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


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Friday, October 16, 2020

Alex: In a narrative game, the main character can be a distinct character with a voice and a past, or a blank slate. How is the player experience different between the two story modes? In the case of a distinct character, is it important to make sure that the player always has their own reason to do what the player character wants to do? How do you make sure of that?

Jon Ingold with a scruffy beard

Jon: I’ve got very little interest in blank characters for the player to project onto; I find it makes for very disposable storytelling. (We did it for Sorcery! and it worked out ok, I think, but it does reduce every encounter to “let’s meet another funny local!”) For me, character comes first and story comes second - I think people are interested in human beings, and what those humans do is only a vehicle for letting us spend time with them. (The plot of the Avengers movies are irrelevant, right? We’re there for the banter.)

I also don’t worry very much about the player wanting to do what the protagonist wants to do: it just doesn’t seem to be a problem in my experience. The player, picking up a game, wants to be told what they’re supposed to be doing, because they want to play the game “correctly”.

From there it’s a question of - does the game reward the player for joining in? Does the story surprise and delight you? Do you warm to the characters and want to spend time with them? I have a feeling most people who got into Assassin’s Creed Odyssey did so because they liked Cassandra’s arms; people who got into Outer Wilds enjoyed piecing together its back-story, but in neither of those games does the protagonist’s motivation really matter. There’s enough to keep the game ticking over, and we’re enjoying the ride.

For me the most appealing things about a distinct character are - what is being with this character going to allow me to do? - and I can’t wait to see how this character going is to react to what’s coming next!

Alex: What are the different needs of dialog to be delivered as text on the screen, and dialog intended to be performed and recorded?

Jon: Oddly enough, I’ve got very little experience of recorded dialogue! Almost all the work I’ve done is either prose, or “graphic novel”-style dialogue bubbles, and I suspect all three are different in terms of their pacing and delivery. I generally think a lot about pace and length: our prose games try to be very snappy; ideally every paragraph has a joke or a moment of insight. And I’ve really enjoyed writing “paced dialogue” of Pendragon and Heaven’s Vault, where each dialogue line has to be short, but the way they stack together of chain can deliver some nice effects.

I’d love to work with actors more, though; as a writer it’s a delight to have moments really brought to life. I’d just need them to patient with me while I work out what you can and can't actually *say.*

Alex: I think the key thing is never give an actor a result if you can avoid it — no “say the line faster.” Give them an organic reason to give the result — “Okay, you’ve just noticed that the house is a little bit on fire.”

John Badham's book "I'll Be In My Trailer"

John Badham has an excellent book about directing actors called I’ll Be In My Trailer.

Jon: I did a day’s work on the film set of the movie The Imitation Game as a mathematics consultant, where I worked with Benedict Cumberbatch and Kiera Knightley teaching them some maths for a scene. It’s blink-or-you-miss-in in the final film, but what was really interesting for me was watching a professional actor trying to absorb “how a mathematician talks” as fast and as efficiently as possible.

Alex: What is your favorite narrative delivery victory? What is a narrative delivery system you weren’t able to implement, what were you trying to do, why didn’t it work, and what were you able to do?

Jon: Wow, that’s a hard question. We’ve done some things that have been lovely and emotional and I’m super proud of - I adore the death of Fogg in 80 Days [Fogg can die??? OMG]; I like the romance between Flanker and the protagonist in Sorcery!; I love Aamir the ten year old space pirate in Heaven’s Vault.

But my absolute favourite beat is either the moment in Sorcery! where you - the classic nameless D&D protaganist - confront the mind-meddling Archmage after four long episodes, and he convinces you that your whole journey has been a brainwashed set-up because, after all, you don’t even know your name.

Or else it’s the bit in 80 Days where Passepartout gets drunks on vodka and can’t spell Novorossiysk; and the journal keeps trying alternatives and deleting them, which was an effect that just fell out of the way we were happening to handle the text UI.

The list of things that didn’t work is much, much longer: every game we release is full of compromises - places where I hope the player can’t tell that what I hoped a scene might turn into is quite different than what it actually was. A lot of those are action sequences; action doesn’t leave much room for player failure - so while you can conceive “Passepartout scales the balloon to patch the air leak," making that interactive doesn’t pan out so well since he can hardly be allowed to fall off. My chapter of Over the Alps has a car chase which seemed like such a good idea until I was trying to write choices to pace out the narrative and I had nothing: er, steer efficiently and drive fast, please?

My solution to action set-pieces, by the way, is almost always to have a secondary character, so the player can be busy arguing with someone while the action happens as it must!

