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


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Sunday, March 07, 2021

 I have some questions about the scene you're writing:

What does your protagonist want?

Why doesn't the other character want to give it to her?

What is she doing to get it that isn't asking for it outright?

What does the other character want?

Why doesn't your protagonist want to give it to him?

What is he doing to get it that isn't asking for it outright?

What does this scene reveal about your protagonist?

What does this scene reveal about the other character?

What emotion does the protagonist come into the scene with? How does she leave it?

What emotion does the other character come into the scene with? How does he leave it?

What is the turn in the scene -- the moment when something is decided, or revealed? When does something important change in the relationship between the two characters?

What happens in the scene that we did not expect to happen?

What is the moment where we see ourselves, or people we know, in the scene? When we think, oh, God, yes, I have been there? This moment may be comic or tragic; from a structural point of view they're more or less the same thing. 

(My working definition of comedy is tragedy, but you ought to know better, and it's your fault.)

What propels us out of the scene? (Sometimes called the button, especially when it's comedy.)

If your scene answers all of these, or even most of these, it's a pretty great scene. If you're having trouble writing the scene, if it's mushy or it's boring you, if it seems overwrought yet unsatisfying, odds are that you are missing one of the above. 

All writer's tools are for when things are broken. You don't need tools when the characters are having at it in your head and you're just writing down what they're saying to each other. All you need is to trim a bit. But when things are not working, it's often good to take the scene apart and make sure it has all the elements of story. These are, of course:

  1. A character we care about
  2. who has an opportunity, problem, or goal
  3. who faces obstacles, an antagonist, and/or their own personal flaw
  4. who has something to win (stakes)
  5. and something to lose (jeopardy)
You can break a scene just as you break the whole story. What are the notes you want to hit? Put each on an index card and see what order makes the most sense. 

The more you write, the more you internalize these questions. I don't generally plot out a scene. But then, I have been writing scenes for decades. The same goes for an overall script. I outline with index cards, and David E. Kelley can get on the redeye and by the time the plane is landing he has a TV episode. But he's not ignoring these questions; he's just answering them in his head. Until you can answer them in your head, don't be too proud to write them down. 


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Saturday, March 06, 2021

Video games came out of the software industry, which is probably where we get our secretiveness. I'm not really sure why we need to keep secret what we're working on. No one in the movie or tv industries signs an NDA. If there is a specific secret, like what Darth Vader said to Luke on that platform, then people make an effort to restrict the number of people who actually know it. "Three can keep a secret if two of them are dead." But generally no. 

Why? Because most people don't care about unfinished stuff. And most people don't want to read spoilers. TV critics might have early access to WandaVision, but no one wants to read an article explaining what's going on until after the episodes air, so people don't publist those articles. 

Somewhere someone with access to a script might say something on a forum somewhere. It's not going to affect ratings.

The sole place I can see where it makes sense is if you're making a game about a politically hot topic. You might not want Twitter mobs seizing on early drafts, which might still have rough edges or not quite say what you meant to say; or claiming that your game is about something it's not when your game can't speak for itself. 

But here's the thing. Actors are professionals. Why would we trust a 22 year old bro in QA, but not trust a veteran actor who's been the star of multiple AAA games? (Elias is the voice of Adam Jensen in the Deus Ex franchise, among others. He also played the irrepressible, utterly irresponsible Johnny Fenris in our game Contrast. He's terrific.)

I assume it's because some people think actors don't have a need to know. They're just emotion monkeys. You poke them in the right spots and they say the words with the right emotions. 

Obviously, it is insulting to actors, and takes some of the fun out of it. I also think it prevents them from having the confidence to give a surprising read in a scene. Maybe the writer or director does not know everything about the character. Some actors are famous for saying "my character wouldn't do that." Often they are right. Often they have thought through the character they are going to inhabit better than the writer has. 

The writer is prejudiced; we need the plot to go a certain way. Actors are in the moment. They feel their way from one emotion to another. If there's no human connection between moments, they will spot the chasm we writers have glossed over.

There's a story about Jane Fonda on the set of Klute. The director thought she should get upset. So he had the other actor yell at her. And as the character Brie, she went dead calm. What?

