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


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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I've been reading a lot of game blogs lately. David Sirlin has a compelling post on Subtractive Design. The idea being to make a great game, cut out everything that isn't about the game dynamic. He praises some really simple games like PORTAL and BRAID, which are powerful even though they don't have huge GTA-style maps with lots of detail.

Live action movies are almost the opposite. They're in a real if fictional world, not in a game space. If you start removing things that don't have to do with the plot, the world stops being the real world and becomes some sort of theatrical space. It's fine to have two chairs and a table in the theater, but if it's in the movies you really need the carpet (white? stained? tapestry? IKEA?), the bookshelves, the posters, the shoes, the empty takeout cartons, etc. Everything that creates character. The more attention to things that aren't the plot, the more the movie feels real.

Indeed you always have to balance relevance and verisimilitude in a feature -- if every bit of dialog forwards the plot, the movie might seem plotty and thin. You might need to let the characters breathe a bit. They might derail the hero's interrogation to talk about the elephants in the circus. The way you square the circle is by having characters' personalities become obstacles for the hero. They're talking about what they want to talk about, not what the hero wants to talk about. They are resolutely in the middle of their stories; he has to get them back to his story ... which is the plot.

I'm not sure I agree 100% with Sirlin even on games. Doesn't the subtraction esthetic lead to game environments where everything you click on is useful, and you can only click on useful things? Do you really want to apply that to sandbox games? Oh, if only I could mouse over everything in my bedroom, and the cursor would change color when it was over my iPhone. There's a burlap sack. Is it useful? Well, is it live? If it's live -- you can pick it up -- it's useful, if it's not, it's set dressing. That spoils the immersive realism for me. I'd rather be allowed to put any kind of random junk in my knapsack; maybe you shouldn't know which until you run into the situation you need it for. (Maybe the game shouldn't helpfully tell you that you've picked up three out of five of the battery packs in the room.) There's an argument for having a certain amount of noise in a game, because life is like that.

UPDATE: A reader points out that the immersive quality of a sandbox game is a core mechanic that can't be subtractive. But that starts to seem tautological. I think Sirlin really does have an esthetic -- a sort of nouvelle cuisine, only three items on your plate but they're perfect. And I'm more of a big sauce kinda guy.



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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Here's the one for PLANESCAPE: TORMENT. Caution: massive hype.

P:T is a decade old, but videogame storytelling isn't advancing as fast as rendering engines, so a lot of it is still relevant.

Oh, and here's a design doc from GRIM FANDANGO.



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Monday, March 29, 2010

I went to a panel on Feature Writing in Montreal, organized by the irrepressible Anne-Marie Perrotta, and got to hear Mark Krupa (THE WILD HUNT), Doug Taylor (SPLICE), Steve Galluccio (FUNKYTOWN) and Jacob Tierney (THE TROTSKY) talk about their experiences writing in my fair city. We're in a peculiar situation here because, as English screenwriters, we are writing in a minority language.

It is extremely hard to make a living in English TV in Montreal; of the two shows that are shooting here, one has a primarily Toronto staff. But it is quite possible to write features here. It was fun to hear the four writers talk about their unique experiences. Mark wrote a feature that got made for almost no money and won the Audience Award at Slamdance. Jacob directed his film (his second of three now), starring Jay Baruchel, who is about to hit the big time with OUT OF MY LEAGUE. Doug writes movies that get produced all over the place -- London, Vancouver, LA. And Steve's movie is bilingual, and could only have been made here.

It was interesting to hear that there is actually more money in Montreal for certain kinds of movies. Québec takes culture seriously, even Anglo culture, and you can get more money from SODEC, the provincial funding agency, than you can from Telefilm, the federal funding agency. Other provincial agencies, like Ontario's OMDC, aren't doing so well.

Why Montreal? "Montreal feeds you," said Steve, "the way New York feeds you." I couldn't agree more. Doug's feeling is he's writing all over the world, so why not live where he wants to live? Mark and Jacob are both die-hard Montrealers, too. Mark's movie was only possible with the dedicated participation of the hundreds of medieval re-enactors of Bicolline. Jacob made the point that when he was in Toronto, he kept having to write for Montreal and transfer it to Toronto, so he decided, why not write and direct the movies in the place they're really set?

The writers all talked about notes -- particularly funding agency notes. Arts bureaucrats need to give notes -- it's their job. The danger is that too many notes can kill a script. The writer's job "becomes more about protecting it than changing it," said Jacob, who also confided that he's tempted to leave a few glitches in his scripts in order to "focus the criticism." -- why not give them something you know is wrong that you can easily remove?

