Kim MacAskill, Part ThreeComplications Ensue
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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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