Like journals sprinkled throughout RPGs, Pause Screens go into more detail on the people, companies, and cultures that contributed to the success of the Pillars of Eternity franchise and the Infinity Engine line of roleplaying games.
The option to romance side characters in Baldur's Gate II didn't happen by accident. The popularity of the feature, however, was a total fluke.
BioWare’s designers added romances almost as an afterthought. Baldur's Gate introduced companions players could recruit, but their interaction never went beyond fighting and exploring side-by-side. When players discovered that certain characters could be wooed in the sequel, BioWare's writers were caught off-guard by the overwhelmingly positive response.
David Gaider came to BioWare with no formal writing experience but a deep reservoir of knowledge about Dungeons & Dragons. He rose through the ranks, starting with Baldur’s Gate II, joining the design team on Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and taking on the role of lead writer on Dragon Age: Origins and subsequent games.
Gaider and I talked about what BioWare was like in the halcyon days of computer RPGs, how romances caught on in Baldur's Gate II and became a selling point in BioWare games going forward, the tightrope writers walk in trying to satisfy players interested in diverse flavors of romance, and his observations about diversity and inclusion—or the lack thereof—in the games industry.
Craddock: Before you came to BioWare, I understand you made games just as a hobby. By day, you worked in the service industry. What put you on the path to writing games as a profession?
David Gaider: Designing wasn't even a side hobby. It was not even on my radar. Prior to starting at BioWare, I was in the hotel industry, and I was managing a hotel here in Edmonton. On the side, I drew comic books. The only thing that got me the job [at BioWare], I'd say, was a friend of mine worked there as an artist. They were starting BG2, and they wanted to make it a lot bigger, so they needed a lot more writers. They asked everybody who worked there, "If you know anyone who's written anything game-related to completion, would you let us know?"
Besides comic books, I did a lot of tabletop [game writing] and ran some LARPs, live-action roleplaying campaigns, and I'd written a rulebook for one of the LARPs. My artist friend gave it to James Ohlen, [BioWare’s] lead designer, without telling me. I knew my friend worked for a game company, but I didn't think anything of it because I didn't think game companies were really in Edmonton. I'd heard of Baldur's Gate, the first one, but I didn't know it was made by this company.
I got a call out of the blue from James Ohlen, asking if I was interested in coming in for an interview for a writing position. I went for it because it sounded interesting. I brought some writing I'd done on the side, and he mostly liked the fact I knew D&D really well. He was going to give me a shot, but the pay was quite low compared to what I was making as a hotel manager. So I said, "Don't worry about it," and turned him down.
I went back to my job. That was on a Friday. On Monday when I got in to work, my regional manager had flown in unexpectedly to tell me the hotel was being sold to another management company, and that this company was going to lay off all the managers at the hotel. I gathered the stuff at my desk into a box and thought, Well, maybe I will give this writing thing a try. I played some [computer RPGs]. I played the Gold Box games back in the day, but there wasn't really anything CRPG-wise. Wizardry, maybe. I struggle to think of what earlier CRPGs there were. I enjoyed them, but they weren't the equivalent of tabletop to me.
Craddock: What did you like about tabletop games?
Gaider: They were more of an experience. I was never the kind of tabletop guy who was into combat and all the numbers and rules. I mean, I knew them, and I could write combat [scenarios], but that wasn't the focus for me. Whereas, for [computer games], the writing was never particularly good. Take Wizardry, for instance. It's a dungeon crawl. You run around and it's all numbers focused. I can enjoy that for a time, but [it didn't hold my attention]. I think the Gold Box games were a little bit better, but even then the focus was not on story.
This was around the time when games like Fallout were coming out, so I think I was starting to pick up some CRPGs, but the timing was a little bit weird. From my vague memories, Baldur's Gate was coming out around the time of this new wave of CRPGs, and it always took me a while to pick up games. I was not the sort to look for them when they were coming out; I'd hear about them well after the fact. I remember playing the first Fallout [sometime later]. It's kind of strange. JRPGs have always been considered to be a separate genre with its own separate conventions and rules, things [designers] will allow, but never the 'twain shall meet.
Craddock: One reason I enjoy telling the stories of developers who started making games in the 1980s and '90s is there weren't formal paths into the industry like there are today. You, for example, had no work experience as a writer, a programmer, an artist, or anything connected to games, but you found a way in. Can that still happen today outside of the indie space?
Gaider: It depends on the company. If you're in the right place at the right time and a company is really small, it's possible. But that's not an easy thing to do. BioWare at one point was smaller and played a lot faster and looser. Once they got to a certain size and had human resources departments and stuff, at that point, yeah, you would need [experience].
Challenge always plays a role: Not everybody needs to have prepped for their position. There's a chance they can impress [studios]. Modding is a way into the industry that doesn't really require education, per se. And education, going to a design school or something, doesn't guarantee you a job in the industry. You're still going to have to prove somehow that you have the chops. But I'd say you're right: Back then, it was an era where there wasn't any schooling, and the industry was more open to people just getting in because they loved games and had an affinity for them.
Based on how I started out, I sort of fell backwards into [the industry] without even really meaning to. The chances that that could happen today are pretty minimal. It's a much bigger, more formalized industry, I would say.
Craddock: A lot of developers I've interviewed love to recount that first time they told their parents that, yes, making games is in fact a paying job.
Gaider: Yeah, that was pretty common. The whole idea of design, especially narrative design, is a field that has evolved a lot over the past twenty years. Even at BioWare back in the day, we had "designer" as a position, and that was separate from writers. But that was specific to BioWare. When we were bought out from Electronic Arts, for instance, they didn't have a design position. That wasn't a thing. They had to change their internal roles to account for the fact that we had this strange [divide between] technical design and level design.
It has changed a lot, even narrative design. The difference between a narrative designer and a writer has become more ingrained into industry awareness, but the whole thing has evolved. Back in the day, even being a writer on the video game... All my relatives are over in Austria, and I was trying to describe to them what I do for a living. The best I could come up with was "programmer." They didn't have a reference [to explain that] narrative writer was something you could do for video games.
Craddock: When you started, did you just write, or did writers also have a hand in designing narrative systems?
Gaider: Back then it was just writing. The writers and designers were very separate, and writers would write the dialogue. We would script the dialogue. There was a scripting language in the engine that let us track variables being set, and we would do simple commands. But anything that was more complex, like having to spawn in a character or have this character walk across the screen or give you an item—that was all handled by the technical designers, the people who actually implemented the plots.
In the Infinity Engine, by Baldur's Gate II, BioWare already had added a conversation editor, so we would write in the editor, which was quite handy. At Obsidian, I remember people there were telling me that early on, they did all their writing in Excel, and I can't even imagine.
Craddock: How did those tools evolve?
Gaider: The conversation editor evolved a lot. Every game, it was iterated on. When we started Dragon Age, for instance, they made us a brand-new dialogue editor that had a lot of bells and whistles. It was more about making it easier for us to navigate, like collapsing branches so that we could view [dialogue] more easily, seeing on-screen that one line was linked to another line, even if it was elsewhere in the dialogue. That was much [more readable].