Alex: Many of your games deliver narrative non-linearly; the player can access narrative chunks in different orders. Do you write differently for non-linear narrative? What does that give the player that a linear narrative can’t?

Jon: For me the most important thing is narrative momentum. I hate that thing in games where you’re wandering around aimless waiting to hit the next checkpoint to kick the next bit of narrative along. I want the story to be constantly spooling out - even if that’s the characters walking in silence because that’s appropriate.

And you simply can’t get that effect if the narrative is linearly delivered - or even if the narrative is non-linearly delivered, but non-contextual. (To give an example of that, I loved the Outer Wilds, but I didn’t like its narrative stuff very much because I would do some hair-raising gameplay, then meet a character and have a really sedate chat with them. The lore and content was interesting, but the delivery was only “pick things up”.)

I want the narrative to envelop and evolve around me, and in any game that isn’t a branching 80 Days-style flow, that means in my experience that the narrative has to be built from opportunities and guards. We write a script full of narrative moments, guarded by the conditions that make them make sense; and some of those moments are opportunities that create narrative moments later down the line, and we push those onto the player when the game thinks they’re running dry.

(So for instance, in Heaven’s Vault, Huang the librarian has a story he can tell the player about a trader on the market moon of Renaki. He’ll only tell it to you if you’re nice to him - but also, only if the game thinks you need it.)

But that design means that there’s very little control over what order things happen in - in Pendragon, when characters encounter a scene, we never know who's in the party, how many people are there, how healthy they are - so we try to cover all those possibilities with a strategy of sensible defaults and specific overrides. Everyone will have *something* to say, but if you’re there with Merlyn, you’ll get this particular insight.

It’s all about having a good authoring system; once you have you have your content pattern worked out, this kind of structure is very easy to throw content into because you don’t need to think about the flow of the scene at all, and there’s no limit to how much you can throw it because all of it turns up sometime, for someone.

The flip side is that it does limit your ambitions: a scene which would require too much specific writing to handle being told out of sequence simply can’t go in the game. But writing within constraints is… normal?

Alex: Is there academic theory that you find useful in your game writing? What did you learn from it?

Jon: I tend to pick up theories and advice quite impressionistically: a tidbit here, an idea there; things I hear from clever people that resonate with my experience of writing. I’ve never seen any holistic theories I can get behind; they’re usually too simple, and they never seem to resonate: they often feel like people theorising in a vacuum rather than describing how they work.

The most significant things I picked up were ideas floated by the interactive fiction community in the early 2000s, where we used to make really ambitious text-based games that explored wonderful ideas, like the separation of the player and protagonist (with unreliable narrators, and games that lied to you, and games built on dramatic irony). And I attended a 4 day Robert McKee “Story” course, which I detested, but came away from with a huge number of useful ideas. (I think many of them are actually Aristotle’s, not McKee’s; and many are just ideas - not rules - but I can’t deny I was challenged and stretched by the course.)

But one thing I’ve noticed is that the most useful tools to me are all really lenses for working out why things aren’t working, rather than ideas for how things Should Go.

The Beatles run away from fans

I think that’s a really good point. There are all sorts of games and films that seem to break the rules and work anyway. What’s the three-act structure of A Hard Day’s Night? When something works, you don’t need the rules. You need them when it doesn’t work.

Which are the games that inspired you? And did they work?

Jon: Spider & Web - a spy story, told in flashback during an interrogation. Every time you fail a timed puzzle, the interrogator insists that you’re lying and makes you tell the story again. As you fail, you slowly learn a few more details about what happened leading up to that point, culminating in a moment of pure insight which allows you to escape. It’s a bit like the device Prince of Persia used, only tied directly into the core game mechanic.

9:05 - a short game in which you get up and go to work, and then it turns out you weren’t who you thought you were, and you replay the game and realise you just assumed you were, but you weren’t.

Galatea - a short game in which you talk to someone, and that’s all you do, but they slowly change their attitude to you based on what you say.

Rameses - a game about an introvert teen, who refuses to do most of the things you ask him to because he’s too introverted. Has a great twist when you think you know how the story is going, because it’s that kind of story, but then he’s too shy to do that too.

Shrapnel - a game that occasionally types in commands for you regardless of what you type, because destiny

The Gostak - a game that’s written in a language that isn’t English, which you have to figure out as you play

The Edifice - a game where you have to learn an alien language to communicate with another character

Photopia - a game about a tragic, needless death, where nothing you do can change anything, told out of sequence for maximum impact

… honestly, it was a melting point of brilliant ideas, and within the constraints of being parser games they were well-implemented too.

