I have an interesting relationship with the designers. They are instinctively concerned with “what does the player want to do?” As the narrative guy, however, it’s my job to ask, “Why does Arthur want to do this?”
For example, let’s suppose Arthur discovers that a delivery boy is late. The player gets an objective to find out why he is late.
However, why should Arthur care whether a delivery boy is late? “Because the player got an objective” is not an answer. Nor is “because it is going to set him off on an adventure”; he doesn’t know that. Most people Arthur knows are forgetful; aren’t people late all the time?
So, I’m the pain in the ass guy who complicates the job of designing levels by asking why the player character wants to do what the player wants to do.
So, first, I thought, maybe this delivery boy is never late. Okay, that’s helpful. But still, why should Arthur care?
I asked David. David said, “Maybe he knows him.”
So I thought, of course. The delivery boy was Arthur’s brother’s only real friend in school. Arthur’s goal in the game is to find Percy because he promised he’d take care of him. If he can help the delivery boy, he can accomplish a shadow of that goal.
Now the mission is personal. Note that it has not changed at all in design, only in meaning. And that changed meaning gave us an interesting way to resolve the encounter, which helps make the encounter even deeper and more personal. But you’ll have to play the encounter to find out how.
When I wrote sonnets back in university, I noticed that fitting a meter and rhyme scheme forced me to be more inventive with my language than writing in free verse did. Necessity is the mother of invention. Because our designers believe in our narrative, they don’t have total freedom. But in return, we discover new things about our world every time design crashes into narrative.
Or, as the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup ad went, only not exactly:
“Hey, you got narrative on my design!” “Hey, you got design on my narrative!” “Hmmm, tastes pretty good.”
To expand just a little on that last little bit... you have to listen to your gut. When the actor is really inhabiting his character, I feel it. The studio disappears for a moment and the character is there. It's a thrilling moment. When the actor is not inhabiting the role, I don't feel it. Part of the skill of directing is learning not to pretend you feel it when you don't.
Hearing what you're actually hearing, as opposed to what you want to hear, or what you fear hearing, is something children and dogs do instinctively, and teenagers and adults unlearn, and artists have to learn again. You have to remember to ask yourself, sometimes, "Did I really believe that?"
The other side of directing is figuring out what words to give the actor to help him or her get from where he or she is to where I want them to go. Sometimes it's just calling shenanigans on the delivery. "I didn't really believe that."
Or, with a trained actor, you can often shorthand it. You can say, "More anguish," knowing they have the tools (the "method") to get there on their own.
But best practices is giving the actor an adjustment in the form of an imaginative circumstance. I don't think I ever say, "Louder." Instead I say, "Okay, now project it a bit more, as if the person you're talking to is on the other side of the street." Or, “You need help, and there’s no one around!”
"Okay, but now, as if you know the person you're talking to. You're not only betrayed, you've been betrayed by your best friend."
"As if" are the most important two words in the director's toolkit. (See John Badham’s book on directing, I’ll Be In My Trailer.)
I can give a line reading, but when the actor is mimicking my delivery, it almost always comes out sounding hollow. I then have to say, “Okay, now make it your own.” If I have to give a line reading, I’ll try to use a paraphrase of the line rather than the words of the line themselves, and I won’t use a British accent; I’m trying to convey the emotion, not the delivery.
A believable performance isn't the same as a "realistic" performance. It's the emotional truth that carries the line. A big, stagey but emotionally truthful performance is believable. (I believe it's often called "opera.") A performance that mimics what a real person does, but doesn't convey the emotion behind it, won't convince the audience.
When the actor inhabits the character, it's amazing. A line you wrote fifteen minutes ago can catch you off guard and make you laugh as if you just heard it for the first time. When I laugh, I know the line's a keeper.
I read Michael Lewis’s book The Undoing Project, about two scientists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, who investigated just how irrational people are.
For example, “anchoring.” If you have people roll dice to get a random number between 1 and 100, and then you ask them to estimate the number of countries in the United Nations, or the number of languages spoken in India, or anything else they aren’t sure of, those who rolled higher numbers will guess higher than the ones who rolled lower numbers. They’ve been primed to think of higher numbers.
Which is sort of interesting, but one valuable takeaway had nothing to do with their research. When Tversky listened to scientific lectures he didn’t agree with, rather than figuring out how to shoot them down, he asked himself: what is this true of?
This parallels my acting teacher Joanne Baron, who said that when you get feedback, find the truth in it.
It’s easy to find something to disagree with. But if someone gives you feedback, or a scientist gives a lecture, then there is probably some truth to it. You will often get more benefit from figuring out in what way is this true or what part of this is true than in figuring out why it’s wrong.
We have a gal in our office who often disagrees with people. She has a habit of finding something in what they're saying that is easy to dispute, rather than finding the thing that makes sense, and then expanding on it.
Anyone who’s ever argued with a teenager knows that if the kid can find something, anything that’s wrong in anything you say, the kid will feel entitled to reject everything you’re saying.
A cardinal rule of improvisation goes: yes, and. In improv, you’re not allowed to disagree. If the actor you’re with says “I’m a pineapple,” then you can’t say, “No, you’re not.” That would kill the improv. You can say, “And I’m a grocer” or “and I’m an orange” or “and I’m a pineapple fetishist.”
As a corollary, when you are proposing a new idea, there is something to be said for couching it in terms that make it hard to pick apart.
See, I just did it. I didn’t say, “always couch it in terms....” I said, “there is something to be said for couching it in terms....” If I said "always," you might well be tempted to construct a scenario in which my advice would be wrong.
When arguing with our former teenager, I always made a point of phrasing criticism so broadly that he couldn’t pick holes in how I phrased it. Rather than saying, “You never clean up your room,” which would enable him to bring up the one time he did, I’d say, “You’re not exactly a neatnik, are you?” It conveys more or less the same message, but – being as he was not exactly a neatnik – he couldn’t fixate on the wording. He had to confront the message. Or to put it another way, I made it easier for him to absorb the truth in the message.
He never did clean his room, of course. But I got my message across, at least.
Using words “many of” rather than “most of” or “all of” changes the focus from “exactly what percentage are we talking about” to whatever the issue that is actually bothering you.
“Half the NPCs sound like zombies” invites a discussion of whether it’s half or some other number. “Many of the NPCs sound like zombies” focuses on the zombiness of the NPCs.
Even better, use sentences that begin with some form of “I.” “To me, a lot of these NPCs sound like zombies.” It is very hard for you to argue with me about how they sound to me. (Note that I didn’t say it’s impossible. That’s inviting an argument.)
All of us creative types have things we're naturally good at, and things we've learned to do, and things we aren't that good at (yet). This creates a creative trap: when approaching a project, we often work on the part we understand best — the part that scares us least.
So if you're good at plot, you write the plot first, and then fill in the characters later. If you're good at characters, you write up the characters and then feel your way towards a plot.
In game design, there's a tendency to work on the parts of the game that are "well understood," whether those are combat mechanics, or environment, or story, or whatever.
I worked on a game whose entire success hinged on whether some very advanced AI tech would work. The studio, however, hired a slew of people to build environments and animations.
I understand the impulse. You want to have something to show for it. If you're working on a very advanced, invisible back end, what can you show your investors? So you make some lovely environments. Also, it's relatively easy to hire people who can make lovely environments — compared to people who can make an expert system based on new research.
