Saturday, December 05, 2020
Alex: So, obligatory question: How did you get into game writing?
Lucien: Through the long road. I started off writing for tabletop role playing games. I was friends with a new buddy, Jean Carrieres, and they saw my D&D writing. We were part of an APA, an Amateur Press Association. Bunch of friends get together once a month and pull together articles that they've written. They get it photocopied 20 times, all the copies stapled together, and then you hand it back out to the members. I'm showing my age with that.
Well, my friend saw my writing and he was like, hey, I work at Dream Pod Nine. We have a lot of French writers, we need somebody to go through and help them with smoothing out their English. So I started doing that. Then they said, would you like a shot at writing a book? So I did my first couple of game books through them.
And then I went to Gen Con and I was blown away. Thousands of gamers in one location. All the big companies were there, and I was like, that's the industry I want to be a part of. So, I started going with the books I had written. I started introducing myself and getting contracts with White Wolf and with Pinnacle Entertainment and companies like that.
My friends started making the jump into video games as designers and they started saying, hey, we know a writer we think can hit the mark. And so they gave me my first breaks. My first published video game was Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War, my first published video game. I did a vaporware game that never went anywhere. So we don't count my first.
Alex: We should!
Lucien: We should.
Alex: You did the work.
Lucien: I know.
Alex: --like this concept, "must have shipped three games" in a recruitment ad. I can't force the game to ship.
Alex: Like you can work at Ubisoft, and three games you worked on get killed by Paris. And that's your entire video game career. And you did great work!
Lucien: Well, I've been fortunate enough to have a lot of a lot of games under my belt since then. And so after a while, I put that project aside...
Alex: Dropped that off your LinkedIn.
Lucien: My first game, friend of mine was working at Relic Entertainment and they were doing Dawn of War. And he said they need a writer. I interviewed, I got the job. And then after that, another friend of mine, well, you know Rich -- Rich Dansky [Chief Clancy Writer at Ubi] -- said, OK, Ubisoft in Montreal where you live is looking for a Rainbow Six Vegas writer. So I interviewed and I got that. I was there at the company for two or three years working on that.
And then I was on Splinter Cell Conviction before it got rebooted. But I was contract at that point, went independent, worked on a whole bunch of DS games, including a princess game and all these movie tie-in games like Enchanted, the Golden Compass, Kung Fu Panda. And then I went back to Ubisoft when I realized I needed a steady paycheck and I wanted to work with a team rather than being at the tail end of something where I was only filling in a required sheet of needs.
Alex: What's misconceptions did you have coming in?
Lucien: I thought, I'm bringing stories to video games. I am going to bring a story and I'm going to do something awesome with it because I love video games.
And I didn't think that I was going to be the only person responsible for a game. But I thought, I'm the writer. I thought I would be given a bit more leeway. I didn't think that I would have to justify everything. I had at one point, a line where one of the soldiers was saying, "If you're looking for your pound of flesh, you're gonna have to wait till this is over."
The creative director was like, pound of flesh, what's that? I'm like, well, it's from [The Merchant of Venice by] Shakespeare. And he's like, no, nobody reads Shakespeare, drop it. Suddenly, I’m in what felt like an hour-long argument with him over something that’s a common English idiom.
The misconception was that I could operate in my own bubble. I didn't realize how integrated you need to be. So when I see writers saying, oh, the writer is the gatekeeper of story, I'm like, no, that's not it. You're there to help.
Alex: The writer is the punching bag of story!
Lucien: I think you need to be seen as a troubleshooter. They need to know that they can come to you with problems, and you're there to help them get through it. You'll find they’re a lot more open to incorporating your ideas, because they trust you. So I build up good relationships with level design, who might come to me and go, hey, we need a reason why the player would go here. And so you help them troubleshoot so they do not hesitate to come back and talk to you again. But operating in a bubble is a fallacy. You can't be outside of the team working on script or else you're going to have a game that is disconnected from its story.
Alex: That's what I like most about video game writing. You're right in the thick of it. If you're a film screenwriter, you do your things and hand it off to the crew, and they go play in the sandbox and have fun, and you go home. You get to see it eventually, but you stay at home.
I was on set for a show I'd created, and the director sincerely asked me, "Why are you here?" I like the integration. I like, you know, looking at someone's screen in the office and, oh, so that's what they're doing. Okay. Well, my story won't work in that case. What would work?
Alex: And sometimes it's a surgical thing that you can do. Oh. I just change this one thing. Now it all makes sense again. And that's the math again. If I just change the polarity on this, now it's good again.
