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


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Friday, September 25, 2015

As part of a general cleanup of combat, we’ve decided to try and improve immersion by removing the very gamey suspicion eyeballs that hang over the Wellies’ heads. As part of this, we need to significantly improve both the visual and audio feedback that we give the player about the suspicion states of the AIs. For me this means we need to clean up the combat voice overs. AIs were talking over each other, and you couldn’t tell who was coming after you in a mob of people.

So, one of the things I did this week was trim down some of the Wellie attack lines in Pro Tools (an audio editing program). That allowed us to separate the audio barks into short lines for the Wellies to say while they are smacking you (“Keep CALM!”) and longer lines for the Wellies to say while they’re waiting to smack you (“Why aren’t you happy? You need to be happy!”). Once we’ve done a better job of locating the voices in space (“spatializing”) this should make it easier to identify where the next attack is coming from.

I also wrote more greetings for both NPCs and for the playable character (since everyone’s been asking for them), lines for NPCs to react to night coming on, and lines for Wastrels to react to other Wastrels being in a fight with you.

You should probably soon hear Uncle Jack warning you not to be out at night; you’ll know why ;)

And, Julian Casey (Uncle Jack), my wife Lisa, and I recorded “combat grunts,” i.e., noises people make when they are trying to make you lie down. Those should make combat feel much more visceral.



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Thursday, September 24, 2015

TV writing has a disease at its core. It is the tyranny of the core cast member.

Lisa and I have been binge-watching season 4 of Homeland. Homeland is originally an adaptation of Prisoners of War a very gritty and naturalistic Israeli series about Israeli solders who have returned after years of captivity among their enemies. One of them may have been brainwashed. But what is his plan?

What sucked us into the first seasons was fraught situations, plot twists, characters with strong but hidden and possibly changing motivations, long story arcs and intelligent writing. Moreover, I felt a sense that the writers had consulted people who knew something about spy craft. It was a bit like Aaron Sorkin's years on West Wing, where things happened that bore some resemblance to what happens in the White House, as opposed to John Wells' years, where things happened that bore some resemblance to what happens on E.R.





We're about six episodes into Season Four when everything starts to go to hell, in the sense that the writers start making random stuff up to be dramatic. Saul, the former head of the CIA, is tricked into entering an Islamabad Airport bathroom where he's knocked out and spirited off to the tribal areas. (Never mind that no one would send the former head of the CIA to any airport, let alone Islamabad, without a platoon of security.) No one notices that he didn't make his flight. Then, just as Carrie Mathieson, the CIA station chief, is about to order a Hellfire missile fired at a top Taliban leader, it turns out the leader has Saul prisoner. She orders the shot anyway. Her sidekick nixes it. The soldier at the controls doesn't fire.

Now, there are all sorts of things wrong with this. TV writers regularly ignore chain of command in their writing, even though they are acutely conscious of chain of command in their own career. If the station chief order the shot, the soldier takes the shot. Moreover, it is obviously the right decision. Saul knows too much. He's going to be tortured for his information. He himself would order the shot.

But, you see, Saul is core cast. He can't be killed.

There is a long TV tradition of risking the lives of the many to save one person that the star knows well. In real life, Saul is a dead man, but before he dies, he will give our mortal enemies weapons to use against us, and dozens or hundreds of people will die. But no, we can't kill Saul, because Carrie cares about him, and so do we.

What's tedious about this is that Carrie killing Saul would be really interesting. How would she live with herself after blowing up her mentor and father figure? Who would she turn to for emotional stability? She's become really hard and badass in this season; this would be her hardest and baddest moment.

Indeed, one of the strongest moments in Homeland is when Damien Lewis's character Brody actually does die and she can't save him.

The season goes downhill from there. After Saul escapes, and makes Carrie swear that he won't be taken alive, she betrays him, leading him into a Taliban trap, so that he won't blow his own head off. The consequences are a prisoner exchange in which the Taliban gets five top commanders back, which leads to a truly ridiculous series of events I can't even stand to outline. (Let's just say that no, when an RPG hits your car, you do not survive with a cut on your scalp, and no, under no circumstances does anyone send all the Marines out of the Pakistan embassy.)