Well, explained Fonda, when someone is yelling at Brie, it's not nice but it's not stressful. She knows exactly where she stands. She's not waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The writer and director did not anticipate that. But it was humanly truthful. And more revelatory than her getting upset would have been. It's the way a character acts differently than your average person would act that defines a character.

I want our actors to know who they're playing so they can give me that kind of humanly truthful performance. So I tell them what the story is, and who they're playing, and what the world is like. Not every last detail. But enough to shape their character.

We've never had a leak to the press.

Actors will keep you honest, if you let them. 

Why not tell them who they're playing? 


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Friday, March 05, 2021

Alex:So last question. How do you not overwork yourself?

Kelsey: You tell me. I will say, as much as I loved working on Outer Wilds, Möbius does not need a full time writer. I was only ever part time with them. Like you asked earlier, why my brother and I didn't end up as a designer writer team, and it's just he's employed by a studio that does not need a writer full time.

Outer Wilds started as a passion project. And it kept being a passion project. We were in development for so, so long. What was it like eight years? At the time when I started doing that, even just for fun, let alone professionally, I was still working a day job. It made my day jobs a lot more tolerable because I was getting to do something creative on the side.

Alex: The dreary mundane job you're referring to is The Onion?

Kelsey: It was the Cryogenics Society to begin with. And while it was really cool to get to talk about particle accelerators, at the end of the day, that was very much about the scientific information needed to be conveyed. Not having a creative, whimsical experience, you know, so to go home and work on a game was a lot of fun.

And then at The Onion, I was in editorial operations and there's a fairly strict divide. The writers are who are allowed to create content. I got to head up the Instagram team when it started. We were pulling old stories and repackaging that content. It was fun, but it was not super creatively fulfilling for me.

As an editor you are trying to make the piece better. Remaining in the author's original voice. You cannot insert your own voice. That's rule number one. Right. I've been writing creatively my whole life, just like short stories. And I think I wrote a novel in high school, but nothing published. So then the big shift for me coming into games full time was realizing that [even though games are creative, it is still] a bad idea to rely on that for your sole source of creative fulfillment. At one point working at Insomniac I was trying to put in just everything I had into this game. And I kept getting these chest pains and my partner eventually was like, you have to go check these out. I had to go to the hospital. It ended up just being stress. And there is nothing like the face an E.R. doctor will make at you when he's like, oh, you must have a stressful job? And you're like, I write games.

Oh, I thought this and that moment, honestly, has been one of the biggest for me. I'm not an E.R. doctor. Nobody's life depends on how good this dialog is or how can I revamp this quest to make more logical sense. It's fine. And it's also coming to accept that you are given a set amount of resources and a set amount of time, and it's a business. And your goal is to do the best you can. It is not take it home and obsess over it in all of your free time and try to push all of these new ideas.

Alex: You mentioned not making your job your only source of creative fulfillment. Do you write short stories on the side or... ?

Kelsey: Oh, yeah, I'm working on one now that I might actually -- I've never sent anything around for publishing, and now I'm finally getting around to considering it, now that writing for games is not my hobby anymore. I have time to do other things. Also, I do a ton of hands-on physical crafting. You can see my sewing machine in the background. I just taught myself how to knit in November. I knitted a bunch of hats, now I'm making mittens. That's fun. I do a ton of paper crafting. I stained the desk that I'm sitting at. I've been doing some woodworking. I cartoon, I doodle a lot. I kind of explode creatively sometimes. I'm trying to teach myself some things that will be useful for game dev as well. A little bit of very basic animation or some art assets. I'll never be doing that professionally. But it is a fun thing to be able to do. I'm working on a comic just for fun. I make a lot of things that other people are never going to see. I'm making myself a standup notebook. Bookbinding is really fun.

Alex: I've never had a hobby. I've been told by doctors to have a hobby and I've never, I mean, writing this book about game writing, that's the closest I have to a hobby.

Kelsey: That is kind of my shower time. A lot of people have those aha moments in the shower. My brain works in very particular ways. I have OCD and I tend to obsess over particular ideas and it's really missing the forest for the trees, getting closer and closer to a single tree, being like, tell me your secrets, which is insane. And I know I need to back out of the forest. I am getting closer to that one stupid tree. And if I'm not careful, I'm going to cut it down. So this is using my hands to make something that doesn't require a ton of thought. OK, I'm cutting the paper this size now. We're going to puncture this with the awl. Now we're going to thread it with blah, blah, blah. That's kind of the thing that gets my mind to disengage enough to actually have ideas. The short story that I'm working on right now is something that came up as a result of making this notebook and I had that kind of aha moment. And it's an idea that I've been kind of wrestling with for a long time that I wasn't sure how to commit to paper. And now I think I have kind of an in for it.

