In this installment of Writer Tech, we interview Devin Harnois about his experience with playing games in the Dragon Age franchise. As anyone following the SF/F/R (science fiction/fantasy/romance) axis on Twitter knows, these games have taken a big bite out of productivity for a lot of pro writers, especially since the release of Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Devin and I started out talking about how he got sucked into the vortex. Dragon Age: Inquisition was released during National Novel Writing Month (and somebody needs to talk to the developers about that, hmm). I beta-read the novel Devin wrote in NaNoWriMo 2014.
Together we discovered something really interesting. No spoiler: it’s in the title.
EP Beaumont: I have been thinking a lot about what you said about the magical moment when you connect (as reader or writer) with a fictional character.
So … tell me about your love affair with Dragon Age. 🙂
Devin Harnois: Where to start?
EPB: Your evil friend Charles, perhaps? I was very amused at the way he sucked you in, and then the two of you talked on the phone about characters as if they were real people.
DH: Haha, yeah. The Legend of How Dragon Age Came Into My Life.
There’s a long version, about how he ended up getting it, but the short version is he bought Dragon Age 2 and stayed up all night playing it.Then he brought it over to show me and I thought it was interesting. Different from other RPGs I’d seen. I remember the next day thinking “I hope he brings that show over again… wait, that was a game.”
What captured your heart/attention/obsession?
DH: The characters are amazing. They feel like real people.
EPB: Putting on your writer hat, what do you think makes them feel so real?
DH: How they interact with each other, what they say.
EPB: I remember the first time I came over to obsess with you, and you had all these points saved.
DH: Some people don’t get along, others do. But even the characters that don’t get along sometimes have points of agreement, or joke with each other.
EPB: And the writing contributes to the characterization. Even if I can’t see them, I would know who’s talking.
EPB: And you can make choices as your POV character, which in turn affects the way that the other characters relate to you
DH: Yeah. I love being sarcastic Hawke!
I notice that your character definitely veered toward the wiseguy, and you took a certain amount of pleasure in setting up trainwrecks. As in “this is wrong wrong wrong but irresistible!”
I laughed so much playing that game.
EPB: Ok, details for our discerning audience. 🙂
DH: And sometimes had Hawke make problems for himself.
My second Hawke was a mage, and I thought it would be loads of fun to romance Fenris (who hates mages). So we argued a lot and then flirted.It was even more fun than I thought, and by act 2 I was very invested in their relationship.
EPB: So many of your distinguished colleagues in Romancelandia are currently AWOL due to this game.
How do you explain its crack-like influence on writers, especially romance writers?
DH: LOL! Yes. Romance writer crack.
A good portion of Romancelandia was AWOL for a month.It’s because Dragon Age does relationships so well. The romances, yes, but other relationships such as friendship.
EPB: And the writing?
Anything you learned about writing dialogue from this game? (Not that you weren’t already a wiseguy, don’t get me wrong)
DH: How much can be revealed in a short conversation, and how each person sounds unique (taking out the actual voice acting, you can read lines and still know which character is speaking).
How what is said and how it’s said reveals character.
EPB: The writing is very theatrical.
When I’m hanging out spectating with you, I’m going down the ‘writing drama’ list and going, yup, yup, yup, on the checklist, and HECKYEAH the voice acting is amazing.Also, I confess, I geek out over the pretty scenery.
DH: SO good!
EPB: Especially on that giant screen you got.:)
DH: It is glorious on my huge TV.
EPB: Immersive. Like you fall right into this magical realm.
*swoons over lighting design*
DH: Inquisition in particular is stunning in HD.
EPB: Oh yeah.
I’m staggered by the sheer size of the world inside the box. 🙂
DH: Sometimes I just stand on a mountain and stare at the landscape.
EPB: So pretty.
Or pretty and ominous. Or pretty ominous.
DH: Yeah, there are some creepy places too.
EPB: I’m intrigued by those, especially the ones where it’s not obvious menace but something is wrong.
Off, not-right, something in the very atmosphere.
DH: Like the Exalted Plains.
EPB: That’s exactly the setting I was thinking of. Really pretty,scenic/historic feel — but WRONG. Like bad shit has gone down there.
DH: There’s nothing overtly wrong, but the place is a battlefield, and has been many times in the past.
EPB: I am remembering that feeling, and thinking that all sorts of things set that up (e.g. sound design) but even the visual design alone does it.
DH: There’s something bleak about it, even though there’s plants growing and whatnot.