As a writer watching this, I feel like two things are going on. One, the writers are choosing the biggest drama rather than the truth of the situation. Big Emotion is riding roughshod over the story. (The first season, the adage goes, the stars are working for the showrunner. The second season, they're working with the showrunner. After that, the showrunner is working for the stars. Actors like to big up their emotions. Is that what's going on here?)

But two, the terrible tyranny of core cast -- under no circumstances can Saul blow his own head off unless it's at the end of a season and he's leaving the show.

This kind of crap goes on all the time in American-told stories. American heroes regularly put the lives of many at risk to save one person. Captain Kirk will always ignore regulations in order to save a friend. If Homeland were on Japanese TV, I don't doubt that Saul would indeed blow his head off to prevent his government from giving up five top Taliban commanders -- and Carrie Mathie-san would have a beautiful moment with him on the phone, wishing only that she could be the one killing herself in his place. Hell, even on Canadian TV (see Flashpoint).

I sometimes wonder if it is only a reflection of the American character, or if the flaws of the film and television media actually feed back into American culture. What am I saying? Of course they do. After generations of heros saying "never tell me the odds," and "we have to risk it" and "I don't care what the experts say," you wind up with yippee-ki-yay foreign policy driven by politicians who haven't actually been to war, but have seen it on TV. We think of ourselves as invincible, because we think of ourselves as core cast. That's how we end up invading Iraq.

So ... what about Game of Thrones, you say? Or Sopranos? Yes, well, that's HBO. They mean it when they say, "It's not TV, it's HBO." About the only person you can be sure will survive to the end of The Sopranos is the point of view character, Tony. I suspect Tyrion Lannister will make it through to the end of Game of Thrones, because he's so much fun, but I never thought they'd kill off Jon Snow, what with him having a whole backstory set up for him where he was the Hidden True Heir and all. And they did.

And isn't that more interesting? When Joss takes away Jenny Calendar's immunity, or Tara Maclay's, doesn't that make us much more engaged with his other characters?

But more importantly -- isn't the story what's important?

Well no, not on TV. I interviewed Ron Moore about Battlestar Galactica in Banff years ago, and I asked him about some of the sillier permutations the cast of the show went through -- where fighter pilots became politicians and so forth. His answer was that, for him, the show is the core cast. Call it Battlestar Galactica all you like, but the show is not "things that happen relating to a warship," it is "things that happen to some people who were on a warship when the show began."

This is the tyranny of the core cast. I hate it. I hate it because when I watch TV, I know the writers are going to betray the characters and the story any time the alternative is killing someone with a season contract. That puts me in a foul mood all day.

Every medium has its flaw. In games and film, the hero has to motivate everything and make all the choices; you can't have a passive protagonist like Ishmael in Moby Dick. Plays, well, everything has to be resolved by talking.

But boy, I wish Carrie had taken that shot. 


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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Watch this now, before it's pulled down:

UPDATE:  Yep, it came down a day later! Hope you got a chance to watch it. I hadn't seen the movie before I watched it. I did not feel any need for the dialog I was missing; there wasn't much, anyway. The black and white was thrilling.

One can't help wondering who posted this. Since they clearly had access to the separate music, SFX and dialog tracks, it was an inside job. My guess is it would not have happened without the blessing, or contrivance, of Mr. George Miller himself. Thank you, sir!


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Friday, September 18, 2015

One thing I have learned is that the audience is a terrible listener. They are pretty good at noticing things they see. But they don't listen so good.

So, first of all, if you want them to absorb a bit of information, it's probably a good idea to throw it at them a couple of times.

"The thing is ... she was thirteen."

Second thing is, the audience often seems to form visuals from the words you use before they process the grammar. So if I write, or say, "she's not a redhead," the first image that's going to pop into the audience's mind is a redhead. And that's what sticks. At the moment they hear or see "not a redhead," they may process the negative, but ten minutes later, they may only remember "redhead."

So I try not to use specific, visual negatives in dialog or in action description. For example, I'd avoid writing, "For once, San Francisco Bay is free of fog." That sentence is bad visually because half the audience is going to just read, or hear, or remember, "San Francisco Bay ... fog." Instead I would take care to write, or have a character say, "Across the bay, he could see the wind rippling in waves across the grass on Mount Tamalpais."

