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


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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Clanbook Lasombra cover art

...Did I mention RPGs?  Richard Dansky also writes RPGs.

Alex: You have an M.A. in English.

Richard: I'm one degree away from being completely unemployable, so...

Alex: How has that informed your work? Is there an academic theory you find useful?

Richard: In terms of theory... just the notion of literary analysis and being able to deconstruct story structures and narrative structures. The training that I got as a graduate student, the analysis of those narrative structures, is something that served me very well.

Alex: So the ability to see the hidden structures in stories.

Richard: Yeah. And I could start rambling on about [Russian philosopher Mikhail] Bakhtin and all that, but...

Alex: Oh, please do. "What can Bakhtin do for you?"

Richard: Bakhtin actually helped me write a thesis on H.P. Lovecraft as an undergraduate at Wesleyan.

Alex: And what what was your Bakhtinian take on Lovecraft?

Richard: This was before Lovecraft was cool and long before everybody figured out he was a howling racist. But I was talking about spheres of influence and transgression between those spheres of influence. The idea that Lovecraft's horror comes from the trespass, one into the other, human into the monstrous and the monstrous into the human. I could go into a great deal more detail if I could find in the damn thing somewhere in my office.

Alex: Does that work in games as well, this sense of transgression? Or are we just always in a very carefully defined, consistent fantasy world?

Richard: Our worlds are so carefully crafted that it's hard to be allowed to transgress against them. The worlds generally don't allow for a sense of transgression against the story they want to tell. Every so often you get a game that tries to go there. And sometimes the results are fantastic.

Alex: What's one that's fantastic?

Richard: I would say The Last of Us transgresses. And sometimes it doesn't work so well. Where it comes across as crude or the player does not enjoy the feeling of transgression.

Alex: In what way does The Last of Us transgress?

Richard: Well, the standard ending would have ended with the delivery of Ellie to the doctors, happy ending, OK, they're going to save the world now.

Alex: You're a hero.

Richard: And the fact that it doesn't stop there, the fact that we find out more and we act against what was seen as our heroic goal all the way through the game... I think that's a moment of transgression. And an excellent one.

Alex: It is certainly one of the most earned unexpected endings. You're going, oh, my God, that's horrifying. And then you go, but everything that has happened has led up to this. And he couldn't have made a different decision.

Richard: It feels a piece of the world and it feels like something that character would rationally do. That feels righteous to do. And even though it's going against the proposed heroic ideal of the first 90 percent of the game.

Alex: I think that's probably why it was so memorable. If it had had the standard ending, I don't think people would have been over the moon about it.

Richard: Well, and the giraffes. I love the moment with the giraffes. It's the moment of, This is what you are fighting for. That quiet moment. When the shouting stops and the shooting stops and you're not running, you take a deep breath and say, OK, these are real people, these are people who I can care about because they have this humanity to them.

Alex: They have an ability to experience the quiet moments.

Richard: Yeah.

Alex: I think that's right.

Richard: And you contrast that to games where everybody is always shouting all the time. You don't get an impression of characters, because after a while you tune it out. It's just another order, another description, another bit of pipe being laid.

Alex: What question would you most want answered by this book I'm writing?

Richard: What comes next?

Alex: In terms of ... theory? AI?

Richard: Storytelling. We still don't even have a common vocabulary for video game storytelling.

Alex: What would we be looking for in a vocabulary?

Richard: A common language, a formalization of the role, and a professional jargon that could be respected outside of the club.

Alex: Like in show business with your turning points. Act outs. Teasers. Ghosts.

Richard: I mean, we have barks and that's about it. And I think we need our own language to differentiate ourselves from cinema, from television. Now, obviously, there's a lot of overlap, but there's also a lot of space that's ours alone. And trying to cram us into their boxes has, I think in some cases set video game storytelling back.

Alex: Each medium has things that it does well. A novel can slow down or speed up time in a way that a movie or a TV show can't, because everything has to happen in real time. You can jump between times, but you can't speed up time, except for the occasional slow-mo or time lapse shot. You can't show, say, "over the course the next few months, she began to wonder if her marriage was working..." -- you can't show that. What do you think in that sense the medium of videogames is able to do that you can't do in, say, film and television?

Richard: The cheap answer is, interactivity. But the phrase that I've always used is the "player shaped hole." There is a player shaped hole in the center of every videogame story. And as creators, we write to the possibility space of what the player might do. We don't dictate every moment. We prepare for the eventuality of what the player might choose to do at any given moment.

Alex: I think it has parallels to theater. The thing that theater does is, you are physically in the same space with the actors. And that gives you something that film doesn't do, even though, you know, a stage set is so much more artificial than what you see in the film. The fact that you're actually physically there, breathing the same air as the actor, that creates a sort of ritual space. And when a player does a thing, especially when a player gets to choose a thing, they own it in a way that they can't own it as a passive consumer. As you were saying that, you know, "I did this. I decided to save Ellie." That can be quite powerful.

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Sunday, September 27, 2020

Vaporware, by Richard Dansky (Book Cover)

Richard Dansky is a veteran game writer and horror novelist. Among his many novels, Vaporware is the horrifying tale of a game project that refuses to allow herself to be killed off. There is a monster in it, but not the one you think.

Alex: How would you define a narrative designer versus a writer?

Richard: I would say that the two jobs can overlap, but the narrative designer is responsible for the systems for delivering narrative to the player while the writers are responsible for the content that gets delivered.