Lucien: Yeah, totally. When I went to Far Cry, it was the first full-on open world game that I worked on. And because of various circumstances, including people who were all vying for creative control, narrative ended up by being insular and working on its own stuff. And as a result, there was a disconnect between what you did in the main storyline and what you did in the open world. So in the main storyline, you're like, all my friends are kidnapped, everything is terrible.-- Oh, look, I can kill a rhinoceros to craft a wallet! And while some people appreciated not having that pressure on them all the time, some players felt guilty for engaging in frivolous activities when their friends were being held hostage.
Alex: Oh, that's one of the worst things about putting a clock on a video game. A clock is great in a film. But in a game, you know, you're Captain Shepherd, you're trying to save all intelligent life in the entire galaxy. But here's where you hang out with an old friend and have beer.
Lucien: Exactly. So when we did the jump to Far Cry 4, there was much more of an effort to tie the global geography into what was happening within the story. So if you go out into the open world and if you take that tower, if you burn down that poppy field, if you do this, if you do that, it's all contributing to hurting the enemy.
So now I take those open world lessons and I get to apply them even more with: what is it about each region that informs the whole. What is the mythology of the region, what is its importance, and how does it uphold the main storyline? So again, it's that balance. It's finding that that scale is off balance and saying, “Where do we add more weight to make things balance out?” I feel like writers should be more and more involved in what the player experience is, not just what is the story experience, but what is the [user] experience?
Alex: UX, the user experience.
Lucien: Yeah. Exactly.
Alex: Last question. Why do you stay sane?
Lucien: What do I do to stay sane? Dear God. Well, let's start with this. You can't see it because I've got this thing on here, but right here I've got a punching bag. Honestly.
There were a few times where I almost burned out at Ubisoft. Watchdogs 2 was a grueling process. Elements of Rainbow Six Siege and the project that came after it were grueling and emotionally draining.
The tips and tricks that I picked up? One was when you leave the office, you leave the office. I had this mental exercise when I walked out of the offices. Right before I left the lobby of the building, I stood still for a moment. I imagined all the day's issues being dumped into two suitcases that I was holding in my hands. And before I walked out that door, I dropped the two suitcases on the floor and I walked away. And any time I started thinking about work, I'd be like, no, they're in suitcases. They're in a suitcase and they're in the lobby. They're waiting for me when I get back. I don't need them. And oftentimes when I came back in the morning, the issues aren't really there anymore...
Alex: That's certainly what happens if I leave suitcases in the middle of a lobby. They're not there anymore.
Lucien: ... or the stress that created them wasn't there anymore. I didn't hesitate to seek out help at Ubisoft from what we call an ergotherapist, which wasn't a psychologist or a therapist, just somebody who would say, what are the issues you are facing? Have you considered doing this? Try these exercises, try these techniques... she provided me with tips and tricks to cope with the stress.
But she also allowed me to forgive myself for not being on top of everything, because we tend to take things personally. And we take it all on ourselves. Even if it’s somebody else's fault or anything, we sometimes receive feedback on soemthing and go, “did I fuck up?
And so... self-forgiveness and removing yourself from the issue unless you are actually responsible, but not second guessing everything and putting it all on your own shoulders. I find that we as writers tend to take on a lot of the project’s problems-- no, no, no. Bring it up. Let other people worry about it. You're part of a team. Solve it as a team. It's not just you.
Breathing exercises too. I started employing the seven four eight breathing technique. Are you familiar with it? It's where you inhale for seven seconds. You hold your breath for three or four seconds. Then you exhale loudly for a count of eight. And then you do that four times in a row. It causes the brain to calm down and still itself. I found that it was a great technique for fighting those moments where anxiety was just building up and the emotions were starting to get a little bit too raw. So for me, the luggage exercise, the breathing techniques and such. Knowing when to talk to people and who to talk to at your office to say, I'm having this issue. And being honest with them, because I think mental health has become a huge part of our everyday discussion at companies. I think a lot of companies are paying attention to that now.
Alex: Talking about the writing team, you're involved in the decision of who to hire. What do you look for?
Lucien: I'm looking at a lot of people who come from a lot of different writing backgrounds. I look for, how good is a person with characterization? But I think you need to have someone who is more than just writing cut scenes. You need to have worked in the guts and the mechanics of a video game.
Alex: People sometimes think narrative is the cut scenes. Cut scenes are the easy part. I mean, when we're scheduling, people ask, "how many conversations do you have?" But the conversations are not what take the time. I can write ten pages of dialog in a day and not feel winded.