I mean, obviously there's no fog, who's even talking about fog?

This is why politicians are smart to change the subject rather than deny. We remember Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook," partly because he was a crook, and partly because the most powerful word in that sentence, the takeaway, is the word "crook." What people took away from that sentence, to some extent, was "Richard Nixon ... crook." Same thing is going on with "I did not have sex with that woman": aside from its deceitfulness, it makes you think about Bill having sex with Monica, which you probably didn't want to do. Clinton was much better in 1992 when he refused to confirm or deny whether "we've had our difficulties" meant that he was a hound dog; "I think the American people get it," is all he would say, and we did.

Don't put images in people's heads if you don't want them there; it's very hard to get them out again.


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This week I whistled a variety of tunes into a mike for the Bobbies to whistle when they’re alone in the dark.

Figured out with G the mechanics for one of our player character’s interactions with a later player character. It’s important that there is narrative “glue” between the scenes; but we don’t want to over determine the player’s choices. So rather than preventing the player from short circuiting a particular sequence, I came up with a way to handle the short circuiting in narrative. Now I’m rewriting the scenes.

Wrote lines for Uncle Jack to urge everyone to get indoors before it gets dark. I’ll record them next week or over the weekend.

Worked on figuring out which Wellie attack lines are not convincing, so we can disconnect them.

Gave notes on the early animation of one of the cutscenes. It was an interesting conversation because I come from film and theatre, and I tend to want the “actors” to move around the “scene” to illuminate their inner turmoil. But the cutscenes are all first person, like the gameplay, and it’s very odd if the player character is turned away from the NPC she’s interacting with; the player is looking at the landscape. So how do you square the circle?

Created a list of extremely English names so that we can name all the Wellies. Edited Alice Kensington’s Wastrellette lines so we can put them in the game (after José, our audio producer, levels them). Came up with ideas for what’s on the inside of a Happy Face.

The rest of the team's update is here.



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Monday, September 14, 2015

I played a game that did some interesting things with narrative, which I won't name, so hopefully I won't spoil anything.

The game is meant to be a narrative puzzle. Oddly, it is not a puzzle so much about "what exactly happened" or "who done it," but "what is the nature of the main character?" Are they who they say they are, or are they lying, or are they deluded themselves?

It's usually a rule that the protagonist of a story, or a player character, shouldn't know anything important that the player doesn't know. Otherwise it alienates the viewer/reader/player: how can they feel engaged emotionally with a character that's partly withheld from them. It feels like a cheat if the narrative holds back something that the story later hinges on.

However, in this case, the player character is not the main character. The player character is interrogating the narrative, but never appears in the game, while the main character is the person whose story the game contains.

So it's a legit mystery. The game is entitled to set the goal, and is entitled to set the obstacles to achieving that goal. It's okay that the player character has no way to establish something that, at another time and another place, could have been reasonably easily established. That's the setup. The narrator is entitled to define his or her terms.

What bugged me, I think, is a tone problem. Odd that a tone problem would mess up a mystery story, but I'll tell you why.

There are two main explanations of the narrative in the game.

  • One is that an extremely implausible series of events happened.
  • The other is that the main character has an extremely rare (and, some argue, nonexistent) mental disorder

But these two extreme, stylized interpretations come out of a series of gritty video clips of an actor acting in a naturalistic, human way. The actor isn't brilliant, but the performance doesn't come across stagey or forced.

So do I set my suspension of disbelief on "high" or "low"? I can look at interpretation one and think, well, that's an extremely implausible series of events. If I heard that in real life, I wouldn't believe it. I'd think I was dealing with a crazy person or a scammer.

But this isn't real life, this is a video game. I've believed crazier stories in video games.

So I go look at the other interpretation. If I met someone manifesting this particular mental disorder, I would pretty much assume they were faking something they saw on TV.

But again: this is a video game. Video games are entitled to heightened reality. And maybe the game makers don't know that this mental disorder doesn't look like they depicted it, and possibly doesn't exist at all.