Alex: And why do you think it's valuable to separate those job descriptions?

Richard: Because it's…. how can I put this delicately?--

Alex: --Some people can't write, and some writers can't program, is that it?

Richard: Some writers can't program, some writers can't design. As games get more sophisticated, you need more and more sophisticated ways of telling stories, you need more intricate artificial intelligence structures to call on for systemic dialog, you need better environmental storytelling. You need somebody to keep track of all of that, and somebody whose primary skill is writing may not have those skills. At the same time, someone whose primary skill is writing should be able to go ahead and write. Maximize the resources, make sure that you're getting people in a position to succeed. But it's not just writing, it has to be a way of delivering the story as well as the story itself.

Alex: So talking about narrative delivery systems: what's a narrative delivery system that you really thought worked? Something that you thought, This is cool, this is doing a new thing. This is something movies don't do.

Richard: I thought that the narrative delivery in Assassin's Creed: Odyssey was fantastic. Really brought you into that world.

Alex: How so?

Richard: For the first time in that series, you really got a sense of who the people in that world were. And it was deeper immersion. The sense that their lives have been going on before you got there and will continue to go on after you left.

Alex: I was talking with Anna Megill and she was saying that's apparently called "negative capability." Was that a term you've heard?

Richard: It's not a term I've heard, but I'm happy to steal it.

Alex: What was happening in the game that was new that was making you feel like these people had lives?

Richard: Part of it was the content, what they were talking about, what they were asking the player to do. The language that was used felt realistic and personable. And part of it was the structure of the conversations. There wasn't a character standing around waiting for you to interact with them, in a way that was obvious that they were just tools in the delivery of narrative. They felt like characters. They did not feel like signposts on the way to the story.

Alex: So were these were these branching conversations? Was there AI going on, do you think?

Richard: Yes. And I fully imagine that QA spent many hours screaming into the night testing that because branching dialog is hell. But they did a wonderful job of it.

Alex: What is an interesting narrative delivery system that you weren't able to implement, that you wanted to?

Richard: Well, the early days of the Clancy franchise we basically had no narrative implementation except for a giant wall of text at the beginning of the missions. And with pressure from production and management to fill in every last detail of the mission, those walls got pretty tall indeed.

Alex: I feel like games had way more dialog in the 90s, and then there was a big step back. Because in the 90s it was all just text, so you could write as much as you like. Like Planescape: Torment, there has to be several novels worth of dialogue in there. And then once we started voicing lines and animating characters, then it's like, oh, my God, we can't do that anymore. And we're only now getting back to where we were in the 90s when it was just texts. Does that feel right?

Richard: I think so. But I would say you look even at a game as venerable as Knights of the Old Republic, that had a metric fuckton of dialog. The revolution happened a while ago, to get us back to more and more dialog. Planescape: Torment, I used to know the word count on that. But if you looked at Old Republic, that must be 26 times as large. Just the blossoming of how much is in there. Part of it is the game types that are available now. Part of it is the idea of games as a service so you can keep extending the life of the game and keep on telling more story with that one game. And part of it, like you said, is the advanced technology and the ability to record more easily and more cheaply.

Alex: The mocap, the cost has come down. We're putting more of those dots on people. They can capture more expressions. People don't have to go to a mocap studio anymore, they can have a mocap room in their studio.

Richard: Yeah, ours is in the break room at Red Storm. So when the animation team is at work, everybody clears out, nobody's getting any snacks.

Alex: Oh noes!

Richard: They all deny that. They will say, “You can walk around the edges.” But you don't want to go in there.

Alex: What can you do in non-linear narrative that you can't do in linear narrative?

Richard: We can do a lot of things with messing with the players expectation. One of the nonlinear narratives that I wrote was Splinter Cell: Conviction. That starts with Grimsdottir shooting him. And then the entire game is a flashback leading up to that moment. It tells you how you got there and why that's actually a perfectly rational thing for her to do. Except there's also a flashback within the flashback.

Alex: OK, but to me that's telling a linear story, just not chronologically. I'm talking about, in games, you can have the player discover narrative bits in different orders.

Richard: Sure, that's something that's more prevalent with open world now. Yeah, games like The Division. You still have a lot of short, overlapping stretches of linear narrative. It's a question of what order of the player encounters them. And whether they're gated by difficulty for the player to only run across some of the easy stuff early on.

Alex: Do you think that that is more fun for the player? Does that create verisimilitude? Is that more powerful emotionally? Does it immerse the player more?

Richard: It certainly gives the player more feeling of authorship of their experience. If you talk to somebody who's played a video game, they're going to say, "I did this." Not, "The main character did this." And by letting them choose, you're increasing the amount of authorship that they can have. They'll even say, "I did this" on something that's a roller coaster ride straight rail shooter. Because they will have a better feeling of ownership of their actions, I think, when they have an open world to play with and they can go in any direction.

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Saturday, September 26, 2020

Richard Dansky in a wildlife refuge

I met Richard Dansky when he kindly invited me to give a talk at the East Coast Game Conference, down in the wilds of North Carolina, where you're not sure if the "check all weapons" sign at the entrance to the con refers to twelve foot foam swords or firearms. There was fine dining, and there may possibly have been some drinking of whisky. Richard is a seriously veteran game writer, as well as a horror novelist. This is the first part of my interview with him.

You've worked at Red Storm for 21 years. That's some serious sitzfleisch.

