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

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Thursday, September 24, 2015

TV writing has a disease at its core. It is the tyranny of the core cast member.

Lisa and I have been binge-watching season 4 of Homeland. Homeland is originally an adaptation of Prisoners of War a very gritty and naturalistic Israeli series about Israeli solders who have returned after years of captivity among their enemies. One of them may have been brainwashed. But what is his plan?

What sucked us into the first seasons was fraught situations, plot twists, characters with strong but hidden and possibly changing motivations, long story arcs and intelligent writing. Moreover, I felt a sense that the writers had consulted people who knew something about spy craft. It was a bit like Aaron Sorkin's years on West Wing, where things happened that bore some resemblance to what happens in the White House, as opposed to John Wells' years, where things happened that bore some resemblance to what happens on E.R.





We're about six episodes into Season Four when everything starts to go to hell, in the sense that the writers start making random stuff up to be dramatic. Saul, the former head of the CIA, is tricked into entering an Islamabad Airport bathroom where he's knocked out and spirited off to the tribal areas. (Never mind that no one would send the former head of the CIA to any airport, let alone Islamabad, without a platoon of security.) No one notices that he didn't make his flight. Then, just as Carrie Mathieson, the CIA station chief, is about to order a Hellfire missile fired at a top Taliban leader, it turns out the leader has Saul prisoner. She orders the shot anyway. Her sidekick nixes it. The soldier at the controls doesn't fire.

Now, there are all sorts of things wrong with this. TV writers regularly ignore chain of command in their writing, even though they are acutely conscious of chain of command in their own career. If the station chief order the shot, the soldier takes the shot. Moreover, it is obviously the right decision. Saul knows too much. He's going to be tortured for his information. He himself would order the shot.

But, you see, Saul is core cast. He can't be killed.

There is a long TV tradition of risking the lives of the many to save one person that the star knows well. In real life, Saul is a dead man, but before he dies, he will give our mortal enemies weapons to use against us, and dozens or hundreds of people will die. But no, we can't kill Saul, because Carrie cares about him, and so do we.

What's tedious about this is that Carrie killing Saul would be really interesting. How would she live with herself after blowing up her mentor and father figure? Who would she turn to for emotional stability? She's become really hard and badass in this season; this would be her hardest and baddest moment.

Indeed, one of the strongest moments in Homeland is when Damien Lewis's character Brody actually does die and she can't save him.

The season goes downhill from there. After Saul escapes, and makes Carrie swear that he won't be taken alive, she betrays him, leading him into a Taliban trap, so that he won't blow his own head off. The consequences are a prisoner exchange in which the Taliban gets five top commanders back, which leads to a truly ridiculous series of events I can't even stand to outline. (Let's just say that no, when an RPG hits your car, you do not survive with a cut on your scalp, and no, under no circumstances does anyone send all the Marines out of the Pakistan embassy.)

As a writer watching this, I feel like two things are going on. One, the writers are choosing the biggest drama rather than the truth of the situation. Big Emotion is riding roughshod over the story. (The first season, the adage goes, the stars are working for the showrunner. The second season, they're working with the showrunner. After that, the showrunner is working for the stars. Actors like to big up their emotions. Is that what's going on here?)

But two, the terrible tyranny of core cast -- under no circumstances can Saul blow his own head off unless it's at the end of a season and he's leaving the show.

This kind of crap goes on all the time in American-told stories. American heroes regularly put the lives of many at risk to save one person. Captain Kirk will always ignore regulations in order to save a friend. If Homeland were on Japanese TV, I don't doubt that Saul would indeed blow his head off to prevent his government from giving up five top Taliban commanders -- and Carrie Mathie-san would have a beautiful moment with him on the phone, wishing only that she could be the one killing herself in his place. Hell, even on Canadian TV (see Flashpoint).

I sometimes wonder if it is only a reflection of the American character, or if the flaws of the film and television media actually feed back into American culture. What am I saying? Of course they do. After generations of heros saying "never tell me the odds," and "we have to risk it" and "I don't care what the experts say," you wind up with yippee-ki-yay foreign policy driven by politicians who haven't actually been to war, but have seen it on TV. We think of ourselves as invincible, because we think of ourselves as core cast. That's how we end up invading Iraq.

So ... what about Game of Thrones, you say? Or Sopranos? Yes, well, that's HBO. They mean it when they say, "It's not TV, it's HBO." About the only person you can be sure will survive to the end of The Sopranos is the point of view character, Tony. I suspect Tyrion Lannister will make it through to the end of Game of Thrones, because he's so much fun, but I never thought they'd kill off Jon Snow, what with him having a whole backstory set up for him where he was the Hidden True Heir and all. And they did.

And isn't that more interesting? When Joss takes away Jenny Calendar's immunity, or Tara Maclay's, doesn't that make us much more engaged with his other characters?

But more importantly -- isn't the story what's important?

Well no, not on TV. I interviewed Ron Moore about Battlestar Galactica in Banff years ago, and I asked him about some of the sillier permutations the cast of the show went through -- where fighter pilots became politicians and so forth. His answer was that, for him, the show is the core cast. Call it Battlestar Galactica all you like, but the show is not "things that happen relating to a warship," it is "things that happen to some people who were on a warship when the show began."

This is the tyranny of the core cast. I hate it. I hate it because when I watch TV, I know the writers are going to betray the characters and the story any time the alternative is killing someone with a season contract. That puts me in a foul mood all day.

Every medium has its flaw. In games and film, the hero has to motivate everything and make all the choices; you can't have a passive protagonist like Ishmael in Moby Dick. Plays, well, everything has to be resolved by talking.

But boy, I wish Carrie had taken that shot. 


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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Watch this now, before it's pulled down:


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Friday, September 18, 2015

One thing I have learned is that the audience is a terrible listener. They are pretty good at noticing things they see. But they don't listen so good.

So, first of all, if you want them to absorb a bit of information, it's probably a good idea to throw it at them a couple of times.

"The thing is ... she was thirteen."

Second thing is, the audience often seems to form visuals from the words you use before they process the grammar. So if I write, or say, "she's not a redhead," the first image that's going to pop into the audience's mind is a redhead. And that's what sticks. At the moment they hear or see "not a redhead," they may process the negative, but ten minutes later, they may only remember "redhead."

So I try not to use specific, visual negatives in dialog or in action description. For example, I'd avoid writing, "For once, San Francisco Bay is free of fog." That sentence is bad visually because half the audience is going to just read, or hear, or remember, "San Francisco Bay ... fog." Instead I would take care to write, or have a character say, "Across the bay, he could see the wind rippling in waves across the grass on Mount Tamalpais."

I mean, obviously there's no fog, who's even talking about fog?

This is why politicians are smart to change the subject rather than deny. We remember Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook," partly because he was a crook, and partly because the most powerful word in that sentence, the takeaway, is the word "crook." What people took away from that sentence, to some extent, was "Richard Nixon ... crook." Same thing is going on with "I did not have sex with that woman": aside from its deceitfulness, it makes you think about Bill having sex with Monica, which you probably didn't want to do. Clinton was much better in 1992 when he refused to confirm or deny whether "we've had our difficulties" meant that he was a hound dog; "I think the American people get it," is all he would say, and we did.

