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


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Friday, February 25, 2022

I continue my conversation with Rhianna Pratchett: 


Alex: We were talking about what stories games do that you can't do as well in other media. One thought that occurred to me was what games can do is make the player complicit in something.

I’m thinking of Far Cry 3 where this naïve tourist kid gets harder and harder until he has a flamethrower and starts blasting everything. He's like, whoa, this is awesome. I love it. And as a player you’re thinking, I’m turning into a little bit of a monster, aren’t I? We've made you complicit because you did that, you didn’t just watch it happen. And the white phosphorus mission in Spec Ops: The Line. And to a lesser extent, The Last of Us, the final decision that Joel makes, we make you complicit in these things. (Though not as complicit as if the game let you make that choice.) Whereas if you're just in a movie, you're just watching.

Rhianna: I think detective games work really well. The actors solving and searching and rummaging up clues yourself.

Alex: That's a great example, because with detective stories and movies, you know that if you just sit back, it'll get solved. When I read an Agatha Christie novel, for example, I don't have a note pad, I’m not writing down, “Sally was in the study from 2 to 5.”

Whereas in a detective game or a detective mission in a game, you really have to look at all the clues and think, Oh my God, what's this all mean?

It really forces you to have that experience. If you're in LA Noire or a game where you really do have to at least put together some of the clues yourself. It puts you more in the frame of mind of the puzzle solver.

Rhianna: It's interesting what you were saying about complicity as well because I think the Far Cry games are very good in that.

With Far Cry 4, I really enjoyed 4, but I could never finish it because I was being forced to be complicit with one or other monster, and then I was just like, no, no, my decision is to not choose. I found it a bit annoying that game was forcing me to do that. So I just opted out of doing it.

Alex: And same thing with The Last of Us 2. I mean, I'm killing all these people who really don’t have it coming. I can't kill all these people.

Rhianna: I haven't played The Last of Us 2. It came out during the middle of the pandemic. I knew there was dog killing. I didn't want to do that. I just felt like the world was dark enough.

Alex: That is the hilarious thing about gamers, right? Gamers will kill 100 guards who have mothers and wives and children, but if you have to kill a dog, I'm putting the controller down. I'm done.

Rhianna: There’s a whole website devoted to people that can't cope with that in a movie, the Does the Dog Die? website. It's not just about animal killing now. It's all these things that might be uncomfortable watching for people.

Alex: Triggers.

Rhianna: The Bioshocks were very interesting in there, the harvesting and not harvesting of Little Sisters. Although it was a very obviously good or obviously evil choice and I could not. I think some players found it somewhat offensive that the game was trying to get you to kill a child. And I never harvested a Little Sister, not even to see what it was like. I just couldn't.

Alex: That’s the positive side of complicity. If the game can offer you a choice, you can feel good about it. We gave you the chance to do it and you turned your back on it. So you can really feel like a hero because you weren't forced to do the right thing.

Rhianna: Bioshock 2 actually is built on a mantra: “By the time we understand our legacy, it's too late.” You're making choices and your daughter is learning from those choices. And then those choices inform how she treats her mother towards the end of the game. So you're complicit to whole different level because there's another character learning from you. It’s not a very subtle metaphor, your child may be learning from your mistakes.

Alex: The best metaphors are not subtle. The best hit you over the head! That’s sort of the purpose of science fiction and fantasy.

Mac and cheese games

Rhianna: The Bioshocks are also games that I like to replay. I have a lot of games, I call them cozy blanket games. I will often prefer to replay an old game that try a new game. There's a sweet spot in an old game.

Alex: When you make a mac and cheese, you know exactly what you're gonna get. It's not going to be surprising. But on the other hand, it's going to be creamy. So when you have a game where you know the game loop by heart, it’s still going to give you those dopamine hits.

Rhianna: And you’re feeling good at it, whereas when you play a new game you’re feeling shit and not knowing what you're doing and learning everything again. And sometimes you're just not in the mood to learn something.

Alex: There’s a certain mental toll.

Rhianna: I’m always very proud of myself when I try a new game, especially if I managed to finish it as well. Like the last game I remember picking up on the day it came out and starting it on the day it came out was Unavowed by Wadjet Eye Games. I really enjoyed that. I hadn't played a click and point adventure of that style for a long time and I thought they did a great job.

Unpacking as well was really nice. I could have done with it being a bit longer, but it was just a satisfying experience as a player.

Alex: That's really moving. That was a really moving game.

