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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Pratchett is a veteran games writer, journalist, screenwriter, and comics writer. She is known for her work on Heavenly Sword, Overlord, Mirror’s Edge, Tomb Raider, Rise of the Tomb Raider and Lost Words. We chatted for, like, three hours, and covered a lot of ground.
On what she’s up to:
Alex: What are you in the middle of now? What do you do in a day?
Rhianna: I've come off a recent big deadline and that was guest preproduction work. Things like setting out the beats of the story and characters and level ideas. That was quite intensive. I've been catching up on other bits and pieces.
I don't know what it's been like for you during COVID, but I lost a couple of big [non-game] projects near the start. I've had more game projects since then and more probably more unusual projects like doing a story for Surgeon Simulator 2 and writing a fighting fantasy book and writing a tabletop role playing game and things like that.
I don't have a specific day. I'm not that good at setting my own deadlines. I'm fine if other people set deadlines, but I've sort of fallen into The Long Dark, which sounds like a euphemism for depression, but I'm just talking about the hinterlands game. I feel like I’ve moved on to expert level with it. And I don't think I've ever been expert level in a game.
In which we digress into The Long Dark and the eating of bears
Alex: How does that game make you feel? What is the experience?
Rhianna: My dad and I used to game a lot. I would sit next to him and watch him. Or I would draw the maps for him. But we never played wilderness survival games because back then they didn’t exist. But we used to walk around the Somerset countryside. Dad would show me all the plants that were edible. Funguses, berries, that sort of thing. And I always used to read a lot of books about kids being lost in the wilderness. I think I always slightly fantasized about getting lost in the woods and having to survive, and I had all this knowledge.
So we used to walk a lot and I’d be naming flowers and plants and all sorts of things. That's where I feel him most. Like I can hear his comments in my head, and I think, oh, Dad would have liked that moment. And so The Long Dark is something Dad would have enjoyed.
I like Among Trees as well. Don’t Starve, which is a very different vibe. The Forest, though it’s so much scarier than The Long Dark because it has screeching cannibals.
I'm now in a run in The Long Dark where I've survived for over a year [of game time] on the hardest difficulty and it’s become Zen. I’m so expert playing it I can listen to audiobooks. And at the moment, I'm just living in a cave, eating meat and passing time. I killed a bear just before this call, which I guess you don't get many of your interviewees saying. So I'm gonna harvest the bear a bit later and then I'll get a load of meat and I'll have to stay in the cave for longer just to eat the meat and make the days pass because I'm trying to see how long I can survive. I want to try and survive for 500 days.
Alex: It sounds like that's a fair amount of your day.
Rhianna: It has been a little bit at the moment, but it's more one of those I dive in and out of. I'm the kind of writer that likes have different things going on. So yeah, I'll start the day with a strategy game and that helps get my brain firing, 5 to 20 minutes while I'm having a coffee. Write for a bit, go through emails and then I'll play The Long Dark.
On whether writers avoid story games
Alex: Do you think a lot of game writers play everything but story games? Personally, I get sucked into 4X games – Total War, paint-the-map games. I'm the King of Bohemia and I'm going to take over Europe.
Rhianna: You don’t necessarily gravitate towards story games because it's your work.
Alex: You start thinking, “Well, I wouldn't have done it that way.”
Rhianna: Actually I did play the story mode of all the Long Dark episodes. I really enjoyed them. And I gravitate towards some of the areas where I spent a long time in this story mode.
On Rhianna’s many projects
I'm waiting for a personal project with my company Narrativia to be pitched, and that should be happening in the next couple of months. I own the multimedia rights to my dad’s work. And I don't know the form it's going to take, but that could dictate a lot of my time for the next up to 10 years.
In the meantime, I'm doing more consultancy work. Developers reaching out to writers in pre production, take a look at their story and character doc. I feel that's one area where I've got a lot to give. I've got some smaller games. Some comic work upcoming. I've got a little story in Women of Marvel with Shanna the She-Devil and Silver Sable, and that's been fun.
On Rhianna’s experience as a games journalist back in the day
Alex: Have you ever gone to a regular game job where you show up in an office?
Rhianna: No. Well, I used to work for PC Zone magazine. My first fortnight I played a 24-hour Cossacks tournament and then went to Dallas with the #1 and #2 British Quake 3 players. I spent a lot of time going around the world meeting developers and looking at how the sausage is made. And I think that was very good grounding.
Alex: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about your experience as a games journalist. How does it inform your writing?
