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


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Thursday, December 30, 2010

This very puffy Variety piece says that lots of new screenwriters are ignoring the (expensive) two top screenwriting formatting programs, Final Draft and Screenwriter, in favor of newcomers like Scripped.
Over the past few decades, Write Brothers' Movie Magic Screenwriter has been the Pepsi to Final Draft's Coke in the screenwriting software aisle. With the exception of the niche occupied by Celtx, an open-source, all-in-one screenwriting and production package, the two companies have all but dominated the field.

Recently, however, Scripts Pro, ScriptWrite, Million Dollar Screenwriting and have popped up. And while none appear ready to overturn the big boys anytime soon, they could develop into significant competition down the road.



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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Wolfie, baby:

I checked out your show, THE MAGIC FLUTE. First of all, the music -- terrific. I think the soundtrack is going to be a smash.

Glad to see you're getting back to comedy. I mean, I loved Don G as much as anyone, but in a recession people want to laugh. There just isn't an audience for tragedy outside of HBO.

I gotta say, though, the plot could use some strengthening. Characters, too.

So basically you've got this prince, Tamino. When we meet him he's terrified by a big serpent. Three women kill the serpent, then run off. Really? Normally wouldn't you want to introduce your hero doing something heroic? Especially since the Queen of the Night immediately selects him to go rescue her daughter Pamina.

In fact, he never does anything heroic, ever. He spends the rest of the movie either following orders (the Queen's, Sarastro's -- he obeys whoever talked to him last!), standing around stoically ignoring his girl, or defeating enemies with the magic flute. He's never in any real jeopardy. He has the magic flute, which protects him from everything. But more importantly, the supposed villain he's been sent to rescue Pamina from, Sarastro, turns out to be a philosopher who immediately says Tamino is destined to wind up with Pamina, Tamino just has to go through a formal test which he's fated to ace. So he's reactive, not proactive, and there's never any real suspense or jeopardy.

The obvious fix here is to make Sarastro not such a great guy. In a lot of fables the villain suspects he can't defeat the hero, but offers him the girl anyway, subject to completing an impossible quest. If Sarastro doesn't really want to lose Pamina, he could send Tamino to defeat some serious boss baddie, not realizing that Tamino has the magic flute. Which, obviously, shouldn't neutralize every danger or it's all too easy. So then it's a surprise to him -- and us -- when Tamino survives the test.

Would be a nice beat if Tamino, who's been dismissing Papageno all along, fails at one point and it's Papageno who saves him, Sam Gamgee-style.

I couldn't help thinking there's a lost opportunity between Sarastro and the Q of the N. She says he stole the sun from her. He says she's trying to steal the sun. She wants Pamina to kill him. They really sound like a bickering couple. What if they're exes? It would add a level to their relationship. And then, if you want, they can get together in the end, brought together by the other lovers (T/P, Papa/Papa).

Talk to Dickie Wagner, he's good with dysfunctional family relationships.

Let's talk about Papageno, the cowardly birdcatcher. He sure is fun, and you've given him a lot of story time. I know your librettist is going to play him. (Emanuel Schikaneder -- c'mon, what was his name "before"?) Wouldn't be the first time an actor gave himself all the juicy stuff to play.

But Papageno's story doesn't make much sense, either, does it? He does everything wrong. He doesn't keep his mouth shut when he's been warned to, turns down the invitation to join the secret brotherhood, does his best to womanize, and nearly kills himself for no good reason -- but he's rewarded with his perfect mate, Papagena, who promises to love him eternally -- why? What's he got to offer? Could she at least give us a sense what she sees in him? His sense of humor?

Can we maybe get a script doctor in to do a pass for the other characters? Sarastro is such a stiff.

I won't criticize Pamina. She's the whiny victim all the way through, but I realize you're writing in the 18th Century, so that will probably work for your demographic.

I'm totally loving the Q of the N. This role is sheer Oscar bait. She's such a crazy bitch but we love her. Can we see more of her?

