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


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Sunday, February 28, 2021

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.

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Saturday, February 27, 2021

Mikko Rautalahti

I was just wondering, have video games always been this international? And why are they international, when film and television are really not? Is it just that video game narrative was only on-screen text for so long, and text is easily localized?

Mikko: I guess one part of it is that if you made a movie, it was really closely tied to whatever culture you made it in. Especially early on when the games were really simple, like going back to Space Invaders, language didn't really matter. And I think once you had a certain baseline established, that made it easier for people just accept the idea that these things can come from wherever.

Alex: Apparently film was completely international until sound came in. German movies did very well in the United States, because you could always change the title cards, nobody knew what the actors were saying anyway. Except lip readers, who were sometimes horrified.

Mikko: There is a degree of, I guess, cultural imperialism here as well, because if you look at it from a very American perspective, you have American movies, then you have “foreign” movies. But in other countries, you tend to have a lot more movies that come from all sorts of countries. “Foreign” film isn’t a thing like that, you just assume that a lot of the films you see come from somewhere else. Like over here [Finland] you read subtitles, because nobody's making anything for our language. We have five and a half million people who speak our language. So you just have to accept that you have things coming from all over the world. Nobody makes video games for the Finnish audience, either, not even in this country.

Alex: I was just thinking about Malmö. Why is Malmö a big deal in video games? I wouldn't have guessed that was going to become a key place.

Mikko: Well, I think they kind of hit that critical mass and you have a certain degree of infrastructure built around that. But it's also a couple of other things. Like in Nordic countries, you can get by with English really easily.

In a lot of Eastern European countries there are a lot of advantages. Everything is just so much cheaper to do. But it's a pretty big deal for somebody to move over there. There is a serious language and a cultural barrier, whereas you come here or Malmö, you can walk into almost any store and you're really going to be OK. You don't have to cry about how you want a loaf of bread and they don't know what you mean. I have been involved in onboarding a lot of people from other countries. And it’s interesting a lot of weird cultural stuff that can trip them up. Just, like… do you tip? Is it too awkward for you not to? For some people it's almost like physical pain for them to not to.

Alex: In Japan, it's insulting, you must not tip.

Mikko: There are so many differences, and people have these assumptions and expectations that affect their behavior in ways that can be hard to see. You can't be fired in Finland, or at least, you can't be fired just because your boss goes like, I'm done with you. That has a big impact on the way people behave at work. And if somebody then comes in with different assumptions, but nobody’s actually aware that there’s this conflict of expectations… it can get complicated.

Alex: Our studio head at Compulsion Games told me that he was living in France when he decided to make his own company. But you can't fire anyone in France. You can send them off to the rubber room but you have to keep paying them. So he made it in Montreal. Lucky for me. Thank you, France.

So far, I'm just hearing reasons why it's good to move to Helsinki, not why it’s hard to. I thought you were going to say oh, the darkness in winter, you know?

Mikko: I mean, the dark can be a thing, but it's not that much different from living in certain parts of Canada, for example, where you get long winters and a lot of darkness. But some people can't deal with that. Like there are people who come here during the summer when it's warm and nice and the days are super long and there's plenty of sunshine. “Yeah, this great, this is fantastic.” And then the winter comes and we get five hours of sunlight a day. And all of that when I'm at work. So it's dark when I come to work and it's dark when I leave work.

Alex: I’m already really far North in Montreal [45°N], but, wow, you are super far North in Helsinki [60°N].

Mikko: And that can definitely mess people up. But for most people, I guess it comes down to how we were feeling as an individual about it; some people adjust very easily, and others just can't deal with it. For most people, it might take one winter to get used to it, but then you are fine, I think. Or you leave, I’ve seen that happen, too.

Alex: Have you bopped around much yourself? Have you lived in a whole bunch of different countries?

Mikko: I’ve spent a lot of time in different countries, but I think the longest time I've stayed somewhere else has been a month. So I’ve never had to adjust my life in any meaningful way. When it’s a working trip, you just feel like a visitor. And the weeks go by pretty quickly.