Rhianna: As a journalist, I would tend to get the smaller games, like the guys would always be competing for the big first person shooters. So that left some of the smaller games for me. I ended up doing some of the more unusual games, always looking for little gems, things that would make me laugh, things that would make me think.
On A Tale in the Desert
I still bring up in conversation this MMO I played called A Tale in the Desert. I think a handful of people know about it. It's still going. And I originally covered it in PC Zone. You live and work in ancient Egypt, and you go from making bricks to building pyramids. And it was great, the way the players took to the game mechanics and created their own way of gaming the system. You could make meals in the game and every time you made a meal with new ingredients, you got perception points. Some very clever players created the Nile River Cafe which was a bunch of kitchens, all with a different meal. You brought them carrots, camel milk, honey, that sort of thing. And you all got your perception points up.
A lot of the challenges in the game were focused around the 7 Tests of Man. Every player is born into the game with their own acrobatic move. And every player has a teacher pupil relationship to each other. You could demonstrate your move to another player. And again, the players found masters in every single move, and they staggered them across the desert so you could run and do your move to every master and they would teach you a little bit. And it was so clever.
I've never seen anything like in in an MMO, it was so community focused and the players had made it that way.
Alex: Emergent gameplay.
Rhianna: Right. What was the original question?
Alex: How did your experience in games journalism inform your writing?
It’s the little things that give you creative freedom
Rhianna: I'd always be looking at the things that I thought were creative, would make me laugh. And so that's created a sense in me of what a reviewer might like.
Alex: So does that liberate you to just go off on a toot because you would have enjoyed a game that went off on a toot?
Rhianna: It depends on the flexibility I've got within the team. In more indie games I have more of a voice. Something like Lost Words, I was in very early and I helped develop the design side of as well as the narrative. I made it more of a personal story and drew upon my own experiences of loss of, particularly, grandparents. I could put my own anecdotes of life with my grandmother.
We've all had those situations, particularly when writing barks, when it's just a job. I like writing barks myself. But in smaller games you can bring more of yourself to the table.
With bigger games you tend to live around the edges more, particularly secondary narrative. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, 2015, I think we [writers] enjoyed the secondary narrative more than anything else. Because it didn't go through a committee. I incorporated my father's memory of the night I was born into a letter from Lara’s father, because it was a memory my dad said, in the interview, he didn't want to lose. So I kind of immortalized it.
We knew going into Tomb Raider how much time we had to tell the story. It’s working backwards, we had all the characters, but not the story, and only a limited amount of space to fold it into. But I think that if you can deliver a perfect little nugget of characterization, that really resonates with players, particularly because they may not be expecting it
There are moments in Tomb Raider where Lara is struggling with the truth of what she's discovering and the fact that she can't look to others to save her. She has to save herself. And a lot of what we were doing was diving into where the hero meets the human. What is it like to be the one that has to save everyone else and to take the blame if you can't save anyone? So some of the movements when Lara breaks down, I think resonated with a lot of players and when she pulls herself up again as well.
So it's landing little bits like that. And I still remember my favorite line that occasionally players mention, was just like a walk and talk with Whitman, who is the other archaeologist on the trip. And they're talking about the legend of Himiko and her powers. And Lara says, “a woman gets that much power, sooner or later, they call it witchcraft.” I had to fight to keep that one.
Alex: It's a great line.
Rhianna: Oh, some quarters thought it was too stridently feminist?
Alex: It defines her character very well.
Rhianna: That's living in the margins of AAA as a writer. Sometimes we get the line across you really like. A nice anecdote about my grandmother dropping yogurts in Waitrose that they merged into Lost Words.
But yeah, if you do a lot of secondary narrative, you get your voice across, but when you're a freelance writer and you're not embedded in the team it's somewhat of story by committee. On Rise [of the Tomb Raider], we opened up the script very early on to feedback and it was brutal, just the quantity of the feedback and all the different places it was coming from. From Microsoft, from Square Enix, from inside the team, from external consultants, and it was all contradictory and it was all based on an early draft and lots of people who didn't necessarily understand storytelling or couldn’t really look at a scene and envisage what that's gonna look like in the game.
Alex: Almost no one can read an outline except writers.
Rhianna: Even getting some people to read is quite difficult. I still pepper my documents with pictures just to break up the text to make it more friendly for people.
Mary Kenney is a veteran games writer who has written on Marvel’s Wolverine, Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, and The Walking Dead: The Final Season, among other games. Profiled in Forbes’s 30 Under 30 in 2020, she also teaches and writes books and comics. She kindly agreed to an interview.
Alex: You studied journalism and psychology at university?