The final battle between the Queen and Sarastro could be a lot of fun, if we have a sense Sarastro could lose. I wouldn't even mind if the lovers resolve it somehow, rather than you just giving the win to Sarastro. It really deflates the Q of the N if she's defeated in one shot. I mean, we're going to want to bring her back for the sequel, aren't we?

Hope these notes make sense. Can't wait to see how it shapes up in the next pass. I smell a hit!



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Monday, December 27, 2010

On January 19, at McGill (Leacock 232), from 7 to 9 pm, I'm moderating a panel discussion on storytelling in the video game industry.

(Many thanks to Trevor Ponech, of the McGill Department of English, which is hosting us, and Jason Della Rocca, of the International Game Developers Association, who is organizing this with me.)

What is great video game storytelling? How is it different from great storytelling in film and TV?

When does storytelling come into the process of game design? Who does it? How important is it?

How do you break into the games industry as a story teller?

Our panelists (in alphabetical order)

Mary DeMarle is the lead writer for Eidos’s new RPG, Deus Ex: Human Revolution. A former animation writer for Hanna-Barbera in Hollywood, DeMarle also created the story for Myst III and IV.

Richard Rouse III is the Narrative Director of an action/combat game at Ubisoft Montreal. He created, designed and wrote The Suffering action/horror video game franchise. Rouse has lectured about games on five continents. His Game Design: Theory & Practice is one of the most popular books on game development.

Nina L. Sund has spent the past two years writing lore and backstory for Secret World, an upcoming MMO. She began as a hardcore Anarchy Online player, moving into Funcom’s story development team. Sund also wrote dialogue for Age of Conan, trying to recreate the narrative voice of Robert E. Howard.

Stephen Wark began as a board game enthusiast, but his skill as a technial writer brought him into the game industry. Now a game designer at Ludia, Wark creates game concepts, mechanics, scripts and concepts for a range of games from casual puzzles to online education RPGs.

If you’re coming, please RSVP to our Facebook Event page. The panel is free but RSVPs are over capacity, so you'll want to be early.

Special bonus for blog readers: if you email me to say you're coming, and tell me one of your favorite blog posts from this blog, I'll reserve you a seat. Good for the first 20 readers who write in!



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Thursday, December 23, 2010 (NOT now has copies of THE CIRCLE CAST available for order. I just got a copy here in New York, so they can ship to the States, too. Buy your teenager a copy for Imbolc!

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

As you know, I'm organizing and moderating a Game Writing for Screenwriters panel on January 19th, at McGill. Here's another one of our intrepid panelists.
Richard Rouse III is a game designer and writer, currently focusing on action games. He is currently Narrative Director on an unannounced project at Ubisoft Montreal. Earlier, he wrote horror games. He was Creative Director and Writer on the hit action/horror title The Suffering and its sequel, The Suffering: Ties That Bind. Rouse has led the design on a number of other games, including Centipede 3D, Damage Incorporated, and Odyssey: The Legend of Nemesis, as well as contributing to the design on Homefront, Wheelman, and Drakan: The Ancients' Gates. He was previously the Director of Game Design at Midway and the Studio Creative Director at Surreal Software. Rouse has lectured about games on five continents and is author of Game Design: Theory & Practice, which remains one of the most popular books on game development.
Read his book over the holidays, and you can pummel him with even more questions!



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Friday, December 17, 2010

Now that Google has scanned umpteen gazillion books into its Big Computer Brain, you can now ask it to graph how common a word or phrase has been over the past 200 years.

It's like Googlefight, but in the fourth dimension!

I mean, how awesome is that?

I have no idea what use this is, but it sure is fun.



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Thursday, December 16, 2010

So want to work for Ubi again.

(Really, any company named via a Latin-English-English pun appeals to me at a deeply geeky level.)



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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A lot of sitcoms are, in fact, darker than you realize. At its core, "Two and a Half Men" is about loneliness. "The Big Ban Theory" is about alienation. "Mike & Molly" is about self-hatred. You would never know it from the shows themselves, but you do, sometimes, feel it while watching them. To laugh at these things with our mental families may allow us to cope with our own loneliness and alienation and self-hatred. It may be that the sitcom's constant avoidance of any final, dramatic catharsis is its accidental strength. If so, that would make this least lifelike form of entertainment the most comfortingly similar to real life."
"A Simple Medium," by Tom Bissell, The New Yorker, December 6.