Pull vs. push narrative

Rhianna: That really increases the discussion about environmental narrative and how to use objects and space to tell a story and I think that's one thing that games can do really well is tell a story through nontraditional means. So.

Rhianna: Yeah, Virginia just uses gestures. Limbo uses artwork and level design. And obviously every medium uses environmental narrative to a degree. But in games, because the player can poke around in every corner of the world if they wish to, the real estate for environmental narrative is huge. You can use so much of the world to tell this story. I think the first Bioshock is a really good closed world example. Unpacking as well through its use of objects and being able to place those objects or not, you work out the characters through the things they own. It's just lovely. And I think that's something games can do very well.

Alex: Games do non-linear story well. With Unpacking, you're are putting the story together. The game doesn't tell you flat out, here’s what happened. But then when you open one of the boxes and you pull something out, you go, oh, I see what happened.

Rhianna: Again, there's probably a German word about this. When you work out the narrative of the story without the game bashing you over the head with it, I think that's very satisfying.

Alex: Because you pulled it out of the game instead of having it pushed at you.

Rhianna: Pull and push narrative, I think it's very important in games that to have that.

With the Bioshock games, players who like to poke around in the corners might find different audio diaries. They might find, you know, a little ghost scenario here. And they may learn more about the world and it feels more personal to them because they've discovered it in the corners. Actively pulling narrative towards you rather have it pushed out by the developers, is very satisfying. And again it ties into how important environmental narrative is, and how much writers need to be involved early. We know how to tell a story without words as well, despite the fact we do the word bits. We understand what goes on behind them.

Emergent Narrative?

Alex: I've seen a bunch of games presented as having emergent narrative. I'm not really sure what it is. Do you know?

Rhianna: Which games have you heard about talked about?

Alex: Oh, you know, Pendragon, for example, was touted as a game with emergent narrative. Wildermyth.

When we talk about emergent gameplay, the idea is we create all these systems and then the players discover new capabilities within that. So in Zelda you discover that if you do this and this and this now you're in a balloon floating over a mountain.

Or rocket jumping in shooters.

It seems to me like you could have emergent narrative. But what I'm seeing advertised as emergent narrative isn't particularly systemic. So I'm not clear what it is.

Rhianna: If it feels like it’s a way of expressing more personalized narratives. That the narrative is at a more granular level around what you do, what you say in the choices that you make so that. You can play the game two different ways.

But it's still narrative that someone has had to write. Someone has thought about all the different permutations that could happen based on the choices and the actions that you make and is sort of spinning that to create a story that feels more personal.

It feels like it would have to be more akin to interactive theatre. You're dealing with the audience moving through the actors’ space and you don't know how they're going to react to things. And the actors have to react. Emergent narrative is trying to replicate that.

Alex: It seems to me that you could make emergent narrative. But I think it would be extremely difficult. Say the player can hit different bits of narrative in different order. So if a guy has an argument with his wife, that’s one bit, and he cheats on his wife is another. If you say he cheats on his wife and then has an argument, that’s one story. If he has an argument and then cheats, that’s a different story. They mean different things because they happen in different order.

One is saying, Oh well, you know, he was mad at her about the argument. So he decided to hurt her by cheating. And then the other one is, they're arguing about the cheating.

But to create a whole bunch of storylets so that you could tell a multitude of stories by hitting them in a number of different orders, that seems to me very high order of difficulty.

Rhianna: And there's potentially a lot of wasted material as well.

Alex: The company I work for has a deep dread of any content that the player will not, for sure, guaranteed, hit.

Rhianna: I think the challenge is to make it feel like there may be other choices to be made and other things to explore that aren't necessarily there, but it generates that feeling.

Alex: The illusion of player agency.

Who finishes games?

Rhianna: So many players don't reach the end of games.

Alex: Which takes us back to games journalism. Games journalists will complete a game. And most players will not complete the game. So we are making a good deal of the later game for the game journalists, aren’t we.

Rhianna: I think that's why episodic games are interesting, because you can be pretty sure that both players and game journalists are going to reach the end of it. I think we’ll see more of these bite size chunks of narrative. That's how The Long Dark works. They've had four episodes and each one has sort of five or six hours of gameplay. They're always very finishable.

But I would not hand on heart say that every game journalist has finished every game that they have reviewed. You normally have a very tight deadline. And if you played through half the game, the game should have shown you like a lot of what it can do. You only have to play enough so you feel you can write an honest review.

It's funny. I don't tend to play the very long open world games apart from The Long Dark where I'm just living in a cave, eating a bear for ages and ages.