Mary: Yeah, I went to Indiana University. They didn't have a game design program yet. I majored in journalism. I minored in psych. Then I was a working journalist for about 2 1/2 years before I went to grad school.
Alex: What do you think that brings to your writing?
Mary: Definitely an attention to detail.
I think it helped me get a good sense of the distinct ways that people speak. I wrote stories in India and Florida and California and New York. That’s really helpful in game writing, 'cause you write so much dialogue from different people. Also I think having a good sense of how to hook somebody into a story and then pace it so they don't drop off. I did long form journalism, like 5000 words, and that gave me that sense of making sure somebody's interested at all times.
Alex: Talking about keeping people hooked: theoretically, video games should be always emotionally involving because the player is the player character. But games don't always succeed at that. What do you think is the most important thing for keeping a video game story emotionally involving? And when it doesn't succeed, what's missing, typically?
Mary: I think it's a connection with other characters or even the main character. You often have a problem of a main character who is pretty blank on purpose, so that the player can project onto them. Which is fine, but in that case they need other characters to latch onto and bond with and talk with, to stay emotionally invested. Worrying about those people, caring about those people, wanting to see what happens next to those people.
If you do have a main character who doesn't need to be blank, then don't make them blank. I see that happen all the time where you're playing a single player game, with a strong central linear narrative, and they still wrote the protagonist [without a personality]. Why? I already know this person is not me. Make this person a character with a strong personality that I find interesting.
Alex: I have no trouble identifying with a main character who’s compelling and distinct. I don’t need the player character to be a blank. I mean, we watch movies and identify with a specific character all the time.
Mary: But sometimes games still go the blank route. I think that can really hamper the player’s ability to get invested in the story.
And this is something I talked about when I was interviewing at Insomniac because I think the first Spider-Man game did the opposite of what I'm talking about. They did such a good job of, like, Peter Parker isn't me, but he's someone I care about and relate to. Plus swinging is awesome. I want to see what happens to him next, right?
Alex: So for something like Miles Morales, or Wolverine, how does the story get developed? Those are obviously intellectual properties that Marvel protects fiercely.
Mary: I've always worked in IPs [intellectual properties]; even at Telltale I was on Batman: The Enemy Within. So for me it's kind of the norm. So first the team gets a really good handle on the character. What does this character represent? What is their moral compass? What kind of themes do we usually see in their stories?
In my opinion, the biggest difference is the amount of research you have to do. But even before Telltale, I worked on a historical fiction game. It's still just research. Either I'm looking up 6th Century Vikings or I'm reading all of the Spider-Man comics.
Alex: To get back to blank characters, how do we get the player invested in them? Is it their relationships with other characters? Is it just that NPCs seem to care about our character, so we are primed to do so too? What triggers a human response of, “I care what happens to this character.”
Mary: I think it's a mixture of both. The player needs to care about them -- that doesn't necessarily mean like them, hating someone works too, but we need to have an emotional response. But then that needs to be expressed through the gameplay. You need something, a dialog wheel, or through combat. In Hades, being able to give the NPCs gifts. Being able to lean into the way I'm feeling about other characters will help me stay more emotionally invested in my own character.
Alex: You might have conditional dialogue, even though it's not affecting the story, but it allows the player to decide how they feel about the person they’re talking to.
Mary:I love conditional dialogue. I want to use it forever and always. Letting the game acknowledge that you have feelings. Versus, like, the player character is charging ahead regardless. I also think sliding scales of relationships can be helpful.
Alex: Let’s talk about the illusion of player agency. How do you sucker the player into feeling that they have agency even though it's a linear narrative and they don't actually have agency?
Mary: I think it's different for every player and that's why it's difficult to just say they have agency or not, because for some players it's going to be about upgrading my loot, getting new armor; and for other people it's going to be building relationships with other characters. And for other people it's going to be making choices that lead to one of 12 endings. Every player sees their agency differently. So the short answer is, as often as possible, put the story beats into gameplay.
Let's say I'm still at Telltale. If there's a tricky conversation, it has to be on a dialogue wheel.
If we need to have a tricky, heartfelt conversation, can we have that conversation over combat? Can we do it while I'm doing something else? Can we express this using our mechanics, not just in cinematics? Although they are also great and have their place.
Alex: What are some stories that only games could tell and why? Games that you played where you're like, OK, that really that could only have been a game and it really did something special because it's a game.
