Complications Ensue: The Crafty Game, TV and Screenwriting Blog
Complications Ensue:
The Crafty Game, TV, and Screenwriting Blog



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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Someone on the Compulsion Games forum for We Happy Few was concerned that there is another game out there, Lisa the Painful, where people take a happy drug called Joy. Did we steal the idea?

No, obviously not. I came up with the name Joy in roughly February 2014. That game came out in December 2014. (I had to look it up; I've never heard of it.)

The reason we called our in-game drug Joy is it makes you really happy. Joy is the #1 English word for "surpassing happiness." Probably anyone who was looking for a name for a drug that makes you really happy would at least consider the word "Joy."

I can't take credit for the happy drugs idea. One of our inspirations was Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, which is about a society where people take a pill called "soma." But our main inspiration is North American happy culture. Depressed? Take a Prozac. Stressed? Take a Valium. Bad news? Don't put it on Facebook! Only Downers put bad news on Facebook!

(Not that I'm against anti-depressants. They help a lot of people.)

Point is: talking about happy drugs is an obvious thing to do if you live in our society, just as making a movie about alcoholics was obvious in 1950.

As a screenwriter and story editor, I've seen any number of my ideas duplicated in films and TV shows I didn't write, sometimes produced by production companies that saw my pitch. That's not because my ideas were stolen. It's because certain ideas are bubbling up to the top of the zeitgeist stew at any given time. I was pitching a hacker action movie a year before The Net came out. But so was everyone else. I was pitching a Pretty Boy Floyd movie a year before Larry McMurtry was tapped to develop a Pretty Boy Floyd project.

Roger Corman was asked about the similarities between his cheapo film Carnosaur and Jurassic Park. "Steven Spielberg is an honest man," said the King of the B's. "I don't for a second think he would steal my idea!"

You can't copyright an idea; you can only copyright the execution of an idea. You can't copyright "game about people who take happy drugs" because making a game about people who take happy drugs is "obvious." Anyone can get there by just observing the world. What makes our game unique -- or the other game unique -- is how that idea is elaborated in plot and character.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

I think most pro writers would agree:

But the novelist advised would-be writers that they should not choose the career “as a way to make money, to make a name for yourself or any of these other external things.

“If you have to write, if the stories are in you, if you made up names and stories for your toy spacemen when you were little, if the stories come to you, ask yourself the question, ‘What if no one ever gives me a penny for my stories? Will I still write them?’ And if the answer is ‘yes’, then you’re a writer,” he said. “Then you have to be a writer. It’s the only thing you can do. If the answer is ‘No, I’m going to quit after a few years because I’m not selling’, then maybe you should quit right now and learn computer science. I hear there’s a real future in these computer things.”
George R. R. Martin

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Sunday, May 15, 2016

The past two weeks I’ve been primarily writing and recording (and occasionally editing) encounters. Also, more systemic barks, and more passive conversations you’ll overhear if you stealth around. (I don’t think any are in the game yet, but we’ve recorded a passel.)

Encounters are odd beasts. I get the bones of them from David. He’ll say something like “a bunch of Wastrels are cooking a rubber ducky in a stew pot. If you get the duck, you get a recipe for Rick the Stunt Duck.”

Then I’ll say, “Okay, what’s the nonlethal version?” (We have been making progress towards the functionality that would allow a nonlethal playthrough; I think you’ll see it working in the next build. Although playing nonlethally will be a huge challenge, I think it introduces a moral dimension to combat.) And David will say, okay, if you talk to all of them, you get the ducky. And if you talk to all of them the next day, you get something else.”

So now it’s in my court. Why are four Wastrels cooking a rubber duck? What do they think the ducky is? How does your talking to them make them give you the ducky? (And by “talking,” I actually mean, “clicking E to interact.”) What changes in their perspective on life now that they’ve given up their ducky? How can I make that ridiculous and yet somehow humanly truthful?

A fair amount of my job is retconning David’s designs. “If this made sense, what sort of sense would it make?”

Meanwhile, the team keep me busy with questions like “what should be scribbled on this rock” to “what should we call this park on the map” to “what’s the tooltip for a bucket? Okay, how about a bucket full of Motilene?” to “what do you hear when you pick up a phone in the Garden District?” to “what do you call the hole a Bobby pops out of?”

Fun!

And here's our video from our PAXcapades:



Rest of the update here.

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Friday, May 06, 2016

Try to get to the point where you not only accept criticism in your creative work, you seek it. Life, too, come to think of it.

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Friday, April 29, 2016

Well, we're back from PAX, where we had some pretty nifty cosplayers, even though the game isn't out yet:



I learned a bit at PAX. First of all, that people are over the moon about our game. People were lining up for an hour and forty minutes to see it. Actually, the line was capped at 1h40; you had to mill around to wait for a chance to jump onto the 1h40 line. And when you reached the head of the line, you could play the game for twenty minutes, if you didn't get yourself killed first.

