I had a lovely conversation with Kelsey Beachum, the writer and narrative designer of The Outer Wilds. Which you really should play, it's awesome.
Kelsey: I think you just you just interviewed Lucien Soulban. Which was delightful. I actually I was on your website and then I immediately went over to Slack and told him how excited I was to learn about his suitcase trick because I have such a hard time turning it off.
Alex: You just joined Obsidian.
Kelsey: Yes. So hilariously, I took the job. Let's see, they had me out for the on site very start of March last year, I took the job pretty quick, pretty much as soon as they offered it to me. There wasn't a lot of mystery there. On Friday, they were like, we're going to get in touch with good news for you on Monday.
Alex: So as a writer on a hit indie game, why would you want to work for a big triple-A experience where your voice could get lost?
Kelsey: Oh, you are cutting straight to it. I love this. This is a great question. Combination of things. One, of all of the AAA studios out there, Obsidian had always struck me as a studio that cared a lot about the dialog in the game. So that was definitely a draw. They had just published a major science fiction title and they also published a lot of fantasy titles. Science fiction and also fantasy are huge draws for me.
And I'll be honest with you, it really helps that they were OK with me doing a little contracting on the side. A lot of studios I have worked at have been very, you know, absolutely no other games.
Would I love to work on a series of projects like Outer Wilds? Absolutely. However, I get a lot from being in an office. And a lot of the contracting positions I do either have me moving around a lot, or it's their short term stuff. So I'm getting to know a new team every time. And I really have enjoyed working with people I've gotten to know. I've built a rapport…
Alex: But you're not there, so you're not really a part of it.
Kelsey: Right. I get so much from that energy. And it's been tough. The eight months that I've been at Obsidian, it's all been remote. They've been wonderful to get to know and everything, but I've not met a lot of them in person.
Alex: Yeah, we've been staffing up, and by now there's a third of the company I've never met in person. I hired a writer out of Seattle without meeting them in person, and I haven't met them since I helped them move in. And just now I hired a young writer who's in Milwaukee. Who's staying in Milwaukee, for now. I'm not going to be in person with her until we all get vaccinated and she can cross the border.
Kelsey: It's so much harder for communication. And it's so easy to get down on yourself. As a writer, communication is literally the thing that I do for a living.
Alex: The hardest thing is that the communication becomes more intentional. We communicate the things that we intend to communicate. But what we totally lose is sitting in the break room and somebody in the background is talking about a thing and you go, oh, you’re doing that? Oh, that gives me a great idea for this other thing.
Kelsey: There's no serendipity.
Alex: It's hard to get serendipity when everybody's on Zoom.
Kelsey: I have gone out of my way to regularly check in with people who are, I hate the term, "major creative stakeholders" -- because I'm very much on the soap box that all game devs are storytellers. But I try to check in with, usually it's department leads, but it's also with people who I know enjoy brainstorming with me, or have done cool things in the intersection of their discipline and narrative. Anything where I'm like, oh, I can support this really well with story. So it's taking the initiative, but it's also scheduling time to deliberately have these conversations that normally would be occurring naturally.
Alex: Theoretically we have "coffee time" in our company schedule, but it's the most awkward thing. I can't bring myself to go to intentional coffee time and sit intentionally drinking my coffee watching other people intentionally drink coffee a couple of miles away.
Alex: So you used to make games or game-like things with your brother? (Kelsey's brother is Alex Beachum, creative director of Outer Wilds.)
Kelsey: Gosh, we couldn't have been older than six or seven tops. We didn't have a Nintendo. We didn't have a game system, we didn't have Gameboys yet, but somehow Alex knew about Mario and he would set up levels in the physical world where he would physically be the enemy, like he'd be bouncing in patterns down the hallway. And I had to learn how to get past him. Later on, we switched to Legos. We would make a physical level. And I knew how many cubes tall my character could jump with their normal jump and how much the double jump got me. And I had a little Lego joystick that he had built, that I controlled the character with. And I had to say, "Jump."