I do like that games are getting more bite size. And I do like the episodic model a lot. I think games are turning toward TV for inspiration. We are in the Golden Age of TV, just diversity across the board in all spectrums. And I think games are starting to think about how they can do similar things. When I started out the indie scene was pretty nonexistent. There was obviously very little mobile gaming content and that's that's flourished. All those different avenues lend themselves to different types of stories and whether they're huge, lengthy Red Dead Redemption 2's or they’re smaller Animal Crossings, the platforms and the mediums have also changed the way we tell stories and the types of stories we tell for the good. I think there's much more diversity of stories on offer. But yeah, that still doesn't stop me going back to my cozy blanket games and replaying Dungeon Keeper 2 for the millionth billionth time. That doesn't really have much of a story, but it does have humor.

Alex: You make the story by playing it.

Rhianna: Cool. Yeah. Yeah. And I think a lot of that goes for The Long Dark as well. I'm pretty sure I'm telling myself a story there. It's usually very dull one as I'm going along and you know, there's Ghost Dad in my head doing his commentary as well.

I think I like being fairly expert at it now and being able to help people who get stuck because I know how hard it is. And I never thought this would happen, but I would never get expert in the game. Yeah, that's terrible coming for a games journalist.

But what games can you say that you are expert in?

In which we talk about Alex’s own game habits

Alex: I guess some of the Total War games. Three Kingdoms. Medieval 2: Total War. Into the Breach. Europa Universalis, which I've probably spent 1000 hours on, aggrandizing the Kingdom of Bohemia till it stretched from from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Rhianna: Boom.

Alex: And then Crusader Kings II. I'm not really allowed to play that anymore.

Rhianna: There's a lot of marrying off your children.

Alex: The classic Crusader Kings joke is, “My daughter wanted to be treated like a princess. So I married her to France for an alliance.”

Rhianna: You like your games fiddly and intricate.

Alex: One-more-turn games. CK2 is very fiddly. It’s about mastery of the systems. As you say, feeling like you're an expert in this.

But then, wow, the amount of time that I fall into them and then I realized that I've burned 200 hours and I’m thinking, what could I have written in 200 hours? I do play story games.

Rhianna: What's your favorite? What's the last favorite story game you played?

Alex: The last really satisfying story game, maybe Black Book? You’re a witch in Slavic folklore and your boyfriend has died. And you’re having none of that. So you are set on doing some unwise things to bring him back. It’s a deck builder.

Rhianna: Right.

Alex: And you’re fighting all sorts of Slavic demons, chorts and things.

Rhianna: I'm seeing more Slavic mythology and Eastern European mythology coming out in games recently. There was another survival game, but you play as a witch. [Goes on Steam] There’s something called Skin which looks terrifying.

Alex: Oh dear.

Rhianna: [Looking on Steam] It just keeps giving me the Blair Witch game.

Alex: Oh, Return of the Obra Dinn. It’s a puzzle game, sort of. You have to figure out how all sixty people on a ship died. And they each died in spectacular ways. So you have to figure out what the story was that happened.

Rhianna: Yeah, I I played a little bit of that. I really liked Papers, Please, which was their previous game.

Alex: Papers, Please was another great example of putting you in a complicit situation and letting you feel what it’s like. The situation will not allow you to be righteous. It really enlightens you. It's easy to judge people who are not righteous but we have the comfort to be righteous.

Rhianna: Yeah, I haven't thought about that game for awhile, but it really affected me.

Alex: And Disco Elysium.

Rhianna: Oh yeah, I played a little bit of that. I enjoyed the writing and characterization in that.

Alex: They went back and fully voiced everything. If you update your game then you will discover that all the things that were just text now have voices.

Rhianna: I'm trying to think if there's any other games I’m expert at. I mean, I was probably quite a decent level in World of Warcraft. At some point I was fairly decent in Age of Mythology. I was obsessed with Age of Mythology at one point, playing it online. I would play it, get obsessed, feel that I just needed to break free of it, and I would break the disk. And then six months later, the same thing would happen again.

I did that with Stronghold. I bought Stronghold three or four times.

Rhianna: Sometimes when I die in The Long Dark, it feels like there's a freedom to it. Because if you die, it's a game over. Your whole game is wiped. Freedom is when you stop playing the game, when you can just do something else, but it just.

I know I'm going to go in after this conversation, and I know there's a bear that's died up a tree randomly. I thought, well, I'll sort that bear out after I've spoken to Alex and now I'll have loads of plans for the game. After that I'm gonna eat the bear and that's gonna take me like 2 weeks to eat my way through the bear....

