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


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Friday, June 21, 2024

I'm watching GODZILLA MINUS ONE. You might think it is a movie about a giant undersea monster with nuclear abilities.

But it is actually a movie about survivor guilt in post-WW2 Japan. The hero is a kamikaze pilot who abandoned his suicide mission. He considers himself a coward. Other characters are struggling with having survived when so many of their family died. 

If you deliver the goods in a movie or game, you can do whatever the hell else you want. THE L WORD had sexy lesbians. Lesbians, and lesbian-curious folk, were watching to see sexy lesbians. The writers got away with making their characters really flawed people, because they delivered on the sexy lesbians. Without the lesbian sexiness, network executives would probably have said, "These characters aren't likable, make them nicer." But no one was watching to see nice lesbians, they were watching to see sexy lesbians. So the execs left the writers alone. 

Similarly, in GODZILLA MINUS ONE, there is all the nuclear monster spectacle you could ask for. Which means the filmmakers were able to tell a story about survivor guilt. I mean, maybe they started with Godzilla and thought "How can we make Godzilla fresh." But I suspect someone wanted to make a piece about survivor guilt, and then realized they could bring a bigger audience to it by doing it in a monster movie. 

Survivor guilt, by itself, is pretty heavy. Who wants to see that? Some people, but maybe not many. But if there's a nuclear monster, then sure! Bring it. The best horror stories are really proxies for stories about theme that are too bitter to take on directly. 

We're working on a war story right now. But we're turning it into a ghost story, because who wants to play a game about how war is horrible? 

 Deliver the goods, and you are free to do what you want!


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Friday, June 14, 2024

I’ve talked about how to use feedback: listen to the criticism, be wary of solutions other people offer. Until your game comes out, fan feedback is often particularly dubious. They only know the games they’ve already played. They’re making guesses about your game. If they criticize it, they’re only criticizing the version of your game that they have in their head.

(This is a little like when your fellow devs criticize an idea you have. Often they are criticizing what they think you want, when what you want is something else.)

At a certain point, though, your game gets an announcement trailer, and now they have some data to react to. Do they like what they see? And is what they saw the same as the game you’re making? Then you’re in great shape. You’re selling what they’re buying.

On Fragpunk, we did our best to make the game wackier than competing hero shooters; and we gave the game a novel mechanic, allowing players to change the rules of the game before each round. (For example, give their opponents Very Big Heads.) To our delight, when our announcement trailer came out during the Xbox Showcase, social media and critics were all talking about how our game was a “wacky answer to Valorant.”

What if they love what they see and it’s not the game you’re making?

In my book on writing movies, Crafty Screenwriting, I suggest pitching your screenplay before you write it. Rather than writing a whole script and then trying to sell it, pitch a bunch of ideas out to buyers and see which spark interest. Then write the script that got the best reaction.

Samuel Z. Arkoff used to take posters for movies to potential buyers. The movies that buyers wanted, he commissioned scripts for those movies and then shot them.

What if you try to make the game they want? Don’t do it if it will hurt the game, obviously. But maybe the game the fans want is a better game. Maybe lean into that.

We essentially did that on We Happy Few. It wasn’t an announcement trailer, it was demoing the game at PAX. As I discuss elsewhere, we were working on a procedurally generated game, but what fans most liked in our demo was the hand-crafted individual encounters. So we went back home and pivoted the game to focus on hand-crafted encounters.

Listen to the fans.


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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

At some point, you may be called upon to propose a title for a game. This generally won’t happen on a AAA game, where the title is the province of the marketing department, and is something like Assassin’s Creed: More Templar Shenanigans or Splinter Cell: Tracklist. But on smaller teams, writers are often involved. I’ve been part of the team coming up with names for We Happy Few, Stories: The Path of Destinies, South of Midnight, Biomorph and, as of yesterday, the company I work for, Netease, announced the game I'm working on, Fragpunk.

Developers usually give their game a working title or a code name to begin with. We Happy Few started as Glimpse. South of Midnight was once just Midnight. Some games only have a code number. The video game industry is secretive; most companies don’t like anyone to know what they’re working on until they're ready to start building awareness.

A working title can inspire people, and give them a sense of what sort of game they’re working on. Midnight is the witching hour, and the game is about a girl with witchy powers; if it had been a more humorous game set in the South, we might have codenamed it Moonshine. Glimpse referred to an early game mechanic where the procedurally generated world would regenerate whenever you weren’t looking. (We quickly realized that would just be annoying.)

The title needs to be something that players feel good about playing. I'm not sure I'd want "Alex is playing Shower With Your Dad Simulator" to come up on my friends' Steam feed, though obviously there are people who do.

It also can’t be too hard to type. I pushed for our game to be called I’m Afraid We’ve Come to the End of Our Time, but that was perceived as too long, in spite of What Remains of Edith Finch and Everyone's Gone to the Rapture. (We did eventually make a little spinoff VR game called We’ve Come to the End of Our Time.) Even Call of Duty gets abbreviated to COD because twelve letters are just too darn many to type.

But the main purpose of the title is to get people interested in finding out more about the game. It can do that in a few ways.

It can, first of all, just tell you what the game is about. Thief is about a thief. Portal is about making portals. Civilization is about building your civilization. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego is about figuring out where Carmen Sandiego is. Unpacking is about unpacking. Guess what I Was a Teenage Exocolonist is about?

More often, the title hints at what the game is about without stating it so baldly. The Deus Ex games are about technologically enhanced human beings. Deus ex machina is a familiar Latin phrase meaning “god out of the machine.” The main character, Adam Jensen, is part man (made in God’s image) and part machine.

(In classic plays, the writer would sometimes get his characters in such a pickle that the only way he could bring it home was to have an actor fly in, supported by a crane (a machine), playing a god (deus, who would then sort things out. Deus ex machina refers to the writer resolving the plot arbitrarily rather than through the actions of the characters themselves. It's an implicit criticism, like "hat on a hat," although H.G. Wells got away with it in War of the Worlds.)

Kentucky Route Zero is about a road trip. But routes are never numbered zero; and are you really still in Kentucky? Mysterioso.

Call of Duty is a game about war. “Call of duty” is an old phrase referring to serving as a soldier.

All of these titles suggest rather than saying. A playing seeing “Kentucky Route Zero” will hopefully think, “Huh. What’s that about?”

How can you be South of a time of day? The rule in marketing is “sell the sizzle, not the steak.”

We Happy Few suggested that our few townspeople were happy, which indeed they are, but only because they're on happy drugs all the time. There are also fewer and fewer of them. Players could guess that the title was ironic. But how?

Biomorph is about a critter (a biological) who takes the shape (morph) of other critters.

What sort of a game are you trying to sell people? Is it quirky? Is it a survival game? Call it Don’t Starve. Is it about an octopus masquerading as a suburban dad? Octodad. Is it a dungeon crawler which is also a dating sim? Boyfriend Dungeon. A bureaucrat in a depressing Soviet-style transit office? Papers, Please

Of course, a game title can just be plain mysterious. The Return of the Obra Dinn is pleasantly ominous.

But a completely obscure title may not help with marketing. Disco Elysium was a hit, but probably not for its title. Undertale? Sigma Theory? Umurangi Generation? Engare? Goragoa? Zoombinis? These titles are distinctive, and shoot right to the top of the Google search standings. So that's good. But they tell you very little about the game. It’s probably best when the title doesn’t just stand out, it gives you a hint at least of the tone of the game.

So, why is it called Fragpunk?

Play the game when it comes out, and find out!


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Thursday, February 29, 2024

We're looking for a principal writer for an online shooter. You *must* know from online PvP games. Also, be legally able to work in Montreal (i.e. you are Canadian, or a permanent resident, or have an active work visa).


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Sunday, January 28, 2024

Here are some terms I've heard thrown around while we were talking about game narrative. Some are entirely idiosyncratic to me and my crowd. Others are common. 

What are yours?