After all, early on in the narrative we keep hearing about fairy tales, so maybe this is all meant to be interpreted as a fairy tale.

Okay but -- I'm supposed to be choosing between two interpretations, aren't I? So if I'm judging by the standards of fairy tales, how can I possibly call shenanigans on one interpretation and not the other? And if I'm judging by the standards of the real world, I have to call shenanigans on both, and then I got nothing.

So the lesson is: you have to define your tone. If something is meant to be a fairy tale, then you should introduce some magic into your story. It's dangerous to present your fairy tale as a completely naturalistic true-crime story, because it will get judged by the wrong standards. And the flip side of that is that if you intend your player (or viewer or reader) to call shenanigans on a character or a series of events, then you need to make clear that any inconsistencies are the results of the character lying rather than metaphorical story telling...

... or sloppy writing. When the audience doesn't know the story teller, they won't necessarily trust that everything in the story is there intentionally. Does the game maker know his mental disorders, really? Or is he just following what he's seen on TV?

Take Dexter, the TV and book serial killer who only kills Very Bad People. Such a person probably does not exist, but it's the premise of the series, so we accept it, and we also accept that we are not watching a truly realistic portrayal of a serial killer, we're watching a pay cable TV drama.

But that means you couldn't hang an episode on the audience suspecting that he's lying because he's showing empathy that a real serial killer isn't capable of -- because he's not a real serial killer.

And you really couldn't hang a spec episode on that, because how is the reader to know whether you are intentionally writing a character that is inconsistent with reality, or that you don't know what you're doing.

You have to ask yourself if your narrative depends on the audience being sure you know what you're doing.

This is where "hanging a lantern" or "addressing" the plot comes in handy.

If you have a character like Dexter behaving uncharacteristically for a serial killer, you could have two characters arguing about him. One could say, "no real serial killer has empathy." The other one could say, "this one does."

Now the audience knows that you do know what you're doing, and the inconsistency in the episode is intentional. Depending on where you take the scene, you can then leave us pretty sure that the Dexter-ish character is pretending, or that he really has a heart, or you can be ambiguous about it. But at least you're not being muddy.

Because of the way the narrative is told in this particular game, the game maker didn't have an opportunity to tell us whether he means his mental disorder to be a fairy tale mental disorder -- in which case it could be "real" or "true" within the world of the game -- or a real mental disorder -- in which case we'd reject that interpretation. And no actually impossible things happen in the extremely implausible series of events that is the other interpretation, so we can't tell if we're supposed to reject that interpretation as really unlikely, or embrace it as a fairy tale.

Telling a story isn't just about the story. It's also about who's telling the story, and to whom. You have to be aware of who you're telling your story to, and who they think you are.


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Saturday, September 12, 2015

(Trigger warning:  politics! This here is a post about narratives in politics, so feel free to skip it if you came here for game writing or screenwriting.)

There have been an awful lot of articles in the press about how Hillary Clinton is a terrible candidate. They're making a lot of Hillary's dubious decision to keep her State Department emails on a private server, and her BS explanation that she didn't want to have to carry two devices.

Casting my mind back to the 2008 primary, my memory is that she blew the race in January and February, but by March, she'd found her voice and her message. She'd gone from I Am the Experienced Candidate to I Will Fight For You. She pulled huge crowds in Texas. Sixteen million registered Democrats voted for her. If she'd been that candidate in New Hampshire, with that message, she'd have won the primary, and crushed John McCain.

I doubt that after four years running the State Department, she's a less convincing presidential candidate than she was in 2008.

So where are these articles coming from? The simplest explanation is that journalists love a horse race. You won't get any column inches for writing that yep, the presumptive Democratic nominee is going to win the nomination, or that in a booming economy, she'd probably beat the Republican nominee, who will be a right-wing yahoo or another politically crippled "moderate," unless he is, yikes, Donald Trump.

But, seriously, keeping her emails secret is a pretty weak stick to beat Hillary with. My guess is that most independent voters are going to have trouble understanding what the fuss is about. My guess is that most Democratic voters are going to remember that the right wing has been hating on Hillary since 1992, and accusing her of all sorts of things (she had Vince Foster murdered! Benghazi!), and the attacks are just going to sound hysterical.