Alex: I better let you get on that. It was lovely talking to you.

Rhianna: And you.


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Thursday, February 24, 2022

Rhianna Pratchett is a veteran games writer, journalist, screenwriter, and comics writer. She is known for her work on
Heavenly Sword, Overlord, Mirror’s Edge, Tomb Raider, Rise of the Tomb Raider and Lost Words. We chatted for, like, three hours, and covered a lot of ground.

On what she’s up to:

Alex: What are you in the middle of now? What do you do in a day?

Rhianna: I've come off a recent big deadline and that was guest preproduction work. Things like setting out the beats of the story and characters and level ideas. That was quite intensive. I've been catching up on other bits and pieces.

I don't know what it's been like for you during COVID, but I lost a couple of big [non-game] projects near the start. I've had more game projects since then and more probably more unusual projects like doing a story for Surgeon Simulator 2 and writing a fighting fantasy book and writing a tabletop role playing game and things like that.

I don't have a specific day. I'm not that good at setting my own deadlines. I'm fine if other people set deadlines, but I've sort of fallen into The Long Dark, which sounds like a euphemism for depression, but I'm just talking about the hinterlands game. I feel like I’ve moved on to expert level with it. And I don't think I've ever been expert level in a game.

In which we digress into The Long Dark and the eating of bears

Alex: How does that game make you feel? What is the experience?

Rhianna: My dad and I used to game a lot. I would sit next to him and watch him. Or I would draw the maps for him. But we never played wilderness survival games because back then they didn’t exist. But we used to walk around the Somerset countryside. Dad would show me all the plants that were edible. Funguses, berries, that sort of thing. And I always used to read a lot of books about kids being lost in the wilderness. I think I always slightly fantasized about getting lost in the woods and having to survive, and I had all this knowledge.

So we used to walk a lot and I’d be naming flowers and plants and all sorts of things. That's where I feel him most. Like I can hear his comments in my head, and I think, oh, Dad would have liked that moment. And so The Long Dark is something Dad would have enjoyed.

I like Among Trees as well. Don’t Starve, which is a very different vibe. The Forest, though it’s so much scarier than The Long Dark because it has screeching cannibals.

I'm now in a run in The Long Dark where I've survived for over a year [of game time] on the hardest difficulty and it’s become Zen. I’m so expert playing it I can listen to audiobooks. And at the moment, I'm just living in a cave, eating meat and passing time. I killed a bear just before this call, which I guess you don't get many of your interviewees saying. So I'm gonna harvest the bear a bit later and then I'll get a load of meat and I'll have to stay in the cave for longer just to eat the meat and make the days pass because I'm trying to see how long I can survive. I want to try and survive for 500 days.

Alex: It sounds like that's a fair amount of your day.

Rhianna: It has been a little bit at the moment, but it's more one of those I dive in and out of. I'm the kind of writer that likes have different things going on. So yeah, I'll start the day with a strategy game and that helps get my brain firing, 5 to 20 minutes while I'm having a coffee. Write for a bit, go through emails and then I'll play The Long Dark.

On whether writers avoid story games

Alex: Do you think a lot of game writers play everything but story games? Personally, I get sucked into 4X games – Total War, paint-the-map games. I'm the King of Bohemia and I'm going to take over Europe.

Rhianna: You don’t necessarily gravitate towards story games because it's your work.

Alex: You start thinking, “Well, I wouldn't have done it that way.”

Rhianna: Actually I did play the story mode of all the Long Dark episodes. I really enjoyed them. And I gravitate towards some of the areas where I spent a long time in this story mode.

On Rhianna’s many projects

I'm waiting for a personal project with my company Narrativia to be pitched, and that should be happening in the next couple of months. I own the multimedia rights to my dad’s work. And I don't know the form it's going to take, but that could dictate a lot of my time for the next up to 10 years.

In the meantime, I'm doing more consultancy work. Developers reaching out to writers in pre production, take a look at their story and character doc. I feel that's one area where I've got a lot to give. I've got some smaller games. Some comic work upcoming. I've got a little story in Women of Marvel with Shanna the She-Devil and Silver Sable, and that's been fun.

On Rhianna’s experience as a games journalist back in the day

Alex: Have you ever gone to a regular game job where you show up in an office?

Rhianna: No. Well, I used to work for PC Zone magazine. My first fortnight I played a 24-hour Cossacks tournament and then went to Dallas with the #1 and #2 British Quake 3 players. I spent a lot of time going around the world meeting developers and looking at how the sausage is made. And I think that was very good grounding.