Don't put images in people's heads if you don't want them there; it's very hard to get them out again.


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Monday, September 14, 2015

I played a game that did some interesting things with narrative, which I won't name, so hopefully I won't spoil anything.

The game is meant to be a narrative puzzle. Oddly, it is not a puzzle so much about "what exactly happened" or "who done it," but "what is the nature of the main character?" Are they who they say they are, or are they lying, or are they deluded themselves?

It's usually a rule that the protagonist of a story, or a player character, shouldn't know anything important that the player doesn't know. Otherwise it alienates the viewer/reader/player: how can they feel engaged emotionally with a character that's partly withheld from them. It feels like a cheat if the narrative holds back something that the story later hinges on.

However, in this case, the player character is not the main character. The player character is interrogating the narrative, but never appears in the game, while the main character is the person whose story the game contains.

So it's a legit mystery. The game is entitled to set the goal, and is entitled to set the obstacles to achieving that goal. It's okay that the player character has no way to establish something that, at another time and another place, could have been reasonably easily established. That's the setup. The narrator is entitled to define his or her terms.

What bugged me, I think, is a tone problem. Odd that a tone problem would mess up a mystery story, but I'll tell you why.

There are two main explanations of the narrative in the game.

  • One is that an extremely implausible series of events happened.
  • The other is that the main character has an extremely rare (and, some argue, nonexistent) mental disorder

But these two extreme, stylized interpretations come out of a series of gritty video clips of an actor acting in a naturalistic, human way. The actor isn't brilliant, but the performance doesn't come across stagey or forced.

So do I set my suspension of disbelief on "high" or "low"? I can look at interpretation one and think, well, that's an extremely implausible series of events. If I heard that in real life, I wouldn't believe it. I'd think I was dealing with a crazy person or a scammer.

But this isn't real life, this is a video game. I've believed crazier stories in video games.

So I go look at the other interpretation. If I met someone manifesting this particular mental disorder, I would pretty much assume they were faking something they saw on TV.

But again: this is a video game. Video games are entitled to heightened reality. And maybe the game makers don't know that this mental disorder doesn't look like they depicted it, and possibly doesn't exist at all.

After all, early on in the narrative we keep hearing about fairy tales, so maybe this is all meant to be interpreted as a fairy tale.

Okay but -- I'm supposed to be choosing between two interpretations, aren't I? So if I'm judging by the standards of fairy tales, how can I possibly call shenanigans on one interpretation and not the other? And if I'm judging by the standards of the real world, I have to call shenanigans on both, and then I got nothing.

So the lesson is: you have to define your tone. If something is meant to be a fairy tale, then you should introduce some magic into your story. It's dangerous to present your fairy tale as a completely naturalistic true-crime story, because it will get judged by the wrong standards. And the flip side of that is that if you intend your player (or viewer or reader) to call shenanigans on a character or a series of events, then you need to make clear that any inconsistencies are the results of the character lying rather than metaphorical story telling...

... or sloppy writing. When the audience doesn't know the story teller, they won't necessarily trust that everything in the story is there intentionally. Does the game maker know his mental disorders, really? Or is he just following what he's seen on TV?

Take Dexter, the TV and book serial killer who only kills Very Bad People. Such a person probably does not exist, but it's the premise of the series, so we accept it, and we also accept that we are not watching a truly realistic portrayal of a serial killer, we're watching a pay cable TV drama.

But that means you couldn't hang an episode on the audience suspecting that he's lying because he's showing empathy that a real serial killer isn't capable of -- because he's not a real serial killer.

And you really couldn't hang a spec episode on that, because how is the reader to know whether you are intentionally writing a character that is inconsistent with reality, or that you don't know what you're doing.

You have to ask yourself if your narrative depends on the audience being sure you know what you're doing.

This is where "hanging a lantern" or "addressing" the plot comes in handy.

If you have a character like Dexter behaving uncharacteristically for a serial killer, you could have two characters arguing about him. One could say, "no real serial killer has empathy." The other one could say, "this one does."

Now the audience knows that you do know what you're doing, and the inconsistency in the episode is intentional. Depending on where you take the scene, you can then leave us pretty sure that the Dexter-ish character is pretending, or that he really has a heart, or you can be ambiguous about it. But at least you're not being muddy.

Because of the way the narrative is told in this particular game, the game maker didn't have an opportunity to tell us whether he means his mental disorder to be a fairy tale mental disorder -- in which case it could be "real" or "true" within the world of the game -- or a real mental disorder -- in which case we'd reject that interpretation. And no actually impossible things happen in the extremely implausible series of events that is the other interpretation, so we can't tell if we're supposed to reject that interpretation as really unlikely, or embrace it as a fairy tale.

Telling a story isn't just about the story. It's also about who's telling the story, and to whom. You have to be aware of who you're telling your story to, and who they think you are.


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Saturday, September 12, 2015

(Trigger warning:  politics! This here is a post about narratives in politics, so feel free to skip it if you came here for game writing or screenwriting.)

There have been an awful lot of articles in the press about how Hillary Clinton is a terrible candidate. They're making a lot of Hillary's dubious decision to keep her State Department emails on a private server, and her BS explanation that she didn't want to have to carry two devices.

Casting my mind back to the 2008 primary, my memory is that she blew the race in January and February, but by March, she'd found her voice and her message. She'd gone from I Am the Experienced Candidate to I Will Fight For You. She pulled huge crowds in Texas. Sixteen million registered Democrats voted for her. If she'd been that candidate in New Hampshire, with that message, she'd have won the primary, and crushed John McCain.

I doubt that after four years running the State Department, she's a less convincing presidential candidate than she was in 2008.

So where are these articles coming from? The simplest explanation is that journalists love a horse race. You won't get any column inches for writing that yep, the presumptive Democratic nominee is going to win the nomination, or that in a booming economy, she'd probably beat the Republican nominee, who will be a right-wing yahoo or another politically crippled "moderate," unless he is, yikes, Donald Trump.

But, seriously, keeping her emails secret is a pretty weak stick to beat Hillary with. My guess is that most independent voters are going to have trouble understanding what the fuss is about. My guess is that most Democratic voters are going to remember that the right wing has been hating on Hillary since 1992, and accusing her of all sorts of things (she had Vince Foster murdered! Benghazi!), and the attacks are just going to sound hysterical.

Which is kind of a shame, because it was naughty, and her explanation was unbelievable.

But boy, these journalists are repeating each other's talking points a lot. People thought Hillary was being paranoid when she said there was a "vast right-wing conspiracy" against Bill, until it came out that there was, in fact, a vast right-wing conspiracy against Bill. It's not hard to believe that there is some coordination going on behind the scenes. I don't doubt that Jeb Bush would rather run against Bernie Sanders than Hillary. There are probably a lot of Democratic bigwigs who hate on the Clintons, too, and they'd really rather hand this extremely winnable election to John Kerry (who blew 2004) or Al Gore (who blew 2000) or Crazy Uncle Joe (who has been losing primaries since 1988).