Richard: Well, I’ve worked with Red Storm, but I've been essentially an internal freelancer for Ubisoft most of the time. So I've been based out of Red Storm, but I've worked with Toronto, with Massive in Sweden, with Shanghai, with all sorts of studios all over the world. And so I've gotten the best of both worlds, the stability of having a home base and the chance to work on different projects and go different places, work with different teams.

Alex: So does that mean you spend a year in Malmö or that you fly into Malmö and tell them a few things and then fly back or...

Richard: It depends. I did four months of Malmö for The Division 2. But generally, I fly in for a couple weeks, get in good with the team, figure out what I need to do, and then go back home and write.

Alex: And as Central Clancy writer, what is it you do in a day?

Richard: You know, that's an excellent question, and if I find out, I'll tell you.

Alex: I've had days at work like that.

Richard: The title "Central Clancy Writer" is kind of an old one. The role was defined as being a resource for all things Clancy and narrative. So it could be anything from writing the scripts for a game to serving as a gut check for how Clancy a story was, to saying, No, you can't set a mission in Rio de Janeiro because we blew up a parade there in the last game.

Alex: So you are the lore-brarian, among other things.

Richard: These days I'm doing less of that, more work on non-Clancy projects. But for a while, I was the resource.

Alex: How important is it that everything be as Clancy as possible? And what does that mean?

Richard: There's pillars of Tom Clancy's writing that you want to stick to to make sure the games have that authentic feel. You want that techno thriller feel. You want, "It's tomorrow, it's not the day after tomorrow." You want a clear and present danger and you want the righteous use of force to solve a problem. Those are the guideposts of the brand.

Alex: And have you worked a lot with him?

Richard: He worked closely with Red Storm on the original Rainbow 6. After that, he sort of drifted away. And I did a lot of the original story writing. Brian Upton came up with Ghost Recon. J.T. Petty came up with Splinter Cell. A slew of writers and designers came up with the games that were Tom Clancy, and I shepherded some of those brands through various incarnations storywise.

Alex: So how do you keep the franchise fresh? Or does history do that for you?

Richard: History does that for us. The world is so different from when I started working on Clancy games. I remember walking into the office on the morning of 9/11 and going into my boss's office and saying, OK, we need to rewrite everything now because the world's changed. And it has and it keeps on changing and that provides... endless opportunities for storytelling. On the one hand, you wish the world would be a little more peaceable place.

Alex: Do you know the speculative fiction writer Charles Stross?

Richard: Yes. Yes.

Alex: He writes novels about bureaucrats fighting Lovecraftian elder gods. And he's been complaining that 2020 just keeps getting ahead of him. He's just throwing out shovelfuls of plot that can no longer be put in a spec fiction novel because it's not speculative any more, it's just real life.

Richard: I've read The Laundry Files novels and enjoyed them.

Alex: I would think they'd be up your alley. You also write horror stories.

Richard: Yes.

Alex: And so is that to stay fresh creatively, to stay sane?

Richard: That's where my voice is as a writer. I can write video games ecstatically. And do whatever voices are needed for a game. But when it's my own genuine voice, it's in the horror field. And so those are the ones where the story won't leave me alone until I put it on paper.

Alex: What are the hardest battles that you fight?

Richard: The hardest battles. In a bunch of different arenas they can be anything from fighting for soft, quiet moments in the story when all everybody wants to do is shooting. Bang bang pow pow. They can be fighting for line counts. They can be fighting for the story. And holding the story up against real life and seeing whether something really is appropriate for us to make a game out of.

Alex: When you say fighting for line counts, for more lines or fewer lines?

Richard: Sometimes for more lines, sometimes for fewer. When you're talking about systemic dialog, sometimes less is more. And people want to have every single possible edge case taken care of, and you're like, no, we only have so much footprint on a disk.

Alex: When you say fighting for soft, quiet moments, I think we both know why those are so important. But how do you articulate that? What do you tell people?

Richard: I tell people that if the volume's at ten the whole time, then it's going to turn into white noise. We need contrast. You need those human moments to show why the characters are sympathetic, why you should care about what they're doing as anything other than a walking gun rack. And to have that change of dramatic pace that allows the story to breathe. And it works better when you're dealing with folks who can see the games as a gestalt and see the whole story. You see every mission at once; where you get into trouble is when you're doing one mission at a time or one chapter at a time. And every chapter has to be the greatest and the best chapter.

Alex: I guess it's the creative director whose job it is to see the whole vision.

Richard: Which is why I keep mine plentifully supplied with Scotch. -- I didn't mean it, that is not true!

[Note: Richard has the best single malt Scotch collection I’ve seen outside that big liquor shop on the New Hampshire border.]

Alex: As you say, you wrote some of the stories for some of these games. What goes into deciding what the story of a game should be? How do you think about it?

Richard: That process has evolved tremendously over the years. From being told, right, OK, we want a game set here, come up with a plot line, to where we are now, which is brainstorming with creative directors and game directors and thinking about the features that we want to show off... all these things that were not on my plate when I first started doing this,.

Alex: Do you think that's because story has become more important and therefore people really want to be involved in it, whereas previously they didn't care?

Richard: I think story’s become more important. I think people figured out the narrative as a place where we can make big gains without spending huge dollars. Sorry, cynical there...

Alex: No, but that's a perfectly valid thing. I mean, there's only so many polygons you can add. People are paying 80 bucks, they want everything to be great. It's not just the polygon count, not just better AIs, or the tightness of the gameplay. Everything has to be better. So that means the stories have to get better. The characters have to get better. The acting has to get better. The character models have to be capable of communicating more.