Of course, if you know what you're doing, it could be a valid decision to work on well-understood parts of the game, if you know in advance that they're going to take a long time to hone. Well-understood doesn't mean simple or fast, it just means you know the processes you're going to use. When we started with combat, it had something to do with how finicky combat is to implement convincingly.
Likewise, if you're a character-based writer and you simply have to inhabit the characters before you can move on to the plot, then it might be crucial to your own creative process that you start with the characters.
But working on the part that you feel comfortable with can become a trap.
By working on the parts that you're comfortable with, you necessarily reduce your options on the part that scares you.
Every creative choice you make on a project takes away some future choices. If I set a project in Germany in 1933, then it is very hard to choose a Mongolian steppe warrior as my main character. If I did set a project in Germany in 1933, and chose a Mongolian steppe warrior as my main character, then I pretty much have to tell a science fiction story.
So if you make a bunch of decisions on the easy stuff, you're restricting your range of choices for the hard stuff. That's bass ackwards. You want as much room as possible when you're doing the hard stuff, since you can probably handle a restricted range of choices on the easy stuff.
In other words, don't paint yourself into a corner on the easy stuff.
What happens if you do paint yourself into a corner on the easy stuff is either (a) you accept a poor solution on the hard stuff, because you don't see any good way to do it; or (b) you rip up a bunch of stuff that was working, because otherwise you can't make the hard stuff work.
In game development, if your game hangs on a fresh new gameplay mechanic, then try to get that working before you put any environments into the game. Spearhead, for example, created a three-on-three science fiction soccer game. The first playable build was pretty much dots chasing another dot around a grey box; but the fun was already there.
In screenplay writing, if you're weak on characters, then consider writing only the faintest of sketchiest of plot outlines, and then really spending some time thinking about what characters could most interestingly inhabit that plot — as opposed to working out a really detailed plot and then trying to shoehorn some characters into it.
Or, if you're good on characters but weak on plot, take some relatively simple characters, and build a fairly detailed, surprising-yet-inevitable plot around them before you move to fleshing them out.
You get several benefits from this. One, you develop your creative muscles. If you are good at situps but bad at pushups, and you do a bunch of pushups, you will have stronger biceps, and now you can do both pushups and situps.
Two, your creative project is strong both in the area you find hard and the area you find easy, instead of just in the area you find easy.
Three, when you're working on stuff that scares you, you will often make more interesting choices than you would if you were working on stuff you understand well. Creativity is usually a dance between structure and improvisation. If you force yourself to improvise, you'll come up with stuff you might not otherwise have thought of.
Four, if you work on the hard stuff first, and utterly fail, you haven't wasted any time on the easy stuff. The finicky AI tech never really worked, and the studio was left with a whole bunch of bespoke environments and animations. If you really hate writing a character based screenplay, then after you've banged some characters around for a few weeks, you might just toss the project and go write some hook-driven action thriller where you can get away with snappy banter in the place of actual characterization. If you really cannot write an interesting plot, then you'll find that out when you attempt to plot out your suspense thriller, and you can chuck it and go write that achingly personal coming of age story.
Q. I just picked up my first "LA" option for a short story I wrote. I'll be getting 2% net if it gets made. Now I've read articles on net versus gross in the industry and my agent ways I should just be happy at this stage of my career that it was picked up...... so of course I signed. However as a writer moving forward is there anything else I should be aware of or ask for that doesn't normally fall within the option contract?
The standard definition of net profits is "you don't see any profits." So whether you get 2% of nothing or 5% of nothing is unimportant. On the other hand as a newbie you're not going to get gross. It's pretty rare for even a veteran writer to get gross participation. If the movie is a hit, you won't get more cash from the movie, but you will get asked to write other people's movies at a much better salary.
I like to ask for the right of first refusal (ROFR) to write sequels, prequels and spin-offs, as well as TV pilots. Sometimes that turns into ROFR provided that I get a credit on the script. (No one can guarantee I get a credit because it's arbitrated by the Guild.)
If they're optioning your story or novel, you can often ask for ROFR to write the initial script. Very likely they will take it away from you after the first draft, but you'll get a screenwriting credit on the movie because when you adapted the script you brought in the plot and the characters. If you don't write the first draft, the most you'd get would be a "Based on a short story by" credit.
When I'm optioning a script, I like to ask for a production bonus based on the budget of the film. The WGC, but not the WGA, has this in the standard contract. Bear in mind the minimum scale percentage is a floor, not a cap, so you can negotiate more, if they really want the script. The nice thing about a percentage is that the producer can't really plead poverty. "But our budget is tiny." "No problem, then I get 2.5% of tiny."
Bear in mind anything that looks like "Writer will be consulted" bla bla bla is meaningless and unenforceable. "What do you think." "It sucks because this this and this." "Thanks, you've been consulted." Likewise anything that looks like "Writer will be considered." "What do you think about Joe?" "That guy? F*&& him." You've been considered.
Remember, you can insist on any contractual term, so long as you're willing to walk away. I've heard that Sylvester Stallone turned down $200,000 for the script to Rocky, because they wouldn't agree for him to star in it. He was broke at the time. Later, someone else bought the script for scale, but with him to star in it.
You could probably tell that story about a thousand other guys who never sold their script to anyone because they insisted on starring in it.
By the same token, if you're not willing to walk away, it's hard to get anything. You don't get the contract you deserve, you get the contract you negotiate.
99% of the time it's better to have an agent negotiate for you. But you don't want to leave the negotiating to the agent. You want them to be the face of the negotiation, but ultimately you have to tell them what your dealbreakers are and how hard to haggle, and how upset you'll be if they don't make a deal.
We had an interesting office conversation today, about the late comedian/troll Andy Kaufman, which then drifted into whether sexist and racist jokes are okay. I don't appreciate them. One of the women in the office said she enjoys them because "it's just a joke."
But why do we tell jokes? Jokes are meant to make us uncomfortable in some way. We laugh when something goes wrong. A joke is always a setup that is derailed.
There are absurdist jokes, of course, that are just all about the derail:
"I went to a restaurant that serves 'breakfast anytime.' So I asked for French toast in the Renaissance." -- Stephen Wright
Our expectations are foiled, and we laugh out of the cognitive dissonance.
But most jokes are at someone's expense. "Tragedy," as Mel Brooks said, "is I stub my toe. Comedy is you die." For example:
My lover's been bugging me for the key to my apartment… finally I said, 'No, I'll let you out when I'm ready.' -- Heidi Foss
To dissect my friend Heidi's joke a bit, the setup is the assumed attempt on the part of the lover to have a closer relationship. The derail is that the lover is actually imprisoned. Note that the joke works because it's sort of horrifying. ("When I'm ready" is a nice touch because it mirrors the normal conversation: 'I'm not ready' for a closer relationship.)
Stereotype jokes are at the expense of a whole group of people:
Q. How many Harvard students does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A. Just one. He stands on the ladder, and the whole world revolves around him.
The point of the joke is that Harvard students are conceited. Here's another:
Two blondes were talking. "Last year," one said, "I slept with two Brazilian guys."
"Oh my God!" said the other. "How many is a 'brazilian'"?
The point of the joke is that blonde women are stupid. Oh, and slutty.
So why do I think it's not okay to tell racist or sexist jokes? Because the point of a joke about a stereotype is that it's only funny if the listener believes that the stereotype is, in some way, true. Change one word in the joke:
Q. How many Columbia students does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A. Just one. He stands on the ladder, and the whole world revolves around him.