Also, details. Watching new people play our game, I noticed that players were not always aware they were wearing the wrong clothes. So I wrote some barks for Wellies to get bent out of shape if you’re wearing rags, and Wastrels will mock you for being dressed all fancy.

More excitingly, I finally got a PC on my desk. I write on a Mac, but I can’t use our tools in Unreal Engine 4, which means I can’t tinker directly with the game; I have to impose on the Level Designers. Since then I’ve been rewriting journal entries into Arthur’s voice — a job I’ll have to repeat with the other playable characters.

And, of course, I’m continuing forward on editing our audio cutscenes whenever I have some spare cycles. The animators seem to like our actors’ work:


The animators have to listen to the scenes hundreds of times, so it means a lot when they dig the audio acting. 

Often when you're casting, you find someone who's a thrilling actor, but just all wrong for the part. You file that information away for later. Juliette Gosselin, who starred in my short film ROLE PLAY (and would have starred in my proposed feature ALICE IS PERFECTLY FINE NOW), was someone we auditioned for YOU ARE SO UNDEAD. She was terrific, but way too real for YASU. But we brought her back for ALICE. So too for K______ K_____, who was wonderful, but not right for Twiggy With Hypodermic. 

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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

 
Perhaps my favorite of all of these TV writing books is Crafty TV Writing. It’s universally applicable, accessible, and yet also dives into the fine, granular details when the topic warrants it. Chapters 1-3 are must read as is page 236, How To Run A Writer’s Room.
Well, this is lovely and I feel honored. Stephanie Palmer, of Good In a Room, wrote a post listing her ten favorite TV writing books, and she names my now ten-year-old book her favorite of all of them.

Thanks, Stephanie! I'm honored!

Stephanie will also send you the "10 most wanted TV Pilot scripts" as PDFs, so reason enough to go to her site. 

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Saturday, April 16, 2016

So people are now taking pictures inside the We Happy Few game engine. Here's one by Nautilus...


in-game photo by Nautilus


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Tuesday, April 12, 2016



So I wrote this game last year. Looks sweet, huh? It has a branching story, and I got to direct the brilliant Julian Casey again.



Oh, and it's a wee bit on sale on Steam!


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Sunday, April 10, 2016

"Scarborough Fair" is a really pretty song, especially as Simon and Garfunkel sing it. But it's one of those deceptive songs. It's a really, really angry song:

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Remember me to one who lives there,
For she once was a true love of mine.

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Without any seam or needlework,
Then she shall be a true love of mine.

Tell her to buy me an acre of land,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Between the salt water and the sea sand,
Then she'll be a true lover of mine.

Tell her to reap it with a sickle of leather
Parsley, sage, rosemary & thyme
And to gather it all in a bunch of heather
Then she'll be a true love of mine


If you're just listening to the melody, you might not notice that the singer is basically saying, "Yeah, if you see my ex? Tell her I'll take her back when ... y'know what? Never."

The traditional version has both the man and the woman setting each other impossible tasks. It doesn't seem to have ended well.

There are a lot of songs that are a lot sadder or angrier than they sound. "Bye Bye Love," for example.

You can get a lot of mileage out of these. Chantal Kreviazuk took the lyrics to "Leaving on a Jet Plane" seriously and got a hit out of it. John Denver, who wrote it, makes it sound almost chipper. She's not the first; Peter, Paul & Mary really got into it.

I tend to think that "Walking After Midnight" -- which almost always goes down as a perky ballad -- is about a woman looking for her alcoholic husband after the bar closes. But maybe she just misses her ex. Either way, it could the Chantal Kreviazuk treatment.

Point is: listen to the lyrics, too.

I like to say that Shakespeare's plays are bulletproof -- if the actors understand what it is they're saying. Shakespeare's characters want stuff from each other. They say stuff to each other in order to get it. The poetry is there because sure, why not, but the plays are never "about" the poetry.

Interestingly, exegesis (the art of unpicking the knot of meaning) is a valuable skill to a creator. No one starts with a fully-fledged world. We start with a hook or a premise. What makes a coherent whole out of the work is that the rest of it proceeds from interpreting what you already have. We started WE HAPPY FEW with some premises: England, 1964, everyone wears happy masks, everyone takes happy drugs.

Building the world from there, we asked, why would people be taking happy drugs? Why are they wearing happy masks?

I pick up details about the world by thinking about them. Why are they taking happy drugs and wearing happy masks? Isn't that redundant?

Well, that suggests that they tried one and then added the other when the first didn't cut it. Doesn't it?

If there are people who aren't taking their Joy -- well, why not? Maybe it doesn't work for everybody. If it doesn't work for everybody, then presumably they've tried reformulating it. That's where we got the chocolate, vanilla and strawberry flavors of Joy.

