Sunday, January 16, 2022
“If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. If you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.”
— Aaron Sorkin
A little while ago I wrote about how to give notes well. This here is about how to take notes well – that is, how to address criticisms without messing up your work. This is pitched to writers, but applicable to any creative notes.
Games, films and TV are all industries where are constantly giving and being given notes on how to revise the work – by bosses, by co-workers, if we’re smart by subordinates.
From time to time, you get notes you disagree with. There is always the option to simply blindly execute them, especially if they come from your boss. This post assumes that you want other options.
I’m not going to distinguish between notes you get from your boss and notes you get from other people with less power over you Your boss will give you good notes more often, hopefully, and you may have less of a choice about what to do with them. But the problems are the same no matter who you’re dealing with.
My goal here is to give you information I wish I’d given myself about twenty years ago. If some of this seems obvious, you’re smarter than I was. Am.
I will say that most of this seems obvious to me, too, when I am neither giving nor taking notes. Then it can fly out the window when I’m in the thick of it, only returning after some damage has been done.
Let’s stipulate two contradictory things:
- Giving and taking notes should be two coworkers trying to find a vision for the work that both of them can love. Neither of them should have their ego involved; the work is the important thing.
- No one comes to creativity without an ego.
Therefore, simply ignoring the other person’s feedback, even if they are wrong, is not best practices.
Here are some thoughts.
- All feedback is legitimate.
It’s important, but difficult, to remember that if someone says they don’t like something, then they don’t like it. You can’t tell them they should like it. That’s like telling someone they should have laughed at a joke.
- Never take feedback personally.
This is almost impossible to do. Someone is criticizing your baby! It will feel like an attack.
But when you take feedback personally, it’s hard to hear all the feedback. After the first bad thing, I start to think about why that bad thing isn’t so bad, and I have trouble absorbing the second bad thing.
It helps never to refer to the work as “my” thing. Call it “the” thing. Or “the current thing.” It’s not yours any more, it’s just a thing that’s out there, that might be good or bad.
That will also make you seem less defensive if you’re talking about “the” work, and enables you to criticize it yourself, which is often helpful.
Note that the feedback may in real life be meant as a personal attack. Creative businesses are political. You are not making it up, sometimes people do have it in for you. It’s still better not to take things personally. That way, it’s your attacker who will look unprofessional, not you.
- What they think is wrong may not be the problem.
Okay, so all feedback is legitimate. It doesn’t mean that your note-giver is right about what the problem is. The problem may lie elsewhere, and they are picking at a symptom, not the cause.
In narrative, often someone will say a scene is too long, for example, when what is really the problem is that we do not care about the characters in it and their problems. Shortening the scene will not make the scene work better. It will just go by faster. The solution to the problem lies earlier where I was supposed to set up the characters.
This particularly often happens when your note-giver is not an expert in what you do. It also happens when your note-giver looked only at your work, not at the work underlying it, or the payoff to your work. Hopefully you gamed that all out when you did your work. They may not.
- Find the truth
Assume the person giving you a note is not an idiot.
This should be obvious, right?
But we’re all human. If there is a way to interpret a note so that it seems idiotic, most of us will jump there at least some of the time. I have done this lots of times. It is so, so satisfying to be able to dismiss a criticism because it is just plain dumb.
If the other person is saying something that sounds idiotic, consider that maybe you didn’t understand what’s in their head. Try to figure out what a non-idiotic version of what they’re proposing might be.
If it sounds like they are asking for a new character model, consider that they may be asking to put a hat on the old one. If it sounds like they are asking for a dozen NPCs, consider that they may only be asking for one NPC. If it sounds like they are asking for a bar scene where everyone’s talking, which will be a nightmare for voice recording, consider that maybe they mean the scene to take place in a back room where you can only hear incoherent hubbub.
Then ask if the non-idiotic version is what they’re asking for. Even if you’re wrong, it will help them explain what’s bothering them more clearly.
Note that the person giving you the note may, in fact, be an idiot. There are very few real idiots in games, films or TV. But some people inexorably fail up. But again, it’s going to be more useful to you to assume they are not.
- Dig for the truth
Unfortunately, I’m going to ask for something even harder to do than finding the truth.
Sometimes, people will find something in your work that is glaringly wrong. And (unlike in the previous section) it is indeed wrong.
But it is not the real problem. There is something bigger that’s bugging them, but they can’t put their criticism in words, so they don’t voice it. Maybe they hint at it, but then move on.
This is often a much bigger problem than the thing they picked on. And it will require much more work to fix. So the temptation for you is to ignore it.
Don’t ignore it. Interrogate them. Make sure you understand what the big, vague criticism they had was.
Why? They will come back with the same criticism in three months or in six months. And later, the players or audience will have the same problem. Don’t wait for someone to point out the problem in a Let’s Play. Dig for it.
You are a real writer when you seek out criticism. When someone tells you, “Nah, forget it, it’s fine,” and you say, “No, seriously, what didn’t you like?”
- What they want you to do about it may be wrong.
All feedback is legitimate, and most criticisms have some truth behind them.
Most solutions proposed to you will be bad. Especially solutions proposed by co-workers from other disciplines, who do not understand what sort of parameters you’re working under. Even solutions proposed by your brilliant boss may be bad, if you spent a week or a month thinking something through, and they glanced at it over lunch.
The worst case, and this is very common, is to get solutions without hearing what the actual problem was.
Naturally, it is very tempting to shoot down these solutions because they break things or don’t work.
But before you even talk about whether the solution is a good idea or not, it is good to try to find out what problem they are trying to solve.
If you understand what the problem that provoked the solution was, you can often come up with a much simpler, more surgical way of solving the problem. Then everyone can be happy. (Though I can’t guarantee they will. Some people need it to be their solution.)
Say they really are asking for a new character model, and you discover they just want the player to be clear that we’re looking at the character many years ago, and sure enough, you can just change their hat.
- “We’ll take a look at that.”
So you really worked at understanding the criticism, but you’re still convinced that the person giving you feedback is wrong. They’re honing in on something that’s not the real problem, they want something fixed that isn’t broken, they want a change that will break a lot of things that are working.
It can happen. What can you do?
You stall for time.
Say “We’ll take a look at that.”
The most important thing is not to object to the proposed changes in the same meeting you get them. This is difficult when you can game out the changes, and you can already see why they won’t work. In fact you may already have considered this solution, and rejected it for excellent reasons.
It is important not to reveal this, because most people can’t game out the changes. They won’t believe you’ve gamed it out, they’ll think you are just being precious.
It is important to actually, really, truly take a look at it. That gives you the time to consider that the person who gave you the note is not an idiot, to find the truth, to find the problem beneath the problem, etc., like I just suggested.
It gives you time to discover that what you thought was a bad note was a great note. It gives you time for your hackles to come down.
It also gives you the opportunity to say, “I tried it, and I couldn’t make it work.”
Because you did try it. Right?
- If all else fails
A rabbi was hauled in front of the king. “They say you’re brilliant, rabbi. If you’re so smart, teach my monkey here to talk. You have one year. Then I’ll have you executed.”
“One year?” said the rabbi. “It takes eight years to teach a monkey to talk.”
“Fine. Eight years. But then, if it doesn’t talk, I’ll have you executed.”
So the rabbi left cheerfully. One of his disciples said, “Are you mad? In eight years, the king is going to have you executed.”
“A lot can happen in eight years,” said the rabbi. “I could die. The king could die. The monkey could learn to talk.”
If it does not look like you have an option to come back with “I tried it, and it didn’t work,” there are still some strategies left. These are low odds, but maybe they will make you feel better.
Execute the note, and lie in for good reasons to rethink that section of the game or screenplay entirely
• Execute the note and lie in wait for good reasons to kill that asset/event/feature/level/scene entirely.
• Pray that it is a good note.
- Do NOT:
- Do NOT execute the note badly to show how dumb it was. That way lies dishonor and sorrow.
- Do NOT go over the head of the person who hired you. They will resent it forever.
- The Last Resort
I am saving for last the most difficult approach to taking feedback, which is to carefully explain why it is wrong, and hope you don’t offend the other person.
There are some people who are willing to trust your creative instincts and your craft. To these people you can explain the problem and try to work out a solution. These people are gold. Marry them if your company does not have a policy against it.
For everyone else, make sure it’s a hill worth dying on.
It is a good idea to propose another solution, so it doesn’t look like you’re just carping. It is also a good idea to get the other person to riff with you on your proposed solution. The more you can get someone to work on it with you, the more they may feel it is their solution.
Wednesday, December 22, 2021
Mel Brooks tells a joke:
Moishe and Mendel meet on the street. Mendel says, "I heard about the fire. It's terrible!"
Moishe says, "Shhhh! Thursday!"
This one is a "thinker." You have to figure out what he means by "Thursday."
I've noticed that in all Jewish humor, someone is being made a fool of, or refusing to be made a fool of. ("Taste. My. Soup.") In this case, the insurance company.
