One of the games developers hosted by GeekFest 2015 was Steve Ince, a writer who specialises in working on video games. Ince has had a long and varied career, and has worked on titles such as the Broken Sword series and the Witcher series. Having failed in finding a relatively quiet spot amongst the bustle of the convention, we ended up sitting in a little hidden part of the exhibition centre, chatting over the noise of the crowd and the sound of a dalek that just wouldn’t stop its barking.
Ince entered the games industry as an artist, designing backgrounds and sprite animation for two dimensional games. After a period of time he assumed the role of producer, which involved “dealing with the different departments of programmers, the artists, the animators, the writers and so on. So it was kind of like seeing how the whole picture gets put together.” Ince’s role shifted once again, as he became more heavily involved in writing for video games. While he recognises that the unique trajectory of his career would be difficult to replicate, he seems pleased with how things worked out. “It certainly wasn’t a very conscious decision, but it was something ultimately that I’ve always wanted.”
Ince is best known for his work with York’s very own Revolution Software, the studio responsible for games such as Beneath a Steel Sky and In Cold Blood, as well as the Broken Sword series. Although his role with the company was originally that of producer, he soon found himself getting involved with the design side of game development once again. “I got involved in a secondary level on the writing and designing, in that I was working with the design guys to make sure that it all came together. When we did In Cold Blood I actually moved onto the writing and design more fully. Broken Sword for me, although I was a producer, was a kind of learning process, that enabled me to become a writer and designer on In Cold Blood.”
Broken Sword went on to become a surprisingly popular series, famous for its witty characters and exciting plotlines. At a time when most game developers focused heavily on the technical side of things, Broken Sword showed that a well written story could do just as much good for a game as improved graphics or gameplay. Ince admits that the success of the original game was unanticipated, in particular the success of the Playstation version of the game. “The Sony guys actually got really behind it. And when it came out they were actually surprised by how good the sales were.”
In 2004 Ince went freelance, an experience he sums up by saying: “it’s been like all freelance – kind of up and down ever since really.” Nevertheless, in the time since he left Revolution, he has made a name for himself as a skilled writer for all manner of games, having worked on titles such as The Witcher 2 and So Blonde. He’s even written a book on the topic, aptly named Writing for Video Games. “A lot of writing is very invisible, there’s a great book called Invisible Ink, by a guy called Brian MacDonald, and he writes about all the stuff that no one ever sees, like the plotting, and the character development, stuff like this which has to happen, and that’s what gets neglected in games sometimes – not enough time is put into the invisible stuff.” The invisible stuff is what ties a game together – “when you know all this motivation and back-story stuff, you can make your world richer.”
On the topic of bad writing, he dislikes the idea of restricting the player without legitimate cause to do so: “You still get occasions where the players wants to do something, they want to go through a locked door, or they want to go down into the spooky cellar, and the game will go, ‘No, you can’t go there yet.’ […] Lock the door, make it that I can’t find the key ’til level seven or something like this and then have to come back – but give a good reason. But if you just say, ‘You can’t go there yet,’ I mean that’s feeble. And there are times when you despair a bit because you know that that has come from [a] lack of plotting.”
To finish the interview, I ask whether Ince has been working on anything of interest lately. “Yes, well I will be next week, I’m going down to meet with a guy and it’s not- well it is a kind of game, but instead of it being computer generated graphics it’s actually going to be filmed.” The details of the project seem vague, but Ince sounds cheerfully hopeful. Talking about how the technology used will affect the writing side of the development process, he tells me that “there are choices, paths through it and so on. So it’s kind of like working out how we can use that approach to interactivity, and create drama with it. So that’ll be fascinating.”