Steve Ince

Posted by Matt Barton, Philip Jong.
First posted on 01 October 2008. Last updated on 10 January 2009.
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Steve Ince
Steve Ince is a freelance scriptwriter, game developer, comic strip artist, blogger, and book author.

Steve Ince is a veteran game writer, designer, and developer who is widely recognized among adventure game fans. His early credits include Beneath a Steel Sky (Background Art and Sprite Animation) and In Cold Blood (Producer, Writer, Designer). Yet, Ince is perhaps best known for his work on the Broken Sword series—Broken Sword: The Shadows of the Templars (Producer), Broken Sword: The Smoking Mirror (Producer), and Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon (Lead Section Design, Writer, Designer). In addition to being a freelance writer, Ince is also a book author and a consultant: he is the author of Writing for Video Games (published by A & C Black Publishers), a practical guide on the art of scriptwriting in video games, and he is the founder of inceSIGHT, a company that provides writing and designing consulting for game developers.

Ince's latest project is So Blonde (Story, Design & Dialog), a new point-and-click adventure game with Ince's trademark blend of comic and wit about a modern teenage girl who has suddenly found herself transported back in time to an age ruled by pirates and buccaneers. For his writing in So Blond, Ince has been nominated for the prestigious 2008 Writers' Guild of Great Britain Awards in Best Videogame Script.

We recently have had the pleasure of interviewing Ince about his work on So Blonde and other games. We also discuss his thoughts on game design and careers for writers in the game industry. His thoughtful responses are of great interest to anyone who is curious about these important but rarely revealed aspects of adventure game development.

What advice do you have for your fans who are interested in a career in game writing? What courses or programs do you recommend for students wanting to pursue such a career?

The most important advice I would give would be for everyone to buy my book, Writing for Video Games. Heck, buy two copies so you can be sure to have a spare if you lose the first.

Seriously, the would-be writer should accept that they are always learning and in a medium that's developing and growing rapidly this is even more the case. I'm always reading books on writing technique, structure, characterization, etc. and I don't ever see that stopping. Getting other people's perspective on how they practice their craft is fascinating.

Writers should also live life. Game stories seem to fit a very narrow range and mostly appear to have a basis in science fiction and fantasy. Yes, much of this is driven by the need to interweave stories with dramatic and exciting gameplay, but it's a medium waiting to explode through a broadening of story themes and settings.

I'm afraid that I don't know very much about specifics of courses for game writing, so I'm not much help there. However, I would say that anyone looking at such a course should find out how they approach the integration of the writer into the team dynamic, how the course relates writing to design and how it explores writing techniques for different genres.

What are examples of games, adventure or otherwise, that you feel demonstrate excellent writing (feel free to plug your own games)? Why?

Two of my favourite games for their writing are Grim Fandango and Psychonauts, which feature the superb talents of Tim Schafer. They work on two major levels from a writing point of view – the dialog is brilliant and extremely funny and the characters are so well defined.

One of the best things about having well-defined characters is that it's so much easier to understand how they relate to one another and much easier to write good dialog for them.

Knights of the Old Republic (the first one) is a wonderful game in the way it interweaves the story with the developing gameplay and the characters' increasing powers. The dialog was a little limited by the structure they chose for conversations, but within that it was extremely well written.

As for my own work – modesty prevents me from claiming it to be of a standard to compare with the examples above. With So Blonde I wanted to create a story that integrated well with the gameplay and that had a cast of characters that all played their parts in moving it forward. I wanted the main character to be deeper than she first appears and transform throughout the story. I hope I've succeeded, but only the players will tell me that.

Beneath a Steel Sky showed a vision of a dystopian society ruled by a corrupted artificial intelligence. What inspired the story in Beneath a Steel Sky? How similar or different was this vision compared with other cyberpunk fiction (such as Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly or William Gibson's Neuromancer) of its time?

I joined Revolution when BASS was well under way and don't know the direct influences, but I'm sure that those authors will have had some small influence at least. We're all influenced by everything we read, watch or play.

The biggest difference to the kind of cyberpunk or dystopian future is that BASS was filled with lots of humour, so while the themes and setting were quite dark, the characters, situations and dialog were often a strong contrast to this.

Lure of the Temptress was the first game developed by Revolution Software and featured an unusual parser with an ability to string together a long list of commands, essentially programming the character to perform complex tasks. How come this system was never used again by the studio in later games, including your own?

I wasn't part of the team when this game was being developed, but from talking with my friend Tony Warriner, who devised many of Revolution's game systems, it proved to be quite a nightmare getting the parsing system to work in other languages. Different grammar and sentence structure, along with gender attributes of nouns meant that a generic system could not be made to work across all languages.

I've often thought about utilising some kind of system along these lines in one of my designs, but if I did so I'd use some kind of icon based system which would help when transferring to other languages. In fact, I even have a game idea where all the conversations would take place using icons, so they'd be very conceptual.

Many adventure games try to create a generic "everyman" type of character for the player. Is that just a necessity of the medium—a conflict between giving the player a sense of freedom versus a more structured and coherent experience? Why?

I think that it's important, in a third person adventure, to create a main character with which the player can identify. Part of the success of Broken Sword and The Longest Journey is that they have characters that could be you or me. And as soon as you identify with the character you want to help them progress through the game story. The characters and story then have a greater impact and stay in your mind much more.

On a gameplay front, the player and character take a parallel path as they learn about the game world together and, if done well, will increase the empathy as the story unfolds.

What are your thoughts on Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern's Façade and the future of more emotively intelligent (and responsive) game characters? How do you see this being implemented into adventure games on a practical level?

Firstly, I admire what they've tried to do. Without this kind of experimentation we'd never stretch the boundaries of game development.