EPB: There’s the mistiness and the cut-off lines of sight. Also something about the vegetation, as if it’s trying to grow on poisoned ground.
The ruins, but elsewhere we have ruins that merely feel melancholy. These feel — weird. I think the low angle of sight contributes to that.
EPB: So what was the magic crossover point where you fell in love?
Character, world, story?
DH: It’s hard to say. I think one of the first points in Dragon Age 2 that really got me was “The Long Road.” It’s a quest where the entire point is hooking one of your companions up with their crush.
DH: It’s so dumb. And funny. And wonderful.
I kept going, “Who thinks of this?!?”
DH: A whole side quest. To hook people up.
I love it so much.
EPB: Unsurprised here. See: post apocalyptic romantic comedy [Devin’s novel Taming the Darknesss]
EPB: And what’s compelling about them
DH: He’s angry, violent, cranky all the time, and yet sometimes vulnerable, even sweet. And he has a sneaky sense of humor.
When he makes a joke or laughs at something it’s surprising. Which makes it funnier.
EPB: What is your characters dynamic with him?
DH: Hawke is playful and teasing. Almost his opposite.
But he can be serious when Fenris is talking about really painful things.
EPB: Sense of humor.
DH: Yes. I think they have a similar sense of humor, it’s just that Hawke’s is on display all the time.
EPB: So there’s similarities between characters you write and character you play.
DH: Yes. There are certain traits that I like, so naturally that goes into characters I write. And if given choices to play (somewhat) how I want, I play characters with those same traits.
(Sometimes when I replay, I emphasize different things or even play against type. Just for variety.)
EPB: What new moves have you tried out in your fiction since you started playing Dragon Age?
DH: I like to think I’ve gotten a little better at characterization for secondary characters.
EPB: I noticed that in this year’s NaNo draft. 🙂
EPB: Cause I can tell who’s who even when they do not have names (yet)
DH: Oh yeah. Naming is hard, so I often leave that for later.
EPB: Has the game changed the way you do settings?
DH: I’m trying to work on adding more politics, culture, and religion when I do fantasy.
EPB: Anything else you notice in how you write characters?
DH: Well, there’s been a … big drop in my productivity. Honestly there’s far more that I’d LIKE to try but I haven’t really done much because there are these video games that seem to take up quite a lot of time…
EPB: True confession. How many hours?
DH: Inquisition – 160 hours.
Dragon Age 2 – 4 playthroughs, something like 40-50 hours each.Origins – 2 playthroughs at about 60 hours each.Awakening (the sort of expansion for Origins) – 2 playthroughs around 20 hours each.I feel like I haven’t done anything else, but I somehow managed to finish two books in the middle of all that.
EPB: Now that’s some serious wow.
Both in terms of the game-play time and the fact you got books written in between.So the state of immersion you achieved in the game — did you manage that when you were writing your books?
DH: It’s so much easier in games because someone else has done most of the work for you.
EPB: What are your thoughts about how the game developers set that up?
DH: They have a whole team. It’s a collaborative effort, and I’m sure they all brought pieces to make up a wonderful whole.
I’m trying to do that, in text, just by my lonesome.
DH: But on the other hand, I don’t have to compromise. If I want something to go in, it goes in.
After working in the theater, I started thinking of novels in terms of tracks: characters, setting, dialogue, timeline, where I could build in layers. That was actually something you mentioned after reading a couple of my NaNo drafts – very layered. I’m the stage manager, playwright, director, costumer, set designer, sound & light designer.
DH: And all the actors.
EPB: Yes, channeling the characters, being them — that’s one of the creative highs for me.
Also, watching them collide / interact, which is one of the really fun things about watching you play.it is like a show.
Your work has always been pithy but now it’s picking up color and depth. without getting any longer *envies*
DH: Oh good. I’m really bad at descriptions. 😉
EPB: but implied setting…
I had a writing pal as pithy as you and she could create word pictures without using any words! I mean, I compared notes with her about the visual in my head, and it matched her original intent. I think it’s a result of visualizing really strongly, knowing what the space looks like.
DH: I get my sense of space by how the characters move in it.
I’m thinking of some of the settings in your book this November, e..g the gravel pit at the edge of the woods. I had a very clear picture of the light.
DH: Dylan fighting off the shadow person?
EPB: Yes, but just the setting.
I can see it very clearly,.including the changes of light.
DH: Cool. 🙂
EPB: I’ve been thinking about the lighting design in Dragon Age consciously.