Our tools for linking the conversation editor to the voiceover pipeline became much more complex. By Knights of the Old Republic, we'd moved to full voiceovers, so that became necessary to make it easier for the VO people to see what lines to be recorded and then hook them up once they were. So, yeah, it became a lot more complex. Things like search-and-replace-text was a thing that finally came along. Our ability to set variables, but also search for where they were set or make global changes to them—those became big things that came long later. Quality-of-life additions became a much bigger thing.
Craddock: Since writers had no hand in designing systems, did you have the autonomy to create any stories you wanted?
Gaider: That probably depends on the company. Right from when I started, BioWare had a situation where the writers were much more ingrained in the design process. That has changed over the industry as well. You'll get a bunch of companies like BioWare was, or maybe is, where writers are ingrained in the dev process. You'll get a lot of other companies that bring writers in on contract after a game has been designed.
It depends on the focus that a company applies to writing as a skill. I know that at Bethesda, a lot of their programmers do writing or, as you said, take writing and do whatever is needed to [implement it], because they're the implementers. The writers that they have are more [focused on] providing text; they don't get to decide what the design is.
That, ultimately, at BioWare became the difference between a writer and a narrative designer: As time went on, the writers became a lot more focused on being the first ones in the pool: "Here's the arc of the quest," and we were designing individual quests. We were sort of the first ones who would put that forward and present it to the rest of the team. That process became much more formalized.
Craddock: I imagine the point at which storytelling becomes a focus of a development process varies from company to company, and from game to game. Blizzard North didn't give much thought to Diablo's story until the game was almost done. Was Baldur's Gate II's story considered as important as, say, its combat systems and world design?
Gaider: Generally, they would get work done in parallel. Ideally the gameplay [designers] and the narrative designers would talk to each other, but that didn't always happen. There were some situations where the writers proceeded making a story for a game assuming it would [play out one way], and the gameplay people were making a different game entirely. Once both sides started talking to each other, it was like, "Oh. Well, you change yours" and "No, you change yours." You'd get into a situation like that.
But, normally, the narrative team is starting a story in collaboration with the rest of the team: talking to them, saying, "OK, we're going to be working on this story." They go to the gameplay team, go to the art team, and say, "What do you guys want to see included?" We'd start off with a one-pager, or, "This is the arc of the story" presented to the rest of the team to get some feedback. They might say, "Well, we were hoping to do X," because they have this gameplay feature and they want to make sure it's a big part of the story. So we'd say, "Okay," and we'd go back and forth until everybody was happy with the one-pager we expanded. Suddenly it becomes a ten-pager where we go into detail on all of the beats.
Once that's been accepted by everybody, we break down those beats into what we called narrative overviews, which can be up to fifty pages for a single quest. We went into a lot more detail. So, in a way, it starts with the narrative designers, but we're not doing it in a vacuum. We have to know what the other teams are looking for. Everything we create trickles down to them. That's work they're going to have to be doing. In a way, the narrative designers were always subject to approval from everybody else, so there was a lot of discussion.
Mostly we were reporting to Mike Laidlaw, the lead designer on Dragon Age, or a narrative director. We would be presenting this, and he was the one who would be aware of what a lot of the other teams want or need to include. But, yeah, ideally the teams aren't working in a bubble. They're aware of what everybody else is doing and trying to take into account what they need to have happen. The writers wouldn't just draw up a story and say, "All right, it's going to be this." It always involved a lot of iteration and changes in preproduction.
For Baldur's Gate II, we didn't have narrative designers. James Ohlen was basically the architect of the story and the individual quests. He would talk to the writers a lot. We would brainstorm a lot and work on the [overarching] idea together, but when it came to an individual quest, he would write out sort of a, "This is basically what happens from beat to beat to beat." The amount of detail he put into it varied based on how much he trusted the writer who was doing it. Sometimes he would just say very vague [instructions], like, "Have them do this." The writers would take that and start fleshing it out.
If it wasn't working based on his plan, it felt like you could go to him and say, "Well, there's this whole section here which is kind of vague, so I was thinking of having X and Y happen in the plot instead." He'd be like, "Yeah, that's fine." Then it came down to, once it's put in the game, we could play through it and see how it worked, and there would be more changes based on that.
It depended a lot. Some writers were better at... we didn't call it narrative design, but in essence it was. The romances, for instance, were designed by the writers completely. There was no involvement from James on those. We would put in individual side quests that the writers would create on the fly. It really sort of depended.
Craddock: Was there any sort of framework to follow for designing quests in Baldur's Gate II? A blueprint kind of like: starting dialogue, this many options, and maybe go here and then here.
Gaider: There was a dungeon or a town where James would design the crit [main] path, and he'd say, "Just fill it up with some side quests." I had one dungeon where I came up with the idea to have [creatures] that were stuck, and had been stuck long after the owner had died, guarding a chest. The owner's two imps were hanging around haranguing him and I just wrote that on the fly.
My first job was filling out the Copper Coronet in Athkatla. I knew that Anomen was there, and there was a vague plot James gave me, which was that there was some pick-fighting that was going on, but he just said, "Fill it up with extra things." I would write extra characters. It's kind of weird: I think back and wonder, Did I even have a narrative [direction]? And I don't think so. I don't remember them like that. There were a lot of little plots we just sort of wrote. If there were any notes, they were directions to where the files were, and "You need to spawn in this character," and [directions like that]. There wasn't much pre-planning, per se.
If you go around Athkatla, a lot of the little side quests you get that aren't part of the crit path were just created on the fly. Sometimes they got pretty big, too. I remember that when you get to the Underdark, the drow city, I wrote that entire [area]. I didn't really talk to anyone about it. I knew that along the crit path, you were supposed to go there, and there was one stop on the crit path that involved the drow. At that point James trusted me pretty well, and he just said, "Make it interesting."
I sat there and wrote this plot that was a triple-cross: You could work sides against the other [factions], and I was pretty happy with it. But for the life of me I can't remember the process. I just sat down and wrote dialogue until it became evident that I'd need to have another dialogue, so I'd go start that one. I had a whole bunch of dialogues that were sort of interconnected, and I'd have to sit down with a tech designer and explain to them, "This is what these files are, and here's what needs to happen."
Craddock: It sounds like side quests were more freeform than main quests, the ones directly corresponding to progress through the game.
Gaider: When James would give us a plot, especially if it was crit path, I felt like we were dialogue monkeys at that point. We were just writing out the dialogue; we didn't have much say over it. Although as time went on, he became pretty good at giving us a bit of autonomy for changing what we needed to change. And when we got into the hundreds of side quests that were needed, he didn't have time to worry about all that, so we had free reign to fill those out.
