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


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Friday, October 28, 2016

I needed eleven lines from our Mad Scotsman for some revisions we’re making to a scene in the Train Station. But an actor’s minimum call is an hour. So I’ve been writing barks for him – 225 of them. That should round out the hour, eh?

I’ve been working on rethinking the playthrough for She Who Must Not Be Named. G had an issue that she did not seem to be in enough jeopardy; and that the player character’s motivations didn’t line up enough with the player’s own motivations. So I’ve been reworking the story logic and the characters involved. This will involved a fair amount of carnage – animations we have to throw out – but it will result in a more powerful story and better integration between gameplay and story.

And, I’ve done a pass on the journal text. You are reading your journal, right?

Rest of the team posted here...



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I used to teach the English side of the SAT for the Princeton Review, an SAT prep company. I had the advanced class, which was about 50% Korean immigrants who were still learning idiomatic English.

I told them the best thing they could do to improve their English was read Raymond Chandler. He's the guy who wrote The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely. You know, the Humphrey Bogart movies. (Or, at least, the movies I remember as starring Humphrey Bogart, even when it was actually Robert Mitchum.)

See, you don't need great literature to learn English. In fact it's not idea. First, great literature is taxing on your brain. Second and more importantly, it's all about nuance. When you don't already know the nuances, you're apt to muddy your learning. What you need is stylish writing.  Raymond Chandler had style to burn:

"It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window."

"The girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back."

"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge."

"She lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theatre curtain. I was to get to know that trick. That was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air."

“In writing a novel, when in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.”

That last one is indeed his plotting style. Don't read Chandler for an airtight plot. Read Chandler for how to turn short old words into magic; for how to give your sentences rhythms that have the sway and slash of poetry without reminding you that you're reading words on a page. Read Chandler because his books are very hard to put down.


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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

I'm enjoying Deus Ex as a series of stealth puzzles. The story raises some points about craft that I'm working on myself.

The world is one in which "augs" such as Adam Jensen, our gravel-voiced hero, are discriminated against after a worldwide accident caused many of them to go haywire. There is terrorism by augs, unless it is by provocateurs seeking to blame augs. There's political infighting within Jensen's organization, TF29, and Jensen is also involved, you quickly learn, with an aug organization that suspects TF29 is being used against augs.

There are global stakes. Jensen seeks justice against terrorists, and truth against plotters.

Now I'm only about 20 hours in, and I'm a bit of a completionist, so I'm not to Golem City yet. But what I would love to see more of is personal stakes. What does all this mean to Jensen? You get to choose what Jensen says about all this, so he doesn't really have his own a point of view.

It's received wisdom in a Hollywood action movie that the hero should have global stakes and personal stakes. John McClane is trying to save a towerful of hostages, including his ex-wife.

Why? Because we can't relate to a towerful of hostages.  "One death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic," as Stalin said. That's why King Kong has to have Fay Wray in his hand. She's there to give Kong a personal goal, without which he's just an ape run amok.

A story needs jeopardy or stakes. You'd think you have jeopardy in a video game, because the hero can get killed, but after the 37th time you reboot him, it stops feeling like real jeopardy. So you need stakes. And global stakes don't create emotional engagement by themselves.

I mean, did you sob with relief when your Captain Shepherd saved all sentient life from the Reapers? I bet you had more emotional connection when Joel in The Last of Us did that thing that he did at the end -- because it involved his relationship with one person.

Heroes have girlfriends (or boyfriends, or wards, or moms) to humanize them; it's the same reason that heroes with flaws are more engaging. We'd care about Peter Parker less if Mary Jane weren't in danger. Fighting crime is abstract; saving the girl he loves is personal.

I'm not saying Adam needs a girlfriend (or a boyfriend, or a ward, or a mom). But if the global stakes were tied up in personal stakes, I feel the emotional engagement would be stronger.

E.g., rather than having him investigate a bombing, have him investigate a bombing that put his best friend in a coma. Rather than have him prove that an aug organization didn't commit a terrorist act, have him prove that an aug organization of which his ex girlfriend is a member did not commit a terrorist act and therefore she should not be executed. (Or his boyfriend, or his ward, or his mom.)

Or, maybe his girlfriend, or boyfriend, or mom, has turned against him because they think augs are terrorists. Or they think augs are terrorists and should all be locked up except for Adam and one or two "good augs." Or a judge is going to take away his kid because he thinks augs are terrorists.

Ha ha, I know, Adam Jensen would never have a kid. (But what if he did? And he had to choose whether to make his kid an aug, or let his kid stay in a wheelchair?)

(There are in fact side quests which create some personal stakes; but they're missions he does for people he runs into, mostly, not people who are necessarily part of his life. If he fails these people, he doesn't lose anything.)

Look, I'm painting in very broad strokes here. There are much more surprising, provocative and challenging ways to make global stakes personal. I'm just using these as examples.

I also tend to think, by the way, that it's much easier to follow a story when there are personal stakes. And it gives the storytellers something to sink their teeth into.

I bring this up because this is an argument I have with Guillaume and David every now and then. The player character stories in We Happy Few are all intensely personal. At a couple of points during our development of the game, G and David have complained that the stakes weren't global enough. "I know Arthur's trying to find his brother, but that's not necessarily what the player is trying to do." I rewrote the ending recently to make sure that the player gets both a satisfying end to Arthur's story, and a satisfying ending to his own story, that is, the story of his gameplay.

We have done a fair amount of work aligning player motivation with player character motivation. When those two are aligned, you get the player engaged both emotionally and intellectually. When we release the story, let me know how we did.