Alex: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about your experience as a games journalist. How does it inform your writing?

Rhianna: As a journalist, I would tend to get the smaller games, like the guys would always be competing for the big first person shooters. So that left some of the smaller games for me. I ended up doing some of the more unusual games, always looking for little gems, things that would make me laugh, things that would make me think.

On A Tale in the Desert

I still bring up in conversation this MMO I played called A Tale in the Desert. I think a handful of people know about it. It's still going. And I originally covered it in PC Zone. You live and work in ancient Egypt, and you go from making bricks to building pyramids. And it was great, the way the players took to the game mechanics and created their own way of gaming the system. You could make meals in the game and every time you made a meal with new ingredients, you got perception points. Some very clever players created the Nile River Cafe which was a bunch of kitchens, all with a different meal. You brought them carrots, camel milk, honey, that sort of thing. And you all got your perception points up.

A lot of the challenges in the game were focused around the 7 Tests of Man. Every player is born into the game with their own acrobatic move. And every player has a teacher pupil relationship to each other. You could demonstrate your move to another player. And again, the players found masters in every single move, and they staggered them across the desert so you could run and do your move to every master and they would teach you a little bit. And it was so clever.

I've never seen anything like in in an MMO, it was so community focused and the players had made it that way.

Alex: Emergent gameplay.

Rhianna: Right. What was the original question?

Alex: How did your experience in games journalism inform your writing?

It’s the little things that give you creative freedom

Rhianna: I'd always be looking at the things that I thought were creative, would make me laugh. And so that's created a sense in me of what a reviewer might like.

Alex: So does that liberate you to just go off on a toot because you would have enjoyed a game that went off on a toot?

Rhianna: It depends on the flexibility I've got within the team. In more indie games I have more of a voice. Something like Lost Words, I was in very early and I helped develop the design side of as well as the narrative. I made it more of a personal story and drew upon my own experiences of loss of, particularly, grandparents. I could put my own anecdotes of life with my grandmother.

We've all had those situations, particularly when writing barks, when it's just a job. I like writing barks myself. But in smaller games you can bring more of yourself to the table.

With bigger games you tend to live around the edges more, particularly secondary narrative. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, 2015, I think we [writers] enjoyed the secondary narrative more than anything else. Because it didn't go through a committee. I incorporated my father's memory of the night I was born into a letter from Lara’s father, because it was a memory my dad said, in the interview, he didn't want to lose. So I kind of immortalized it.

We knew going into Tomb Raider how much time we had to tell the story. It’s working backwards, we had all the characters, but not the story, and only a limited amount of space to fold it into. But I think that if you can deliver a perfect little nugget of characterization, that really resonates with players, particularly because they may not be expecting it

There are moments in Tomb Raider where Lara is struggling with the truth of what she's discovering and the fact that she can't look to others to save her. She has to save herself. And a lot of what we were doing was diving into where the hero meets the human. What is it like to be the one that has to save everyone else and to take the blame if you can't save anyone? So some of the movements when Lara breaks down, I think resonated with a lot of players and when she pulls herself up again as well.

So it's landing little bits like that. And I still remember my favorite line that occasionally players mention, was just like a walk and talk with Whitman, who is the other archaeologist on the trip. And they're talking about the legend of Himiko and her powers. And Lara says, “a woman gets that much power, sooner or later, they call it witchcraft.” I had to fight to keep that one.

Alex: It's a great line.

Rhianna: Oh, some quarters thought it was too stridently feminist?

Alex: It defines her character very well.

Rhianna: That's living in the margins of AAA as a writer. Sometimes we get the line across you really like. A nice anecdote about my grandmother dropping yogurts in Waitrose that they merged into Lost Words.

But yeah, if you do a lot of secondary narrative, you get your voice across, but when you're a freelance writer and you're not embedded in the team it's somewhat of story by committee. On Rise [of the Tomb Raider], we opened up the script very early on to feedback and it was brutal, just the quantity of the feedback and all the different places it was coming from. From Microsoft, from Square Enix, from inside the team, from external consultants, and it was all contradictory and it was all based on an early draft and lots of people who didn't necessarily understand storytelling or couldn’t really look at a scene and envisage what that's gonna look like in the game.

Alex: Almost no one can read an outline except writers.

Rhianna: Even getting some people to read is quite difficult. I still pepper my documents with pictures just to break up the text to make it more friendly for people.


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Tuesday, February 08, 2022

Mary Kenney is a veteran games writer who has written on Marvel’s Wolverine, Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, and The Walking Dead: The Final Season, among other games. Profiled in Forbes’s 30 Under 30 in 2020, she also teaches and writes books and comics. She kindly agreed to an interview.