Alex: At one point Ubisoft Singapore called me up and I'm like, wow, what would it be like to move my entire life to Singapore? Warmer, I guess. Better street food.

Mikko: It’s a huge change if you have a family to think about. Are they going to have friends? And it's not like grandma can come in and look at the kids for a couple hours.

Alex: Yeah, I moved to Montreal and I brought Lisa up here to Montreal.

And our families are in New York and Texas. We can go down and visit them, but they’re not available for last-minute dog-walking.

Mikko: At least you are still in the same time zone. Right now it's, what is it, a little past six o'clock here and you’re just kind of getting your day started. It’s not even noon for you yet. I'm doing a contract with a Montreal studio right now. A lot of times, somebody sees my name in a Teams chat somewhere. And then they set a meeting. And then I have to go back and go, yeah, that's 10:00 p.m. for me. As much as I might want to discuss the finer points of this animation thing, well, I'm not going to be that useful at that hour.

Alex: How much time do you spend playing other games? How much time playing games for research? How much for fun. And are the kinds of games that you play for fun, the same as the games that you make?

Mikko: I don't play a lot of games purely for research. That's not entirely true. Sometimes there is a specific project where I go OK, I need to play a bunch of this kind of game in order to know what we're doing. But that’s the exception. Usually I play something I’m interested in.

I have worked on games that I haven't felt strongly about, or have actively not really wanted to work on. And that's not a good place to be. I did a year or two in free-to-play mobile that was like that. And it's a shame because I worked with people that I really liked, and I think that we made some pretty interesting, good games, but it just wasn't the kind of work I was super interested in. And it was very clear that on the management level, nobody gave a shit about what I was trying to do. They hired me to do a job that they didn't care about. “We need to have some story stuff here.” But only if it had no impact on anything else.

Alex: Okay, but what kind of games do you play? And like how do they relate to the kind of work that you like to do?

Mikko: Well, the games that I play do tend to have a strong story element. Interesting characters in interesting situations, or interesting narrative techniques. So that could just be an action adventure game or something, like The Last of Us 2 would be a good example. Obviously, a lot of ambition there in terms of storytelling. And the quality of storytelling is super high. But I also played a stupid amount of Minecraft before it had any real narrative design. And I still play Tetris. That's a great example of a game where there is absolutely no story. You can kind of project stuff on that if you are so inclined. But that's just you kind of having fun with yourself.

There's a lot of indie stuff that I've been very impressed by. Something like Kentucky Route Zero took an ostensibly very standard and traditional approach to adventure gaming and then it turned it into a unique and interesting thing where they did these constant tiny things all the time, just like the things where you're talking to a character and you get to make dialog choices. And then you also get to make dialog choice for the person who is responding to you.

Alex: What I found interesting about Kentucky Route Zero is that you make dialog choices, not to branch the story, but just to express yourself. Obviously that’s hugely less work for the developers, but it allows player expression, which hopefully drives engagement.

Mikko: Another strong theme for me is whether or not the game has atmosphere. It almost doesn't matter what the atmosphere is, as long as you can tell that a lot of effort and interest went into designing it. Even if it’s minimalist, but steps have been taken.

But I mean, at the same time I have also been known to just play pretty much mindless online shooters. I do that, too.

Alex: Sometimes you just want to kill a dude.

Mikko: Or sometimes you just want to get killed by a 12-year-old who is outperforming you on every possible level.

Alex: Because they've been doing nothing else for the past thirty hours.

Mikko: And they still have functional reflexes, and my flabby ass is just, like… no.

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I played God of War a while ago. I freed a dragon and got to Alfheim. Maybe about 6-8 hours of it.

If you loved Zelda: BOTW, you will love this game. It has spectacular environments and lots of game mechanics for you to master. The world is neatly arranged so you can go around killing things and upgrading your gear. And, like Zelda, it does not have much of a story.

