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


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Friday, August 28, 2020

Alex:  How does game dialog have to be different from, say, TV or film dialog, in order to make up for the less-than-fully-expressive animated game character? What do you have to watch out for?

Kim: This is something I’ve been thinking about myself. We were trying to be funny. And if the animation doesn’t completely match the final voice recording, it can throw everything off. You can’t pull off a gag if things are splintered.

Alex: So you’re animating to placeholder voice?

Kim: Yes.

Alex: Oh God.

Kim: I think a lot of other studios do as well.

Yes, well, we’re working with a placeholder actor for two or three years, and then we cast someone like Mark Hamill to play the Joker. How are we going to match that up?

After that, we asked permission to start showing the animations to the actors. Because beforehand the actor has no idea what their character even looks like. So we started showing them concept art. I do think it helps. But the studio doesn’t like to have materials lying around some studio in LA.

[Ed. note: If you possibly can, record early enough that the animators can animate to the final voice recording.]

Alex: What is one of the most interesting narrative systems that you weren’t able to implement?

Kim: Interruption systems?

Alex: So an NPC’s talking to me, and I punch them in the face, how does the game handle that interruption?

Kim: Right, he’s going to have to repeat some lines, but it’s difficult to get those lines to sound natural coming after the interruption. Say a character is telling a story, and then combat interrupts you. Do you just repeat the line they were in the middle of? Do they say, “As I was saying,” or “Now that that’s done…”

We asked for a tool to implement that. But it was hard, and I don’t think that we really smashed it, because if you’ve got the exact same delivery of the line, it doesn’t sound entirely natural. We tried a number of different things but it never came out quite right. Some NPC will be saying, “As I was saying,” and then suddenly they’re shouting, which was where they left off. “As I was saying, THAT WAS THE BEST PARTY I EVER WENT TO!!”

Alex: Let’s talk about the pros and cons of different narrative delivery systems. What are you best at? What are the hardest to use in games? What do you enjoy writing the most?

Kim: Well don’t get me wrong, a good cinematic is always fun. You’ve got the character to that stage, and I’m going to destroy all the players with this, it’s gonna be great! Yes, that’s amazing.

But I think reactive dialog, dialog reacting to the player’s. For example, the game wouldn’t allow punching children. There’s no mechanic for punching children in the game. But what I can do is give the player character some sort of reaction line that takes the piss out of the player, like, if they try to punch a child, “What is wrong with you? This isn’t who we are.”

Alex: Especially when your player character is a conflicted character like Harley Quinn.

Kim: One of the things I really wanted to do, I don’t know if this went ahead, but every time a player tries to get a closeup of her arse, I just wanted the game to address it. Like, she farts. I like to think, what are the players going to do? Well they’re probably going to try to sexualize her. What can I write that will make fun of the player for doing that?

Alex: In a writing team, what specialties do you need?

Kim: On our writing team, we had a writer who was very good at forecasting what sort of dialog we’d need. Planning. I think my speciality is I was able to spot continuity issues. Some people are funny. Some are literate in writing tools.

Alex: Oh, sure. Some people have read more novels. I’ve probably read more history than is really useful or healthy, and I’m a font of useless trivia about the past, a lot of which made it into We Happy Few. The person we just brought in is more of a narrative designer than Lisa or myself.

Alex: Is there a difference between the org structure and who’s really in charge of what? What have you learned to watch out for?

Kim: I think the moment you don’t listen to someone that the org chart says you don't have to listen to, you’re doing the game a disservice. All feedback is coming from a place of truth. It may not be the right truth.

Alex: Neil Gaiman says that all feedback is true, it’s just the solutions people offer that are usually wrong.

You’ve recently blown the whistle on a pattern of harassment of women at Rocksteady. Obviously it’s horrible to work in a toxic work environment. How do toxic work environments affect the stories that are told? The work that is done?