Why Thursday, though? "Tomorrow" is not funny, because it's not enough of a thinker. The joke hangs on the friction of the listener putting together what just happened.
"Friday" and "Monday" don't work, because they are special days of the week. They mean something, and that would be distracting.
But why not "Tuesday" or "Wednesday"? The joke would work, but wouldn't be as funny. "Thursday" is funny. Why?
Is it that the "Th" sound is funny? But it's not as funny as "k" or "f."
If I ever meet God, I'll be sure and ask Him.
Sunday, November 14, 2021
I have given notes well and I have given notes badly. I like to think the notes themselves are usually pretty good. But when I give notes the right way, people are happier with them, and when they're happier, they are also more likely to do something with them. When I give notes the wrong way, I've got in hot water, sometimes.
Here are a few observations I've made about when I give them well.
1. Clarify what you're giving notes on
It is not always clear what people want you to comment on. Do they want to hear about structural problems? Or are they pretty convinced their structure is good, and they really just want to see if any of the dialog sounds off? For that matter, are they really asking for notes, or are they really asking for praise? It's important to know why they want your notes.
When I give notes badly, I have sometimes given notes that are, in principle, really good. There might be a structural flaw in a script, for example, or a scene does not work because the characters don't really want anything from each other, and they're just talking for the sake of talking.
If a film script is a week from shooting, it is not helpful, usually, to point out structural flaws. There's nothing the writer can do with that information. If a game cinematic has been approved by a slew of brass, then the writer may not dare do a complete overhaul of the scene. Find out how far along whatever it is you're giving notes on. In principle, yes, if a piece is fundamentally broken, then the writer ought to fix it. But there may be production or political reasons why all the writer can do is put lipstick on it. Best to know that before you deliver your trenchant critique.
For that matter, you definitely want to know if they're looking for criticism at all, or just praise. An experienced writer with a professional attitude always wants honest criticism. Friends may not. Professionals who are not writers may not. They may be working in other disciplines; you may be working for them. They may even tell you, jokingly, that they want to hear the worst. The joke is the tip-off that they do not want to hear the worst.
In general, assume other people will take harsh notes as a personal attack, unless you know them well enough to know they for sure will not.
2. The sandwich
Just as it is easier to eat shit if it is surrounded by bread, it is easier to swallow criticisms if they are preceded and followed by praise. There are always a couple of things you can praise, even in the most broken bit of writing. If you are having trouble finding them, look harder. Hell, you're a writer. Make something up. It will not diminish the value of the notes that come in between the compliments.
3. Questions are less painful than statements
Which of the following are going to feel less like a slap in the face?
Is Jojo in love with Elena?
It's not clear if Jojo is in love with Elena or not.
We have nothing to root for in the third act.
What are we rooting for in the third act?
The opening drags.
Could the opening be shorter or snappier?
Each pair of sentences says the same thing. But the questions allow the writer to try to answer them. The writer in the first case can just say "Yes, Jojo is in love with Elena." But if they're at all alert they'll understand that they need to clear that up. But they got to defend their own work, even if only in their own head. So the criticism stings less.
Likewise, "could the opening be shorter or snappier?" allows the writer to answer, "yeah, sure" without having to feel bad about what they wrote. After all, anything can be shorter or snappier. But it still conveys the need for a shorter, snappier opening.
If the writer tries to answer "what are we rooting for?" and can't, then they will have to make the question their own. You won't be rubbing them the wrong way if it's their question, will you?
4. Positive statements are less painful than negative ones.
Anything can be phrased positively or negatively. Compare:
Glenda is too wordy.
Glenda needs to be more laconic.
The twist at the end of Act 2 is unconvincing.
The twist at the end of Act 2 could be more convincing.
The scene kind of drifts off at the end.
The scene needs to build tension until the end.
Again, there is not a lot of sky between the meaning of the negative and positive versions of the statements. They say the same things. But the negatives are static and absolute. They say, "your material sucks." That stings.
The positives are dynamic and relative. "Your material could be better." Well, of course it could be better. Anything can be better. So that doesn't hurt too much.
You would think that writers would see through the artifice of phrasing everything as a positive. But writers are human. No one likes to hear bad things about their babies. But they are usually willing to hear how their babies could be better.
5. Personal statements are less painful than general ones; feelings are less painful than facts
When you talk about your own reaction, you are on very solid ground. If you found something confusing, who can say you didn't? But if you say something is objectively confusing, where do you get off saying that? Are you God?
If you don't like a character, no one can argue that you should have liked them. But if you say a character is not likeable, well, the writer probably likes them, so you're wrong.
Truthfully, you can only speak to how things seem to you. Any general statement has an element of hubris.
This is not in the "voice" of the game.
This doesn't sound to me like it's in the "voice" of the game.
The scene has no dramatic "push and pull."
I am not feeling the dramatic "push and pull" of the scene.
Johnny isn't lovable.
I don't love Johnny.
Again, almost identical meanings, but the general statements hurt more than the personal ones. For silly, irrational, human reasons; but then, we are all silly, irrational humans, aren't we?
(Except for you, I mean. You're great.)
6. Solutions -- should you offer them?
If your critique is "this character needs to be more laconic," then it's obvious what the writer needs to do. If it's "I don't know who I'm rooting for here," then it may not be obvious, and you may want to offer a fix.
This is tricky. If you see a flaw in some writing, odds are you can think of a way to fix it. However, the moment you offer a solution, then the argument is no longer about whether your critique is right or not; it's about whether your solution is good. (There is always an argument when it comes to critiques, usually in the receiving writer's head.)
Ideally, don't offer a solution until you are sure that the writer has absorbed and accepted the critique. Then you can say, "I did have an idea how to resolve this," or, better, "I have a little idea how you can easily fix this surgically," and they can ask for it or not.
On the other hand there is a danger that if you don't offer a solution, it may feel like you are just trying to insult the work. At a minimum, it might be wise to make clear that you think the issue can be resolved. And one way or another, all issues can be resolved, if people are willing to make enough changes.
If you can offer multiple solutions, then it feels less like you are telling the writer what to do, and more like you're just throwing out ideas that they're free to pillage or not.
7. I thought I was dealing with professionals. Do professionals really need all this handling?
Not always. Once you've been working with someone long enough, you may find they just want you to cut to the chase. I've worked with writers who felt comfortable telling me, "Here's why I hate that," and I thought that was great.
But it's a good idea not to assume that's the protocol. It's a good idea to phrase critiques carefully, as questions, as personal observations, as positive statements. There is very little downside to doing it. You can communicate exactly the same ideas; they just go down smoother. And as Maya Angelou said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
8. Is it any different giving notes to fellow devs, to your staff, or to your boss?
Well, your staff is a whole lot less likely to fire you. But I think the above applies to any situation where you're asked to give notes. You can offend a boss; you can oppress your staff; you can rub fellow devs the wrong way. Anything you can do to make the notes go down smoother will be better for them, better for you, and better for the work you're criticizing.
Don't you think?
Thursday, June 10, 2021
Once upon a time there was a tv show called The L Word. It featured sexy lesbians sexing other sexy lesbians. So it had two guaranteed audiences: lesbians, and guys who like to watch lesbians. (Which audience is bigger is left as an exercise.)
This neatly freed up the writers of the show to write pretty much anything they thought was interesting, as long as there was some sexy sexing going on. And so they made the characters really keenly observed, flawed, slightly terrible people. Which made the show worth watching by anyone.
I feel like Marvel is getting to the same place. They've made, and they are constantly making, big boomy movies in which Avengers make things go boom.
But they are also making smaller stories, like Wandavision, which is an offbeat study in mourning and denial. At least until the Big Witch Fight at the end when things go boom.
These smaller stories get lifted in the updraft from all the capes flying around. I don't know how many people would watch an offbeat study in mourning and denial starring Elizabeth Olsen as a real suburban housewife. But the Scarlet Witch in mourning and denial, that has a built in audience. She's the gal who nearly put Thanos down! She's arguably the most powerful Avenger!
The point of all this is, you have your story, and then you have the goods you have to deliver. The goods you have to deliver can be tangential to the story. If you are writing a western, and you have some shootouts, and horseriding sunsets, and a barroom fight, you can write a portrait of a marriage gone sour.
This is why cop shows are all over tv: once you have a dead body and some investigating, you can get away with writing all sorts of character stuff.
This is why those Star Wars prequels were so successful: they delivered weird looking aliens, pod races, lightsaber fights, etc. They didn't have coherent stories, but people enjoyed the spectacle.
It is indeed better if the goods you have to deliver play an integral role in your story. It is always, in the abstract, better if all the pieces support each other. A great story lasts; spectacle fades quickly.
But that is not necessarily what makes your story popular.
Ask yourself what goods you have to deliver. Make sure they are goods that people want, and make sure you deliver them. Have fun with the rest.