A story, in my book(s), is:

a. a character we care about
b. who has an opportunity, problem or goal
c. who faces obstacles and/or antagonists and/or their own flaws
d. who has something to lose (jeopardy)
e. and something to gain (stakes)

The player character, Kratos, is a monosyllabic father who seems terribly angry about something. What? I dunno. But if I had to guess, it's that he's angry at his wife for dying, or that he doesn't like being a father terribly much.

But I suspect he is just an angry person.

There's nothing wrong with that. It's "care about" not "like." We can care about an angry person.

But what's his goal? He wants to put his wife's ashes at the top of a mountain, because she asked him to. What happens if he doesn't? I dunno. What does he get if he does? I dunno. So we're missing jeopardy and stakes.

But it's the pig witch who really pissed me off. She is a warm, sweet, kind magical woman with powers, whose best friend is a pig. Atreus, Kratos's son, nearly kills it with an arrow. She enlists your help healing it.

Is she mad about that? No, she blames herself.

From then on, the pig witch does all sorts of big magic to help you get to the top of the mountain. Why? Because (a) Atreus reminds her of when she was young and (b) because she likes him. Or him and Kratos. Hard to say.

Atreus doesn't really have enough of a character for him to remind a witch of her when she was young, and it seems very unlikely that someone who became a powerful witch was anything like the arrow-happy hunter Atreus is. Certainly there's no reason for the pig witch to like these two manly men who tried to kill her friend. But these aren't real reasons. These are excuses chosen because they don't require any narrative work: they don't affect the story in any way.

The pig witch does not seem to have any agency of her own. She is really just there to explain things and to help. She is a mashup of those two well-worn tropes, Moishe the Explainer (who needs no explaining) and the "Magical Negro," the person of color who is only in the movie to help the white dude achieve his full potential.

What frustrates me is that she could have been so much more. She could have been part of the story.

She could have been the person who derails your quest because she's powerful and furious you tried to kill her pig, and now you have to do X, Y and Z or she'll kick your ass.

Or, better, she could have been an angry woman herself, with an agenda. "Why are you helping us?" "Because there is a god I want you to kill."

She could have had a personality. A sorceress who lives in the woods, whose best friend is a pig, is probably not a warm, affectionate, understanding person. She is probably an introvert. She probably does not like people. She is maybe not very good around people. Maybe she tends to say the wrong thing. Possibly somewhere on the autism spectrum.

What's wrong about game characters is usually that they are only to service the playthrough. They do not have any reason to be where they are other than to help or hinder the player. They were doing nothing yesterday, and tomorrow, if you haven't already killed them, they will be doing nothing.

The ones who fight you often have no particular reason to fight you except you crossed an invisible boundary that triggers them. The ones who help you have no particular reason to like you, except that the game is sucking up to you, the gamer.

By contrast, look at WITCHER 3. Everyone you meet has a life. They had problems before you showed up. After you leave, they might have one less problem, if their problem was a monster and you killed it. But the odds are they still have all the other problems.

If they help you, it's because you serve their goals in some way.

Or look at HORIZON ZERO DAWN. Before the Big Bad came along threatening all life, your world had multiple nations, some of which were recently at war, some of which are still at war. Even the robot dinosaurs you're hunting were doing something you came along, and the survivors will be doing something after you leave.

In real life, everyone is the hero of their own story. In a game, that should be true as much as possible.

Sure, we have quest givers and helpers in We Happy Few. I try to make sure that they are not only there to give you a quest or some help. The nice lady who saves you from the mob at the beginning of the Garden District is not doing it because you remind her of someone. She is doing it because she wants your socks.

It is always a bit of a struggle to maintain this. It would have been less work for the animators if the lady didn't expect payment. The LD think in game terms -- we need someone to tell the player the rules of the Garden District -- not, usually, in narrative terms. So they are not always happy when I nix an elegant gameplay solution because it makes no sense within the game world.

I can't even guarantee that you'll sell more copies if you do. God of War has great reviews and ratings. So did Zelda.