THE WILD HUNT opens in Montreal on April 9th. THE TROTSKY opens across Canada May 14. SPLICE opens June 4. FUNKYTOWN opens December 17.

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Friday, March 26, 2010


The CBC Prime Time Television Program is recognized within the industry as an essential source for trained writers and newly developed projects for the television marketplace.  Join alumni Alan McCullough and Denis McGrath for free TV writing workshops, and stick around to learn about the CFC’s CBC Prime Time Television Program.

VANCOUVER – APRIL 10th, 2010:


TV writer, producer and CFC Alumnus Alan McCullough (Sanctuary, Stargate: Atlantis, Stargate: Universe) will lead participants through the deconstruction of an episode of a sci-fi series and will offer a detailed look at the structure of a typical episode of this genre, and how it fits into the North American landscape of the genre. The process of developing a sci-fi series; creating the rules and world, beat sheets, outlines, scripts, writing to and working with a particular cast and implementing network notes will also be explored.

After the workshop, chat with CFC TV Director Kathryn Emslie and find out more about the CBC Prime Time Television Program.

TORONTO – APRIL 13th, 2010:


TV writer and CFC Alumnus Denis McGrath (The BorderAcross the River to Motor CityBlood Ties) will lead a workshop on the effective use of structure in writing for one-hour drama series.  Elements include building the plot while revealing character; placement of act breaks; action vs. dialogue; and how to effectively use structural conventions to best showcase your pilot script and series.

After the workshop, learn about the benefits of the CFC’s CBC Prime Time Television Program – who’s involved, how it’s delivered, skills development, and how the program helps grads take the final step towards being a professional television writer.

The CBC Prime Time Television Program is currently accepting applications for the 2010/2011 program. The deadline to apply is May 12th, 2010.  Please visit or contact Valentina Puvtoska at vpuvtoska@cfccreates.comfor more details and to sign up.
The CFC Prime Time Program is one of the best TV programs in North America. Not only do you get to work in a story room with a real showrunner, you get to meet a Who's Who of Canadian television -- producers, agents, writers, network execs. A ridiculously high percentage of people in Canadian TV have been through the program -- there's even a Facebook group for those of us who have not.

Sorry, Yanks -- you have to be a Canuck (or Canuck permanent resident) to apply.



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Feature It! is a program to support English-language films in Québec. The program gives mentoring and cash to produced Québec screenwriters, so they can write new scripts. Writers can submit either with a producer or on their own. This year, the deadline is April 27, so get on it! 



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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Feministing complains that on TV, very good looking women are treated as "ugly" when they obviously are not.
One of the running themes of GLEE is that Rachel, played by Lea Michele, is talented, but annoying, badly dressed and physically unattractive. In other words, they Liz Lemon her.
Because any 30 ROCK viewer has heard all those fat jokes directed at Tina Fey, who is a slim woman who also appears on the covers of glamour magazines. "If these women are ugly, what hope is there for the rest of us?"

Lisa defends 30 ROCK because Tina Fey supposedly used to be fat before SNL made her lose weight, but that's inside baseball.

Does it matter? Does it matter that "ugly" on TV = incredibly hot girl with glasses? Or is that just the nature of the medium?

Or, alternately, if America Ferrara can actually look dowdy on UGLY BETTY, with braces (even if offscreen she is smoking hot -- see pic above), why do we keep casting the hottest women and pretending they're not?


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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Essential reading. In Movieline.

(Via Karen Hill)


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Thursday, March 18, 2010

People always ask me what to spec. In general I think the best thing is to call a couple of lit agents' assistants and ask them, but an aspiring TV writer named Alex Freedman has cross-referenced several blogs, sites, social networks, and other sources, to come up with a breakdown of the "speccability" of over fifty shows (dramas and comedies) for 2010, including sample scripts for each. It's his judgement, but he's done his homework, asking his
staffed writer acquaintances, major writing blogs and sites, as well as combing through several social networks (such as Twitter), in search of what people were actually speccing. I then studied ratings and popularity for each show, as well as their level of serialization, to determine the potential "longevity" of a spec.

If you're writing a new spec, check out his links for comedy specs and drama specs.


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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Here's a lovely thing about everyone having cell phones and caller i.d. You can eliminate two lines of dialog, "Hello," and "Hi, it's [name of character]." Now you can plausibly jump right to, "So you're back with your ex?" or whatever the beginning of the scene is.

Cell phones are a lovely thing because your characters can be any nifty location you like when they use them. Of course, your producer may complain about phone conversations -- you have to shoot the scene in two different locations. Which is why so many characters "drop by" in the movies, as opposed to real life, where practically no one ever drops by.