Something left over from a previous draft that no longer makes sense or serves its purpose. Narrative cruft.


A single object that exists in the game, such as a gun, a tree, a beer can. An asset can be easily cloned. Environmental artists make assets. Narrative folk may write text for assets that have labels. What’s on the labels of beer cans in this world?

As You Know, Bob

Dialogue that recounts what both characters in the scene already know, so the player can know it, too.


A compendium of all the information developers need to make the game. Out of date moments after it is written. The “narrative bible” might have information about the world story as well as the characters’ backstories. Once production begins, developers tend to stop updating the bible, so double check any information you read in it.

It’s helpful if writing a bible to focus on things that can actually appear in the game rather than Tolkien-stye lore about the Three Silver Trees of the Greensong. Also, remember that a bible is not player-facing. Information you wrote in the bible is not in the game until you, or a level artist, put it in the game using a narrative delivery system.

Break Story

Laying out the beats of the story, usually in a room (or a virtual room).


A punchy way to end a scene, providing the energy to jump back into gameplay. “Needs a button.”


A short movie that interrupts gameplay. Level designers often hate them because they don’t like anything interrupting gameplay. May be pre-rendered, in which case it is literally a movie playing in the middle of the game. Or it may be animated via the game engine using the character models and environments of the game. Some studios use “cutscene” to distinguish in-game cinematics from rendered cinematics, but the distinction is not universal.


An overused phrase or gimmick. “He’s standing right behind me, isn’t he?”


Anything the player character can use up, such as health potions, grenades, or food. Usually found in the environment or bought in stores in-game. If you find yourself in a large room with health potions and ammo scattered around, expect a boss battle.


Two lines, usually brief, one answering the other. Often used to button a scene. “I’m a man!” “Nobody’s perfect.” John Rogers calls this “the basic molecule of script dialogue.”


Ways in which narrative delivery systems interact with other disciplines. Readables, for example, have almost no dependencies. They are assets that can be strewn about the environment by the most junior of level designer, or a narrative designer, or even a writer. (Gasp.) They don’t require animation. They may not require special art. If they convey lore about the world, they don’t affect the game’s story. By contrast, a cinematic has lots of dependencies. It can’t be written until we know what the story is. It will require animation and possibly mo-capping. An actor has to record lines, which have to be mixed. Putting cinematics into gameplay seamlessly can be a person’s whole job on a AAA game.

Downloadable Content (DLC)

Additional content for the game. May have new maps and tell a completely new story. “DLC” is also what your producer tells you when they cut the levels you’ve been working on for a year.


What happens when the player character runs into someone or something. Level designers create and script encounters. If it’s a dialogue encounter, narrative folks will write the dialogue, Lord willing.

Environmental Artist

An artist who creates assets that will appear in the game. They may put them in the game map, if they don’t affect gameplay; level designers may put them in the map if they do. Narrative folk work with artists to make sure the environment tells the world story. For example:

This was once a grand palace, but now it is covered in weeds. Sprawled here and there on the floors and benches, servants, courtiers, knights, and ladies sleep dreamlessly.

Environmental Narrative

Narrative descriptions of the game environment, creating a world story, a mystery, a mood, or anything else that attracts us to play in this world and makes us care. Each major location in a game might have its own narrative description, in addition to whatever notes the art director is giving her artists.

Environmental scenario

A few items laid out in the environment to tell a story. For example,

A table covered with playing cards. Two chairs, one fallen backwards. Dried blood spattered on the cards. A bottle shattered by a bullet. Under the table, a scrap of paper – on interacting with it, it turns out to be an IOU.

Narrative folk write these descriptions to convey the world story. Ideally, an environmental scenario uses assets that already exist, or are already planned for the game. Creating a single asset for an environmental scenario can take an artist a week, which is expensive. The sooner you can get these to the environmental artists, the better.

The difference between an environmental scenario and environmental narrative is just scope. A scenario is a single collection of assets intended to convey a single idea. Environmental narrative encompasses everything that conveys what the world is.


Something that only happens once or twice in the game, or in only one level. Exotic gameplay might be when a level introduces tightrope-walking as a verb, but there are no tightropes later on in the game. 

First Person

A way of showing the player the world in three dimensions as if through the player character’s eyes. The player character is usually invisible, though sometimes you can see your hands. First person games are more likely to have a blank main character, so the player feels like it is them in the game world. 

First Person Shooter, or FPS

A first-person 3D game in which you shoot people in the face.

Fridge Logic

A logic problem in your story that no one is going to notice until they get up and go the fridge. Often not worth fixing.

Gameplay designer

Someone who designs gameplay features, such as verbs. Features are active on many or all maps, unless they’re exotic.


An early state of a level, before the environmental art is in. Looks like a bunch of grey boxes. No point arting up a level before you know if it works.

Hang a Lantern on It

To draw attention to something. If there’s something you really want the player to know, you hang a lantern on it somehow.

You can sometimes get away with inconsistencies by hanging a lantern on them. “How come he can fly and we can’t?” So long as the players know that you know it’s inconsistent, they are more likely to forgive you than if they think you’re being sloppy or think they’re dumb.

Hat on a Hat

Gilding the lily. Trying to make something stronger or funnier by adding something else strong or funny, thereby paradoxically weakening it. A hat does not need a hat on it. A man in a gorilla suit is funny. Give him a clown nose as well, and you have a hat on a hat. Also known as “gilding the matzah.”

Idiot Ball

When a character makes an out-of-character and obviously dumb decision, or acting on misinformation they could clear up in a text message, they are carrying the idiot ball.

Killing your Darlings

A darling is a bit of narrative you particularly like and are particularly proud of – but it isn’t actually good for the story as a whole. You must kill your darlings, as Eudora Welty said.

Laying Pipe

Setting something up early that will pay off later. Akin to installing pipes so you can use the sink later.


A hunk of the game map that is loaded into the consoles or computer’s memory at one time. In Unreal Engine, a level is usually on a single map. Levels may or may not be apparent to the player. If levels are separated by loading screens, they will be pretty obvious, but next generation consoles don’t necessarily need loading screens. Often a single level designer “owns” or is responsible for a level.

Level Designer

Someone who designs the levels and what happens in them. Their job is to make gameplay fun. They have to know how the features of the game – especially the verbs – can work together. They are known for having a god complex. They create worlds, after all.

Loading screen

What you see on the screen while the console or computer is putting the level in memory. Usually a still image with some text. Can be used to remind the player what’s happened so far in the game, or to reveal some aspect of the world story, or give gameplay hints. The loading screens for Spec Ops: The Line mock the player, “Do you feel like a hero yet?”

Magic Hat

A Magic Hat is a special power that you don't explain because the explanation wouldn't actually resolve anything. The point of magic is that it's magic. You can create lore behind a magic hat (e.g. the One Ring, Excalibur). What you don't need is a scientific explanation:

Midi-chlorians were intelligent microscopic life forms that lived symbiotically inside the cells of all living things. In sufficient numbers, they could allow their symbiont to detect the pervasive energy field known as the Force. Midi-chlorian counts were blah bitty blah blah blah. 

And what gives midi-chlorians this power? Their magic hats? You're just kicking the can down the road.

Narrative Designer

Someone on the narrative team who focuses on getting the content into the game rather than creating the content. They might place assets into the level map. They might do some scripting. They work with the level designers to make sure that the gameplay is, as much as possible, also telling the story of the main character and of the world.

A narrative systems designer defines narrative delivery systems for the game. In a smaller team, that job might be folded into narrative design, or even writing.

The dividing line between writers and narrative designers is blurry, though. Some narrative designers write player-facing narrative content. Others don’t. Some writers do narrative design, whether they call it that or not.


A game focused on how the player character gets from point A to point B.


Something players will experience in the game. Lore is not player-facing until it appears in a readable, a journal entry, or an environmental asset such as tavern sign.