Saturday, May 08, 2021
Showbiz writers have their own lore. For example, supposedly an actor told Steven Bochco, a legendary showrunner ("Hill Street Blues," "NYPD Blue," "LA Law"), that his character would never say a certain line. Bochco called the script supervisor over, had her pull out the script, and show him the page. "Sure he would. See? It's right there in the script."
A better story is told about Frank Capra, the 1930s comedy director (It Happened One Night, It's a Wonderful Life
). Capra hired a famous playwright to write a script. The playwright spent the first act showing in aching, keenly observed detail how a couple's marriage had deteriorated.
Capra met with the writer. "Here's what we're going to do. The husband and wife get in an elevator. He keeps his hat on. A pretty girl gets in the elevator. He takes his hat off."
Tales From the Loop is an anthology science fiction show out now on Amazon Prime. In an episode, someone goes missing because of science fiction shenanigans. Someone goes looking for her.
The episode is not about how she went missing, or where she went, or getting her back. It is about how good people can be bad parents. It is about loneliness.
The science fiction premise is just an excuse to tell a dramatic story about people. It is an extraordinarily efficient
way to tell a dramatic story about loneliness and bad parents. Because the person disappears because of science fiction, the story can pretty much elide the how and why. How? It's science fiction, okay?
So the story can focus not on how or why they went missing, but on how the people left behind feel about it, and what they do about how they feel.
(Science fiction, in a way, is not a genre. It is a location. You can have sf action-adventure, sf tragedy, sf drama, sf romance, sf horror, etc. SF horror is just horror set in sf-land.)
Great science fiction can give the story teller a shortcut: a way of setting up the story math in a heightened way that does not require sophisticated parsing to understand. It is a way of finessing part of the story setup so we can get to the juicy payoff.
Just like Frank Capra's elevator hat scene.
Sunday, March 07, 2021
I have some questions about the scene you're writing:
What does your protagonist want?
Why doesn't the other character want to give it to her?
What is she doing to get it that isn't asking for it outright?
What does the other character want?
Why doesn't your protagonist want to give it to him?
What is he doing to get it that isn't asking for it outright?
What does this scene reveal about your protagonist?
What does this scene reveal about the other character?
What emotion does the protagonist come into the scene with? How does she leave it?
What emotion does the other character come into the scene with? How does he leave it?
What is the turn in the scene -- the moment when something is decided, or revealed? When does something important change in the relationship between the two characters?
What happens in the scene that we did not expect to happen?
What is the moment where we see ourselves, or people we know, in the scene? When we think, oh, God, yes, I have been there? This moment may be comic or tragic; from a structural point of view they're more or less the same thing.
(My working definition of comedy is tragedy, but you ought to know better, and it's your fault.)
What propels us out of the scene? (Sometimes called the button, especially when it's comedy.)
If your scene answers all of these, or even most of these, it's a pretty great scene. If you're having trouble writing the scene, if it's mushy or it's boring you, if it seems overwrought yet unsatisfying, odds are that you are missing one of the above.
All writer's tools are for when things are broken. You don't need tools when the characters are having at it in your head and you're just writing down what they're saying to each other. All you need is to trim a bit. But when things are not working, it's often good to take the scene apart and make sure it has all the elements of story. These are, of course:
- A character we care about
- who has an opportunity, problem, or goal
- who faces obstacles, an antagonist, and/or their own personal flaw
- who has something to win (stakes)
- and something to lose (jeopardy)
You can break a scene just as you break the whole story. What are the notes you want to hit? Put each on an index card and see what order makes the most sense.
The more you write, the more you internalize these questions. I don't generally plot out a scene. But then, I have been writing scenes for decades. The same goes for an overall script. I outline with index cards, and David E. Kelley can get on the redeye and by the time the plane is landing he has a TV episode. But he's not ignoring these questions; he's just answering them in his head. Until you can answer them in your head, don't be too proud to write them down.
Saturday, March 06, 2021
Video games came out of the software industry, which is probably where we get our secretiveness. I'm not really sure why we need to keep secret what we're working on. No one in the movie or tv industries signs an NDA. If there is a specific secret, like what Darth Vader said to Luke on that platform, then people make an effort to restrict the number of people who actually know it. "Three can keep a secret if two of them are dead." But generally no.
Why? Because most people don't care about unfinished stuff. And most people don't want to read spoilers. TV critics might have early access to WandaVision, but no one wants to read an article explaining what's going on until after the episodes air, so people don't publist those articles.
Somewhere someone with access to a script might say something on a forum somewhere. It's not going to affect ratings.
The sole place I can see where it makes sense is if you're making a game about a politically hot topic. You might not want Twitter mobs seizing on early drafts, which might still have rough edges or not quite say what you meant to say; or claiming that your game is about something it's not when your game can't speak for itself.
But here's the thing. Actors are professionals. Why would we trust a 22 year old bro in QA, but not trust a veteran actor who's been the star of multiple AAA games? (Elias is the voice of Adam Jensen in the Deus Ex franchise, among others. He also played the irrepressible, utterly irresponsible Johnny Fenris in our game Contrast. He's terrific.)
I assume it's because some people think actors don't have a need to know. They're just emotion monkeys. You poke them in the right spots and they say the words with the right emotions.
Obviously, it is insulting to actors, and takes some of the fun out of it. I also think it prevents them from having the confidence to give a surprising read in a scene. Maybe the writer or director does not know everything about the character. Some actors are famous for saying "my character wouldn't do that." Often they are right. Often they have thought through the character they are going to inhabit better than the writer has.
The writer is prejudiced; we need the plot to go a certain way. Actors are in the moment. They feel their way from one emotion to another. If there's no human connection between moments, they will spot the chasm we writers have glossed over.
There's a story about Jane Fonda on the set of Klute. The director thought she should get upset. So he had the other actor yell at her. And as the character Brie, she went dead calm. What?
Well, explained Fonda, when someone is yelling at Brie, it's not nice but it's not stressful. She knows exactly where she stands. She's not waiting for the other shoe to drop.
The writer and director did not anticipate that. But it was humanly truthful. And more revelatory than her getting upset would have been. It's the way a character acts differently than your average person would act that defines a character.
I want our actors to know who they're playing so they can give me that kind of humanly truthful performance. So I tell them what the story is, and who they're playing, and what the world is like. Not every last detail. But enough to shape their character.
We've never had a leak to the press.
Actors will keep you honest, if you let them.
Why not tell them who they're playing?
Friday, March 05, 2021
Alex:So last question. How do you not overwork yourself?
Kelsey: You tell me. I will say, as much as I loved working on Outer Wilds, Möbius does not need a full time writer. I was only ever part time with them. Like you asked earlier, why my brother and I didn't end up as a designer writer team, and it's just he's employed by a studio that does not need a writer full time.
Outer Wilds started as a passion project. And it kept being a passion project. We were in development for so, so long. What was it like eight years? At the time when I started doing that, even just for fun, let alone professionally, I was still working a day job. It made my day jobs a lot more tolerable because I was getting to do something creative on the side.
Alex: The dreary mundane job you're referring to is The Onion?
Kelsey: It was the Cryogenics Society to begin with. And while it was really cool to get to talk about particle accelerators, at the end of the day, that was very much about the scientific information needed to be conveyed. Not having a creative, whimsical experience, you know, so to go home and work on a game was a lot of fun.
And then at The Onion, I was in editorial operations and there's a fairly strict divide. The writers are who are allowed to create content. I got to head up the Instagram team when it started. We were pulling old stories and repackaging that content. It was fun, but it was not super creatively fulfilling for me.
As an editor you are trying to make the piece better. Remaining in the author's original voice. You cannot insert your own voice. That's rule number one. Right. I've been writing creatively my whole life, just like short stories. And I think I wrote a novel in high school, but nothing published. So then the big shift for me coming into games full time was realizing that [even though games are creative, it is still] a bad idea to rely on that for your sole source of creative fulfillment. At one point working at Insomniac I was trying to put in just everything I had into this game. And I kept getting these chest pains and my partner eventually was like, you have to go check these out. I had to go to the hospital. It ended up just being stress. And there is nothing like the face an E.R. doctor will make at you when he's like, oh, you must have a stressful job? And you're like, I write games.
Oh, I thought this and that moment, honestly, has been one of the biggest for me. I'm not an E.R. doctor. Nobody's life depends on how good this dialog is or how can I revamp this quest to make more logical sense. It's fine. And it's also coming to accept that you are given a set amount of resources and a set amount of time, and it's a business. And your goal is to do the best you can. It is not take it home and obsess over it in all of your free time and try to push all of these new ideas.
Alex: You mentioned not making your job your only source of creative fulfillment. Do you write short stories on the side or... ?