Which is kind of a shame, because it was naughty, and her explanation was unbelievable.

But boy, these journalists are repeating each other's talking points a lot. People thought Hillary was being paranoid when she said there was a "vast right-wing conspiracy" against Bill, until it came out that there was, in fact, a vast right-wing conspiracy against Bill. It's not hard to believe that there is some coordination going on behind the scenes. I don't doubt that Jeb Bush would rather run against Bernie Sanders than Hillary. There are probably a lot of Democratic bigwigs who hate on the Clintons, too, and they'd really rather hand this extremely winnable election to John Kerry (who blew 2004) or Al Gore (who blew 2000) or Crazy Uncle Joe (who has been losing primaries since 1988).

(In the absence of a war, presidential elections are almost always about the fundamentals of the economy. The incumbent party almost always wins them if the economy is good. Unemployment is at 5.1%. The market is at an all-time high. The dollar is strong. The economy is fundamentally good.)

So what is interesting enough about all this to talk about on a blog about stories? My point, as always, is the power of a story. Hillary being a weak candidate is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If enough people start telling the story, maybe she'll become a weak candidate. Certainly she won't have any serious competition until enough people start saying it. You'll notice there are, as yet, no Democratic governors running against her, but maybe one could be lured into the race if she seems crippled.

And now, there are polls to point to that say she's a weak candidate. That's the self-fulfilling part. Of course the polls are down, because there's been nothing but negative news about Hillary. But with the polls down, now you can have more articles about how she's crippled, and that will bring the polls down more...

So, what does Hillary need to do about it? She needs a story. So far, she's been playing defense. She's been issuing silly explanations of the emails thing (she didn't want to carry two devices? c'mon), and recently she apologized. That might make the emails story old news, but she needs to come up with something that is a new story. You can't fight a story by telling people it's a bad story. You counter a story with another story.

But how do you come up with a story? Journalists practically refuse to cover policy as a story, even though kind of the whole point of an election is to allow voters to choose between policies. To get any traction with policy -- to make a story out of it -- you have to say something really outrageously stupid, like "I'm going to deport all 11 million illegal immigrants" or "I think we should seriously consider building a wall along the Canadian border."

Or at least, you have to say something daring. E.g. Hillary says "I'm not only going to embrace and defend Obamacare, I'm going to extend it." "I'm not only going to defend investment in solar power, I'm going to double down. Because, y'know, it's a huge success, and nothing would be better for our national security if the Russians and the Arabs stopped making a ton of money selling oil."

(I'm a big fan of Democrats selling alternative energy as a national security issue, rather than solely as a climate issue. If the world didn't run on oil, Saddam Hussein would have been no more than an irritant, Isis would run out of money, and Russia wouldn't be able to afford to invade Ukraine. People are willing to spend bazillions of dollars to blow up bearded guys with AK-47's, why not spend some money bankrupting the real enemy? "Let's stop putting money in the pockets of people who hate us" is a better story to convince independents and even Republicans with.)

But I'm not sure it's even important what the policy thing is, so long as you can turn the story into "Hillary has a bold proposal." The message should be "I have opinions, I have guts, I have new ideas." Americans always want to hear that the candidate has guts and new ideas. Guts and new ideas are practically the American religion. That's why so many people dig Donald Trump. He's an irresponsible blowhard, and he really wants to stand on a balcony in front of a crowd, but at least he's saying what he really thinks, and he's not toeing the party line.

Change the story, save the world.

Politics is story-telling.


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Wednesday, September 09, 2015

This is the other game I've been writing. Reynardo the Fox is a clever rogue, but not as clever as he thinks. He’s got himself sucked into a Rebellion against a mad, wicked Emperor, and he’s got fateful choices to make. Rescue his best friend, the master spy Lapino, wield a gem dedicated to a dead god, or resurrect a legendary siege weapon? He’s still in love with Emperor’s daughter, the sorceress Zenobia. He’s got a million ways to screw this up. And, just maybe, he can figure out how to be a real hero and save the world...

Yep, this is sort of a tongue-in-cheek mashup of the old Renard the Fox characters with a Lovecraftian universe, with fun, Bastion-style narration tracking your choices and their consequences along a branching tree of mostly bad decisions...