That joke isn't funny, because almost no one thinks that Columbia students are particularly conceited.
Two Canadians were talking. "Last year," one said, "I slept with two Brazilian guys."
"Oh my God!" said the other. "How many is a 'brazilian'"?
What? Huh? Not funny. No one thinks Canadians are particularly dumb.
Now, jokes at the expense of Harvard students aren't particularly awful. Harvard students are on top of the academic heap. So the joke is sort of "telling truth to power." But jokes at the expense of blondes are not completely innocent. If I tell a blonde joke, I'm saying that, to some extent, the intelligence of women with blonde hair is suspect.
"But it's just a joke." Well, nothing is "just" a joke. If people didn't already suspect blondes of being dumb, the joke wouldn't land.
Now, there are stereotypes that are hurtful, and stereotypes nobody really minds:
Q. How many New Yorkers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A. None of your fucking business!
Most New Yorkers will laugh at that joke, because they'd agree that New Yorkers are brusque.
Q. How many Zen Buddhists does it take to screw in a lighbulb.
What? Oh. Zen Buddhists are inscrutable. Right.
But then we get into jokes based on not so innocent stereotypes. For example, jokes about how stingy [Hittites] are. [Hittites] don't find them funny, because they don't see themselves in them. And, the stereotype of [Hittites] as being stingy is part of a whole package of anti-Semitism that, in the middle of the last century, ended up in homicidal violence.
Similarly, jokes about how lazy [Sumerians] are, or how dishonest [Assyrians] are, are part of a whole package of racism that ends up with unarmed [Sumerians] being shot by cops, and candidates accusing [Assyrians] of being rapists and murderers that should be kept out of the country.
The point is: when you tell a joke based on a nasty stereotype, you are saying the stereotype is, in some way, true. Nothing is ever "just" a joke. By making a joke, the teller is saying that the stereotype is in some way true.
And by laughing at it, you are agreeing.
In fact, the whole reason for these jokes is so that the teller can put down a group of people and get away with it; and the listener can buy into the putdown and get away with it. But in this case somebody's not telling truth to power; they're telling lies, and they're punching down.
Of course, it's impossible to dissect racist or sexist humor without sounding terribly unfunny, like you "don't get the joke":
Q. How many militant feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A. THAT'S NOT FUNNY.
But jokes have power. We wouldn't tell jokes if they didn't. Jokes are how we allow ourselves to communicate truths that can't be communicated openly. That's why traditionally the court jester is the only person who's allowed to confront the King; he's allowed that privilege because his jokes are deniable. That's why, in dictatorships, you can go to prison for telling a joke at the expense of the dictator. That's why some cartoons making fun of Mohammed triggered riots.
Jokes based on false stereotypes have the parallel power that they can communicate a lie that no one dares communicate openly any more. The reason some white people tell jokes about lazy [Sumerians] is because they don't dare say things like, "Well, everyone knows how lazy [Sumerians] are." But turn it into a joke, and "it's just a joke," and you get away with it. And they are all the more hurtful because the target is supposed to laugh them off. So the target has no recourse, unless they're witty enough to craft a good comeback.
...'s talk about Dynamic Stories at MIGS. These are my notes as I wrote them up for my Compulsion Games teammates... The complete powerpoint is on Richard's site
Dynamic Story = Story that is not the same every time you play the game.
Why good? Replayability. Especially these days when players stream, it’s boring if all the streams are of the same stuff.
Types of dynamic story:
a. Explorable story space
What we’re doing in WHF and what most AAA games do these days: bits of narrative that you discover wandering around. Hopefully there’s enough that few players discover all of it.
Doesn’t have to mean environmental narrative. Her Story allows you discover bits of video through a text parser. You never actually go anywhere.
b. Open ended story
Give the player enough bits of a story that s/he can find his/her own meaning in it, but not so much that you force the player into your interpretation. One player may come away with a very different experience than another.
c. Reacting to player actions
Branching story trees. Generally, game devs stay away from branching trees because they get crazy fast. Trust me on this one. 31 endings on Stories: The Path of Destinies. (Which, hey! Won Best Indie and Best PC Game at the Canadian Video Game Awards last night.)
So often you get a series of choices, but really it’s just one choice repeated: Mass Effect's Paragon/Renegade. Bioshock's Harvest/Rescue.
Or, choices, but only some of which change the story, and then only change a little bit of the story: Walking Dead.
d. Shifting story elements
Procedurally generated story. In Richard’s game, The Church in the Darkness, you are there to rescue someone from a cult. Sometimes the cult is a suicide Jim-Jones-style cult. However, sometimes, it’s just a bunch of hippies who want to be left alone. The Blade Runner game changed who was a replicant from playthrough to playthrough. In both examples, the payoff is you Actually Have to Pay Attention to the story around you. If it turns out that in the story they're just nice hippies, or humans, you're not supposed to go shooting them.
e. Character Simulation
The Sims. The Civilization franchise. Characters have personalities and react to your actions according to them. Faction-based systems: characters will react differently to your dwarf rogue depending on how they feel about dwarves and/or rogues, and how nice you’ve been to their friends.
The player here is choosing what story s/he wants to be part of.
f. Drama Management
Here Richard’s talking about games like Façade that try to make a story out of whatever it is you are doing. Shadow of Mordor’s nemesis system turns an NPC into your nemesis if he’s killed you before.
Wot I Thought
The Holy Grail of game narrative is emergent narrative. Emergent gameplay is when you design systems the players can use in ways the developers did not plan for, e.g. rocket jumping.
Most of the dynamic storytelling methods listed are not emergent. The Shadow of Mordor people like to claim that SoM’s nemesis stories are emergent, but someone had to write and record all the nasty things the orcs say to you when you come back from the dead, or they do.
On Stories: TpoD I pitched the idea of a sort of Collectible Card Game or faction-based narrative. I.e. NPCs have a basic reaction to you, which changes according to what you do with other NPCs. So if you kill someone’s brother, they will no longer sell you a sword, but they might fight you. If you marry their brother, they might tell you where some loot is.
This is not emergent narrative, either. It feels more like it, because you discover the story branches according to your own wanderings through the game. But someone has to write each branch of each NPC’s story tree.
(In the end we just went with a straight ahead story tree for Stories: TpoD. Nothing wrong with a story tree, they’re just hard to write so every path feels like a good story, in which the seeds of the ending are in the beginning. And they’re a lot of work.)
To make really emergent narrative, you’d have to create narrative building blocks that players can arrange in different ways.
Say you have one building block: dude’s getting a divorce.
Second building block: dude’s sleeping with someone who’s not his wife.
Both of these are narratively fraught events, but they have a different meaning, and tell a different story depending on their arrangement.
If you see:
dude sleeping around -> getting a divorce
Then the player probably interpolates the story “he cheated, so his spouse is dumping him.”
But if you see:
dude getting a divorce -> sleeps around
Then you might interpolate, “finally free of his toxic marriage, dude is seeing other people.”
This method is probably hella difficult to pull off, and I’m not sure I’d want to do it in a game. But then:
Q. Knock knock.
A. Who’s there?
Q. Control freak. Now you say, “Control freak who?”
So there you have it. We’re doing a lot of environmental narrative, and some open ended story telling, but the other techniques will have to wait for some future game.