Kelsey: Oh, yeah, I'm working on one now that I might actually -- I've never sent anything around for publishing, and now I'm finally getting around to considering it, now that writing for games is not my hobby anymore. I have time to do other things. Also, I do a ton of hands-on physical crafting. You can see my sewing machine in the background. I just taught myself how to knit in November. I knitted a bunch of hats, now I'm making mittens. That's fun. I do a ton of paper crafting. I stained the desk that I'm sitting at. I've been doing some woodworking. I cartoon, I doodle a lot. I kind of explode creatively sometimes. I'm trying to teach myself some things that will be useful for game dev as well. A little bit of very basic animation or some art assets. I'll never be doing that professionally. But it is a fun thing to be able to do. I'm working on a comic just for fun. I make a lot of things that other people are never going to see. I'm making myself a standup notebook. Bookbinding is really fun.
Alex: I've never had a hobby. I've been told by doctors to have a hobby and I've never, I mean, writing this book about game writing, that's the closest I have to a hobby.
Kelsey: That is kind of my shower time. A lot of people have those aha moments in the shower. My brain works in very particular ways. I have OCD and I tend to obsess over particular ideas and it's really missing the forest for the trees, getting closer and closer to a single tree, being like, tell me your secrets, which is insane. And I know I need to back out of the forest. I am getting closer to that one stupid tree. And if I'm not careful, I'm going to cut it down. So this is using my hands to make something that doesn't require a ton of thought. OK, I'm cutting the paper this size now. We're going to puncture this with the awl. Now we're going to thread it with blah, blah, blah. That's kind of the thing that gets my mind to disengage enough to actually have ideas. The short story that I'm working on right now is something that came up as a result of making this notebook and I had that kind of aha moment. And it's an idea that I've been kind of wrestling with for a long time that I wasn't sure how to commit to paper. And now I think I have kind of an in for it.
Alex: What would you say is the most valuable creative lesson you learned from anything that isn't a game or a TV show or some fictional linear narrative?
Kelsey: So that rules out books.
Alex: Yeah, because obviously you learn a lot about storytelling from books.
Kelsey: I shouldn't tell you how much of a giant nerd I am, but I will.
Alex: We're all nerds. We're in the game industry, for God's sake.
Kelsey: Oh, it's true. But every now and then, I have to dial the enthusiasm back because what it comes across as is intensity. I get really intense.
One of the most rewarding things is when you're working with a dev that does not think that they are really connected to storytelling and they don't see how their discipline would be related. And they're like, well, I don't really have story ideas. And you get to the point through encouragement and chatting and brainstorming and just being interested in their work and finding ways that narrative can support their work in fun and interesting and novel ways to then have them come up to you later and be like, hey, I was thinking about this gameplay mechanic and I think maybe it could tie into this narrative thing. Oh, my God, dude. The first time that happened to me, I heard angels. So that was, sorry, completely off topic. But a thing that happens that I just was overjoyed.
So the thing that -- Empathy, I think. Can I answer that long of a question with one word? I think that's just a life thing, but it is very easy, I think, to assume that you are being empathetic, but it's shockingly difficult to actually get to that point. And I think the more people care about your protagonist or your character, the more that they are allowed to care, the more that they are allowed that space [in which] to be kind of emotionally vulnerable -- really makes one of the greatest impacts on the success or ability of a story.
Alex: I think that's right, and I think that ties back in with why you don't want logic breaking moments. Because, yeah, you will get away with it, but you will also subtract from how much players care about your character. You are chipping away the players connection to the character and at a certain point they stop caring. Like, whatever, I don't trust you, you're just doing whatever you feel like, and I'm just along for the ride and I don't care anymore. So, yeah, I like to define game narrative is just "whatever answers the question, ‘why do I care?’"
Kelsey: Yeah, that's a great way to put it. That's the thing that I get. You know, make me go get your bread for you, sir, but make me care. You can't just tell the player, hey, you should care. And--
Alex: --that's not how that works.
Kelsey: I think we get distracted by what's cool and shiny and oh, look, at this jump, or, look at this item. We're oh, it'll be so cool to have the sequence with these enemies. And I'm like, yeah, but those enemies are all the villagers. Can we not -- should we be killing them?
Alex: There's a powerful sequence in the Witcher series, where Geralt, in the town of Blaviken, is set upon by half of the village. And he kills everybody. Totally righteously, they're trying to kill him. But for the rest of his life he is known as the Butcher of Blaviken. It doesn't make him evil, but it does add weight, credibility to the narrative. Games rarely acknowledge the death toll you leave in your wake. And maybe we would care more if they did, in some cases.
Kelsey: We have to do an amount of convincing people that this is in fact a story that is happening, because a lot of people do not, I think, view games as stories. And I one hundred percent do even from the lens of a player experience.
Kelsey: The thing I was looking for, the answer to your original question, is someone once gave me a piece of advice that was, An artist's number one job is fighting despair. I've talked a lot about joy in these situations--
Alex: So whose despair are we fighting? Our own, or other people's?
Kelsey: I think it was meant to be our own. But I don't know if my despair is necessarily productive to actively battle. So it. It is just the idea of it came at a time where I was really struggling on a particular project and I felt I just was not making any kind of forward progress, and this person told me, you are becoming a better game dev and writer every day, even if it doesn't feel like it. I think there's a lot to be said for that. I'm very impatient. I try really hard. I'm not blessed with patience.
I think acknowledging that you are making progress, even if you're not seeing a lot of it yet. That it does crystallize later. I've learned that some of my ideas just need a little more time in the oven. It's important to be able to to go, OK, I'm going to put this down now and come back to it.
Labels: making games, writing games
Tuesday, March 02, 2021
Alex: Let's talk about the ending of Outer Wilds. You could interpret the ending as being incredibly hopeful or depressing. Tell me about your thought process in having a tragic ending. I know that you are not fond of the ending of Ico. So there exist tragic endings that are just, you know, irritating. And then there are really dark and satisfying tragic endings.
Ico is a really pretty game. But I also had that sense of dread the entire game. I mean, I also can't play Ico because I feel too bad for the for the giants. I can't kill them.
Alex: And then also at the end of it, I felt, OK, you're spanking me for doing something you made me do for the past dozen hours?
Kelsey: God, you know, that is why I'm so I'm still so, so mad about the whole Last of Us 2.
Alex: So what are the rules about tragic endings? How do you make a tragic ending work? When do you want a tragic ending?
Kelsey: I think the ending of Outer Wilds is only tragic if you think the story is entirely about you.
Alex: Well, your entire civilization is going to be destroyed.
Kelsey: True. But it was going to be destroyed anyway.
Alex: OK, but you must have had a version where you were going to save everybody that you rejected at some point.
Kelsey: No, no, actually I love that I get to say this, but we never considered having it possible for the player to save the world. And we had to actively work on discouraging people from thinking that that's what they were out to do. Quite difficult when you're fighting against convention there.
Alex: In one of the interviews I thought I heard Alex [Beachum] say that that was the goal in the very first version. Because, right, if the world is ending in your game, then the player saves it.
Kelsey: Originally, this was game about lighthouses and keeping those lit. Like, in space. But I don't recall there ever being a version where we were like, oh yeah, and then you'll stop the supernova. You can't really fight nature in that way.
Alex: What did you feel you had to set up in order to earn satisfaction with an ending where the player's civilization is destroyed?
Kelsey: The player's journey in Outer Wilds closely parallels that of the Nomai. You've gone through and pieced together everything that happened in the past. And there is a point at which you've uncovered the story of what is happening in your solar system now. The ending of the game is the point at which all three of those storylines, player, Nomai and world, all converge upon a single point. And that is the point at which the player can take definitive action to impact all three of those stories in a significant way.
The travelers all have individual, I hesitate to call them story arcs just because almost all of them are impacted by time resetting, but you probably noticed that each traveler has a subject that they care about. For example, Rybeck is that very cowardly, nervous, anxious, comically large character who has fallen down a portion of the planet Brittle Hollow as it's collapsing and is down in the ruins of the Nomai, trying to work up the courage to actually explore them.
And the tragedy of that character, of course, is that they will they will never succeed. And you can go through the world and explore and learn more about the Nomai. And you can go and tell Rybeck about it. They won't remember it from loop to loop. So there's no point. There's not necessarily a character arc. But you can get emotional satisfaction from telling them these things and they're thanking you and they're talking about why this matters to them. It's just a way that you can help this character complete their journey so that when they then appear at the end of the game, you have context for what it is they're telling you and hopefully that dialog is helping contextualize how this story is about more than just you.
Alex: So are you saying that if you're going to have sort of a bittersweet or bitter or downer or non-positive ending, that you need to create setups that are paid off? Or are you saying that you need to have it all mean something in the end? What’s the moral?
