Cognition writers talk adventure games, detective stories, and bad writing advice

Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller

GamesBeat: What do you think goes into creating a strong character in an adventure game, especially a game with a female lead?

Jensen: For any character, male or female, I think it’s important to have … it’s cliché to say a flawed character, but to really think about the good and the bad and make sure that both are present, and it doesn’t just become a glossed over icon of perfection. Just to keep it as natural as possible, especially when it comes to dialogue, but even what the character does and how they relate to other people in the plot line. I have a thing for working with wounded characters. Gabe definitely was lazy, and he was fatalistic and a lady’s man. I think Erica also is a very wounded character. The very first thing you see in the prologue is this devastating thing that happens to her that makes her very tough and very bitter in a way. She’s a full-bodied character for sure.

Bittar: We also made the joke that Erica has a bit of Jack Bauer thrown in to make her really bad-ass. But speaking about the actual flaws, she has a really, really great power, but it also becomes a hindrance to her. Then there’s obviously what Jane was mentioning, which is she loses her brother at the beginning of the story. That is something that she’s obsessed with, which is her drive to continue, but it’s also something that she’s really obsessed about. The story of Cognition in many ways is about letting go. I think that’s what Erica is facing in this particular story, learning to let go of a lot of things.

GamesBeat: Recommend a strong character in a video game that you didn’t work on.

Jensen: Well, I really like Hector from Telltale Games, which is a funny game. I think that’s a really fun character.

Bittar: I will say Baron Von Glower from Gabriel Knight 2. [He’s a] really, really strong character, even though he wasn’t one you actually played. He’s one of my favorite characters in video games.

Hallahan: This is probably one that a lot of people would say currently, but in playing The Walking Dead recently I know everyone’s favorite was Clementine. But I really loved how they did her, especially because you’ve got this 8-year-old kid and yet she’s very fully realized. She’s got a lot of dimensions to her and she changes. They made a kid character who was strong and who wasn’t annoying, which would be really easy to fall into. I definitely enjoyed her in that game a lot.

GamesBeat: What advice would you give to anyone looking to get into video game writing?

Jensen: Usually, when people ask me that, they ask me how to become a game designer. My suggestion is to get an undergraduate degree either in computer science or creative writing or English or art. Usually, most game designers end up coming up through some other part of the company, like either a programmer or an artist or QA. It’s just hard to become a game designer. I guess there are some programs now specifically on that, but I don’t know how easy those graduates find to get directly hired into a game designer slot. But just to practice your own writing as much as possible with short stories and other means before you get that opportunity to do your first game.

Bittar: Like Jane said, it’s a really tough position to get into. In our case, we had to really do our own company so that we could write the stories that we wanted. I think that one of my recommendations would be if you can get a small team and do a small indie game. Make sure that it’s good, that it’s great storytelling and great game play, but don’t go too crazy with it. There’s a huge indie audience out there that will recognize great stuff.

Cognition: An Erica Reed ThrillerGamesBeat: Why is it so hard to get a game writing job?

Jensen: It just seems like from my time in game companies that it’s the most coveted position. A lot of people who are inside the company want those positions, so that’s why I say it more often goes to somebody who’s already been with the company and has proven themselves and has maybe submitted three or four game proposals and is eventually given a shot. So, those positions don’t often become open to the public.

Bittar: Everybody wants to make a game, everybody has an idea for a game, and everybody wants their idea produced. So, it’s really hard to define. In our case, I have ideas, Katie has ideas, and then we have a bunch of other people in the studio that have ideas. They’re all great. So, just hiring somebody to write ideas for us when we already have so many in the team, it becomes hard.

GamesBeat: What do you think is the worst piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

Jensen: Oh, wow. I, personally, have always bristled about the sort of formulaic “boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl,” which I kind of had handed to me a bit when I started writing for Sierra. I mean, I definitely see the value in plot arcs and the positive and negative, and all that sort of technical stuff. I do use it. But just to become that sort of formulaic is not something that I find really valuable as a writer.

Hallahan: I don’t know that I can think of a specific piece of advice. I can remember a writing teacher I didn’t really like all that much. But I think that was because I wrote science fiction and fantasy in his class and he didn’t really get it. So, every time I went there, he would kind of keep asking me, “But why can’t this just be in a normal setting?” I was like, “That’s not the point.”

Jensen: The other one … is “write what you know.” Because there are plenty of amazing writers in the world that have written science fiction and fantasy, and all kinds of stuff that isn’t what they know. For example, there’s a really great British mystery series, it’s written by a woman who lives in California or something. So, I think to be limited to only writing stuff that’s contemporary, realistic, is set in your neighborhood, is just too limiting for me. I frequently have scenes that take place in places I’ve never been or characters who have professions that I know nothing about that I’ve got to research. But that’s what Google is for.

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