Lucien Soulban, Part TwoComplications Ensue
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Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Alex: 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."

Lucien: Yeah.

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.

Lucien: Yeah.

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?



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