Age of Conan has received acclaim from all quarters, especially for the quality of the Tortage quests, dialog and voiceover acting. The credit for a bewilderingly vast amount of this material goes to Aaron Dembski-Bowden, a young British writer already known for his work in the tabletop roleplaying field. We tracked him down and managed to secure an interview. Despite the look in his eyes above, which is the sort of thing you see immediately before your character's arms and head are cut off, he proved a very approachable guy...
Let's start with your background, your work to date, what position you held in the AoC team, and what responsibilities that entailed.
I've done a bunch of pen 'n paper RPG work (primarily for White Wolf on their World of Darkness game lines) and Mongoose Publishing's various Fantasy genre licences. I'm currently alternating between videogame work and writing Warhammer 40,000 novels for the Black Library, Games Workshop's publishing house.
Also, in the few moments of clarity that reach me through the haze of over-coffeed sleepless nights, I still cling to the shreds of useful lore I picked up from my writing degree.
This is the part where I should say I've always wanted to be a writer. That's not entirely true. I wanted to be a writer in my teens, when I realised I was too much of a coward to be a paramedic. All that lifesaving sounded like hard work, y'know? And before I wanted to be a paramedic, my only ambition was to be one of the kids that got to hang out with Optimus Prime. In my defence, I was about 4 at the time.
On AoC, I was Senior Dialog Writer. That translates loosely as 'the main writer' if you want to be polite. It translates as 'the word count slave' if you want to be more honest.
With our quest design structure (more reminiscent of KotOR than, say, WoW) every single character in the game needed conversation options, a distinct personality, and so on. A huge swathe of them had to be written with voiceover in mind, too. That was some fresh hell, let me tell you.
How much of the dialog in AoC is your work?
Most of it. I was the project's only dedicated writer for over a year, during which almost all of the writing previously in the game was axed in the ever-shifting, ever-hateful flow of development.
Specifically, all of levels 1-20 are mine. About half of 20-40 is mine; I shared that with an Australian guy (quest designer Joel Bylos) who, in my infinite wit, I called Oz. Pretty much all of the grindfest that makes up 40-60 is mine, while 60-80 was largely the province of another English guy, a quest designer called Elliot Kingdon.
I did all the writing for the Destiny Quest that makes up the game's solo content backbone, and if it has voiceover, the chances are that it's my work. That includes the mini-cutscenes, most of which I ended up writing entirely.
I did a little for Marketing here and there (the VO in the launch trailer, f'rex) and also flipped between offering feedback on NPCs and quests, while getting my hand in designing a few.
It's clear that the two main dialogue options for responses were, to put it simply, 'nice' and 'nasty'. Just how nasty did you let yourself get?
Oh, that's fine. No, it's cool, really. Sure, make all that work sound so simple.
Actually, this was a particularly interesting slice of agony. Every quest had to be available to every character, no matter what they said or what race/class combo they were. That meant no 'nasty' dialogue options could actually turn the NPC against the player unless the quest was already done. No class quests were allowed outside of Tortage. No race-based quests were allowed at all.
I hated that.
I think it was a wasted opportunity on an incredible scale to make the game like that. So many reviews and previews alike were heavy on how great the conversation/quest system was for an MMO. I think there was a real chance to do something great, rather than take the first steps towards something great. Don't get me wrong, I'm pleased as punch with what I did and what the quest design team got into the game, but while seeing all the great reviews, I always think 'Yeah... but we could've done so much more.'
That either makes me a perfectionist or a dick. Or both. Depends who you ask, I guess.
How did you land the writing gig in the first place?
A slightly less pithy answer (but also less interesting) would be to explain the process by which writers came onto the project. Mostly, we were loaned by Mongoose Publishing, who owned the rights to the Conan pen 'n paper RPG. The uber-owners of the Conan brand made it mandatory for Funcom to employ writers that were 'in the know' lore-wise. That ended up with Funcom being in touch with Mongoose Publishing, who'd always garnered great reviews for their d20 Conan game line.
A few of us went out there to work on AoC, one at a time. When push came to shove and Funcom needed a writer on-site, I was the one they asked back. In a move worthy of the most mid-90s Bon Jovi lyrics, I packed up on my girlfriend and cat, and left for pastures new.
Oslo was so cold when I arrived, I thought I was going to die. And I'm not even kidding. It made Hoth look like a tropical paradise.
Did you immerse yourself in much Conan lore before tackling the job?
Probably not as much as I should've. While I was easily one of the most lore-tastic guys on the team, there are limits to my capacity for (what I regard as) bad writing. Or, well, just irrelevant writing.
Let me explain that before you go critical and explode all over the show. I read all of Howard's work, and had done many times before, but all the pastiche writing and comic books weren't really my thing.
So in the dialog writing, did you keep purely to Howard's work, or did you draw from other Conan sources at all?
Like I said, the other sources weren't really my thing. I was trying to keep true to Howard. The pastiche stuff fell under my radar after a while.
Some of the reason was because I just didn't enjoy them and gave up fast. Mostly it was because a lot of that source material read more like Howard the Duck to me than R.E Howard.
Let's keep it to Howard, then! Any personal favourites from among Howard's stories?
Tower of the Elephant, no contest. I like it for a cavalcade of reasons – some serious, some...less so.
Firstly, say what you will about Conan as a character (and I could certainly spill some ink on that topic, f'sure) the fact is that Howard was a skilled writer with his own style. TotE introduces a bunch of quintessential Fantasy elements on top of the man's prose, too.
There's some dungeon-crawling in there, which always amused me. There's a heavy Lovecraftian tone, which was always what I liked best about Howard's world. And there's the fact that TotE was actually pretty scary when I first read it as a kid. Without any spoilers for people who actually want go out and read it, the 'elephant' itself at the top of the tower used to fascinate me. Conan's encounter with that being is beyond cool.
I also like TotE as one of the few stories that don't involve his main companion as a mindless female of staggeringly good looks. Instead it's an overweight master thief who, let's be honest, sucks. What's not to love?