If they have nowhere to call, then what do they do with all those phone booths?

Of course, sometimes you don't get to build the world from scratch. On CHARLIE JADE, we came on board as the replacement writing team. We had to read eight episodes and ask ourselves, "if these all made sense together, what sense would they make?" Since we were not in contact with the previous administration -- and since their episodes sometimes seemed inconsistent -- we did a lot of retconning.

And, a lot of exegesis. If Charlie is the enemy of Vexcor, why haven't they killed him? Aha, they must want to know who he's working for. Or they want to know what he knows.

I find it exhilarating when I "figure out" something about the world I'm creating. There's an "aha!" moment sometimes, when I realize, huh, if this, then that. And "that" can often be horrifying. But because it stems logically from what came before, it is inevitable and it is not gratuitous. And when the audience reaches it, they'll realize the same thing: "Oh, God, I hadn't thought of that. Of course that's true, too."

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Saturday, April 09, 2016

I've been trading a few emails with a young writer who's upset about some of the lack of respect in the biz.

My feeling is, in showbiz, you can have a good attitude about things or a bad attitude. Lots of people have bad attitudes. It does not help. If you want to have a happy life, either you decide, f*** it, I’m going to have a good attitude about all this stuff, and just laugh at the disrespect and hard knocks and bad luck and nepotism and so forth … or just go into a business where merit is more consistently rewarded. Talent and hard work will, eventually, get you where you want to go, but it can easily take ten years. 

Look, it's showbiz, Punky. Everything they say about it is true, both the good and the bad. Talent does get rewarded. Talent does get disrespected before it's rewarded. 


Also, find one other thing that you like to do, and do that regularly. I've heard that Harrison Ford was a carpenter before he was a movie star. Apparently he’s still a carpenter. When he turned down bad acting gigs, he’d tell his agent, “I’ll just build another cabinet.”

Whether or not that is accurate, it is still true.

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Friday, April 08, 2016

This was a busy week for dialog. I recorded seven hours of sessions with six voice actors; next week I’ll record more.

Not every voice actor is equally talented. Some nail the line just from reading it; those actors are gold. I can easily get 180 lines an hour with someone that skilled. Fortunately, those are often the people who can do multiple different voices and accents, so we can use them for multiple encounters without the player thinking, “Enough with that guy, already.”

(On the other hand, there is always a limit to how different a human can make his voice sound; and the further someone gets from their natural voice, usually the harder it is for them to remain emotionally truthful as an actor.)

It goes more slowly with people who are less skilled. I sometimes have to build a performance, first saying, “really ask the question,” then “okay, and you’re 20 feet away from the player when you ask it” then “and you’re really pissed off.”

“Really ask the question” is something I have to say a lot. When you’re running through a bunch of lines on a page, it’s hard to invest your soul in each line. Sometimes they come out sounding like, well, like someone’s reading lines off a page. That’s when I have to say, “Okay, I really want to get a sense who you’re talking to,” or “Really ask the question like you want an answer.

Some actors can do an accent, or act, but not both at the same time. Fortunately, most of our NPC’s are regular middle class British folk, and so are our actors.

A lot of this work goes unnoticed, if I do it well. When it comes to conversations that you hear in the background, if it sounds human and real, then you won’t notice it. If it sounds wooden or contrived, you’ll notice that it’s bad.

I wonder what's playing on the Victrola.
No, seriously. That's part of my job.
Or, you won’t notice. But you will know somehow. You’ll feel more like you’re in a game and less like you’re in a world. I like to say, “The audience doesn’t know, but they know.” I guess I'd unpack that to mean, “The audience doesn’t know what’s right, but they do know when it’s wrong.” If the actors, even in the background, don’t believe in the imaginary circumstances, then the player won’t, either. If we get details wrong, the player may not necessarily be aware of them, but the player will feel shenanigans are going on.

Apropos, Whitney and I had a big argument over dumpsters, or “skips” as they seem to be called in England. David needs places for the players to hide. Dumpsters would be easy to make. And there were dumpsters in England in 1964.

However, in our world, there are no functioning dump trucks. The whole point of a dumpster is that it is emptied by machinery, not by hand. So, from my point of view, there can’t be dumpsters.

We had a big jolly back and forth about that. (I might have said something like "I hate that with the fiery passion of ten thousand suns.") In the end, we settled on ash carts. They’re a bit like dumpsters on wheels – a small skip that a horse pulls. While the Wellies don’t seem to have any surviving horses, they probably do burn coal, and coal makes ash, and ash has to go somewhere. So ash carts make sense. And it is revelatory if a world without horses is still using horse carts to get rid of coal ash. Clearly some poor bastards are dragging the ash carts around when you’re not looking.

Ceci n'est pas une ash cart. 
Also, we already have an ash cart, from Contrast.