What I did in the past week, in between frantically checking and rechecking fivethirtyeight.com, was write up the playthrough for She Who Must Not Be Named. Last week was the rethink. This week I wrote it up, and I’ve started in on the scenes, including one with our Hammer [Films] Villain. There’s a fair amount of carnage; we’ll have to redo some minutes of animation. But the story will be better for it – more jeopardy, and more aligning of player objective with player character objective.
Also did the same for our Mad Scotsman, although his story is holding up a bit better. We can probably keep most of our animation, but some of the dialog in those cutscenes will change.
Meanwhile, Lisa is creating gobs of environmental narrative for all sorts of places. Environmental narrative comprises the letters and diaries and signs and objects that you might find here and there that tells you what has been happening in the place you're lurking about. It creates the worldiness of the world.
All of which means more recording sessions, of course. I’m looking forward to it!
I needed eleven lines from our Mad Scotsman for some revisions we’re making to a scene in the Train Station. But an actor’s minimum call is an hour. So I’ve been writing barks for him – 225 of them. That should round out the hour, eh?
I’ve been working on rethinking the playthrough for She Who Must Not Be Named. G had an issue that she did not seem to be in enough jeopardy; and that the player character’s motivations didn’t line up enough with the player’s own motivations. So I’ve been reworking the story logic and the characters involved. This will involved a fair amount of carnage – animations we have to throw out – but it will result in a more powerful story and better integration between gameplay and story.
And, I’ve done a pass on the journal text. You are reading your journal, right?
I used to teach the English side of the SAT for the Princeton Review, an SAT prep company. I had the advanced class, which was about 50% Korean immigrants who were still learning idiomatic English.
I told them the best thing they could do to improve their English was read Raymond Chandler. He's the guy who wrote The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely. You know, the Humphrey Bogart movies. (Or, at least, the movies I remember as starring Humphrey Bogart, even when it was actually Robert Mitchum.)
See, you don't need great literature to learn English. In fact it's not idea. First, great literature is taxing on your brain. Second and more importantly, it's all about nuance. When you don't already know the nuances, you're apt to muddy your learning. What you need is stylish writing. Raymond Chandler had style to burn:
"It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window."
"The girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back."
"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge."
"She lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theatre curtain. I was to get to know that trick. That was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air."
“In writing a novel, when in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.”
That last one is indeed his plotting style. Don't read Chandler for an airtight plot. Read Chandler for how to turn short old words into magic; for how to give your sentences rhythms that have the sway and slash of poetry without reminding you that you're reading words on a page. Read Chandler because his books are very hard to put down.
I'm enjoying Deus Ex as a series of stealth puzzles. The story raises some points about craft that I'm working on myself.
The world is one in which "augs" such as Adam Jensen, our gravel-voiced hero, are discriminated against after a worldwide accident caused many of them to go haywire. There is terrorism by augs, unless it is by provocateurs seeking to blame augs. There's political infighting within Jensen's organization, TF29, and Jensen is also involved, you quickly learn, with an aug organization that suspects TF29 is being used against augs.
There are global stakes. Jensen seeks justice against terrorists, and truth against plotters.
Now I'm only about 20 hours in, and I'm a bit of a completionist, so I'm not to Golem City yet. But what I would love to see more of is personal stakes. What does all this mean to Jensen? You get to choose what Jensen says about all this, so he doesn't really have his own a point of view.
It's received wisdom in a Hollywood action movie that the hero should have global stakes and personal stakes. John McClane is trying to save a towerful of hostages, including his ex-wife.
Why? Because we can't relate to a towerful of hostages. "One death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic," as Stalin said. That's why King Kong has to have Fay Wray in his hand. She's there to give Kong a personal goal, without which he's just an ape run amok.
A story needs jeopardy or stakes. You'd think you have jeopardy in a video game, because the hero can get killed, but after the 37th time you reboot him, it stops feeling like real jeopardy. So you need stakes. And global stakes don't create emotional engagement by themselves.
I mean, did you sob with relief when your Captain Shepherd saved all sentient life from the Reapers? I bet you had more emotional connection when Joel in The Last of Us did that thing that he did at the end -- because it involved his relationship with one person.
Heroes have girlfriends (or boyfriends, or wards, or moms) to humanize them; it's the same reason that heroes with flaws are more engaging. We'd care about Peter Parker less if Mary Jane weren't in danger. Fighting crime is abstract; saving the girl he loves is personal.
I'm not saying Adam needs a girlfriend (or a boyfriend, or a ward, or a mom). But if the global stakes were tied up in personal stakes, I feel the emotional engagement would be stronger.
E.g., rather than having him investigate a bombing, have him investigate a bombing that put his best friend in a coma. Rather than have him prove that an aug organization didn't commit a terrorist act, have him prove that an aug organization of which his ex girlfriend is a member did not commit a terrorist act and therefore she should not be executed. (Or his boyfriend, or his ward, or his mom.)
Or, maybe his girlfriend, or boyfriend, or mom, has turned against him because they think augs are terrorists. Or they think augs are terrorists and should all be locked up except for Adam and one or two "good augs." Or a judge is going to take away his kid because he thinks augs are terrorists.
Ha ha, I know, Adam Jensen would never have a kid. (But what if he did? And he had to choose whether to make his kid an aug, or let his kid stay in a wheelchair?)
(There are in fact side quests which create some personal stakes; but they're missions he does for people he runs into, mostly, not people who are necessarily part of his life. If he fails these people, he doesn't lose anything.)
Look, I'm painting in very broad strokes here. There are much more surprising, provocative and challenging ways to make global stakes personal. I'm just using these as examples.
I also tend to think, by the way, that it's much easier to follow a story when there are personal stakes. And it gives the storytellers something to sink their teeth into.
I bring this up because this is an argument I have with Guillaume and David every now and then. The player character stories in We Happy Few are all intensely personal. At a couple of points during our development of the game, G and David have complained that the stakes weren't global enough. "I know Arthur's trying to find his brother, but that's not necessarily what the player is trying to do." I rewrote the ending recently to make sure that the player gets both a satisfying end to Arthur's story, and a satisfying ending to his own story, that is, the story of his gameplay.
We have done a fair amount of work aligning player motivation with player character motivation. When those two are aligned, you get the player engaged both emotionally and intellectually. When we release the story, let me know how we did.
UPDATE: Turns out Jensen's boss, Jim Miller has a kid who needs an augmentation to walk again, and he and his ex-husband disagree about that ... and suddenly I care a lot about Miller and how his story is going to end.
Q. I've always had a strong interest in writing which is why I went on to pursue a degree in English. I would like very much to pursue know what it would take for me to become part of a team of creators. Is it better to have Master's degree as opposed to a Bachelor's? Would it be preferable to have degrees in different fields of study? Does Compulsion Games offer internships for individuals seeking experience and exposure?
We don't offer internships. We're a small team of 25 fairly experienced people. The company philosophy is that if you're good enough to work there, you're good enough to pay.
The game industry, like showbiz, is not particularly interested in whether you have a parchment in a frame with Praeses et Socii Universitatis on it. We're interested in whether you have skills, experience and talent. So if you're an artist, we don't care if you went to art school, we want to see your portfolio. Now obviously you learn a lot in art school, and you can put together a good portfolio there, so many games artists went to art school. But it's the portfolio, not the credential.