Alex: What would you say is the most valuable creative lesson you learned from anything that isn't a game or a TV show or some fictional linear narrative?

Kelsey: So that rules out books.

Alex: Yeah, because obviously you learn a lot about storytelling from books.

Kelsey: I shouldn't tell you how much of a giant nerd I am, but I will.

Alex: We're all nerds. We're in the game industry, for God's sake.

Kelsey: Oh, it's true. But every now and then, I have to dial the enthusiasm back because what it comes across as is intensity. I get really intense.

One of the most rewarding things is when you're working with a dev that does not think that they are really connected to storytelling and they don't see how their discipline would be related. And they're like, well, I don't really have story ideas. And you get to the point through encouragement and chatting and brainstorming and just being interested in their work and finding ways that narrative can support their work in fun and interesting and novel ways to then have them come up to you later and be like, hey, I was thinking about this gameplay mechanic and I think maybe it could tie into this narrative thing. Oh, my God, dude. The first time that happened to me, I heard angels. So that was, sorry, completely off topic. But a thing that happens that I just was overjoyed.

So the thing that -- Empathy, I think. Can I answer that long of a question with one word? I think that's just a life thing, but it is very easy, I think, to assume that you are being empathetic, but it's shockingly difficult to actually get to that point. And I think the more people care about your protagonist or your character, the more that they are allowed to care, the more that they are allowed that space [in which] to be kind of emotionally vulnerable -- really makes one of the greatest impacts on the success or ability of a story.

Alex: I think that's right, and I think that ties back in with why you don't want logic breaking moments. Because, yeah, you will get away with it, but you will also subtract from how much players care about your character. You are chipping away the players connection to the character and at a certain point they stop caring. Like, whatever, I don't trust you, you're just doing whatever you feel like, and I'm just along for the ride and I don't care anymore. So, yeah, I like to define game narrative is just "whatever answers the question, ‘why do I care?’"

Kelsey: Yeah, that's a great way to put it. That's the thing that I get. You know, make me go get your bread for you, sir, but make me care. You can't just tell the player, hey, you should care. And--

Alex: --that's not how that works.

Kelsey: I think we get distracted by what's cool and shiny and oh, look, at this jump, or, look at this item. We're oh, it'll be so cool to have the sequence with these enemies. And I'm like, yeah, but those enemies are all the villagers. Can we not -- should we be killing them?

Alex: There's a powerful sequence in the Witcher series, where Geralt, in the town of Blaviken, is set upon by half of the village. And he kills everybody. Totally righteously, they're trying to kill him. But for the rest of his life he is known as the Butcher of Blaviken. It doesn't make him evil, but it does add weight, credibility to the narrative. Games rarely acknowledge the death toll you leave in your wake. And maybe we would care more if they did, in some cases.

Kelsey: We have to do an amount of convincing people that this is in fact a story that is happening, because a lot of people do not, I think, view games as stories. And I one hundred percent do even from the lens of a player experience.

Kelsey: The thing I was looking for, the answer to your original question, is someone once gave me a piece of advice that was, An artist's number one job is fighting despair. I've talked a lot about joy in these situations--

Alex: So whose despair are we fighting? Our own, or other people's?

Kelsey: I think it was meant to be our own. But I don't know if my despair is necessarily productive to actively battle. So it. It is just the idea of it came at a time where I was really struggling on a particular project and I felt I just was not making any kind of forward progress, and this person told me, you are becoming a better game dev and writer every day, even if it doesn't feel like it. I think there's a lot to be said for that. I'm very impatient. I try really hard. I'm not blessed with patience.

I think acknowledging that you are making progress, even if you're not seeing a lot of it yet. That it does crystallize later. I've learned that some of my ideas just need a little more time in the oven. It's important to be able to to go, OK, I'm going to put this down now and come back to it.