(In the absence of a war, presidential elections are almost always about the fundamentals of the economy. The incumbent party almost always wins them if the economy is good. Unemployment is at 5.1%. The market is at an all-time high. The dollar is strong. The economy is fundamentally good.)

So what is interesting enough about all this to talk about on a blog about stories? My point, as always, is the power of a story. Hillary being a weak candidate is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If enough people start telling the story, maybe she'll become a weak candidate. Certainly she won't have any serious competition until enough people start saying it. You'll notice there are, as yet, no Democratic governors running against her, but maybe one could be lured into the race if she seems crippled.

And now, there are polls to point to that say she's a weak candidate. That's the self-fulfilling part. Of course the polls are down, because there's been nothing but negative news about Hillary. But with the polls down, now you can have more articles about how she's crippled, and that will bring the polls down more...

So, what does Hillary need to do about it? She needs a story. So far, she's been playing defense. She's been issuing silly explanations of the emails thing (she didn't want to carry two devices? c'mon), and recently she apologized. That might make the emails story old news, but she needs to come up with something that is a new story. You can't fight a story by telling people it's a bad story. You counter a story with another story.

But how do you come up with a story? Journalists practically refuse to cover policy as a story, even though kind of the whole point of an election is to allow voters to choose between policies. To get any traction with policy -- to make a story out of it -- you have to say something really outrageously stupid, like "I'm going to deport all 11 million illegal immigrants" or "I think we should seriously consider building a wall along the Canadian border."

Or at least, you have to say something daring. E.g. Hillary says "I'm not only going to embrace and defend Obamacare, I'm going to extend it." "I'm not only going to defend investment in solar power, I'm going to double down. Because, y'know, it's a huge success, and nothing would be better for our national security if the Russians and the Arabs stopped making a ton of money selling oil."

(I'm a big fan of Democrats selling alternative energy as a national security issue, rather than solely as a climate issue. If the world didn't run on oil, Saddam Hussein would have been no more than an irritant, Isis would run out of money, and Russia wouldn't be able to afford to invade Ukraine. People are willing to spend bazillions of dollars to blow up bearded guys with AK-47's, why not spend some money bankrupting the real enemy? "Let's stop putting money in the pockets of people who hate us" is a better story to convince independents and even Republicans with.)

But I'm not sure it's even important what the policy thing is, so long as you can turn the story into "Hillary has a bold proposal." The message should be "I have opinions, I have guts, I have new ideas." Americans always want to hear that the candidate has guts and new ideas. Guts and new ideas are practically the American religion. That's why so many people dig Donald Trump. He's an irresponsible blowhard, and he really wants to stand on a balcony in front of a crowd, but at least he's saying what he really thinks, and he's not toeing the party line.

Change the story, save the world.

Politics is story-telling.


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Wednesday, September 09, 2015

This is the other game I've been writing. Reynardo the Fox is a clever rogue, but not as clever as he thinks. He’s got himself sucked into a Rebellion against a mad, wicked Emperor, and he’s got fateful choices to make. Rescue his best friend, the master spy Lapino, wield a gem dedicated to a dead god, or resurrect a legendary siege weapon? He’s still in love with Emperor’s daughter, the sorceress Zenobia. He’s got a million ways to screw this up. And, just maybe, he can figure out how to be a real hero and save the world...

Yep, this is sort of a tongue-in-cheek mashup of the old Renard the Fox characters with a Lovecraftian universe, with fun, Bastion-style narration tracking your choices and their consequences along a branching tree of mostly bad decisions...

More news to come!


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Monday, September 07, 2015

(Click the pic to buy the book)

In between the two games I'm writing (We Happy Few and Stories: The Path of Destinies), I've been perusing The Game Narrative Toolbox. It's written by a quartet of extremely experienced game writers from the world of triple-A, one of whom is my buddy Ann LeMay.

There are all sorts of hidden rules in game writing. For example, one of the challenges in writing We Happy Few for me, as a recovering screenwriter, has been our studio head Guillaume's insistence that the player's goal line up with the player character's goal. A character's goal in a story can be anything: to save the world, to lose his virginity before senior year in high school starts, to show up his father, to make the best cheese in the world, to win a dog show.

In a movie, all I have to do is convince you to care about the protagonist, and you'll automatically root for (or against) him or her achieving that goal. Few of the audience for Best in Show were dog fanciers.

In games, G's philosophy is, the player does not automatically have the same goal. Most game developers have heard of the four Bartle types. Players play to kill, to socialize, to explore and to achieve. Most of the console and PC games you've heard of try to hit three or four of these motivations to play. Witcher 3, for example, which I just finished, is about killing monsters, about exploring a world, and about achieving certain goals. I'm willing to bet that the developers considered making a multiplayer mode, too.

So, back to cheese. While Achievers might dig a game where you make the best cheese, what about Killers? What about Explorers?

So we need to make the player's goals line up. In a shoot'em-up, that happens more or less automatically. You play Splinter Cell because you want to kill dudes. The hero is a dude who kills bad dudes, and the story is about how there are all these bad dudes he has to kill.  But what about cheese?

Say the next step in my cheesemaking challenge is to get a special kind of rennet (a cheese ingredient). The player probably does not have strong emotions around rennet.

But I can show the player a beautiful, high-security building he's going to have to sneak into in order to get it. I can warn him that his chief competitor, Aloysius B. Abernathy, is plotting to buy up all the special rennet. And I have cleverly been building lore about a secret society called Blessed Are the Cheesemakers that hopes to control the world through cheese. I can hint to the player that he will discover a Big Secret about Blessed Are the Cheesemakers inside that high security building.

Now the player has all sorts of game-y reasons to get that rennet. They are not the reasons that the player character has. He'd really rather buy his rennet on Amazon (just as you can, you know, buy the book on Amazon by clicking on the picture of the book). But I've made the player and player character goals line up.

It's particularly important because there is a significant subset of gamers that just don't care that much about story, just as there are moviegoers who are just there for the pod races. They want enough story to tell them why they're supposed to kill the Thing in the Sewers, but just enough. The reason the player character has for doing it is not at the center of the experience; it's an excuse.

It's been on my mind a lot, because I've been working on how to line up the player's goals in We Happy Few with the goals of [character name redacted] as he [redacted][redacted] the [redacted].

Well, triple-A games have more of these hidden rules than indie games do. First of all, in triple-A, the writer is one of a dozen people involved in narrative design, on a team of 600 people, to pick numbers out of a hat. That's a very different writing environment from mine, where I'm the guy writing the story and the lore and the dialog and even directing the voice actors. So communication is much more involved. There are way more memos and meetings.

THE GAME NARRATIVE TOOLBOX (remember? that's what this blog post is about) is all about these hidden rules. It is full of the things that you would not automatically know about AAA game writing, or game writing in general, just by consulting your common sense. How do you make an epic plot into a relatable plot? What are the elements of good quest-giving dialog? When can you give exposition and when should you never give exposition? What's the difference between the lore you can impart to a raid party of players who regularly play together, and the lore you can impart to an ad-hoc party?