Alex: What do you do to stay sane?

Jon: I don’t stay sane very well, I think; I tend to get over-excited mid-project and then heart-broken post-project, and then pick myself up by doing another project and repeating the whole cycle… luckily, though, I have small children, who are extremely diverting and distracting and ground me in a little in something more closely resembling reality.

Sometimes I manage to read books, too - mostly Agatha Christie, Ursula Le Guin or Gene Wolfe - though I find my concentration span is rather feeble these days. And my wife and I watch dramas on TV but only if they have jokes and no torture, which rules out 99% of shows.


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Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Alex: One of the hardest skills for a writer is learning how to accept and use criticism. What do you try to keep in mind when you’re getting feedback from above? From below? From other disciplines? How do you get and use feedback?

Jon: The key thing for me about feedback is not to listen to people’s advice, but to try to understand their problems. I mean, sometimes people have good advice, and good ideas, and you should take those, but usually all feedback is an emotional reaction to something, and you have to unpick what that something was before you can deal with it. “I found the story slow” is often code for “I didn’t like the main character”, that kind of thing.

And I try not to be too precious about anything I write. Years ago, I remember hearing an interview with Tony Gilroy, the writer/director of Michael Clayton, a pretty good movie from about 15 years ago. He’d written screenplays before and the interview asked, did you take on the directing role because you were sick of people changing your scripts? And his response was, “changing the script doesn’t matter; as a writer you’re always looking to trade up.”

I love that. Forget the bullshit idea that you’re a genius creating masterworks; or that your truth is the one worth telling; or that there’s a perfect sentence out there… you lay out the thing as best you can, and then you look for ways to trade up, and you keep doing that, until you can’t face it anymore, and then you’re done.

Alex: The auteur theory has done so much damage to filmmaking. You can’t make a film in Canada without federal and provincial support, and in Quebec, the people that hand out the provincial support prefer to give their money to writer-directors. But a film gains a lot from having a writer and director who want the same result but don’t necessarily agree how to do it. If you don’t agree, often you come up with a third solution which is fresher and better.

Jon: I love working collaboratively; it’s one of my favourite things about inkle, and my partnership with Joseph as been so creatively beneficial to my writing, despite the fact he’s not especially interested in writing!

Alex: I think to be a successful writer, you either need to find out which of the things that you love writing are the ones that other people really want you to write; or you need to learn to love writing the things you have to write. That sounds unartistic, but it’s not. When I began as a writer, I loved writing action, and not that interested in creating dramatic moments. I kind of live for dramatic writing now, and it seems to be one of the things people like about what I do.

Jon: When I was younger I would have spat and fumed at the idea of writing things which “aren’t me” - other people can do that, so what’s the point? Then after ten years of no one reading anything I wrote, I think I came around to the idea that maybe I’d be happy to write anything, really. Now, I quite like spinning whatever I need to write into a me-ish version of it. But more than anything, I’ve realised that I’m still very much learning, and always will be. I still don’t feel like a “competent” writer, even though I know rationally that I’ve completed quite a lot of projects by this point. I find that quite reassuring, to be honest: I’m never going to feel like I know what I’m doing, so I can stop worrying about it.

Alex: You’ve hired some fantastic writers for your games, e.g. Meg Jayanth on 80 Days. What do you look for in hiring a writer, and how do you go about finding that?

Jon: I’m honestly not sure, but I’m certainly very happy with our hit rate so far. I’ve done three collaborations - with Meg Jayanth on 80 Days, Graham Roberston on Sorcery! 4, and Katherine Neil on Over the Alps. In each case, going in, I was absolutely certain that my fellow writer was going to be perfect for the game, and in each case they were better than I’d hoped.

I think I go into hiring a writer with a strong sense of what their strengths are and what kind of brief they’ll enjoy: what will allow them to shine. That said, though, they’re good writers and highly professional, and would turn out great performances over a wide range of projects, and I can’t really take credit for that.

Otherwise, I knew them as humans before knowing them as writers, and they were all empathetic, and intelligent and widely read. I think also they were people who I could communicate with easily - now I come to write that down, I wonder if that isn’t really the main point, actually.

Alex: Had you run into them at conferences? Or university? Or in the creative community at large?

Jon: Different places - I met Meg at an industry meet up in the earliest days of inkle, then happened to work with her again on a freelance design gig; I met Katherine through Jennifer Schneidereit who runs Nyamnyam; I met Graham on a writer’s course that I co-led with David Varela. Networks, I suppose, but all professional ones. God, I hate COVID.