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Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Let's talk about the ending of Outer Wilds. You could interpret the ending as being incredibly hopeful or depressing. Tell me about your thought process in having a tragic ending. I know that you are not fond of the ending of Ico. So there exist tragic endings that are just, you know, irritating. And then there are really dark and satisfying tragic endings.

Screenshot from the game Outer Wilds
Kelsey: Ico is a really pretty game. But I also had that sense of dread the entire game. I mean, I also can't play Ico because I feel too bad for the for the giants. I can't kill them.

Alex: And then also at the end of it, I felt, OK, you're spanking me for doing something you made me do for the past dozen hours?

Kelsey: God, you know, that is why I'm so I'm still so, so mad about the whole Last of Us 2.

Alex: So what are the rules about tragic endings? How do you make a tragic ending work? When do you want a tragic ending?

Kelsey: I think the ending of Outer Wilds is only tragic if you think the story is entirely about you.

Alex: Well, your entire civilization is going to be destroyed.

Kelsey: True. But it was going to be destroyed anyway.

Alex: OK, but you must have had a version where you were going to save everybody that you rejected at some point.

Kelsey: No, no, actually I love that I get to say this, but we never considered having it possible for the player to save the world. And we had to actively work on discouraging people from thinking that that's what they were out to do. Quite difficult when you're fighting against convention there.

Alex: In one of the interviews I thought I heard Alex [Beachum] say that that was the goal in the very first version. Because, right, if the world is ending in your game, then the player saves it.

Kelsey: Originally, this was game about lighthouses and keeping those lit. Like, in space. But I don't recall there ever being a version where we were like, oh yeah, and then you'll stop the supernova. You can't really fight nature in that way.

Alex: What did you feel you had to set up in order to earn satisfaction with an ending where the player's civilization is destroyed?

Kelsey: The player's journey in Outer Wilds closely parallels that of the Nomai. You've gone through and pieced together everything that happened in the past. And there is a point at which you've uncovered the story of what is happening in your solar system now. The ending of the game is the point at which all three of those storylines, player, Nomai and world, all converge upon a single point. And that is the point at which the player can take definitive action to impact all three of those stories in a significant way.

The travelers all have individual, I hesitate to call them story arcs just because almost all of them are impacted by time resetting, but you probably noticed that each traveler has a subject that they care about. For example, Rybeck is that very cowardly, nervous, anxious, comically large character who has fallen down a portion of the planet Brittle Hollow as it's collapsing and is down in the ruins of the Nomai, trying to work up the courage to actually explore them.

And the tragedy of that character, of course, is that they will they will never succeed. And you can go through the world and explore and learn more about the Nomai. And you can go and tell Rybeck about it. They won't remember it from loop to loop. So there's no point. There's not necessarily a character arc. But you can get emotional satisfaction from telling them these things and they're thanking you and they're talking about why this matters to them. It's just a way that you can help this character complete their journey so that when they then appear at the end of the game, you have context for what it is they're telling you and hopefully that dialog is helping contextualize how this story is about more than just you.

Alex: So are you saying that if you're going to have sort of a bittersweet or bitter or downer or non-positive ending, that you need to create setups that are paid off? Or are you saying that you need to have it all mean something in the end? What’s the moral?

Kelsey: I think you need an amount of joy in case of an apocalypse. Because otherwise, it's all depressing. I suppose the thing we want players to click into is that the ultimate tragedy would have been complete nonexistence, and that is kind of banking off everyone's fear of death, obviously. The nature of nonexistence is terrifying, obviously, for a lot of people and I think the idea that you have impacted something in the world can be very soothing, even though ultimately I have to confess to being a bit of a cheerful nihilist. So, you know, how long do you really impact anything? We are giving the player the ability to impact what is about to happen in the universe, right? We try not to talk too much about the ending. And there are differences of opinion just between Alex and me as to what the ending is and what it ultimately means. But you have kickstarted a new universe, right? You have prevented everything in existence from complete ceasing to exist. Essentially, you're a creator God. And you do have to give life to get life, I suppose.

Alex: I guess there are enough Native American and Greek stories where the world is made up of bits of some poor God that got dismembered.

Kelsey: Right. We're a little less literal about it, but from a mythological standpoint, we are fine.

Alex: What sort of games do you play? Are there games that you play for research, games that you play for fun. Are the ones that you play for fun like the games that you make?