I think you need an amount of joy in case of an apocalypse. Because otherwise, it's all depressing. I suppose the thing we want players to click into is that the ultimate tragedy would have been complete nonexistence, and that is kind of banking off everyone's fear of death, obviously. The nature of nonexistence is terrifying, obviously, for a lot of people and I think the idea that you have impacted something in the world can be very soothing, even though ultimately I have to confess to being a bit of a cheerful nihilist. So, you know, how long do you really impact anything? We are giving the player the ability to impact what is about to happen in the universe, right? We try not to talk too much about the ending. And there are differences of opinion just between Alex and me as to what the ending is and what it ultimately means. But you have kickstarted a new universe, right? You have prevented everything in existence from complete ceasing to exist. Essentially, you're a creator God. And you do have to give life to get life, I suppose.
Alex: I guess there are enough Native American and Greek stories where the world is made up of bits of some poor God that got dismembered.
Kelsey: Right. We're a little less literal about it, but from a mythological standpoint, we are fine.
Alex: What sort of games do you play? Are there games that you play for research, games that you play for fun. Are the ones that you play for fun like the games that you make?
Kelsey: Yeah, OK, so this is fun, I've got like four buckets for this. I love games, obviously. I make a lot of time for it. There are games that I do play specifically for research. Like Overwatch. That's the kind of game where I will try to understand the mechanics. And if people are talking about particular aspects of a game, I want to go check those out. I like to be on top of what's going on. Then there are games that I play for fun. I play a ton of indie games. I would say I play more indie games, I played a lot of Don't Starve a while back. Obviously things like Disco Elysium. I'm about to play Knights and Bikes. I've got Tiny Echo on my desktop here that I really want to play I. I also got A Short Hike when that came out. Loved that.
Alex: What did you love about A Short Hike? What was the thing that made it special for you?
Kelsey: God, I think maybe just it felt like it captured what being a kid felt like, OK? I'm picking up these sticks and stones and whatnot because they're cool. I don't necessarily know if I need them, but they could be useful for something. I've got these coins. I'm allowed just the freedom to move around in the environment and how good it feels. I really enjoyed the writing and the characters. I enjoyed the setting. Just there's such a joyfulness about it, even though the main character is actively experiencing some anxiety about a big event. I can't really call it anything else but an inherent sense of joy. It's just a world I really like being in physically.
Alex: It reminded me a little bit of Bastion where there was really nothing groundbreaking about it, just the voiceover was great. And with A Short Hike, too, there's no ground-breaking mechanic, it's just like, OK, well, this is fun to play. I like being here.
Kelsey: I think it is a little innovative because it's making you slow down in a way that games don't ask you to do very often. .
Alex: You haven't been playing Animal Crossing!
Kelsey: Oh no, I we can't talk about that. I accidentally saw how many hours I put into it. And I had to swear my partner to secrecy. And he looked at me with sincerity in his eyes and he's like, Oh, don't worry, that can't be right. Oh my God. That was a devastating blow. I do that knitting and I watch the sky for balloons. That's a couple of hours right there.
Alex: I do that with 4X games. I have a thousand hours in Europa Universalis IV.
Kelsey: That is a separate style of game that I play for fun. I separate games like Tiny Echo and Disco Elysium and Hollow Knight. That's one bucket.
And then there's another one for farming type like Stardew Valley, Animal Crossing, that sort of thing. Maybe the odd Harvest Moon. Or Cryptid the Necromancer I play a fair bit of still. Games that have routines and patterns to them and it feels kind of nice and familiar to play them. Tiny echo has a lot of those really tiny character moments that I really like. If you've played Night in the Woods, that's one of my absolute favorite games and it tackles some very heavy subjects. But it doesn't get completely weighed down with them because there's still joy in that world. We're all really into meaningful choice. And there's this moment where you have the option to push a slice of pizza to your friend who can't quite reach it, and if you don't do it, all that happens is he doesn't get the piece of pizza. Like there's literally no impact to the game whatsoever beyond just he does not eat an additional piece of pizza. But if you push it to him, he'll take it. And there's a little bubble that shows up quietly. That's like, Thanks. And I think that's brilliant. I love that. That's what I mean we love reactivity. But I think sometimes we look either too big or too like, oh, what's cost effective. Oh, we want to reward them for having done that first and like the responsiveness of it. And sometimes I don't need that. Sometimes all I want is to have an interesting interaction with a character. And that, by the way, is something I think Obsidian does really well, especially for having so many different writers. The way I approach creating interesting player moments in, say, a dialog is going to be different from what any other, narrative designer is going to. And I love that this studio does embrace that. So sometimes it does frustrate me a little that it's not as wildly innovative to work on a bigger game as it can be for a very small thing. But that's kind of the nature of game dev, right?
Alex: When you've got 200 people on staff, right, you've got a burn rate. And the amount of money you have to make for the studio not to collapse is pretty high. There are risks you can't take.
Kelsey: But the flip side is, going way back to the beginning when you asked me why I ended up working at a triple-A studio. Obsidian has been wonderful about, within reason, letting me throw these ideas out. They tend to have to be a little smaller scale. And some of it is also just building a rapport with a new studio as well, because I'm a little bit of an unknown quantity.
Alex: OK, but you also come in, again, having written a hit game. If you bring in an idea, folks should probably listen to it, eh?
Kelsey: [Does not seem to disagree.]
Labels: making games, writing games
Sunday, February 28, 2021
I had a lovely conversation with Kelsey Beachum, the writer and narrative designer of The Outer Wilds. Which you really should play, it's awesome.
Kelsey: I think you just you just interviewed Lucien Soulban. Which was delightful. I actually I was on your website and then I immediately went over to Slack and told him how excited I was to learn about his suitcase trick because I have such a hard time turning it off.
Alex: You just joined Obsidian.
Kelsey: Yes. So hilariously, I took the job. Let's see, they had me out for the on site very start of March last year, I took the job pretty quick, pretty much as soon as they offered it to me. There wasn't a lot of mystery there. On Friday, they were like, we're going to get in touch with good news for you on Monday.
Alex: So as a writer on a hit indie game, why would you want to work for a big triple-A experience where your voice could get lost?
Kelsey: Oh, you are cutting straight to it. I love this. This is a great question. Combination of things. One, of all of the AAA studios out there, Obsidian had always struck me as a studio that cared a lot about the dialog in the game. So that was definitely a draw. They had just published a major science fiction title and they also published a lot of fantasy titles. Science fiction and also fantasy are huge draws for me.
And I'll be honest with you, it really helps that they were OK with me doing a little contracting on the side. A lot of studios I have worked at have been very, you know, absolutely no other games.
Would I love to work on a series of projects like Outer Wilds? Absolutely. However, I get a lot from being in an office. And a lot of the contracting positions I do either have me moving around a lot, or it's their short term stuff. So I'm getting to know a new team every time. And I really have enjoyed working with people I've gotten to know. I've built a rapport…
Alex: But you're not there, so you're not really a part of it.
Kelsey: Right. I get so much from that energy. And it's been tough. The eight months that I've been at Obsidian, it's all been remote. They've been wonderful to get to know and everything, but I've not met a lot of them in person.
Alex: Yeah, we've been staffing up, and by now there's a third of the company I've never met in person. I hired a writer out of Seattle without meeting them in person, and I haven't met them since I helped them move in. And just now I hired a young writer who's in Milwaukee. Who's staying in Milwaukee, for now. I'm not going to be in person with her until we all get vaccinated and she can cross the border.
Kelsey: It's so much harder for communication. And it's so easy to get down on yourself. As a writer, communication is literally the thing that I do for a living.
Alex: The hardest thing is that the communication becomes more intentional. We communicate the things that we intend to communicate. But what we totally lose is sitting in the break room and somebody in the background is talking about a thing and you go, oh, you’re doing that? Oh, that gives me a great idea for this other thing.
Kelsey: There's no serendipity.
Alex: It's hard to get serendipity when everybody's on Zoom.
Kelsey: I have gone out of my way to regularly check in with people who are, I hate the term, "major creative stakeholders" -- because I'm very much on the soap box that all game devs are storytellers. But I try to check in with, usually it's department leads, but it's also with people who I know enjoy brainstorming with me, or have done cool things in the intersection of their discipline and narrative. Anything where I'm like, oh, I can support this really well with story. So it's taking the initiative, but it's also scheduling time to deliberately have these conversations that normally would be occurring naturally.
Alex: Theoretically we have "coffee time" in our company schedule, but it's the most awkward thing. I can't bring myself to go to intentional coffee time and sit intentionally drinking my coffee watching other people intentionally drink coffee a couple of miles away.
Alex: So you used to make games or game-like things with your brother? (Kelsey's brother is Alex Beachum, creative director of Outer Wilds.)
Kelsey: Gosh, we couldn't have been older than six or seven tops. We didn't have a Nintendo. We didn't have a game system, we didn't have Gameboys yet, but somehow Alex knew about Mario and he would set up levels in the physical world where he would physically be the enemy, like he'd be bouncing in patterns down the hallway. And I had to learn how to get past him. Later on, we switched to Legos. We would make a physical level. And I knew how many cubes tall my character could jump with their normal jump and how much the double jump got me. And I had a little Lego joystick that he had built, that I controlled the character with. And I had to say, "Jump."
