Ultimate David Gaider Interview - LouisKensei Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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Ultimate David Gaider Interview

David Gaider

David Gaider

Writer's note: In celebration of Kim Wallace's piece about creating Dragon Age party members, I thought it would be timely to post this old, super long interview with David Gaider. A senior writer for BioWare, Gaider has worked with the company since 1999. As the lead writer for Dragon Age: Origins, Awakening, Dragon Age 2, and the upcoming Dragon Age: Inquisition, Gaider has a lot to say about writing for video games.

In addition to the dragon-slaying series, the Edmonton, Alberta based writer has worked on Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Neverwinter Nights. He also penned three Dragon Age novels and a recently-finished comic book series.

As for anyone looking for Inquisition story info, consider this: back in a 2010 interview Gaider said Morrigan, Flemeth, Hawke, and the Old God baby possibly produced by a Grey Warden and Morrigan would be major players in the series' overall story. However, a lot may have changed since then. Oh, and the empress of Orlais is apparently quite the looker based on concept art. 

If you have no idea what that last paragraph means, then you should probably catch up on the series.

Part 1 -- Working For BioWare And The Writing Process

Louis Garcia: How did you become a writer for BioWare?
David Gaider: It was kind of a weird way actually. I didn’t even know that BioWare was in Edmonton. This was back when they had released Baldur’s Gate one, which I had heard of, but hadn’t played.

I had a friend who worked at BioWare, he was an artist here, he’s not at the company now. BioWare at the time was looking to hire some new writers and designers and they said to the people who worked here, ‘if you know anyone who’s written something or created something game related to completion, maybe you hand it over and we’ll check them out.’

I had written this game that this artist friend of mine was playing…and so he gave it to James Ohlen (longtime BioWare designer), without actually telling me he was doing so. James contacted me and it was out of the blue. I hadn’t applied or anything. It was very bizarre, and I came in for an interview and I was actually managing a hotel at the time.

I actually turned down the job at first. I thought, ‘oh, game development company in Edmonton…that doesn’t seem very stable or anything.’

I went into work at my hotel the next Monday and my boss had flown in from Mississauga, which was unusual, and told me that the management company that I worked for had been bought out.

What they do is they let all of their general managers go and that happened. I walked off the property that day and went ‘oh, maybe I will try that job.’ I phoned them back and asked them if the job offer was still good and they said yeah.

It just kind of worked out. It was very fated I guess. It’s not a path into the industry that I would recommend [laughs]. I get e-mails all the time asking ‘can you advise me how to get a writing job at BioWare, like how did you get started?’ I’m like, I don’t think my path is even available to people [laughs].

What is it like working for BioWare?
I certainly don’t feel like a star or anything. There’s a huge team responsible for a game, right? I’m just one part of the machine. I feel appreciated, sure. I think they believe that I’ve done some good work for them. I feel grateful for the role I’ve been given. I’m now in a lead position.

BioWare

It’s a fun job. It’s still a job. There are days where you want to slit your wrists [laughs], especially when there are cuts and such. Some of them can be really heartbreaking.

When you have something that you pour your creative energy into, sometimes things don’t go the way you planned and so then it’s not fun. And then some days it’s just drudgery.

But then there’s other days you realize who else has the chance to do this stuff? You work at a job where you can turn to the person next to you and have some bizarre conversation and you stop in the middle of it and you’re like, nobody else gets to do this so that’s kind of awesome.

[Gaider veered onto this topic during the question.]
On Dragon Age: Origins finally hitting stores and filling eager gamers’ consoles.
It was sort of a justification. Before it came out there was a lot of people that said ‘oh, it’s a little too old school for modern audiences.’

It did really well, so there was a lot of…you kind of want to call some of the people up and say I told you so. I think the result speaks for itself, right?

What is the writing process like? There are different writers working on different characters and different scenarios. Do you guys kind of all come together at different points and share what you’re working on?
We tend to work in the same room. Right now we have what’s called the writers pit where everyone on the same project is sort of in the same room so writers can bounce ideas off of each other.

There’s a lot of writing to do so we do split everything up so you have an area of responsibility. So, it be like here’s this plot or this area that you as a writer are responsible for.

It depends on the phase, right? The initial phrase is all about coming up with the concepts, what is our overall story. We have to break it down sort of into whatever the quests involve and make sure that the quest design is solid. The writer is not alone in that. There are several other disciplines in design that get involved and helped design the quests. The writer just sort of takes an overall responsibility for it but we don’t write them ourselves.