Same for programming. Show us what you've done, and we'll give you a programming test. Pass the programming test, and we'll interview you. You may very well have learned to program in a computer science department, but if you taught yourself online, or out of books, that's cool. The head of the company started working at 17 as a programmer. My first wife taught herself to program after finishing her Ph. D. in Folklore, and she's been a programmer ever since. (She figured that if she could learn 14 dead languages, computer languages couldn't be that hard. She was right, too.)
What schools do teach you is the tools. For example, Montreal's Cégep du Vieux Montréal will teach you Unreal. (For free, if you're a Québecer.) Level Designers and Environmental Artists make the world of our game in Unreal 4.
However, I don't know how you become a game writer. My path involved having written a hit comedy film and directed a bunch of shorts. I moved into games laterally. I did not have to convince anyone that I could write dialog, or tell a story. My first few game writing jobs did not involve any special software, or even much in the way of the elaborate spreadsheets we're using to track dialog in We Happy Few. So there were no software tools to know.
(Basically I now use Google Sheets, Google Docs, Final Draft and Pro Tools. Pro Tools is the only serious badass professional bit of software. It's for editing sound.)
I actually do have an MFA, but I think the most valuable part of my MFA was having an excuse to muck about with cameras for three years. I did learn a few things about directing actors and cutting audio, but I did not learn to write at UCLA, or Yale. I learned to write by writing, for free and then for money, for many, many years.
I don't have a terribly good idea how someone becomes a pro games writer.
Better, you can teach yourself Twine (it's trivial to learn) and create an interactive HTML text narrative which someone can easily play.
Even better, you can learn how to make mods, and create story modules in various game engines, e.g. you could create your own Shadowrun story. There are some amazing mods out there, and modding communities full of volunteers that make them. If you can show us a mod you made, that ought to show us that you know how to make a video game narrative.
Game societies are good, e.g. the IGDA.
But there are no agents in game writing. In TV you write a spec and a spec pilot, get an agent, and get pitched to showrunners. I'm not sure what the equivalent is in games.
If anyone reading this has a better idea how to become a game writer, please write in!
As soon as I get back to writing script pages (as opposed to barks), I'm going to be trying out Final Draft 10. There are two main script formatting programs, Final Draft and Screenwriter. (There's also CeltX, which is free, but I don't know any pros who use it.)
I have friends who swear by Screenwriter (and at Final Draft!). Personally, I've always found Final Draft easier and more intuitive to use. It's probably not an accident that Final Draft started out as a Mac program and Screenwriter started out on PC. Screenwriter is powerful once you learn how to use it, but you have to just somehow know that, for example, the way to get a parenthetical is to type an open parenthesis at the beginning of a line of dialog.
Or read the manual, I suppose. Crazy, right?
The people who make Final Draft have just come out with Final Draft 10, the latest edition of the 25-year-old software. It has some neat tricks:
You can now hide alt dialog lines right in the script. You can have three versions of a line of dialog, and quickly switch between them. Handy if you're punching up a script.
This is really neat.
Final Draft 9 had index cards based on your formatted script. Each scene in Script View turned into an index card in Scene Navigator view. You could shuffle your index cards around.
However, unless your screen is much bigger than mine, you rarely have enough real estate to see all your index cards. I've wound up printing them out and moving them around on the kitchen table.
Beat Board is a more sophisticated way of viewing your whole story. You have a scene timeline; you can hang your scenes on the timeline, and quickly view them. You can color code them, for example if you want to track dramatic beats vs. action bears, or two subplots. Being able to view the whole timeline makes it easier to see if your structure is unbalanced.
At Compulsion, we have a lot of shared Google Documents. I share the encounter dialog with the level designers and the audio people. That way we can track a line from writing to recording to editing to integration.
Up till now, the only way to co-write a script in Final Draft is to email versions back and forth. That's the way I prefer to work. But when you go over the script on the phone (did you know phones can be used for talking?), only one person can talk. FD 10 allows several writers to open the same script and edit it at the same time, just like you can with a Google Doc.
Now, this is not a proper review of FD 10. The folks at Final Draft were kind enough to give me a review copy, but as it happens, I am doing everything at the moment except writing dialog pages. I'm helping a game cast an actor. I'm writing barks. I'm editing audio. So I'm going to have to wait until I'm back to dialog pages before I can tell you how well all these handy new tools work. Tune in later!
If you want Canadian government support for your movie, you need Canadians in key positions. There are ten possible points, for director, producer, writer, editor, composer, key cast, etc. The current government is planning to reduce the requirement so you don't need Canadian writers.
I have some experience that may be relevant.
In the 90s, I worked for a few indie production companies in LA that were trying to make movies in Canada. Specifically, they were trying to make Quebec co-productions so they could access Canadian and Quebecois government subsidies that amounted to about 25% of a film's budget.
A wholly Canadian production needed 10 out of 10 points. That wasn't very attractive to an LA production company because there were very few bankable stars willing to appear in a co-production. (Donald Sutherland came up a lot.) There were also not a lot of Canadian film directors acceptable to foreign distributors.
However, a co-production could allocate some of those roles to the co-production company. So a UK-Canada co-production could have, say, a British director if it had a script by a Canadian. It could have a British co-star. Moreover, each co-production company got to have one American cast member, so the top two cast members would be bankable Americans.
The point wasn't to make movies about British or Canadian culture. The point was to make low-budget direct-to-video movies for the international sales market; in other words, American thrillers and action movies and family films and so forth. The characters were all supposed to be Americans, and the stories set in the US.
I worked on, for example, an Israeli-Canadian co-pro; a French-Israeli-Canadian co-pro; a Dutch-Canadian co-pro; a French-Canadian-Israeli co-pro shot financed through a Welsh TV station and shot in Poland.
The Canadian government is now considering changing the Broadcast Act as regards 10-out-of-10 native Canadian productions that access Federal subsidies. They are considering reducing the required points to 6 out of 10.
So, let me tell you what will happen: American producers will swoop in and start making American movies with Canadian government money. These movies will be shot in Canada. They will have Canadian composers and Canadian editors. The name-below-the-title cast will be Canadian. But they will be American movies. The mailboxes will be blue, not red. The lawyers will wear suits, not robes. The stories will be generic thrillers and action movies and cabin-in-the-woods horror movies.
These American movies will snaffle up all the Federal funds for movies, so very few actually Canadian stories get told. No more Les Invasions Barbares; no more Atarnajuat: The Fast Runner; no more Incendies; no more Away from Her; no more Bon Cop / Bad Cop. Just Porky's and Resident Evil from now on.
Canada already has support for service productions -- films that shoot up here to take advantage of the weakened state of the Canadian dollarette. This would be taxpayers funding American stories.
Apparently the government is also considering loosening up the CMF rules, so American-written TV shows can satisfy Canadian content requirements for broadcasters.
Now, there are some good proposed changes. For example, under current rules, a Canadian produced show can't touch cultural subsidies without a Canadian broadcaster. This requirement may be scotched, and good riddance. I've had TV show pitches that had interest from, say, the BBC, but couldn't get a Canadian broadcaster, and therefore didn't get made.
But the 6-out-of-10 proposal would mean the elimination of Canadian culture on film and television. Canadian film and TV would become strictly service for American producers looking to save a few bucks. That's not why we have the Broadcast Act.