An asset that exists to be read. Usually when you interact with it, you can read some text on a separate screen, for example as an entry in the player’s journal or inventory. A poster for shaving lotion that you can read as you ride into town is not considered a readable; it’s a “decal.”  Readables are by far the cheapest way to get lore into the game. Most developers will not put anything critical into a readable, since God forbid the player should have to read something. Baldur’s Gate 3 bravely puts information useful to the player in readables. That’s a game design decision.

Run and Jump

Describes a section of traversal in a game. “And here we have a little run and jump until we get into our first combat encounter.”

Second Draft

Something meaningful in screenwriting contracts and which producers like to put in their narrative pipeline chart, but isn’t really a thing. Writers may write a vomit draft, a rough draft, and a first draft. You may get your draft approved, and eventually recorded. But all the drafts between first draft and approved draft – why count them? How many changes do you need to make for it to be a second draft? Every draft should be considered a first draft until it’s recorded.


A shoot’em up. A shooter. As opposed to a beat’em-up, a game focused on melee combat.

Shoe Leather

The narrative hoops you have to jump through to set something up dramatically -- e.g. establish that the hero is an orphan, remind the audience of their psychokinetic abilities, etc. all so it pays off later. Not that far off from laying pipe, but more of a criticism. “That’s all just shoe leather.”


Any game focused on shooting NPCs. Game developers add “in the face” almost instinctually.

Snappy Banter

As a putdown, dialogue that sounds clever and punchy but has little emotional content.

Table Read

A readthrough of all the dialogue scenes. On the first day of rehearsals for a play, the playwright, director and all the actors would get together and read the play, sitting down. Our version might be on Zoom, to make it easier to get actors to participate. Pay the actors if you possibly can. You’re getting paid, aren’t you?

Taking the Curse Off

When something is cliché or dumb, you may not be able to get rid of it for reasons. But you can sometimes take the curse off it by twisting it in some way.


Foreshadowing. Giving the players too heavy a hint where the story will go. You don’t want to telegraph the punchline to a joke. Comes from sending a telegraph saying you’re coming, rather than just showing up.


Gameplay focused on getting from here to there. Narrative audio is traditionally constrained by the assumption that the player is traversing the level as fast as the game allows them, even though the player may not be. If the narrative is longer than the minimum traversal time, you need a game mechanic to prevent narrative audio from stacking up.


A substance that everybody in the science fiction game world wants but is hard to get. It might be the thing you need to make the best sword, or a spaceship. In Avatar it is literally called unobtainium. Very common in fantasy too (e.g. mithril).

Up and Back

When the characters or plot go through action sequences, dialogue scenes, complications, etc.,, but the story does not progress. You could cut out an up-and-back and you wouldn’t feel anything is missing.


Any action the player can take in the gameplay, for example, “walk,” “jump,” or “dodge.” A shooter has specialized verbs like “shoot,” “take cover” (if it’s a cover shooter), “stealth takedown” (if stealth is a mechanic), and “throw” (if you can throw grenades or other consumables.) A platformer might have verbs like “climb,” “mantle” and “use zipline.” A walking simulator might have “examine.”

World story

The history of the world, as distinct from what happens during the game. What sort of world we’re in can be as, or more, important than the player character story. There may be a bible that defines the world story. It is already hilariously out of date.


A person with a socially acceptable and occasionally paying addiction. There is no known cure. Often an introvert.


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Sunday, January 14, 2024

 We saw the Rothko retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. Fascinating to watch how his style changed -- how he found it, and then sort of lost it. This was interesting:

<blockquote>The recipe of a work of art -- its ingredients -- how to make it--the formula.

  1. There must be a clear preoccupation with death--intimations of mortality... Tragic art, romantic art, etc. deals with the knowledge of death.
  2. Sensuality. Our basis of being concrete about the world. It is a lustful relationship to things that exist.
  3. Tension. Either conflict or curbed desire.
  4. Irony. This is a modern ingredient--the self effacement and examination by which a man for an instant can go on to something else.
  5. Wit and Play...for the human element.
  6. Hope. 10% to make the tragic concept more endurable.
I measure these ingredients very carefully when I paint a picture. It is always the form that follows these elements and the picture results from the proportions of these elements. 

I still am most fond of the canvas he's got up at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Like any Rothko, a photo doesn't begin to do it justice -- it is not one single color of blue, it is many blues. Up close and personal, it's mesmerizing. You could fall into it. 


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Thursday, November 23, 2023

(This is an adaptation of a talk I've given a few times, at companies I've worked for, and at the East Coast Game Convention. I wrote it about video game writing, but it is almost entirely applicable to film and television writing, and mostly applicable to a lot of other creative endeavors.)

In this business, you’ll get creative criticism from all sorts of people. Your boss, probably. Sometimes by co-workers. If you’re smart, you’ll ask for criticism from people who report to you. Whenever the game comes out, you may get criticism from random strangers on the Internet, although that is often not very helpful.

Sometimes you will get notes that solve problems you are having. Other times you’ll get notes you disagree with furiously. Sometimes they will be the same notes.

None of us comes to creativity without an ego. To be a professional creative, by definition, is to be someone who wants other people to have in their heads what you have in your head. If that’s not important to you, you don’t care. If you don’t care, you won’t do great work.

Ego regularly throws up obstacles to making creative criticism useful. How do you outwit your own ego?

Don’t take criticism personally

First of all, try not to take the feedback personally. This is hard to do. Someone is criticizing your baby! Obviously, they hate you.

When you take criticism personally, it becomes an attack. If you’re attacked, you defend yourself. If you defend yourself, you shut out the criticism.

(Note that feedback, especially public feedback, sometimes is a personal attack. The bigger the company, the more likely it has politics. Sometimes people will have it in for you. But you’re still better off treating an attack as if it is sincere, constructive criticism, if only to judo your opponent into loo
king like a jerk.)

All feedback is legitimate

If someone says they don’t like something, they don’t like it. You can’t tell yourself they ought to like it. If someone doesn’t laugh at your joke, it’s not funny, at least to them. If someone says they’re confused, then your writing confused them. If someone says they hate a character, then they hate them. It’s on you to figure out why, and what to do about it.

You may even be getting criticism from someone who does not like the genre you’re working in. What you choose to do with that information – whether you feel it is not relevant, or you embrace it – is up to you. But their criticism is still valid in the sense that that is their experience.

Distance yourself

It helps not to think of the work as your baby. Think of it as “the” baby. It’s not “my” scene, it’s “the current draft of the scene.” This also gives other people permission to critique it more freely. You can even criticize the work yourself. Maybe you have an idea of something that’s wrong with it, that you haven’t had time to fix, or don’t know how to fix.

Critiquing your own work, incidentally, makes anything positive that you might say about it more believable.

The problem may not be where they think it is

Just because all feedback is legitimate doesn’t mean that your note-giver is right about what the problem is. They may be picking at a symptom, not the cause.

I studied computer science in university. In programming, if something goes wrong three quarters of the way through, it’s often because you didn’t set something up properly at the beginning. In narrative, someone will say a scene is too long. But shortening the scene will not make the scene better. That’s because the real problem is earlier, where the game story failed to make you care about the characters.

Bear in mind, if you show someone a scene, they won’t have in their head all the scenes that went before it. You’ll know who the characters are, but they may not. It’s up to you to interpret the feedback you get.

Assume they are not an idiot

However, before you go off and decide that they’re wrong about the problem, allow for the possibility that the person giving you a note is not an idiot. There are almost no stupid people in video games. Right?

What often happens is, when someone gives a suggestion, what pops into our mind is an idiotic version of it. You may think they want a sweeping change. You may feel like they’re trying to cut the heart out of a scene or a sequence. Why would they want that? That’s just dumb!

Before you reject their identification of a problem, try to figure out what a non-idiotic version of what they’re saying might be. “If this wasn’t dumb, what would it be? Then ask if the non-idiotic version is what they meant. If it is, bravo! Now you have a good problem to solve instead of a bad one. Even if they did mean something dumb, at least they are clearer on what you’re thinking, and you’re clearer on what they’re thinking; and you have identified a non-idiotic problem your work might have.