Kelsey: Yeah, OK, so this is fun, I've got like four buckets for this. I love games, obviously. I make a lot of time for it. There are games that I do play specifically for research. Like Overwatch. That's the kind of game where I will try to understand the mechanics. And if people are talking about particular aspects of a game, I want to go check those out. I like to be on top of what's going on. Then there are games that I play for fun. I play a ton of indie games. I would say I play more indie games, I played a lot of Don't Starve a while back. Obviously things like Disco Elysium. I'm about to play Knights and Bikes. I've got Tiny Echo on my desktop here that I really want to play I. I also got A Short Hike when that came out. Loved that.

Alex: What did you love about A Short Hike? What was the thing that made it special for you?

Kelsey: God, I think maybe just it felt like it captured what being a kid felt like, OK? I'm picking up these sticks and stones and whatnot because they're cool. I don't necessarily know if I need them, but they could be useful for something. I've got these coins. I'm allowed just the freedom to move around in the environment and how good it feels. I really enjoyed the writing and the characters. I enjoyed the setting. Just there's such a joyfulness about it, even though the main character is actively experiencing some anxiety about a big event. I can't really call it anything else but an inherent sense of joy. It's just a world I really like being in physically.

Alex: It reminded me a little bit of Bastion where there was really nothing groundbreaking about it, just the voiceover was great. And with A Short Hike, too, there's no ground-breaking mechanic, it's just like, OK, well, this is fun to play. I like being here.

Kelsey: I think it is a little innovative because it's making you slow down in a way that games don't ask you to do very often. .

Alex: You haven't been playing Animal Crossing!

Kelsey: Oh no, I we can't talk about that. I accidentally saw how many hours I put into it. And I had to swear my partner to secrecy. And he looked at me with sincerity in his eyes and he's like, Oh, don't worry, that can't be right. Oh my God. That was a devastating blow. I do that knitting and I watch the sky for balloons. That's a couple of hours right there.

Alex: I do that with 4X games. I have a thousand hours in Europa Universalis IV.

Kelsey: That is a separate style of game that I play for fun. I separate games like Tiny Echo and Disco Elysium and Hollow Knight. That's one bucket.

And then there's another one for farming type like Stardew Valley, Animal Crossing, that sort of thing. Maybe the odd Harvest Moon. Or Cryptid the Necromancer I play a fair bit of still. Games that have routines and patterns to them and it feels kind of nice and familiar to play them. Tiny echo has a lot of those really tiny character moments that I really like. If you've played Night in the Woods, that's one of my absolute favorite games and it tackles some very heavy subjects. But it doesn't get completely weighed down with them because there's still joy in that world. We're all really into meaningful choice. And there's this moment where you have the option to push a slice of pizza to your friend who can't quite reach it, and if you don't do it, all that happens is he doesn't get the piece of pizza. Like there's literally no impact to the game whatsoever beyond just he does not eat an additional piece of pizza. But if you push it to him, he'll take it. And there's a little bubble that shows up quietly. That's like, Thanks. And I think that's brilliant. I love that. That's what I mean we love reactivity. But I think sometimes we look either too big or too like, oh, what's cost effective. Oh, we want to reward them for having done that first and like the responsiveness of it. And sometimes I don't need that. Sometimes all I want is to have an interesting interaction with a character. And that, by the way, is something I think Obsidian does really well, especially for having so many different writers. The way I approach creating interesting player moments in, say, a dialog is going to be different from what any other, narrative designer is going to. And I love that this studio does embrace that. So sometimes it does frustrate me a little that it's not as wildly innovative to work on a bigger game as it can be for a very small thing. But that's kind of the nature of game dev, right?

Alex: When you've got 200 people on staff, right, you've got a burn rate. And the amount of money you have to make for the studio not to collapse is pretty high. There are risks you can't take.

Kelsey: But the flip side is, going way back to the beginning when you asked me why I ended up working at a triple-A studio. Obsidian has been wonderful about, within reason, letting me throw these ideas out. They tend to have to be a little smaller scale. And some of it is also just building a rapport with a new studio as well, because I'm a little bit of an unknown quantity.

Alex: OK, but you also come in, again, having written a hit game. If you bring in an idea, folks should probably listen to it, eh?

Kelsey: [Does not seem to disagree.]

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