And that was a lot of fun because you can't argue with a game, but oh, man, did I argue with Alex, you know, "You have to reset me," and he'd be like, "all right, all right, I'll reset you. Because I thought you boinged too late."
And when Pokemon came out, we made our own versions of Pokemon. His were all Aquamon, they were all water based and then mine were, oh my God, I'm going to say Bessie-mon. They were all cows.
When I was, maybe middle school age, we moved into this house that had a lot of development going on behind it. So there were all these massive dirt dunes there. We did a lot of sword fighting back there. I am very proficient with a wiffle bat as a result. And we also made a lot of short films. It started out just with us and our stuffed animals, making rip-offs of Star Wars called Star Cats. ... I wonder if Alex: is going to be upset that I'm telling you these things. I followed his lead on a lot of things -- you know, classic younger sibling. We got on really well. We've always been pretty good friends.
And we filmed this horror movie. Because everyone does a horror movie first, right? And then somehow when he was in college, he talked me into writing a script with him. So I wrote a screenplay about a talking stuffed llama on a road trip to find his biological parents. So I occasionally would help him out by showing up and writing for short student films or occasionally doing some acting bits.
Alex: You went to college together?
Kelsey: Michigan State. Yes, I am a Midwesterner at heart, so California's been a hell of a transition. But that's where I met my partner, Jon Moore, and from, like, sixth grade, he was one of those people that knew he wanted to work in video games. He would tell adults that and they'd be like, oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, sure.
Jon was in the games program. And my brother was not really aware that that was a thing. Jon had specifically gone to MSU for the games program. So that was a turning point for my brother, realizing like, oh, this is stuff you can go to school for. And then he pivoted and then went to USC for his masters. So Jon likes to take credit for Outer Wilds occasionally ....
Alex: I noticed in the interview that you did with your brother, you didn't interrupt each other or finish each other's sentences.
Kelsey: Did we not?
Alex: You did not. You're both very polite.
Kelsey: I might have been trying really hard, but also, when you're working with a sibling, I can tell better when his sentences are going to end. And I'm not worried about not having time to talk. But normally, oh, my God, if we're in the same room, we're a nightmare. We had a secret language as kids because we talk too fast and our parents could not understand it. And sometimes we would do that working on Outer Wilds. The other person I worked really closely with is Loan Verneau, the lead designer. It was amazing. I've tried to work in trios before with my brother and the third person's the odd man out. For whatever reason, Loan just picked it up.
Loan's delightful, he's just got such an unusual perspective on the world. I love it. Oh, God, it's so good.
Alex: It sounds like you and your brother could have ended up writing partners, and you did on this one game, but that wasn't a goal long term.
Kelsey: Oh, no, I'd love to do that long term, are you kidding? There's a weird balance that you have to strike, though. There were times where I had to say, I can be a good sister or I can be a good writer. Which one do you want right now?
Alex: My wife is my writing partner. It's a similar thing where the person you would complain to about work is the person you're working with. Fortunately we get along really well.
Kelsey: He tolerates my eccentricities. I have a lot of quirks that maybe are a little more suited to indie games than AAA. I always want to go the extra mile and AAA is very cautious about scope. "I don't know if we want to go down that path, let's come back to that." But we don't necessarily get back to it. With Alex. I'm like, "I wrote these lines in iambic pentameter!!!" And he's like, "OK, that's insane, but it's kind of fun."
Alex: Yeah. Lisa and I, one of us will say, is this too fucked up? And then the other person will start laughing because, if you're wondering if it's too fucked up, it's where we want to be.
Kelsey: Any time I get Jon to laugh at a line, that's a personal victory. Actually, Alex: and I have a younger sister, four years younger. She's not in games, and she is one of the funniest people I know. I love getting in touch with her if I'm not under NDA and saying, like, "Is this funny? Is this a joke? Did I write a joke? Just clear this for me." And she'll come back at me with either like, “oh yeah, that's very good,” or, "What are you doing?"
There's a certain amount of bluntness you can get away with, with people who you've known for a long time. I have a tendency to say things like, "Why are we doing that?" And with everyone remote, it can come across so negative. They don't know that that's what I sound like half the time. I don't mean to make it sound like it's a them problem by any means. It can be really hard to assume best possible intent sometimes.
Alex: Yeah, I'm from New York, so I come across a little harsh myself from time to time. Do you follow Javier Grillo-Marxuach? He was one of the writers on Lost. Recently he started a thread that was a list of TV writer jargon. Like, "hat on a hat." And "That's what you're bumping on?" And my contribution was, "Here's why I hate that." ... Which come to think of it, I've probably never said out loud without putting quotes around it. But I've wanted to.
Kelsey: I love it, I do. I like people speaking candidly. But it's easy for me to forget because I get so excited about the craft, because what we're doing is so young, it's so new. That I can be a salaried employee at a studio was wild to me. This is not something I thought of even when I graduated college. It didn't seem a viable career at the time.
I love it when people talk very candidly about, you know, abstract aspects of the discipline. But also it doesn't exist in a vacuum. I'm doing that thing games like to do where it's like, "oh, but we don't want to make a cultural statement." But you are. And here's why.
Alex: If you say nothing politically, then you are making a political statement. You can't not make a political statement. The only question is, are you making a political statement in favor of the status quo. “If you’re not part of the solution then you’re part of the problem.”
Kelsey: It's so frustrating when other people don't recognize that. If you don't say anything at all, there is still a message there. It's just maybe not a message you're wanting to impart. You can say something accidentally, something you might actually think is horrible.
Alex: My theory is that how we got into the current political predicament is 30 years of movie heroes who ignored the experts and go with their gut. After 30 years of, "don't tell me the odds," and "I have a hunch the scientists are wrong," and now we have a disease and nobody's paying attention to the experts, they're just going with their gut and people are dying. So thank you, all those guys who wrote those heroes. Stories have consequences. Meanwhile Japanese heroes are all about sacrificing themselves for the sake of society.
Kelsey: I've watched enough anime to be able to confirm that.
Alex: That’s the value that Japanese people internalize. I was watching an anime movie, Your Name. And at one point the heroine realizes she can save everyone in her town, but she’ll probably die. And it isn't even a discussion. Like they don't make a meal out of whether she should do that. What sort of monster wouldn’t be willing to die to save their town?
Kelsey: That would be so unusual to see in a video game. I mean, the idea of a failed state. Because in a video game, you die, you fail. That is how it works.
Alex: Except you don't really.
Kelsey: Well, exactly, so you can't convincingly do the big self-sacrificing thing until the very end of the game and at that point it's built up that way and you feel directed or forced toward that particular ending.
Alex: I don't love branching narrative because it's a horrible pain in the ass, but I do like an end choice. In We Happy Few, we had a beginning of game choice and we had an end of game choice. We had no story branches in the middle because that becomes unwieldy. I once wrote a game with 31 endings and what I discovered was, “Oh, so that’s why we don't do that.”
Kelsey: I wrote a game with six on my own and I was like, well, this is untenable. Yeah. Well, more like 12 because somebody has to be like physically in the room with me to stop me from going over scope.
Alex: That's true of almost any creative you’d want to work with.
Kelsey: The problem I find with branching dialog and branching story becomes, how much reactivity can you reasonably support? Because you want it to feel good. But it tends to be, just, oh, the game is aware you talked to so and so, or it is aware that you completed this quest. That sort of reactivity is not super exciting to me.
Alex: That's the Obsidian flavour of conditional dialog. If your intelligence is below three, your only dialog option is "unnnngggggh."
Kelsey: Oh, writing lines for dumb characters has been an absolute joy. But that is the hard part of ... In the Outer Worlds, you're playing a character who's this guy's sidekick for a lot of it. I'm sure the writers wanted to do more with the backgrounds you choose, but if you're not making at least a few choices for the player, I think it becomes really hard to do reactivity in a way that feels satisfying and robust just because you get diminishing returns on that. If you have a couple of big choices, those feel really big and good. But the more you're subdividing, even just dialog pathways, the less often people are going to encounter each option [because that option is not on the branch you've taken. ].
And then it becomes hard to justify, you know, oh, I really want to do this thing, even though it is an edge case, please let me have the resources to make this happen. And what I've loved is that there have been times where I have said that and they said, yeah, absolutely, go for it. And I've gotten to do some really cool things that not all players are going to see. It might be one of those things where, like, you know, years later, someone finally uncovers whatever's going on there. And I love that. I love those moments.
That was one of the most fun things about watching players play Outer Wilds, the things they pulled off that I did not know could happen. Somebody got brained by the probe that launches at the very start of the game, and killed on startup. I laughed till I cried when I saw that one. Oh, my God. I didn't even know that was possible. God, I love system reactivity.
Alex: So, what are some of the worst things that video games do that could be fixed easily?