Find the Truth

Back in the previous millennium, my acting teacher used to say, “Find the truth.” It’s easy to find something in feedback that might give you an excuse to dismiss all of it. “They are definitely wrong about x, so they are probably also wrong about y, z, a, b and c.”

Search for what is true rather than what is false.  Figure out how the critique is true. Your goal isn’t to defend your work. Your goal is to find how it is weak. Actively seek out the criticism, even if it is buried in confusion, contradiction or fluff.

The hard part of science is not finding evidence that corroborates your theory. The hard part is thinking up ways to disprove your theory. If you try to disprove your theory every which way, and it holds up, it’s a solid theory. But if you only try to support it, you’re leaving it to other people to point out its flaws.

Actively dig for the truth. Sometimes people will point out something that, you agree, is a problem.

But you also get the feeling that something else is bugging them. They just can’t crystallize what it is. So they grumble at it, and move on.

This is often a much more structural, serious problem than the thing they were able to criticize. It will require more work to fix. The temptation is to avoid the hint and focus on the surface flaw.

Don’t ignore it. Interrogate them (nicely). Try to work with them to crystallize what they’re having problems with. When someone tells you, “Nah, forget it, it’s fine,” you say, “No, seriously. I can tell you’re bumping on something. Let’s talk about it.”

If you don’t, they may come back with the same criticism in three months. Or, play-testers will have the same problem. Or, God forbid, players.

Don’t wait for the snippy Let’s Play video. Dig.

What they want you to do about it may be wrong

All feedback is legitimate. Most criticisms have some truth to them.

Many solutions proposed to you will be bad. Hopefully a more experienced writer can give you an approach that will solve the problem. Other people, particularly non-writing managers and people from other disciplines, will give you suggestions that fix the problem in front of you and create many more problems elsewhere. Even your boss may give you a bad idea, if you spent a month thinking through what you wrote, and they’re skimming it during an online conference call about optimizing frame rates.

Feel free to take the good bits of the criticism and ignore the bad solutions. Unless, of course, where you are, congeniality is prized over creative results. (That’s called “toxic positivity,” and most senior developers have experienced it one time or another.)

Find out what problem they are trying to solve

Surprisingly often, people forget to give you their critique, or gloss over it. They jump right to their solution.

It’s wise to find out what they’re trying to fix before addressing – or rejecting – their solution. They may be proposing a big, involved solution to a problem you can fix surgically, in a line or two.

Or, you may realize that the problem they brought up is actually bigger than their solution, and is going to require more work. That’s useful to know, too, even if it is not as cheery news.

“We’ll take a look at that.”

So, you really worked at understanding the criticism, and you know what their problem really is. But you’re still convinced that they’re 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 things, they didn’t game it out.

You may find yourself from time to time in a situation where you can already see their idea won’t work. You can work it out in your head. Or maybe you already tried it out, like, three months ago. It didn’t work then, and it’s not gonna work now.

Imagining how unwritten things are going to turn out, whether they’re going to play nice together, what they’re going to break – this is a writer’s superpower. Surprisingly, most non-writers cannot do the math in their heads. They can’t imagine doing the math in their heads. So when you tell them you already did it, and that’s not going to work, they won’t believe you. They’ll think you are being precious. They may feel disrespected.

I have got in hot water for telling folks about problems I could foresee in a story. Two years later, sure enough, the story had those problems. (Didn’t help me any, but I was already at another company.)

Say “We’ll take a look at that.”

Then really do take a look at it. Actually. Really truly.

That gives you time to remember that the person who gave you the note is probably not an idiot, to find the truth, to find the deeper problem, etc. Time for your hackles to come down. Time to try out the suggestion, so you can say, “I tried it, and I couldn’t make it work.” Or “that doesn’t work but how about this.” Or “it works if we do it this way.”

Or, “I tried your idea and it worked. Thank you!” That generally goes down pretty well.

(You can even say this when they didn’t propose anything, but their notes triggered a good idea on your part. Or when they proposed something only tangential to what you did. They will often agree that it was their idea.

When I was a kid, we were told that we should be truthful about everything. But we were also told that avocado green was a good idea for your kitchen, so we should have known better.)

Is it a hill to die on?

Sometimes you have to execute a note you think is wrong. Videogames are a collaborative art. If you don’t execute the note the way higher-ups want, at some point they will find someone who will.

Play the long game. If you were right, at some point it will become clear that the note did not work. If there’s time and resources, perhaps it will get fixed. And, you know, maybe you were wrong. There have been times I thought I was right, and I was wrong, you know?

Is it a hill to die on? Probably not. I mean, if someone asks you to write something legit evil, then yeah, kick up a fuss. But if they’re just asking you to write something dumb, well, it’s a video game. Video games are sometimes dumb. Your career is more important than a video game.


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There is a lovely scene in The Witcher tv series, Season 3 episode 4, where Geralt and Yennefer get back together after some time. They have an argument, forgive each other, and kiss.

I imagine the writers, Rae Benjamin and Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, wrote a draft of this scene, and got bored. This is an obligatory scene -- you can't really move the plot along without seeing how they feel about each other after being apart. But the viewer can probably guess everything they're going to say. But they have to say it. But it's boring to write, and probably boring to watch. 

Jaskier and Ciri watch Geralt and Yennefer reconcile

They hit on a brilliant alternative. We don't hear what Geralt and Yennefer are saying to each other. But the scene isn't silent. Instead, Jaskier and Ciri are watching it... and they begin saying what they think Geralt and Yennefer are probably saying to each other, with Jaskier, of course, voicing Yennefer all girly, and Ciri doing Geralt's deep growl. 

So we get all that dialogue out, and get to see Geralt and Yennefer reconcile, but the scene is funny, and we also get to see how well Ciri and Jaskier are attuned to Geralt and Yennefer.

You don't always need the protagonist to voice their feelings. Someone else can do it for them. In To Have and Have Not, Humphrey Bogart's Steve asks Lauren Bacall's Slim to walk around him. "No, Steve," she says. "There are no strings tied to you. Not yet."

That's much richer than having Steve say he doesn't like having attachments, because it communicates that emotion, but also shows that Slim gets it... and mocks him for it.

There are obligatory scenes. In S2 E1 of Rome, Julius Caesar has been murdered, and Antony has to give a speech. The problem there is, someone has already written a very famous version of this speech. You may have run across it. "Friends, Romans, countrymen! I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him," wrote Shakespeare.

Only a fool tries to top Shakespeare. Bruno Heller is no fool. We don't hear Antony's speech. Instead we have a pleb in a bar recount seeing Antony's speech. He describes a bit of business Antony does with Caesar's bloody toga. We don't need to know what Antony said. We already know what he said. "But Brutus says he was ambitious! And Brutus is an honorable man. So are they all, all honorable men." What we get instead is new information:  how the speech went down with the crowd.

Dialogue by proxy is a great way to mix it up. It's a great way to communicate what a laconic character is thinking or feeling. Or a character who, in the circumstances, wouldn't want to say what they're thinking or feeling. It's a good way to communicate, as well, what another character thinks about the laconic character. 

And it can be an awesome way to dispose of an obligatory scene. 


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Saturday, September 02, 2023

 I've been hearing a lot of about the use of AI -- large language models, or LLMs -- like ChatGPT -- in writing. For example, game writing. Couldn't ChatGPT come up with a lot of barks? And quests? And stories? And backstories?

The most important thing to know about ChatGPT is that when you pronounce it in French, it means, "Cat, I farted." ("Chat, j'ai pété.")

Okay, maybe not the most important thing, but surprisingly relevant.

ChatGPT is not "artificial intelligence" in the sense of "the machine is smart and knows stuff." ChatGPT takes a prompt and then searches through an enormous database of writing to figure out what is the most likely answer. Not the smartest or the best answers, just the most likely one.