And that was a lot of fun because you can't argue with a game, but oh, man, did I argue with Alex, you know, "You have to reset me," and he'd be like, "all right, all right, I'll reset you. Because I thought you boinged too late."
And when Pokemon came out, we made our own versions of Pokemon. His were all Aquamon, they were all water based and then mine were, oh my God, I'm going to say Bessie-mon. They were all cows.
When I was, maybe middle school age, we moved into this house that had a lot of development going on behind it. So there were all these massive dirt dunes there. We did a lot of sword fighting back there. I am very proficient with a wiffle bat as a result. And we also made a lot of short films. It started out just with us and our stuffed animals, making rip-offs of Star Wars called Star Cats. ... I wonder if Alex: is going to be upset that I'm telling you these things. I followed his lead on a lot of things -- you know, classic younger sibling. We got on really well. We've always been pretty good friends.
And we filmed this horror movie. Because everyone does a horror movie first, right? And then somehow when he was in college, he talked me into writing a script with him. So I wrote a screenplay about a talking stuffed llama on a road trip to find his biological parents. So I occasionally would help him out by showing up and writing for short student films or occasionally doing some acting bits.
Alex: You went to college together?
Kelsey: Michigan State. Yes, I am a Midwesterner at heart, so California's been a hell of a transition. But that's where I met my partner, Jon Moore, and from, like, sixth grade, he was one of those people that knew he wanted to work in video games. He would tell adults that and they'd be like, oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, sure.
Jon was in the games program. And my brother was not really aware that that was a thing. Jon had specifically gone to MSU for the games program. So that was a turning point for my brother, realizing like, oh, this is stuff you can go to school for. And then he pivoted and then went to USC for his masters. So Jon likes to take credit for Outer Wilds occasionally ....
Alex: I noticed in the interview that you did with your brother, you didn't interrupt each other or finish each other's sentences.
Kelsey: Did we not?
Alex: You did not. You're both very polite.
Kelsey: I might have been trying really hard, but also, when you're working with a sibling, I can tell better when his sentences are going to end. And I'm not worried about not having time to talk. But normally, oh, my God, if we're in the same room, we're a nightmare. We had a secret language as kids because we talk too fast and our parents could not understand it. And sometimes we would do that working on Outer Wilds. The other person I worked really closely with is Loan Verneau, the lead designer. It was amazing. I've tried to work in trios before with my brother and the third person's the odd man out. For whatever reason, Loan just picked it up.
Loan's delightful, he's just got such an unusual perspective on the world. I love it. Oh, God, it's so good.
Alex: It sounds like you and your brother could have ended up writing partners, and you did on this one game, but that wasn't a goal long term.
Kelsey: Oh, no, I'd love to do that long term, are you kidding? There's a weird balance that you have to strike, though. There were times where I had to say, I can be a good sister or I can be a good writer. Which one do you want right now?
Alex: My wife is my writing partner. It's a similar thing where the person you would complain to about work is the person you're working with. Fortunately we get along really well.
Kelsey: He tolerates my eccentricities. I have a lot of quirks that maybe are a little more suited to indie games than AAA. I always want to go the extra mile and AAA is very cautious about scope. "I don't know if we want to go down that path, let's come back to that." But we don't necessarily get back to it. With Alex. I'm like, "I wrote these lines in iambic pentameter!!!" And he's like, "OK, that's insane, but it's kind of fun."
Alex: Yeah. Lisa and I, one of us will say, is this too fucked up? And then the other person will start laughing because, if you're wondering if it's too fucked up, it's where we want to be.
Kelsey: Any time I get Jon to laugh at a line, that's a personal victory. Actually, Alex: and I have a younger sister, four years younger. She's not in games, and she is one of the funniest people I know. I love getting in touch with her if I'm not under NDA and saying, like, "Is this funny? Is this a joke? Did I write a joke? Just clear this for me." And she'll come back at me with either like, “oh yeah, that's very good,” or, "What are you doing?"