But if you want to make an immersive game that gives people emotions (other than "flow"), then why not create characters who have human drives? Who want things from the player? Who don't start off liking you, especially if you shoot an arrow into their friend?


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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Mikko Rautalahti with nerf pistols

Alex: What are some valuable lessons that you've learned from things that are not games? What are some surprising things that you didn't expect them to teach you?

Mikko: Classics like pen and paper roleplaying games have been enormously useful. If you are a game writer who has never played a roleplaying game, you're missing something really core.

Alex: What's a lesson from roleplaying games?

Mikko: I think one of them is assuming that players will do the obvious thing. That may be the single most useful lesson, where you set up a scenario in a certain way and then it doesn’t play out how you expected.

That also applies to video games. If the players have the option of approaching something from another angle, you have to be prepared for that, but at the same time, there is a limit to how much you can cater to all the different approaches. So the maybe the reasonable expectation is that player walks down this corridor and then does a thing, because that's the only thing they can do. But can they walk out of the corridor, or can they suddenly just leave the place and do something else? Do they break the game if they do? Or can something interesting happen in response to that?

Alex: If they can do the wrong thing, they will. And if they can’t do the wrong thing, they’ll feel led by the nose.

Mikko: Yeah. What happens if they just stay there? There's a lot of stuff that works really well in non-interactive fiction, like the classic thing where there's a bomb that's about to explode and the timer is counting down and somebody's trying to defuse the bomb. And it's very dramatic. And it's like, oh, no are they going to make it on time? And it's fun! But in a video game, what happens if the player doesn't do it? What if they simply fail?

Of course, you can always say, boom, you died, reload. But is that fun or interesting? Can you have a situation that has a more interesting consequence if you fail? And if you don't have a great way of handling failure, do you want to have that situation in the first place?

Alex: It's interesting that you bring up roleplaying games because they're the antithesis of a video game in the sense that they have no budget. You can say, the world splits into sections like an orange. An angel comes down and he has a thousand eyes and he speaks to you in Yiddish and he wants you to go get his pants pressed.

Mikko: It's so different. A really great roleplaying tabletop experience is not killing orcs with bows and knives, it's what happens when the players say, “well I recognize this orc from back in high school where he was the bully. And I start to talk to him about that.” And then you riff off that and say that the orc breaks down and goes, “well I have a sandwich and we can share our sandwich.” And you can see so many ways things can go from there.

Alex: And now the Game Master is going, oh, God, I planned this whole thing based on fighting the orcs.

Mikko: Not to get too deep into this topic, but that's the sign of an inexperienced GM. If you walk out assuming that's going to happen, you're already on the wrong path. An experienced Game Master or Dungeon Master is like, I'm going to set this up, and I have a good understanding of what's going to happen if they do this. But I'm not counting on them doing it. If they approach it in a totally different way, then I understand this environment and the situation well enough that I can spin it a hundred different ways. And that's the joy of these games. For a player, the knowledge that your actions are not constrained, that you can do whatever, and it's hopefully going to have interesting consequences. And as a game master myself, what I really enjoy is those moments when players do something that I really didn't see coming. And I don't know how it's going to play out, but I know that I can handle it. But the next few minutes are going to be me working it out in real time. I have to handle it in a way that makes sense for the world and for the players. It’s leaping out of an airplane and figuring out how to make an umbrella before you hit the ground, every time. It’s great.

And obviously, that's not really something you can do in a video game. There are hard limits. Or sometimes it's more about the systems interacting and you get the emergent content, which is super interesting. But still, at the end of the day, there’s a technological framework. I know that the player has these tools at their disposal, they could be approaching these situations guns blazing or socially, and I have to prepare for that. You just have make sure that you have the kind of mechanics and technology for the NPCs to react to all of these approaches in different and interesting ways. You have to anticipate the player as much as you can.

Alex: So it's not so hard to make gameplay replayable. But if a game has a linear story, how do you make replaying it fun? Or is that even important? Is the only important thing to tell a good story?

