|New Prototype hero James Heller stands off against the Gentex soldier (Courtesy of Gamespot)|
|Dan Jolley (Right) with Voiceover actor, Peter Cullen (Courtesy of Dan Jolley)|
Often, when we think of cool game franchises do we think, “man what great writing for this project.” However when you look at top gaming greats like Metal Gear Solid, Elder Scrolls, or even Assassins Creed, we often see how proper dialogue can shape the overall continuity of the story. So from one writer to the next, I decided to contact Dan Jolley, writer for the latest video game, Prototype 2, to get his taking on the industry, and what it’s like to write for a popular game franchise.
RW: It’s good getting a chance to talk with you a bit. I Just finish Prototype 2 (which is pretty badass for those who haven’t played it) and saw that you were listed as the scriptwriter for this project and was very interested in talking with you a bit about the things you’ve done to prepare for this. I see you’ve been in the biz for well over 20 years (1990 was what I saw). And I just want to pick your brain a bit.
DJ: Pleasure to meet you! I’m always up for a bit of friendly brain-picking. Basically I got into writing video games because of my work in comics. I was at a comics convention, and did a panel on writing comics, and a guy in the audience turned out to work for a VG development company; we talked, I told him I was interested in getting into writing for games, he set up an interview, and bang, I was a video game designer.
Not many people realize what awesome training it is to write comic book scripts. It teaches you to work within rigid parameters; to write in a very particular format; and to collaborate extensively with other creators. Learning to tell stories in the delineated, regimented way you have to in comics turned out to transition very smoothly into writing for video games. I’ve written in lots of different formats, and if I’m being honest, I love writing prose most of all. But comic scripts are what prepared me for most of the non-comics work I’ve done.
And I certainly wish you luck on the screenplay front! I’ve dabbled (so far not very successfully) in film and TV stuff myself. It’s brutal. But I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that.
Thank you too, for the kind words on Prototype 2. The script credit is a little misleading; some of what you saw adhered to the script I was paid to produce, and some of it got re-written. Kind of like selling a screenplay.
RW: Yea the rewrite thing is quite common, sorry to hear about it though. How did you end up finding out? Did you play the game?
DJ: No, Activision usually sends me four free copies of whatever I write for them, but the producer on P2 left the company right as the game came out and I haven’t gotten my comps yet. So I found out I’d been re-written by watching gameplay clips on YouTube.
RW: Yea I was at the Beverly Hills Film Festival last year and I asked a guy the question, “how does it feel to hear your words play out on screen” he sort of chuckled then said, “they changed a lot of what I wrote” I asked him, “what it felt like when they did speak the lines he wrote and got it close to what he envisioned it sounding”, he then said “priceless.” Is that the way you feel too?
DJ: Yeah, definitely. The Transformers games I worked on have almost all of my dialogue, unchanged. I got to attend a voice-over recording session a few months ago, and I was sitting there listening to Peter Cullen (voice of Optimus Prime) read lines I had written, and I just about floated up to the ceiling.
RW: I guess my main question is whether you have any resources that anyone could look up to learn the craft of Video Game writing or promoting their work? I really want to broaden my skill set.
DJ: I’m afraid I’ve learned to write for games in much the same way I learned to write for comics: trial and error. It seems to be that every company, often every dev studio, has a different way they do things, and you just have to learn to adapt. I know there are a number of books on the subject of how to write for games, but I’ve never read any of them.
One example of individual “company culture” was when I started working for 2K, the developers were all using this word, “frob”. As in, “the player walks up to an NPC and frobs him,” and that starts a conversation or triggers an action in the RPG. It’s basically just when you approach a character and it says something like “Hit X to talk,” and you hit X — that’s “frobbing.” 2K picked it up from their Australian studio, apparently.)
RW: How did you end up getting selected to work on Prototype 2 project? It just seems like such a small circle.
DJ: How that happened was, after I worked on Fallen Earth for 2.5 years, I left the company and went back to freelancing. My manager (it helps a lot to get a manager or an agent) got me some interviews with the dev studios doing a Transformers game, which I eventually was hired to do. That led to being hired as lead writer for the “Spider-Man 4” game, but when the movie got cancelled by Sony, the game did as well. The studio doing SM4, however, was Radical, and when they decided to do Prototype 2 instead, they invited me back to write it.
RW: More about it though, the scientific explanations in the skits were well thought out, even the military VO’s.
RW: Did they brief you scene by scene in terms of what they wanted to see, or did you work the whole thing like you would a screenplay?
DJ: (Contains Spoilers) For the cutscenes, what they had was a big flow-chart, and each “story node” had descriptions like, “Heller finds Father Guerra dead.” Then I talked it all over with them in big story meetings up in Vancouver, and when we were all satisfied, I went off and wrote the meat onto the bones, so to speak. In the end it did all come together like a screenplay, at least as far as the cutscenes went. There were separate documents for the Black Boxes, and the Consumed Memories, and then huge spreadsheets for the military A.I. dialoge and pedestrian A.I. dialogue. That’s stuff like, “Got visual on Tango Primary! Engaging!” I wrote about 80% of the military lines, and Danny Manley wrote all the pedestrian lines.
I’m not sure who was involved in re-writing some of my cutscenes, but they should’ve gotten writing credit too.