Kelsey: Oooh. I like this. I'm going to go off right away. I cannot stand when things violate the internal logic of a game world. Like, why are there explosive barrels in the world? Like, oh, all these fragile, important items -- let's put some TNT nearby. I mean, that's one I can forgive. But what I can't forgive is when you set a character up to be a particular way and then, hey, we're going to require you to write something where this character makes a choice that's completely the opposite of what they would do.
And, okay, that's not always a deal breaker. That happened with the Nomai in Outer Wilds. There was a big moment on the-- . I don't know, maybe I shouldn't do spoilers -- how much of the game have you played?
Alex: I was so intimidated by the anglerfish, and the ticking clock, that I never got to the ending. Because when I actually got to the Vessel the first time, I only had like a minute left before the sun exploded again. So I figured, it's going to stress me out too much, getting the core drive, etc. So I looked up the ending. And from the description, it sounded a little depressing. So I didn't do the ending.
Kelsey: I put a lot into that to make it feel not hopeless, but fair. It is emotionally quite heavy. So I can't fault you on that.
Anyway, there's a big reveal on the Sun Station where they might do something that is against what they normally believe in.
Alex: They're going to [redacted verb] the [redacted noun].
Kelsey: Yeah, because their sense of ethics is that they should not be dramatically altering places.
Alex: Especially places inhabited by sapient beings.
Kelsey: Right. And when this was suggested, my first instinct was to dig my heels in. Like, the Nomai would never do this. But then as we talked about it, I was like, OK, we can do this if I have the space I need to convey the weight and importance of it. Then it will feel interesting and satisfying and sufficiently heavy. So I don't want to come out saying I will never compromise, because narrative always has to compromise, that's just how it is in this medium. But I am really frustrated when we have the player do things that conflict with the basic logic and reality of the game universe.
Alex: "But it's cool! And fun!"
Kelsey: Well, it'll be cool and fun for the player. But then they'll be like, why am I doing this?
Alex: They will stop caring. Yeah. And my definition of narrative is "Whatever makes us care about what happens in the game."
So what was your solution for why the Nomai were willing to [verb] the [noun]?
Kelsey: Oh, just the sheer weight of what they saw with the signal from the [unique location], it's something that is [reason for its uniqueness]. So maybe it's worth [verb]ing the [noun]. They are an inquisitive species after all.
And [the dev team] gave me the space to have a big conversation about it. Literally, we had a room physically in the world where there’s a Nomai debate on the wall [like an ancient email thread] over, like, how important is this goal as opposed to our normal goal of preserving a particular location and its life and some other alien species in their infancy.
Alex: I find often the solution to a plot hole is character revelation. If we acknowledge to the player that, no, you're right, this isn't a rational thing for this character to do, but we here's a character reason why the character would do it -- just look in the news, people do all kinds of inhumane, horrible, irrational, self-destructive things in real life. If we make it a moment of character revelation, it's not unbelievable any more. It's not a plothole. It's, this guy is arrogant. Or, he thinks it's his duty. Or, she really fears her boss and she wants to impress him.
Kelsey: Yeah, there's a deliberate shift in Nomai thinking around this time, driven by these older Nomai who lost their loved ones in the crash when their vessel initially arrived in the solar system. And so they, sunk cost fallacy, they want all those lives to mean something. And they are brilliant scientists and they're like, we can do this if we are incredibly careful about it. And our game is so non-linear, this moment does not occur in a fixed spot in gameplay. Where the player realizes what is going on with the Sun Station and what it is doing, what it is powering, why it is powering it, what the Nomai have done, so that even though the sun is currently blowing up because it's at the end of its natural lifespan, the Nomai did try to [verb] the [noun], against everything they normally stand for, because that is how badly they want to find this unique thing.
It felt like a realistic outcome to me. I wanted it to feel like it could have gone either way.
Alex: I will veto things that I think break the world. Because my job is to defend the game from moments that will make the player stop caring about the game. But terrible decisions don't break a world. Real people make terrible decisions all the time. We can point to history and go, World War One, why did they think that was a good idea? The Japanese attacking the United States, what was the thinking there? These weren't good decisions but they seemed logical to important people at the time. And that tells us who those people were. So the Nomai are a curious race. So it's believable and revelatory that they're like, well, we have to [verb] the [noun] because we gotta gotta gotta find out.
Kelsey: You cannot let the narrative become just the justification for a bad choice. It can't just be, oh, if someone has you do a quest and you're like, why am I fetching bread for this person during wartime? "Oh, don't worry about it, they just really missed this particular bread" or whatever. It's like, well, because this person's crazy for bread. Sure. Yeah. Somebody could legitimately miss something that badly that they'd make a bad choice to go out and find it, There's that whole thing in Zombieland. Woody Harrelson is obsessed with getting a Twinkie.
Alex: Because it's become a symbol of everything he's lost.
Kelsey: I don't think that in and of itself is bad [if you make it mean something]. What I'm frustrated by is that I think a lot of designers will look at that scenario and go, yep, that's good enough.
Alex: "Close enough for government work.".
Kelsey: And if it's only ever reflected in dialog, that's where it feels thin to me. I don't like having to listen to a character justify why they're about to ask me to do something bonkers. But what I do love is when the other elements of the game reinforce what's going on.
Alex: Yeah, well, if you can use it to flesh out some aspect of the world and the characters in it. I mean, if you gave me the bread thing, then I would have the player discover after completing the bread mission that it had nothing to do with the bread. The bread was a lie. Which you fell for.
Kelsey: Or conversely, I suppose if we have a scene earlier on where we established, like, this guy is fucking bonkers for bread, man. Then later you can do the opposite where he's like, no, the bread isn't worth it. Take the medicine instead. Like, we don't have room for the bread. Then you're like, wow, this guy's serious. He's foregoing his bread. This is a silly, silly example. But it’s got to mean something. It's not "Hey, this guy really likes bread go do a bread quest."
The thing that worked with the Nomai was having those conversations physically in the world. There's space devoted to it physically. But then also, that reveal is not purely done via text. If you've been to the Sun Station, it's really intense visually. The design is just genius. And there's a part where you blow the emergency exit doors, I believe, and you have to jump right over the surface of the sun. And it's such an intense thing. And then to learn this intense information, it syncs up really nicely. I want gameplay and narrative to be as interwoven as humanly possible. They should be the same cloth.
Alex: I think one of the reasons that Outer Wilds is successful is because you iterated back and forth, and story had a veto. You could say no, that breaks the story, that breaks the world. Let me come back and give you something that they would do, that is almost exactly the same thing.
Kelsey: I can find that. Yeah. Yeah.
Alex: You can never say no. Screw you. Not going to do that. But you have to be able to say, that doesn't work, let me come back with something that will work for you.
I find that the key question is, what exactly do you really need here? Because nine out of ten times what design needs isn't the whole thing. It's this little bit here that they really need. The other stuff is they're just trying to help you flesh out the world or the story. So you go, right, I will give you another thing that gives you the same little bit. And don't worry about coming up with the story, I got you.
Kelsey: One of the most useful skills you can have in this job is just being able to look at what someone is asking you to do and finding why. Because people are not good necessarily at saying why they want a certain thing. When I am pitching an idea, I'll say, I want to do this because I think it'll be a cool, emotional moment. It will reinforce this particular story. Because the opposite is also true, sometimes I will be asking another dev, hey, can we do this? And he's like, oh, God, what? No, no. But I'm not asking if we can do this exact thing.
Alex: We're all bad at talking to other disciplines. We tend to express ourselves imprecisely and they hear the worst possible version of that. "Oh, God, no, we can't completely remodel and rerig his head." We're like, "Wait, no, actually I just need him to wear a hat." "Ohhhhh. He can wear a hat, sure."
Kelsey: This circles back to why it's tough to be remote all the time. I like to have a lot of water cooler conversations with different departments so that I can get a better understanding of how they work. Where do they spend the bulk of their time on a particular project? What is cost effective to ask them to do and why?
Alex: That's a great idea, asking people where they're spending their time. People think that writers spend most of our time writing dialog. And I keep telling people, no, dialog is the easiest thing. I can write dialog all day long. I can, I have written a 50 page TV script in three days. What takes time is figuring out, like, what three items could be in this room that would tell the story of who lived here and how and why they died, without dialog. Something like that could legit take all day. Because an artist is going to spend a whole day making one of those things, so it better be evocative. Delivering narrative without resorting to dialog or readables, that's hard.
Kelsey: I love taking direction. But when I can't ask questions back and push back a little and say, well, hey, what are we really trying to say with this mission? Or what's the ideal player experience here?
Alex: Do you find that that's a difficult series of questions to ask?
Kelsey: No, I find it's a difficult series of questions to find a platform to ask. With games like Outer Wilds, especially on small projects and indie projects where I'm the writer, I have that face to face time to chat with them about it. I can ask questions. It's not coming from, like super high up your directors and everything trickling down--
Alex: It's the process of filtering it down to you where the context gets stripped. And you end up with marching orders. And you can’t as, "Why do we have to take that hill? Would another hill work for you?".