Alex: You studied journalism and psychology at university?

Mary: Yeah, I went to Indiana University. They didn't have a game design program yet. I majored in journalism. I minored in psych. Then I was a working journalist for about 2 1/2 years before I went to grad school.

Alex: What do you think that brings to your writing?

Mary: Definitely an attention to detail.

I think it helped me get a good sense of the distinct ways that people speak. I wrote stories in India and Florida and California and New York. That’s really helpful in game writing, 'cause you write so much dialogue from different people. Also I think having a good sense of how to hook somebody into a story and then pace it so they don't drop off. I did long form journalism, like 5000 words, and that gave me that sense of making sure somebody's interested at all times.

Alex: Talking about keeping people hooked: theoretically, video games should be always emotionally involving because the player is the player character. But games don't always succeed at that. What do you think is the most important thing for keeping a video game story emotionally involving? And when it doesn't succeed, what's missing, typically?

Mary: I think it's a connection with other characters or even the main character. You often have a problem of a main character who is pretty blank on purpose, so that the player can project onto them. Which is fine, but in that case they need other characters to latch onto and bond with and talk with, to stay emotionally invested. Worrying about those people, caring about those people, wanting to see what happens next to those people.

If you do have a main character who doesn't need to be blank, then don't make them blank. I see that happen all the time where you're playing a single player game, with a strong central linear narrative, and they still wrote the protagonist [without a personality]. Why? I already know this person is not me. Make this person a character with a strong personality that I find interesting.

Alex: I have no trouble identifying with a main character who’s compelling and distinct. I don’t need the player character to be a blank. I mean, we watch movies and identify with a specific character all the time.

Mary: But sometimes games still go the blank route. I think that can really hamper the player’s ability to get invested in the story.

And this is something I talked about when I was interviewing at Insomniac because I think the first Spider-Man game did the opposite of what I'm talking about. They did such a good job of, like, Peter Parker isn't me, but he's someone I care about and relate to. Plus swinging is awesome. I want to see what happens to him next, right?

Alex: So for something like Miles Morales, or Wolverine, how does the story get developed? Those are obviously intellectual properties that Marvel protects fiercely.

Mary: I've always worked in IPs [intellectual properties]; even at Telltale I was on Batman: The Enemy Within. So for me it's kind of the norm. So first the team gets a really good handle on the character. What does this character represent? What is their moral compass? What kind of themes do we usually see in their stories?

In my opinion, the biggest difference is the amount of research you have to do. But even before Telltale, I worked on a historical fiction game. It's still just research. Either I'm looking up 6th Century Vikings or I'm reading all of the Spider-Man comics.

Alex: To get back to blank characters, how do we get the player invested in them? Is it their relationships with other characters? Is it just that NPCs seem to care about our character, so we are primed to do so too? What triggers a human response of, “I care what happens to this character.”

Mary: I think it's a mixture of both. The player needs to care about them -- that doesn't necessarily mean like them, hating someone works too, but we need to have an emotional response. But then that needs to be expressed through the gameplay. You need something, a dialog wheel, or through combat. In Hades, being able to give the NPCs gifts. Being able to lean into the way I'm feeling about other characters will help me stay more emotionally invested in my own character.

Alex: You might have conditional dialogue, even though it's not affecting the story, but it allows the player to decide how they feel about the person they’re talking to.

Mary: I love conditional dialogue. I want to use it forever and always. Letting the game acknowledge that you have feelings. Versus, like, the player character is charging ahead regardless. I also think sliding scales of relationships can be helpful.

Alex: Let’s talk about the illusion of player agency. How do you sucker the player into feeling that they have agency even though it's a linear narrative and they don't actually have agency?

Mary: I think it's different for every player and that's why it's difficult to just say they have agency or not, because for some players it's going to be about upgrading my loot, getting new armor; and for other people it's going to be building relationships with other characters. And for other people it's going to be making choices that lead to one of 12 endings. Every player sees their agency differently. So the short answer is, as often as possible, put the story beats into gameplay.

Let's say I'm still at Telltale. If there's a tricky conversation, it has to be on a dialogue wheel.

If we need to have a tricky, heartfelt conversation, can we have that conversation over combat? Can we do it while I'm doing something else? Can we express this using our mechanics, not just in cinematics? Although they are also great and have their place.

Alex: What are some stories that only games could tell and why? Games that you played where you're like, OK, that really that could only have been a game and it really did something special because it's a game.