Mary: The first answer that comes to mind, and I know it's pretty popular one, but I stand by it, is The Last of Us. It really hit me because of the way they told the story through the mechanics. You know, the ways in which you call on Ellie for help, and switching to Ellie, all of these things that they did mechanically that make you empathize with the characters. And the other answer that comes to mind is Hades. Because my goodness does that story lean in so hard into its genre, it's so great. I've never enjoyed a roguelike in my life until that game, and I was suddenly like this, this is awesome. I think any game where the storytelling really supports and leans into the mechanics. I'm not saying that story shouldn't be early in the development process. It absolutely should. But when those two things work together, it feels so much better. It has to be a video game.
Alex: What, specifically about the way that the mechanics relate to the story in Hades?
Mary: His whole story is about trying to escape, and you're playing through repeatable loops trying to escape Hell. It just works perfectly, like you understand the player character’s frustration and his desperation because you're feeling it too, because you've tried to get out of Elysium 12 times.
Alex: You teach narrative design?
Mary: I taught narrative design at Indiana University last semester. I'm not teaching this semester.
Alex: How do you manage that with a full-time job?
Mary: The good thing about having kind of flexible hours with Insomniac is on the days I was teaching I could just get into work earlier, so I taught my class from 3:30 to 5:30 two days a week. Those days I would start work at 7 in the morning at Insomniac. Get all my stuff done for the day and then sign off. And prepping and grading and all that fun stuff, either after work or weekends.
Alex: What would you say were your students’ worst preconceptions coming in? And what was the most important thing for them to take away?
Mary: It’s going to sound a little pat but I think it's true: I don't think they realized how much writing they would have to do. I think they had the idea that oh, I'll just throw out ideas for games and ideas for mechanics and ideas for scenes. But when it came time to turn their outline into scene work, make a gameplay script, they were kind of like, “What? Why would I want to do that?”
Alex: It’s funny because at Compulsion, I’ve had the opposite misconception, where people are asking, “How long will it take you to write all the dialog.” But the dialog is not the hard thing. The hard thing is, what are five objects I can put in this room to tell the story of what happened here. That could take all day, and what you turn in is just a list of five items. To me, that’s what takes the time. Dialog, just put the two characters in the room and let them argue with each other
Mary: Yeah no, I think that's spot on, 'cause people I've worked with have been like oh, writers are just there to fulfill dialogue requests. We [designers] will have all the ideas and you'll just make it good with your dialogue. And dialog is not going to solve every story problem on planet Earth.
But with a lot of people who haven't been in the industry at all, the idea is oh, writers get to have all the ideas and no. No, no. No, we don’t. We get to have some of the ideas, and pitch things alongside other departments, but we don’t do it solo
I think the biggest takeaway for my students was how important rewriting is. We rewrote a lot in that class. They’d hand in first drafts, I would give them extensive feedback, and then they had like 4 days to make revisions. Learning to be constantly revising and making it better.
Alex:Writing is rewriting.
Mary: Right, yeah, exactly.
Alex: Talking about rewriting, when you get notes that you might disagree with, do you have strategies for dealing with them? What are the tips and tricks?
Mary: The first thing to do is ask for clarity.
Did the person say exactly what they meant, or was it phrased in an unclear way, and they meant something else? If it turns out, yes, this is what the note means and I still disagree with it, my usual method, I take a walk and think.
I give myself a little time to think it through. And then I can go to design leads and art leads and creative director and other writers and lead writer and say, hey I got this note I don't agree with it. Do you see merit in it? And maybe they do, and maybe they don't, and we figure out the solution together.
Typically, in my experience, the notes I don't agree with, there's something behind the note that is probably a good note, but maybe the solution they proposed isn't going to work. So OK, we set aside the proposed solution and get to, what are they not getting, or what’s not hitting correctly? What's missing? And then we can find the actual solution that will work for everybody.
Alex: I should ask you the flip side. What are your tips and tricks for giving notes?
Mary: The way I do it, when I'm reading through a script, I read through the whole script and jot down all my notes as I go. Just kind of the first blush notes. Then I go back, and I usually delete about a third of my notes, because maybe I was being too nitpicky. Nobody needs all this. And then I go back up to the top of the script or outline or whatever, and I give my overall feedback. My overall feedback always opens with all of the things I liked. Here's all the stuff that you just, you nailed it. You knocked it out the park. That’s important, because if you don't tell the people the things that you like, they could cut all of the great things while they're hitting all your other notes.
Then, in the overall feedback, here are some things that I either wasn't understanding or wasn't feeling emotionally, and then my line notes are below. I think it's really important no matter the level of experience of the person you're talking to, to remind them that I'm here to help you make your work better. I'm not tearing apart your thing because that gives me my jollies, I want to help you make this as good as it can be.
