Mary DeMarle Speaks On The Writer's Role in Game Development
[08.18.11] - Connor Cleary
[In this interview, Mary DeMarle, lead writer and narrative designer for Deus Ex: Human Revolution, discusses the writer's role in game development, the challenges and rewards associated with the position, and shares some advice for aspiring game writers.]
At E3 this year Mary DeMarle was one of the presenters for Square-Enix's upcoming title Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but she also happens to be lead writer and narrative designer for the game, and GameCareerGuide got a chance to sit down with DeMarle between presentations. There is a ton of information out there about the design side of gaming, in the realm of art and coding and such, but what about the shadowy figure(s) behind the dialogue? The hand behind the story? And who exactly writes all those little books and emails we find scattered around our game worlds?
Instead of focusing on Deus Ex: HR itself, we start by asking DeMarle about her background as a writer, and how she got into writing for games. DeMarle then speaks to the writer's role in the highly-collaborative process of game design, how writing for games differs from other types of writing that aspiring writers might be familiar with, and some of the challenges and rewards that are fairly unique to the process of game writing. DeMarle shares some advice for young writers, and speaks to the different ways that different companies deal with writers. We wrap up by speaking briefly on some of the difficulties that can occur between the words on the page and the dialogue as performed by a voice actor.
How did you get into video game writing? I'm sure I'm not the only one out there who is really curious about how you start on that path, being such a coveted position.
Mary DeMarle: I've been in the game industry for almost 15 years now, and the way that I actually got in? Well I always say it was a combination of luck, timing, skill, talent, and who I knew. Basically, I was working in Los Angeles and I was doing a lot of entertainment-based writing. It was mostly on the marketing end for companies like Hanna Barbara and 20th Century Fox. But I had an old friend who worked as a programmer at Presto Studios in San Diego and they were looking for a writer. He knew that I liked to write science fiction and fantasy, so he told me about the job and he told his boss about me. I submitted a resume, and I submitted the first chapter of a science fiction novel that I never actually finished. Based on the chapter, they loved my writing and they brought me in for an interview.
What was the first game you worked on?
MD: The first game I ever worked on was Myst 3: Exile. It was funny because they brought me in to work on something else. At the time they were doing a science-fiction series called Journeyman Project, but it got canceled because their publisher got bought. They were also, at that time, working on Star Trek: Hidden Evil but they had a writer for that. The Myst project came right then and well, I was the writer who was available. [Shrugs] So again, a big part was luck, and timing, and stuff like that.
So, just out of curiosity, were you into video games before then? Or was it just, "Hey, I'll give this a try?"
MD: I certainly liked playing video games. I hate to date myself but in college I used to love to play-oh I'm forgetting the name ... "Warrior needs food badly!" [Laughs] Ah, Gauntlet! I used to love that game, and I actually played the first Myst when it came out too. But I wouldn't say that I was a huge player of video games. As soon as I got into the industry I found that for me, as a writer, it's one of the most challenging things you can do. Basically once I got in, I knew it was where I wanted to be and there was no turning back.
You say it's challenging. Now, with that challenge does it also come with a kind of increased reward? Increased return?
MD: I think so, personally. The first and biggest challenge I realized was the fact that you are not in charge of your story, the player is, and the player wants choice. So how can you write a story about a hero when you don't know what your hero is going to do? That's a huge challenge, but it actually allows you to be more creative.
Like with Deus Ex: Human Revolution not only does the story take account for player actions where they can change the story, but just writing Adam [Jensen's] dialogue becomes all about choice. Because now you've got a character that you've created, and you've given a personality to, but then you're handing it over to the player and you want to give the player the option to choose dialogue that's different. That ends up being such a great thing, you can always explore one path through your dialogue and see where it takes you, then you can turn around and take it in a different direction.
For me it's a much more exciting challenge because you're trying to think of all those contingencies. When you succeed, and when you see players going, "Oh, I'm gonna outsmart em, and I'm gonna go try this," and then they try it and realize, "Oh my God, they thought of that!" That's very very exciting.