If you’ve been following me on Twitter you’ve undoubtedly read my ravings about how good Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is. As a fan of the series and as an aspiring game creator, there’s so much happening in AC Odyssey, from narrative to design to mechanics, that it’s been such an inspiring experience for me and for many other gamers.
Recently, I was lucky enough to sit down and have a chat with Ubisoft’s very own Stephen Rhodes, a writer and game designer who’s worked on games such as Homefront, The Witcher 3 and most recently, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. We chatted about his journey through his career in the games industry, some of the work he’s most proud of, some important lessons he’s learned along the way and of course his experiences writing for Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Enjoy!
Tyler: You’re probably working on a number of projects right now but what are you currently playing?
Stephen: I’ve actually been in a bit of a rut. At the start of the year, I got the Resident Evil 2: Remake on day one. I loved the original and the remake looked so good so I bought that and played it to death. Then I played through Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, which is the latest offering from From Software, which I loved. Ever since then nothing’s really grabbed my attention or pulled me in. I’ve dabbled in Slay The Spire because someone got me addicted to that and I just bought a few games in the Epic sale like Hades by Supergiant.
Tyler: Oo that’s one that I’ve wanted to pick up, it looks really good. By the makers of Bastion and Transistor…
Stephen: Yeah! Greg Kasavin and the team at Supergiant are one of my all-time favorite developers. I adored Transistor, Bastion, and Pyre. I knew they were doing a more early access style release so I was kind of waiting for it to come into full release. I like to experience a game when the developer feels like it’s ready for consumption, like a polished entertaining experience. But then it went on sale and I was just like, “I’m just going to get it.” Actually, Total War: Three Kingdoms came out today, and I’ve got a lot of friends at Creative Assembly so I’m going to play that. I like the Total War games and the reviews for it have been absolutely stellar.
Tyler: Does who you know at a given studio hold any weight on your decision to buy a game?
Stephen: No, not really. I like to support friends. If I’ve got close friends at a studio I like to buy their games and show support to other devs because it means a lot when friends buy and play my games. So, I like to do that when I can but I’ve got friends who work on all sorts of things and sometimes I’m just not interested in the kind of games they make and the kind of genres that they work in so I always just congratulate them and say “job well done”. Shipping any game is such an achievement so I always give them those kudos but, as I get older and as life gets more demanding, I have to be more picky about what games I invest my time in.
Tyler: When I think about my earliest memories playing games I think about playing Sonic the Hedgehog and watching my cousin play Super Mario World, and those were kind of the games that did it for me. They turned me into a gamer for life. What are some of your earliest memories of video games and what’s the game that kind of did it for you and turned you into a gamer for life?
Stephen: Woah pretty deep question. *Laughs* It’s hard to think that far back. I remember getting my first Super Nintendo and playing Star Fox and Mario and playing a bunch of games like that.
I’ll always remember going into my town centre with my Mom to buy Resident Evil 2 which had just come out. I was like, so excited to play it and I got home and instantly died from the three zombies at the crash site. (Games) have always been a big part of my life… birthdays and Christmas’ always revolved around either a console or a new army for like Warhammer. Those were the two alternating presents for me.
I was always into games but I always had other hobbies. Like, to this day I play and paint miniatures like Warhammer. I’ve never been someone who just sits in front of games the entire time. I’ve always had other hobbies, like reading. So the games that really made me passionate about games and gaming was like, those early old school RPG’s and RTS’s like Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Command and Conquer, and Warcraft. It was those kinds of games that made me care about playing video games.
Tyler: You’re clearly passionate about games, so what came first? Was it that you wanted to be a writer and got into video games or was it that you wanted to get into video games and eventually became a writer?