That means if you ask ChatGPT a question, you are getting the average answer. Don't base your medication on ChatGPT results. 

Note that this is *not* how Google answers work. Google's algorithm evaluates the value of a site based on links to other sites -- and rates the links according to the value of those sites. So it is more likely to answer based on what the Encyclopedia Brittanica said than what Joe Rogan said the other day. ChatGPT is more likely to give you Joe Rogan.

What does this mean for writing? ChatGPT will give you a rehash of what everyone else has already done.

Two problems with this:

a.  It is a hash. A mashup. ChatGPT does not know which bits of story go with which other bits. It has no sense of story logic. It does not know if it is giving you a good answer or a bad answer. It is not trying to give you a good answer. It is giving you an answer based on how much of one kind of thing or another kind of thing shows up in its database. Its database is probably The Internet. 

So, for example, if you asked it what happened at a typical wedding, it might decide that the groom has cheated the night before and the couple broke up -- because people generally do not write on the Internet about happy couples getting hitched without a hitch. 

b.  It is what everyone else has already done. Good writing comes out of your creativity. Your personality. Your experience of life. It is filtered through who you are. It has your voice. We are not hiring you to give us clams and tired tropes. We are hiring you to come up with something fresh and compelling. Something heartfelt. Something that gets a rise out of you, and therefore might get a rise out of the reader, or the audience, or the player.

If you ask ChatGPT for barks, it will give you the least surprising barks ever. The most average. The more boring.

If you ask it for stories, it will give you stories you've heard before, unless it gives you stories that make no sense that are based on bits and pieces of stories you've heard before.

So, how can you use large language models in your writing?

Simple:  it can tell you what to avoid.

Ask it to give you barks. DO NOT USE THE ONES IT SHOWS YOU. Make up other ones.

Ask it to give you plots. DO NOT USE ITS PLOTS. THEY ARE TIRED. 

Working with LLMs can teach you to take your writing beyond the expected. It will give you the expected. If you write away from or around what's expected, your writing will become unexpected. Fresh. Original.

Or, you can take its plots and then twist them -- which is what pro writers do all the time. We're not making up plots from scratch all the time. 90% of the time what we write is like something else, but twisted or subverted or redoubled in some way. (This appropriation and adaptation of earlier, better writer's work is called "culture.")

Tl; dr: you can legitimately use ChatGPT and other large language models for writing. But not directly. ChatGPT can only give you (a) nonsense and (b) cheese. But it is useful as a warning. If ChatGPT came up with something, it's probably too tired for you to use it. 

PS  Another reason not to use LLMs: the content they train on is, generally, whatever they can scrape off the Internet. They can't tell whether the content they train on is human-generated or machine-generated. So, the more LLM content there is out there, the more LLMs are training on LLM output. Initially, you may be getting what a computer thinks a human would say next. But after a while, you are getting what a computer thinks a computer would say next. See the problem? 


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Monday, July 03, 2023

Human beings are perfectly capable of absorbing stories non-linearly. Very often we meet a person and only later find out about their past. Our experience of them grows and changes over time.

That's the best way to present character backstories, too. We need to see the character behave in the present before we care about how they got to be the way they are. We should only learn about their past once we have a sense of them in the present.

Backstories don't need to be set in stone. Some games let you pick the player's character's backstory, and then will adjust dialogue accordingly. 

But we can also assign characters -- even the player character -- different backstories depending on what the player does. If the game flags that the player likes to rush into combat (not a difficult metric to measure), we can give that player character a backstory that reveals why they are so impetuous, or anxious to prove their bravery. If the player likes to stealth and avoid combat, we can give that player character a backstory appropriate to someone who avoids confrontations. Hopefully that leads to the player feeling a kinship with the character they're inhabiting.


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Sunday, July 02, 2023

There's backstory that's in the game, and backstory that is in the game bible. I am all for backstory that makes its way into the game, and wary of game bible backstory.

(What I'm writing here also goes for novels and TV shows, but games do a lot more world building, so I'll stick to games here.)

It is easy to write backstory. Backstory, when it is not in the game, costs nothing except the time it takes for the writer to come up with it. People look at The Lord of the Rings and its yards of backstory and think it's not a real fantasy world unless you can trace the hero's lineage back generations, and talk about the wars before the one we're fighting, and so forth. I mean, Tolkien managed to publish an entire book of backstory, The Silmarillion, and it's still in print.

The problem with this sort of backstory is it becomes hard to remember how much of it you have actually put in the game. Writers think that because they've written backstory, they've accomplished something. 

But often no one reads backstory documents. Producers and creative directors are fond of asking for backstory documents, but artists are not fond of reading them. People like to be told a story, and most backstory documents are just recitals of things that happened.

Also, backstory documents often fail to focus on the theme of the game. They are just the writer letting their imagination run amok.

Consequently, if an artist or level designer does read the backstory document, and throws something into the game based on it, sometimes they are not reinforcing the main story, but diluting it, or muddying it. 

Consequently I am very suspicious of spending time writing game bibles. Instead, I'd rather spend time writing descriptions of things that will actually go in the game. Environmental narrative, for example. What is scratched on the walls of that cave? What is in that basement? What is strange about the ruins on the hilltop? What do the names of things tell you about this world? What folk story does that beer label refer to? Why are those tankards shaped so erotically?

We generally put backstory in a game in order to create a sense of immersion. But what creates a sense of immersion? The recital of historical facts? Or bits and pieces of the environment that hint at a broader world? The real world is full of symptoms of historical events, while the historical events, the causes, are buried in books. 

We are used to running into hints of the past; we like speculating about what they mean. In my neighborhood in Montreal, you can see the shadows of centuries: a two story stone wall topped with brick, a diagonal of black pitch running down the side of a building where it used to meet another roof, a bricked up hole that used to be a door, or a window. I love imagining what was there before. 

I think that hints of the past are more engaging than pushing history at the player. The player has an imagination; let them exercise it, and they will create a richer, more personal world than you can provide them.

"Show, don't tell" is a screenwriting maxim. "Hint, don't show" might be an environmental narrative maxim. We can only put so many objects into our world, since each has to be lovingly crafted in the computer. But the few that we can afford to build can stand in for thousands of other objects we didn't put into our world. The trick is to leave gaps in the evidence. Don't tell the whole backstory. Leave hints at a backstory -- possibly ambiguous hints. 

But all this is not game bible backstory. This is in-game backstory. That's what I think game writers should focus on. 


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Saturday, May 27, 2023

One of the folks I'm working with here in Hangzhou started playing the Rocky Horror Show soundtrack on the taxi's speakers (which is apparently a thing you can do here), and I mentioned I've seen the movie maybe 30 times. She asked why it was such a big deal.

My first answer was that it's a movie for people who feel like they're weird and maybe they're the only weird person in the world, to get together with other weird people and feel comfortable and maybe being weird is okay or even good.

Also, it came out at a time when gender fluidity was not a thing, so it was daring.

But I went home and bought the album on iTunes (third or fourth time I've bought that album) and listened to it. It is sad. The songs that are not about lust are all about longing. They are about having lost something precious. The opening song is about missing the science fiction double features of the singer's youth. Eddie sings about missing his rock'n'roll youth. Dr. Scott (or should I say, Dr. von Scott?) sings about longing for, but being frightened of, living his life for the thrills. Frank sings about going home. 

And they all sing about don't dream it, be it, but in a dreamy, slow way that makes you wonder if it is really possible to be it. 

And the whole thing turns out to be a dream, a science fiction movie, leaving the humans crawling on the planet's face. 

It is elegiac. 

It is about trying to capture dreams in a bottle.

It is a tough soundtrack to hear if you're dreaming it and not being it. 

Thank the Goddess I am married to the love of my life and I get paid to make up stories, which is as much being it as I could ask for. 

What do y'all think?