Comedy is discomfort. It is about something bad happening to someone else.

Slapstick is comedy about physical pain and, occasionally, death. ("And now we see the importance of Not Being Seen.")

A lot of teen comedies are about the characters being embarrassed or scared.

A lot of grown-up comedies are about characters doing things for which they should be embarrassed, but aren't, so we're embarrassed for them. (E.g. the Marx Brothers, THE OFFICE, SEINFELD, ROSANNE, Mr. Bean, etc.)

I would say a lot of Woody Allen's comedy, back when he was funny, was based on frustration. The comedy in my series, NAKED JOSH, was mostly frustration. A lot of Jewish humor is based on frustration. And fear. No soup for you!

Absurdist comedy ) is really a sort of intellectual discomfort. ("We want your pollen.") Juxtapose two things that don't go together and you get absurdity. (ROMANES EUNT DOMUS!) As my six year old daughter will say, laughing, "Thaaaat's not riiiiight!"



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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On January 19, I'm moderating a panel on videogame writing. It will be at McGill at 7pm; save the date. Nina Sund will be one of our panelists.

Nina Sund started in the game industry with what I'd call in a screenplay Inevitability and Surprise. She was a hardcore Anarchy Online game player, and volunteered to be part of their volunteer customer service program (ARK*). AO is a Massively Multiplayer Online game, like World of Warcraft; the ARKs help craft in-game events to bring story development and random encounters to more casual players. In other words, she was writing and implementing game story for free. After three years, Funcom asked her to come in for an interview. She paid her dues in Quality Assurance (QA, or playtesting), and then moved onto the development team for Anarchy Online. As Nina puts it:
This kind of recruitment isn't at all common in Funcom, and I have no idea how common it is in other companies, but it's happened for Anarchy Online a few times. It's an old game with an enormous wealth of information, and often, players themselves are good candidates for working on it, given they have the proper talent and skill, of course.

Since then, she has written dialogue for Age of Conan, trying to recreate the narrative voice of Robert E. Howard. For the last two years, she has written lore and backstory for an upcoming modern-day MMO.

Come see her and pester her with questions on January 19th!

*This acronym makes sense in Norwegian.

UPDATE: Check out Nina's post on How to become a content designer.



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Monday, December 13, 2010

"The best-selling book of all time was written by a committee, and it was called The Bible."


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Friday, December 10, 2010

We've got some terrific panelists set for the game writing panel on January 19 at McGill. I'll be introducing them to you over the next little while, but in the mean time, I can tell you that we have a game designer; a narrative designer; someone who writes story for a major FPS/RPG franchise; and someone who is writing mythology ("lore") for an upcoming major MMO. Very fun. And if you are not sure what the difference is between these various flavours of game writing, better come the panel!

I'll be putting up a Facebook event page soonish, but in the mean time, save the date! Wednesday, January 19, Leacock 232 on the McGill campus.

UPDATE: If you can't make it, we're planning to tape this and podcast it, technology and participants permitting.

UPDATE: Want to know the answer to a question about game writing? Come to the event, or post your question here.



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Monday, December 06, 2010

So Mom asks Michael Bublé if her kid can come up and sing with him, and Bublé decides to be cool about it, and then the kid sings.

What I love about this video is how long it takes Bublé to realize the kid can sing: about two seconds. (If you want to skip the preamble, start around 1:20.)

I showed YOU ARE SO UNDEAD to a cinematographer I'm working with. After literally 5 seconds, he said, "You shot this on the Red?"

I know I keep harping on how your query email has to impress inside of, literally, 3 seconds, and that just seems crazy unfair. And ditto for the maybe 5 pages someone will read of your screenplay if you're not paying for the read. But professionals can identify professional work in a tiny, tiny few seconds.

Yes, of course there are exceptions. Satyendra Nath Bose sent his paper to dozens of science journals and they all rejected him.

