Choosing Your Own Path: Olivia Alexander on Writing for Games and the "Probability Tree"

Since I started working on She Got Game, I’ve been thinking about what differentiates video games from other media. We probably all know our fair share of music, art and film buffs. But what is it that attracts us specifically to the format and narratives of video games? To answer this question, I asked Olivia Alexander, an aspiring game writer studying creative writing at Concordia University in Montreal, one of Canada's gaming hot spots. A quick glance at the map below will give you an idea of how many game dev companies it has, including the biggies like Ubisoft and BioWare:

Olivia started off by talking about her own creative writing process and how it relates to games. I asked: How is writing for games different from writing for other media? How is storytelling evolving?

Heavy Rain cast

I think now and for the past couple of years, there’s kind of been a game renaissance in terms of story. There are not-yet-perfected but new methods of storytelling. For instance, one thing that’s pretty popular is what I think they call the “ethics engine.” It’s pretty much like a choose-your-own-adventure game, but in this immense probability tree. Games like that include Mass Effect and some of the more recent Fallout games. Choices you make in conversation change how the rest of the story is going to play out.  That sort of engine was really intriguing to me and I loved the idea of that. I’d like to use Heavy Rain as an Example. It’s by a developer called Quantic Dream. Heavy Rain isn’t quite the same as—you know—choose option 1-2-3 or 4 in a conversation. It’s a murder mystery in which you play maybe 7 different characters. It’s not just things that you say that affect the story—it’s things that you do, things you accomplish, decisions you make or don’t make. They either get you a very good ending, a very bad ending or something in between.

What interests you specifically about writing for games?

Olivia Alexander
I’ve always really liked storytelling. I was convinced I was going to be an actor for a long time until I realized that I really don’t like that environment. That’s why I’m going to school for creative writing here at Concordia. For a while I was convinced I was going to do film and television, but that also didn’t sing to me.

People have asked me before, “Why write for video games?” The example I like to use is that say you’re watching a horror movie and you’re just a passive participant. You’re just along for the ride. You don’t have control over anything cause that’s the nature of film. You’re watching a horror film and there’s a group of kids. They say, “Oh man, we should split up. I’ll go in the basement!” and you’re sitting there thinking, “Don’t be dumb. Don’t go in the basement by yourself. You’re gonna die.” In a video game, you can choose not to go in the basement, and you can force the story to go in a less expected direction. You can force it go somewhere else and you can make the story surprise you.

What other qualities do you look for in a story?

A lot of stuff Naughty Dog makes is also very cinematic, especially the more recent stuff with the Uncharted series and The Last of Us. You’re not changing the story, but even if it’s a longer storyline, you’re still more engaged than you would be in a film. What interested me in writing, is both of those big story options. There’s the more conventional writing method which is like film, and there’s this new method that I like to call the big “probability tree.”

What are your sources of inspiration and motivation?

I’m motivated through the opposite of dissatisfaction. With games and pretty much all media, I like to think that I should only take in that which makes me stronger. I want to be a part of it. Because it’s still a developing medium, I want to see the best in everything. I’m reluctant to leap to something as having a bad story. A lot of the stuff I write myself is based on action as the big mask with something else behind it, like some sort of issue or pressing matter. Most of them are character pieces.