Mikko: I have this urge to say that it's not important, but I don't think I actually believe that.

I would say that a game that has a lot of narrative replay value is probably succeeding better than a game that doesn't. And if you can make a game that really gives you different experiences based on your approach, I think that is great. But [the later experiences have to make] sense in the context of the earlier experience, too.

Alex: But how do you do that with narrative? How do you create the ability to tell a different story or to tell the story a different way or what?

What makes a book re-readable?

Mikko: If the writing is good and the acting is good and the actual storytelling, just the way it's implemented in the game is good, that is something people, at least the people who are OK with replaying stuff, are going to want to experience again. Journey, for example, is a game that I have played many times, largely for the narrative. I like the emotional payload that you get in that game.

Alex: I think there you're talking about narrative that is inherent the gameplay. In Journey, the narrative is the gameplay. I mean, aside from a few seconds of intro, the story is pretty much your struggle against all these difficult environments, isn’t it

Mikko: Well, yeah, it is very closely intertwined. But with Journey, there is such a specific emotional payload that is delivered. There’s a bit where you are close to the end, and you're trudging through the snow. Everything is getting harder and harder. And it feels sad and heavy and kind of horrifying. You feel like you're dying a little bit, stumbling in the snow, and there’s this overwhelming sense of despair.

And finally, you get re-energized and you explode out of the clouds, and you’re above this horrible snowstorm that was killing you. And now the sun is shining and the music soars. And it is just this beautiful, empowering moment. And the reason it feels so good is because it felt so bad just 20 seconds earlier.

Alex: So would you say it's the flow of the emotions --?

Mikko: Yeah. Yeah. And I like that I can sit somebody down and go, “hey, here's a video game, play this while I watch.” I've done that a bunch of times with Journey. I've had a bunch of people I know play it, and I watch them as much as I watch the game, and I can get that same emotional payload when I see them experiencing it.

And there are a couple of other games that I feel do something similar. Like Firewatch. The way it makes just talking on the radio a primary game mechanic is really interesting. And the way they have these different permutations of situations. Like this one scene where these shitty teenagers are setting off fireworks, and they're swimming and they're playing their music super loud. And you walk over there. There’s a boombox. And you can turn it off and they react to that. Or you can let it play. Or you can throw it in the lake. “Fuck you, kids.” Or you can take it with you, and after that, it's in the tower with you for the rest of the game. And it's not a huge thing; it has no bearing on how the game plays out. But you get the feeling that I did a thing and the world responded, which I think is really at the core of a good narrative experience, this idea that you are interacting with the world and the world notices.

Alex: Yeah. A pet peeve of mine is if there are dialog choices and you feel like they're not affecting anything. I played a triple-A game. And I just started choosing all the most obnoxious dialog options , I kept choosing options like, “Hey, buddy, fuck you and the horse you rode in on.” And they just kept right on blandly telling me where the quest was and what to do. They were never like, “Dude, what? Fuck off, eh? No quest for you.”

Mikko: I might know which triple-A game because I do the same thing.

Classic ludo-narrative dissonance. I remember in the original Knights of the Old Republic, which is a game that I quite enjoy, you can just go completely for the dark side. So you’re pure evil, and you’re unstoppable. You kill like a hundred really powerful enemies. And then you go talk to some clerk somewhere. And he makes you jump through all these hoops. And I can think of any number of unpleasant things I could theoretically do to him, because isn’t that what a dark side character would do? But this game won’t let me.

Alex: “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”

Mikko: “I’m sorry, Darth Vader, but you do have to take your mask off for the picture, I don’t make the rules.” It gets ridiculous. And I understand why that happens; of course there are limits to what you can do in a game. But in terms of narrative design, then maybe don’t set up situations where you give me the option to do something or become something if you can’t commit to providing consequences that would be interesting or make sense. At least it's nowhere near as bad as it used to be; games have improved a lot on this front.