I know this isn't coming from the top. Lisa and I were honoured to have Justin Trudeau over to lunch years ago, when he was running for his first seat in Parliament. He was gung-ho about the need for Canada to support its own culture. More than that: when I argued that Canadian movies were good for tourism, he made the point that films that show the dark side of Canada were important too. A nation needs its voice.
I spent a decade working for American companies trying to get around Canadian cultural content rules to make American movies with Canadian taxpayer money. They hired Americans and Dutch guys and British guys who had "permanent residence" in Canada but actually lived in LA. One of the movies had an American writer, so they found an Israeli in Tel Aviv with the same name and gave him the credit. Producers will perform shenanigans if they possibly.
Reduce the points, and you open the floodgates. Don't be surprised when all the culture flows out.
Drama is conflict. Someone wants something; they can't get it. To make it a complete story, they get it, or they don't get it.
However, drama also needs conflict between what the audience expects, and what happens. Even if we know the outcome, we need to not know how it's going to get there, or at least not know how we're going to feel about it.
I recently read a few pages of a script about an Important Social Issue. As sometimes happens in scripts about Important Social Issues, the good people were good, and the bad people were bad. I knew what was going to happen and I knew how I was supposed to feel about it. And, indeed, events unfolded as expected.
In this case, the problem was that the main character was the person bearing the brunt of the Important Social Issue, i.e. the victim of discrimination. It's much harder to make a compelling story about a suffering saint. There's conflict, all right -- the saint can't get what he wants -- but I'm not pulled in because there's none of this second sort of dramatic tension. How are events going to unfold? How am I going to feel about them?
However, what if the same story had been told from another perspective -- from the persecutor's point of view? What if we humanized the bad guy, and showed him torn between his reasons for persecuting, and his dawning recognition that maybe he's not righteous. (Are we the baddies?)
Then I wouldn't be sure how to feel. And I wouldn't know exactly what was going to happen.
Or, if the saint isn't really a saint but a bit of a jackass. Or if the saint has doubts.
I realize that there are movies about saintly figures, from Jackie to Martin to Jesus. We know the stations of the cross, and we get a certain catharsis from watching a passion play. There's no dramatic tension. Instead, there's comfort in knowing exactly how we're going to feel. It's the sort of comfort we're seeking when we watch "mac'n'cheese" TV, where we know the cops will catch the bad guys and we're not even in much doubt how they'll do it. Or watching an old Star Trek episode.
But take a look at your work. Is there not only tension between the characters, but tension between the audience's assumptions and how you tell the story? Then you're off to the races.
So we watched THE GET DOWN on Netflix, Baz Luhrmann's show about the birth of rap during the disco era. I gather this show has provoked some controversy, being a show about black and Puerto Rican people in the South Bronx in the 70's made by a white dude from Australia. I don't really care if it's accurate. I'm not watching Baz Luhrmann because he's a documentarian. I'm watching him because ROMEO+JULIET and MOULIN ROUGE!
Oh, and because I lived New York in the 70's, and yeah, it was like that, dirty and beautiful, and full of despair and dreams.
Anyway, an hour into the show, after all sorts of michegas, a character tells the hero about a secret dance event called the Get Down, and asks, "Have you ever heard of someone named Grandmaster Flash," and chills went down my spine, because this is the epoch of disco and the kid is a rapper without knowing it, and yes, I have heard of Grandmaster Flash.
And I look on the TV, and I realize there's another 15 minutes of this. Whut? No.
No, Mr. Luhrmann. That is your out. That is how you end your pilot.
So we turned it off.
Not that we weren't enjoying it. But that was the perfect ending to the episode. So we made an executive decision.
TV writers watch differently. I have many times gone to a movie with my friend Doug, a movie writer, and afterwards we fix the plot.
Lisa sometimes accuses me of having ruined TV for her, because she now sees the seams and stitches of the shows she's watching — when the seams and stitches are showing, that is. On the other hand, when you see something really great, you appreciate it all the more. And you can turn off the show an hour in if it's earned its out.
Drugs are part of our game because, well, drugs are part of our world. There's a lot of people who would be much less happy (or even functional) without anti-depressants. Drugs are part of our history. People have been tampering with their body chemistry for thousands of years. I have a pet theory that human beings didn't become farmers for the sake of food. It's well established that hunter-gatherers work less and eat better than primitive farmers. But alcohol! Ah, once people discover that grains ferment, and they can get blasted, then they settle down.
(This isn't purely a just-so story. There's some evidence that the very first settled site in Europe was a religious site, not a city. Religion and pharmacology go together like bread and wine.)
Drugs raise interesting philosophical questions. Conventionally, if you are stoned or drunk, that's not the "real you." The real you is the sober you. But if someone is depressive, we tell them that the depression is an illness, a departure from normal. A lot of people with depression feel that they're only "the real me" when they take their meds.
Is there a "real you"? Or is the you that you think you are just a function of your body chemistry, and if that chemistry changes, then who you are changes, for good or bad?
So that's a philosophical question our game highlights. I don't think we're making the game in order to make a case for or against drugs. I think we're using fictional drugs to talk about who we are.
I borrowed THE ORIGINALS series 'cause it got a 7+ on the IMDB, but I had doubts about it literally the moment I saw what the lead actors looked like. They had that look that prime time actors have. They have the stink of Beverly Hills all over them. They're pretty, the boys and the girls, in a well-groomed, not particularly distinctive way.
And, sure enough, the dialog was kinda dumb and expositional, and the lore was ridiculous, and most of all, there was no way I could possibly believe that these three characters are the "original vampires."
It is hard to play a vampire convincingly. You have to seem like someone who's been around for hundreds of years (or, in the case of someone with a claim to being an "original" anything, I'd hope, tens of thousands).
That's why we often portray vamps as noblemen -- courtly, gracious, aristocratic. Gary Oldman's Dracula in Francis Coppola's movie of the book. Catherine Deneuve's Miriam in THE HUNGER. An aristocratic air makes it seem like the owner speaks for his whole house, all of its legacy.
James Marston pulled it off as Spike in BUFFY: THE VAMPIRE SLAYER without falling back on an aristocratic air. He was as sure of himself as someone could be who's killed hundreds of people one on one, who knew his own strength, who rarely has to convince anyone with his words.
Tom Cruise was a surprisingly convincing vampire, because he is so very sure of himself and has an ego the size of a truck.
I bet Grace Jones would make a fine vamp. Wesley Snipes made a superb half-vamp.
But vamps are not invulnerable, only immortal. You want someone who seems like they've been around the block. Like you've seen some horrific things, and done some, and had some done to you. Like you're aware that although you are ageless, you are mortal. The little vampire Eli in Let the Right One In, the old vampire in Cronos: they knew that, while they had super powers, they could die.
The best vampires also seem like a person. Not just "a vampire," but ahuman being who became a vampire.
Spike was a great vamp character because he was a punk rock star who knew he was no match for his own urges. "If I had to do it all over again -- who am I kidding, I would do it exactly the same." Drusilla was fun because she was crazy.
The characters in THE ORIGINALS were distinct enough that you could tell, barely, who was the roguish, "bad" one, and who was the uptight, "good" one and who was the girl. The series has gone at least two seasons, so I hope the characters developed since then. But if you don't start with the characters being people, it's hard to get there.
If I were casting vampires, I mean, sure, have Antonio Banderas. But have some vamps with traits that have nothing to do with being a vampire.