Alex: I I notice also that you're saying I'm confused. I'm not feeling it. Your personal reaction, as opposed to, This is confusing or there’s no feeling here.
Mary: Yes. What we do is very subjective. Someone sitting next to me might have a different reaction. You give 12 writers with the same amount of experience and same, I don't know, gravitas in the industry, the same script, and they'll all give different notes.
Alex: You also write comics and tv pitches, and on top of that, you have also written a book, Gamer Girls, which is coming out from Hachette. It’s mini-biographies of twenty-five women who have had stellar careers in games. Obviously they faced some barriers. What would you say is the common thread of how the very successful women in your book surmounted those barriers?
Mary: First of all, we hear about the barriers constantly. There are articles about harassment and sexism, and there should be. We need to report on these things so that they will stop.
But part of my goal in the book was to say: that's not all there is. There are a lot of women who work in this industry who love it. Some of them have had to leave studios or leave toxic cultures, but they're still in the industry, and they have found places that are good, and they have found success.
I didn’t just want to write a book that was like hey, everything is hard and terrible, but if you grit your teeth, you’ll get there.
The idea for the book came out of, I was speaking to a coding camp for young women in high school, and all of their questions for me boiled down to, how have they not driven you out yet? All we hear about is Gamergate and all these sexist, horrible people.
I wanted to write a book about the good parts. Women who got to work on that they love. They got to be passionate. Their colleagues did praise them. Their colleagues did support them. I certainly don't want to minimize all the horrible things that have happened to marginalized people in this industry. But at the same time, it’s not all a trash fire.
Alex: And we’re certainly not going to get more women in the industry if we start by telling them it’s a horror show.
Mary: I really don’t think it is, either. I love my colleagues, and I love my work. And that's also part of the story. So, that’s the book. Now to answer your question, what are some of the things that women have overcome?
Everybody has a unique story ‘cause it’s also spread out over – one of the chapters is about a woman who worked in the 60s, and others are in the ‘80s and‘'90s.
But the biggest common thread is that when women started speaking up, saying why aren't there more women at this company? Why aren't we designing games for women? Why aren't we ever considering that the player might be a woman? That’s when they started to get the cold shoulder from their colleagues.
How they overcame it was by finding allies who would help them. Who would speak up for them. Finding other women, creating safe spaces and groups where women could come together and speak about these topics without fearing reprisal. So, it’s not just any individual working to make a better community. It is communities coming together to make the industry better.
Alex: So what keeps women in games? What kind of environment?
Mary: It’s what keeps anybody in games: being respected and treated like a professional. And the way to drive out anybody is to not do those things. I think that the extra thing to consider, let's say if you're a manager, is, when a woman on your team is talked down to or is noted to death or whatever, in addition to all of the questions that anybody would ask themselves, they also have to wonder, Is it because I'm a woman? That’s true of any marginalized group when your leadership is homogenous: they’re asking, is this how feedback happens at this studio, or am I being treated differently and singled out because I’m different? And that's an extra stressor.
Women tend to stay in studios with more women. They tend to go to studios with more women in leadership. You can’t just recruit diversely in entry-level positions: you have to look for ways to fill your senior positions with diverse talent, too.
Who's in the room when you're interviewing? If I’m interviewing with nine people, and they’re all middle-aged white dudes, I ask myself, is that the only type of person who gets promoted at this company? Now, I’ll ask that question of the interviewers. I didn’t when I was young because I was too nervous.
One of the reasons I decided to go to Insomniac was, there was a woman in my interview, and I could ask her, Hey, what's it like? How do people treat you?
Alex: Would you say that you have a significant social media presence?
Mary: (Laughing.) Yeah, yeah.
Alex: Would you call it just an outlet? Is it a strategy? Is it a necessary strategy?
Mary: The only thing I use regularly is Twitter. I had it as a journalist, and I got the blue checkmark, and I kept it as a game developer because it turns out, luckily enough, that a lot of game developers are on Twitter.
I like it. I like getting to meet and talk to people I otherwise wouldn't get to. I guess the strategy part is, I've gotten several writing contracts through Twitter. I met my book agent through Twitter. I've met a lot of people in my career, as well. I found several job postings on Twitter. Being in the social media space where your industry tends to hang out is pretty good for your career.
“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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here’s a weird thing about acting in video-games. I’m working on two big characters in two pretty massive new games and I don’t know anything about either of them. I couldn’t explain the concepts to you even if I wanted to.
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.
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.