Alex: I think a lot of the craft of video game development is funneling the player without letting them feel that they're funneled. A good level disguises the traversal path with environmental art, but then provides all this iconography and color schemes that absolutely tell you where to go next. We’re handing the player solutions while telling them they’re smart. The player gets to push the button on the Insta-pot and say, “I cooked!”

Mikko: I think people are quite happy to be there as long as they can't see the funnel. But the moment they start to go, OK, I see exactly how it is going to play out, that’s where most people check out of the story. People start skipping cinematics or dialog. They might come back in later, but chances are that at that point they're just so confused about what's going on, it’s just easier for them to drop it.

Alex: A lot of narrative games don’t really demand that you follow the story in any way. You can play without headphones, just follow the mini-map. And then they miss the feels. And then, of course, they’re on Metacritic complaining, “this game didn’t really pull me in.” So we have to give them good reasons to keep the cans on. Either make the story really amazing so they wouldn’t miss it for the world, or put gameplay clues somewhere in the narrative, so if they’re paying attention, the gameplay is easier.

Mikko: I would like to see more games where the narrative imperative for doing things was considered to be more important than the gameplay imperative. So you don't get, “we can’t do this interesting narrative thing because the player needs to be able to murder all of these people without consequence because it's a video game.”

You don’t want, Oh, if you didn't pay attention during this dialog, then you can’t proceed, because that’s the narrative equivalent of an adventure game where you have to hunt for a specific pixel. But you can strive for context.

Alex: You ought to be able to design systems where the dialogs are replayable. There's a log. So you never actually lose the information.

Mikko: Yes. Yeah.

Alex: So if you pay attention, it's a whole lot easier. You can still grind your way through it. You won't fail. You're not blocked. But boy howdy, if you listen, it's going to be a whole lot easier. You can swim across the icy river, sure, and lose health. But if you listened to that guy, he said he’s a fisherman. I bet he’s got a boat.

Mikko: I feel like that's something a lot of games do reasonably well these days, and that's OK. But I think the one thing that games are still really bad out is giving the players a really good way to get back to a game when they haven't played it for a while. Like, you don't play for two months, you might not remember very well what you were doing.

Alex: We were just saying, it’s almost sad how fast the Xbox Series X is, because we won’t have loading screens in our game. And they’re so useful for reminding you where the hell you are.

Mikko: Yeah. In Quantum Break, if I remember correctly, you would have your current objective on the screen. But then if you went into the pause menu, you would get a more detailed description of what was going on.

Actually, what we really wanted to do was to have a thing in the menu where you could get a personal timeline that you could replay. You did at this, then you did this, then you did this. And it would have images of the places you were in at any given time when you were making the decision. Then you’d remember, “Oh, this was at the skyscraper. I remember the skyline. “

Because we had so much different branching content, we wanted you to be able to see, if you made different choices, you could see the choice you made before and compare its consequences to other choices. You would see this whole decision matrix play out.

But it was way too complex. It would’ve taken too much testing. It was a pipe dream.

Alex: I think as developers, we tend to favor the experience of streamers and reviewers. And the player who put down the game for two months, they just don’t get prioritized because the streamers aren't going to do that and the reviewers aren't going to do that. So to heck with the player who just, oh, they started playing Hades and they're gone from your game for two months. And then they finished Hades and now they're, OK, I'm back. Where was I?

Mikko: I fucking hate it.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Mikko Rautalahti headshot

Mikko Rautalahti (@MikkiHEL) is a Finnish expert of the game writing trade. He wrote Alan Wake with Sam Lake and Petri Järvilehto, and was the Narrative Lead of Quantum Break for Remedy Entertainment. Currently he is Creative Director at Rival Games.

He was kind enough to sit down and chat with me from Helsinki, Finland.

Alex: What phase of a project are you in now and what do you do in a day?

Mikko: I'm working on multiple projects, and they’re in very different phases. One of them is a game as a service type of thing. So anything that we do is stuff for future releases, but the game itself is already out and churning away. The machine just needs more content all the time.