Remember rotary phones? What a pain those were on screen. I know about them, because I've seen them in the movies, aight?


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Hey, kids! Are you an actor? Want to get cast in more stuff? Please make sure there's some video of you out there on the Net, k? Because that's the first place we look.



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Monday, March 15, 2010

I had a bit of a technical issue this weekend. When I installed Mac System 10.6 on my beloved, battered MacBook Pro, I discovered that my copy of Final Draft had become deactivated. Apparently the file that FD uses to store its activation code is one that the new system overwrites.

This is an issue that DMc warned me about last September. But I thought, hey, surely they've fixed their activation bug by now.

Fortunately, I had a spare activation. But then, when I tried to migrate my account from my old computer to this nifty new MacBook Air I bought, Migration Assistant somehow deactivated the old copy of FD7 on my old computer.

Unfortunately, the free tech support line at Final Draft only works regular weekday hours, Pacific time. So no help there.

I tried to authorize an old copy of Final Draft 6, but guess what? Final Draft has disabled the activation server for FD6 entirely, along with all support for the program. Fortunately I was able to find the CD, or I'd have been completely hosed.

All of which left me not feeling much love for Final Draft and seriously contemplating going to Screenwriter. Many of my friends sing the praises of Screenwriter. I've always liked Final Draft, and earlier versions of Screenwriter were not too Mac-friendly. And I'd really hate to have to port my old scripts over to Screenwriter -- for what I am sure are clever commercial reasons, neither company provides an automatic converter.

Monday morning, though, I got a very nice call from Joel Levin at Final Draft, which clarified a few points. The main one being that, although free tech support is down on weekends and evenings, paid tech support is up. And though you have to give your credit card to talk to a human being on the weekend, if it's about activation, they don't charge. Joel assured me "we're there for our customers 24/7."

I do think that FD ought to have solved the activation issue by now. Installing Snow Leopard does not wipe out your Office 2008 registration DRM. But as Joel points out, Microsoft has a few more programmers than Final Draft can afford. And they will restore your activations if they're wiped out by Snow Leopard.

I pointed out to Joel that their website could make it clearer that they are always available to solve your activation issue for free. I might have figured that out if I hadn't been panicking, but c'mon, it would kill you to use a bigger font for the important stuff?

I really disagree with their decision to kill off the Final Draft 6 activation server. They feel that FD6 is "dinosaur ware" and leaving the activation server running would open them up to more tech support issues. I feel that they're depriving me of stuff I own. Maybe old stuff that I own, but I really needed FD6 to work yesterday.

I was sort of tempted to take the Air on my trip to Toronto last week. Boy am I glad I waited. I would have been so hosed.

I guess some of the morals of the story are: never upgrade the system on a working computer, damn it. Don't make any changes to your software at all when you're in the middle of a project with a deadline. Don't travel with untried equipment.

And, I guess, read the website carefully this time.



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Eric Ogden creates haunting photographs:

We went to the Scope Art Fair at Lincoln Center in New York, and his work really leapt out from the aisles full of art that fell mostly into the categories of "ugly," "huh?" and "oh, yeah, that." There's an even more haunting picture of this particular model in a doorway that says GENTS, and you wonder if she's coming out of the gents or beckoning someone to come in.

Lately I've been seeing a lot of staged art photos, and some of them are quite amazing. We have this Amy Stein up on our wall, and it wows me every time.

Obviously it's staged. None of us wants Amy Stein this close to a bear.

So I certainly don't object to staged art photos.

But here's the thing. The model's name in the first photo is Penelope Cruz, and she has done some work from time to time in the movie business.

And somehow, from the moment that I know the photo is of an actress, I start to question my fondness for Mr. Ogden's image. Is it somehow cheating to get a world-quality actress to pose for your lens? The photo starts to seem like a still from a movie that you happen not to have seen. And we don't see stills as art photos, do we?

But on the other hand, is that fair? Movies are art. Why should I feel somehow betrayed by a posed, cinematic art photo that practically radiates a feeling of a narrative. What is going on there?

Sure, the artist isn't alone in creating the image. He's probably hired a hair stylist and a makeup artist and a wardrobe gal and a production designer. But so what? Every movie director does that, and they're considered artists.

Why does it bug me so that it's Penelope Cruz?

Is it because images of this quality when they're movie stills just don't seem that rare or special? Because you can pick up movie stills of just this quality and narrative quality with expressive actresses emoting, sometimes from very impressive photographers, for $10?

You tell me.

Eric Ogden's exhibition, A Half-Remembered Season, opens at HousProjects, 31 Howard Street, on March 18th.