Richard: Yes, absolutely. And it's funny. When I first started doing the game writers roundtables at GDC, we had this wish list of things we wanted, you know, getting involved in stories sooner, having narrative design taken seriously, all these things that have come true. You know, the pie in the sky wishlist from those early days is now standard operating procedure. And that's good to see it because it makes for a better story and makes for a better player immersion, makes for a better player experience.

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Thursday, September 10, 2020

Alex: If you have a team of say four or five writers, what specialties would you be looking for? What's your handful of writers?

Kim Belair with wallpaper

Kim: I think if I'm assembling a narrative team, I'd be looking for diverse experiences. And I want to make sure that it's representative of the characters that we have, of the attitudes and ideas and cultures that we want to represent.

There's this idea that, like, we can cohese around our skill in writing.

Alex: "We're imaginative, we can write anything!"

Kim: But that's obviously insufficient.

It's important to me to have someone who can really get the systems and the mechanics working alongside the story, someone whose best form of expression of story is in the country of mechanics. I worked in the past with a narrative director who is by no means a writer. But his vision of story was so different from mine and allowed me to see a different perspective and really structure things differently.

Then I always want someone who's an expert in voice, in punch up, in cleverness on almost everything. Someone with a good sense of humor. Even if the game is not funny. The construction of a joke is very hard to do when it's a natural dialog.

Someone with a strong sense of place, of worldbuilding, someone who can really give a sense of lore. I don't like world bibles. I'd rather have people who can get across a sense of the economy of the world.

Then I also want someone who can take on a variety of different kinds of writing and who is really, really adept at it. Someone who can write a couple hundred lines of barks and enjoy that process. And who's going to be able to give quantity while maintaining quality. … But I do want someone [else] who's a little bit slower who can think about things.

Overall, team composition for me is just: generosity, collaboration, and free discussion in between people.

I think that if you could assemble a team that has those components, then, you know, one person might have a super full week while the other was supporting them. And someone else the next week is gonna take the lead. When the workhorse writer is through and just needs someone to punch it up.

Alex: Have you worked with videogame narrative editors?

Kim: I worked with a woman named Paula Rogers. She's also the lead writer on Goodbye Volcano High and was also, I think, head of story on Neo Cab. She has fantastic editing skills. I think that we don't use editors enough. Like we almost wait until QA gets a hold of it. Working with editors is really, really nice, especially when they're external and coming in on a project and saying, What do you need? What do you not?

We worked with a script coordinator on Suicide Squad and that is so helpful. Someone who's going to make sure that we're keeping the tone right, that we're staying consistent with what we've already said. Yeah, I would always advocate for editors.

Alex: Kim McCaskill was saying she's really good at continuity. Like, waitasecond, the character met that person last week and now she's saying she met that person two years ago.

Kim: Yes, exactly.

I know that if I'm on an open world game and I'm writing a cinematic and then a year later I'm writing a bunch of combat barks and one contradicts something I wrote a year ago, there's no one else to check on that until it hits QA. And then finally, when we play it, we go, oh, no. It's already been recorded.

Alex: So talking about toxic work environments, which is always fun. Obviously they suck and nobody should have to deal with them. What do they do to the game?

Kim:  We have this assumption that if it's toxic, it doesn't show up in the game.

But it does it in ways that we can't immediately quantify, even if the game is successful.

Because if I am in a toxic workspace where I don't feel I can express myself as a woman of color, then when I'm in a creative meeting and someone says, OK, well, this character is a woman of color, she does this thing. In an environment where I am being fostered, I might have the courage and the strength to say, hey, I don't think is a good idea. Let me explain to you why. But in an environment that's toxic, where I have been treated like I don't matter, where I've been desolate, where I've been made to feel small, I'm not going to say that. And so even if it's not something offensive, even if it's not something particularly awful, the reality is that if I had been empowered to say something, we could have had a better game. That works across the board. Anyone who is stuck, who is oppressed, is going to be limited in what they can express creatively.

And I think that we don't pay attention to that, because even with studios, if you have a studio where everyone's treated super, super well, but the game has like a deeply racist, sexist, homophobia, transphobia, whatever it is, someone at that studio now feels unsafe. Even if they're treated well, even if they're not, you know, being actively harmed or harassed. There's this now sense of microaggression. I was actually in a meeting earlier today talking about a similar thing. And I was saying that, if you go to a social worker, and they're really, really fantastic. And you walk in there and there's like, Playboy centerfolds. And maybe to that person, they're like, "no, I just like the art. This is not a problem." But I'm not sure if I'm going to be able to speak to this person without being objectified

So it's about creating a space where I feel comfortable enough to contribute to the game.

There's so many games that, they might not be offensive, they might not be obviously bad. But you can tell that no one said, what can we do to represent these people more? It's being additive, and that's what you lose out on.

Alex: On we happy few, we had a thing in the story where some of the women in the office said, "thaaat's a l'il rapey." So we changed it. And it wasn't obvious to me, as a guy, how it was rapey?

Kim: A lot of the time you will say something like, OK, well, in this scene we're going to really show how bad sexual assault is. We want to make sure that it's evil. But who are you showing that to?

Alex: You're putting your women players through that.

Kim: Yeah. Exactly. This is a thing that she has to think about when she walks home every day.

Alex: OK, so last question, how do you stay sane?

Kim: Oh. Who says I do?