Kim: You wind up with bad representations of characters. Silly things. There was a character who was wearing a dress, but she’s got a gun holster on her leg. Or there’s a piece of art that says that a character moved here five years ago, but the story is they just moved here. What happens is people aren’t talking or listening to each other.

Alex: So how do you stay sane?

Kim: Alcohol helps. (Laughs). I think it’s important to have someone you can talk to. You can find yourself wondering, “Am I okay?” It helps just to have someone resonate and understand, someone who can say, “you’re not alone, I’ve experienced that too.” You do form a family.

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Thursday, August 27, 2020

Alex:  What misconceptions did you have coming into game development?

Kim:  I suppose the biggest was thinking I was just going to write a script, just write some dialog. I had no idea how much humble pie I was about to eat. I like to say my first language is Scottish, my second is English, and my third is gaming. . I remember my first meeting, sitting down with designers -- there’s a whole language of design terminology.

And then there was trying to get my brain used to limitations and constraints. And I think, anyone who’s going down this path, please read up on design. I thought I was just going to tell a story, I didn’t think I was going to help design a game. I mean, I tried reading books—

Alex: --What books?

Kim: One I read was The Game Narrative Toolbox.

Alex: Oh, yes, my friend Ann Lemay is one of the writers.

Kim: It was really useful, really breaking it down, you know, this is what a “mechanic” is, this is what a “level” consists of. At the same time, I recently gave a talk for the writer’s guild, that while that book was so useful to me, the terminology gets used completely differently from company to company. So someone’s idea of a “bark” could be totally different.

Alex: When we hire new people, we right away have to clarify what they mean by, for example, a “level” or an “encounter” because we might use a word differently than, say, Ubisoft.

Kim: It took me until I was at a second studio to realize that my huge imposter syndrome coming from TV was completely unnecessary. Every studio is starting from scratch, and how they’re designing it, and how they’re describing how they’re designing it, are different. I thought, I’m not getting it, I’m going to get caught out, and it took me a couple of games to realize that if I’m not understanding, it’s not because I don’t deserve to be there, it’s because from studio to studio, words get used differently.

Alex: Have you been involved in hiring other writers?

Kim: Absolutely. Especially at Rocksteady, because we didn’t have a lead for the longest time, so I was hiring for my boss. You put out the call, and you immediately get a heap of CVs. Recruitment filters them, and then as a team we go through every CV; every member of the writing team has a say. We shortlist, send out the writing test, and give them a week. Meanwhile new CVs are coming in. It’s difficult because when you’re in game development your time is precious. To even make time for an interview, that’s like an hour out of your working day. You don’t have 10-15 hours free to schedule interviews.

Alex: The Catch-22 of hiring: when you desperately need to find someone to take some of the work off your hands, you don’t have any free time available to find someone.

Kim: And then the second round is even harder because that’s when we’re taking them to the Creative Director, and his time is even more precious. You could be waiting a month and a half for him to find the time to talk to someone.

Alex: So what do you look for in a writing applicant?

Kim: Most of the samples I was getting were twelve pages, sixteen pages. ? If I don’t like your writing by page eight, I’m not going to want to read another twenty. Try to grab me by page one.

[Ed. note: Kim’s writing sample grabs you on page one.]

Alex: There’s an old story about Frank Capra, the comedy director of the 30’s. He hires this famous comic playwright to write a screenplay for him. And after a month or so, the first act comes in, and it’s this achingly well observed act showing that this couple’s marriage has deteriorated.

And Capra says, this is what we’re going to do. The guy gets in an elevator with his wife. Leaves his hat on. Next floor, a pretty girl gets on. He takes his hat off.

That tells you what you need to know! You can start the story now.

Kim: That sample I was telling you about, with Harley Quinn, I wrote that in five pages, and I was trying to write it as short and punchy as possible. I need someone who from the get-go can sell me a character: what they sound like, what they’re about. And it has to serve the story; it’s not there to serve your cute lines.

So: someone who has an understanding of how a scene is structured, and who gets the voices to pop out, so I can hear them in my head as I’m reading. If I’m not hearing the voice in my head, there’s a problem. Why are my eyes are drifting away?