The hard stuff is like, what five objects can we put into this room that tell a story about the person that isn't there? And hopefully they are five objects we can buy the wireframe for. What gestures, what body movements, what can we see in a dumbshow that would communicate what's going on, without anybody saying anything. Like readables and dialog are the easy parts and everything that's not dialog is where I spend my time, because it's the stuff that has to be implemented well by other departments, the stuff that has the most dependencies, that stuff is 90 percent thinking it up and then 10 percent writing it down.
Alex: And that's that's really where most of my time goes, is either thinking of the thing that would be really evocative that somebody else is going to make. And then, you know, talking to people about what they're doing and saying, OK, here's how your idea will work with the story or how it might break the story.
Lucien: Yeah, I've had those before. I've had those conversations before.
Labels: making games, writing games
Thursday, December 03, 2020
Alex: Is there a narrative delivery system that you wanted to implement that you couldn't? Or, is there a narrative delivery idea that you thought of as a victory?
Lucien: Yeah, yeah, there was. I was working on a game for Ubisoft, and I ended up leaving before it was complete. And I had the support of the team, but we were a victim of time. I wanted to do a system that didn't slow the player down from jumping in from multiplayer match to multiplayer match, but that still allowed players who like story to feel like it had more meat to it than just a multiplayer PVE style game.
So I pitched a narrative system that I thought would allow people to seamlessly go in from one match to the other, but if you were somebody who enjoyed story, if you were a lore diver, you could go into elements of the menu system and explore and find things, and things that you did in the game reinforced that. It allowed players to feel that they were part of a greater storyline, that the multiplayer matches fed into a more global element and that there was progress and process there. So you could hear the characters voicing their approach and take on things.
Unfortunately, it just wasn't something that we could pursue.
Narrative systems that I am proud of having accomplished, though, is with the Far Cry games. I was able to create randomized bottles of conversation that mixed and matched so that the player could feel like they were walking through a world and not hear the exact same conversation repeatedly.
I would have one container where NPCs are talking about immediate needs, right? And so two NPCs would come in. I knew the minute that their animation cycle synched up, and that when they were standing there, I would have approximately 30 seconds. Okay, we timed all of this out. We talked to the animation team. 30 seconds for these two NPCs to talk.
Then they break and go on their own individual animation cycles. They go on patrol and they might come back, sync back up again, 30 seconds again.
So I said, okay, so I have 30 seconds. So the first NPC would always state a need. And it was one of four or five needs. "We need medicine." "We need food." "We need fresh water." "We need supplies." "We need ammunition."
The second NPC had multiple responses, each of which would reinforce whatever was being said: "I know somebody who can help with us with that." "We're gonna have to steal it, but I know where we can go." "I have a stash located somewhere nearby," that sort of thing.
Then the first NPC would respond with something like, "OK. Thanks. That helps a lot." That sort of thing. But because each response was randomized, the conversation was rarely repeated note for note for note.
The one that I was really proud of, was on Rainbow 6 Vegas. I created chained barks (based on game verbs: "Reloading" "I'm being shot at!" "health down!" "friend down," that sort of thing). So the first NPC would always say his line, no matter what. It didn't matter if he was there alone or if he was there with other combatants on his side, he would always say something like, "I'm under fire."
The second NPC had a second-stage response that never required an answer. Something like, "I've got you covered." Or, "Keep your head down!"
Then there would be a third NPC who would say something like "shut up and fire back" or, "cover each other!" -- something to reinforce what was there, but would never necessitate any sort of response. It actually got called out in reviews for Rainbow six Vegas, where reviewers were like, “Wow, the A.I. is really smart, it knows when there's a whole bunch of people there, and they're talking to each other and everything.”
And I felt smart because it wasn't A.I. It was just a matter of how we strung the bottles together and ensuring that the rules made sure that they never broke one another.
Alex: Is there any philosophy or academic theory that you find useful in your work?
Lucien: I take a nibble from here, a nibble from there. I graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Drama and Education, and the writing that I did initially were plays. And so I think I take the playwright’s approach, where I'm not focused on what the camera angle is, or zoom in on the eyes, or anything. It's characters in that moment, what I want them to say and what I want that subtext to be.
Every project has its own DNA, how it approaches things, the problems, the troubleshooting, I think you need an arsenal of tricks. So for one game, I might rely on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. In another game, I might apply the Pixar approach to character design: what is their greatest strength? Their greatest weakness? What gets them into trouble? How do other people perceive them? It's a variety of tricks based on the genre or style of game and the project itself.
Alex: When you talk about grazing, I think one of the things I like about being a writer is, I don't have to cite any work. It's okay if I don't truly understand somebody's philosophy. Or misunderstand it in a useful way. It's okay if if I use the Wikipedia entry. Because I'm making this all up anyway.