There's a certain amount of bluntness you can get away with, with people who you've known for a long time. I have a tendency to say things like, "Why are we doing that?" And with everyone remote, it can come across so negative. They don't know that that's what I sound like half the time. I don't mean to make it sound like it's a them problem by any means. It can be really hard to assume best possible intent sometimes.
Alex: Yeah, I'm from New York, so I come across a little harsh myself from time to time. Do you follow Javier Grillo-Marxuach? He was one of the writers on Lost. Recently he started a thread that was a list of TV writer jargon. Like, "hat on a hat." And "That's what you're bumping on?" And my contribution was, "Here's why I hate that." ... Which come to think of it, I've probably never said out loud without putting quotes around it. But I've wanted to.
Kelsey: I love it, I do. I like people speaking candidly. But it's easy for me to forget because I get so excited about the craft, because what we're doing is so young, it's so new. That I can be a salaried employee at a studio was wild to me. This is not something I thought of even when I graduated college. It didn't seem a viable career at the time.
I love it when people talk very candidly about, you know, abstract aspects of the discipline. But also it doesn't exist in a vacuum. I'm doing that thing games like to do where it's like, "oh, but we don't want to make a cultural statement." But you are. And here's why.
Alex: If you say nothing politically, then you are making a political statement. You can't not make a political statement. The only question is, are you making a political statement in favor of the status quo. “If you’re not part of the solution then you’re part of the problem.”
Kelsey: It's so frustrating when other people don't recognize that. If you don't say anything at all, there is still a message there. It's just maybe not a message you're wanting to impart. You can say something accidentally, something you might actually think is horrible.
Alex: My theory is that how we got into the current political predicament is 30 years of movie heroes who ignored the experts and go with their gut. After 30 years of, "don't tell me the odds," and "I have a hunch the scientists are wrong," and now we have a disease and nobody's paying attention to the experts, they're just going with their gut and people are dying. So thank you, all those guys who wrote those heroes. Stories have consequences. Meanwhile Japanese heroes are all about sacrificing themselves for the sake of society.
Kelsey: I've watched enough anime to be able to confirm that.
Alex: That’s the value that Japanese people internalize. I was watching an anime movie, Your Name. And at one point the heroine realizes she can save everyone in her town, but she’ll probably die. And it isn't even a discussion. Like they don't make a meal out of whether she should do that. What sort of monster wouldn’t be willing to die to save their town?
Kelsey: That would be so unusual to see in a video game. I mean, the idea of a failed state. Because in a video game, you die, you fail. That is how it works.
Alex: Except you don't really.
Kelsey: Well, exactly, so you can't convincingly do the big self-sacrificing thing until the very end of the game and at that point it's built up that way and you feel directed or forced toward that particular ending.
Alex: I don't love branching narrative because it's a horrible pain in the ass, but I do like an end choice. In We Happy Few, we had a beginning of game choice and we had an end of game choice. We had no story branches in the middle because that becomes unwieldy. I once wrote a game with 31 endings and what I discovered was, “Oh, so that’s why we don't do that.”
Kelsey: I wrote a game with six on my own and I was like, well, this is untenable. Yeah. Well, more like 12 because somebody has to be like physically in the room with me to stop me from going over scope.
Alex: That's true of almost any creative you’d want to work with.
Kelsey: The problem I find with branching dialog and branching story becomes, how much reactivity can you reasonably support? Because you want it to feel good. But it tends to be, just, oh, the game is aware you talked to so and so, or it is aware that you completed this quest. That sort of reactivity is not super exciting to me.
Alex: That's the Obsidian flavour of conditional dialog. If your intelligence is below three, your only dialog option is "unnnngggggh."