I think some people picture it as top down, like the writer says this is what I’m writing and everybody else in the company sort of runs around to implement our vision. That’s not quite the way it is.

The overall vision is the responsibility of the lead designer. The other disciplines like the combat designers or level designers have their two cents…like we’d like to try this or can we do a quest that focuses on this gameplay element.

Once you’ve got that broken down it’s a matter of the writer putting together the dialogue for it. We try that out and see if it’s fun and revise and then try it out again and then revise. You end up throwing out a lot of stuff you worked on.

Sometimes it just isn’t working, and it ends up getting cut. That’s always heartbreaking.

Dragon Age

How much freedom did you have with writing different aspects of the game?
Some. As lead designer I have a little more freedom. If someone is a senior writer I would give them a plot with a general plan and they would be responsible for going ahead and breaking it down into more detail.

They don’t have the freedom to create their own characters…some of them…but the major ones, no. They don’t get to decide the major plot. A more junior writer basically gets handed a much more detailed plan. They’re more responsible for implementing that.

As a lead writer you get a little bit more freedom as in I’m given parameters as in this is what we need the story to be or the lead designer talks to me about the overall vision for the story.

We toss ideas back and forth. And then in the end, once I understand the parameters that the game’s story has to be made with, I create that.

So, inside those parameters I actually have a lot of freedom, so that part is gratifying. It’s not a case of me deciding I want to write this story. In that respect there is not much freedom [laughs].

Part 2 -- Creativity And The Dragon Age Novels

What influences you creatively?
Oof, that’s a big question. There are a lot of things that can influence me. I read books. I mentioned off hand on the (BioWare) forums that George R. R. Martin novels were a big influence, but that was mainly because I think at the time, this was five or six years ago when I started working on Origins, I was a little burnt out on fantasy and George R. R. Martin’s books…I found them influential because he did fantasy in this different way.

I’m sure there are other authors who did something similar to him, but it was the first one I had seen where he took fantasy and put this more realistic spin on it and it focused more on the political elements as opposed to these are the big operatic high fantasy that I’ve read before.

I thought that was really different, and I like things that are really different. Like Battlestar Galactica, the new series that played for a while, takes something that has been done before and they put their own spin on it. I think that was sort of my piece of Dragon Age, which I like to call my own.

My vision for fantasy was take an element of the genre that people have seen before and on the surface it will look familiar, and put another spin on it. Put something on it that’s a little bit different, that tries to do something that people might find intriguing.

That’s what I tend to look for when I’m reading books. Joe Abercrombie actually does a series that I finished recently which I found was really quite excellent and did the same thing. It sort of avoided some of the high fantasy and the stuff that he included was very well done.

[On fantasy clichés and characters]

“I tend to be inspired more by characters than even by the overall story.”

I think that some fans like to go and make a big deal of clichés. They seem to categorize clichés as anything they’ve seen before, ever.

I think there are good things about the familiar but one person’s cliché is another person’s archetype and I think that if you do an archetype badly, then yeah, it’s a cliché.

It’s possible to do archetypes well and present them in a fresh way and have things even if someone thinks things didn’t end well maybe there is something in that story that they can grab onto like the characters that they like.

I tend to be inspired more by characters than even by the overall story. If there are characters that are particularly intriguing or something I haven’t seen before, or maybe the interplay between characters; I’m a big fan of dialogue, duh [laughs].

If there’s really good dialogue in something I really find it fascinating. Lion in Winter. The Lion in Winter is a movie that was done that is quite old now. It’s probably my favorite movie of all time and that rests almost entirely on the dialogue in the movie being absolutely fascinating. If there’s good dialogue in anything really I’m drawn to it.

Ogre

What do you think about the video game medium and its story telling ability?
Well, how do I put this? It has a lot of limitations that you don’t necessarily deal with in other mediums. Like in a book.

I’ve written a couple of novels now (Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne and Dragon Age: The Calling) and it is very interesting that when it comes to a book, anything that’s in my imagination I can put down on paper and there it is. Whereas in a video game you have the physical limitations. You have limitations in technology, limitations of what you can actually show.

You can’t do everything you want to. I’ve had lots and lots of times where I had this plan for a story and it just ends up that we can’t present it in that way.

In a book I can say they hop on a horse and away they go…whoo, I’ve got horses, it’s easy. In the game it’s, OK, this horse isn’t this big part of the story, but it’s a really cool element to have, but we need horse models, animations for riding and suddenly you have finite resources and it’s well, how important are horses or whatever other element you’re talking about…how important are they to the story you’re trying to tell. You really have to focus on the gameplay you need to present and resources you have. So, in that part it’s limited.