Cleverly, since this book is pitched at beginning-to-intermediate writers, the book has lots of exercises you can do for practice, and to build your portfolio. I'll be consulting it too. Indie means you don't necessarily do things the way the big studios do them; sometimes because you're trying to do something interesting, more often because you can't afford, say, motion capture, or 20,000 barks. But you're wise to know how they do them, and depart from their ways only when you have a specific reason to do it.

Good book, Ann! Hi, Toiya!


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Saturday, August 08, 2015

It is a bitter joke among my screenwriter friends that the way you get a TV show is that you create a truly interesting character, in a fascinating environment, whose family has complicated, fraught dynamics... "and he solves crimes."

It is a cliché among high school drama classes that Hamlet is about a man cursed with indecision. What is up with that guy? If Othello had been in his shoes, he'd have killed off Claudius in Act One, scene 2. (To be fair, if Hamlet had been in Othello's shoes, he'd have laid a trap for Iago.)

A playwright and perfessor named David Ball has written a really brilliant book on how to read plays called Backwards & Forwards. He makes the interesting point that to understand a play you have to read it, yep, backwards and forwards. Going forwards, anything can happen. Hamlet could find out his mother's married his uncle after his father died mysterious, and bugger off back to Wittenberg U. Hamlet could avoid the poisoned blade. Hamlet could turn out to have ingested small portions of the poison over years to render himself immune to it. But if you notice that (SPOILERS) at the end of the play he offs someone important (HAH NOT REALLY), you can work backwards step by step until you see the train of consequences that gets him there from the Ghost's first speech. Only then can you understand how the play is constructed.

And, in doing so, he makes a much more specific point. Hamlet is not at all indecisive -- once he knows that Claudius is guilty of murdering his father in Act Three.

How so?

Well, you see, in Elizabethan times, if you saw a ghost, you had no way of knowing if it was your father, as it appeared to be, or a vision sent by a witch or a devil. Sure, the ghost says that Claudius murdered him. But maybe he's lying!

So, for the first three acts, Hamlet is a detective. He adopts a pose of madness. He organizes a play for Claudius to watch about a nobleman who snatches a crown by murdering his brother -- and then he closely observes Claudius's reaction to it. He gives a soliloquy about killing himself when he knows that Polonius is spying on him. (It is not, in fact, a soliloquy!)

He is not indecisive. He does not know the facts. He very decisively seeks to get them.

Shakespeare is a funny playwright for modern audiences and modern theatre companies. His language is some of the best poetry in English. His plays, however, are not "poetic" at all. They are not "art plays." Their subject matter is always something clear: power, love, money, love vs. money, love vs. power, power vs. power. They have fast-moving plots, with twists and turns.

And the damn things are well nigh bulletproof. If you put on a Shakespeare play as is, you have one difficult task: get the actors to understand what the hell it is they're trying to say, and then say it like that is the way they talk. If you can do that, the play will work. It will work in period costumes, it will work in modern dress, it will work with the city guards wearing Victorian bobby helmets, it will work when all the characters are women and Mercutio is mortally wounded with a butter knife.

If you can figure out what people are saying, it is not at all hard to figure out what is going on. (E.g. "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York..." = war is over, we Yorkists won, times are good, I hate my life.) Someone will quickly tell you, often three times. Richard III starts his play by telling you that he is a bad, bad man. Romeo & Juliet tells you it's a play about lovers who are, from the first, fucked.

On the other hand, if the actors don't know what they're saying, or think they're presenting poetry instead of people trying to get what they want by talking to other people, then it becomes a morass of poetic syllables. Good poetic syllables, very good, very excellent good, and yet they are but so so, because but no one wants to sit through five acts of that.

Shakespeare is also a funny playwright because his characters are so much more immediate and straightforward than most fictional characters in the intervening Victorian period, that we forget that he is a man from a different time. When he puts witches in his play, he means witches. They're not a metaphor, they're not (just) a plot device, they're actual witches. Everyone knows witches are real! Likewise his father's ghost is not a plot device, it is a real conundrum (true ghost? devilish vision?) that must be solved before Hamlet can righteously assassinate his uncle, the King.

(Hamlet's audiences were also extremely wary of the notion of killing kings, as we are not.)

Backwards and Forwards is a very short book, under a hundred pages, practically a pamphlet, so you have absolutely no excuse not to read it, whether you are a screenwriter or game designer, because it gets to the essence of what storytelling is. Go on. You won't be sorry.

(And here's my old post about why I believe Ophelia is pregnant.)


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Monday, August 03, 2015

If you happen to be writing that movie or game set in Medieval Europe, you will probably be glad to know that someone has compiled a list of every Medieval name in European texts from 600 to 1600.

Aaron Abba Abbatissa Abbo Abel Abone Abundance Accorsa Aceline Acfrid Achard Achere Acherea Achilles Acledulf Aclehard Aclehilde Aclemand Aclemund Aclinde Aclulf Actwin Ada Adalald Adalbald Adalbod Adaldag Adaleus Adalgarde Adalgaria Adalgaud Adalger Adalgilde Adalgis Adalgisa Adalgod Adalgrim Adalgude Adalgunde Adalhar Adalhilde Adalinde Adalmund Adalrad Adalrada Adalram Adalsinde Adaltrude Adam Adberg Adela Adeline Adelo Ademar Adiel Admirable Admiranda Adolf Adrehar Adrehilde

You're welcome...


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Friday, June 26, 2015

It seems that Uncle Jack is tweeting today.


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Friday, June 19, 2015

[Travelogue with some small-l liberal politics, so if you're just here for games and screenplays, this is maybe not the post for you.]
The Angle, Gettysburg National Memorial

So we went here yesterday.

About 150 years ago, a fellow named Bobby Lee thought it would be a good idea to send 12,500 of his bravest troops against the Union soldiers and artillerists behind this stone wall. It was a position that General Longstreet, who was responsible for the assault, felt could not be taken by any 12,500 men. ("Not with ten thousand men could you do this.")

The boys had to march from that line of trees back in the distance about a kilometer away to reach the Union boys behind the stone wall right in front of you. A few of them made it to the wall, and even across the wall, and then they broke, and they had to stagger back to the line of trees. Not quite half of them did make it to the trees. Pickett’s Charge has been called the high water mark of the Confederacy. In some ways, it was the beginning of the end of the Civil War.

The place has an amazing power when you are there. You cannot spill that much blood without leaving it in the ground. It is one of the few places I have been that really felt sacred. But then it has been hallowed by the dead, who fought "...that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the Earth."

Well, that was the North, anyway.

Gettysburg is a strange place, a Northern town populated by Southern tourists come to look at a field full of might-have-beens. Pickett's Charge was the doomed, impossible charge of July 3, 1863. Little Round Top was the all but impossible series of charges of July 2. At Little Round Top, a man told his two kids, who were carrying plastic swords and wearing little gray Rebel hats, that "If only we'd have taken this hill, the world would be a better place, and there wouldn't be so many liberals."

I don't think I could have had a fruitful discussion with him about, say, exactly when he figured the Confederate States would have freed its slaves and given them the vote. After all, the Civil War was about his rights. 