That was actually a problem, though. Baldur's Gate II was a classic case of scoping just running out of control. It got content packed in and packed in and packed in, because we were always adding stuff. If you have this area, it was like, "Well, fill it up with side quests. Okay, sure. You have these characters? Give them a romance. Making it interesting. Sure!" It fell to us to figure out what that was going to look like. That's why the romances were all pretty different. Luke Christensen wrote Jaheira's romance, and it was huge. The romances I wrote were quite a bit smaller, but also simpler. Jaheira's had so many bugs. At one point it was close to getting cut entirely, just because it couldn't be made to work properly.
By the time [a quest] got put in-game, we could see if something was working. But really it was just playing by ear. The way the smaller quests I worked on got done was, essentially, whatever I could think of. If they were great, then, cool. Clearly I had a knack for it. Toward the end of Baldur's Gate II, and especially on Throne of Bhaal, I ended up being half-tech designer, just out of necessity. As time went on, my plots that I made up on the fly became more and more complex, so I kind of needed [to implement those quests] myself just because they were too difficult to explain to anyone.
Craddock: What were tech designers?
Gaider: They were the scripters. The Infinity Engine has a scripting language. As I recall, it was C++-based, but the engine that they were working on, they were taking the scripting language—which the programmers had created, things like commands for the AI, commands for spawning in monsters, or saying "When this happens, do this"—and making all the plots go. They were the implementers. So [tech designers] were programmers in a way, in that they worked with a type of programming language. But the programming language was part of the engine. It was telling the engine how to make the game run. That's a tech designer.
Eventually, as time went on, we started splitting tech design into specialties. There was combat design, people who were more interested in putting combat [encounters] together and figuring out how that was going to work. There was system design, the people who would figure out how the classes and all the abilities would work. They would work pretty closely with the combat people, but they were also deciding how you would level up, what all these various abilities were going to do.
There was level design, those people who are implementing plots [quests] and making all the dialogue fire off when it's supposed to, like when stuff is supposed to happen in dialogue—say, you're supposed to receive a reward—they'd be scripting to make sure the item is actually put in your inventory. They were also the ones who were doing really simple cinematics on-screen: people moving around and doing stuff before we got our first cinematic people. That didn't come on until much later, around the end of Neverwinter Nights.
Craddock: You were someone without formal experience in any aspect of videogame development. Given that, what was your biggest challenge? What had the biggest learning curve?
Gaider: There was a bit of a learning curve in that you couldn't do everything you wanted to do. The quality of the story was not the number-one priority. For BioWare, it's a priority, but you had limitations on you that just didn't exist if you were writing a tabletop game or a book. Limitations in terms of what the resources were, like the monsters you had available, what could be scripted to happen on-screen. A lot of times we would try things until we had to say, "This just isn't working," until we got better at figuring out ahead of time what was possible and what was not.
When you're first starting off, you have to take into account the fact that you're writing something where you don't control the main character. You don't know where they are. They could start your plot at various times [in the game]. You're sort of influencing them, and I think that came a bit more naturally just because of my tabletop experience: I ran tabletops as a GM, so I was used to not being in control of my players, but laying out breadcrumbs for them to follow through the plot. But I never really know how they feel about things. I just give them lots of options to express themselves. That sort of came naturally, but it was difficult at the start to figure out what I could and could not do, and the difference between things I thought were difficult to put into the game, versus what [was actually difficult to implement].
Some things that I thought were very simple, were in fact very complex. For instance, fighting somebody, and then defeating them so they could throw down their sword and surrender. That seems like the sort of thing you'd want to do all the time, but it was a nightmare for the tech designers to get to work properly.
Craddock: Was it difficult catching on to Baldur's Gate II because it was a sequel and you needed to understand what had happened beforehand? And that's to say nothing of the fact that the Forgotten Realms is an established setting.
Gaider: That didn't bother me at all. I was very familiar with DND in general. I started playing back when the Red Box basic set came out. I got that as a Christmas gift one year. There was a point where I stopped playing, so it had been a while since I'd picked it up, but I think that was true for a lot of people. At that time, I think D&D was at a nadir of popularity prior to Baldur's Gate 1 coming out.
I hadn't played Baldur's Gate 1 prior to being hired for Baldur's Gate II, so when they hired me, I sat down and thought I'd check out this game. I went through the entire game, so I was very freshly familiar with [the game's story], but I'd also known about Baldur's Gate [the location] from my previous familiarity with D&D.
I was very familiar with the drow, so I wrote much of that content. I wrote the drow city, the Underdark. I think toward the end of it I could practically speak drow. I had to become more familiar with some of that, study up on all the gods, but otherwise I never had any trouble with it. It only became a little bit weird when, halfway through, we switched to a semi-third-edition interpretation of D&D [rules]. WOTC was planning on putting out Third Edition, but that hadn't happened yet. We were getting a lot of rulebooks describing how Third Edition would be. As far as I can remember we didn't really know what to make of it. We had sort of a hybrid, second-and-third-edition [ruleset] for the game.
Craddock: What was BioWare's culture like during work on Baldur's Gate II?
Gaider: It was pretty casual. I think I was around the sixtieth employee, somewhere around there. They didn't have an HR department. Ray and Greg were our bosses, but they were also just cool guys. Greg would go around in shorts and flip-flops. It was very... I don't want to say a frat house, because I never went to university so I'm not sure what a frat house is really like, but it was the way I imagine a frat house would be. I was twenty-seven, and I was one of the older guys there. Even my boss, James Ohlen, was younger than I was, so it was a little odd for me.
Everybody was very casual. If somebody was in their office, and they decided they didn't want to wear pants, well... that would happen. There was an artist there who would play porn on his computer. He'd just have it playing. Didn't worry about it, didn't care what anyone else thought. Those things could still happen during those times. It was weird, but it was fun, too: We were in this together. We just sort of figured things out and did what was necessary.
There were fights, too. That was a part of it: Not having any structure, people would fight [over development]. The art and design departments were constantly at each other's throats. There'd be a blowup, and then it would all blow over. They would work it out and everything would be fine. I remember things like that.
In a way, it was a good time, but also, I'm glad it eventually changed. There were things I didn't like [about that culture]. I liked it when we started getting more structure in how we approached these things. A lot of times, because we didn't have structure, we would make mistakes and then not learn from them. People would sort of figure things out, and if that person—that singular person—moved on from the company, everything he had learned would sort of be lost.
The departments were very segmented. They would do their own thing, and they weren't really responsible [for answering] to each other. We had a project director who was sort of trying to figure out how to get everything working. I don't think it was until Feargus came on later on that we had a ringmaster who was able to say, "You! Stop that. You! Do this," and was able to get us working more in alignment. The departments were siloed and doing what they thought was best.
I was also just a writer at that time, so I'm just talking about my perspective at the bottom [of the hierarchy]: This is what it seemed like to me. Maybe there was more structure than I was aware of, but it seemed like everybody was just trying to figure things out. And despite us having a project director, James Ohlen was the visionary behind it. He was the one really directing things even outside of design, at least as far as I could tell. Not everybody listened to him all the time, but I think Baldur's Gate II is what it was largely because of him.
Craddock: You've touched on this a bit, but what sort of leader was James Ohlen?