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Monday, October 12, 2020


Jon Ingold is the Creative Director at Inkle, an indie studio known (but not well enough!) for making beautiful, literate, text-based narrative games such as Heaven’s Vault and 80 Days. They’ve just come out with Pendragon, a “narrative roguelike” about the final battle of the Arthurian era. Appropriately, this is a written interview – I sent him questions, and some follow-ups, and he wrote the answers down. This is quite a bit less work for me, though thinking up good questions is still half the work. 

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

Jon: We just shipped a game, Pendragon, so right now I am in a “doodling” phase, while I try to come up with an idea that excites me enough to work on it! I usually have two or three prototypes kicking around at any time, so the hope is one of them will turn into something intriguing!

Meanwhile, there’s company stuff to handle, and inkle’s cofounder Joe is spearheading our next game, and I’m doing a little work towards that occasionally.

Alex: Who are the people you have to make happy, and how do you keep them happy?

Jon: One of the nice things about running a studio is there’s no one above us we have to please: we make games we believe in, and we make them the way they think they ought to be made. So the only people we really have to make happy are our players, though we never really seem to know who they are, or what they like… they come and go! So we try to keep ourselves happy, and make the things we want to make.

Alex: I’m surprised you don’t know who they are. Surely you must have a fan base? I’m sure I’m not the only player who thought, “Pendragon? By the folks who made 80 Days and Heaven’s Vault? Yes, please.” Is it that as an indie you have only limited resources for community management?

Jon: We have a Discord server which has a community of people we recognise, and there are some familiar faces on Twitter - but otherwise there isn’t a space for “fans” to really congregate and become visible. It’s particularly a problem coming from mobile development - Apple creates a solid wall between developers and customers; which has some benefits - you don’t have to moderate the racists yourself - but it also means it’s impossible to, say, tell people who bought 80 Days that a new game has come out.

The problem is always reach, rather that community management. We can announce Pendragon to our circle, but it’s still going to be the case that 90% of the people who would be interested to hear about it will never hear about it. Even Heaven’s Vault is still being discovered, despite awards, reviews and a year and a half!

But it’s also our fault for constantly changing platforms. A lot of people who enjoyed 80 Days are probably waiting for the iPad version of Heaven’s Vault, and so on.

Alex: What are the hardest battles you fight?

Jon: The hardest creative battle is avoiding cliché. Writing in games has to fit itself around what the player can do, same as storylines in spy TV shows have to make space for a car chase, a couple of fights and a third-act twist. But each scene has got to be different, and interesting. You can’t just have a character tell you to take an object to another character in return for some gold. You can’t. You mustn’t. But the temptation to write the easiest storyline, to just recycle the same flow over, can be very strong.

The hardest actual battle we fight is being seen. Indie games appear, then disappear, taking whole studios with them. Every month we’re asking ourselves the question, how to do we help inkle’s games to stay relevant, to stay remarked upon? It’s a battle we’ll always lose in the end - I recently saw a “10 best video games based on novels” list that didn’t include 80 Days - but every little thing we can do keeps the lights on for a little longer.

Alex: Cheer up — maybe the reviewer never heard of Jules Verne!

One of the striking things about your adaptation of “Around the World in 80 Days” was how you guys changed its world from the colonial one that really existed to one where places like Haiti are strong and sovereign and have their own steampunk technology. When did that idea come up and what went into that decision?

Jon: The core concept was design - we needed there to be good reasons for a player to go to, say, South Africa, even though it’s definitely going the wrong direction. We also played into the fact that most people haven’t read Verne’s book, and assume it’s steampunk, because we associate Verne with steampunk (mostly because of the end of the Back to the Future III, I think.)

Meg Jayanth took that idea and developed it, introducing the idea of non-steam steampunk for places where water was too valuable to waste. That was a brilliant piece of world-building which she grew out to cover the various regions we wrote about.

Alex: Is it important to have a voice as a video game writer, or is it better to be a chameleon? How did you find your voice?

Jon: If you’re a freelancing professional, I’m sure you need to be a chameleon; and I often think that ideally a professional writer can write anything, and if they can’t, they can learn. For me, though, I’m determined to have some kind of voice. We flit between genres and styles and different kinds of frames, but I always want our games to have characters, to have humanity, to have intelligence, and to be about something.

I think I found my way to my style the long way round: bouncing between writing things that were “all me” that no one else could get much enjoyment from and writing things weren’t at all me, that came out a little vanilla, a bit oddly echoey.


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