But having said that, I must admit that I found it very frustrating and at times it simply comes across as an academic experiment. I found that it often wasn't responding to what I was trying to do. The characters would move away from me and I struggled to keep up. There was no time for thinking and if I didn't type fast enough at times I felt I was losing track of what was happening. There were times when I said things that paused the system for a few seconds and then the response it played was inappropriate. There were other times where I got a response to what I said but then they carried on with their own agenda as if I hadn't said anything at all.

Overall, I didn't think that I was really contributing to the "play" and that the system seemed to be more about trying to show off the so-called AI than giving me, the player, a rewarding experience.

I would never employ this in an adventure game. There would be no way of knowing what the outcome of such a scene would be and that could have a major impact on the rest of the game that it would be impossible to account for all the permutations in the development of the story.

How would you describe the relationship between artificial intelligence and authorial intent in game writing?

I don't believe the two should ever be combined.

I sometimes think that people mistake artificial intelligence with characters that appear intelligent. Games in general, and adventures in particular, rarely have the budgets and the time to create the systems required to have characters behave according to the actions of the player. It's much easier to create a well rounded character that has a lot of responses, which are dictated by the interactive flow of the player. The two can often be made to seem similar, but the latter is easily done in a straightforward dialog script controlled by variables.

How badly do you think gamers are turned off by shoddy English translations or cringe-worthy dialog in adventure games that have been localized from non-English languages? How is the localization handled in the dialog for So Blonde?

Often, I think that the problem with translations isn't that the translation is bad, just that it is sometimes dry and doesn't capture the flavour of the character. When I script edited the English translation of the Spanish game, Wanted, on the face of it there didn't seem to be much of a problem. However, when I listened to the Spanish voices and got the flavour of the characters I realised that I had to re-write many lines completely and tweak all of the others.

Translated versions don't need better translators they need specific language script editors.

In your book Writing for Video Games, you discuss the challenges faced by scriptwriters trying to fit into the iterative game development process. In brief, what are these challenges? What are some examples from your own game developing experience that illustrate these challenges?

It's mostly a case of knowing what you can and can't do with the game engine, what the conventions of the genre are, how the design is being developed and how this ties into the story. And, of course, how the story and characters can have an impact on the game design.

When you're writing a story it's very easy to let it run away with itself to the extent where you start putting in things that would require a month's specific programming just to make it work, and for one appearance in the game. If this wasn't in the original plan, then it's additional work that hasn't been budgeted for and cannot be justified.

I've created scenes which have needed eight characters on screen at once and have been told that the engine can only handle five characters. So I've had to change the story at that point to make it fit.

After 11 years, you left Revolution Software to set up your own game development company Juniper Games. Why did you leave? Did you leave under amicable circumstances? Looking back, what lessons did you learn about running your own company? Was the venture commercially satisfying as much as it was artistically satisfying?

I left Revolution because I was made redundant. Publisher funding on a project fell through and Revolution had no other option but to let everyone go. I remain in regular contact with Charles and Tony (two of the founders) so everything is pretty good on that respect. I can't really blame them for something that happened based on a publisher decision.

Juniper Games is less a company than a name under which I develop my own games. So far that has only consisted of Mr. Smoozles Goes Nutso, which wasn't the commercial success I'd hoped it would be. However, the game was recently picked up by Merscom for online publication through the casual portals, so there's a possibility that it may yet turn around.

Among all the games which you penned the dialog, which game was your favorite? Why? Which line was your favorite (in other words, the line you would want your fans to remember you by forever)? Why?

I find it impossible to say which one because they are so different and have different qualities to them. I suppose that, at the moment, So Blonde is closest to being favourite because of the way the story, gameplay and dialog work so closely together.

I don't have a specific line I favour, but my favourite interaction is one in the game In Cold Blood. There are two technicians at one point that you can talk to and it quickly becomes apparent that they are having an argument and not speaking to each other. Interacting with them in turn has each of them addressing the other through the player character. The humour unfolds purely on the continued interaction of the player.

In So Blonde, how would you characterize Sunny? Would you describe her as just another dumb bimbo trying to fake her way out of every precarious situation she gets herself into by accident? How worry were you that some gamers might scream that the game was bloody objectifying women?

The strength of So Blonde is that Sunny isn't quite what she would first appear. The game is really about her meeting the challenges before her, discovering things in her she never knew she had and becoming a better person as a result. We knew that if she stayed a dumb blonde all through the game it could turn the player off and really just be a cheap way of getting a laugh.

We don't objectify women in any way and many of the strong characters in the game are women.

The premise of the story in So Blonde is admittedly whacky. What kind of humor can gamers expect from the game beyond the obvious blonde joke clichés?

The humour comes from the characterisation and the situations. Underlying the comedy aspects is a rich story that uses all of the characters to make it stronger. Some of the humour comes from the fact that Sunny has never been in a world without cell phones, luxury hotels and shopping malls.

What has been the great challenge you face working with Wizarbox in writing up the story and managing the design for So Blonde? How does this differ from your past experience working at Revolution Software?

I don't really see that there have been major challenges. Part of what I do is see what needs to be done and work out how to do so. In many respects, working for Wizarbox has been easier just for the fact that I'm working from home and don't get the interruptions I would when working in a busy office filled with other talented people.

Then again, there are times when I miss the energy that's always present in a busy office. I guess I can't have it both ways. :)

What can we expect from Steve Ince in the next 5 years?

In games development it's difficult to plan a year ahead, let alone five years. I'm currently looking at getting involved in casual game development, but just as a writer. I'm unsure of what I'll be doing with the comic strips beyond the next few months. I hope to write a novel, but finding the time to do so is proving difficult with my hectic game writing schedule.

I may write a romantic comedy game...

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