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New set of Formsprings interviews with JE Sawyer

Yet another set of interview questions with J.E. Sawyer from Formsprings.

You lamented about the lack of serious themes in video games earlier. Why do you think the quality of writing is dependent on establishing and developing a theme? Wouldn't an entertaining plot and characters be more important for the player's enjoyment?

A lot of RPGs are long, certainly longer than the average film. If there is not some thematic thread running through all of that time and much of the dialogue, the experience as a whole can fall flat. Taken as snapshots, characters and plot elements may stand on their own, but they are essentially reduced to one-offs with very little connective tissue binding them together.

We already have plenty of examples of well-written characters in video gaming. Writing consistently entertaining dialogue requires skill, but I believe the best writing in any genre combines well-written characters with an interesting exploration of theme. Video games don't do that very often, overtly or subtextually.

"Entertainment value" and "depth" are not intrinsically linked. Many people are entertained by things that have very little depth. Some of the most popular "western" RPG characters, I would argue, have very little depth and are not connected to any consistently established theme.

So, when I'm asked if I think gamers have lowered their standards for writing, I honestly have to ask, "What standards?" From what I see and hear people discussing, those standards stop at entertaining dialogue and an interesting plot. In my opinion, that is a very low bar to reach -- and I write this fully aware that I do not write the most entertaining characters or plots. I just think that with all of the good writers in the industry, we can do much better than we have.

Is it even desirable for a game to have good writing or to consistently establish and reinforce themes? Isn't that straying too far into games-as-art as opposed to games-as-good-games?

I think of it as "content-as-something-that-isn't-worthless-garbage". If you're going to bother putting something into your game, put a little effort into conceiving it.

The best concept artists I have worked with have a *concept* behind their concept. It's goofy that I have to call this out, but a lot of artist don't. If you bother thinking about why you're making content choices -- the marks on a drawing, the words in a conversation, the choices in an advancement system -- it tends to help create the feeling of cohesion. Elements are rooted in the fictitious place and time you have created.

If it matters for visuals (and I believe it does), it matters for dialogue.

Now, we all know that Obsidian has developed some pretty buggy games in the past, especially considered that they weren't developed from scratch (they were both sequels). Now, I'm pretty sure that wasn't the intention, so the question is : how it happened

Poor planning, poorly phased implementation of content, poor scope management in general.

Regarding your criticism of subtext in games, what is your opinion on Bioshock's thematic delivery? I think most of it went over gamers' heads because a large portion was conveyed through subtext: Marxist imagery in Atlas posters, Bible smuggling, etc.

I think Bioshock did a fantastic job, personally. While I think Bioshock's game play/choice mechanics weren't super compelling (this criticism is directly mostly at the late game), I think their environments and theme were executed very well.

And while I do think there is a lot of subtext in Bioshock, there's also a lot of overt discussion of theme. It doesn't get much more overt than locking you in a bathysphere and playing a video that's a direct critique of modern American, Soviet, and Christian societies.

I think that was the right way to do it: immediately introduce the player to the central philosophical idea behind Rapture and convey many of its various strengths and shortcomings through subtext over the course of the game.

How do you feel about DLC and online content? Shouldn't a game be able to stand up on its own merits as it is sold without these things?

1) DLC is fine as long as its presentation is not jarring or irritating to the player.

2) Yes.

I'm pretty sure you won't answer this, but how do you feel about the reception Alpha Protocol received so far? I don't remember if you actually worked on it or not, though.

I worked on the CQC/martial arts system.

It is interesting that the response is so varied. Different reviewers obviously focus on different things, but I don't think I've seen anything that's an unreasonable critique.

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