Kelsey: Oh, writing lines for dumb characters has been an absolute joy. But that is the hard part of ... In the Outer Worlds, you're playing a character who's this guy's sidekick for a lot of it. I'm sure the writers wanted to do more with the backgrounds you choose, but if you're not making at least a few choices for the player, I think it becomes really hard to do reactivity in a way that feels satisfying and robust just because you get diminishing returns on that. If you have a couple of big choices, those feel really big and good. But the more you're subdividing, even just dialog pathways, the less often people are going to encounter each option [because that option is not on the branch you've taken. ].
And then it becomes hard to justify, you know, oh, I really want to do this thing, even though it is an edge case, please let me have the resources to make this happen. And what I've loved is that there have been times where I have said that and they said, yeah, absolutely, go for it. And I've gotten to do some really cool things that not all players are going to see. It might be one of those things where, like, you know, years later, someone finally uncovers whatever's going on there. And I love that. I love those moments.
That was one of the most fun things about watching players play Outer Wilds, the things they pulled off that I did not know could happen. Somebody got brained by the probe that launches at the very start of the game, and killed on startup. I laughed till I cried when I saw that one. Oh, my God. I didn't even know that was possible. God, I love system reactivity.
Alex: So, what are some of the worst things that video games do that could be fixed easily?
Kelsey: Oooh. I like this. I'm going to go off right away. I cannot stand when things violate the internal logic of a game world. Like, why are there explosive barrels in the world? Like, oh, all these fragile, important items -- let's put some TNT nearby. I mean, that's one I can forgive. But what I can't forgive is when you set a character up to be a particular way and then, hey, we're going to require you to write something where this character makes a choice that's completely the opposite of what they would do.
And, okay, that's not always a deal breaker. That happened with the Nomai in Outer Wilds. There was a big moment on the-- . I don't know, maybe I shouldn't do spoilers -- how much of the game have you played?
Alex: I was so intimidated by the anglerfish, and the ticking clock, that I never got to the ending. Because when I actually got to the Vessel the first time, I only had like a minute left before the sun exploded again. So I figured, it's going to stress me out too much, getting the core drive, etc. So I looked up the ending. And from the description, it sounded a little depressing. So I didn't do the ending.
Kelsey: I put a lot into that to make it feel not hopeless, but fair. It is emotionally quite heavy. So I can't fault you on that.
Anyway, there's a big reveal on the Sun Station where they might do something that is against what they normally believe in.
Alex: They're going to [redacted verb] the [redacted noun].
Kelsey: Yeah, because their sense of ethics is that they should not be dramatically altering places.
Alex: Especially places inhabited by sapient beings.
Kelsey: Right. And when this was suggested, my first instinct was to dig my heels in. Like, the Nomai would never do this. But then as we talked about it, I was like, OK, we can do this if I have the space I need to convey the weight and importance of it. Then it will feel interesting and satisfying and sufficiently heavy. So I don't want to come out saying I will never compromise, because narrative always has to compromise, that's just how it is in this medium. But I am really frustrated when we have the player do things that conflict with the basic logic and reality of the game universe.
Alex: "But it's cool! And fun!"
Kelsey: Well, it'll be cool and fun for the player. But then they'll be like, why am I doing this?
Alex: They will stop caring. Yeah. And my definition of narrative is "Whatever makes us care about what happens in the game."
So what was your solution for why the Nomai were willing to [verb] the [noun]?
Kelsey: Oh, just the sheer weight of what they saw with the signal from the [unique location], it's something that is [reason for its uniqueness]. So maybe it's worth [verb]ing the [noun]. They are an inquisitive species after all.
And [the dev team] gave me the space to have a big conversation about it. Literally, we had a room physically in the world where there’s a Nomai debate on the wall [like an ancient email thread] over, like, how important is this goal as opposed to our normal goal of preserving a particular location and its life and some other alien species in their infancy.
Alex: I find often the solution to a plot hole is character revelation. If we acknowledge to the player that, no, you're right, this isn't a rational thing for this character to do, but we here's a character reason why the character would do it -- just look in the news, people do all kinds of inhumane, horrible, irrational, self-destructive things in real life. If we make it a moment of character revelation, it's not unbelievable any more. It's not a plothole. It's, this guy is arrogant. Or, he thinks it's his duty. Or, she really fears her boss and she wants to impress him.