Mary: The first answer that comes to mind, and I know it's pretty popular one, but I stand by it, is The Last of Us. It really hit me because of the way they told the story through the mechanics. You know, the ways in which you call on Ellie for help, and switching to Ellie, all of these things that they did mechanically that make you empathize with the characters. And the other answer that comes to mind is Hades. Because my goodness does that story lean in so hard into its genre, it's so great. I've never enjoyed a roguelike in my life until that game, and I was suddenly like this, this is awesome. I think any game where the storytelling really supports and leans into the mechanics. I'm not saying that story shouldn't be early in the development process. It absolutely should. But when those two things work together, it feels so much better. It has to be a video game.

Alex: What, specifically about the way that the mechanics relate to the story in Hades?

Mary: His whole story is about trying to escape, and you're playing through repeatable loops trying to escape Hell. It just works perfectly, like you understand the player character’s frustration and his desperation because you're feeling it too, because you've tried to get out of Elysium 12 times.

Alex: You teach narrative design?

Mary: I taught narrative design at Indiana University last semester. I'm not teaching this semester.

Alex: How do you manage that with a full-time job?

Mary: The good thing about having kind of flexible hours with Insomniac is on the days I was teaching I could just get into work earlier, so I taught my class from 3:30 to 5:30 two days a week. Those days I would start work at 7 in the morning at Insomniac. Get all my stuff done for the day and then sign off. And prepping and grading and all that fun stuff, either after work or weekends.

Alex: What would you say were your students’ worst preconceptions coming in? And what was the most important thing for them to take away?

Mary: It’s going to sound a little pat but I think it's true: I don't think they realized how much writing they would have to do. I think they had the idea that oh, I'll just throw out ideas for games and ideas for mechanics and ideas for scenes. But when it came time to turn their outline into scene work, make a gameplay script, they were kind of like, “What? Why would I want to do that?”

Alex: It’s funny because at Compulsion, I’ve had the opposite misconception, where people are asking, “How long will it take you to write all the dialog.” But the dialog is not the hard thing. The hard thing is, what are five objects I can put in this room to tell the story of what happened here. That could take all day, and what you turn in is just a list of five items. To me, that’s what takes the time. Dialog, just put the two characters in the room and let them argue with each other

Mary: Yeah no, I think that's spot on, 'cause people I've worked with have been like oh, writers are just there to fulfill dialogue requests. We [designers] will have all the ideas and you'll just make it good with your dialogue. And dialog is not going to solve every story problem on planet Earth.

But with a lot of people who haven't been in the industry at all, the idea is oh, writers get to have all the ideas and no. No, no. No, we don’t. We get to have some of the ideas, and pitch things alongside other departments, but we don’t do it solo

I think the biggest takeaway for my students was how important rewriting is. We rewrote a lot in that class. They’d hand in first drafts, I would give them extensive feedback, and then they had like 4 days to make revisions. Learning to be constantly revising and making it better.

Alex: Writing is rewriting.

Mary: Right, yeah, exactly.

Alex: Talking about rewriting, when you get notes that you might disagree with, do you have strategies for dealing with them? What are the tips and tricks?

Mary: The first thing to do is ask for clarity.

Did the person say exactly what they meant, or was it phrased in an unclear way, and they meant something else? If it turns out, yes, this is what the note means and I still disagree with it, my usual method, I take a walk and think.

I give myself a little time to think it through. And then I can go to design leads and art leads and creative director and other writers and lead writer and say, hey I got this note I don't agree with it. Do you see merit in it? And maybe they do, and maybe they don't, and we figure out the solution together.

Typically, in my experience, the notes I don't agree with, there's something behind the note that is probably a good note, but maybe the solution they proposed isn't going to work. So OK, we set aside the proposed solution and get to, what are they not getting, or what’s not hitting correctly? What's missing? And then we can find the actual solution that will work for everybody.

Alex: I should ask you the flip side. What are your tips and tricks for giving notes?

Mary: The way I do it, when I'm reading through a script, I read through the whole script and jot down all my notes as I go. Just kind of the first blush notes. Then I go back, and I usually delete about a third of my notes, because maybe I was being too nitpicky. Nobody needs all this. And then I go back up to the top of the script or outline or whatever, and I give my overall feedback. My overall feedback always opens with all of the things I liked. Here's all the stuff that you just, you nailed it. You knocked it out the park. That’s important, because if you don't tell the people the things that you like, they could cut all of the great things while they're hitting all your other notes.