It's not hard to feel that Pickett's Charge and Little Round Top are (they are, for they have become eternal) a kind of microcosm of a certain culture of the South. They are all about glory and guts, in defiance of the distance, and the incline of the hill, and the range and number and accuracy of the Union guns, and the number of rounds of ammunition they were carrying. (Little Round Top also failed because of the guts and glory of the 20th Maine, but that's another story, and a great one.)

I never felt quite at home in Gettysburg, or on the road down from Gettysburg. I couldn't quite tell why, until we got to DC, and walked around, and I realized that for a day I had been walking entirely among white people, and I am not used to that. I was only hearing English, and I have lived my entire life in multi-lingual cities. In DC it was Friday night, and all the young people working for the Obama Administration were out partying on various government lawns, where various bands were playing rhythm and blues here and there. We were back among our people.

Meanwhile there is this shooting in Charleston, SC. Various folks have noted that the state flies the Confederate Battle Flag on the capitol lawn, claiming it is about "heritage" and not, of course, about keeping its black people down. Never mind that South Carolina's heritage is precisely about keeping its black people down, and South Carolina started the Civil War precisely in order to be able to keep its black people slaves. And the flag, after being used as a flag of secession, was used in the '30's as a flag of terrorism, and in the '60's as a flag of segregation (it was put on the state capitol in 1962). Various people on the left have managed to connect the dots -- flag of white terrorism, terrorist who shouted "you're raping our women and have to be stopped" as he assassinated a black state senator -- while most of the Republican candidates have pretended it's just some crazy person attacking "religion." Yep, this is all about the war on Christmas.

[[UPDATE: Looks like the Governor and Republican-controlled state legislature of South Carolina got it after all, and the flag will go in a museum where it belongs.]]

We construct our lives out of stories. We live for stories. We live in stories of our own making. It is fascinating, strange and powerful to me to meander down into this particularly historic bit of the country to see, on the one hand, a place that is frozen in four days in July, 1863, and on the other hand, the kids working in the administration of our half-Black half-White President. Some stories work. Some stories cause harm. Some stories mend lives. A story is a powerful thing, for good or evil.


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Tuesday, June 09, 2015

On our Kickstarter we've been getting a lot of questions about the sort of narrative we'll have -- the sort of narrative we can have in a procedurally generated world. We Happy Few is a roguelike, which means that each time you die -- and you will, a lot, at least till you get the hang of it -- we will generate an entirely new world for you. The Train Station will be over here instead of over there, the Fountain will be over there instead of over here; and there may be entirely different microscenarios in some of the houses.

Well, we are going to have a lot of traditional narrative in the game; we're just not putting it in the pre-alpha build that we're showing to people. We'll also have a lot of environmental narrative.

Traditional Narrative

I have already written complete stories and dialog scenes for at least three playable characters.

What a traditional narrative in a procedural world means for us is: there are scenes out there for you to discover. But you have to go out and discover them.

For example, let's take the guy in the middle. His opening scene is going to give you a hint that you might want to find a guy who's living in the Train Station, out in the Garden District. (That's what the Wellies call the bombed-out areas of town. So jolly, our Wellies. Nothing gets them down.)

But where is the Train Station? You'll have to find it, won't you? Fortunately it is quite tall (and rather beautiful):

You can spot it from afar. Also, if you are as clever as I think you are, it occurs to you that Train Stations are often attached to train tracks.

When you get to the Train Station, a scene awaits you. You'll meet a character, and learn about their past together with you, and the world's past. And maybe they will offer to meet you at another location. If you'd like the story to continue, off you go to find that location. This one will be a little less easy to find, but still not that hard — except that simply surviving in our game is hard.

And so on through a few more scenes that tell you a complete story. You can also, at any point, abandon the story and simply craft the things you need to get out. That will be harder, but you never have to complete the story to complete a playthrough.

Once you unlock another character, you can play as him or her. He or she will have their own story, and different strengths and weaknesses.

So our stories are your basic linear stories. The "procedural" difference is you have to go out and find them, without a search radius painted in yellow on the minimap, or footprints illuminated in red because you used your Witcher Senses. And any given scene will be in a different place each time you play.

Also, of course, our dialog is more nuanced. People in our game never say exactly what they're thinking, or what they mean. They don't even necessarily say what they want. We have messed-up people in our game, whose flaws get in their own way.

Environmental Narrative

But, as I said, we're saving all those yummy cut scenes for later. (And they are yummy. I've already recorded and edited scenes with Alex Wyndham (Rome), Charlotte Hope (Game of Thrones) and Allan Cooke, and they are some of the best actors I've ever had the pleasure to direct. I've also cast some amazing other actors we haven't announced yet.)

But in the mean time, there is quite a lot of environmental narrative.

There are Uncle Jack's broadcasts. You can't miss them. They're everywhere, except in the Garden District. We've recorded about two hours of Julian Casey's brilliant Uncle Jack, including some bedtime stories you will probably not want to tell your kids.

There are the "signs" you will see throughout. Graffiti in the Garden District. Propaganda posters from different epochs in the recent past. Useful items you can find or steal here and there that also tell you about the world and how it got that way.

There will be micro-stories, or scenarios, to discover in buildings throughout the various biomes we are creating. Some micro-stories will tell you about the overall history of Wellington Wells. Most will tell you about how the people who live in that house in the Village are dealing with life, or how life went wrong for the people that used to live in that house in the Garden District.

And, if all goes well with our Kickstarter, passive dialog. Lots and lots of passive encounters. We hope to get the Wellies talking among themselves. No promises, but I have written pages of conversations, including one which might be inspired by the Monty Python "Cheese Shop" sketch.

So we are planning a rich narrative, set in a procedurally generated world.

See? Easy peasy lemon squeezy. 


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Monday, June 08, 2015

A lawyer contacted me to help him promote his services. He helps writers register their works with the US Copyright Office.

Huh. I wasn't aware screenwriters need help registering their screenplays with the copyright office, I sez. Isn't it just a Form PA? And the instructions are on the form!

Well, replies Mr. Lawyer Man, sometimes it is a form TX, and sometimes it is a "work for hire."

If it's a work for hire, sez I, then why is the writer handling the copyright registration, being as the person commissioning the work for hire owns the copyright?

Didn't hear back.

Folks, so far as I know, all you need to register your screenplay with the US Copyright Office is a Form PA. The form is super simple.

[[UPDATE:  In fact, as faithful reader Eltan Loewenstein informs me, it's now online and only costs $40.]]
For what you need to know about copyright, you can check out pages 229 and following in Crafty Screenwriting. The prices have gone up a lot. The logic has not.

I don't see why you need a lawyer. Just register your script.

Frankly, I haven't registered a script in a long time. If someone were to steal my script, I'd call in my agent, and the 30 other people who read my script, to give evidence that it's my script. But if you're nervous, you can file your form PA.

You can also register your script online with the WGA. That costs $20, and lasts for 5 years. In five years, your script will probably have aged out, or you won't like it any more. However, registering a script with the WGA has important legal differences (outlined in my book) from registering it with the Copyright Offices. The Copyright Office is much better from a legal point of view.