But then he got it to Einstein, who got it published, and further developed the Bose-Einstein condensate theory. But that only goes to suggest that the gatekeepers at the journals weren't professional enough, and that Einstein could read a physics paper like you or I would read the morning paper, and go either, "Hah! Ridiculous," or "Wow! That's so true!"



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Sunday, December 05, 2010

I watched Indigènes (Days of Glory), a feature about three Berbers who join the Free French to fight for their "fatherland," France. Although they fight very hard for the French, and die for the French, it soon becomes clear that the French don't regard them as equals. They are mistreated in all sorts of ways, making them question whether France really stands for "Liberté, Egalité et surtout Fraternité". Racist French officers didn't promote them (there was a quota), their letters to French girls were censored, they weren't given leave to go home or the same food as the white guys.

This is a beautifully made, well-written and well-acted movie. Oh, and it won Cannes, no doubt because it told the French some uncomfortable truths about themselves.

But its story starts to become not all that surprising, unless one is laboring under the delusion that the French live up to their own rhetoric. And the movie becomes a bit tiresome to watch.

Lord knows I'm not against bashing the French for being colonialists. But I think if I were trying to tell people how France abused its territorial troops, I think I'd make the story about something else. Maybe about a sergeant and a soldier who don't get along. Maybe about class differences among the recruits. Two guys in love with the same girl back home. And the guy who actually has the girl is screwing every French girl he can, while the guy who doesn't have the girl is faithful to her. Whatever. Make that racism the background to a story whose resolution isn't predictable from the beginning.

Sometimes you can reveal a truth better by letting the audience uncover it, rather than waving it in their faces. It's sometimes hard to remember that when you're stoked up about an issue. But unless the audience is already stoked up, you're going to push them away.



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The first review of my novel just came in, courtesy The Toronto Star::
Montrealer Alex Epstein explores the youth of infamous Morgan, King Arthur’s half sister (and ultimately his nemesis), in The Circle Cast: The Lost Years of Morgan le Fay (Tradewind, 300 pages, $12.95, ages 13+). Shipped off for safety when her father is murdered and her mother taken by Uther Pendragon, Morgan lives in exile in Ireland. First welcomed, then enslaved, she develops her gift for sorcery wherever she is — even for a time in a small Christian community. Revenge for her father’s death is her sole desire, and to that end she turns magical knowledge, lust, love and all her abilities as a strategist of war. This has the darkness of Celtic magic — not fanciful, period romance — and a poetic terseness that suits its stern, passionate hero.
I am pretty happy with that!

UPDATE: Just spoke with the printer. Books are already on their way to stores. They should be at stores in the East by Wednesday, which means I would guess they ought to be in stores by Monday.

UPDATE: Now available at



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Can a writer get sued for signing an NCND (non-circumention, non-disclosure agreement) by the funder of the movie? I am 'talent', should the writer be that involved in the business of making the movie? I mean, what if the executive producer violates the NCND and gets sued, would I get sued too just because my name is on it even though it wasn't actually me who violated it?
It is not normal for writers to be asked to sign ND agreements in show business. It is normal in the game business. The unconscionable standard agreement that showbiz writers are asked to sign is called a "release form," and often they say things like "If we independently make a movie similar or identical to yours, tough luck.

If you sign a reasonable ND agreement, you can be sued if you reveal confidential information about the project to the public. Since you're the writer, the only confidential information you normally would know is how the movie turns out. If you were the writer of BASIC INSTINCT, and you got mad at the producers and started telling everyone who done it (it's not who most people think, incidentally), you could be sued. If you were a "preditor" on SURVIVOR and revealed who won, you would definitely be sued. However, if you don't know confidential information, you can't be sued because you can't reveal it. And unless the ND agreement really is unconscionable, you can't be sued for the actions of someone who is not in your control.

Even if the producer violates it, I can't be sued? The writer is 'talent' and is apart from the business side of it all, so if the funder decides to sue production company, I can't be included in the lawsuit? Am I right about that?
You CAN be sued for almost anything. Whether you WILL be sued, or whether you can get the suit thrown out as frivolous, is a more important question. But generally, you should not be sued for things you did not do. You would presumably have a separate ND agreement from the one your producer is signatory to.