Kelsey: Yeah, there's a deliberate shift in Nomai thinking around this time, driven by these older Nomai who lost their loved ones in the crash when their vessel initially arrived in the solar system. And so they, sunk cost fallacy, they want all those lives to mean something. And they are brilliant scientists and they're like, we can do this if we are incredibly careful about it. And our game is so non-linear, this moment does not occur in a fixed spot in gameplay. Where the player realizes what is going on with the Sun Station and what it is doing, what it is powering, why it is powering it, what the Nomai have done, so that even though the sun is currently blowing up because it's at the end of its natural lifespan, the Nomai did try to [verb] the [noun], against everything they normally stand for, because that is how badly they want to find this unique thing.
It felt like a realistic outcome to me. I wanted it to feel like it could have gone either way.
Alex: I will veto things that I think break the world. Because my job is to defend the game from moments that will make the player stop caring about the game. But terrible decisions don't break a world. Real people make terrible decisions all the time. We can point to history and go, World War One, why did they think that was a good idea? The Japanese attacking the United States, what was the thinking there? These weren't good decisions but they seemed logical to important people at the time. And that tells us who those people were. So the Nomai are a curious race. So it's believable and revelatory that they're like, well, we have to [verb] the [noun] because we gotta gotta gotta find out.
Kelsey: You cannot let the narrative become just the justification for a bad choice. It can't just be, oh, if someone has you do a quest and you're like, why am I fetching bread for this person during wartime? "Oh, don't worry about it, they just really missed this particular bread" or whatever. It's like, well, because this person's crazy for bread. Sure. Yeah. Somebody could legitimately miss something that badly that they'd make a bad choice to go out and find it, There's that whole thing in Zombieland. Woody Harrelson is obsessed with getting a Twinkie.
Alex: Because it's become a symbol of everything he's lost.
Kelsey: I don't think that in and of itself is bad [if you make it mean something]. What I'm frustrated by is that I think a lot of designers will look at that scenario and go, yep, that's good enough.
Alex: "Close enough for government work.".
Kelsey: And if it's only ever reflected in dialog, that's where it feels thin to me. I don't like having to listen to a character justify why they're about to ask me to do something bonkers. But what I do love is when the other elements of the game reinforce what's going on.
Alex: Yeah, well, if you can use it to flesh out some aspect of the world and the characters in it. I mean, if you gave me the bread thing, then I would have the player discover after completing the bread mission that it had nothing to do with the bread. The bread was a lie. Which you fell for.
Kelsey: Or conversely, I suppose if we have a scene earlier on where we established, like, this guy is fucking bonkers for bread, man. Then later you can do the opposite where he's like, no, the bread isn't worth it. Take the medicine instead. Like, we don't have room for the bread. Then you're like, wow, this guy's serious. He's foregoing his bread. This is a silly, silly example. But it’s got to mean something. It's not "Hey, this guy really likes bread go do a bread quest."
The thing that worked with the Nomai was having those conversations physically in the world. There's space devoted to it physically. But then also, that reveal is not purely done via text. If you've been to the Sun Station, it's really intense visually. The design is just genius. And there's a part where you blow the emergency exit doors, I believe, and you have to jump right over the surface of the sun. And it's such an intense thing. And then to learn this intense information, it syncs up really nicely. I want gameplay and narrative to be as interwoven as humanly possible. They should be the same cloth.
Alex: I think one of the reasons that Outer Wilds is successful is because you iterated back and forth, and story had a veto. You could say no, that breaks the story, that breaks the world. Let me come back and give you something that they would do, that is almost exactly the same thing.
Kelsey: I can find that. Yeah. Yeah.
Alex: You can never say no. Screw you. Not going to do that. But you have to be able to say, that doesn't work, let me come back with something that will work for you.