More news to come!


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Monday, September 07, 2015

(Click the pic to buy the book)

In between the two games I'm writing (We Happy Few and Stories: The Path of Destinies), I've been perusing The Game Narrative Toolbox. It's written by a quartet of extremely experienced game writers from the world of triple-A, one of whom is my buddy Ann LeMay.

There are all sorts of hidden rules in game writing. For example, one of the challenges in writing We Happy Few for me, as a recovering screenwriter, has been our studio head Guillaume's insistence that the player's goal line up with the player character's goal. A character's goal in a story can be anything: to save the world, to lose his virginity before senior year in high school starts, to show up his father, to make the best cheese in the world, to win a dog show.

In a movie, all I have to do is convince you to care about the protagonist, and you'll automatically root for (or against) him or her achieving that goal. Few of the audience for Best in Show were dog fanciers.

In games, G's philosophy is, the player does not automatically have the same goal. Most game developers have heard of the four Bartle types. Players play to kill, to socialize, to explore and to achieve. Most of the console and PC games you've heard of try to hit three or four of these motivations to play. Witcher 3, for example, which I just finished, is about killing monsters, about exploring a world, and about achieving certain goals. I'm willing to bet that the developers considered making a multiplayer mode, too.

So, back to cheese. While Achievers might dig a game where you make the best cheese, what about Killers? What about Explorers?

So we need to make the player's goals line up. In a shoot'em-up, that happens more or less automatically. You play Splinter Cell because you want to kill dudes. The hero is a dude who kills bad dudes, and the story is about how there are all these bad dudes he has to kill.  But what about cheese?

Say the next step in my cheesemaking challenge is to get a special kind of rennet (a cheese ingredient). The player probably does not have strong emotions around rennet.

But I can show the player a beautiful, high-security building he's going to have to sneak into in order to get it. I can warn him that his chief competitor, Aloysius B. Abernathy, is plotting to buy up all the special rennet. And I have cleverly been building lore about a secret society called Blessed Are the Cheesemakers that hopes to control the world through cheese. I can hint to the player that he will discover a Big Secret about Blessed Are the Cheesemakers inside that high security building.

Now the player has all sorts of game-y reasons to get that rennet. They are not the reasons that the player character has. He'd really rather buy his rennet on Amazon (just as you can, you know, buy the book on Amazon by clicking on the picture of the book). But I've made the player and player character goals line up.

It's particularly important because there is a significant subset of gamers that just don't care that much about story, just as there are moviegoers who are just there for the pod races. They want enough story to tell them why they're supposed to kill the Thing in the Sewers, but just enough. The reason the player character has for doing it is not at the center of the experience; it's an excuse.

It's been on my mind a lot, because I've been working on how to line up the player's goals in We Happy Few with the goals of [character name redacted] as he [redacted][redacted] the [redacted].

Well, triple-A games have more of these hidden rules than indie games do. First of all, in triple-A, the writer is one of a dozen people involved in narrative design, on a team of 600 people, to pick numbers out of a hat. That's a very different writing environment from mine, where I'm the guy writing the story and the lore and the dialog and even directing the voice actors. So communication is much more involved. There are way more memos and meetings.

THE GAME NARRATIVE TOOLBOX (remember? that's what this blog post is about) is all about these hidden rules. It is full of the things that you would not automatically know about AAA game writing, or game writing in general, just by consulting your common sense. How do you make an epic plot into a relatable plot? What are the elements of good quest-giving dialog? When can you give exposition and when should you never give exposition? What's the difference between the lore you can impart to a raid party of players who regularly play together, and the lore you can impart to an ad-hoc party?

Cleverly, since this book is pitched at beginning-to-intermediate writers, the book has lots of exercises you can do for practice, and to build your portfolio. I'll be consulting it too. Indie means you don't necessarily do things the way the big studios do them; sometimes because you're trying to do something interesting, more often because you can't afford, say, motion capture, or 20,000 barks. But you're wise to know how they do them, and depart from their ways only when you have a specific reason to do it.

Good book, Ann! Hi, Toiya!


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