The audience doesn’t know, but they know. They wouldn’t necessarily think, “Dumpsters, wtf?” But they would maybe feel like our world was a little less hallucinatory. Hand-drawn horse carts in 1964 reveal something about the world. It’s those details that create emotional engagement, I think.

We're off to PAX East in a couple of weeks. Come to our booth if you're there!

The rest of the team's update is here.

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Thursday, April 07, 2016

Q. Several times have I sent short excerpt writing samples to (below-the-radar) microstudios that asked for them in Internet classified ads. Not once have I even gotten a "hello" in response. I have a sneaking suspicion that these sorts of cattle calls are to bring in fresh material to "inspire" the writer on the other end rather than bring in new writers, but I really have no idea. In the big leagues I imagine that practice is quite common, but at this (purported) level I don't see much benefit in ripping off the other little guy, though I suppose it is possible that these are A-list screenwriters running a sort of scam. What do you think?
I’d be surprised if that were true. Most writers get their inspiration from watching movies and TV, or their own lives, or occasionally from reading scripts that have won awards. Speaking personally, I don’t want to read someone else’s version of a story. I want to come up with my version of the story. That’s the fun of being a writer.

Most people don’t hear back. Unless a studio likes some material and wants to bring the writer in, they’re not going to write back. The exception would be if someone is really good and the reader likes their work but their boss went another way, they miiiiight send an encouraging note. But that’s rare.

That said, I have no idea what these “microstudios” are or why they’re asking for writing samples in “internet classified ads.” Do any readers know anything about this? Legit development people generally ask agents for material to read, not the internet. A development person would rather read material that at least one person (the agent) has already decided is worth reading; and the agent protects the writer, too, because there's now a third party that knows that the development person has read the writer's work.

On the other hand, it certainly is true that at the studios there is a habit of bringing in a lot of writers to offer their “take,” and then going with the guy with the reputation. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ideas some of the lesser-known writers offer do manage to make it into the eventual script. That’s just part of the deal you accept as a writer. Ideas are cheap. It’s the execution that people pay for, mostly.

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Saturday, April 02, 2016

Q. I was especially excited to see yhat you are lart of a video game company. My company is already regiatered and i am devoted to video production.
ProTip: use your computer to contact potential employers. Not your phone.

Also, again: not necessary to start your email with "My name is ." I already know what your name is, from the header to your email!


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Friday, April 01, 2016

This week I wrote up another slew of encounters, including one in which we discover how Wellies become Wastrels. I wrote up a bunch of conversations that Bobbies can have between each other while you’re stalking them. Apparently they discuss boots and food a great deal, but you might learn one or two things about the world if you listen. We’re prepping for our big recording sessions next week, where we hope to get quite a lot of encounter dialog with multiple actors in England, drawn from, I am told, a theatre. Let us know if any of the new dialog, once it’s integrated, sounds stagey.

As you know we’ve been working on a “death and dying” update. Naturally, that calls for Arthur to have an obituary. Because we are quite mad, the obituary for each cause of “going on vacation” will have a few different bits of Arthur lore; all of which requires a bit more thinking than writing.

In my copious free time, I’m continuing to work on Mad Scotsman’s playthrough, editing the cutscenes. We’ve discovered that some scenes were not adding enough to his story to justify their existence, so we cut them, and I’m weaving the remaining scenes back together. That will take a little new dialog, a new encounter, and some environmental cues.

And, I’ve been looking for someone to video us at PAX. I think I’ve found a good guy. Hopefully you’ll see some nifty updates.

Meanwhile we’ve been discussing and designing the new multiplayer mode. Obviously we can’t have players just talking to each other with headsets; they won’t have the right accent, generally. To keep the “voice” of the game we’ll probably have to use some sort of system where players can select barks from a range of prerecorded responses. In keeping with our overall ambitions, it should be a pretty wide range of responses. Once we implement full body awareness, players with motion capture rigs (like a Kinect) should be able to communicate by gestures, too. We won’t have any of that ready for PAX, but maybe soon after. So far, we’re primarily testing multiplayer in the Linux build.

Rest of the update here!

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Everybody says a screenplay should have a theme, and game makers are coming around to the idea too. Well, I can't tell you much about it, but we are currently in negotiations to bring We Happy Few to a theme ... park! A major Japanese corporation, whose name sort of rhymes with "money," thinks We Happy Few would make the ideal theme park attraction. "You've really captured a whole world in your game," they tell us, and so they want to help us build a physical version of the world at a location I can't disclose yet.

This should be pretty amazing. I've always wanted one of those Happy Face Mask chairs for my living room. Maybe they can build me an extra one.