Kelsey: Right, by the time you've got marching orders, it's too late to be going back up the chain and saying, like, hey, I think maybe we've got the wrong boots on? It's nothing malicious on anyone's part by a long shot. It's just that with smaller groups, people tend to hear you right away. And I think indie games in some ways are a little more willing to have lost time and lost work.
Alex: It's funny you should say that, because, on the other hand, indie games tend to not have any money. If you're junking a mission in Grand Theft Auto Six, oh, well, I guess we'll just have to sell another zillion copies. But if you're doing it on an indie game where you just spent your last Kickstarter dollar, it's terrifying to think, OK, well, it would be a better game if we rethink this part, but how long am I willing to live on ramen?
Kelsey: It's been my experience working with indie games, that there is a little more time on the front end and tweaking some of those systems. Because the mechanics in indie games tend to be more original anyway.
Alex: Yeah. If you're doing the latest Assassin's Creed, there isn't going to be that much carnage because you're not inventing too much. Is part of it also that there's just simply less production? You had text on Outer Wilds. You didn't have, you know, performances. If I change dialog in We Happy Few or in our next game, then I'm also throwing out the actor's performance, all the audio work, and the animation. Whereas if you're throwing out a bunch of text, you can rewrite that on your lunch break and come back and type the new text into a box in Unreal and it's done.
Kelsey: And I think what I think that actually does get at the heart of what I'm trying to say here: I really want there to be a little more time built in for revisions.
Labels: making games, writing games
Saturday, February 27, 2021
I was just wondering, have video games always been this international? And why are they international, when film and television are really not? Is it just that video game narrative was only on-screen text for so long, and text is easily localized?
Mikko: I guess one part of it is that if you made a movie, it was really closely tied to whatever culture you made it in. Especially early on when the games were really simple, like going back to Space Invaders, language didn't really matter. And I think once you had a certain baseline established, that made it easier for people just accept the idea that these things can come from wherever.
Alex: Apparently film was completely international until sound came in. German movies did very well in the United States, because you could always change the title cards, nobody knew what the actors were saying anyway. Except lip readers, who were sometimes horrified.
Mikko: There is a degree of, I guess, cultural imperialism here as well, because if you look at it from a very American perspective, you have American movies, then you have “foreign” movies. But in other countries, you tend to have a lot more movies that come from all sorts of countries. “Foreign” film isn’t a thing like that, you just assume that a lot of the films you see come from somewhere else. Like over here [Finland] you read subtitles, because nobody's making anything for our language. We have five and a half million people who speak our language. So you just have to accept that you have things coming from all over the world. Nobody makes video games for the Finnish audience, either, not even in this country.
Alex: I was just thinking about Malmö. Why is Malmö a big deal in video games? I wouldn't have guessed that was going to become a key place.
Mikko: Well, I think they kind of hit that critical mass and you have a certain degree of infrastructure built around that. But it's also a couple of other things. Like in Nordic countries, you can get by with English really easily.
In a lot of Eastern European countries there are a lot of advantages. Everything is just so much cheaper to do. But it's a pretty big deal for somebody to move over there. There is a serious language and a cultural barrier, whereas you come here or Malmö, you can walk into almost any store and you're really going to be OK. You don't have to cry about how you want a loaf of bread and they don't know what you mean. I have been involved in onboarding a lot of people from other countries. And it’s interesting a lot of weird cultural stuff that can trip them up. Just, like… do you tip? Is it too awkward for you not to? For some people it's almost like physical pain for them to not to.
Alex: In Japan, it's insulting, you must not tip.
Mikko: There are so many differences, and people have these assumptions and expectations that affect their behavior in ways that can be hard to see. You can't be fired in Finland, or at least, you can't be fired just because your boss goes like, I'm done with you. That has a big impact on the way people behave at work. And if somebody then comes in with different assumptions, but nobody’s actually aware that there’s this conflict of expectations… it can get complicated.
Alex: Our studio head at Compulsion Games told me that he was living in France when he decided to make his own company. But you can't fire anyone in France. You can send them off to the rubber room but you have to keep paying them. So he made it in Montreal. Lucky for me. Thank you, France.
So far, I'm just hearing reasons why it's good to move to Helsinki, not why it’s hard to. I thought you were going to say oh, the darkness in winter, you know?
Mikko: I mean, the dark can be a thing, but it's not that much different from living in certain parts of Canada, for example, where you get long winters and a lot of darkness. But some people can't deal with that. Like there are people who come here during the summer when it's warm and nice and the days are super long and there's plenty of sunshine. “Yeah, this great, this is fantastic.” And then the winter comes and we get five hours of sunlight a day. And all of that when I'm at work. So it's dark when I come to work and it's dark when I leave work.
Alex: I’m already really far North in Montreal [45°N], but, wow, you are super far North in Helsinki [60°N].
Mikko: And that can definitely mess people up. But for most people, I guess it comes down to how we were feeling as an individual about it; some people adjust very easily, and others just can't deal with it. For most people, it might take one winter to get used to it, but then you are fine, I think. Or you leave, I’ve seen that happen, too.
Alex: Have you bopped around much yourself? Have you lived in a whole bunch of different countries?
Mikko: I’ve spent a lot of time in different countries, but I think the longest time I've stayed somewhere else has been a month. So I’ve never had to adjust my life in any meaningful way. When it’s a working trip, you just feel like a visitor. And the weeks go by pretty quickly.
Alex: At one point Ubisoft Singapore called me up and I'm like, wow, what would it be like to move my entire life to Singapore? Warmer, I guess. Better street food.
Mikko: It’s a huge change if you have a family to think about. Are they going to have friends? And it's not like grandma can come in and look at the kids for a couple hours.
Alex: Yeah, I moved to Montreal and I brought Lisa up here to Montreal.
And our families are in New York and Texas. We can go down and visit them, but they’re not available for last-minute dog-walking.
Mikko: At least you are still in the same time zone. Right now it's, what is it, a little past six o'clock here and you’re just kind of getting your day started. It’s not even noon for you yet. I'm doing a contract with a Montreal studio right now. A lot of times, somebody sees my name in a Teams chat somewhere. And then they set a meeting. And then I have to go back and go, yeah, that's 10:00 p.m. for me. As much as I might want to discuss the finer points of this animation thing, well, I'm not going to be that useful at that hour.
Alex: How much time do you spend playing other games? How much time playing games for research? How much for fun. And are the kinds of games that you play for fun, the same as the games that you make?
Mikko: I don't play a lot of games purely for research. That's not entirely true. Sometimes there is a specific project where I go OK, I need to play a bunch of this kind of game in order to know what we're doing. But that’s the exception. Usually I play something I’m interested in.
I have worked on games that I haven't felt strongly about, or have actively not really wanted to work on. And that's not a good place to be. I did a year or two in free-to-play mobile that was like that. And it's a shame because I worked with people that I really liked, and I think that we made some pretty interesting, good games, but it just wasn't the kind of work I was super interested in. And it was very clear that on the management level, nobody gave a shit about what I was trying to do. They hired me to do a job that they didn't care about. “We need to have some story stuff here.” But only if it had no impact on anything else.
Alex: Okay, but what kind of games do you play? And like how do they relate to the kind of work that you like to do?
Mikko: Well, the games that I play do tend to have a strong story element. Interesting characters in interesting situations, or interesting narrative techniques. So that could just be an action adventure game or something, like The Last of Us 2 would be a good example. Obviously, a lot of ambition there in terms of storytelling. And the quality of storytelling is super high. But I also played a stupid amount of Minecraft before it had any real narrative design. And I still play Tetris. That's a great example of a game where there is absolutely no story. You can kind of project stuff on that if you are so inclined. But that's just you kind of having fun with yourself.
There's a lot of indie stuff that I've been very impressed by. Something like Kentucky Route Zero took an ostensibly very standard and traditional approach to adventure gaming and then it turned it into a unique and interesting thing where they did these constant tiny things all the time, just like the things where you're talking to a character and you get to make dialog choices. And then you also get to make dialog choice for the person who is responding to you.
Alex: What I found interesting about Kentucky Route Zero is that you make dialog choices, not to branch the story, but just to express yourself. Obviously that’s hugely less work for the developers, but it allows player expression, which hopefully drives engagement.
Mikko: Another strong theme for me is whether or not the game has atmosphere. It almost doesn't matter what the atmosphere is, as long as you can tell that a lot of effort and interest went into designing it. Even if it’s minimalist, but steps have been taken.
But I mean, at the same time I have also been known to just play pretty much mindless online shooters. I do that, too.
Alex: Sometimes you just want to kill a dude.
Mikko: Or sometimes you just want to get killed by a 12-year-old who is outperforming you on every possible level.
Alex: Because they've been doing nothing else for the past thirty hours.
Mikko: And they still have functional reflexes, and my flabby ass is just, like… no.
Labels: making games, writing games