Stephen: It’s definitely the second one. I went to university to study military history. I was really into history. I could tell very early on that it wasn’t really doing it for me and I just didn’t see a future career in it. So, I transferred courses internally because they had a good games course and I did a game design degree which covered a broad range of things including design, a bit of audio, programming, a bit of art and did a bit of narrative as well. I was always quite good at design and interested in the design and the mechanics of things because I like systems. But looking back, (narrative) resonated with me because when I did the narrative module I got like a 98% in it or something ridiculous. I loved doing it but I sort of put it aside afterwards and carried on pursuing other disciplines.
I got into the actual industry by doing QA and testing. There was a studio, Travelers Tales, the guys who do the Lego games, and they were quite close to where I went to university and a lot of the graduates ended up there. There were a few (graduates) in high positions at that point and they were always looking for students who were about to graduate. So, I went and did QA but they put up some internal positions in design roles not long after I started. I applied and got a design role where I did level design, camera stuff, working on cut scenes and working on missions so it was quite a broad job role but it was a great entry into the industry. Doing that I realized I had a passion for narrative and storytelling. It was always something that came very naturally to me. Growing up, me and my friends used to play DnD and other Roleplay Games like Star Wars, and Warhammer Fantasy. I was always liked to DM (Dungeon Master) as I was always coming up with the stories and campaigns and characters. It was always something I harbored a passion for so I kind of bridged the gap and after three years at Travellers Tales I realized that the Lego games weren’t satisfying my creative needs. So I applied to a couple of places and ended up getting a job at CD Projekt Red in Poland as a quest designer, which for me it was a great merge of my experience and also my passion for narrative.
Tyler: Is that when you worked on The Witcher 3?
Stephen: Yep and my work on The Witcher 3 was a nice blend of the two disciplines; part narrative and part design. But, then I got offered a writing gig back in England for Deep Silver working on Homefront. It certainly wasn’t like a natural transition, it was a transition that I had orchestrated, and it was always the direction that I wanted to move in. It took me 3 years into working in the games industry to realize I wanted to be a storyteller in games. That’s when I started doing a lot of personal work at home. I would practice by writing my own stories and missions and doing online courses and screenplays; doing a lot of self-learning and topping up my skills, getting them to a point where I could apply them to a job.
Tyler: It’s great to hear how you grew into your kind of dream job as a writer in games and it seemed to happen organically.
Stephen: Yeah, I mean, would I have liked to have been a writer on day 1? Yes, but I also look back on all my time doing design stuff and I think it really serves me well now because a lot of writers in the games industry come from a traditional writing background. Because of that, they don’t have the knowledge and experience about how video games are built and about how game development works and that’s what I really like about my journey to being a writer in the industry; I have that game design and game development experience that I always fall back on. It’s like when I’m writing for a game I feel like I’m very informed about what I can and cannot do on the page because I have this ingrained knowledge about how to design quests and how to implement quests. It gives me a kind of perspective that not many writers in the industry often have access to. So I’m grateful to have that.
Tyler: Do you focus on any one part of video game writing? Do you focus more on the narrative, or the dialogue, or quest building, or do you do a little bit of everything?
Stephen: No not really. Writing in the industry is an important part of a game but the teams that do it are usually quite small. As a smaller team, you’re really almost forced to touch on everything and besides, I like all the different aspects of narratives in games. I quite like the sort of relaxing simplicity of writing “barks”, like just a list 100 random character lines for gameplay stuff but I also like doing the emotional heavy hitting cinematic scenes that you write a proper script for. I also really like writing the text and item descriptions and stuff like that. So, each different piece of the narrative pie that goes into making the game I enjoy for different reasons so it’s nice to have that variety.
When I’m writing a screenplay or a TV pilot, I always find that while I love the act of writing and forming the script it’s always the same kind of process. Whereas game writing I could be writing like a really emotional cut scene one day and the next I could be writing quest dialogue, the next day I could be writing item descriptions, it keeps it a bit fresher I think.
Tyler: Do you ever play your own games?