Caveat: it all depends on the actual wording of the contract you signed; and I am not a lawyer and this does not constitute legal advice. Don't sign anything unless you've had a legal expert look at it.



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Saturday, December 04, 2010


The Canadian Film Centre is looking for applicants for one of its training programs: the Cineplex Entertainment Film Program.



In this five-and-a-half month program, directors, producers, writers and editors will be completely immersed in the art and business of dramatic filmmaking. Filmmakers develop their technical, collaborative and business skills, while developing project slates and refining their artistic expression in an intensely demanding, creative and professional environment.

Apply today.

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Friday, December 03, 2010

I'm not sure if this is really a flash mob in the traditional John Brunner sense -- all the participants are coming from the same place. But I love this as theatre. It is of course a brilliant piece of music, and the singers are superb. But making it a flash mob takes it to people who would never go see it if it was being performed in a church, with better acoustics, and the chorus wearing nice clothes. The singing is coming from the audience, rather than being separated. It puts the audience in the ritual space.

This is what the Protestants were getting at when they destroyed all those rood screens separating the priest from the congregation. They wanted to be part of the magic.

I love that flash mobs are here to stay. And I am still waiting to be in a crowded fire so I can shout "Theater! Theater!"



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The other day, a few story missions short of the FALLOUT: NEW VEGAS final mission, I was surprised to discover I’ve reached the level cap. Quests no longer award experience and the skills that go with it.

I’ve never reached a level cap before. In most of the games I’ve played, you really have to play an exhaustive number of side quests or generally run around killing random critters for hours to max out your character.

Sure, I can still get achievements and Gamerscore points. I can accumulate in-game money. But I was shocked to discover how much less fun the game is when I don’t get XP for missions. It feels like the wind is out of the game’s sails. It’s funny. I wouldn’t have said I was playing F:NV in order to level up my nameless courier character. I would have thought I’m playing it to run around a beautiful and witty fictional world, and follow the story, and of course to massacre bad guys. (It is a first person shooter.)

But take away the little reward of finishing a quest and getting some XP and getting to parcel out the skill points, and suddenly I’m no longer staying up till two in the morning. I actually did not bother to play the game today.

Why is that?

And there’s the whole Xbox Gamerscore phenomenon. I like getting achievements. I like seeing my Gamerscore point total go up. Like Hunter, it hardly seems worth playing a game on the PS3: no cumulative points for achievements, only “trophies.”

None of this makes rational sense. When I first heard about Gamerscore points I had to keep asking Hunter: what can you actually do with them? Nothing? Then who cares?

But later on, he asked me to play Mass Effect on his profile. Mass Effect has a clever system where each time you play the game, your next incarnation of the main character gets some goodies from the previous incarnation. I was playing as an Adept, so his next guy would start out with an extra biotic superpower. I agreed, but only if he would play another game on my profile. I didn’t want to lose the achievements and points on my profile.

It’s not currency. You can’t spend it. Who cares? Well, I do, apparently. It must be hardwired pretty deeply, because for sure my rational brain can’t explain the attraction.

Somewhere deep down, I just like to collect points.


UPDATE: In the shower, it occurred to me that what I'm feeling is unappreciated. I do all this questing, and I don't get no love? The Gamerscore points correlate, in some abstract way, with society's approval. Humanity being a social animal, it makes sense we're hardwired to seek the approval of the tribe. The leveling up corresponds to status within society. Because it's hardwired, it doesn't actually have to make sense, it just has to tickle that particular nerve.

UPDATE: Incidentally, F:NV is an incredibly buggy game. It freezes constantly. Sometimes your permanent companions just disappear. Some story forks dead end, because the programming glitches and you can't complete your missions. In fact, I couldn't complete the game at all because of an unfixed "known bug": if you do too many chores for Mr. House or Yes Man, and then side with the NCR, your entire game playthrough is permanently doomed.

I would not recommend this game until they release a second patch and fix the programming. Boo, Bethesda.



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