Scripting the War
Susan O'Connor's journey to game writing
By Carson Barker, Fri., Sept. 8, 2006
Susan O'Connor recently finished writing a 200-page script for a production that no movie theatre will ever play. The script involves actors, a consuming plot, state-of-the-art special effects, lavish backdrops and scenery, but not a dime was spent in any Hollywood studio or exotic shooting location. This production will be distributed to and bought by millions of fans worldwide within the first few months of its release, but you will never see a preview for it in a theatre, no actor will promote it, and no TV station will air this major production.
For the last seven months, this local Austinite has been flying back and forth to Raleigh, N.C., working with developers, producers, musicians, and other media types, writing and rewriting the script for Gears of War, Microsoft's newest game venture for the Xbox 360.
"In 2003 I was in Seattle with a friend that worked for Microsoft. I was at one of their meet and greets, and I met this producer and spoke to him for about five minutes. Two years later, I got an e-mail from this guy asking me if I wanted to write for Gears of War."
GOW has been blessed with incredible visual effects and just a sprinkling of download time. Solely made for the Xbox 360, its release date has been tactically set for the same weekend that the enigmatic PS3 is scheduled for release. The captains at Microsoft and Xbox 360 plan to use GOW to sink PS3 like a weathered pirate ship. Aiding them in this conquest is O'Connor; her reputation for script writing seemed the natural choice.
At 36 years old, O'Connor has been a freelancer in the gaming-script business for eight years, which she alleges is a Peter Pan-ish lifestyle. After graduating from UT, her first career intention was to earn a degree in English to become a novelist or film writer. "I switched from English to art history. I thought I was going to work in film, so I wanted a degree that was more about visuals."
After spending the next few years working dead-end jobs, O'Connor stumbled upon her first writing gig, a script for a video game titled Girl Talk. "In 1998 I happened to get passed along to the producer of this company called Human Code. They needed a writer for this slumber party game for girls. They needed to put someone on staff to do it, and that was me." Since Girl Talk, O'Connor's résumé has expanded with Finding Nemo, Star Wars Galaxies, Dungeon Siege II, Act of War, and now Gears of War. GOW has been her largest production yet and her personal favorite.
O'Connor explained how script writing is possibly the most crucial aspect of video games and intriguingly different from screenwriting. A typical movie script is finished before the filming begins, but O'Connor's script writing is more interactive. "It's really going to be predicted by the game play, and that happens while you're playing the game. When I'm working on a project, I'll finish the first level, then the designers will build it. I'll play what they have so far, then I'll talk with the level designers, AI programmers, and musicians about changes, and then I write around that."
O'Connor's random steps to become a game-script writer belies how passionate she is of her work. "My job is to understand what's going on between the game and the player," O'Connor says. "I have to understand the story, the script, and in between the two is how the player is going to experience the story in the game. That's the thing that film writers don't have to think about."
Video games have become an integrated part of O'Connor's life. Aside from playing games in her free time and writing them in her work time, she also taught a game-writing class at ACC this summer. Though O'Connor's profession and hobby are the same and keep her from submitting to a "grownup" job, she speaks of her future plans as if they're still in the air. "Game writing is going really well for me, but it just depends on what happens. I like writing games because you use so many more tools than just words to show what's going on. I still have to pinch myself every day; basically I'm living the life of a 12-year-old boy."