Obviously the attraction will mostly focus on the Village of Hamlyn; I'm not sure how many people really want to spend time in the Garden District. But what's most exciting is that they think they can make a deal with a pharmaceutical to bring an (over-the-counter, obviously) version of Joy to the deal. That's why the theme park won't be in Japan itself -- we need a country with slightly looser pharma regulations. But you'll not only be able to walk among the Wellies, you can be a proper decent Wellie yourself.

Just don't be a Downer. No one likes a Downer. You know what to do if you see a Downer, right?

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Saturday, March 19, 2016

I feel like I’ve had a productive day when I do something that results in big hunks of content. For example, the other day we had a recording session for a soldier. We got 180 lines recorded in an hour. Since we’d scheduled two hours, I had to scramble to come up with some other stuff for our actor to record.

However, I’m also responsible for lore. On Monday, Whitney asked me for some ideas for posters and things to flesh out the Garden District. The easy way to do this would be to repeat something you already know: a poster promoting Joy, for example, or another war poster. The harder and better thing to do is to show you something you didn’t know. In this case, it was, “What is it like for the Wastrels to come off Joy?” Now there’ll be a painting that tells you something about that. And a painting that’s the flip side of that: what proper decent Wellies do when they’re confronted with the awkward past. Sarah and I had fun coming up with that one.

You can hide in car trunks!
And, I wrote three editorial cartoons from some sort of samizdat dissident paper. Who knew there were ever dissidents?

I sometimes wonder where my day goes. Something like “think of five ideas for the art team” can take an hour or more. We are also coming up with a new game mode. But what to call it? The names of the modes have to communicate what they’re like while being of the game world -- for example Wakey Wakey for the mode where you wake up after death, and We’ve Come to the End of Our Time for permadeath mode. See if you can guess what the middle mode is from the following rejected trios of game mode names:

Die Another Day
You Only Live Twice
Dr. No

As the World Turns
General Hospital
One Life to Live

But Soft, What Light from Yonder Window Breaks
Double, Double, Toil and Trouble
To Be, Or Not to Be

This sort of thing can also take an hour or more: a lot of thinking, and not very much writing. The best way to do it is to write down all the ideas you have, not just the good ones; a probably bad idea (Please Sir, Can I Have Another mode anyone?) can be a “bridge” to a good idea.

These things take up a lot of time, but they’re the difference between feeling that the world is deep and rich and strange, and would exist even in Arthur’s absence, or feeling that it is merely there to support gameplay.

Rest of the update here.

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I've enjoyed the Far Cry franchise, particularly Far Cry 4. Exotic locations, solid combat, open world, lots of different strategies to try; but most interesting for me, Far Cry 3 and 4 told good stories. Far Cry 3 was about a privileged white kid who becomes a badass, and what that costs him. Far Cry 4 made you choose between two or three allies, each of whom had serious flaws. Oh, and the hero is non-white! As is almost everybody in the game.

So I was pretty excited about Far Cry: Primal. And it does indeed have exotic locations, solid combat, a big huge open world to explore, and lots of different strategies to try. Oh, and the only white people in the game are Neandertals!

And it has colorful characters, oh yes, from the crazy shaman to the badass queen of one of your enemy tribes. But with the exception of one joke character, none of them has flaws. They are all just fighting for the survival of the clan.

It could have been possible to give the player some flawed characters, and some of the choices that flaws lead to. As written, your tribe is in an existential crisis, squeezed between cannibals and human sacrificers. You can kill them or be wiped off the face of the planet.

Suppose one of your allies wanted to try to reach out to these enemies? Suppose one of the enemies was willing to be an ally, at least against a third party? Without making the whole game about factions, developing one or two characters so that they present choices? You could make "kill'em all" the straightforward, low-risk road, and "reach out" a high-risk, high-reward road, where if you play it right you get an ally, but if you play it wrong, some of your people get killed.

Or, even, if you don't want to go that far in re-tooling the franchise, do what Far Cry 4 did, and demand that the player choose between two visions for the society he's building.

Or even simply, have some of the allies ask the player to do things that are not purely 100% good things. E.g. an optional mission to slaughter all the mammoths to deprive the Neandertals of their food supply, reducing their number.

Or even simply, give them some character flaws of the personal sort: an ally who does not like you, who has to be placated with gifts. An ally who leaves you in a ditch to die, who you need to work with anyway.

As it is, the game is strangely flat. Although it has tons of atmosphere and lovely rendered animals and mountains you can climb and combat that is simply yet flexible... I'm not as engaged as I was by Far Cry 3 and 4.

Character flaws are why we care about characters. Can a AAA single player game really afford these days not to have emotional engagement?



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Saturday, March 12, 2016



This week I’ve been working on passive conversations. These are conversations that you might hear while you are very stealthily not interacting with Wastrels or Wellies.

