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Q&A: Susan O'Connor on Getting Writers and Designers on the Same Page

Designers want to build a great game; writers want to craft an amazing story. But sometimes these collaborations get tricky. Game narrative instructor Susan O'Connor is here to get your designers and writers on the same page in this virtual GDC Masterclass

Susan O'Connor talked with GDC about her upcoming Masterclass, How to Bring Story and Gameplay Together, taking place on Thursday and Friday, June 16-17, from 2:00pm to 6:00pm BST (9:00am to 1:00pm ET)

After working on over 25 games, from indie to AAA, Susan has developed a set of best practices that any team can use to get writers and designers moving in the same direction. This two-day, hands-on, interactive workshop will help studios, publishers, and game leaders ship their best work yet.

This Masterclass is perfect for writers, designers, and any developer who plays a role in creating a playable story.

Below is an edited, condensed version of our interview. 

GDC: Tell us a bit about your course and what attendees can expect to gain from the Masterclass.

Susan O'Connor, game narrative writer and instructor: This Masterclass is a real labor of love for me. It's the course I wish I could have taken earlier in my career.

The truth is that it's just not easy to create a great, playable story. There are loads of moving parts. For it to work, the designers and writers really have to understand each other's roles. Communication breakdowns are the #1 reason projects get into trouble. This Masterclass is a chance for developers to take a step back from the day-to-day and gain a better understanding of how all this works—and how they can work more effectively with their colleagues back in the studio.

GDC: What are some of the most common ways teams fall into a “design versus narrative” situation, and how does your Masterclass address these?

Susan: The most common mistake I see is the "blind men and the elephant" problem. Your readers may already know this story, but here it is in a nutshell:

A group of blind men come across an elephant. Each blind man reaches out to touch the elephant.

"Ah ha," says the man touching the leg, "An elephant is like a pillar."

"Don't be silly," says the man touching the tail. "An elephant is like a rope!"

"You're both wrong," says the blind man touching the animal's side. "An elephant is like a wall."

And so on. Who is wrong here? No one's wrong! Those men know exactly what they're talking about. But they only know part of the elephant.

Replace "elephant' with "game" and it really captures the trouble that teams get into, over and over again. When teams don't have a shared language for talking about story and gameplay, they have a hard time communicating. This Masterclass will give teams a shared language and a shared understanding of how to bring story and gameplay together.

GDC: What’s one of your favorite memories of collaboration between design and narrative on the games you’ve worked on, and what did it teach you?

Susan: Great question! I wrote about some of those memories here. What I learned—over and over again—was that I was crazy to assume anything about how the story would work in the game. When in doubt, ask.

GDC: What’s something interesting that you enjoy or do that most people might not know about you?

Susan: I love love love to roller skate. (Eight-wheel only—never inline.) I really wish roller disco would come back around again.

Be sure to head to GDC Masterclass for more information on Susan's How to Bring Story and Gameplay Together course, which runs June 16-17. Please note this course is happening virtually, not in person.

GDC returns to San Francisco in March 2023, and the call for submissions opens this summer! For more information, be sure to visit our website.

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