Alex: I'm not saying that this is how the world is in 99 percent of the cases, I'm just saying this is true for the protagonist.
E.g., Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said that grief has five stages, anger, denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Is that true? Who cares? If I put a character through that, they'll have a trajectory. I'm not responsible for whether that is scientifically true.
Lucien: On this last project that I've been working on, I realized that the villain didn't have a very concrete set of ambitions other than just being the villain. So I applied the Dan Harmon story circle to who he was and what he wanted and where it brought him. I find that these little tips and tricks are really useful when you want to get your team on board. Because if you're telling them, oh, you know, the villain does this, then he does that and this is why he does the things that he does... their eyes glaze over.
But if you say, look, story circle! Interesting, huh? This is where the character is. This is where they're going. This is where they get what they wanted but at a cost, where they realized what they really needed instead of what they wanted... it gets other departments excited.
And they're like, “yeah, OK, very cool. Have you thought about doing this. Or, you know, where does this put the character at that moment of the game?” And I find that sharing the mechanics of what you're doing sometimes aids in communication.
Alex: One of the hardest things for me is I see a sort of shape in my head.
Lucien: Mm hmm.
Alex: Like to me, the story is math. You know, in the way that a mathematician will see an equation as a shape in their head. I read that when they're doing higher levels of math, they're manipulating a shape in their head, they're not manipulating the formula, the formula is just how they put it down on paper for other people. And a nonverbal shape is hard to impart.
Lucien: I think that's unique to yourself. For me, there is a scale. OK, there is there is a sense of balance and weight, and I start reading it and I'm like, “oh, wait, wait. The scale is shifting.” And I sometimes have a problem articulating it. I'm looking through it and I'm like, going, let me see how I can get the balance back because it's too heavy on this side. What if I short it here -- oh hey, that works, actually.
Alex: So what I get from what you're saying is that often these philosophies and theories are a way to convey what's in your mind to people who don't necessarily grok story.
Labels: making games, writing games
Tuesday, December 01, 2020
So when you're iterating, particularly during a vertical slice, do you find that there's a back and forth between design and narrative. Does narrative ever inspire design? Does design inspire narrative?
Lucien: A vertical slice is often a linear experience showcasing going from A to B to C to D on a guided tour. And while there may be a small open-world component to it, it's so self-contained that narrative is there helping drive that momentum forward.
But by the time the vertical slice comes around, narrative has already been involved in who is the main character? What is his or her main motivation? What are they trying to accomplish within the game?
But there are times where there are a lot of lessons to be learned from the vertical slice. And either you can apply them directly within the vertical slice or you can say, OK, this is something that we need to address moving forward. But I think that once you're in vertical slice territory, it's far less blue sky.
Alex: And hopefully by then you have ironed out any sort of basic ludo-narrative dissonance.
Lucien: You have to.
Alex: Or do you ever find during a vertical slice that you're going, "Oh, wait a second, this narrative is totally at odds with what the gameplay has turned into."
Lucien: I think they're always be a little bit of that friction just because you're finally starting to see the narrative in conjunction with other elements of gameplay. You see the game theory being put into practice. And thus you realize where things may not match up.
But generally, when it comes to, well, how many people are we killing? What am I doing? Why am I doing it? All those sorts of things, that should be well and done and decided.
I think that if you're trying to go into vertical slice, unless it's a technical vertical slice, you should already have your beats nailed down. You should already know exactly what point you are in the story, what it might mean to the characters to be where they are in the story so that the people playing the vertical slice, especially the studio heads, don't feel like they've just been slammed and overwhelmed with a bunch of stuff. You need to be very surgical and methodical in what you give them as a relatable experience, but still make it feel like it is a well-realized experience.
Alex: What would you say are the hardest battles that you fight?
Lucien: It's kind of a tricky question. Fighting people's experiences. So I might come on a project and I'm like, “hey, I want to do this.” And they were like, “oh, you know, we tried that in a previous game and it failed. So we're not going to do that.” Rather than saying, OK, what lessons did we learn in the previous game?
The other thing is fighting against people's preferences, against what they watch on television or movies. People really want to push what they've seen and loved. OK. So you'll have people coming up with ideas that, you know, just played out on the last episode of this show and you're like, no, we can't do that. I had an argument once with somebody about, what if these aliens are advance scouts? And what if they're creating a portal. And [[Expanse Spoiler Alert]] they were telling me one of the plots from The Expanse. “We can't do that! The Expanse just played on Amazon.”