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Thursday, April 20, 2023

Many years ago, I was asked to fly down to Cape Town as the Head Writer on a strange sf tv show called CHARLIE JADE, along with two fellow Canadians, Sean Carley and the irrepressible Denis McGrath, whom we all miss terribly. 

It was a Canadian-South African co-production, which meant we had to hire South African writers for half the scripts. And we had a hell of a time finding good ones. We found one very fine writer, Dennis Venter, but I was never happy with the others, whose scripts we basically threw out and rewrote. (They got the credit anyway. Them's the rules.) There obviously were good ones, but not that many, and they were all busy on the soaps. 

Why couldn't we find good writers? Because the South African writers had no union.

Because the South African TV writers didn't have a strong union, they got paid almost nothing for a script. 

Like, $2,000 a pop for hourlong scripts we got $50,000 to write. You could make more money writing novels.

Novels! I wrote a novel. I've made several thousand dollars from it, mostly from the Canadian government, which pays you $250 a year if your book is in enough libraries.

Unions are good for companies. They make sure that writers can afford to write TV. Writing TV is super fun, but it is very hard work. Not in the "did anyone ask you to dig a ditch?" sweat-of-your-brown hard, but hard as in you are thinking very hard for about 16 hours a day. (Writing is not just typing.) As Head Writer, I was working more or less 6 1/2 days a week. 

If that doesn't pay enough to have a middle-class life, then would-be TV writers will go do something that will. And when you want to get your show written, you'll look around and there won't be any good writers.

Dammit, this ought to be the golden age of being a TV writer. There are more shows than ever before. Some of them have spectacular writing. How is it writers can't afford to be writers? 

Because the companies are greedy, and they're killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

It's short-sighted. The WGA wants 2% of the profits of the shows their writers create. 2%! Fucksake. 

Do you think there's nowhere else talented writers can go? Because there is this whole other business called video games that also hires writers, and gives us paychecks all year round. Some of us are doing pretty darn well. 

I hope the WGA doesn't have to strike. But God bless them, they will. And everyone will lose a lot of work. And hopefully, the companies will come around, like they did the last time. 

You don't get what you deserve. You get what you negotiate.


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Wednesday, March 22, 2023

 We're working on an opening sequence. I proposed a couple of short scenes. Other folks came back with scenes that I felt were long and contained too much information. 

As I wrote them, my general principals in approaching the scenes are:

1.  What is the minimum context the player needs in order to understand what is going on? We need the opening sequence to tell us who the main character is, and what his relationship with the other key figures.

2.   It is usually better to provoke the player to ask a question before we answer it. We need to provide a certain minimum amount of context (see above) so the player can ask a question that makes sense. Beyond that, it's better to provoke the question and then answer it later, than to give the player information they haven't asked for yet. This keeps the player engaged -- they pull themselves into the story rather than having story pushed at them.

So long as the player isn't actually confused, let the player wonder why things are happening. 

If we provide more than the minimum context, we don't know which information is the important part. Instead of getting wrapped up in the characters, we're processing information. When we're processing information, we're not asking questions. When we're not asking questions, we're not getting engaged in the story. We're also not getting to the gameplay!

Only resolve a mystery once the resolution is more satisfying than the mystery.


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Sunday, March 12, 2023

Looks like my talk on how to give and take creative criticism from last year's ECGC is up on YouTube. Has been since August. Who knew?


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Wednesday, March 01, 2023

My father, Howard Epstein, passed away this afternoon, peacefully, after a long struggle with Parkinson's. 

A boy from Queens, NY, Dad served in the Navy at the tail end of World War II. He used his G.I. Bill to go the Institut d'Etudes Politiques (the "Sciences Po"), coming away a lifelong francophile. 

After a stint as a reporter for the Xenia Daily Gazette (Xenia, OH, is the largest city in the US beginning with "X"), he joined Facts on File, a weekly indexed digest of international news. He became its President, starting up Checkmark Books, an imprint for dictionaries, atlases and encyclopedias, and coincidentally employing many of my friends while I was in high school. He took the company from $2 million a year to $20 million a year, before being unceremoniously fired for trying to protect his staff from layoffs during a merger. 

Dad was a mensch. I'm touched by how many people really loved him. He was a nurturing man, and took care of everyone around him. He was crazy about my mom. He liked sailboats, British roadsters, and old biplanes, though he only owned the one catboat. He appreciated good wine, and made sure his friends got enough of it. He made a hell of a ragout. 

He was working on a book about the French people who saved, or did not save, or hunted, Jewish children during the Nazi occupation of France. 

I've missed him for a while, because Parkinson's steals people from you bit by bit for a long time; his passing was a blessing. He was an atheist, but I'm not, so I get to hope he's in a place where he feels all the love he brought into the world.


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Tuesday, February 28, 2023

In animation there's an effect called the "uncanny valley." We have no trouble with a cartoon character. But an animated character who is too similar to a real human being, but not quite, becomes creepy. Some people think it's instinctive: one thing that looks human but isn't quite is a corpse, and it's unhealthy to be around corpses. There's an "uncanny valley" in fictional characters' personalities, too. Real people have flaws. Characters without flaws feel artificial, hence a little bit creepy. That might be why I get nervous any time there's a religious figure in a work of fiction who lives up to his religion. Someone who's wise, kind, insightful, self-deprecating, modest ... I hate this guy already. I'm just waiting for the other shoe to drop. He's probably a child molester, right? Not because religious leaders are all hypocrites, though many are, or child molesters, though a few are. But because my mind does not believe anyone that perfect exists. Either he has a deep dark terrible secret or... he's not really human.


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Sunday, November 20, 2022

I'm writing a graphic novel, a new medium for me. Like a novel, time in a graphic novel is infinitely stretchable and compressible. And there is no budget -- the artist can blow up the planet as easily as show someone's foot scratching an itch on their leg. But a novel is such a bigger canvas. I'm trying to pace this as fast as possible, but not faster. At least half of this thing is outside my wheelhouse, so it's all a big stretch. Wish me luck!


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Wednesday, November 09, 2022

I chatted with someone who's sidling into the video game industry on the strength of her superpowers in other media. She said she doesn't play games, and I said "well, what games are you playing?" She's been watching her boyfriend play brain-straining puzzle games, so I suggested that before she writes off a medium, she play different kindsa games. Here's my list of games to check out. This is a list skewed towards narrative (she's a voice director), not too difficult games, and Mac games (she has a map); I'd have made a different list for someone else. But you may dig these, too.

    Mac/PC - small games
  • 80 Days: based on the novel by Jules Verne, if Europe didn't colonize the world
  • West of Loathing: really silly and adorable side-scrolling stick-figure Western
  • Return of the Obra Dinn: puzzle game in which you must figure out how the 60 people on the Obra Dinn died, and therein lies a sea story
  • Black Book: a Slavic witch on a very dubious quest. This is a game where you build your deck of powers -- a "deck-builder."
  • Unpacking: A weirdly moving game in which you move into a series of new places to live. Seriously, though.
  • Passage: a truly tiny free experimental game about life
  • Gorogoa: a sort-of puzzle game where a story unfolds as you move pictures around
  • Baba Is You: A word puzzle game. Gets difficult eventually, but you can stop any time.

    Mac/PC - bigger games
  • Disco Elysium -- a decayed detective trying to solve a murder gets caught up in the politics of an equally decayed Empire
  • Contrast: You are the circus girl who is the invisible friend of Didi, an 8 year old trying to uncover the secrets of her past. You can become your own shadow, and walk on shadows.
  • Stray: My favorite game of the past twelvemonth. You are a cat, trying to escape a city of robots.

    Mac/PC - games where you have to hack and slash a bit
  • Cult of the Lamb: you are a sheep trying to bring back a bloodthirsty elder god
  • Boyfriend Dungeon: date your swords
  • We Happy Few: three slightly horrible people try to escape an insane, groovy dystopian England.
  • Banner Saga: Vikings and killer robots from space. Turn-based tactical combat, meaning that you can take as long as you like.
  • Into the Breach: Fight giant bugs with mechs. Totally addictive turn-based tactical. A gem of its kind.

