I met Richard Dansky when he kindly invited me to give a talk at the East Coast Game Conference, down in the wilds of North Carolina where you're not sure if the "check all weapons" sign at the entrance to the con refers to twelve foot foam swords or firearms. There was fine dining, and there may possibly have been some drinking of whisky. Richard is a seriously veteran game writer, as well as a horror novelist
. This is the first part of my interview with him.
You've worked at Red Storm for 21 years. That's some serious sitzfleisch
Richard: Well, I’ve worked with Red Storm, but I've been essentially an internal freelancer for Ubisoft most of the time. So I've been based out of Red Storm, but I've worked with Toronto, with Massive in Sweden, with Shanghai, with all sorts of studios all over the world. And so I've gotten the best of both worlds, the stability of having a home base and the chance to work on different projects and go different places, work with different teams.
Alex: So does that mean you spend a year in Malmö or that you fly into Malmö and tell them a few things and then fly back or...
Richard: It depends. I did four months of Malmö for The Division 2. But generally, I fly in for a couple weeks, get in good with the team, figure out what I need to do, and then go back home and write.
Alex: And as Central Clancy writer, what is it you do in a day?
Richard: You know, that's an excellent question, and if I find out, I'll tell you.
Alex: I've had days at work like that.
Richard: The title "Central Clancy Writer" is kind of an old one. The role was defined as being a resource for all things Clancy and narrative. So it could be anything from writing the scripts for a game to serving as a gut check for how Clancy a story was, to saying, No, you can't set a mission in Rio de Janeiro because we blew up a parade there in the last game.
Alex: So you are the lore-brarian, among other things.
Richard: These days I'm doing less of that more work on non-Clancy projects. But for a while, I was the resource.
Alex: How important is it that everything be as Clancy as possible? And what does that mean?
Richard: There's pillars of Tom Clancy's writing that you want to stick to to make sure the games have that authentic feel. You want that techno thriller feel. You want, "It's tomorrow, it's not the day after tomorrow." You want a clear and present danger and you want the righteous use of force to solve a problem. Those are the guideposts of the brand.
Alex: And have you worked a lot with him?
Richard: He worked closely with Red Storm on the original Rainbow 6. After that, he sort of drifted away. And I did a lot of the original story writing. Brian Upton came up with Ghost Recon. J.T. Petty came up with Splinter Cell. A slew of writers and designers came up with the games that were Tom Clancy, and I shepherded some of those brands through various incarnations storywise.
Alex: So how do you keep the franchise fresh? Or does history do that for you?
Richard: History does that for us. The world is so different from when I started working on Clancy games. I remember walking into the office on the morning of 9/11 and going into my boss's office and saying, OK, we need to rewrite everything now because the world's changed. And it has and it keeps on changing and that provides... endless opportunities for storytelling. On the one hand, you wish the world would be a little more peaceable place.
Alex: Do you know the spec fiction writer Charles Stross?
Richard: Yes. Yes.
Alex: He writes novels about bureaucrats fighting Lovecraftian elder gods. And he's been complaining that 2020 just keeps getting ahead of him. He's just throwing out shovelfuls of plot that can no longer be put in a spec fiction novel because it's not speculative any more, it's just real life.
Richard: I've read The Laundry Files novels and enjoyed them.
Alex: I would think they'd be up your alley. You also write horror stories.
Alex: And so is that to stay fresh creatively, to stay sane?
Richard: That's where my voice is as a writer. I can write video games ecstatically. And do whatever voices are needed for a game. But when it's my own genuine voice, it's in the horror field. And so those are the ones where the story won't leave me alone until I put it on paper.
Alex: What are the hardest battles that you fight?
Richard: The hardest battles. In a bunch of different arenas they can be anything from fighting for soft, quiet moments in the story when all everybody wants to do is shooting. Bang bang pow pow. They can be fighting for line counts. They can be fighting for the story. And holding the story up against real life and seeing whether something really is appropriate for us to make a game out of.
Alex: When you say fighting for line counts, for more lines or fewer lines?
Richard: Sometimes for more lines, sometimes for fewer. When you're talking about systemic dialog, sometimes less is more. And people want to have every single possible edge case taken care of, and you're like, no, we only have so much footprint on a disk.
Alex: When you say fighting for soft, quiet moments, I think we both know why those are so important. But how do you articulate that? What do you tell people?
Richard: I tell people that if the volume's at ten the whole time, then it's going to turn into white noise. We need contrast. You need those human moments to show why the characters are sympathetic, why you should care about what they're doing as anything other than a walking gun rack. And to have that change of dramatic pace that allows the story to breathe. And it works better when you're dealing with folks who can see the games as a gestalt and see the whole story. You see every mission at once; where you get into trouble is when you're doing one mission at a time or one chapter at a time. And every chapter has to be the greatest and the best chapter.
Alex: I guess that's the creative director whose job is to see the whole vision.
Richard: Which is why I keep mine plentifully supplied with Scotch. -- I didn't mean it, that is not true!
[Note: For what it’s worth, Richard has the best single malt Scotch collection I’ve ever drunk from or even seen.]
Alex: As you say, you wrote some of the stories for some of these games. What goes into deciding what the story of a game should be? How do you think about it?
Richard: That process has evolved tremendously over the years. From being told, right, OK, we want a game set here, come up with a plot line, to where we are now, which is brainstorming with creative directors and game directors and thinking about the features that we want to show off... all these things that were not on my plate when I first started doing this,.
Alex: Do you think that's because story has become more important and therefore people really want to be involved in it, whereas previously they didn't care?
Richard: I think story’s become more important. I think people figured out the narrative as a place where we can make big gains without spending huge dollars. Sorry, cynical there...
Alex: No, but that's a perfectly valid thing. I mean, there's only so many polygons you can add. People are paying 80 bucks, they want everything to be great. It's not just the polygon count, not just better AIs, or the tightness of the gameplay. Everything has to be better. So that means the stories have to get better. The characters have to get better. The acting has to get better. The character models have to be capable of communicating more.
Richard: Yes, absolutely. And it's funny. When I first started doing the game writers roundtables at GDC, we had this wish list of things we wanted, you know, getting involved in stories sooner, having narrative design taken seriously, all these things that have come true. You know, the pie in the sky wishlist from those early days is now standard operating procedure. And that's good to see it because it makes for a better story and makes for a better player immersion, makes for a better player experience.