Gaider: For the side quests he would give us free reign to make what we needed. We ended up having these [massive] areas we needed to fill up with stuff, so he didn't sweat [side quests] so much. In terms of the major quests, he would write out, "Okay, these are the major beats: you go here, you do X." He would lay out A to B to C to D in varying level of details. Then he'd give it to the writers and we'd fill it out with dialogue. Sometimes, as we were working on it, we'd say, "Well, you had this section here going from A to B, but it feels like it needed something, so I was thinking of doing this?" And he'd say, "Yeah, that's cool."
His role after that point was a lot about review, because he played everything. If you wrote a romance, a side quest—you sent it all over to him and he would go through it. If he liked it, he'd say, "Cool, that's great." That was pretty rare. Normally he'd come back with notes like, "I didn't like this" or "I'd do this." It wasn't until Dragon Age that we started doing peer reviews, where we'd all review [new content] together. At that point it was still him, and if he didn't like something he might say, "I don't like this quest. Trash it and do something else." You could end up rewriting that quest five, six, seven times until you didn't want to look at it anymore, because he was looking for something, and sometimes he could sort of express exactly what he was looking for, and sometimes it was quite difficult for him.
Everyone on the writing team sort of became jealous of me because, really, my entire role at BioWare was that I was the James Whisperer for the longest time. I kind of knew what he wanted even if he didn't. He would tell other writers, "Do this," and they would do exactly that, and then he wouldn't like it, and they would get frustrated, and it would go back and forth. For me, often he would give me his document that says, "This is what I want." And as I was working on it, I'd think, I don't think he really wants this, and I would just do something else.
Nobody else would get away with that. I would tell them, "Look, if I changed it and he didn't like it, I would get doubly dinged." I would get dinged for not doing it right, and not doing what he told me to do. But I knew what he really wanted. I could read between the lines and write that instead, and he liked it. That was sort of how the team was run: Everything was written to his satisfaction. He reviewed everything, and somehow had time for it all. I honestly don't even know.
Craddock: One aspect of the Baldur's Gate games I liked was that they felt like extensions of D&D the tabletop game, but beyond dungeon crawling. They were very text-heavy, with narrators that would describe scenes as well as facilitate dialogue between the player and other characters.
Gaider: That really had its inception in Baldur's Gate. That was James" vision, that this would be a computer game as if it were a tabletop game he were writing. I think even a lot of the characters came out of a D&D campaign he ran with some other guys. James was a big D&D nerd, and he had this idea of, what if a computer-game version of D&D was just like the ones I played on tabletop, but not solely a combat simulator? That was really his vision.
Craddock: Once you started getting the hang of development, did you have any areas you wanted to concentrate on in particular?
Gaider: Any goals I had were very micro. I was there to help make this game. I'd never worked on anything like it before, and it was interesting. I really liked the idea of writing stories. It was pretty early on when James talked to everybody about his idea for having romances. Baldur's Gate 1 had followers who had personalities, and they talked a little bit, but he wanted to make them much more detailed: give them plots and entire arcs. That really interested me because I loved writing characters.
For me, a lot of my early work was about, "What can I do with these characters?" I think the first follower I wrote was Valygar [Corthala], the ranger. The bare bones of the Planar Sphere plot were given to me by James as, "This will be his quest." I fleshed that out and wrote the arcs around it: you would get these dialogues first, and back then followers would speak randomly, so you'd get these dialogues and once the third one fired the Planar Sphere plot could begin, and here's what happened after the plot.
I liked the idea of expanding the follower stories to make them not like a novel, but a whole story in and of itself. I liked the idea of those being character focused. I wrote a lot, and that's how many of the follower plots got bigger and bigger. I don't think they were originally intended to be so big, but I wrote fast. Back then they called me 'the machine" because I could sit down and, in the space of a few days, pump out a large plot. As James trusted me more and more, he'd tell me to go flesh out a plot, and I would just do it really quickly. Which, considering all the writing that had to be done on Baldur's Gate II, they were pretty thankful for.
Craddock: How did the option to romance characters come about? It wasn't in the first Baldur's Gate. Was that something James wanted to hit this this time around?
Gaider: We discussed, "Let's give them arcs," and then the idea of romances came up. We initially were supposed to have six: three female, three male. We were interested in that, but what the romances would be? I don't think we [knew]. It wasn't like we had direction such as, "Make it emotionally resonate." We were just trying to write a good story. As I recall, that's all we were trying to do. It was a little weird, because romance in a video game seemed like a weird thing. We weren't sure how we would do this.
I remember when I was sitting down and trying to write romances, I was just trying to make it an interesting story. I was trying to figure out what to do with Anomen. That was actually my first romance, and I didn't know what to do with him. I didn't create his character. The first part of his character writing had been done by, I think, Rob Bartel, one of the other writers. And [the character] was kind of an asshole. I had followed up on that, here's this arrogant paladin guy, based on what Rob had started. Then at some point I remember James saying, "Okay, he's the first male romance." And I was like, "Really? Really? Anomen? You think...? Okay. Sure. I'll figure it out."
I was trying to take Anomen and figure out, okay, how would you romance this guy? I didn't give any thought, really to who the audience was or if it would be an emotional thing. I just thought, If this were a story I were writing, like a book, how would it play out? Drama is just a thing that has to happen. I didn't feel pressured to make it engaging for the player. I just thought, Well, what do I feel like? What do I think is cool?
Same thing when I wrote Aerie and Viconia [DeVir] romances. They were kind of dropped in my lap because I wasn't supposed to do the female romances at all, but Luke was falling way behind, so they said, "Why don't you do these?" So I was like, okay, they're very different from each other, so I took two different [approaches]: Aerie being the damsel in distress, Viconia being a femme fatale. When I did tabletop, I would sometimes give my players romances. If they were romancing a player in my game, how would I write that story? That's all.
I was thinking about what we had done. We weren't even sure that the romances would work, or that they'd make it into the final game. But we had no idea, honestly, that they'd be popular. I think when the game got released and we saw they were popular, it was a complete surprise to us. So from my perspective, I was making a side quest like the other side quests. That really was the entirety of it.
Craddock: It seems like it grew into something much bigger from there. Like those first romances were this small step on the road to giving players the freedom to make stories their own: you can romance this character, or not. You can fight alongside them, or not.
Gaider: Let's say you're playing a tabletop game with a GM. He has this story he's going to tell. He's going to tell it his way, and the player tries to do something that doesn't fit with his vision, so [the player] gets blocked. "You walk out the door? Okay, a second guy comes and offers you this exact same thing." And the player starts to realize, "Oh, I can't really do anything here. I've got to just go with the flow."
There was a feeling [from Baldur's Gate 1] that the story was sometimes too prescriptive. That your decisions didn't really make any difference as far as which way it went. I think that's fair. I think the idea of player agency, it's funny because some people look back now and say, "Oh, Baldur's Gate II had all this player agency." If that's true, it was accidental. It wasn't something we thought about. The idea of honoring the player's choices I would say didn't really become a thing until Knights of the Old Republic, when we expressed that as a [game mechanic]. Like, "Okay, someone's offering you a plot. You should have the right to say now."