Active conversations are conversations that NPC's have with you, either while they're trying to persuade you to take your Joy, or if they have a problem they hope you can solve, like this guy, whose wife seems a bit under the weather:



We have two kinds of these. One I’m calling “Atmosphere.” These are the sort of conversations you might hear dozens of times. “Oh, there you are!” “Were you looking for me?” “Not at all – but there you are. Hahaha!” “Hahaha!”

These sorts of conversations are standard in video games. However, we’ll also have showcased conversations. These are conversations you’re probably only going to hear once in a playthrough. They’re longer, and they are about people’s distinct desires and problems. We’ll rig these conversations to play in specific encounters where you will, for example, have to stealth your way through a specific location in order to achieve a goal. So your reward for not killing everyone in the house, in addition to whatever loot we give you for being non-homicidal, will be learning about someone’s life.

The showcased conversations really came about because in my first effort at writing atmosphere, all the conversations came out very specific and personal – all way too memorable to be conversations that you might hear from any number of totally different people in totally different places. Asking a screenwriter to write undistinctive dialog is like asking a singer to sing off-key: all their ten thousand hours of training are telling them not to do what you’re trying to do. Fortunately, rather than scrapping the memorable conversations, we’re going to use them along with some more general conversations.

All of this represents yet another metastasis of the amount of recorded narrative in this game! This game is going to have a lot a lot a lot of voice work. Should be fun.

Read the rest of the team's update here.

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Thursday, March 03, 2016

The London Sound Survey is hundreds of recordings of ambient sounds across London, arranged geographically. If you were writing a scene set at a pie shop, say, you could throw on the ambient sound of a London pie shop.

There are birds and buskers and beggers and bells. There's the whispering gallery in St. Paul's. There's the river. And some of it is old recordings by the BBC: preachers and cheapjacks and herbalists selling their wares.

Awesome.

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Saturday, February 27, 2016

I’ve been continuing to search for a voice for some revelatory audio. There’s a character in game who’s autistic. Good actors are hard enough to find; actors who can play autistic with emotional truthfulness are rarer still. And, the role has another characteristic I can’t tell you yet. Few people can handle a speech impediment without the impediment becoming the whole performance. And, we want charisma in our voices.

(My daughter is autistic, so autism is something I think about a lot. It’s nice to be able to put it in the game. And by “nice,” I mean that it’s going to take us to a seriously effed-up place.)

Meanwhile, I’m continuing to work on dialog for encounters. Writing encounter dialog is tricky because sound eats memory, and we need the game to be a reasonable size on your computer or console. So I need to suggest as much as possible in as little dialog as possible. Also, any time Arthur talks, that means our other player characters will eventually have to have something to say, too. On the other hand, we’re long past the point in video games where we can get away with throwing text on the screen. And a voice performance adds so much, anyway.

I’ve also been having a bash at tooltips. The designers have written very “gamey” tooltips, e.g. “does .2 shock damage + .4 blunt damage.” I feel that takes you out of the game, so the tooltip will now read something clever-ish like, “this weapon is really smashing, and a bit shocking too.” I changed the "sharpened stick" to a "pointy stick," and of course the tooltip is "much more effective than any tropical fruit."


And there’s the usual ongoing support. What brand gin do people drink? What do Wellies say after they are no longer distracted by Rick the Stunt Duck? What do Bobbies say? Each one of these is not a lot of work, but they add up, and there’s a fair amount of bookkeeping necessary as well, to make sure that everything gets recorded and shepherded into the game.

The rest of the team's update is here.

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Friday, February 26, 2016



My friend Richard Rouse III has a new game coming out! It's a top-down infiltration game. Looks pretty fun, and full of lovely irony.

Check out the teaser trailer! And his interview on IGN!

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Thursday, February 25, 2016

It occurs to me I should have been posting my We Happy Few Updates here, too. Here's February 12. You can find the rest using the handy We Happy Few tag.


The other day a narrative designer friend o’mine who works at a Big Studio tweeted, “Pro tip: if you design a narrative/audio heavy feature, loop them in early so they can spot potential problems before they happen”.

Compulsion is a strange beast - something in between a 4 person indie team and a 100-500 person AAA team.

What we get in return is that the team is small enough that everyone talks to everybody. At least, I talk to everybody.

I want this on a t-shirt, don't you?
For example, Mike is designing in-game tips. How do you pick up a body? How do you throw one? An in-game tip can throw you out of the game world if it’s written in gamer terminology; on the other hand, if it’s not clear, it’s useless as a tip. So I have to figure out how to rephrase the tip so that it sounds like our world.

Meanwhile, Valentino is building soundscapes for the introduction. There’s a critical flashback to a traumatic event. He’d like to know: what does that sound like? I’ve already recorded and edited the dialog, but what else do we hear? There’s a train. Do we hear steam building? A whistle? A bell? Crowd walla?