I mean, as you get older, you get wiser, but you don't stop being yourself. You get more and more yourself as you figure out who you are, and stop trying to be other people. A vampire is someone who's had hundreds of years to figure out what turns him or her on, and doesn't have to care about what doesn't turn him on. A vampire might be devoted to overseeing and protecting his human family. She might be an alcoholic. He might be a compulsion car thief. She might be a drama queen who likes to have multiple human lovers whom she would never feed on.
Have Steve Buscemi. Have Clare Danes, with all her crazy cryface. Have John Goodman.
One last thought about lore: what prime time TV shows get wrong about lore is shoveling it into the pilot. That's a terrible way to treat lore. You get dialog like, "as you know, Bob, we've been vampires for three hundred years, but until recently I was immobilized by a magic silver dagger."
Obviously, people almost never remind each other of what they both know. But also, people who know deep things rarely talk about them. When they do, they just give a hint. They don't give you the download.
They refer to things elliptically. There are Southerners who refer to the "late, great unpleasantness" when they mean the Civil War.
They refer to things efficiently. You tell a Southerner, "It's Pickett's Charge," and you don't need to say more.
Lore is best used as a hook. Give a hint of something that creates a misty shape in the viewer's mind. Let their imaginations run with it.
In THE SANDMAN, Thessaly is a nerdy, humorless, utterly ruthless witch with big glasses. You get to know her as a witch for a while before someone asks, "How old are you?"
"I was born in the day of longest night," she says, "the year the bear totem was broken." And you suddenly realize that she was born before years had dates. Before days had numbers. She is incredibly old.
(And she's still pissed at Dream for the way their relationship didn't work out. And she probably didn't grow up thinking that forgiveness is a virtue, back on the tundra. And that's why she helps him destroy himself.)
I wasn't really writing this to talk about We Happy Few, just to vent about a terrible show and how it was terrible. But of course we have a great deal of lore in We Happy Few. We have a timeline that breaks off into alternate history in 1933. We have a people who did a Very Bad Thing that they've failed to confront.
And you'll put together what it was from newspaper articles, and old posters, and things crazy people say, and graffiti, and how the people entertain themselves. That's fun, and that's engaging.
If we just gave you a Star Wars-style title crawl, it wouldn't mean anything.
I got into an interesting disagreement with a Wikipedia editor on the page for We Happy Few. The page asserted that, in the game's lore, Nazi Germany invaded England, but the English did a "Very Bad Thing" to get their freedom.
This is not quite right. In our game, it's the "German Empire" that invaded. We didn't want to deal with Nazis or the Holocaust. In Germany, you can't even release a game with swastikas in it. So, in our game, Hitler was deposed shortly after attacking Russia. Rommel is Führer. Also, the Very Bad Thing happened during the German occupation, and the Germans left some time later.
Some time in the future, you should eventually see an Iron Cross flag somewhere, and maybe a portrait of Erwin Rommel.
So I fixed the entry.
The editor reverted to his original entry.
I pointed out that I'm the writer of the story.
The editor insisted I provide citations to prove that my edits were correct.
Wikipedia, it seems, does not allow primary sources. You can't read War and Peace and say it's set in Russia during the Napoleonic invasion. You have to go find an article somewhere that says it is, and then cite that.
This makes sense. You can't have people rewriting articles based on their own interpretations. Suppose I think Annie Hall is a depressing, nihilistic movie about the futility of love. What's stopping me from editing the entry on Annie Hall accordingly? Only this rule.
So you can not, for example, pull Marshall McLuhan out from behind the poster and have him contradict someone. You have to cite an article in which someone quotes Marshall McLuhan.
That puts a writer in an odd bind. I happen to know that it was not Nazi Germany that invaded England in We Happy Few, because I wrote the timeline and all the lore to go with it. But that's not proof enough. I have to tell someone else, and they have to write it somewhere, and then I can cite their article, which quotes me.
So, hopefully, someone will quote this blog post in their blog, and then I can cite myself.
We are looking for: A senior animator; a senior level designer; a gameplay programmer; a senior QA person; and an AI programmer. Check us out on LinkedIn. You do not have to live in Montreal; about 20% of the company works remotely.
I spent the first part of last week beating the game! As the narrative director, I don’t always get the luxury of time to sit down and go through a full playthrough. This week I did, and it took me about twelve hours! It was nice to finally get Arthur to the hatch on Apple Holm.
... which also meant writing a score of bug reports for issues that only I’m going to catch. I’m the guy whose responsibility is making sure that the world makes sense and that all the characters have in-game reasons to do the things they’re doing, and so I found a bunch of things I’d like to improve.
Of course after Tuesday morning’s launch, we’ve all been absorbing players’ reports of bugs. Some of them are bugs we know about. Some of them are not bugs at all. Some of them are new issues. For example, some people have complained that the NPCs can get a bit repetitious. Partly this is a bug in when they tell you to back off. Partly this is because we haven’t yet implemented the systems for atmosphere and showcased conversations. You should be hearing them talk lots more in our second update.
But, issue heard, I’m going to be writing and recording many more things for Arthur and the NPCs to say.
Of course, like Whitney, I’m sort of at the beginning of the pipeline – a lot of the things I do hit the game in weeks or months, rather than tomorrow. So I have to keep putting things in that pipeline.
Last week I recorded two voice actors for a series of audio flashbacks for Arthur. I've just finished editing them. You’re going to know a lot more about what exactly Arthur’s remembering.
And, I’m just starting on a similar system for another playable character, the Girl in White, or as Sam thinks of her, She Who Must Not Be Named. She’s going to have some surprising things to say for herself. You won’t hear this stuff for some time, but you will.
On our Reddit AMA today, greyandbluestatic asked, "how do you approach storytelling in games versus cinema and literature?"
Here's my answer:
The short answer is, there’s no difference. A story is a story. Specifically, in my books, a story is:
a. a fictional person we care about
b. who has an opportunity, problem or goal
c. who faces obstacles and/or an antagonist and/or his or her personal flaws
d. who has something to lose (jeopardy)
e. and something to gain (stakes)
Moreover, a story is told to
f. an audience.
You can see how these apply equally to movies and books and games. If one of these elements of story is weak, the story is usually weak. When I say “weak,” I mean it doesn’t leave us with a powerful feeling.
That’s what story exists in games for. The gameplay is “How?” The story is “How do I feel?” Ultimately, it’s “Why do I care?”
The key difference, of course, is that storytelling is all about “I make choices for you,” while gameplay is “You make the choices.” So delivering a great story in a game has to take that into account.
On the top level of the game, we have a series of cinematics that tell each playable character’s story. The gameplay aspect is that you have to complete story missions to get to the next cinematic. That’s pretty familiar.
The other levels are environmental storytelling. There are things you see and things you hear as you run around trying to stay alive long enough to craft your way out of the predicament you’re in.
So, these are things that the Wellies and the Wastrels say to each other and to you. They show you the world you’re living in, and how they feel about it.
These are the things Arthur says to them and to himself. These show you how he feels about things. They show you who he is.
For example, you may feel good about killing a Wastrel, but he usually doesn’t. That’s unusual, in a game hero.
There’s dear old Uncle Jack. He’s always happy and upbeat, but you can listen between the lines. Why is he telling people how to identify cholera? Why is he talking about flour substitutes?