I think that for me, it's always working with people who I like, which is what Sweet Baby allows.

If I end up on a project where I am encountering a problem, I can still go back to the same group of people who I trust and love. I'm kept sane by the people around me. If I'm in a meeting where someone treats me with some disrespect, I always have people around me to do a sanity check. Was I crazy? That is the biggest difference from working in a studio: you don't know.

Alex: Do you want people to hit you up like, Hey, I love the idea of Sweet Baby, can I get you a sample?

Kim: Yeah. Folks are welcome to. I'm always looking for, especially, marginalized developers from all disciplines. Obviously we're a narrative agency, but we often encounter projects that go, hey, we're looking for a programmer. Hey, we're looking for an artist. So just having a roster of people who we can offer up is nice. And frankly, we're also here for people who need to vent about something. It might take me longer to answer those emails, but I do want to hear what people are dealing with and help in whatever way I can.

So should people just e-mail you?

We actually have an email setup for that, And beyond that, I'm on Twitter and on everything as @bagelofdeath.

Alex: So why @bagelofdeath?

Kim: When I was 15 or 16 years old, I did a comic and the villain of the comic was threatening the hero with this thing that was going to absolutely kill him. And he holds up a bagel. And the protagonist is like, is that just a bagel?

And he's like, it's a Bagel of DEATH.

And he's like, OK. And so he takes a bite of it and goes like, are these raisins?

And he goes "raisins ... of DEATH!".

And then he's like, no, these are just raisins.

And so the villain goes like, wait, these ARE just raisins.

And then the last panel is like a Frenchman in a bistro about to bite into this bagel that's like glowing green, full of needles, broken glass and scorpions.

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Monday, September 07, 2020

Alex: How do you explain the importance of what you're trying to do?
Kim: We're hitting, what, 40 years of video games. And I think people are starting to ask, why are we making very similar products? Why are a lot of our stories not resonating with the younger audiences? Why is our audience not growing? I like to say that representation is innovation. I think when people are asking for diverse stories, we're not asking for the same story with, you know, diverse characters.

Kim Belair in a sunny dressWe have to look at story and narrative as one of the things that we can innovate on. Like when you bring someone in from a different culture, from a different background, from a different gender, they’re going to create something that we haven't seen before.

The way that we look at demographics is that we go, OK, the majority of our player base is, let's say, a white male. So we're going to make stuff for white males.

But if you make something from the perspective of an Asian trans woman, and it’s really strong, then it will work for people. People crave new stories. If you want to innovate, even to stay current, it's not about graphics, it's not about hardware. It's about opening up new perspectives for people. So I explain it as, it’s important to game development to diversify. It's not just part of advocacy or activism. It is going to make your games better.

Alex: Also, of course gamers are mostly white guys: you’re making games for white guys! Try making games for somebody else, maybe they'll show up!

There’s an old story about Harry Cohn, the founder of Columbia Pictures, who everybody hated. But everybody went to his funeral. And someone said, “See? Give the people what they want, and they’ll show up.”

Kim: The market has always been frustrating to me because we make assumptions based on what we already have instead of what we could have. A couple of months ago we were talking a lot about player choice in Assassin's Creed. People were saying, well, no matter how good this female character is, a majority of players played as a male character. So therefore people prefer male characters.

And what I had to explain was, no, actually, from a marketing and a psychology perspective, most people are going to choose the gender that they most align with. It doesn’t mean that’s what they want. If you are male identified, it's not that you don't want to play as a woman. You're just going, oh, that one's for me. I’m a guy, I don’t go to the ladies’ room.

We look at the success of something like Horizon Zero Dawn, which is a game led by a female character. If they had made it a choice, most players would have played as a male. But they didn’t, and it was a huge success.

Alex: On the flip side, even if you did believe that players will only play their own gender, which obviously I don’t, well, if 20 percent are playing a woman, you just increased your player base by 25 percent for almost no cost.

Kim: I think that the majority of the men, if you had Assassin's Creed starring a woman, they would play it anyway. Aside from a couple of trolls on Twitter, the odds are they're gonna go, oh, this is the brand that I like, I'm going to just play.

Alex: I would add that, not only can you tell more stories with diverse characters, you can explore more worlds. Our game Contrast was set in a shattered carnival world. What would it have meant to explore that as a typical 30-year-old white dude with a beard? But an eight-year-old girl and her seven-foot-tall circus girl invisible friend, that opens a door.

What is one of the most interesting narrative systems you have not been able to implement for whatever reason?

Kim: We were talking about how your choice of character has a profound effect on your experience. And I think one of the problems is that we only look at diverse characters in terms of what deficits that creates. Like if you decide to play a Black guy in Mafia 3, people are going to call him the N-word. OK, if I'm a White guy and I play as a Black man and someone is racist towards me, maybe that builds empathy. But all it says to me as a Black person, is that this game isn't for me. I already know that people are racists. This is not teaching me anything. This is just making me experience the worst of what I experienced in my life.

Alex: So for example, other Black characters might code switch...

Kim: Yeah, and be a little more forthcoming with you.

Alex: On a project I was on I worked with a Black consultant who asked if we would present Black characters as White people see them, or as they see themselves. So if I play a Black character, maybe I get a little peek behind the curtain.

Kim: That would be really, really cool. Something inviting.

We did a cultural assessment on a game project, and I employed this wonderful Cree woman named Sonia Valentine, and we asked her, what do you see too much of when you see indigenous characters? And she said, a lot of ceremonial garb, that is only meant to show non-indigenous people that this character is indigenous. And she was like, I don't go around in my daily life wearing ceremonial garb to show people how Cree I am.

