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 Narrative 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 instead I decided to do a bunch of interviews with skilled writers I like and respect.
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: So, 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: Yeah, 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? Or, 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?” “You fly 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!
Labels: games, making games, writing games