Alex: But, literally, what are you doing in a day? Are you writing dialog? What do you sit down and do in a day aside from meetings?

Mikko: For this particular one, it doesn’t really include dialog. I’m giving notes and just trying to map out where we're going in the future.

Alex: So, pillars.

Mikko: Yep, pillars and roadmap stuff, where’s it’s like, OK, so we have these characters and we know that next season we're going to have this and this story. I might end up writing some of that, or somebody else might be writing those beats. I do also write a lot of, like, barks for different new characters. Also bios for testing purposes--

Alex: --Casting breakdowns.

Mikko: --And some of the bios are player facing. Different versions of the characters are available in the game and they have different costumes. And they tie into the larger story. So it needs to say something about the situation or the costume or the character.

And we do like micro fiction, or flash fiction. They tend to come in at around a thousand words, like short stories. It is an online shooter, and that's not really a great format for delivering any story progress during gameplay. So we do that in collectibles and stuff like that.

Another project I’m working on involves more traditional game writing; there are levels, and you need dialog to go with the levels and a narrative design to go with the gameplay. So that’s also what I do, writing the moment-to-moment progression in a fairly linear game. Like there is a locked door and the character saying, “oh, this door is locked, I need to find another way.” And then the other half is more about the overall story and character development and the emotional side of things.

That’s the most traditional thing I've done in a while. A lot of the work that I've done lately, apart from that, has been more structural and abstract for a new project that we’re hoping to get going. I’m writing up, I guess you could call it the laws of the world. Stuff that is more about the design of the game than the actual story content. Like, this is the style of the delivery and these are some themes that we're going to be focusing on. Here are a couple of examples of how this might play out. Of course it's all hypothetical. What we are pitching is most likely quite different than what we will end up making.

And that's assuming that we end up making it. I've done a bunch of these pitches and some of them get made and most of them don't, that's just the nature of the business. But I'm excited about this one; I think it's going to be cool if we do get to make it. You got to be passionate about it. But at the same time, you don't really want to get too much into it, because if it doesn’t work out after all, I’ll be sad.

Alex: I think you have to enjoy the writing. You know, you have to enjoy the creativity itself and not be too focused on the end product.

Mikko: Yeah, and it helps that this particular project is our thing, we are coming up with ourselves. It's not work for hire, I’m not just filling in the blanks on something that has already been defined and designed, which is what you often end up doing a lot as a contractor. It's really hard for me to be super invested in something like that. Like, I could do a good job with that. And it can even be fun to work if it's a good fit. There’s nothing wrong with it. But at the end of the day I’m very aware that I'm in somebody else's sandbox and there is no way it is ever going to be my sandbox. That is a different emotional state for me.

Alex: So, talking about frustrations, you recently were tweeting about dialog offsets. [I.e., different pauses between lines of dialog. Some games have good voice acting but the pauses between each line are fixed, which ends up sounding oddly robotic.] What frustrates you in games that could be easily fixed? I mean, there's a lot of things that we can't fix at all easily. But what’s the low hanging fruit? What are the things like, Oh, God, why don't we just do this?

Mikko: I’ve been doing a lot of work as a contractor for the past couple of years. So I’ll be brought into projects at different stages. And when I say different stages, I mean that somebody like me should have been involved way earlier than I am. So I'm always working around things that have been locked already. And quite often it would have been really easy for things to go a little bit differently, and it would have worked so much better for the storytelling. But now it's just impossible because so much has already been built with certain assumptions in place. And that's soul-killing, where if somebody like me had just been there right from the start, just as a reality check, just to say like, hey, if you do this, then the narrative consequences are going to be this, this and that, are you sure that's what you want?

Alex: Yeah. I was just talking with Kelsey Beechum, who wrote Outer Wilds and she is the creative director’s sister. And she was in and out throughout the entire project. And that created that very integrated, very seamless experience where it all it all makes sense together. There's no, hey, if that's true, then why the heck is this happening? Everything plays nice together. Personally I've been fortunate, I’ve been in at the beginning for most of my career. If you call me in to paint a narrative on a structure you already built, I can do that, but I won’t be able to do all the things I can do.