    PC Only - small
  • What Remains of Edith Finch -- What happened to the Finch family in this creepy old house?
  • Journey: a mysterious character tries to get to the top of that mountain.
  • Papers, Please: a depressing and powerful game about being a bureaucrat in a vaguely Eastern European dictatorship
  • The Stanley Parable: an iconic game about choices
  • Where the Water Tastes Like Wine: how folk tales grow


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Thursday, September 08, 2022

I'm a regular customer of Charles Stross's Laundry Files series, and I've read Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon a few times each. Oh, and Tim Powers' Declare. We went out to the countryside to read books and kayak a bit, so I spent a half an hour poking around spec fiction books on Kindle, and Battle of the Linguist Mages caught my eye because I am a sucker for historical linguistics. (Did you know that, in the absence of archeological evidence, you can make deductions about what migrating peoples lived next to each other at what time? Based on what the loan words one people took from the other look like? Because we have some good theories about how words change over time in a language, and when a loan word comes into a language, it stops changing the way words change in the old language, and starts changing the way words change in the new language. So we can say, to make up an example, the Hungarians must have brushed up against the Scythians around 800 BC. Words can get imported into a language multiple times, so in English we have dish and disc, ship and skiff, etc.) I love Kindle because I can read a free sample and then buy the book and have it RIGHT NOW. Battle of the Linguist Mages takes some language concepts, spins them into a wild adventure story, and then runs with them as far as you can. It takes off from the lands of Snow Crash and The Fifth Element and dives into a sort of contemporary Yellow Submarine sea of meta concepts, "foothills of the headlands" style. Oh, and if you're a gamer, it might tickle you where you live, in the places that Ready Player One only poked.


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Saturday, August 20, 2022

This is just a short note to remind the actors among you that when people like me are looking for actors, and don't find a reel online, there is every likelihood that we will move to the next actor, who does have an online reel. It shouldn't be that hard to get a clip of yourself acting up on the Internet. Not having a reel is like having a store, but the windows are dark and there's no sign outside. Once you're inside, it's lovely, but for some reason no one comes in. Of course I am preaching to the converted, because if you're reading this you're online. But still. It's just weird how many people don't have them.


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Friday, February 25, 2022

I continue my conversation with Rhianna Pratchett: 


Alex: We were talking about what stories games do that you can't do as well in other media. One thought that occurred to me was what games can do is make the player complicit in something.

I’m thinking of Far Cry 3 where this naïve tourist kid gets harder and harder until he has a flamethrower and starts blasting everything. He's like, whoa, this is awesome. I love it. And as a player you’re thinking, I’m turning into a little bit of a monster, aren’t I? We've made you complicit because you did that, you didn’t just watch it happen. And the white phosphorus mission in Spec Ops: The Line. And to a lesser extent, The Last of Us, the final decision that Joel makes, we make you complicit in these things. (Though not as complicit as if the game let you make that choice.) Whereas if you're just in a movie, you're just watching.

Rhianna: I think detective games work really well. The actors solving and searching and rummaging up clues yourself.

Alex: That's a great example, because with detective stories and movies, you know that if you just sit back, it'll get solved. When I read an Agatha Christie novel, for example, I don't have a note pad, I’m not writing down, “Sally was in the study from 2 to 5.”

Whereas in a detective game or a detective mission in a game, you really have to look at all the clues and think, Oh my God, what's this all mean?

It really forces you to have that experience. If you're in LA Noire or a game where you really do have to at least put together some of the clues yourself. It puts you more in the frame of mind of the puzzle solver.

Rhianna: It's interesting what you were saying about complicity as well because I think the Far Cry games are very good in that.

With Far Cry 4, I really enjoyed 4, but I could never finish it because I was being forced to be complicit with one or other monster, and then I was just like, no, no, my decision is to not choose. I found it a bit annoying that game was forcing me to do that. So I just opted out of doing it.

Alex: And same thing with The Last of Us 2. I mean, I'm killing all these people who really don’t have it coming. I can't kill all these people.

Rhianna: I haven't played The Last of Us 2. It came out during the middle of the pandemic. I knew there was dog killing. I didn't want to do that. I just felt like the world was dark enough.

Alex: That is the hilarious thing about gamers, right? Gamers will kill 100 guards who have mothers and wives and children, but if you have to kill a dog, I'm putting the controller down. I'm done.

Rhianna: There’s a whole website devoted to people that can't cope with that in a movie, the Does the Dog Die? website. It's not just about animal killing now. It's all these things that might be uncomfortable watching for people.

Alex: Triggers.

Rhianna: The Bioshocks were very interesting in there, the harvesting and not harvesting of Little Sisters. Although it was a very obviously good or obviously evil choice and I could not. I think some players found it somewhat offensive that the game was trying to get you to kill a child. And I never harvested a Little Sister, not even to see what it was like. I just couldn't.

Alex: That’s the positive side of complicity. If the game can offer you a choice, you can feel good about it. We gave you the chance to do it and you turned your back on it. So you can really feel like a hero because you weren't forced to do the right thing.

Rhianna: Bioshock 2 actually is built on a mantra: “By the time we understand our legacy, it's too late.” You're making choices and your daughter is learning from those choices. And then those choices inform how she treats her mother towards the end of the game. So you're complicit to whole different level because there's another character learning from you. It’s not a very subtle metaphor, your child may be learning from your mistakes.

Alex: The best metaphors are not subtle. The best hit you over the head! That’s sort of the purpose of science fiction and fantasy.

Mac and cheese games

Rhianna: The Bioshocks are also games that I like to replay. I have a lot of games, I call them cozy blanket games. I will often prefer to replay an old game that try a new game. There's a sweet spot in an old game.

Alex: When you make a mac and cheese, you know exactly what you're gonna get. It's not going to be surprising. But on the other hand, it's going to be creamy. So when you have a game where you know the game loop by heart, it’s still going to give you those dopamine hits.

Rhianna: And you’re feeling good at it, whereas when you play a new game you’re feeling shit and not knowing what you're doing and learning everything again. And sometimes you're just not in the mood to learn something.

Alex: There’s a certain mental toll.

Rhianna: I’m always very proud of myself when I try a new game, especially if I managed to finish it as well. Like the last game I remember picking up on the day it came out and starting it on the day it came out was Unavowed by Wadjet Eye Games. I really enjoyed that. I hadn't played a click and point adventure of that style for a long time and I thought they did a great job.

Unpacking as well was really nice. I could have done with it being a bit longer, but it was just a satisfying experience as a player.

Alex: That's really moving. That was a really moving game.

Pull vs. push narrative

Rhianna: That really increases the discussion about environmental narrative and how to use objects and space to tell a story and I think that's one thing that games can do really well is tell a story through nontraditional means. So.

Rhianna: Yeah, Virginia just uses gestures. Limbo uses artwork and level design. And obviously every medium uses environmental narrative to a degree. But in games, because the player can poke around in every corner of the world if they wish to, the real estate for environmental narrative is huge. You can use so much of the world to tell this story. I think the first Bioshock is a really good closed world example. Unpacking as well through its use of objects and being able to place those objects or not, you work out the characters through the things they own. It's just lovely. And I think that's something games can do very well.

Alex: Games do non-linear story well. With Unpacking, you're are putting the story together. The game doesn't tell you flat out, here’s what happened. But then when you open one of the boxes and you pull something out, you go, oh, I see what happened.

Rhianna: Again, there's probably a German word about this. When you work out the narrative of the story without the game bashing you over the head with it, I think that's very satisfying.

Alex: Because you pulled it out of the game instead of having it pushed at you.

Rhianna: Pull and push narrative, I think it's very important in games that to have that.