The part that it has where it’s excellent is the interactive part. You don’t get that in other passive entertainments.

In those you’re watching a character, but I don‘t think you would identify as strongly as in a game where you’re the one who’s directing the action. You have agency, whereas in a movie or a novel you don’t have agency and I think that changes the nature of the entertainment substantially and that’s where the opportunities come in.

Anything which sort of gives the player more immediacy in their agency like the part they are playing, they feel more of an element from it. And it’s not necessarily an element of choice. I know that’s intrinsic to an RPG, but I think stories are possible in games other than RPGs.

Lots of games have stories. I played a game called Uncharted 2 recently, which had a great story, and it didn’t matter that I was making choices. It was still presented in such a great way that I felt that I had agency, and that’s always going to be an allusion to an extent, but the fact that I felt it and got involved in the story made me feel more entertained than if I had been watching a movie.

What did you like better, working on the video game or writing the novels?
[Laughs] Wow, let’s see. That’s a tough thing to quantify. I mean, working on the novel did allow me more freedom. It’s a different experience just because in a game it’s like I don’t get to decide everything, I have those limitations that I spoke of. When I’m working on the novel I just get to say, I want to do this, and I can do it as long as I can just put the words on paper, it’s there.

That was very different to me, especially when I had been working in games at the time for eight or nine years already. So you’re very accustomed to working with those limitations and here it’s like OK, you create a book and it’s really freeing.

The Stolen Throne

On the other hand…if it’s a game at least if something didn’t go quite like I wanted it to I know it’s not entirely in my power.

In something like that I shift blame; that was the designers fault, totally [laughs]. But, it is a group effort. It’s both a positive and negative. It’s a positive in that together we were able to create something that no individual person could of course, but it also means that both the responsibility and the rewards are shared.

“Down to personal preference though, I think I liked working on the book just because it’s mine.”

In the book if something doesn’t work out I mean that happens too. Especially my first book that I wrote. It was my first time attempting such a thing. Sometimes it’s just like I don’t know how to get this to be quite what I wanted whereas I see the reaction to it and I could have done something differently and it’s all my fault. It’s quite a different experience when you put a game out there and it’s a group effort.

Down to personal preference though, I think I liked working on the book just because it’s mine. Sure it’s BioWare’s world, but this piece of it was more purely my vision. I think that was really fun.

Would you ever write any more books?
Oh sure, sure. A lot of it is time. The game we’re working on now, Dragon Age 2, has a pretty short development time so that doesn't leave a lot of room for writing novels never mind, you know, sleeping [laughs]. But if I had the time, yeah. [Writer's note: Gaider has since written another novel, as well as two different comic series].

The Calling

“Right before a game goes out we’re literally at a point where all we can see are the flaws and think ‘oh god, they’re going to hate this…’”

I think the first two novels I wrote just sort of whetted my appetite. It’s the same when you put out a game.

When we put out a game, after we’ve done it there’s that whole legion of shoulda, woulda, coulda that you feel. Right before a game goes out we’re literally at a point where all we can see are the flaws and we think ‘oh god, they’re going to hate this,’ and they never do, or most of them don’t. At that point we’ve built up this accumulation of flaws or mistakes or things that got cut or missed opportunities and it become a little overwhelming. You lose a little perspective.

Having put out those novels I feel the errors in them just like in the video games. Once they’re out it’s like uh, it’s terrible it’s horrible, how can anybody read this. There’s been a lot of positive feedback on it, but at the same time I see what I can do better.

I’d like to keep developing that skill. It is a different skill. It’s very different from just writing dialogue or structuring quests to actually writing prose. My personal opinion is I did pretty well but I can do better and I’d like to do better. So given the opportunity, I’d like to do that.

One of my favorite parts of the books was Maric. Would we ever see him in a Dragon Age expansion, stand alone game or downloadable content? Is that something that could possibly happen?
Well, it’s a little bit problematic just because if I put a character from the novels in the game, it has to be presented in such a way that anybody who didn’t read the books, which is quite a different audience size between the video game and the books, it have to be in such a way that someone who didn't’ read the books would understand who they were and in a way would that actually satisfy the person who did read the books?

They don’t need a basic introduction to Maric for instance. The person who read the book already knows that, they’re looking from something extra. They would see that as a rehash of what they already know.

So would that do anything for them? I don’t know. Does it do anything for the person who doesn’t know anything about the books? Again, hard to say, this is a new character for them. Is it better than any other new character? Hard to say.