Mikko: Yeah. And quite often the moment they start thinking about the story part is when they have the game more or less put together. Not anywhere near finished, but they have a plan for the level design. And some of the level design is already there, it's been implemented at considerable cost.

But I've also been there right from the start. And the difference is so stark. I think a lot of people think about story the way they think about any asset in the game. Like, we have these green houses here. And if you want to make the houses red, it's not that big a deal for an artist to go in and change the color and the texture. But you can't think of story the same way, because everything about narrative is interconnected and dependent on other parts of itself. The ideal is, “What is the best story I can tell with the pieces that I have?” But it turns into, “What is the least damaging thing I can put here; what is the least shitty version that I still feel comfortable putting my name on?”

If you're making a video game, not even one that has a crazy budget, just a reasonable budget, you can do almost anything, but you can't do everything. There are the things we're going to commit to and things we're just going to have to let go. Some darlings have to be killed.

And if you do that in the first, say, 33% of the development time, it's reasonably painless. But if you cut things in the last 33%, it becomes extremely difficult. You can cut something to save six weeks in the schedule, but then it takes four weeks to patch the hole you just made in the story, so you’re disrupting everything and it doesn’t help. I think ideally you build in stuff that you can cut.

Alex: In showbiz there are all these stories of writers putting in scenes just so they can cut them later. But I have an engineer’s attitude, I was a comp sci major in university, I have to cut anything that I can cut and make everything connect to everything. Which becomes difficult when people start looking for additional cuts. I have to say, I already did all the cuts that make sense. If you cut more it’s going to break the story. No one loves to hear that.

Mikko: I generally try to come up with an overall narrative that has redundancies. Given a location in the game, I try to make sure whatever it is that I put in that place I have an extra version of elsewhere, so that if we have to cut it, I am not completely hosed.

But all of our work is problem solving and you're always going to have problems. If you ever had a project where none of this was a factor, then you're probably not reaching very far. You want to push things as far as you can within the limits you have.

Alex: If you’re never failing, you're not trying. “Fail often. Fail better.”

Mikko: And the plans need to be realistic. I was working with somebody who had a lot of trouble accepting the idea that sometimes things are just good enough. They would ask me, “Well, but aren't we supposed to try to make the very best thing that we can?” And I was like “Yes, but also, never.” Like, in a perfect world, I agree with that. But that’s not what it's like actually doing this work.

Alex: I like to think of myself as a craftsman, not an artist. You build a cabinet. It should be a beautiful cabinet. But also the drawers have to go in and out easily. And if the client said they want 13 drawers, there’ve got to be 13 drawers. You can't just say, well, I thought it would be a better experience with twelve. If there are 12 drawers, they'll be like, where's my 13th drawer? No soup for you. The best is the enemy of the good.

Mikko: And at the end of the day, if you can't keep the game functional it doesn't really matter how good this one part of it is. If you have even a mediocre concept and everybody's kind of doing OK work, but the production planning has been done really well and everybody really understands what it is that they're trying to do, and everybody has enough time to do what they want to do, then you're going to create a much better experience than some kind of thing that is full of fantastic ideas, but the whole thing was just put together at the last minute with spit and baling wire.

It's a balancing act and you have to be not only realistic, but ruthless.

Alex: Yeah, you have to be willing to go, OK, I'm gonna take the L on this bit here, because I need time to do this other thing, which is more of the core experience, or more of what's unique about this game. The great editors in any medium are the ones who go, OK, this thing that you're doing here, that's really interesting. I've never seen that before. This thing that you're doing over here, it’s familiar. So maybe spend more time on the fresh thing, and then just be good enough on the other stuff.

But you do have to be good enough on the other stuff!.

Mikko: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. There is that minimum standard that you absolutely have to meet.

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