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Sunday, June 07, 2015

I've been playing a bit of Witcher 3 (I'm up to level 15 I think). Beautiful open world. Fun combat. I love discovering new potions although I pretty much never use more than three of them.

The writing is really good and funny, on a moment to moment level. There is quite a bit of wit to some of the stories. There is the the dungeon of the guy who's been making magic using smelly cheese. There is the notice from a guy complaining that his donkey started to death between two troughs of food. There is the interview with the girl who complains that she never got to see Dandelion's etchings, though he always promised to show them to her. There is the battle that ends with "can we never talk about this again?"

And there is the lovely story of the Bloody Baron, who's a really terrible person and yet very human at the same time. He's well-written, and you keep having to remind yourself how awful he is.

My problem gets back to the ancient divide between story and gameplay. When I'm playing a game, I want to make choices. So when stories get too long without a choice, I get frustrated.

The Witcher 3 stories generally boil down to: talk to someone to get a quest; go to the area the questgiver suggested; use Witcher senses to find the clues (marked in red). Then Gerald will tell you what the clues meant, but it doesn't even matter, because your next search area is pinpointed on the map. Go there, search in the yellow circle, find the red things, click on them, have Gerald tell you what they mean.

In other words: the stories are completely irrelevant to the gameplay.

Now, at one level, story is bound to be irrelevant to gameplay mechanics. Story is where I tell you who your character is, what he or she wants, why it's important he or she gets it, what he stands to lose and what he stands to gain. In general, the more I control that, the better a story I can tell you.

But I'd like it better if Witcher involved me a little more in the story.

I'd like it if I had to do at least a little figuring out what the clues meant, or where they pointed. Even if the game is meant for players who just wanna kill a few dudes and not strain their brains, at least make me choose between three possibilities, two of which are actually wrong, but easy enough to rule out if I'm paying attention.

I'd like it if it were at least possible to fail the conversations with witnesses -- if there were dialog options that don't lead to me finding out what it is I'm going to find in the dungeon. So if I fail the dialog, I'm going in blind. I can still fight my way out, but I'm going to feel stupid if I applied wraith oil and I'm fighting trolls.

If I could fail the dialog encounters, then I'd have to play closer attention to what people were saying. I'd be more immersed in Geralt's story. But more importantly, I wouldn't be bored and frustrated that the dialog was taking so long. The cutscenes seem quite long. I don't want to click through them, because they're supposed to be my reward for all that fighting. But boy, they do go on.

I hope our cut scenes in We Happy Few aren't too long. On our budget, we can give the players really brilliantly voice-acted cut-scenes. We can't afford a lot of dialog options. On the other hand, building a roguelike with permadeath, we aren't afraid of giving you options that, should you take them, you will not be able to get a happy ending for that particular story. And you'll have to listen to what people are saying to be sure you're not about to screw things up. And to get the next bit of story, you'll have to find it by its description -- no map markers or illuminated clues.

Man, what we could do even a slightly bigger budget!


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Saturday, June 06, 2015

The latest issue of The New Yorker has an article on ISIS and its poetry. It seems the ISIS members, when they're not blowing themselves up, or brutalizing people, spend a fair amount of time reading, reciting and writing very old forms of Islamic poetry.
The views expressed in jihadi poetry are, of course, more bloodthirsty than anything on “Sha‘ir al-Milyoon”: Shiites, Jews, Western powers, and rival factions are relentlessly vilified and threatened with destruction. Yet it is recognizably a subset of this popular art form. It is sentimental—even, at times, a little kitsch—and it is communal rather than solitary. Videos of groups of jihadis reciting poems or tossing back and forth the refrain of a song are as easy to find as videos of them blowing up enemy tanks. Poetry is understood as a social art rather than as a specialized profession, and practitioners take pleasure in showing off their technique.

They seem to like to think of themselves as medieval knights fighting the infidels:

Wake us to the song of swords,
and when the cavalcade sets off, say farewell.
The horses’ neighing fills the desert,
arousing our souls and spurring them onward.
The knights’ pride stirs at the sound,
while humiliation lashes our foes.
My immediate reaction was: good Lord, these guys playing in some twisted kind of LARP.

But, then, we all are. We think of movies and games and TV shows as entertainment. But the stories they hammer into us shape how we see the world. It matters that American movies are so often about the natural hero who trusts his gut over the smartypants scientists and corporate suits, who is brave without necessarily being smart or educated. It matters that Chinese movies so often show their heroes dying at the end.

The stories we tell ourselves are about what's important. They're not the only thing that shapes our behavior. The market shapes what we can making a living doing, or there would be no corporate suits after all. But stories are not just entertainment. Culture is not just a luxury good. It is the glue that keeps everything sticking together.
The culture of jihad is a culture of romance. It promises adventure and asserts that the codes of medieval heroism and chivalry are still relevant. Having renounced their nationalities, the militants must invent an identity of their own. They are eager to convince themselves that this identity is not really new but extremely old. The knights of jihad style themselves as the only true Muslims, and, while they may be tilting at windmills, the romance seems to be working. ISIS recruits do not imagine they are emigrating to a dusty borderland between two disintegrating states but to a caliphate with more than a millennium of history.
That is not to say that, you know, there is a direct connection between kids playing Grand Theft Auto and stealing (or downloading) cars. But the society that ignores the value of its culture, or doesn't tend its cultural garden at all, is taking a risk. The idea that entertainment and culture are not important is, itself, a story that we tell ourselves. Possibly a dangerous one. I'll leave you with a quote from Neil Gaiman in The New Statesman:
You know, I was in China in 2007, and it was the first ever state-sponsored, Party-approved science-fiction convention. They brought in some people from the west and I was one of them, and I was talking to a number of the older science-fiction writers in China, who told me about how science fiction was not just looked down on, but seen as suspicious and counter-revolutionary, because you could write a story set in a giant ant colony in the future, when people were becoming ants, but nobody was quite sure: was this really a commentary on the state? As such, it was very, very dodgy.

I took aside one of the Party organizers, and said, “OK. Why are you now in 2007 endorsing a science-fiction convention?” And his reply was that the Party had been concerned that while China historically has been a culture of magical and radical invention, right now, they weren’t inventing things. They were making things incredibly well but they weren’t inventing. And they’d gone to America and interviewed the people at Google and Apple and Microsoft, and talked to the inventors, and discovered that in each case, when young, they’d read science fiction. That was why the Chinese had decided that they were going to officially now approve of science fiction and fantasy.


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Thursday, June 04, 2015

Here's what I've been pouring my heart and inherent weirdness into for the past year and a half or so...!

Oh, and at the moment, we are live streaming the game on Twitch and on Hitbox.


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Dateline: Monday, June 1.

We are gearing up to drop our Kickstarter for We Happy Few on June 4.

Getting ready for the Kickstarter is a little odd for me, because while we are talking a great deal about our gameplay, we are not revealing anything about our narrative. Well, almost nothing. I can show you three of our five playable characters, as painted by our amazing art director Whitney Clayton:

Each of them has their own story, which interweaves with the stories of some of the other characters. You start as the tall guy — I'm not even going to to tell you his name! — and if you play through his story you get to unlock two more.