I'd also say the hardest battles that I've fought is with people who think that they should be writers. So they end up by trying to push their vision or ideals on you, thinking that you are a secretary for whatever their vision is. Rather than allowing you to sort of explore things. I had literally one script review that took five weeks as I went through the entire script with the powers that be and had them literally fight me on word usage, saying, “oh, no, no, no. Over there, I said this specific word, not the one you used.”
Alex: I had an argument a couple decades ago with a French producer on the TV show I created, over punctuation. And I was thinking, hey, (a) I'm the writer and (b) your native language is not English. Though I realize now that I should have changed it the way he wanted it, because (a) definitely not a hill to die on, and (b) the actor is going to deliver the line however they feel like it anyway.
Lucien: People that rely on a lot of television for [their cultural references], they expect you to share that common bias. And they try and pull you in that direction. And so it was, OK, now I have to watch 24, because Rainbow Six Vegas wanted a 24 experience. It's 24, meets this, it's 24 meets that. They want that fast pace. And if you're not writing Jack Bauer lines and everything, it's not good enough.
And then there're fights I have with my own cleverness. I'll say, oh, these are my Rosencrantz and Guildenstern characters. And I make the mistake of bringing that up. And people are like, oh, I don't think people will know who Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are. Maybe we can use two characters more like the two characters from Pineapple Express. So you sabotage yourself.
Alex: "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was not a buddy cop comedy.".
Lucien: The darkness of it really appealed to me and having two characters that were questioning their own existence and trying to find purpose in between the scenes really struck me. But I should never have mentioned it. I was trying to sound smart, and that bit me in the ass.
Oh, another hard battle is that everybody's got an opinion on writing.
Alex: "If you can talk, you can write."
Lucien: Yeah, exactly. And so because everybody has an opinion on writing, they will not only criticize, they'll offer you the wrong path. Because they don't understand exactly what they're critiquing. They're only talking about what they don't like.
When I was at Ubisoft, I ended up doing a two-week program at the design academy. This is where they send people off to Paris and they learn how to make video games by designing a video game on paper. When I did it, it was just basically this thing that we did in the office. It wasn't as romantic as going to Paris or being fed by a chef. I didn't get that treatment.
But there was one thing that they talked about... the way designers pursue things. It's an obvious one: form follows function. It was a bit of an epiphany for me because designers always, always focus on the function of something first and then the form afterwards. I realized I could understand their position better and break down arguments better if I said, “I get that you don't you don't like what you read. What is the function that it fails to accomplish?” With that lens, they were able to better articulate what the issue was. Or they were able to understand that what they were espousing was a preference, not an actual issue.
Alex: Yeah, I think we all have to remember, rather than just getting our back up and saying, I disagree with you, ask: what are you trying to solve? If they give you a solution, which is usually wrong, ask: what is the problem that this solution is supposed to fix? Because then I may be able to solve their problem in a more productive way, and one which also abides by the six other mandates that my solution was trying to abide by.
What people don't realize about writers is that we're reluctant to change our story not just because it's our baby, but because we have been given multiple mandates it has to satisfy: themes, and world, and main character, and tone, and the scope of the game, and the scope of the narrative within the game, and the limitations of narrative in the medium of games, and in some cases, the shortcomings of a particular actor or two, and so forth.
And your solution may fix the problem that you're seeing, but it also breaks all those other things. So that's how a lot of criticisms fall short. But then we writers also fall short when we just come back with, “here's why the solution you're proposing sucks.” Instead we have to say, "What are you trying to fix, exactly?" And nine times out of ten that we do that, there's a simple fix we can think of that doesn't break all those other mandates.
What do you keep in mind about feedback? One of the skills for any writer is learning to not only accept feedback but to seek it out; and another skill is how to use it. So do you have, like, a mantra, or do you have tools that you apply to criticism?
Lucien: Yeah. One is try not to take it personally. You will have people that are going to be blunt and it may feel personal, but you've got to divest yourself from the process because we're creative types. We put a lot of emotional investment into the things that we write. Therefore, we're a lot more protective of it because it speaks to our ability.
So I think one of the lessons is to take a step back away from the criticism. Take a walk. Go back to it, reread what was said. If there is an issue with the way it is said, I'll address that. I'll talk to the person. But often I'll find that the person isn't trying to be personal. They're targeting something. So I try to see it from their point of view.
An interesting thing that I had heard from a friend of mine by the name of Aaron Loeb, really smart, brilliant fellow. Oh, he's a theater playwright as well, but also works for video games. He's an amazing writer. Well, one of the things that he said was, assume that the person you're talking to isn't an idiot. Assume that they are intelligent. Are reasoning. Are an expert at what they do. Once you approach them like they're an expert at what they do, then allow yourself to ask the question, “How can I see what I wrote through their eyes?” And it's a difficult thing because sometimes your ego is bruised and, “no, no, fuck it they didn't get it, fuck them.” I'm pissed off and I'm going to have my moment.