Then, in the overall feedback, here are some things that I either wasn't understanding or wasn't feeling emotionally, and then my line notes are below. I think it's really important no matter the level of experience of the person you're talking to, to remind them that I'm here to help you make your work better. I'm not tearing apart your thing because that gives me my jollies, I want to help you make this as good as it can be.

Alex: I I notice also that you're saying I'm confused. I'm not feeling it. Your personal reaction, as opposed to, This is confusing or there’s no feeling here.

Mary: Yes. What we do is very subjective. Someone sitting next to me might have a different reaction. You give 12 writers with the same amount of experience and same, I don't know, gravitas in the industry, the same script, and they'll all give different notes.

Alex: You also write comics and tv pitches, and on top of that, you have also written a book, Gamer Girls, which is coming out from Hachette. It’s mini-biographies of twenty-five women who have had stellar careers in games. Obviously they faced some barriers. What would you say is the common thread of how the very successful women in your book surmounted those barriers?

Mary: First of all, we hear about the barriers constantly. There are articles about harassment and sexism, and there should be. We need to report on these things so that they will stop.

But part of my goal in the book was to say: that's not all there is. There are a lot of women who work in this industry who love it. Some of them have had to leave studios or leave toxic cultures, but they're still in the industry, and they have found places that are good, and they have found success.

I didn’t just want to write a book that was like hey, everything is hard and terrible, but if you grit your teeth, you’ll get there.

The idea for the book came out of, I was speaking to a coding camp for young women in high school, and all of their questions for me boiled down to, how have they not driven you out yet? All we hear about is Gamergate and all these sexist, horrible people.

I wanted to write a book about the good parts. Women who got to work on that they love. They got to be passionate. Their colleagues did praise them. Their colleagues did support them. I certainly don't want to minimize all the horrible things that have happened to marginalized people in this industry. But at the same time, it’s not all a trash fire.

Alex: And we’re certainly not going to get more women in the industry if we start by telling them it’s a horror show.

Mary: I really don’t think it is, either. I love my colleagues, and I love my work. And that's also part of the story. So, that’s the book. Now to answer your question, what are some of the things that women have overcome?

Everybody has a unique story ‘cause it’s also spread out over – one of the chapters is about a woman who worked in the 60s, and others are in the ‘80s and‘'90s.

But the biggest common thread is that when women started speaking up, saying why aren't there more women at this company? Why aren't we designing games for women? Why aren't we ever considering that the player might be a woman? That’s when they started to get the cold shoulder from their colleagues.

How they overcame it was by finding allies who would help them. Who would speak up for them. Finding other women, creating safe spaces and groups where women could come together and speak about these topics without fearing reprisal. So, it’s not just any individual working to make a better community. It is communities coming together to make the industry better.

Alex: So what keeps women in games? What kind of environment?

Mary: It’s what keeps anybody in games: being respected and treated like a professional. And the way to drive out anybody is to not do those things. I think that the extra thing to consider, let's say if you're a manager, is, when a woman on your team is talked down to or is noted to death or whatever, in addition to all of the questions that anybody would ask themselves, they also have to wonder, Is it because I'm a woman? That’s true of any marginalized group when your leadership is homogenous: they’re asking, is this how feedback happens at this studio, or am I being treated differently and singled out because I’m different? And that's an extra stressor.

Women tend to stay in studios with more women. They tend to go to studios with more women in leadership. You can’t just recruit diversely in entry-level positions: you have to look for ways to fill your senior positions with diverse talent, too.

Who's in the room when you're interviewing? If I’m interviewing with nine people, and they’re all middle-aged white dudes, I ask myself, is that the only type of person who gets promoted at this company? Now, I’ll ask that question of the interviewers. I didn’t when I was young because I was too nervous.

One of the reasons I decided to go to Insomniac was, there was a woman in my interview, and I could ask her, Hey, what's it like? How do people treat you?

Alex: Would you say that you have a significant social media presence?

Mary: (Laughing.) Yeah, yeah.

Alex: Would you call it just an outlet? Is it a strategy? Is it a necessary strategy?

Mary: The only thing I use regularly is Twitter. I had it as a journalist, and I got the blue checkmark, and I kept it as a game developer because it turns out, luckily enough, that a lot of game developers are on Twitter.

I like it. I like getting to meet and talk to people I otherwise wouldn't get to. I guess the strategy part is, I've gotten several writing contracts through Twitter. I met my book agent through Twitter. I've met a lot of people in my career, as well. I found several job postings on Twitter. Being in the social media space where your industry tends to hang out is pretty good for your career.


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