Meanwhile, there’s an encounter where you can find a note on a bobby describing you. Well, it takes a level designer two seconds to write that. It sends me down a rabbit hole. Who’s writing the note? What tone is it? Is it officious? Are they scared of you? Do they want the bobbies to follow normal procedure? What is it? Or do they want the bobbies to take care of you by any means necessary?

Meanwhile, David is working on combat buffs. I feel an urgency to rewrite the combat buffs into the voice of the game world, to strengthen your immersion in it. Oh, and, sometimes we want both the player character and the NPC’s to react when these buffs take effect. So those lines of dialog get added to my dialog list, and I start pestering our sound guys to set up another recording session.

And since I’m recording and editing all sorts of cutscene dialog and gameplay barks and encounter dialog... I have to keep after the sound guys to make sure none of it gets lost along the way.

And, there is a Very Important Article that you’ll read in-game that wasn’t clear enough. So I rewrote it, and that meant poor Whitney had to throw out her old painting and make a new one. And then the advertisements were wrong for the date, so we had to fix that. In this game, the advertisements look like throwaways, but they’re important lore, and they’ve got to not only be consistent with our lore, but be revelatory of it.

Oh, and, just now, one of our programmers complained that a Pythonesque object description I wrote turned out to be too long for the UI. It doesn’t take long to do each little thing; but they do all require thought.

In all this, of course, I’m piling up a bit of work for myself. Anything specific to Arthur I’ll have to redo, or replace, for Girl With Needle or the Mad Scotsman. They don’t just have different barks. Anywhere Arthur has a journal entry after an encounter, I’m going to have to rewrite the entry in the other PC’s voice.

This is an ambitious game for its narrative. It would be much easier for me to write generically. The more generic a bark (“Go go go!”), the more often the player can hear it without getting irritated. I’m writing distinctive barks. Hopefully we’ve got enough so they won’t get old. Let me know if they do get old.

And then, there are always the recording sessions and the cutscenes. I can’t tell you what amazing actor I recorded last Thursday, or what role she plays, because it’s all a Big Secret. But the animators are slowly chewing their way through several playthroughs worth of cutscenes. Tuesday and Wednesday I put together a cutscene for the Mad Scotsman’s playthrough; Vincent Schneider’s been storyboarding it since. I also spent a bit of time inserting new dialog in old cutscenes; sometimes there’s a line that doesn’t get recorded, or a brilliant idea that we have after the recording session, and I’ve got to wait until my next session to get it recorded. (Recording with union actors is crucial, but Not Cheap.)

It is a miracle to me that I haven’t fallen behind. Sometimes I wonder if it would be the end of the world if I, you know, left the text of the combat buffs alone; so what if they’re a bit gamey? But I count myself blessed to be in a team where I have the privilege of meddling like that.

Find the rest of the team's update on our Kickstarter page.
Here's the previous update.

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Thursday, February 18, 2016



This nifty little video explains some reasons why Donald Trump is crushing it in the Republican race. Short words, repetition, rearrange your sentences so you put the sharpest word at the end.

Donald Trump speaks at a Fourth Grade reading comprehension level. I bet an analysis of Bill Clinton's speaking style would show similar things. I've noticed that when Hillary talks, you have to think about what she said in order to parse it, while when Bill talks, you feel like you just totally got it. As Churchill said, "Short words are best. Short words when old are best of all."

(Don't like the guy or his politics, this is just a rhetorical analysis.)

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Sunday, February 14, 2016

I get this sort of question from time to time:

A 20something friend of mine is interested in getting an entry-level position in the gaming world (just about any aspect, I think).

Do companies have internships, like film companies, where you can prove your worth? Or do you just send queries to companies?

It’s not that easy to get in as “entry level — just about any aspect.” At our company we don’t have jobs for jes’ folks. We have jobs for programmers, and artists, and animators. We have two playtesters, known as Quality Assurance people. They're not entry level, either.

(QA is "playtesting," but it's more like "playing the game repeatedly and trying to break it in every conceivable way. I'm told it's a good niche for people on the autism spectrum, who don't mind a little repetition.)

There are quite a few university programs that teach specific skills: programming, environmental art, animation, etc. The Cégep du Vieux Montréal, for example, has a whole video game program (en français). The video game biz is growing, especially here in Montréal, so a talented and skilled graduate can get a job.

I think most people would tell you to go to game dev conferences and talk to people at companies. If you can't afford a ticket to a conference, you can volunteer, and attend the conference on your off hours. Volunteering is also a good way to meet people.

Personally, I find conferences incredibly daunting. I don't like to go to game dev conferences until I can nab a speaker slot. I have a touch of Asperger's myself. I do better when I have some context; and it's easier to meet people in the speaker's lounge than milling around. If you have deep knowledge in an outside field, you have a shot. E.g. if you are not only a gamer but a retired Special Ops commando, or a copyright lawyer, or a publicist, etc., you can probably think of something to say for half an hour. My ticket to the podium has generally been "lessons from screenwriting."