But, you know, do that in private. Don't do that to their face. Take the information that was given to you. Walk away. Come back to it. Then look at it and remind yourself that they’re an expert in their domain; at least give them the benefit of that doubt. Can I see their point of view? Is it a misunderstanding or is it just a difference of approach? And sometimes you'll find that, no, you still disagree with them and sometimes you'll find, oh, I see what they're saying.
A lot of the feedback that we receive is through email, especially now because of COVID. There's a lot of opportunity for misinterpretation. So especially there, I advise walk away from what you read, come back to it, reevaluate it. And then, approach it with, “How do I see the issue through their eyes?”
Alex: I had an acting teacher who would say, "Find the truth." Even if the feedback is 75% wrong, it's 25 percent true. It's coming from somewhere. Find 25 percent as opposed to dismissing the 75 percent. And that's why I try to remember the Hollywood writer's mantra, which is "We'll take a look at that."
Alex: And it sounds like, "Fuck you, we're not going to do that." But it actually does mean, We'll go take a look at that. Because we might find out it's actually a good idea, or there is a good version of that idea, and if it's not a good idea, it's better to come back afterwards and say, "We tried that and we couldn't make it work," instead of rejecting something in the meeting.
And then we always have to remember that the version, like when we're communicating between devs, if they say something, they maybe have a dumb version of that in their head, and then they propose something, and they have a brilliant version in their head, but I have a dumb version in my head. And I'm rejecting the dumb version or their idea, not the brilliant version they actually had in mind. So it's hard.
Lucien: I try and give more of a specific timeframe. Like, I'll tell them. Okay, listen, I'll get back to you within 24 hours. That way they feel more like it's a legitimate thing because I've given them a timetable.
One of the biggest battles that we also face is that we're talking with people who don't brainstorm in the way that we're used to. People find an issue and then want to throw everything out and come up with their own idea. Because the new idea sounds sexy and is lacking in any sort of issues. But it's just that we haven't had a chance to explore their idea yet to find where the issues lie. So one of the biggest fights I always have is trying to convince somebody not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I get that there is an issue with this. We don't need to scrap everything. Let's just reexamine the small part and see if we can't find a solution for it.
Alex: Is it important for a videogame writer to have a voice, or is it better to be a chameleon. And how did you find your voice?
Lucien: I think what happened was I didn't second guess my first draft. The way I found my voice was one being a lot more self-assured about what I was writing. OK, reading it out loud. Seeing what worked, what didn't. Talking to the actors that I worked with. Listening to them doing a performance, seeing where they were stumbling and everything. And then you start arming yourself with a whole bunch of tricks to move forward.
But I think that every writer has an internal voice when they write. And it's that natural voice that allows them to write the quickest and commit to the ideas. And there's a flow to it. I think you need to appreciate your voice, but know that you need to go back over it and start editing it. My initial voice is humorous and sarcastic. And so I use that voice to write the first draft of whatever I'm writing. Then I don't hesitate to go back in there, create a slush file. So I don't feel like I'm just dumping stuff off, you know, into the trash chute.
Alex: So you can save all your darlings in a file somewhere so you don't actually have to kill them. I think a lot of writers do that.
Lucien: Don't be self-critical when you first write. But once you're done with that first draft, go back in there with the critiques. I go back in there with the actors in mind. I go back in there with the performer's eye, or the audience's eye, and start finding ways of making it sound stronger and better and working around my own weaknesses.
Alex: Yeah, I mean, my wife Lisa always talks about the vomit draft. I've never understood novelists and screenwriters who try and write a perfect page and then another perfect page. I'm, like, once I've got the beat sheet, I want to get that first draft written. I think, Don't look back. Don't read anything that you wrote.
Alex: Push through it and then the pressure is off. You can start tinkering.
Lucien: I found that going back and rereading and rereading and rereading the first draft while it was being written in order to get that voice right in your head was a form of procrastination. It was stopping me and I would often use it, like, "Oh, I don't feel like writing right now, I'm just going to review what I wrote."
I think you need to trust your first voice. What you write needs to sound like it comes from a natural place. And I think you need to get that out there and then go back over it with the more seasoned professional eye on things and see whether or not it sounds good or whether or not it sounds grounded or evocative or whatever it is. But the job of the first draft is just to get written.
