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  • Interview: Full Sail's Wendy Despain on Teaching Interactive Storytellers

    [04.15.14]
    - Connor Cleary
  •  [Shortly after Wendy Despain's Education Summit panel at GDC, "Top Ten Things to Teach About Game Writing," she sat down with GameCareerGuide contributor Connor Cleary to talk about her experiences teaching game writing.

    Wendy Despain is a Narrative Designer and Consultant who has worked on EA's JetSet Secrets, and Playdom's Gardens of Time. She is Course Director for Writing Workshop IV: Videogames and Interactive Formats at Full Sail University, and the author/editor of multiple books on game writing, including Professional Techniques for Video Game Writing, endorsed by the IGDA Writing Special Interest Group. Despain's most recent game is called Ghost Hunt, available on the Choosatron platform.]

    What surprises you the most about the students coming into a game writing program?

    Wendy Despain: I had a really interesting group of students because the program is actually called "Creative Writing for Entertainment," so they get a class on film, they get a class on television writing, on children's books - it's not just game writing. Because, in this modern world, no writer gets to say, "I'm just gonna write film for the next 30 years and never have to learn another kind of writing."

    So we're trying to educate students in multiple forms of entertainment writing to make sure they're equipped to go out into the world and do whatever job is paying at the time, because that's how you make a living as a writer. Also, a lot of things about entertainment writing have changed a lot over the last five to ten years, and I think we've finally gotten to the point where we're no longer trying to say, "This is what its going to look like in another five or ten years." We just don't know whats coming down the pipe. What we do know is: if we give the students a broad education in all kinds of writing, then they'll be equipped to help invent the next kind of entertainment. And I love that about the program. It's a very broad education over different types of writing.

    Now, the reason I bring that up is that I have many students in my class, and probably seventy percent of them are not especially interested in writing for games.

    That kind of surprised me when I started because I love games so much, and it's so easy to assume that the people around you are just like you - everybody does that. So I sort of assumed that everybody plays games, and loves games, and wants to write for games, but they're just busy doing other things. When in reality, many of my students are mostly interested in writing for film, or TV, or books, or something else that's not games. Many of them even come into my class thinking they don't like games, or that games are bad for your brain because you spend so many hours staring at the TV, and some of them come in to my class thinking that they don't play games personally.

    What I spend part of the first day doing is helping them see that they do actually play games. The game development community has a lot of fun debating about what constitutes a game - Is this a game? Is that a game? This cant be a game, because of X, Y, and Z - but what I eventually realized is that students don't necessarily realize that Bejeweled on their phone - or Tetris, or Solitaire - that those are games! So when I say to them, "How do you spend fifteen minutes waiting in line at the grocery store when the person ahead of you is really slow?" They're like, "Oh, I whip out my phone and I play Farmville (or, I play whatever) on my phone." And I say, "That's a video game, and it has a story in it. Let's talk about that."

    That kind of blows their minds a little bit when they've been focusing so much on film and TV and other kinds of entertainment. They're kind of like, "Whoa. I do play games. And you're right, there is a story." It's just not the same kind of story.

    I really enjoy kind of opening up the possibility space to them and saying, hey look, this is what you can do, and there's more than one way to tell a story. It doesn't have to be told in one sitting, for two hours, in front of a big screen, or even across, you know, twenty-two episodes of a season of television. You can tell it in bite sized chunks. You can tell it in 80 hours of gameplay that people come back to - and you can't guarantee that they remember that one line you dropped in act one when they're in act three. That may have been 4 months ago, and they forgot it.

    It's a different kind of storytelling, and I love that. I do enjoy showing it to students, but it's definitely one of the things that surprised me about them: They don't recognize, the way I do, that games have become a part of their everyday life. The fact that I work in the business helps me to be more aware of it, and see how games are everywhere - no matter how you define them.

    And I think it surprises them, too, when they finally see that games are everywhere.

    You covered this a little bit, but besides, "Ooh, I do play games," what are the things that surprise your students the most? Particularly when you start to talk about game writing, and particularly the students who are interested in writing for games.

    WD: That's another interesting situation. Many of the students who are interested in game writing are heavy-duty gamers. They go home and play forty hours of - "I was up all night playing the latest whatever" - and that's great, we wouldn't have an industry without gamers like that. I love having those students in my class, but I think it surprises them how different it is to be a creator than a consumer.

    A lot of the information that's out there on message boards and stuff is speculation. Because PR companies are so guarded - "Developers, you can't talk. You can't open your mouth." - and for good reasons, usually. Not everyone is prepared to talk to the public. But because that wall is up, there's so much conjecture on message boards and the internet in general about why a particular design thing happened the way it happened. Students who play a lot of games tend to come in with a lot of preconceived ideas about how the development process works.

    I'm a very hands-on kind of educator. I think the best way to learn is by doing. So I have them make a game in my class. Everyone. Whether they want to work for games or not. Everybody writes a Twine game - it's basically Choose-Your-Own-Adventure platform, but instead of turning to page 75 to find out what happens when you go down the stairs in the creepy house, you just click on a link and it takes you to another web page. Twine is a tool that helps you make those, so you don't have to learn HTML and do all of the hard stuff.

    So I have them make a game. And I think what surprises them the most - especially the ones that think they know the most, "Oh I know how to make a game. I've been reading on message boards for years about how to make a game, and I've even read some books about it, and I have another class about it" - when it comes time to sit down and actually make their own game, they learn so much, and it really surprises them how many things don't apply that they thought would. For one thing, they learn that it's not as exciting as they thought it would be. "Wha- This turns out to be a lot of work, and it's not really a lot of fun." While it's fun to have made the game, there are a lot of stretches in there where - especially if you design it with, oh about twelve branching storylines - yeah, that's a lot of work! And nobody's gonna change that one part except you. Nobody's going to write it except you. So sit down. Get to work. And you can't, you just can't stop half way through and be like, "Eugh. Um. It ends... Somehow. You know. I got tired of writing. And stopped."

    Well, okay, but you'll never publish it, and get it out there for people to see and so on. One of the things that surprises them the most is that, yeah, it is work. Another surprise: they don't know as much as they thought they did.

    Oddly, students who come in that don't play a lot of games and don't read the forums, it's really funny to me because they say, "Okay, this is how its done," and they just go through the steps. They don't have that same resistance. So students who think they already know about it sometimes struggle with the process a little more, because it's not just new to them. It's different than they thought it would be.

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