I really enjoyed playing Maric but there’d be limitations, maybe it might work as a cameo so someone who read the book would get that extra from it, but it really doesn't impact much on the person who didn’t read the book, so I don’t know. It’s tough because I really grow attached to these characters and I really want to use them, but I have to recognize that the two worlds aren’t necessarily going to mix that well, but if I ever had the opportunity to do it, yeah I would love to. Some of those characters I think aren’t done yet in my mind.

Part 3 -- Characters And Games As Art

“He’s an assassin droid, what the hell am I going to write for him?”

HK-47

You were talking about before how characters are really important to you in books, but what are some of your favorite video game characters that you’ve written?
Oh, wow, let’s see. HK-47 was a blast. He was funny just how he worked out too because we had both droids T3-M4, and HK-47 in Knights of the Old Republic that didn’t have any dialogue.

I had some extra time so James Ohlen said, ‘well, could you write some dialogue for this character?’ I kind of complained at first, I was like [sighs] ‘He’s an assassin droid, what the hell am I going to write for him?’

I think I wrote him in a week and the reaction to him was phenomenal but I sort of had fun with it. The characters I write just to have fun seem to be the ones received the best.

I remember Alistair actually is one on Origins I really enjoyed writing just because, most people don’t know this, but we had an entire version of Alistair where he was this grim, veteran warrior. Older and just a very serious type who was very distrustful of you and he wasn’t much fun.

Nobody was liking him because he was being so distrustful. We really wanted to set this up as a romance interest as well as a good buddy for a male player and it wasn’t working.

It was really touching on that Carth (A KOTOR character Gaider also wrote) vibe a little bit much but he really hit a bad note with the male players. So, it came down as one of those revisions where we just couldn’t fix him. There’s something fundamentally wrong here so I had to go back and go, ‘alright how about I just have a little bit more fun with him and maybe the player will too.’ And so I did.

Even though it was painful to make the decision to start all over, it really worked out well I thought. I think Alistair and the fact that he’s fun really came across. He was quite a popular character.

Beyond that, off the top of my head, umm…Jolee Bindo from Knights of the Old Republic also a lot of fun. Deekin the Kobold bard from Neverwinter (Neverwinter Nights) was probably my favorite part of that game (laughs).

“I’ll probably get flak for it but I always pictured Shale as this sassy black woman sort of trapped in a body of a rock.”

On Morrigan and Shale

Shale

Shale was another character where I had to go back to the drawing board. It did touch on HK-47 a little bit, but to me it’s very much a different character. HK-47 was sort of a heartless killer and he was funny in his heartlessness in sort of a Bender of Futurama kind of way.

Shale is just this sort, I know I’ll probably get flak for it but I always pictured Shale as this sassy black woman sort of trapped in a body of a rock. That was the image that worked for me when I was writing [laughs]. I really enjoyed Shale as well.

Morrigan

Morrigan was different. Morrigan was hard to write.

It’s funny. When I first started writing her I was going to this…I don’t know if you’ve ever read this comic series called Sandman? There’s a character named Delirium who was one of the Endless. When I first started writing Morrigan I was making her like Delirium in the way she talked and kind of out there. She never knew what planet she was on necessarily.

And again, that wasn’t working. Then I went to a sort of more of a hard-edged and it was hard to find that place where OK, for the person who’s romancing her, they have to feel like they got through that armor where nobody else could. And I think I found it and that was very gratifying to find, but it was a hard character to write. A very, very hard character to write.

Do you have an opinion on the video games as art topic?
You know, I think it’s kind of a silly question. Because of course, video games are art.

Is it art that everyone’s going to appreciate? Ah, no. What art is there that everyone appreciates? Something that some art critic says is the most fantastic art in the world, half of everyone else in the world could look at it and go pfft, what the hell am I supposed to enjoy about that?

Video games offer an opportunity for us to have these stories that interact with…you know, paintings for instance. You look at them and you can appreciate them. But video games, it’s art that somebody can experience. It’s different. It’s not something that everyone is going to grasp immediately.

And I also think that it’s a very young medium. In terms of the potential to tell stories, we’re just sort of scratching the surface.

There have been some wonderful stories that have been told. I mean, you look at something like Planescape: Torment. Tell me that isn’t art. I mean, sure, there are parts to it somebody might consider juvenile. Somebody might look on that and go, ‘well there’s combat, you’re killing things, what’s artistic about that?’

You know, don’t get caught up in the forest for the trees. There is a forest there, and that is totally art and that is something we should aspire to. Like I said, we’re scratching the surface now and I think given less limitations, where we get to that point where the technical limitations aren’t so much of a limitation anymore, we can achieve something even greater.