Alex: And sometimes, you know, the things you write without criticizing it is actually pretty good. Winging it, with an outline, sometimes you come up with something pretty good.
Lucien: I think you've got to tap into the joy of why you started writing in the first place. One of the things that I'm re-learning right now, now that I'm in quarantine, is looking at stuff that I wanted to write and realizing I was like putting all this gravity and importance behind the words.
So I stepped back and I said, when did I stop having fun writing? When did it I put so much weight on it? And so I just started writing a story without any planning, just a basic understanding of who the character was. I was like, screw it. Yeah.
Sometimes that gets me in trouble. Sometimes it backs me into a corner. Sometimes I come out with a novel and I go, “that didn't go in the direction I anticipated.” But I'd rather do that and complete something, then get stopped halfway through it because I'm over analyzing. Because by the time that I'm done with the planning and I start writing it out, I'm a really kind of fatigued with it.
Alex: I have a theory that 40% of the way into anything is the Sucky Point. 40% into any creative project, and you start going, oh, this is terrible, what am I doing?
Lucien: Yeah, totally.
Alex: There's an initial excitement. And then once you're over 50 percent, you can say, oh, yeah, I got half of this done, and it's all biking downhill from here. But at 40%, it's like, ooooh, I have to do more of this and I don't believe in it anymore.
Lucien: I think for me middles are the hardest part. I generally don't start a story unless I know who my main character is. And I ask myself some questions like, what is the conscious motivation? What is the subconscious motivation? How do these two elements scrape against each other?
And if a character fails to resolve that friction, then they're going to fail. So what is it that they need to do to acknowledge that their subconscious motivation is the real motivation? So I've got my beginning. I've got my end.
And now the middle part is where the heaviest work ends up. I have to ask myself, could this be shorter? Am I just delaying or offsetting the action and the drive towards the end because I'm trying to fill up the middle?
Labels: writing games
My friend Lucien Soulban is a Lead Narrative Designer at Obsidian Entertainment. He was nominated for a BAFTA for Best Story in 2013 for Far Cry 3 and in 2015 for Far Cry 4. He has a slew of credits on AAA titles, including assorted Far Cries, Rainbox Sixes, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Warhammer: Dawn of War. He is also extremely well loved in the writing community in Montreal; we'll be sorry to see him leave town once it's important to go into an office again.
Alex: So I gather you just moved to Obsidian, and, let's get technical right away, that means learning a flock of new software tools.
Lucien: Obsidian has its own tool set because their games do a lot of branching. The tools have been around for a while now. It's a lot of learning on the fly, because I don't have the benefit of being at the company to sit down with people. I handed in my two weeks notice at Ubisoft, and literally the next day we went into quarantine. And so I left Ubisoft remotely... my last two weeks were remote. I began at Obsidian in April, and it's also been remote. So there's a lot of assumed knowledge that everybody else possesses and they've been doing RPGs for a while.
Alex: Well, learning any toolset is harder when you can't go over to somebody and say, Will you take a look at my screen and tell me what the hell I did wrong? What did I break here?
How is the storytelling different at Obsidian?
Lucien: Well, Ubisoft was only beginning to look at RPG in greater detail over the last few years; there was very little of branching dialogs initially. There was no need to give the character multiple options for dialog. There was no need for UI to call up dialog options.
Obsidian has been doing more of the sort of traditional RPG approach where a lot of it was, “This is the node where you ask more questions. Here is the node where you progress the quest." So there's a lot more compartmentalizing what you write in order to fit the stubs as opposed to a linear path. You've got to be a lot more careful with how information is transmitted, because if you pass information out along the tree, the player may not see it.
So you have to be really surgical about what the nodes say along the critical path in order to feed that information. There's a lot more troubleshooting on the fly.
Alex: Are there debugging flags that you can set in your software to say, over multiple playtests, does this bit always play, does this bit ever play?
Lucien: I’m still learning because the system is seriously robust. But yeah, you've got to go into the toolset to do it. It’s built with all kinds of conditionals and pathing options. It’s crazy how much love and finessing went into it.
Alex: Does the software let you visualize the tree easily?
Lucien: Oh yeah, absolutely. Basically, the best way I can put it? It almost looks like a mind map sort of thing, you know, where it can expand outward into a variety of different responses. But you can collapse responses or look at the tree in its entirety. You can highlight specific nodes through menu selection.
Alex: I hope you can do, like, Minority Report. (Waves hands as if moving holograms around.)