And I said, What would you like to see? And she said, beads. She was in the process of making a bead work Superman logo. She's a huge DC Comics fan. And for her, beadwork is part of her culture. But the way that she uses it is to express who she is.

And if I saw a beadwork Superman logo, I wouldn't necessarily read it as, oh, yeah, that's an indigenous character. But she would.

Alex: Did you watch Mohawk Girls, the TV series, at all?

Kim: Not yet, no.

Alex: I think this is in the pilot, one of the characters meets a guy and it immediately becomes an issue of who are his parents, because the Mohawk community is so tightly intermarried, but you're not allowed to date cousins who are too close to you. And that's a problem that someone outside the Mohawk community wouldn’t necessarily know about. But Tracey Deer, who’s Mohawk, who created the show, did know it. It’s her reality. And if you're Mohawk, maybe you're like, “Exactly. Maybe I don't want to date a white guy, but how many Mohawk guys are there that I can actually date?” And I thought that was, you know, a look behind the curtain.

Kim: And that to me is so much more inclusive. Are you creating a Maori character for people to see that this game has diversity in it, or are you creating them for Maori people to see themselves?

Alex: Is there academic theory that you find useful?

Kim: My goal on every different project is to lead by lead by emotion and to make people care about what happens in the game. I don't necessarily subscribe to a school. But as a rule, when I draw inspiration, it's largely from action and blockbuster films. I use The Fast and the Furious a lot. I use Mission Impossible rather than dramatic films. Because we’re making action products. My job is to take this action thing and add character and world stories that are emotional, grounded and dramatic. Like, if I look at Mission Impossible, that movie makes you care about the folks in it. It's a lot healthier than if I look at a dramatic film and then try to add gameplay mechanics to that.

Alex: Have you ever seen Night of the Iguana? Elizabeth Taylor? 1964?

Kim: Yes.

Alex: A friend of mine saw that. And he thought it was Night of the Iguanas, with an ‘s,’ and he was waiting for the iguanas to show up. It was a perfect horror movie setup, you know, two people, cabin in the woods. You develop these great characters and you start to care about them, and then here come the iguanas.

Kim: I want to respect the medium. I want to be a writer who serves the greater project rather than someone who comes in and goes, I really want to tell this beautiful story, and I'm going to just cram in gameplay where I have to. Show me the thing that you're trying to build and I'm going to try to bring feeling and love to it.

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Sunday, September 06, 2020

Alex: What phase of game development are you in currently? What what do you actually do in a given day?

Kim Belair

Kim: At any given time, we're working on between eight and twelve projects, mostly for clients, some for ourselves. And the way that I work is every day is a couple projects.

For example, in the morning, I would log in and talk to the team at Rocksteady when we're working on Suicide Squad and that would be like a writers room, sit down, talk through a script. Talk about characters, write scenes or barks or whatever.

And then in the afternoon, now I'm going to work on Goodbye Volcano High. I've got a meeting with KO-OP.

And then I might have a meeting with Square Enix or Panic. And then I will end the day with a check in with everybody else, OK, what's tomorrow look like? What kind of deadlines do we have coming up? What's the most urgent need? Who's going to do what? So every day is a little bit different, but it's very rare for me at this point to have any full day that I work on one thing.

Alex: What are the hardest battles you fight?

Kim: I guess I can talk about this with Rocksteady. At the beginning, I was like, oh, there's some information that I'm missing, because, one, they're five hours ahead, they're in London. But two, they're in an office together. So they're having a lot of conversations I can't be a part of.

But now that most more people are working from home, everything has to be intentional. So I can be more part of the conversation.

Alex: Lisa remarked to me she is more aware of what's going on in the company since we started working remotely because absolutely everything's on Slack. She doesn't have to worry that somebody was in the break room with somebody else and had a conversation and decided something she doesn’t even know about. She just has to read Slack.

Kim: What really makes me happy about it is that we can now more freely hire people who don't live in the big cities, who might not be able to afford it, who might have life situations that don't allow them to work outside the home. It used to be more like, well, you can either take care of your kids or work. And obviously there are still immense challenges for any parent or any caregiver, but if there’s one thing to be grateful for about this terrible pandemic, it's that it's allowed people to work in a way that works for them.

Alex: So do you think that’s going to help the sort of bro culture that we are sometimes dealing with?

Kim: I think it is. I think that a lot of our culture needs to change because it has been, you know, granted to the most privileged people, to people who are creating these boys clubs that are inaccessible to other people. And, slowly but surely, we're untangling that. Both because of the ways that we work and because of the information that we're now sharing.

Alex: Now we don't have, “We're all gonna go to the bar and get drunk! Yeah!” I mean, I hope no one's going to the bar.

Kim: No bar. And the other thing, the pandemic created a situation where now if you're a victim of abuse, you no longer have to go into the office and have to avoid certain people. And I think that and the current push for like Black Lives Matter and equality and social justice, have turned this industry into something that realizes, no, we can be different.

Alex: Any guesses on where this is going to lead when, at some point in the 2030s, we can actually go back to the office?

Kim: I don't want that to happen. I don't want to just to be like, OK, pandemic's done, we have a vaccine, everybody get back to the office.