Alex: It’s interesting that you’re getting long samples, because when I was looking for someone, the samples tended to be really short, and not have any drama in them. My brief was, “Writing sample, 3-5 pages, two-hander, dramatic conflict.” [That means that each character wants something from the other, and they use words to try and get it, and by the end of the scene, either they get it, or it’s clear they’re not going to get it.]

And the number of people who didn’t have a dramatic sample! They had a couple of pages that told me everything I needed to know to go on a heist, and I’m like, “Okay, you have informed me of everything I need to know to play the level, thank you, but you don’t have any people in here.”

Kim: Right, the samples tend to give away the background of the writer. I’d give them a dramatic theme in the brief, and the die hard game writers would put in an objective that I didn’t even give them, but they don’t put in the drama all the time.

Alex: How do you explain the importance of what you’re doing to people who don’t necessarily understand storytelling?

Kim: My job is to allow people to connect with characters who are a vessel used to explore moral dilemmas, societal dilemmas, to get people to engage with that, so hopefully they can see things differently. Even for example God of War, I have no idea what it’s like to be a single Dad. Stories help people grow.

Alex: I have a theory that there are structures in the brain that interpret everything as a story. If someone tells you a story, you remember it a whole lot better than if someone just tells you a bunch of facts. You know how there’s a Broca’s region in the brain that allows you to interpret language, and if you don’t have that, or it’s damaged, you can’t interpret language? I think there’s also a storytelling and story-interpreting structure, hardwired in the brain. We interpret the world through stories. And tragically, that’s why it’s so hard to get people to confront, say, science, because a good story comes across more powerfully than a bunch of data.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2020

I’m thinking about a third writing book, this one about game writing. I had a strange trajectory in game writing where my second job ever was Story Director of Contrast. So I didn’t come up through the game writing ranks; I came up through the TV and film writing ranks. I thought about titling my book CRAFTY GAME WRITING: I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING BUT PEOPLE SEEM TO LIKE IT. But I also decided to do a bunch of interviews with skilled writers I like and respect.

Kim MacAskill

I met Kim MacAskill (Twitter: @kimmacaskill1) at a game writing summit for first party Microsoft Studios companies. She started in games as Senior Scriptwriter at Rocksteady; when I met her, she was Senior Scriptwriter at Playground Games. She has since returned to her native Glasgow as Principal Narrative Designer at NaturalMotion. So please kindly read all of her responses in a Scottish accent.

Alex: What phase of game development are you in currently? What do you do in a typical day?

Kim: I’m in a strange place in between the ending of one game and the beginning of the other. Really we’re in pre-production on one game, and tying up the end of another.

What do I do? It really does vary. I’m not writing every single day. Most days it’s creating a high level presentations where I think we should go. As you know in game development there’s a lot of presenting. There are a lot of moving parts to a game. Often we have to scale back on the narrative aspect of a feature for easier design and coding. So I’m negotiating on that. I really only spend about one day a week writing dialog, if I’m lucky.

Alex: And the tying up of loose ends?

Kim: Oh, I’ll get a ping from someone, oh, UI needs this, can you tie this up? [UI is the user interface – what buttons do what.] There are last minute design decisions which need narrative support.

Alex: Have you ever heard of The Writer Will Do Something? It’s a Twine game about a bunch of game devs handing off all their design mistakes to the writer. Something’s broken? The writer will do something.

Kim (laughing): Oh, my God, that sounds like the best game. It sounds like therapy.

Alex: Therapy or horror, I’m not sure which.

Kim: Like you’ll get the designers saying, “Oh, this gun works under water,” and then there’s the question, well, why does the gun work underwater?” And, “Oh, the writers will fix it.”

Alex: Yeah, if you’ve designed the level properly, the player character doesn’t need to say much, but if you haven’t, then you have the player character saying, “Oh, I bet there’s a trapdoor somewhere around here.”

