
    “Get away from me, you creep!”

    Looks like I ran out of ideas at nine…

  4. Sharna says:

    Great interview! Sounds like it was a lot of fun for the both of you :D

  5. SleekitSicarian says:

    Great interview; kudos to both of you.
    I’m particularly on board with the idea of veering away from the Hero’s Journey formula. There’s this tendency for people to go “Oh, we’ve seen every story under the sun” whilst making no effort whatsoever to develop something new. Often it just involves questioning the formulas.

    My own sad little module-writing attempts involved tons of barks… It’s not much fun. :P

  6. Korva says:

    Very interesting interview! I feel I have to stand up for the Hero’s Journey, though, mainly because I don’t think it’s at all incompatible with a more personal look at the characters. In fact, that combination is something I’ve been craving for a long time. Bioware did various games where the epic+personal combo could have really shined, but IMO they always dropped the ball by ignoring personal details and struggles. My character learned she is (insert big plot hook here), what does that really mean to her and to her companions? How does it change her, whether she wants it or not? Or: a game introduces an interesting concept only to subsequently ignore it instead of exploring it. An example would be the darkspawn taint and its terrible effects on non-Wardens … which is never an issue for the non-Warden party members. Why?

    I love having an overaching theme, clear goal or great quest to work towards while all the “smaller” things are fleshed out too.

    • SunlessNick says:

      Dragon Age 1 and 2 both had hero’s rises (they didn’t follow all the stages of the “classic journey”) but otherwise they had different feels and crossed with different genres.

      What would be kinda cool, in a game that stays mostly in one place – or revisits particular places multiple times – would be the chance to build companion-level relationships (even romances) with NPC’s who aren’t companions. I’m thinking in particular of someone like Lady Elegant – someone whom you have reason to interact with over and over, and provides a useful service in the stuff they sell (and if you take the chance to get a positive relationship with them, they’ll mark their prices down for you) but won’t be going with you to fight Darkspawn, Blood Mages, or Tal-Vashoth. Or in a more nomadic game, someone like Bella from that tavern in Redcliffe – someone with whom you can connect, and grow a friendship with, every time you go through that part of the world. Mind you, I have no illusions about the amount of writing and coding it would take to get a decent selection of such characters.

  7. Matt says:

    Love this interview. It’s like the opposite of law and sausages… seeing how it’s made actually makes you appreciate it more!

    …also did a bunch of barks for a hypothetical videogame in a setting I’ve been slowly trying to get into word-like substances for the past month or three.

    …including a “click on a party member too many times in a row without giving any actual instructions and they get snarky on you” series for each character.

  8. Momiji says:

    This was a good read! I always enjoy getting a glimpse of how it is to actually work inside a game studio. Bioware seems to be a really good place to work, with good work ethics judging from comments from the staff on twitter etc.

    Alan Wake and Botanicula both happens to be some of the best games I’ve played in their respective genres, so I hope Ann enjoys them as much as I did! And Alpha is on my “to read”-list, so its great to hear another vote of confidence. :)

    Thank you both for a great interview!

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