What I'd like to see is, OK, let's look at what worked here. What part of working from home was helpful? Did it improve the lifestyle for some people? For so long in games, we've been told, ‘No working from home, we can't manage that.’ And then all of a sudden the pandemic made it clear that we can. And I hope that we do become more open to saying, oh, this marginalized person from a small town who can't move here, we're gonna give them a job because it can be done remotely.

Alex: So how did you get into game writing? Your B.A. is in commerce?

Kim: Yes, I have a marketing degree. I ended up getting into games via community development at Ubisoft. I’d been doing branding for different companies and a lot of copywriting, for a company called Territorial.

And I was approached to help with media development on Far Cry 4. The community developer's job was to create content based on the world of the game. So everything from interviews with the developers and podcasts and stuff like that, to in-character interviews and blogs. I wrote this character called Divya Kandala, and she was a journalist going into the fictional world of Far Cry 4. And she eventually interviewed the game's villain.

And the narrative director, Mark Thompson was like, oh, you should put some of this into the game itself. And he connected me with the level designers. And we put in, just tiny details, little notes here and there. Like one house that had her suitcase in it.

And after that, he asked me, do you want to do this? Start doing narrative? And Lucien Soulban and Corey May had already encouraged me to get into that. Honestly, it was something that I hadn't really considered as a path. It wasn't necessarily where I saw myself.

I finally made the switch on to Assassin's Creed syndicate. And that was my first official writing gig.

And after that, I worked on For Honor and then two canceled projects. And then I got Brie Code who had left Ubisoft and started her own company, Tru Luv. [“We work with artists, psychologists, game designers and AI programmers to bring life to AI companions.”] She asked me if I wanted to do a little bit of contract work on the side. And then I started getting people more interested in working with me. Eventually it got to the point where I knew that Ubisoft wasn't going to allow me to just keep working on other stuff. So I said, OK, I'm going to go out and try my luck.

Alex: So they wouldn’t allow you to work on other stuff if you're working for them. But they will hire you if you’re a company!

Kim: Exactly. Yes.

Alex: It’s funny how just framing it differently makes it OK.

Kim: It is funny because I have now done more finalized, out-in-the-world writing for Ubisoft not as an employee than I ever did as an employee. My impact on Assassin's Creed: Valhalla is greater than my impact on Syndicate or Far Cry or For Honor.

Alex: How do you find writers for your company? What do you look for in a writer? How do you judge how good a writer is going to be? Because it sounds like the people you're talking to, they can't say, “Here's a stack of AAA games I’ve shipped.”

Kim: I don't look for experience. I look just for a sample. I don't really believe in writing tests. I want to see, what's your sensibility? I look for basic skills. Are you a competent and good writer? But then I want to sit down in a room and see, are you fun to work with? Are you engaging? Are you kind? Are you funny?

Because on a game project, I'm working with you for anywhere between a month and four years. So I want to really feel like we're going to vibe. I can teach you the skills, but I can't teach a really skilled jerk to be a nicer person. So I'm looking for a combination of talent and personality that is fun and compassionate.

Alex: Does the medium of the sample matter? Because when I was looking for a writer recently, I would get prose samples sometimes. And I have a lot of trouble guessing from a prose sample if you can write games. I can guess from a screenplay sample. But prose is like, well you know, these are a lot of words and they're great words and they're in the right order. In prose you can do all these things that you can’t do in a game or a screenplay. You can say what people are thinking. In most adventure games you’re mostly restricted to what people are saying and doing.

Kim: Yeah, I skip to dialog a lot when I read prose samples. One of the games that we're working on right now, Sable, is a little bit prose-ish. So those skills do apply. But more globally, I'm looking for how are you using the words? Is it fun to read? Is it taking me on a journey? And then I will usually look at the dialog to make sure it's natural and it's snappy and interesting.

Alex: But prose dialog is a different beast. It prose dialog has to make up for not having an actor there who can really think through what this line means and then inhabit that character. The text has to do all the heavy lifting.

Kim: Yes, but I think that if you can write a scene in prose that's really compelling, that translates well enough to a game later.

I used to write almost exclusively prose. And when I had to do screen writing for games, that process was just, how can I give the dialog a little bit more weight? It's a muscle. And if I think the person is really talented and willing to learn, engaged and interesting, I'm always willing to help develop that skill. Because writing in games means different things on every project. I’ve been on projects where writing meant only going over someone else’s dialog and making it shine. And I've also had game projects where, OK, we need you to give us a story on top of these five mechanics that we already have. So it’s not just dialog, there's a huge range of skills needed.

Alex: And there are games that are all prose. Mostly indie ones. Fallen London. 80 Days.

What I look for is voice. Do you have a voice? I can’t teach you to find your voice. I mean I could, but not on the schedule of a video game production.

You have to come to the party with an ability to put yourself in a fictional world. If you’re just writing the fictional world, that’s okay, but I’m looking for someone who can imagine themself into that world, and come out and show me what it means to them to live in it. If you have that, I can teach you tips and tricks to develop your voice.

Kim: We don't spend enough time on developing that kind of talent. There’s a lot of people that we don't see at first blush. When I look to women and other marginalized groups, screenplays are not where they begin. Especially for young writers, short stories and fan fiction is their place to shine. So I'm going to try to going to try to bend that by giving them training.

Alex: You’re a for-profit Pixelles!

Kim: Yes, exactly. And speaking of Pixelles, we have hired a couple of their people. Back in the day when events existed, we went to at least one showcase a month. And I read someone's stuff and I was like, oh, she's fantastic. I want her. And I kept it around for about a year. And then recently on Goodbye Volcano High, we hired them to write their first game. And it's going great so far.