Stephen: No never. *Laughs* I get a lot of stick for this from colleagues at the various places I’ve worked. Like for me, my stance is that I’ve already poured my blood sweat tears and energy into something and I don’t really give it anymore, willingly, that I’m not getting paid for. *Laughs* Which sounds pretty cutthroat but it’s like, I would rather play other peoples work and learn what they’ve done rather than play what I already know.
Tyler: No I totally get it. The only game I’ve put out is a text adventure and I can’t bring myself to play it. I put so much time into writing it, I know where everything is I know every word by heart at this point so it’s difficult to play through it.
Stephen: Exactly, and the only exception to the rule, and this hasn’t happened yet, is if I was writing a direct sequel to a game I was working on.
Tyler: And that kind of touches on my next question which is, how much historical research goes into writing a game? With a game like The Witcher 3 you have The Witcher 1 & 2 and the books and then for Assassin’s Creed you not only have a ton of prior games but you have the actual history of the world to account for.
Stephen: A lot, is the simple answer. It’s a lot of research. I mean that’s the funny thing is, as a writer in the industry, you actually spend a lot of your time not writing; you spend it thinking about writing and researching to inform the writing. Especially something like Assassin’s Creed or The Witcher 3 where there’s an established IP that includes background and lore. But then there are also historical facets going into this work as well. With The Witcher, the games are their own storyline but they are also informed by the IP and the books of the actual Witcher novel series. So, it takes from loads of different things like Polish folklore and myths from their culture. Then with something like Assassins Creed, not only do you have historical stuff based on the setting and the time that you’re basing the game on, you’ve also got all present day storyline from Assassin’s Creed and those characters, the actual continuity of the IP itself. So, there’s a lot of different areas to get experience so you have to have information.
With any project, even a game that’s like a brand new IP, like I wrote an indie game a couple of years ago called Seven: The Days Long Gone, with a bunch of ex CD Projekt Red developers from Poland and we created an entirely new IP, entirely new world, it’s own history, its own culture, its own myths and legends. But to get to that stage, to make it feel believable, I had to do loads of research on topics I had never looked at before. Things like economy, and how religions are formed and I had to learn all those different facets of what goes into human society and culture. When you’re trying to replicate (a human society) from scratch, it’s a lot of work.
Tyler: So I’m currently working on a project and I’m writing the backstory and the religion and the economy. As a writer and essentially a creator of these worlds, do you ever on some level feel God-like?
Stephen: Absolutely feel like God. *Laughs* There is definitely, and I think you see it in a lot. It’s hard not to because you’ve created every facet of this culture and society and you have complete power over it. It’s learning how to understand that and use it to best tell the story in the world that you’ve created.
Tyler: Do you have some pieces that you’re most proud of when you look back on your career so far? Like a specific quest in The Witcher 3 or a specific storyline in Assassin’s Creed?
Stephen: I think it’s because I’ve been doing this a long time that I’m quite proud of almost everything that I’ve worked on. Going all the way back to my first AAA game, which was Lego City Undercover, I was insanely proud to be a part of that development. It was a pivotal moment in my career and then obviously working on the Witcher 3 and being able to be a part of that and tell those stories… that was insane and it still feels insane. Thinking recently, one of the things I’ve been really proud of is that I got to help write Wrath & Glory which is the latest Warhammer 40k roleplay book series. For me, that was such a pure passion project. To help flesh out an admittedly small part of a huge universe that I grew up with was an amazing moment for me personally.
I think on Assassin’s Creed, because that’s the latest thing I’ve worked on, I was really proud of my writing of the relationship with the main protagonist and the relationship with their father, Nikolaos, and your stepbrother, Stentor. I feel like I put a lot of myself into those characters and you get really emotional confrontations with them and I was really proud with how they turned out. When I went with the narrative director to mocap (motion capture) those scenes and see them brought to life by the actors, everyone was really moved by the performances. It was a really humbling moment for me. Unfortunately, everyone seems to really want to talk about the old nymphomaniac lady that I worked on, so I guess people aren’t that into the heartfelt emotional stuff. So I’m proud of that quest line because people seem to think it was pretty funny. *Laughs*
Tyler: I just have to say Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is so good. I’m playing through it right now and I didn’t think I would be this addicted to it. I played through the first Assassin’s Creed years ago and found it pretty repetitive and then I went through Black Flag because it looked different enough to try it out again and it was great but I never finished it. So, I picked up Assasin’s Creed: Odyssey because it was getting great reviews and wow. Everything from the narrative to the design to the visual to the combat… like this is such a good game. So you guys did a fantastic job.
