Yes, But Also, Never -- A Chat with Mikki Rautalahti -- Part OneComplications Ensue
Complications Ensue:
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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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