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Thursday, September 03, 2020

Kim Belair

I met Kim Belair, when she was a panelist on an intro game writing panel my wife, Lisa Hunter, set up. But I would surely have met her one way or the other, at MIGS, or GDC, say; she is the sort of person you might run into at a café in Malmö or Ulan Bator and not be the least surprised she is there to work on the project.

Kim is a writer, narrative designer and co-founder of Sweet Baby Inc, a narrative development company based here in Montreal. In the industry since 2013, she's worked with companies including Ubisoft, Rocksteady, Square Enix, KO_OP, Valve, and JuVee Productions to bring games and stories to life. Beyond narrative work, Kim is an advocate for representation and inclusion, and is currently leading an initiative aimed at supporting, training and empowering marginalized devs.

Alex: You started your own narrative services company. Why?

Kim: I’d worked for five years at Ubisoft, and at the time that I left, I had just rolled off a two year project, and I’d put a lot of time and effort into it, and it ended up getting canceled.

And I started to feel, as you might imagine from everything that's been revealed lately about Ubisoft, I had a tremendous amount of discomfort with the environment. I didn't feel there was a place for me move up the ranks. I just kind of didn't see a lot of people like myself in leadership, either in personality and demographic.

And so I left to go freelance. And within a couple of months, I got a callback from a company to help with this Afro-Futurist project. And I said, yeah, I'm happy to help. And I asked about the writing team, and it was an entirely white male writing team.

Alex: I am shocked. Shocked, I tell you!

Kim: And I was like, hold on: this is an Afro-Futurist project. Most of the characters in it are going to be people of color. And you don't have any on your team.

And they said, Well, you know, we tried, but everyone we found was too junior, and didn't have the experience. They basically described systemic racism.

And I was like -- OK, well, maybe what I can do is, if you trust me as a writer, as an experienced designer, maybe I can hire some junior folks, and I’ll train them. I'll get them to the point where you need them to be. And we can, you know, get a team of people that is diverse and also gets a bunch of people that first videogame credit.

The project ended up falling through for unrelated reasons, just like budget and marketing stuff. But what I took from that was, OK, if I have a company, I can create a sort of farm team for the games industry. We can find, you know, young, aspiring, marginalized or junior talent, and I can help them.

And so, Ari MacGillivray and I ended up creating Sweet Baby, just the two of us. And on one of my contract projects, we worked with David Bédard, who is also former Ubisoft. And he and I like really, really vibe. We have a very similar approach to a lot of things.

And it took a couple months for us to kind of figure out what the roles were going to be. And the next step was just taking on stuff.

And within the first year, we went from two people working on other games, industry jobs and doing a little bit of Sweet Baby stuff on the side, to all three of us now being full time, plus a contract project manager and a team of, I think, between twelve and fifteen contract writers, and designers and consultants, a programmer, artists.

And I think what we've been able to do is, one, increase our capacity, but also two, create a space where I feel like every day that I go into the office, I work with good people, no matter who the client is.

And at the same time, our moderate success right now has allowed us to do outreach programs. Like we do free Twine courses for marginalized and aspiring developers. We try to do portfolio reviews. We try to do placement. We try to do scouting. We try to do everything that uplifts people who deserve a chance in the industry. So we have a balance of, you know, practical work that is going to pay our bills, and we also have the ways that we give back, which are to me an equal portion of the company.

Alex: So tell me about teaching people to use Twine.

I wrote a game in Twine called Stories: the Path of Destinies for Spearhead Games. We had 31 endings. And kind of my take away from that was, oh, that's why we don't make branching stories.

We had to figure out how not to end up with a lot of unused content. So we figured out a way where you'd have to play through the game five or six or eight times before you can win.

At my current company, Compulsion Games, we really don't do narrative branching. We didn’t for Contrast or We Happy Few, except for two choices at the beginning and end. For production reasons, because it eats resources like nobody's business; but also because it’s hard to tell a good story when you don’t know the ending.

So, why teach Twine?

Kim: What I learned from Twine was, what's daunting for a lot of aspiring developers is, they look at these finished products and they have no idea how it got to get how it got there. They look at what a video game is and they see, you know, Gears of War. They see a Red Dead, an Assassin's Creed. It’s so very big and it seems so nebulous and challenging. And so a lot of people just kind of get discouraged.

And I think the struggle for a lot of aspiring developers is that, if they're artists, if they're programmers, or writers, whatever it is, a lot of the time they can only make a small part of something. And so Twine allows them to create something that's finished. Something that, when they put it out there, is complete.

And they can put that on Twitter and someone can see them. Like just before I spoke to you, I was speaking to this 21 year old woman and she tried Twine, she made something and she ended up putting it on the forums for Blaseball.

And my colleague David [Bédard] read it, brought it to me and was like, this person's really great. So I had a meeting with her because I'm absolutely going to hire her for one of our projects.

And that came from being able to see, not only is her writing good, but she has a sense of design. She has a sense of how to tell a story, how to engage a player. And now I want her to do that for us.

Because if you put out just a short story, you might say, yeah, you're really good at writing, but do you have the fundamentals of design? And it's just a boost to your portfolio to be able to take me on a little adventure.

We actually hired this wonderful lead writer from Eidos Montreal to teach us the foundations of Twine. Basically to teach us, here’s the quick way to do what you’ve been doing the long way around.

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