As I think you can guess, they are not your usual videogame über heroes, not even the guy in combat boots. They are all reluctant heroes. None of them signed up for this. Each has his or her own secret, and that pushes them to do something urgent and difficult.

I can say that much, at least.

Also: you can play the whole game and ignore their stories. It is not necessary to play the story to complete the game. It might be a bit easier if you do, but if you don't like stories in your video games, well, you can take your coffee black.

Also: as planned, we will pass the Bechdel Test.

We have some fantastic voice actors. We had to go to England for some of them. Alas, when I say "go to England," do not imagine me staying at 11 Cadogan Gardens. I summon their voices from a studio in Montreal's Old Port, and they're in a studio in London.

Don't forget to take your Joy this morning!
However, the fabulous Julian Casey, our Uncle Jack, is a Montrealer, so I get to work with him in person. He's terrific. I've directed him on another, unannounced project.

But the Kickstarter is not about the narrative. We are talking about the world, and the gameplay, and the procedural generation of the world map, and most of all we are talking about our social blending game mechanic. But we are going to hold back the narrative until it's all done. The idea is that we will refine the gameplay over the course of development, in full view of our public ("open development"), and then pull the drapery off the narrative when we officially release the game.

"Social blending?" you ask? Why yes. In We Happy Few, we're trying to create a city that has its own odd rules. The main one is: act happy all the time. Take your Joy pills, and everything will be right as rain. Doing things you'd do in Witcher 3 upsets people. Running or crouching makes people suspicious. Brandishing a weapon alarms people. Breaking into houses to steal food is a sure sign that you are a Downer (off your meds). The Wellies will cheerfully beat you senseless and make you take your Joy, and then game over. (We Happy Few is a roguelike with permadeath, so you have to go back to Day 1, with an entirely new map.)

However, if you don't break into houses to steal food, you will starve to death. Heh.

So you have to figure out how to "pass" as one of the decent, happy, drug-bemused citizens of Wellington Wells, while rarely actually taking your happy pills. (You can take your happy pills — the Wellies love you when you're high! — but if you keep it up you'll overdose.) We haven't finished designing the whole social engineering dynamic yet. So far we've focused on building passive social blending. But active social engineering could go from simply saying "Lovely day for it" to people on the street, to wearing the right clothes for certain areas, to something like framing someone for murder.

It won't involve a great deal of contingent dialog; on an indie budget, that way lies madness. We're going to have to be terribly clever and inventive so people feel they're actively shaping the responses of the people around them, without being able to chat them up. One reason we're going for a Kickstarter is so we can spend the time and resources to deliver the goods on the concept.

If you want to know more about the game, here's our Kickstarter page. Come and join the fun!


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A reader hired me to take a look at his query letter, which is something I do. A couple of paragraphs of the letter was about the story. The rest was listing screenplay competitions his script has been a finalist in, or a semi-finalist, or a quarter-finalist; and then listing positive comments that "coverage agencies" have given.

It's been a long time since I've been without representation, so maybe I am off base here. If you are a development executive, and you think coverage agencies and screenplay competitions are the cat's pajamas, please let me know. 'Cause I don't think they are.

Coverage agencies may provide a useful critique for writers just starting out. They can point out obvious flaws. But they are not professional readers in the industry sense. An industry reader gets paid by someone who wants to know which scripts he or she should buy. The reader provides a commercial judgement: this is or isn't something that I see our company developing.

Who is doing this coverage? This is a problem common to both industry readers and coverage agency readers. By the time anyone knows anything about critiquing scripts, they're not a script reader any more. At least, not a $50 one. Even my young friend Tommy Gushue charges a multiple of that for his excellent notes. You might get someone just out of film school. You might get someone who's in a film program at university.

Moreover, a coverage agency is hired by the writer. So they are going to tend to be really polite about the scripts they're hired to read. So I would never include a coverage agency's feedback in your query letter.

Meanwhile, a whole raft of screenwriting competitions have sprung up like mushrooms after a rain. As I've been saying in this blog since its inception, there is only one screenplay competition that really counts. It's called "getting your movie made." Entry fees are free. You just send queries to agents and producers, and if they like your ideas, they read your script, and if they like your script, they give you money.

There is, yes, the famous Blacklist, which is a poll of development executives on what they think is this year's best unproduced script. But that is not a competition you can enter. You have to already have an agent getting the right development execs reading your script. (There is also a website called The Blacklist, which has to do with scripts, but it is not the same thing at all, though I think it's the same people.)

All it takes to set up a screenwriting contest is a website. You make up a name, market a bit, and watch the money roll in. If you can get 1000 people to send in their scripts and pay a $50 entry fee, well, you have $50,000. I could probably winnow 1000 scripts down to 100 in a week. Hint: I'm skimming the first three pages. Takes about a minute or two, so I could, say, 25 in an hour with coffee breaks. If they don't sing, the script goes in the recycle bin.

The surviving 100 scripts might take another week to go through, because I've already trashed the really obviously bad ones. Maybe I read two or three an hour. Oh, who am I kidding. I read the first ten pages. Takes about six minutes. So I  can read ten an hour. Ten hours, all in.

Now I've got ten scripts to read. Takes maybe a week to read them carefully and think about them. (It's really the thinking about them that takes the time. I read a script in 30-40 minutes.)

Hey, now I've made $50,000! Oh, sure, I could hire a "jury" and pay them something, and get them to do the winnowing for me. And marketing costs time if nothing else.

Oh, I probably have a $5,000 prize, and some runner up prizes, so I've really only made about $40,000, but still, not bad for a couple weeks' work. Too bad I can only have a competition two or three times a year, four at most, before I lost all credibility.

In case you're wondering: the reason I've never done this, in spite of having a couple of successful screenwriting books and a blog, is because I'd hate myself.

The point I'm trying to make is: what makes a screenplay competition legit? The people at the Blue Cat Screenplay Competition or Reel Writers or whatever may be very nice people, and they may have a passion for good screenwriting. But what qualifies them? What keeps absolutely anyone from setting up a screenplay competition?

There are legit screenplay competitions. They are associated with legit organizations. The Nicholls is the big one. It is run by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. The Writers Guild of Canada has the Jim Burt Prize for the best un-optioned script. But legit competitions are few and far between. Maybe the Austin Heart of Film Festival?

And here's the big problem:  I think most of these evaluate scripts in terms of the reader experience. Is it a good read, the way a novel is a good read? Is it a movie they enjoy imagining?

As opposed to an agent reading your script, whose sole question is: can I sell this? And a producer, who is thinking can I get this made?

So a successful competition screenplay may be a movie that, in the abstract, might be interesting. It would get you an A+ in your film writing class. But it is not necessarily the kind of screenplay that is going to get optioned, set up, packaged and made.

Successful competition screenplays, I suspect, tend to be well written. Successful spec scripts have a great hook. Great execution is a plus, but it is not a requirement. Snakes on a Plane was not a spectacularly well written script, or even a good movie, but it got made. So Snakes on a Plane was a great spec. I doubt it would have won any screenplay competitions.