With the Bioshock games, players who like to poke around in the corners might find different audio diaries. They might find, you know, a little ghost scenario here. And they may learn more about the world and it feels more personal to them because they've discovered it in the corners. Actively pulling narrative towards you rather have it pushed out by the developers, is very satisfying. And again it ties into how important environmental narrative is, and how much writers need to be involved early. We know how to tell a story without words as well, despite the fact we do the word bits. We understand what goes on behind them.

Emergent Narrative?

Alex: I've seen a bunch of games presented as having emergent narrative. I'm not really sure what it is. Do you know?

Rhianna: Which games have you heard about talked about?

Alex: Oh, you know, Pendragon, for example, was touted as a game with emergent narrative. Wildermyth.

When we talk about emergent gameplay, the idea is we create all these systems and then the players discover new capabilities within that. So in Zelda you discover that if you do this and this and this now you're in a balloon floating over a mountain.

Or rocket jumping in shooters.

It seems to me like you could have emergent narrative. But what I'm seeing advertised as emergent narrative isn't particularly systemic. So I'm not clear what it is.

Rhianna: If it feels like it’s a way of expressing more personalized narratives. That the narrative is at a more granular level around what you do, what you say in the choices that you make so that. You can play the game two different ways.

But it's still narrative that someone has had to write. Someone has thought about all the different permutations that could happen based on the choices and the actions that you make and is sort of spinning that to create a story that feels more personal.

It feels like it would have to be more akin to interactive theatre. You're dealing with the audience moving through the actors’ space and you don't know how they're going to react to things. And the actors have to react. Emergent narrative is trying to replicate that.

Alex: It seems to me that you could make emergent narrative. But I think it would be extremely difficult. Say the player can hit different bits of narrative in different order. So if a guy has an argument with his wife, that’s one bit, and he cheats on his wife is another. If you say he cheats on his wife and then has an argument, that’s one story. If he has an argument and then cheats, that’s a different story. They mean different things because they happen in different order.

One is saying, Oh well, you know, he was mad at her about the argument. So he decided to hurt her by cheating. And then the other one is, they're arguing about the cheating.

But to create a whole bunch of storylets so that you could tell a multitude of stories by hitting them in a number of different orders, that seems to me very high order of difficulty.

Rhianna: And there's potentially a lot of wasted material as well.

Alex: The company I work for has a deep dread of any content that the player will not, for sure, guaranteed, hit.

Rhianna: I think the challenge is to make it feel like there may be other choices to be made and other things to explore that aren't necessarily there, but it generates that feeling.

Alex: The illusion of player agency.

Who finishes games?

Rhianna: So many players don't reach the end of games.

Alex: Which takes us back to games journalism. Games journalists will complete a game. And most players will not complete the game. So we are making a good deal of the later game for the game journalists, aren’t we.

Rhianna: I think that's why episodic games are interesting, because you can be pretty sure that both players and game journalists are going to reach the end of it. I think we’ll see more of these bite size chunks of narrative. That's how The Long Dark works. They've had four episodes and each one has sort of five or six hours of gameplay. They're always very finishable.

But I would not hand on heart say that every game journalist has finished every game that they have reviewed. You normally have a very tight deadline. And if you played through half the game, the game should have shown you like a lot of what it can do. You only have to play enough so you feel you can write an honest review.

It's funny. I don't tend to play the very long open world games apart from The Long Dark where I'm just living in a cave, eating a bear for ages and ages.

I do like that games are getting more bite size. And I do like the episodic model a lot. I think games are turning toward TV for inspiration. We are in the Golden Age of TV, just diversity across the board in all spectrums. And I think games are starting to think about how they can do similar things. When I started out the indie scene was pretty nonexistent. There was obviously very little mobile gaming content and that's that's flourished. All those different avenues lend themselves to different types of stories and whether they're huge, lengthy Red Dead Redemption 2's or they’re smaller Animal Crossings, the platforms and the mediums have also changed the way we tell stories and the types of stories we tell for the good. I think there's much more diversity of stories on offer. But yeah, that still doesn't stop me going back to my cozy blanket games and replaying Dungeon Keeper 2 for the millionth billionth time. That doesn't really have much of a story, but it does have humor.

Alex: You make the story by playing it.

Rhianna: Cool. Yeah. Yeah. And I think a lot of that goes for The Long Dark as well. I'm pretty sure I'm telling myself a story there. It's usually very dull one as I'm going along and you know, there's Ghost Dad in my head doing his commentary as well.

I think I like being fairly expert at it now and being able to help people who get stuck because I know how hard it is. And I never thought this would happen, but I would never get expert in the game. Yeah, that's terrible coming for a games journalist.

But what games can you say that you are expert in?

In which we talk about Alex’s own game habits

Alex: I guess some of the Total War games. Three Kingdoms. Medieval 2: Total War. Into the Breach. Europa Universalis, which I've probably spent 1000 hours on, aggrandizing the Kingdom of Bohemia till it stretched from from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Rhianna: Boom.

Alex: And then Crusader Kings II. I'm not really allowed to play that anymore.

Rhianna: There's a lot of marrying off your children.

Alex: The classic Crusader Kings joke is, “My daughter wanted to be treated like a princess. So I married her to France for an alliance.”

Rhianna: You like your games fiddly and intricate.

Alex: One-more-turn games. CK2 is very fiddly. It’s about mastery of the systems. As you say, feeling like you're an expert in this.

But then, wow, the amount of time that I fall into them and then I realized that I've burned 200 hours and I’m thinking, what could I have written in 200 hours? I do play story games.

Rhianna: What's your favorite? What's the last favorite story game you played?

Alex: The last really satisfying story game, maybe Black Book? You’re a witch in Slavic folklore and your boyfriend has died. And you’re having none of that. So you are set on doing some unwise things to bring him back. It’s a deck builder.

Rhianna: Right.

Alex: And you’re fighting all sorts of Slavic demons, chorts and things.

Rhianna: I'm seeing more Slavic mythology and Eastern European mythology coming out in games recently. There was another survival game, but you play as a witch. [Goes on Steam] There’s something called Skin which looks terrifying.

Alex: Oh dear.

Rhianna: [Looking on Steam] It just keeps giving me the Blair Witch game.

Alex: Oh, Return of the Obra Dinn. It’s a puzzle game, sort of. You have to figure out how all sixty people on a ship died. And they each died in spectacular ways. So you have to figure out what the story was that happened.

Rhianna: Yeah, I I played a little bit of that. I really liked Papers, Please, which was their previous game.

Alex: Papers, Please was another great example of putting you in a complicit situation and letting you feel what it’s like. The situation will not allow you to be righteous. It really enlightens you. It's easy to judge people who are not righteous but we have the comfort to be righteous.

Rhianna: Yeah, I haven't thought about that game for awhile, but it really affected me.

Alex: And Disco Elysium.

Rhianna: Oh yeah, I played a little bit of that. I enjoyed the writing and characterization in that.

Alex: They went back and fully voiced everything. If you update your game then you will discover that all the things that were just text now have voices.

Rhianna: I'm trying to think if there's any other games I’m expert at. I mean, I was probably quite a decent level in World of Warcraft. At some point I was fairly decent in Age of Mythology. I was obsessed with Age of Mythology at one point, playing it online. I would play it, get obsessed, feel that I just needed to break free of it, and I would break the disk. And then six months later, the same thing would happen again.

I did that with Stronghold. I bought Stronghold three or four times.

Rhianna: Sometimes when I die in The Long Dark, it feels like there's a freedom to it. Because if you die, it's a game over. Your whole game is wiped. Freedom is when you stop playing the game, when you can just do something else, but it just.

I know I'm going to go in after this conversation, and I know there's a bear that's died up a tree randomly. I thought, well, I'll sort that bear out after I've spoken to Alex and now I'll have loads of plans for the game. After that I'm gonna eat the bear and that's gonna take me like 2 weeks to eat my way through the bear....

Alex: I better let you get on that. It was lovely talking to you.

Rhianna: And you.


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