In Baldur's Gate II, you could kill someone before they joined your party. A lot of that happened just because that's what you could do in tabletop, so of course we would put that in. We would always do that to, "You can do this in D&D, so therefore it should be in our game." Only if something wasn't working would we change that. But the idea that, "We should do this because that empowers players and make them feel like they can affect things?" That wasn't really on our minds, as I recall.
I think we started to think more about the design: How do we give the player agency? How do we get them to buy into the story? That became more of a discussion point [as time went on]. We were trying to think of things that let players feel like they had agency, even in cases where they did not. It was a bit of a shell game, but you started to learn what made the player feel better about doing things you wanted them to do anyway.
Craddock: So the scope of the game seemed to grow because there was a need for more writing?
Gaider: We just kept adding stuff. The writers wrote, and there were no guidelines on how much they should write. So we just wrote until we felt like we'd written what needed to be written. Word-count limits came about after Baldur's Gate II as a result of Baldur's Gate II, because we would write as much plot as we required. The artists would always make the areas larger than we needed. If we needed a city, suddenly we had this big city. Maybe I had one quest, but, all right, now all the sudden I've got to fill up this city with side quests. That's how this happened. There were all these areas where nothing was happening and they felt dead, so could we add some side quests in there? Sure.
We just kept adding them, and things kept ballooning. As we would play, this area feels dead, or this doesn't make sense, and could you explain it more? Because it was always: The writers always wrote as much as they felt was needed, but the answer to every problem was to write more. If something didn't make sense, we added a dialogue.
A lot of times it was the easiest [solution]: if art got cut and we had to change something, we used writing. Writing was the easiest thing. Nobody cared about wasting the writers" time, so we just wrote as much as was needed. It got to the point where plots ended up way bigger than had been envisioned. As we thought of ideas, the whole thing where you come back from the Underdark and you're facing Bodhi—as I recall that wasn't even on the drawing board. It was on the fly. Like, what if Bodhi kidnaps your love interest? Wouldn't that be great? Oh, and turns them into a vampire! Let's do that!
We would just add things as we thought about them and talked about them. And by "we," I mean James and writers and everybody. If we thought of something, it would just get added. It got to the point where, when we were in the last third of the game—when you come back from the Underdark—the higher-ups were starting to get really concerned about the word count. They were so concerned that we had to go through all the dialogue in the game and shorten it. They were concerned about how some blocks of text had gotten too big.
We had a mandate—this was really late in development—that blocks of text couldn't be longer than X number of characters, and the only character that could exceed that Jan Jansen, because he tells long, rambling story. That was his thing. So we were like, "Okay, we can [shorten dialogue], but we can't do that to Jan. The only possible way we could edit them down to this length is to take them out." They said, "Well, no, but just [shorten] the rest."
The thing was that translation costs were pretty high, so there was a lot of, "How do we keep this from spiraling out of control?" It was very late in the game when all of a sudden, James started ringing the alarm bell to say, "We can't keep adding at the pace we've been going. We've got to start cutting." We ended up cutting so much that by the time the game came out, I think a lot of people on the team thought it was a piece of crap. It's different when you're inside of the team, and suddenly we're cutting things and you're very attached to the stories. You've never had to deal with story. We'd cut things, but the story doesn't make sense anymore, but we've got to cut.
Craddock: How did you and the other writers react to words being cut?
Gaider: This was after Feargus Urquhart came on from Black Isle. We were just expanding our content exponentially, and we would never have gotten done. Everything was up to eighty percent completion, but very buggy. It felt like we had no plan, no way to reign this in. I remember Feargus came on and he sort of spearheaded, "Okay, if we can't get it to work quickly, it's cut." That was really hard, because there were a lot of things we wanted to put in still. In retrospect, it was absolutely the right thing to do, but at the time it just felt like we were cutting stories in half.
You become convinced that after we put this out, everybody's going to see these giant, gaping holes where once there were plots. Then it turned out that nobody knew any different, and we were like, "Oh. Okay." We were just so desperate to tie everything up. The last few months was so much crunch. It was the worst crunch I've worked in my career. I was actually sleeping at the office a number of times. The mandate was, "Either [your quests] work, or they'll be cut." I didn't want my plots to be cut.
Several times my romances, which I was really keen on, were almost cut. I had to sit there and play through them—QA them, essentially—and figure out how to fix them by a deadline or they'd be cut. The sword of Damocles was hanging over every one of your plots because we just had to get [the game] out the door. I still don't know how Jaheira made it in, to be honest.
James was desperate, too. He didn't want to lose any of this, so he was trying to tie it up. The end parts of the game ended up getting a lot smaller, and that was a good thing. If they were as large as chapter two ended up being, they would have ended up being a nightmare. But that [truncation] wasn't the original intention; things were just being cut. We were playing it constantly. That was good, but also kind of ad. Later on we started to realize a [trend] where if you play through your plots too often, you start to get bored with them, and you get into this trap where you think clearly other people will be as bored as you are right now, so clearly you have to change things. We were not aware that that was a thing, but it's definitely a thing I remember happening.
It always happens to a degree. I call it the prologue problem: the prologue is done first, so as everyone in the company is playing through the game, they play through the prologue because it's done first over and over and over again, and suddenly you start getting bug [reports] about how it doesn't have any life to it, and we need to rewrite it. You don't realize why you're feeling these things.
So, when BG 2 went out, we thought, This is crap. Well, everybody else doesn't know these things were cut, and they're seeing all the work we did fresh for the first time. Whereas we QA'd the entire game. We were doing speed runs by the end. I probably played through the entire thing 300 times. By that point, it's just like, I hate this game. So much. It's a piece of crap. I cut so much from it. I don't know how half these plots even make sense, but you know what? Whatever. I'm so tired. I just want to make sure it doesn't have any bugs and I just want to ship it out the door and never look at it again.
Then it's out and everybody loves it, and you wake up from that fog: "Oh, I've been on death crunch for three months," or in some cases even longer. You realize that they're seeing it with fresh eyes, and you realize how much [effort] you put into it.
Craddock: As you moved on to games such as KOTOR and especially Dragon Age: Origins, how did BioWare view romances? Did they become more important from game to game?
Gaider: I think after Baldur's Gate II, the amount of attention that they got going [forward depended on the game]. In Neverwinter Nights, we didn't have much in the way of word count. That was always the limitation: How much we could write. BioWare, throughout its history, has gone through this weird overreaction from game to game in terms of how many words writers get to write. Baldur's Gate II was 1.2 million words, and then the reaction from above was, "Oh, wow, that's really expensive."
And then the upper management would [say], "Hey, could you use, like, a third of the word count and make it just as good?" And we'd say, "Uh, we can try." We'd write that, and then they'd get [the script] and say, "This isn't as good." Or we'd do our best and a game would go out, like Neverwinter Nights was pretty skimpy on the word count, and it wouldn't get as good of reviews. They'd come to us and be like, "What's the problem?" and we'd say, "Well, we need to be able to write more." So the next game following, they'd give us more freedom, but the game after that they'd say, "Can you reign that in?" They'd go back and forth.
