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Jennifer Hepler Talks Writing for Dragon Age and Beyond

Jennifer Hepler‘s resume is pretty impressive. She was one of the main writers of BioWare‘s Dragon Age series, she wrote for Star Wars: The Old Republic, she’s worked on a TV series, and she’s written for major pen and paper role playing games.

But before she did all of that, she was a determined teen who loved to write. “I was a total ridiculous driven teenager who was determined to sell a novel before I graduated high school, which I didn’t do” says Hepler. “But I did a lot of writing and submitting short stories, and when I went to college I met a lot of people who played DnD, and I took a look at it and said, ‘Hey, you know, these books don’t look like they need agents.'”

“My Dungeon Master Chris Hepler was also a writer, and he looked at me and was like ‘Yeah you’re right.'” she explains. “We started looking into how to write for tabletop games, and ended up going to a lot of conventions and meeting representatives of different companies, and we ended up doing some writing for Shadowrun, and Paranoia, and Earth Dawn, and Legend of the Five Rings, and that was all before we graduated college.”

Once they graduated, Jennifer and Chris realized they couldn’t make a living off of writing for tabletop RPGs, so they moved to Hollywood to try to write for TV. They got hired on a show called The Agency, which was the other show about the CIA that came out the same year as 24 and Alias.

“After that we started realizing that most people we really liked in Hollywood were the people who had come out of gaming, out of video games,” she says, “and most of the projects we were getting picked for were adaptations of video games and so we went to GDC.”

While Hepler was at a Women in Games mixer at the Game Developers Conference, she met the director of games at BioWare. They chatted for a bit and he told her he was looking to hire more women writers with a background in RPG and Hollywood writing. After some writing tests and interviews, both Hepler and her husband got jobs at BioWare on different projects.

Hepler was placed on Dragon Age: Origins. The basic ideas for the world came from David Gaider, and Hepler helped flesh out the specifics of the world. Gaider was told to go create a fantasy world, and he took a couple of months and wrote a huge amount of material and history. “Dave came up with all the core ideas,” she explains, “the ‘Let’s take everything that people love in fantasy games, and make them be horribly persecuted in our world. Let’s make the elves be miserable, let’s make the mages be miserable.’ We had all of that to work with coming into the project.”

“But then as it grows and develops and we have plots we want to do, a lot of it got changed, kind of on the fly, as it fit the story. I added a lot of refinement, I added the casteless to Origins. They existed, but I gave them their whole culture with their organized crime and the Carta, and all the slang and everything. That was all kind of my first contributions to Origins.”

While writing for Dragon Age, Hepler drew on her previous writing experiences.  “Writing for the tabletop RPGs has always really shaped everything I’ve done,” she says. “One of our indications that maybe it was time to leave Hollywood was when we’d been there for five years already and we were still calling bit parts NPCs. The biggest difference is that you have to consider how it’s all about the player.”

“With a TV show you can have an ensemble cast, you can have scenes that the main character isn’t involved in. You can’t really do that in an RPG at all. But TV is more like it in the sense that you’re doing something that’s very dialogue and audio driven, and you have the cinematics, so it’s not writing giant blocks of text. Writing for tabletop role playing games is all plot and world lore, there’s no dialogue ever that you really write. Writing for video games, what you’re doing is expressing the plot and world lore through dialogue.”

The way Hepler sees it, dialogue can too often be used as just a mechanic to shuttle players from one combat section to another. She believes the real role of dialogue and story is to make the game memorable for the players. She wants people to get emotionally invested in the characters and plot and to remember the game, not based on its gameplay, but on the moments that affect the players.

Hepler also drew on her knowledge of history to write for Dragon Age. “I’m constantly reading. I try to read a lot of historical novels and get a sense of some of the crazy stuff that really went on in history, and not having it just sound like a bunch of 21st century characters at a Ren Faire,” she says. “You want to really have a sense of what it would be like to grow up without technology, to grow up in a world where religion is so central and things like that. ”

After working on all three Dragon Age games, Hepler left BioWare to do some freelancing and work on other projects. She just finished up working as the lead writer on Disruptor Beam‘s Game of Thrones: Ascent mobile game. Right now she’s working as a writer for Kognito, a company that creates interactive dialogue to help teach people like doctors and teachers and parents how to communicate more effectively and with empathy.

“It’s just incredibly exciting for me,” says Hepler.  “The first time I saw one of their things, I was like ‘I have to work for this company.’ It takes all of the kind of interactive writing, but it uses it to teach empathy to the other person, instead of in commercial games, we’re always making it all about the player and essentially teaching the player that nobody else’s thoughts and opinions really matter, and that’s so not the way that conversation works in real life. In real life, communication is all about understanding the other person’s point of view. So I’m really, really excited to be working on that.”

The company is finishing up the parenting one now, and it will be available for free for mobile platforms, thanks to a grant from a foundation. The app is basically a bunch of scenes you can play through as a parent, scenes like your kid throwing a tantrum in the middle of the supermarket, and it teaches them how to respond empathetically and without getting angry.

“It goes through a lot of techniques for positive discipline and how to understand what’s appropriate for a child’s development. That was just hugely rewarding to work on. I have two kids, and being able to share that kind of information using the skills I learned in gaming was really exciting.”

Hepler is also working on another project. While she couldn’t say too much because it hasn’t been officially announced yet, she could say that it is a book from Focal Press that focuses on the experiences of women in the game development industry. The official announcement will be happening soon, and the book itself should be coming out sometime this year.

As for aspiring writers, Hepler has this advice:

I have a couple books I always recommend when people ask me to recommend writing books. One’s called Good Scripts, Bad Scripts. It basically takes a look at some very successful movies and enormous flops and looks at what the difference is, why these were all greenlit, but why some of them worked and some of them didn’t. It’s so much more interesting than just a pure theory book. “How not to write a novel” is also a really fun read and has a lot of really good tips on lots of common mistakes people make.

 

And then I actually worked on a game writing textbook called The Game Narrative Toolbox, which would certainly be my recommendation for a starting point if people are looking to do game writing. We break down the process as you would encounter it in a job, looking at pitching, and then pre-production, and designing the world, and designing the characters, and designing the plot, and then writing dialogue, and then what the writers responsibilities are during testing, and just going through the whole thing chronologically. It’s got exercises, so that if you are trying to build up a portfolio that you could submit for a job, you’ll have a sample of every type of thing a company might ask for.

If you’d like some advice from her firsthand, Hepler will be giving a talk at GDC about how to cleverly give players a whole lot of information without it becoming a burden. She’ll also be at a round table that will be discussing how to be a working parent.

Caylie Sadin
Caylie is a writer and all around nerd. She started reading fantasy novels when she was 8, which naturally led her into playing DnD. Her favorite video game series is Dragon Age and her favorite book is “The Name of the Wind.”
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Caylie Sadin
Caylie is a writer and all around nerd. She started reading fantasy novels when she was 8, which naturally led her into playing DnD. Her favorite video game series is Dragon Age and her favorite book is "The Name of the Wind."

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