I’d have to reread to see what cues you dropped, but whatever they are, they’re subtle.
DH: I don’t really remember writing that. LOL.
EPB: sometimes it comes through in subtext, I think.
Like you said, how they move through the space, what they can see, temperature of the air.
DH: I’m trying to do a better job of describing things from the character’s point of view.
that’s another thing game developers do — can’t help doing, it’s in the job description — setting up a perspective frame POV the player character. But once you’ve played, you can shift that to the visualization you do when you’re living as your novel character. POV character = player character
DH: How a place makes someone feel. Different characters will have different reactions.
Places are like characters themselves. When I was working on Shape-shifter’s Tale, I set the whole thing in locations I visited frequently. Walking to write-ins, I’d set myself the challenge of including some detail from my walk in the writing for the next bout
DH: That’s a good idea.
EPB: I would also ‘scout locations’ – say, ok, I’m shooting a movie. What specific locations am I using?
It’s a lot harder when you’re making them up, but then you think of it as set construction.
I’m also thinking about the maps in the game – how many levels of detail did they have?
DH: If I were less lazy, I’d practice writing descriptions of each location in Inquisition.
EPB: Well, you were fanficcing for a while there…
You could write a travel book. :)POV several of the characters. Crabby ones would be like “meh. weeds. food was awful.” Poetic ones would get into more detail: “yeah, the food was awful, but the SUNRISES…”
You could even plunk two of them down together and have them talk about the scenery/weather while notably NOT TALKING about something else.
EPB: Subtext. I love it when characters are Avoiding the Subject.
Is there any writing that you’ve done recently that you would say is Not Fanfic but inspired in some way by the game dynamics?
DH: I’m trying a similar relationship dynamic in a different world.
EPB: that’s the fun WIP you have been regaling me with of evenings, yes?
EPB: *we are teasing the audience here*
That one is fun, and I can see the influence of Dragon Age in the colorful settings: group scenes, parties, taverns, what-have-you. You’re doing more of them now.
DH: I think I have a better sense of how to include more characters in a scene.
EPB: Yes! Reading that WIP, I have sense of ensemble, other people’s energy in the same room. Your earlier work had much tighter framing, maybe two or three characters in a scene.
DH: I’m also playing on one of my favorite themes, the family-of-choice. So making all the characters interact frequently and believably is important.
*fist bump*I LOVE that, and I love writing ensembles myself.
DH: And then we have the outsider coming in and they accept him but he doesn’t Get It for a while.
EPB: Differences in culture are part of that atmosphere, the assumptions people come in with that are part of the air they breathe
DH: I’m trying to play more with that.
EPB: Wow, you did not waste your time playing that game. 🙂
DH: It often feels like I just disappeared from life for a while, but I had a great time and I really did learn things.
EPB: I did a similar thing in November when I was feeling crummy.
well, October and November,read tons of space opera, definitely enjoyed it, which is a key — here’s stuff I want to read, so it’s stuff I want to write.
DH: When writers absorb entertainment, it’s never really just goofing off.
EPB: oh no. It’s industrial espionage! We may not look like we are Doing Work, but we are wearing hard hats! and it’s tax deductible!
DH: I spend time analyzing why things made me feel a certain way and how I can replicate that.
DH: And that stuff comes from all over — books, movies, tv and now games.
EPB: I also looked at how narratives are put together, how to handle flashbacks and worldbuilding. Oh yeah, and read a ton of nonfiction. I think I’m not even aware at this point how much nonfiction stuff goes into the world-building…
DH: There are things I learn consciously and unconsciously.
EPB: The most powerful ones are the unconscious (“repetition is the mother of learning”) They engrave themselves on your nervous system like dance moves and you do them without thinking. Depending on what you imprint on, you can end up writing Tolstoy in space. 🙂
EPB: I’m just thinking about how much time you spent with the game. it’s about the time a true fan ™ spends with multiple rereads of a fat book or a series.
or a movie fan spends on watching films and then there were all the fanvids you showed me where people went down all the branches to find all the dialogue spoken by various characters.
DH: Yeah. Branching dialogue. OMG. That stuff is so fascinating.
EPB: Dude, we must write a game.
*starts on that grant application for an extra hundred years*
EPB: It would be hella fun to do it with another person. We could be bouncing off each other.
DH: I bet we could make something suuuuuper interesting!
EPB: omg especially considering the kinds of characters we both write.