After Neverwinter Nights, we were on the upper end of the curve again. We got the freedom to write what we felt we needed. I remember James was really pleased by the reaction to the romances in Baldur's Gate II, and I think Jade Empire was also around the same times as KOTOR in terms of development. Those were both around the upper end of the wavelength in terms of word count. In both games it was sort of like, "Let's build on what Baldur's Gate II did and make romances a bigger thing."
I didn't work on Jade Empire, but I did work on Knights of the Old Republic. There was the feeling that we would double down on one of the things that got Baldur's Gate II a lot of attention. In terms of—never mind on release—but in terms of what we could see, the people who kept coming to Baldur's Gate II even well after release, the stuff they kept talking about was that romances added to replayability. It was something not all fans were into, but there was a large segment that felt this was something that was really cool and were very passionate about it. So we thought, Okay, let's double down on that.
I think Jade Empire did the first same-sex romances [in a BioWare game]. That team did it, and we were all sort of expecting, oh, there's going to be blowback. This cannot be permitted in video games, can it? But really, the reaction back then—this was before the Internet turned ugly, I'd say—the reaction was mostly positive. So by the time we got to Dragon Age and Mass Effect, we felt like we'd sort of embraced [romance] as our thing. There are things you've come to expect from a BioWare game, and romances ended up being one of them.
It didn't really become a political thing, I'd say, until around the time of Dragon Age 2. I don't know which Mass Effect [was in development around that time]. Maybe Mass Effect 2. But it was around the time that Gamergate and that type of reaction started. But before then—and really, I say "before then" but it was really "it's always been"—it was a way for us to have a broader array of tools in our storytelling belt. To reach out to different types of players.
We've always had players. Whether it was romance or whether it was gameplay, everybody wanted options. Options, options, options. It was really just a matter of us broadening the number of players who we gave something to. It was never about us catering to one type of player and one type of player only. It was, "Let's provide options." There was always the feeling that players appreciated the existence of options even if they weren't options they would take.
Take races in Dragon Age, for instance. Seventy-five percent of players all play humans, but a big chunk of players who played as humans still appreciated the existence of race choices even if they would never play an elf, dwarf, or whatever else. So that was really the thinking [internally]. Then when blowback started after Dragon Age 2, it became something we had to discuss as a company and sort of dig in our heels. Before that, [romance] was our thing, and we would do it as well as we could, and doing it well meant providing options and writing different types of romances. That was just us feeling it out.
Craddock: How did those political movements and that blowback, as you put it, affect how BioWare approached romances, for better or worse?
Gaider: From my perspective, I'm talking about Dragon Age because I never worked on Mass Effect. Mass Effect was concurrent to Dragon Age's development, and they were doing their own thing in many ways. Romances, I don't think, were as big a deal to [that team]. You'd have to talk to somebody on the Mass Effect team about that, but I thought they had them maybe because, again, it was a BioWare thing and they kind of had to, but they never really worried about them that much. I think the writers, the personalities of the people who were on the Dragon Age team, just sort of liked them more, or maybe Mike Laidlaw and that side of the management were keener on them, so it became something that was more important.
I remember, for Dragon Age Origins, we had two male romances and two female romances. We made one male and one female bisexual in that game. I was really excited to do that, because I'm gay myself, and before Jade Empire came out, I'd never really thought that [same-sex romance] was something you could put into a video game. I just never really considered it, and the idea of putting it in Jade Empire didn't come from me. I don't know who proposed it, it's just that when I heard about it, I was surprised.
We started working on Dragon Age Origins and fleshing out our characters and followers. I went to James and said, "Can I do that? Is that something I can do?" I wanted to make one bisexual character and one who was gay. He felt that the cost/benefit ratio for having a gay character just didn't merit it, so I'd better make it bisexual. Not because we wanted bisexual characters, but because that character could pull double duty.
From my perspective, I was like, "You know what? I'll take it. I'll do that." So I was fine with that, and I remember reading comments that were like, "You know, if you're gay, you have one option. You have one character you can romance." And while I think the general feeling was that [players] appreciated it, it was sort of indicative of who this game was really for, and that stuck with me and with a number of people I worked with.
At the time, we thought we were doing our best. But the conversation was starting online, and we realized, it doesn't take explicit action to [create a certain type of romance]. Not doing something can also be a statement. Things like an indication of who this game is really for... You could play it if you wanted to, but it's not actually for you. Or the feeling of, yeah, you can play it, and we'll throw you a bone, but you don't get to be treated like other players.
I don't think that was ever our intention. Never mind how I felt about it: A lot of the management was like, "You know, there's no reason we can't do this." Writing time does have costs associated with it, but it's not as much as other things. I think, going into Dragon Age 2, for instance, we said, "Why don't we just make all the characters bisexual?" There's some additional cost, but in terms of fairness and in terms of who this game is for, I think everybody at BioWare said, "Why try making statements about who this game is really for when we have this audience that is really eager to see this kind of content?"
For every guy who's like, "I don't like that my characters can be gay!" For everyone who did that, perhaps we'd draw in someone else who said, "There are no games like this [for me]." If we could get them to play, does that not make up for it? We had no data to test that out, but the feeling at BioWare was, the more [frequent] those comments occurred, the more we said, "I don't know that I want to make a game for those people [who would be disgusted]."
There was some nervousness, at least on my part, of, what about our publisher, EA? Are they okay with this? Anyone up the chain of command could have said, "That's too big a risk. Don't do it." But nobody did. It would be a while, until after DA 2 came out, [where there was a reaction]. DA 2 had a mixed reception for a lot of reasons, but one of them, at least in terms of a certain portion of the fan base, was in regard to all romances being bisexual. In particular, the fact that, the way the writers divvied them up, two of the romances—one male and one female—would come on to you, essentially letting you know, "Hey, I'm a romance," and you could say no, and that's okay. But two would not come on to you, and you'd have to find out they were a romance during the game.
That seemed very even-handed to us, but the male romance, Anders, the fact that he came on to a male player was, for a particular part of the fan base, was considered beyond the pale. "Oh my God, I can't believe he made a pass at me." Reading some of the reactions, I was like, "Really? Is this how you deal with people in real life?" I was pretty incredulous.
From the perspective of the people on the project, it's not that big a part of the game. The more Gamergate [gained momentum], the more they seemed to be of the opinion that in order to do these romances, they have to be all our time thinking about and talking about. But in terms of overall percentage, it's not that much, really. Even the romances themselves, for the writers... Character arcs, for followers, are around a quarter of our word budget because they're pretty important. Of that word budget, I'd say ten percent, maybe twenty at the most, belonged to romance arcs as opposed to [other story]. We want players to have content for this character even if they're not romancing them.