I find that the key question is, what exactly do you really need here? Because nine out of ten times what design needs isn't the whole thing. It's this little bit here that they really need. The other stuff is they're just trying to help you flesh out the world or the story. So you go, right, I will give you another thing that gives you the same little bit. And don't worry about coming up with the story, I got you.
Kelsey: One of the most useful skills you can have in this job is just being able to look at what someone is asking you to do and finding why. Because people are not good necessarily at saying why they want a certain thing. When I am pitching an idea, I'll say, I want to do this because I think it'll be a cool, emotional moment. It will reinforce this particular story. Because the opposite is also true, sometimes I will be asking another dev, hey, can we do this? And he's like, oh, God, what? No, no. But I'm not asking if we can do this exact thing.
Alex: We're all bad at talking to other disciplines. We tend to express ourselves imprecisely and they hear the worst possible version of that. "Oh, God, no, we can't completely remodel and rerig his head." We're like, "Wait, no, actually I just need him to wear a hat." "Ohhhhh. He can wear a hat, sure."
Kelsey: This circles back to why it's tough to be remote all the time. I like to have a lot of water cooler conversations with different departments so that I can get a better understanding of how they work. Where do they spend the bulk of their time on a particular project? What is cost effective to ask them to do and why?
Alex: That's a great idea, asking people where they're spending their time. People think that writers spend most of our time writing dialog. And I keep telling people, no, dialog is the easiest thing. I can write dialog all day long. I can, I have written a 50 page TV script in three days. What takes time is figuring out, like, what three items could be in this room that would tell the story of who lived here and how and why they died, without dialog. Something like that could legit take all day. Because an artist is going to spend a whole day making one of those things, so it better be evocative. Delivering narrative without resorting to dialog or readables, that's hard.
Kelsey: I love taking direction. But when I can't ask questions back and push back a little and say, well, hey, what are we really trying to say with this mission? Or what's the ideal player experience here?
Alex: Do you find that that's a difficult series of questions to ask?
Kelsey: No, I find it's a difficult series of questions to find a platform to ask. With games like Outer Wilds, especially on small projects and indie projects where I'm the writer, I have that face to face time to chat with them about it. I can ask questions. It's not coming from, like super high up your directors and everything trickling down--
Alex: It's the process of filtering it down to you where the context gets stripped. And you end up with marching orders. And you can’t as, "Why do we have to take that hill? Would another hill work for you?".
Kelsey: Right, by the time you've got marching orders, it's too late to be going back up the chain and saying, like, hey, I think maybe we've got the wrong boots on? It's nothing malicious on anyone's part by a long shot. It's just that with smaller groups, people tend to hear you right away. And I think indie games in some ways are a little more willing to have lost time and lost work.
Alex: It's funny you should say that, because, on the other hand, indie games tend to not have any money. If you're junking a mission in Grand Theft Auto Six, oh, well, I guess we'll just have to sell another zillion copies. But if you're doing it on an indie game where you just spent your last Kickstarter dollar, it's terrifying to think, OK, well, it would be a better game if we rethink this part, but how long am I willing to live on ramen?
Kelsey: It's been my experience working with indie games, that there is a little more time on the front end and tweaking some of those systems. Because the mechanics in indie games tend to be more original anyway.
Alex: Yeah. If you're doing the latest Assassin's Creed, there isn't going to be that much carnage because you're not inventing too much. Is part of it also that there's just simply less production? You had text on Outer Wilds. You didn't have, you know, performances. If I change dialog in We Happy Few or in our next game, then I'm also throwing out the actor's performance, all the audio work, and the animation. Whereas if you're throwing out a bunch of text, you can rewrite that on your lunch break and come back and type the new text into a box in Unreal and it's done.
Kelsey: And I think what I think that actually does get at the heart of what I'm trying to say here: I really want there to be a little more time built in for revisions.
Labels: making games, writing games