Lucien: I wish. I wish. It basically looks like a poster board with cards on it and branching lines. But you can also put conditionals in there. There's a bit of programing. So, for example, you'll put a card there, you'll say, okay, this node is going to trigger three options for dialog, for responses from the player. And then you can put conditionals saying, well, this note is only triggered if the player has inadvertently gone forward and finished the quest before ever talking to the NPC. If that condition isn't met, it then gives you just the other two options. Or this node feeds is shared with multiple conversations. Coming from linear games, that’s a new trick I’m learning to master, like going from Chess to Star Trek 3D Chess.
Alex: What we do is just linear. You've got a character with a name and a backstory and relationships with people. Even if you were to give the player dialog options, they would have to be within a narrow realm of what's reasonable for this character and the situation.
Say you're playing Hamlet, he's not just going to go off and say, "All y'all go fuck yourselves." What does low IQ Hamlet sound like? Wow, that's a can of worms.
Lucien: It's up to us to limit the parameters. In general you want a character who sounds at least reasonably intelligent, but not really make any sort of moral choices or decisions until the player is specifically asked to make a moral choice or decision. It's going require testing. There's gonna be times where we step over the line and we give too much characterization or go too flat. I think it's just a matter of range finding. When you pick up a bow, you fire an arrow. The first arrow is too high. The second arrow is too low.
Alex: And the statistician yells, "We hit the target! On average."
So when you're writing for a blank character versus a character with a voice and the past -- how do you think the player experiences those differently?
Lucien: I think that the genre of the game -- whether it's an FPS or over-the-shoulder third-person, whether you can see your character or not -- I think that creates a player expectation of who their character is. The minute you're in the character's head, I think a lot of players are used to having the characterization pulled back more into stereotype or wish fulfillment.
But when you can see your character, when the camera shows you your character performing, then there's a lot more of an expectation of characterization. In Ubisoft FPS's, we made a conscious decision never to pull the camera out of the character's head, or at least only in very rare moments. The character is a tabula rasa, because [Ubisoft HQ in] Paris and Editorial wanted you to feel like the real you is dropped into the game world. Accessible to your personal reality was a part of the discussion.
Alex: In an RPG, I am the main character, so whatever I want to do is whatever the character wants to do. In a game with a defined main character, the character wants to do things that the player doesn't automatically care about. For example, in our last game, Arthur wants to escape the town of Wellington Wells to find his long-lost brother. As a story-teller, my job is to get you to care about the brother, which we did through a series of audio flashbacks. Is that enough, though? Or do you have to give the player a player-focused motivation for pursuing the levels that make up the game? E.g. "I want to explore a weird world" or "I came here to chew gum and bash heads, and I'm all out of gum."
Lucien: The player needs to empathize or sympathize with the characters. When you're talking about a tabula rasa character in an open world game, you force them to act because the situation itself is going haywire. Their life is in danger. It's more immediate of a concern... it’s survival.
Alex: You're talking about Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
Lucien: Yeah. I've been using Maslow's hierarchy of needs so much I was trying to avoid invoking it. But talking about the very base of the pyramid, if you're in a first person perspective, you've got these immediate threats that rob you of security, that rob you of your immediate survival. I think if you have a character who is better realized with motivations and sense of priority and everything, there's more opportunity to push them higher on the hierarchy. Even, by the end of the game, allowing them to arrive at that self-actualization top of the pyramid.
But you really have to work to get the player on board with those motivations. You take a look at a game like Watchdogs 1. The main character was seeking vengeance. But we almost never saw the niece, we never got to know her, interact with her in a meaningful way, or say, fully saw what happened to her. That character was never a part of our experience. As a result, there was a disconnect. The motivation of the character was only that of the character's. The players were more interested in exploring the open world than they were in pursuing his revenge quest. I wonder if it mattered to them beyond their own desire to stay invested.
Alex: I had the same problem with Last of Us 2. Ellie is so hell bent on getting revenge for something that I don't think she needs revenge for, I don't approve of what she's doing to get it. "I'm out. I can't do this anymore." First of all, you don't need revenge. Second, it's not going to help anybody-- To the creative director, sure, it's a metaphor for the pointlessness of the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but if you want to make that point score, first you have to bring me in, make me feel, "Yes, I must have my revenge, no matter what the cost!" before you show me that it's pointless. Otherwise it's just pointlessly pointless.
Lucien: Revenge has become a shorthand in a lot of games, because revenge implies a call for action that can involve violence. "Oh, people want revenge. It'll be fine. Somebody wronged you." And you can empathize that if it happened to your family, you'd want to do that as well. But it's a tricky line to walk. The player needs to feel that they've been brought into the situation, or it's just the character going off on their own, and the player feeling, “Well, OK, I guess I'm along for the ride and I'll just use this as an excuse to perpetuate violence."