It's not that much [of our word count]. Romance would be a conversation. As we're writing characters, we'd say, "We're doing romances. What do we want to do with these characters?" And we'd talk about it, and it would just happen, and everybody was pleased to give the fans something they could be excited about. It wasn't until after DA 2 came out and there was backlash again, for instance, Jennifer Hepler specifically on the writing team—it was the first time that BioWare had experienced that. We needed to figure out, as a team, how to wrestle with it. Prior to that it wasn't something we had on our minds.
Craddock: This might be me overthinking the implementation, but in regard to all of DA 2's characters being bisexual, that that fed too much into the videogame power fantasy of players can do whatever they want, have whatever or whomever they want? Like, "If you want that character, of course you can romance them!" You brought up a good point with the cost/benefit analysis of development, but even as a person who liked that implementation, I remember wondering if one takeaway you had from that game was along the lines of, "You know, maybe it's worthwhile to limit romance options for certain characters because in real life not everyone is interested in both sexes?"
Gaider: That's exactly why, in Dragon Age Inquisition, we went back to [a certain kind of romance]. The fans call it "player-sexual." Are they really bisexual? You could say two [characters] are, the ones who came on to you [in Dragon Age 2], and two are not. They don't come on to you, so really, you only know about their sexuality at all if you come on to them. I think part of that was intentional, but the cost/benefit thing felt to me—bisexuality is a real sexuality, so to have characters who are bisexual not because they're bisexual, but because it was efficient, felt a little shitty in retrospect.
It seemed like we would get blowback either way, so when we started Dragon Age Inquisition, we said, "Why don't we just do what we like best, as opposed to doing something the fans would like?" Because like I said, we knew we'd get blowback either way. The writers on the team felt that giving characters personal agency was more our preference.
When I talk about blowback, I'm not just talking about the Gamergate crap either. We probably got as much, if not more, from the social justice crowd. We got it from both sides. Even after Dragon Age Inquisition came out, saying that characters had sexuality and that you might not be able to romance them? Well, of a sudden it was, "I'm a lesbian player and I can't romance Cassandra? How dare you! How dare you, BioWare, not make her available [to me]?" There's a certain amount of entitlement on both sides.
I tend to think that on the social justice side, they're coming at it from a different direction in terms of, they don't get this kind of content very much, so they're coming at it maybe from a position of need. But there's still entitlement. As far as how the writers felt about it, we liked the agency of characters who decided for themselves. The player-sexuality left a bad taste in our mouths. So, yeah, you're right, that's why we eventually moved away from that. But at the time, during Dragon Age 2, it seemed like a good idea.
Craddock: At a GaymerX panel, you said that BioWare wanted to have more conversations about how to approach asexuality. Have you been thinking more about that?
Gaider: Yeah. The writing team had discussed a few times about how to handle a few, what I would call "more difficult sexualities." Asexuality, transgender, polyamorous. Which isn't a sexuality, but...
Craddock: It's still a lifestyle.
Gaider: Yeah. It's still something that made us think, Can we do these things? Part of the problem with asexuality—and transgender is the same way—is, whenever possible, you want to try to show sexuality as opposed to talk about it. But asexuality, specifically, is something you have to talk about. You need a character to say, "I'm a sexual." If a character just was a sexual and didn't want to have sex, you could interpret that as a sexuality, but it's not actually representation unless at some point they're like, "I don't want to have sex because I am a sexual."
For Dragon Age it was extra difficult because using a lot of these terms, they're very twenty-first-century specific, or even twentieth-century specific. It was difficult because this was a pseudo-medieval society, and it feels weird to be putting very modern terms in [the characters"] mouths. Our style guide said we had to be very careful about using words that came into existence after 1900. That was generally our rule: "Let's not really use words that came into common parlance until the twenty-first century."
Plus, the more the writers talked about it, it felt like it would be awkward to do a conversation without it feeling very on the nose. One common thing you hear from, say, the Gamergate crowd—not to take their criticism too much to heart—they're like, "Oh, these things are only in the game to be preachy or to be political." Our feeling was, to have a character stop and make a distinct point of that kind of lends a little bit of weight to what they're talking about.
I suppose it could be done. Part of the problem, too, is we don't have writers of every sexuality or ethnicity. When you're talking about writing something that's not your personal experience, you've got to be pretty careful. We did tackle that. We had a transgender in Inquisition. There's a few things we wanted to tackle, but you can't tackle everything without the game actually being about [every sexuality and lifestyle]. We wanted to pick our hills to fight on.
Craddock: It sounds like, despite romance being BioWare thing but not the central focus of each game, you had to walk this tightrope of, "If we don't include it, some people might feel excluded, but if we do, are we including it for the right reasons?"
Gaider: And that does make it sound like we wrestled with it all the time. No. We had a lot of work to do. But it did lead to conversations, like, "If we're going to do it, can we try to do it right?" It did feel like no matter what we did, there was always going to be criticism from people who would say, "You didn't do it well enough" or "You didn't include enough of it." That's cool. You want to listen to that, but you can only listen to criticism so much.
The team had to fight against this as well. As time went on, this became a bigger thing: There was a paralysis that came with [romance]. The more you worried about, say, the social justice crowd demanding, "You have to do more, you have to do it better, you have to do it right," the more you start to feel like, "Well, maybe we shouldn't do this at all. Maybe we're not the right people to do it. Maybe if we can't represent everyone, we shouldn't try." You know what I mean?
Gaider: You had to fight against that and say, "No, we're not going to please everybody. We never have and probably never will. Let's just give this our best shot. If there's criticism, take it to heart and work on it next time. This is not what the game is about, but that doesn't mean we can't do some [of this type of romance]." We can have some characters included where it makes sense.
Then immediately someone would say, "You're using that as an excuse [to be political]!" Well, where it makes sense to us, as writers. We're trying to include it where we can, where it makes sense, and to a degree, with what we have available on the team. I wrote Dorian [in Inquisition]. I felt comfortable writing Dorian's story, as the fact that he's gay is more centrally involved. Luke Kristjanson is a writer who worked with us. He's a straight man. He wrote Sera's lesbian romance, and he said, "I can't make her story about being a lesbian, so can I just make her a lesbian character?" And, yes, that is appropriate. We want to have [that character representation], but we don't need to go down a road where you're trying to write a character that you have no insight into, right?
So, it is a bit of a tightrope, and it gets worse as time goes on. As soon as you step into that ring, you feel so politically charged. I hate that. To go back to the Gamergate side, [they say] "Why are you injecting politics into your game?" Well, I was a writer for BioWare since Baldur's Gate II, and I've always done that. Not just sexuality: my personal politics, politics in general, stories ripped from the headlines—that always went into my writing. What you consider to be political, and I don't, is just something you don't like. It's not new.
To avoid that paralysis, at some point you have to discuss it. You have to give it your best evaluation and then you just need to move forward and just do it. Otherwise you could literally circle around it forever. And that is one thing I always feel. The activists, the social justice crowd, there's a danger there in terms of the amount of criticism [we listen to]. I would never tell them, "Your criticism is invalid" or "You're not allowed to criticize." That's furthest from the truth. But the danger I'm talking about is, you're making it so that from a developer's standpoint, if I do this, if I step into this ring, I'm going to get it from both sides. I get it from people who don't want [perceived politics] there at all, and I get it from the people who do want it there, but who seem like they will never be satisfied.
