Kim MacAskill, Part TwoComplications Ensue
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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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