So, yeah: if you want to pay for critiques to make your script better, by all means, do it, especially if you don't know any good readers. (There are very few good readers.) Hire Tommy Gushue, or Victoria Lucas, or even me if money is no object. I would not recommend spending money to get positive coverage from a coverage agency; I don't think it will help. Do not spend money so you can say that your script is a "quarter-finalist" in the Bridges of Madison County Screenplay Competition and a "semi-finalist" at the Overlook Hotel Screenplay Convention. I don't think the industry puts too much stock in those things.

Get your writing to agents and producers. And go and write. Once you're good, you'll option something, and then sell something, and then something will get made. That's the real prize. 


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Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Two people's, actually, both of them playable characters for We Happy Few.

If you're writing non-blockbuster movies, you learn to pay attention to how much a scene is going to cost to produce. A conversation between two people in a room is cheap. A conversation between two people outside, in the day, is also cheap. A three-hander is more expensive, a dinner party is a lot more expensive, because you're going to want to shoot coverage of everyone who's not talking, so your editor can cut to their reaction shots. A conversation at night is more expensive, because the lighting package costs more, and the director is going to insist on wetting down the street, because that just always looks cool.

In video games, you have entirely different production concerns. In We Happy Few, I'm recording voice actors and then editing the audio into scenes. Our art director painted characters, a character modeller built them, and the animators rigged them. Once the audio is ready, the animators can animate the scene.

In a 3D, third person cutscene, the camera is independent of the virtual actors. So you can animate the scene and then change where the camera is without re-animating it. However, We Happy Few is a first person game, so we have made the decision to present all the cut-scenes in first person, so you never see the character you're playing.

Cut scenes take a terribly long time to animate. However, they are not the only way to get across narrative.

At the other end, simplicity itself, are things like journal entries. If I give a character a journal that the player can consult, then adding journal entries is essentially a matter of my writing the journal entries and then the level designer slotting them in. No muss, no fuss, no bother.

However, players don't tend to like to read text in a game. So, for slightly more effort and more money, I can have the actor read the journal entry.

That gets into substantially more money. We're using professional British actors and recording them in London sound studios, while we sit in a Montreal sound studio and I direct them. However, it is nothing compared to a cut-scene. A journal entry does not typically demand the apparently-wild-but-actually-quite-precise swings of emotion that a dramatic scene has. So the actor can get it right in a take or two, just reading a block of text.

Then the player can trigger the audio, and then go around doing his thing (looting, fighting, exploring, whatever) while the audio plays.

I can also make collectibles. These might be an old toy a character treasures, or a photograph of his or her parents. These are not cheap because they have to be physically modeled in the game world. That can get into a lot of world. However, collectibles can be made at the last minute and dropped into the game. Animation requires a whole pipeline. One of the last things I did on Contrast was write up a whole slew of collectibles. We didn't have time to make them all, but some of the players paid very close attention to them, and pulled out the narrative goodness we tried to put into them.

One of the paradoxes of the progress we've made in game design is that, as stories are taken more seriously, and budgets go up, the limits to story telling also go up. To have a branching narrative in a text adventure is just a matter of the writer getting to work. Add a narrator reading it, and it's expensive. Have Elias Toufexis act it in a mo-cap suit, becoming a fully rendered Adam Jensen, and you can only afford one or two branches.

All this stuff takes money, and as usual, more money than we hoped to spend when we started concepting this thing back in January 2014. So we're doing a Kickstarter, starting tomorrow, to supplement our resources. Watch this blog for more musings about We Happy Few, tomorrow at noon!


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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Raph Koster has a really interesting post about his experience developing Star Wars Galaxies, and various solutions that were proposed for dealing with Jedi Knights:
This same issue had come up in the Expanded Universe books and stories. You basically have the problem that
  • people identify with Jedi
  • they’re rare
  • they’re incredibly powerful
This meant that creators laboring in the universe had a few choices:
  • invent new stuff as powerful or more powerful as Jedi (which was done more than a few times — General Grievous, the Witches of Dathomir, the World Razer, a living planet called Zonarma Sekot, The Ones — OK, it was done a zillion times, which just proves my point).
  • tell stories with no Jedi in them, as in the original Han Solo books by Brian Daley. (Fun books, btw: The Han Solo Adventures: Han Solo at Stars’ End / Han Solo’s Revenge / Han Solo and the Lost Legacy)
    Of course, the demands of games focused on Jedi also meant that the powers of Jedi kept having to go up, too! I mean, people actually complained when you didn’t start as a powerful Jedi in Jedi Knight II, and eventually, we got to the ludicrous heights of Starkiller in the Force Unleashed games: “sufficiently powerful enough to rip a million-ton Star Destroyer out of orbit and slap Darth Vader around like he owed him money.”
He goes on to explain various ideas that the developers had for designing the Jedi. They didn't want to make lots of weak Jedi; that would devalue the canon.

They had a crazy idea where you could develop Jedi powers, but the further you got along, the more trouble you would get from the Empire, until eventually Darth Vader is hunting you down.

And permadeath. Permadeath is, let us say, an acquired taste, and a marketing no-go in the mainstream game arena. (That must be why so many indies love it.)

 So they had another idea where you could develop Jedi skillz, but doing that would be about as hard as it really ought to be. You'd have to accomplish a secret (hidden to you) series of tasks to become a Jedi, and the tasks would fall into all four Bartle types: Explorer, Killer, Socializer and Achiever. So you'd have to, say, climb the highest mountain, and fight X number of duels, and have a conversation with so-and-so, etc.
The Four Bartle Types

Only exceptionally devoted players would achieve Jedi status, and they'd deserve it.

And then they ran out of time, which is Why We Can't Have Nice Things in video games.

One of the things we learn in indie development is to do One New Thing. And to make it so central to the game experience that you actually Git R Done, because otherwise you'll cut it when it gets hard. There was never any danger of our cutting the shadow physics out of Contrast; that was the whole game.

Of course we are always tempted to do more than one New Thing. The danger is that it gets cut when money runs out, the way contingent dialog gets cut unless the entire narrative system is based on it.

In We Happy Few, we are going to have flawed characters. The player characters are all Slightly Terrible People. Fortunately, while that's newish for video games, it's hardly new to me as a screenwriter. On the other hand, we are doing something rather, we hope, clever with the intertwining stories, that will only become apparent after you start playing your second character. (And I can't tell you what it is yet.)

Our big new gameplay mechanic isn't purely new, but it is new in context. In We Happy Few you are loose in a city full of drugged-out happy people who will only attack you if you break the rules. So Social Blending becomes a survival skill. I don't think we've seen social blending in a survival horror game, or in an urban roguelike.

The bad thing about indie development is you don't have enough resources. If you decide to recast a character and re-record a scene (which we did), then that will come out of the budget for something else. The good thing about indie development is that, what little money you do have, you get decide how to spend. So there are no Powers That Be that will take the game out of your hands, at least until you sell it to a publisher. The people who made the features are the people who decide what features to cut. So there is a greater likelihood is that they'll cut fat before they'll cut muscle or bone, and that the game will come out as a coherent (if skinny) whole.

Our Kickstarter is coming up -- June 4. I wonder how many people will share our vision?


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