UPDATE:  Turns out Jensen's boss, Jim Miller has a kid who needs an augmentation to walk again, and he and his ex-husband disagree about that ... and suddenly I care a lot about Miller and how his story is going to end.


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Sunday, October 02, 2016

Q. I've always had a strong interest in writing which is why I went on to pursue a degree in English. I would like very much to pursue know what it would take for me to become part of a team of creators. Is it better to have Master's degree as opposed to a Bachelor's? Would it be preferable to have degrees in different fields of study? Does Compulsion Games offer internships for individuals seeking experience and exposure?
We don't offer internships. We're a small team of 25 fairly experienced people. The company philosophy is that if you're good enough to work there, you're good enough to pay.

The game industry, like showbiz, is not particularly interested in whether you have a parchment in a frame with Praeses et Socii Universitatis on it. We're interested in whether you have skills, experience and talent. So if you're an artist, we don't care if you went to art school, we want to see your portfolio. Now obviously you learn a lot in art school, and you can put together a good portfolio there, so many games artists went to art school. But it's the portfolio, not the credential.

Same for programming. Show us what you've done, and we'll give you a programming test. Pass the programming test, and we'll interview you. You may very well have learned to program in a computer science department, but if you taught yourself online, or out of books, that's cool. The head of the company started working at 17 as a programmer. My first wife taught herself to program after finishing her Ph. D. in Folklore, and she's been a programmer ever since. (She figured that if she could learn 14 dead languages, computer languages couldn't be that hard. She was right, too.)

What schools do teach you is the tools. For example, Montreal's Cégep du Vieux Montréal will teach you Unreal. (For free, if you're a Québecer.) Level Designers and Environmental Artists make the world of our game in Unreal 4.

However, I don't know how you become a game writer. My path involved having written a hit comedy film and directed a bunch of shorts. I moved into games laterally. I did not have to convince anyone that I could write dialog, or tell a story. My first few game writing jobs did not involve any special software, or even much in the way of the elaborate spreadsheets we're using to track dialog in We Happy Few. So there were no software tools to know.

(Basically I now use Google Sheets, Google Docs, Final Draft and Pro Tools. Pro Tools is the only serious badass professional bit of software. It's for editing sound.)

I actually do have an MFA, but I think the most valuable part of my MFA was having an excuse to muck about with cameras for three years. I did learn a few things about directing actors and cutting audio, but I did not learn to write at UCLA, or Yale. I learned to write by writing, for free and then for money, for many, many years.

I don't have a terribly good idea how someone becomes a pro games writer.

You can attend game jams. There's good info in The Game Narrative Toolbox, which my friend Ann Lemay contributed to.

Better, you can teach yourself Twine (it's trivial to learn) and create an interactive HTML text narrative which someone can easily play.

Even better, you can learn how to make mods, and create story modules in various game engines, e.g. you could create your own Shadowrun story. There are some amazing mods out there, and modding communities full of volunteers that make them. If you can show us a mod you made, that ought to show us that you know how to make a video game narrative.

Game societies are good, e.g. the IGDA.

But there are no agents in game writing. In TV you write a spec and a spec pilot, get an agent, and get pitched to showrunners. I'm not sure what the equivalent is in games.

If anyone reading this has a better idea how to become a game writer, please write in!


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Saturday, October 01, 2016

As soon as I get back to writing script pages (as opposed to barks), I'm going to be trying out Final Draft 10. There are two main script formatting programs, Final Draft and Screenwriter. (There's also CeltX, which is free, but I don't know any pros who use it.)

I have friends who swear by Screenwriter (and at Final Draft!). Personally, I've always found Final Draft easier and more intuitive to use. It's probably not an accident that Final Draft started out as a Mac program and Screenwriter started out on PC. Screenwriter is powerful once you learn how to use it, but you have to just somehow know that, for example, the way to get a parenthetical is to type an open parenthesis at the beginning of a line of dialog.

Or read the manual, I suppose. Crazy, right?

The people who make Final Draft have just come out with Final Draft 10, the latest edition of the 25-year-old software. It has some neat tricks:

Alt Dialog

You can now hide alt dialog lines right in the script. You can have three versions of a line of dialog, and quickly switch between them. Handy if you're punching up a script.

This is really neat.

Beat Board

Final Draft 9 had index cards based on your formatted script. Each scene in Script View turned into an index card in Scene Navigator view. You could shuffle your index cards around.

However, unless your screen is much bigger than mine, you rarely have enough real estate to see all your index cards. I've wound up printing them out and moving them around on the kitchen table.

Beat Board is a more sophisticated way of viewing your whole story. You have a scene timeline; you can hang your scenes on the timeline, and quickly view them. You can color code them, for example if you want to track dramatic beats vs. action bears, or two subplots. Being able to view the whole timeline makes it easier to see if your structure is unbalanced.

Collaboration Tools

At Compulsion, we have a lot of shared Google Documents. I share the encounter dialog with the level designers and the audio people. That way we can track a line from writing to recording to editing to integration.

Up till now, the only way to co-write a script in Final Draft is to email versions back and forth. That's the way I prefer to work. But when you go over the script on the phone (did you know phones can be used for talking?), only one person can talk. FD 10 allows several writers to open the same script and edit it at the same time, just like you can with a Google Doc.

Now, this is not a proper review of FD 10. The folks at Final Draft were kind enough to give me a review copy, but as it happens, I am doing everything at the moment except writing dialog pages. I'm helping a game cast an actor. I'm writing barks. I'm editing audio. So I'm going to have to wait until I'm back to dialog pages before I can tell you how well all these handy new tools work. Tune in later!


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