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

I've been checking out HEAVY RAIN on the PS3. It's a murder mystery about an abducted child and a serial killer. You play four characters involved in solving the mystery.

The interface is one I've never seen before - it's nonstandardized. In one scene, you interrogate a suspect who's making alarming threats while a ridiculous cartoon plays on the TV screen behind him. Your options swirl around the screen, confusingly: square to accuse, triangle to state the facts, or left arrow to punch this guy, right arrow to dodge that guy.

As opposed to typical games where you either have a talk interface or a fight interface, here you can be punching someone while you interrogate them. Or choose not to punch them while you interrogate them. So instead of the narrative options coming at predictable places -- you're either in a fight or not in a fight -- the story can split at whatever moment the writers of the story felt like branching the story.

The game design does another interesting thing -- when multiple options show up, they can swirl around, covering each other up. Which makes you confused, and means you might choose an option you didn't mean to. Which means that you will actually feel confused and frustrated when your character is confused and frustrated.

In the past I've been much fonder of sandbox games (not to mention addicted to your world builder games) -- I've never understood the attraction of e.g. some of the FINAL FANTASY fames where you basically go down a tunnel and kill every squad of critters and every boss you meet. And if you have a minimap and an arrow to follow, you're still in a narrative tunnel.

In Heavy Rain, there's a narrative tunnel, but it branches, and you don't see the tunnel -- it's taking "show don't tell" to heart. If you're searching for clues, there's no "there are five clues in this room" so you can check them off. If you miss a clue, you miss a clue. As Gamespot puts it:
Unlike other games that make extensive use of quick-time events, Heavy Rain does not track your progress in terms of success and failure. There is no right or wrong way to play; thus, no matter what your outcome is, the game will move forward and adapt to the consequences of your actions or lack thereof. Though the overall narrative framework is unyielding, your performance throughout the game can have a variety of effects, ranging from subtle changes in how a scene plays out to much bigger adjustments. Entire events may not occur because your actions and choices caused the plot to branch in a different direction. It's even possible for key characters to die, thus eliminating any subsequent contributions to the story that they might have made. No matter what happens in your play-through, the adaptive plot of Heavy Rain becomes a deeply personal sum of your experiences.

I've never seen a game that gives such a feeling of being a character in a movie story.

There are chase scenes and ordeal scenes. And if you make the wrong decisions, your character can die and the game autosaves, so no you don't get to reload to do it right this time.

Oh, and split screens. Nice use of split screens.



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Tuesday, March 09, 2010

We've been watching 18 TO LIFE on CBC. Man, that is a funny, funny show. Brilliantly comic and lovable cast. Extremely well crafted, clever, fresh, sexy character comedy based on entirely believable characters and situations. We keep rolling the DVR back to watch the moments again. Michael Seater is adorable and Stacey Farber is charming and sexy, while Peter Keleghan and Al Goulem are national comic treasures.

I prefer comedy of moments to comedy of jokes. I'm not sure I can explain what I mean by that. Maybe that jokes sort of point to themselves -- hey, dummy, laugh! Moments feel familiar and yet fresh -- you've been there, so you laugh. Maybe -- jokes don't feel lived, moments do. I know, you'll say that good jokes feel lived, or something, so I'll stop now.

I think I like the show so much because I actually like everybody in it, and they're still funny.

Give me 30 ROCK, MODERN FAMILY and 18 TO LIFE, and I'm a happy guy.



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YesButNotButYes makes a very good point:

Via Shelley E.

You could probably do the same thing for FERN GULLY, as Jeff Anderson, among others, has pointed out. ("The magical inhabitants of a rainforest called FernGully fight to save their home that is threatened by logging and a polluting force of destruction called Hexxus.">

But it looked really, really cool! So there you go. If you have enough spectacle, do you really even need a plot? I think George Lucas knows the answer to that.


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Thursday, March 04, 2010

Whit Wagner blogs about how he likes my book CRAFTY TV WRITING. If you're just reading this blog, check out the book, eh? And thanks, Whit!



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This is a great MetaFilter thread on name calling -- the hive mind was asked for a word to replace "retard" as an insult. If you're looking for some PG-rated insults for your TV spec, or you just want to diss your coworkers inventively, check it out.


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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

I rarely promote script competitions because I think most of them are scams -- they're making money off the submission fees. This one doesn't have submission fees and it's a good cause.

The Donate Life Film Festival has prizes for best 2-20 short film (scripted or doc) and for best feature screenplay "on saving lives through organ and tissue donation."

You can email your screenplay to Chris Sariego; feel free to call him at (213) 356 5242. The deadline is June 12. For more info, check out their site.



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