Part 4 -- On Writing For Dragon Age 2

How was it different writing a framed narrative for Dragon Age 2? What were the ups and downs to this kind of story?

It’s an unusual story structure for us, considering we normally start the player at a particular point in time and just proceed from there…you follow your character through every step they take.

With a framed narrative, we were able to focus instead on important parts of the main character’s life and have events develop over a period of time rather than happening all at once. This also allowed us to show quests having an effect in the next time period rather than only focusing on what the player does in that quest in the present.David Gaider Mugshot

On the downside, it does require a segmentation of the story that wouldn’t otherwise be required -- meaning you have to bring the player to a bottleneck in the plot where they can be jumped forward into the next time period, a jump that can’t be reversed once it’s done. Therefore, you need a way to telegraph to the player, “anything you want to complete in this time period you’d better do now,” and that proved to be more problematic to do than we’d thought. Still, on the whole, I’d say it allowed us to tell a very different kind of tale.

What was it like to write a protagonist that actually spoke throughout the game?

Not as different from a non-verbal protagonist as one might think. We changed the interface to a Mass Effect-style dialogue wheel with paraphrased responses, with some added icons to help indicate to the player what the tone of their response would be (so there’s fewer surprises).

If anything, it was a matter of getting used to writing these paraphrases, but the array of options was much the same as we’d done previously. One benefit I really liked, from a writing standpoint, was allowing the player to take part in dramatic moments such as speeches -- whereas previously a non-player character would have needed to do that -- and also back-and-forths in conversation, which is a bit more natural to write than having the player select every single response.

What was the writing process like for the new characters?

It was no different than we’ve done previously. The writing team looks at the plot we’ve laid out and starts thinking of the sorts of characters that would fit into it. If we have a conflict between mages and templars, for instance, we look at characters that would be naturally tied into that conflict --someone on the side of the mages or on the templars specifically -- who can offer the player a personal perspective on the conflict. This allows that conflict to be less of a nebulous concept and instead something that affects them personally.

Once we have an array of characters that we like, it’s a matter of assigning them to writers who feel like there’s something about that character they feel inspired by. If nobody feels thrilled to write a character, that’s probably a good indication we need to go back to the drawing board.

How difficult was it to fit in content from Origins and Awakening into the second game so it all made sense?

That’s harder than one might think, considering that the plot of the second game was only tangentially related to the first -- it didn’t involve the same main character and didn’t take place in the same location. So we could refer to events that occurred elsewhere, and occasionally have characters appear, but didn’t want to force the connections to a point where it seemed unrealistic.

Of the things that we did fit in, it was a matter of trying to track all the different choices from Origins and Awakening and figuring out which choices we could or should accommodate. Accommodating them all just isn’t feasible, but neither is ignoring every decision and having no ties to the previous game just so we don’t contravene anything. It’s a tricky situation. Our primary mission was to provide bonuses for the player who did import their previous decisions, acknowledgment of their accomplishments, and some nods to characters and stories they were already familiar with, without giving anyone the impression that they had to play the previous game in order to understand what was going on.

Who were your favorite or least favorite characters?

My favorite was probably Aveline, the soldier from Ferelden who joins your party early in the game. I like characters that play against type, and Aveline was a female character who was strong and independent yet also vulnerable, and at the same time she didn’t exist simply to be romanced (and thus defined by that romance). She didn’t fall comfortably into any archetype, and that’s unusual both in fantasy stories as well as for female characters in particular. So I’m proud Luke Kristjanson (one of the writers on my team) did such a fantastic job with her.

As for least favorite, that’s hard -- I don’t really have any characters I don’t like, though I do have characters that I’m disappointed with, ones I look back on and regret cutting important elements out of, or ones that I wish we’d been able to do more with. First Enchanter Orsino was one of the main antagonists, and I felt like we ended up giving him less screen time than he really needed to tell his side of the story, which is unfortunate.

What were your favorite and least favorite parts of writing the sequel?

The answer to both of these is the shorter time line we had to work with, versus the first game. The negative side is obvious: You have less time to do everything, less time to iterate, and less opportunity to do little extras or follow up on moments of inspiration.
 
The positive side of that probably wouldn’t be obvious to anyone outside of game development: When you have lots of time to work on a project, you can often use that time in a very nonconstructive way. You stop being objective about a part of the story because you’re spending so much time with it and start second-guessing yourself. When that happens, it is literally possible to spend years developing a game and yet never make any significant progress. And that’s not good, either. Somewhere in the middle would probably be ideal.

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