From the developer's standpoint, you could reasonably come to the conclusion that it's better not to go there at all. For the companies that don't do it, there is some vague criticism, which sort of applies to the industry as a whole, but nobody goes after a company because they don't have gay characters, you know? They might get some criticism, like Ubisoft: There was that Assassin's Creed [Unity] that didn't have playable female characters. They said something like it was [too expensive] to create female animations [and models]. They got criticized for that, and fair enough. There is something like a double-edged sword, but at least the people I've spoken to are pretty liberal-minded, well-meaning people who, in the end, think it's better to err on the side of trying, because it feels like it's the right thing to do.
And also from a creator's standpoint, it's more interesting. Rather than having every player-character be the white dude with the short brown hair, suddenly we have more in our toolbox, more variety that is available to us. Suddenly we can have female protagonists; we can have more variety in the stories we tell. Some developers jump on that as well, not just because there's a crowd crying out for that, but because, "Finally, I don't have to write the same action hero every single time. This is kind of cool."
When this started, from the perspective of my team, that was something we liked: We got to include different types of stories. It felt cool to us as opposed to: Let's do the same old thing, because that's always been done.
Craddock: Another point of criticism, not just of BioWare's romances but of romance in games generally, is that players pursue romantic interests by showering them with gifts. I mean, I think Fable is one end of the spectrum: You are literally giving someone a piece of chocolate and watching a meter fill up. But I wondered if, internally at BioWare, you saw gamified romances as a fair criticism.
Gaider: Well, the criticism is valid to an extent. When someone says, "The romance felt very game-y," I'm like, "It's a game." I mean, literally, the way it works behind the scenes for every romance I've ever written is, there's a meter, and the points go up the more you show interest in having this romance, and the reward is you get the [character] arc.
Now, if you look at BioWare games, we sort of vary the romance formula each time, mostly because we were trying to figure out: How do we do this better? I think the criticism that stuck out for me was, I don't mind the game-y thing where you put coins into the meter to get the romance. That's fine. For me, that's just part of the game. You can disguise that a little bit, sometimes better, sometimes not as much. But I think the one I objected to was that the reward you get is sex. Then it's romance, romance, romance—ah! Sex! With sex being the end of the romance.
Even in Dragon Age Origins, we varied that, for that reason. There are two romances in Dragon Age Origins where you have sex at the start of the romance, and the romance comes afterwards. Then there are two others where sex comes near the end because [the characters] are more conservative. I remember in Inquisition, there were a couple of characters where their big culmination scene didn't even involve sex. That was us getting away from the idea that romance stories equal trying to get sex. That was more something I wanted to do, as opposed to worrying about the mechanics because, mechanically, it's the same: You provide feedback to the player because giving them feedback is considered good design.
But the whole element of, "This romance feels like it's in a game," well, that's because it is. But you also hear things like, "I feel like we didn't have more options. I couldn't go out on a date." Okay, at some point you have to realize that, at least for a BioWare game, this is a tertiary piece of content. It's not the main event. This is not a dating sim. We are writing an arc. The writers are writing a story you get to participate in, and it lives within its own box. A lot of the criticism of, "I didn't feel this was a real romance"—that's fair. Totally fair. FYI, it's not. [laughs]
Craddock: It's an interesting criticism because, I mean, in real life dating can work that way. When two people start dating, there's an escalation of things. Not that anyone should be buying affection with gifts, but there is a general expectation from both parties that the dates will eventually culminate in several ways: sex, a stronger commitment, cohabitation...
Gaider: Right. From the team side we'll read criticism to figure out, "What's behind this?" If someone says, "I felt they were real people to me, but..." Okay, we examine the "but." Is that something we can actually address? For a lot of romance criticism, yes, if we doubled or triple the size of the romances and give them more writing content—absolutely. Can we realistically do that? No, we cannot. So, realistically, there's only so far we can go with this.
We examined [the idea of], can we make it less game-y? One way is, you can't give them gifts. Okay, so we took away part of your ability to interact with the romance. If we take away feedback, what are you left with? "I talked to them a lot." Okay. I imagine that's not what they actually want. They want other ways to interact. What can we do that doesn't involve tons of dialogue? Not much. Conversations like that, if we give them what they say they want, would they like it more?
Sometimes we'll try things. I remember in DA 2, we tried a couple of things to change up the pacing of romances. The general feeling comes back: "No, that's not better." Okay, fine, we'll try something else. We'll talk about it and realize that a lot of these requests are people saying they want [something different or better], but as we explore, we realize they probably wouldn't actually like it if they got it.
Craddock: I tried to read your Tumblr post where you talked about being an openly gay person in the gaming industry.
Gaider: I took down my Tumblr.
Craddock: The reason I bring it up is, the #MeToo movement in Hollywood has me thinking about harassment and discrimination not just in that industry, and not just toward women, but toward lifestyles perceived as different in general. Over time, and for various reasons, the games industry became more open or accepting toward certain topics, such as BioWare adding same-sex relationships to video games. From your perspective, is the industry becoming as progressive as its products? What has your experience been since writing that blog and coming out, if you don't mind talking about it?
Gaider: That's a tough question. I think the industry would like to think it's open-minded. Even BioWare's not perfect. I was actually surprised at how accepting they were at, say, having gay men working there. That didn't seem to be a problem. I think they still have an issue with women, probably because there are fewer women than there are gay men [in the industry].
From my perspective, I think, to a degree, the industry remains a boys' club. There is a recognition of that, I think, and an effort to change it. But even amongst those companies that are trying to change it, there are certain aspects of that boys" club-ness that remain, that sometimes need to be pointed out. A lot of that isn't necessarily intentional, I would say. It's just that when you've got guys who have been working together, and there are mostly guys in [a company], there are certain ways that guys in a group interact that makes it unintentionally hostile to anybody who isn't "one of the guys."
As a for-instance: the way people get promoted. Generally, promotion from within a games company, at least from what I've seen, is as much "are they liked by the people who are promoting them" than "are they qualified?" Is that a big surprise? I don't think so. There's sort of a thing where you're either in the crowd of dudes who are hanging out, going out for drinks, doing that sort of thing, or you don't get promoted, you know?
If you ask anybody who's doing the promoting, "Why don't women get promoted?" I don't think they would recognize that. But from the outside, that seems to still be a thing. There are certain dynamics at work within this environment that [boil down to], "This is the way we've always done it." It takes challenging those... I guess I would call them traditions.
One common criticism of things like inclusion is that it just seems so deliberate. To a point, it has to be. When you follow certain habits, certain patterns of behavior, the only way you change it is by doing so deliberately. Is it a little bit awkward at first? Yeah, probably. But the point is it's only deliberate for a while. Then it becomes second nature. Until it becomes second nature, it has to be deliberate, because not changing it deliberately just means you continue doing what you've always done.
That's a lot of talking for what is, in short: I think it's improving, but the industry has a long way to go.