But, at a minimum, going to conferences give you something to talk about when you do get your foot in the door.

Note that there's a difference between game conventions and game dev conferences. PAX is a game convention. GDC is a game dev conference. The PAX conferences are mostly there so game companies can promote their games to customers. (Also so gamers can meet other gamers and play games on cardboard.) GDC is there so professionals can get learnings and then go out drinking with people they haven't seen since they were all fired.

You can talk to game devs at PAX. At PAX East last year we had the art director, a gameplay designer, an environmental artist, the studio head and the producer, among others. A lot of tiny teams send everybody. Bigger companies send mostly marketing people.

There are game industry sites, e.g. Kotaku and Gamasutra. They have job listings, too. But again, not many “I am an untrained smart person” jobs.

I don't think there are a lot of internships. Showbiz has a use for untrained people. Video game companies don't need anyone to drive the van or man the craft services table.

If any readers out there have better information than the above -- my own trajectory has been pretty idiosyncratic -- please post a reply!

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Friday, January 29, 2016

This has been a big week for recording. I’ve been prepping all week for today’s (Friday’s) session with Alex Wyndham. Guillaume likes to wait until the very last minute to deliver brilliant notes on scenes, so I’ve torn the scene up twice. Obviously the last scene, in which all is revealed, couldn’t be more important. It’s a great scene for the other voice actor, who might be a surprise for you guys, if you ever figure out who it is.

I’ve also been adding new things for Arthur to say in various gameplay situations. Meanwhile, I spent a couple of hours with Alice Kensington on Tuesday. She’s giving another voice to our wastrellette, and a lovely, rude song.

Meanwhile I’ve been editing my last recording session with one of our unannounced voice actors. (She is quite gorgeous, but we don’t turn on the camera during sessions, so all I care about is that she is a brilliant voice actress.) The amount of voice acting in this game keeps soaring; we’ll end up with something like 30 hours of recordings. So we’re earning our “triple-I” monicker.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A query letter is a business letter. The purpose is two-fold
  • Entice the agent to read your pages/request the full manuscript
  • Demonstrate you are not an asshat.
    -- Queryshark
  • QueryShark is a book agent. (Book agents call themselves literary agents, but so do screenwriters' agents, so there you go: book agent.) She critiques query letters on her blog.

    Queries for novels are allowed to be longer than screenplay queries, which, I keep telling you, ought to be ridiculously short. However, many of the same do's and don't apply. Throw the hook out there, sell the sizzle, stop talking while they still want to read your goddamn manuscript.

    Check out this excellent post, which boils down a seminar she gives into bullet points.

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    Sunday, December 20, 2015

    Liz England explains Game Development in terms of doors. A sample:

    Premise: You are making a game.
    • Are there doors in your game?
    • Can the player open them?
    • Can the player open every door in the game?
    • Or are some doors for decoration?
    • How does the player know the difference?
    • Are doors you can open green and ones you can’t red? Is there trash piled up in front of doors you can’t use? Did you just remove the doorknobs and call it a day? [snip]
    And then who does what:

    • Creative Director: “Yes, we definitely need doors in this game.”
    • Project Manager: “I’ll put time on the schedule for people to make doors.”
    • Designer: “I wrote a doc explaining what we need doors to do.”
    • Concept Artist: “I made some gorgeous paintings of doors.”
    • Art Director: “This third painting is exactly the style of doors we need.”
    • Environment Artist: “I took this painting of a door and made it into an object in the game.”
    • Animator: “I made the door open and close.” [snip]
    The full post goes on at much greater length; check it out.

    "Door" is not a metaphor. We spent a bit of time earlier this year talking about how the player would know which doors open, which are locked, which are locked and only unlockable with a special item, and which are purely decorative.


    Oh, and Studio Cypher made the first part into a poster:




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    Friday, December 18, 2015


    This week I’ve been continuing to work on our gigantic Encounters spreadsheet. Level designers contribute the situation and objective: do this, get that. I try to figure out who the characters in the encounters are, and why they want those things, essentially retro-engineering from the gameplay. I then write dialog, if needed, as well as tooltips, journal entries, and lore. I’m most of the way through fleshing out the encounters for the first Garden District island. So GD1 is now, at least in our design, populated with all sorts of strange characters that the player can interact with in ways more challenging than clonking them on the head and taking their stuff.

    We’re also working on the very early parts of the game, where we’ll spawn encounters that help define the world, and incidentally show new players how to do basic things, like clonk characters on the head and take their stuff.

    In my copious free time, I’m also writing a later player character’s version of every single thing Arthur says. This character has a very different point of view on her interactions, and I don’t think she’s as inclined to apologize for, say, clonking people on the head, or taking their stuff.

    Find the rest of the team's update here.

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