Stephen: Thank you so much. A lot of very talented and passionate people put a lot of effort and energy and love into that game. It’s very humbling to hear people who have been fans of the series for so long and poke you on Twitter and social media to say that they love the game you all worked so hard on. When you’re making a game that big for a series that popular, it’s always very intimidating and you’re always worried that people aren’t going to like it. Even if you know the quality is there and the work has been put in you just don’t know. Especially with long term fans of the series where you really want to make sure they’re happy. It’s always a worry but it’s always good to see when it does payoff and people really do like it and feel for the characters. I have friends who refuse to finish The Witcher 3 because they like it so much and don’t want it to end. That’s one of the greatest compliments as a developer.
Tyler: You’ve been working on a number of projects from book writing to television scripts to working on your first full-length novel… What do you find is the main difference when writing for a video game as compared to other mediums? What makes video game writing so unique?
Stephen: Yeah that’s a really interesting question. Right now I’ve been writing a lot of TV and one of the big differences between TV and film writing versus game writing is you have a lot more freedom of expression (in TV and film). When people watch a TV show or a movie, they can’t interact with it; they’re along for the ride. They only see what you want them to see, they only digest what you want them to digest. Whereas video games are interactive where your audience can engage and walk around and move the camera. They can do so much more than traditional media and when you’re writing for a game you have to always have those constraints in mind because you have to make sure the experience is good but not limiting the player. In video games, you want players to feel like they have control and independence. Whereas in movies and TV shows, it’s really liberating because you can do whatever you want. It’s completely in control of the creative, budget constraints aside, which is good.
From a purely writing point of view, writing for video games is all about maximizing your effectiveness within the constraints of the game you’re working on. Being a good writer in games is about being able to deliver a compelling narrative while also adhering to all the constraints to everything else that goes into the game. Gameplay comes first, after all because we buy games to play first and foremost. Whereas with movies and TV writing, it’s about keeping the audience engaged because they can’t engage themselves. In movies and TV it’s much more on the writer to keep that engagement.
Tyler: This is a question for anybody who wants to get into video game writing. Life is a great teacher and it’s best lessons come from our struggles and our failures. So what’s been one of the biggest struggles or biggest lessons in your career so far as a video game writer?
Stephen: This is a bit of a hot topic because of the current state of the industry. But it really disheartens me now when I see people fresh in the industry, like graduates, they feel this pressure to work all hours and put in all the effort and crunch willingly, that’s a lesson we all learn the hard way. I’ve crunched on projects and made myself ill crunching and worked ridiculous hours and all for the sake of shipping a project. I would like to go back and tell myself that “you have nothing to prove to anyone. You’re here doing the work and your work is good. You don’t have to kill yourself to make a video game. No one needs a video game enough that you have to sacrifice your health and mental well being for it.” I wish our industry as a whole was more supportive and nurturing of people who enter the industry so they don’t feel that pressure.
Professionally, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned… which I think I actually learned during my years at university, but it’s a lesson that always stuck with me. It was a lesson in learning to not be precious about your work. Take feedback willingly. Embrace the iteration process and the creative iteration that happens in games. Sometimes I might write something and I might totally love it but because things change at such a rate, I might have to start from scratch. So I’ve learned that it’s part of the process and that you can’t take it personally and you can’t be precious about your work.
We hope you enjoyed our chat with Stephen Rhodes and you can follow him on Twitter @Rhodes_Writes. Thanks for reading!