You’ll see posters that tell you what the rules of the world are, and what the history of this world is. You learn that Britain lost the war. You start to get a sense of what it is exactly that everyone is trying so hard not to remember.
You might find letters in the mailboxes that tell you more about the people around you, and what their stories might be.
I’m trying hard to create a sense that the NPCs are not software agents that are there to give you things if you poke at them in the right way. They’re people in a fictional world, that have their own stories – their own goals, and their own obstacles – that would be doing something even if you weren’t looking.
The key to everything in the game is that what’s not said is as important as what’s said. The game’s story is a puzzle you can put together through repeated playthroughs. (You won’t get the whole puzzle in any one playthrough.)
Tl;dr: the cinematics are straightforward, linear narrative. Everything else is a puzzle.
And, eventually, once the story comes out, you may discover that the cinematics don’t tell you everything either, and there may be a bit of a puzzle there, too.
On the IMDB, 22.5% of voters give GHOSTBUSTERS a 10; 42.5% of them give it a 1. Among women, the movie gets a 7.8; among men, it gets a 4.1.
I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of the guys giving the movie a 1 have not seen the movie. If you had, it would be very hard to give it a 1. It has a plot that makes sense. It has state of the art special effects. It has a finale which destroys dozens of buildings. It is a fine piece of cheese.
So it turns out there is an explicit campaign to kill the movie by the usual suspects. They're mad because the movie wasn't made for them, and how dare anybody make a big special effects movie that isn't made for frat boys. I mean, these guys liked the previous movie, so they own the franchise, right?
What's interesting to me is how much the movie wasn't made for them. It's an action movie with female stars. But it's not a female-led action movie in the Resident Evil/Tomb Raider vein, about a hot chick who does man things. It's not about the male gaze. I mean, the only really hot chick in the movie is Kate McKinnon. She's on fire, but she's not interested in the male gaze, is she?
Which one is Leeloo Dallas Multipass?
Nope, the movie stars four women who spend most of their time talking (pseudo) science. Their emotional drama is not about men, either. It's about female friendship. Every single reel of the movie passes the Bechdel test.
In other words, the movie is not only not made for internet fanboys, it's actually madeforwomen.
I had a great time. It was fine a piece of summer fluff as I'll probably see this year. But I'm the secondary audience, the way women are the secondary audience in every other summer action movie.
Literally the secondary audience -- Lisa wanted to go, and our friend Jackie wanted to go, and I said, oh, okay, I'll come along.
The picture does a fine job subverting the genre, actually. The only parts of the movie that are about a guy are (a) the villain and (b) Chris Hemsworth, playing the dumbest imaginable receptionist. Kristen Wiig hires him because he's cute.
I'm probably preaching to the converted here, but I'm disappointed in the fanboys. You're mad that one out of ten summer blockbusters was not made for you? You're mad that someone rebooted a movie from 1984 and didn't make it exactly the same as 32 years ago? You actually are going to the trouble to ruin a movie for the people who want to see it, so that you can have All Teh Screenz?
There's a lot of entitlement going around. There's right wingers who feel their marriages have been taken away from them because gay people can also have them; or feel their bathrooms have been taken away from them because trans people might also use them. There are the Trump voters, who feel their country has been taken away from them because we're not in the 1980s any more (I think).
The best way to criticize the arts is to make your own. That's what Paul Feig has done. He's not saying comedies have to have better roles for women. He just went ahead and made a ('nother) comedy with good roles for women.
This week I’ve been playing the game a lot. Hey, this is a fun game!
Playing it, of course, I’m discovering various ways in which the world does not entirely make sense. For example, who is putting rotting meat in mailboxes? When that happens, I generally consult with the designers. Either I need to come up with a sensible reason for what’s going on, or we need to change what’s going on.
It’s very important to me that everything in the game makes sense. It doesn’t have to make logical sense. Wastrels aren’t logical. Wellies aren’t logical. Human beings are rarely logical. But there is always a reason why people do things. Wastrels aren’t randomly crazy; they’re driven mad by guilt and sorrow, and whatever Joy has done to their memories. Wellies live in denial; their happiness is a veneer over the things they are trying so hard not to remember. Things they do should be revelatory of these themes.
I’ve also been rewriting journal entries. If you go into Arthur’s journal, you will now find many things he has to say about what’s going on. Some of these things may be actually useful to solving the your problems in the game. Some of them will fill you in on Arthur’s past. Take the time to read them, when you’re in a quiet, safe place!
Oh, and, letters. I’m not entirely clear who’s delivering the mail, but someone seems to be. At any rate, Wastrels and Wellies are writing to each other. Some of these letters will tell you about the people around you. Some of them will warn you about things you’re going to run into. Worth a read, I think.
I’ve been working on rewriting the objectives and Arthur’s journal entries into the voice of the game. The journal entries are fun because I can write whatever I want without worrying what it will cost. I don’t have to record them, no one has to animate someone saying them. The player can take the time to read them or not. So I can scatter Arthur’s personal observations and backstory throughout them.
It’s a bigger job than it looks, because as I go through them, I’m also discovering encounters that aren’t quite as they were designed, or don’t quite make sense within the world. My job is to make sure that every encounter makes narrative sense. A level designer might write a level so that you’re supposed to go here and dig that thing up. But how does Arthur know there’s something to dig up? Usually it’s a matter of retconning: I know that he’s supposed to do this, so what’s a good reason in the world of the game for him to do that. Sometimes it’s a matter of rejiggering the encounters, so the LD’s and I have a palaver. Rejiggering almost always makes the encounters more compelling; necessity is the mother of invention.
Since we last spoke, I had the chance to get [person who company COO Sam won’t let me tell you about] into the sound studio, and Arthur should have quite a bit more to say in this next build, and even more in the one after that. I also finally found the perfect person to play Percy. He’s a fantastic young actor named [hah, like Sam would let me tell you that]. I’ve been writing a lot of audio flashbacks that you will eventually hear. At some point, Percy will become real to you, the way he’s real to Arthur. Jose, Chris, Valentino (our sound partners at Signal Space) and I have also been recording multiple voices for all the NPC’s. You probably won’t hear them all in the next build – we have to make a face animation for every voice doing every line. We have software that does most of the heavy lifting, but there’s a fair amount of massaging that Remi has to do, to the point where he’s been whining about not being an animator. So that will all, I think, come out in the second EA update, not on launch.
On a side note, every voice actor I’ve talked to is kind of embarrassed about the Brexit vote. It’s sort of like talking to someone who you thought had a great marriage, and now they're getting divorced.
We’ve recorded every single passive conversation, dozens of them. At some point, players are going to start hearing some rather silly conversations around them, and also some rather illuminating conversations. Oh, and the Wastrels will have five new ways to tell you to sod off. But hopefully they’ll do it less often.
Meanwhile, the usual narrative director-y things. What is written on this cabinet? What note does this guy have in his pocket? What does the end screen say? Could we please have a dozen letters you can find in the mailboxes? What are the signs on this bridge? What are the coins called? What’s a better name for Mrs Stokes’ letters? How would you describe a banger? What’s the description text for a light bulb? Can we have bunting in this building? (No.) What can we call this park?
Each of these sends me down a rabbit hole, but I usually find something that amuses me, and hopefully will amuse you. Not everything is a narrative Easter egg. But quite a few of the names of places and people are there for some reason or another. Enjoy!