What are the hardest battles you fight?

Kim: My own preciousness. Sometimes they want to cut a design feature and there’s an impact on story flow. Or we have to cut something, and you have to ask yourself, am I upset because cutting this is not the best thing for the game, or am I just tired? I try not to be precious. Everything is discardable. You have to realize, when people change your story, they’re not necessarily ruining your story.

Alex: So you never find yourself going, okay, this is going to absolutely break the story?

Kim: Oh, absolutely. But when there are so many moving pieces at a time, it’s kind of choosing your battles. Sometimes, okay, that’s going to wreck that scene, and that’s going to wreck the story, and you sit down with yourself and go, Okay, is this when I fight the battle? Is this the day when I push back?

It can be hard, because when you’re so invested in your story, you have to ask, have they actually killed the story dead, or is it recoverable, or can I even make it better?

It’s a constant compromise. Really living and breathing your characters and caring about them and then someone telling you that you can’t tell the story that you intended. But am I really annoyed, or am I just tired? It’s a constant self-mental-assessment.

Alex: How did you get into game writing?

Kim: Total mistake, I think. It was because of the instability of the TV industry. You know this, when you have work, it’s great; when you don’t, you’re like, “When’s my next contract gonna be?” Contracts are anywhere from three months to a year, so you’re constantly always trying to find your next meal.

I was always a big, big comic book fan. I loved Batman. And I played games as well. And I saw that Rocksteady were looking for a senior scriptwriter. And I think at this time, I was sending out about 20 CV’s a day to anyone who would listen. I was just putting everything out everywhere, I was applying to Nickelodeon for a shitty TV show. And I was really surprised when Rocksteady got back to me.

And I told them, I’ve written for film, I’ve written for TV, I’ve even written for wrestling, but I’ve never written a game. But they didn’t necessarily need a game writer, they needed someone with a bit more experience creating strong narratives. And I came from a comedy background, that was useful given that we were writing for Suicide Squad. So they were happy to teach me about game writing as I brought things from my other skill set.

And they asked me to do a writing test. And that was, Harley Quinn, Penguin and Deathstroke wake up in a room. They have no memory of how they got there. How do they use their strengths and weaknesses to get out?

But from then to actually being employed was like three months. You know, in TV, it’s very fast. “I need a script editor, you’re a script editor, okay, here’s your money.” Recruitment in games can be a six month process from applying to actually arriving at the studio.

Alex: Yeah, back when I was in TV I got a call, “How would you like to write on a TV show in South Africa for four months?” “Interesting. When?” “How about Tuesday?” And it was Thursday.

So this is a question that I think no one else will be able to answer for me: what lessons did you take away from writing for wrestling? What’s it like?

Kim: It’s like a soap drama. This one’s going to betray, that one’s going to go away for a long long time and suddenly appear out of nowhere. Someone's having an affair, all kinds of twists and turns. That could be a soap drama. Maybe realism is more of a factor for soaps. But it’s the same sort of, we need the drama and we need it now. You can’t really go too long without something melodramatic happening.

Alex: My wife Lisa was once up for a gig at the WWF, but she didn’t want to move to Connecticut. I’ve always felt that was a missed opportunity.

Kim: It’s really fun. There are all sorts of people writing for wrestling. There was a writer from Family Guy.

Alex: But were there any lessons…

Kim: If I’m gonna be honest, no. I suppose the one thing I’m going to bring out is how are you going to embed heaps of combat in a story while making it engaging? How am I going to build important dramatic beats, and build relationships. It’s all very well and good telling a love story, but you still have to have people fighting each other.

Alex: Lisa has a theory that opera and kung fu movies are basically the same thing, you know, a bit of story, then there’s a fight, or an aria, then a bit more story, and a fight, or someone sings. “Two brothers separated at birth. One’s a cop, one’s a killer, and they’re in love with the same woman!” Is that a kung fu plot, or a Verdi opera? So I suppose it’s the same with wrestling.

More MacAskill Soon!

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