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


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Friday, June 21, 2024

I'm watching GODZILLA MINUS ONE. You might think it is a movie about a giant undersea monster with nuclear abilities.

But it is actually a movie about survivor guilt in post-WW2 Japan. The hero is a kamikaze pilot who abandoned his suicide mission. He considers himself a coward. Other characters are struggling with having survived when so many of their family died. 

If you deliver the goods in a movie or game, you can do whatever the hell else you want. THE L WORD had sexy lesbians. Lesbians, and lesbian-curious folk, were watching to see sexy lesbians. The writers got away with making their characters really flawed people, because they delivered on the sexy lesbians. Without the lesbian sexiness, network executives would probably have said, "These characters aren't likable, make them nicer." But no one was watching to see nice lesbians, they were watching to see sexy lesbians. So the execs left the writers alone. 

Similarly, in GODZILLA MINUS ONE, there is all the nuclear monster spectacle you could ask for. Which means the filmmakers were able to tell a story about survivor guilt. I mean, maybe they started with Godzilla and thought "How can we make Godzilla fresh." But I suspect someone wanted to make a piece about survivor guilt, and then realized they could bring a bigger audience to it by doing it in a monster movie. 

Survivor guilt, by itself, is pretty heavy. Who wants to see that? Some people, but maybe not many. But if there's a nuclear monster, then sure! Bring it. The best horror stories are really proxies for stories about theme that are too bitter to take on directly. 

We're working on a war story right now. But we're turning it into a ghost story, because who wants to play a game about how war is horrible? 

 Deliver the goods, and you are free to do what you want!


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Friday, June 14, 2024

I’ve talked about how to use feedback: listen to the criticism, be wary of solutions other people offer. Until your game comes out, fan feedback is often particularly dubious. They only know the games they’ve already played. They’re making guesses about your game. If they criticize it, they’re only criticizing the version of your game that they have in their head.

(This is a little like when your fellow devs criticize an idea you have. Often they are criticizing what they think you want, when what you want is something else.)

At a certain point, though, your game gets an announcement trailer, and now they have some data to react to. Do they like what they see? And is what they saw the same as the game you’re making? Then you’re in great shape. You’re selling what they’re buying.

On Fragpunk, we did our best to make the game wackier than competing hero shooters; and we gave the game a novel mechanic, allowing players to change the rules of the game before each round. (For example, give their opponents Very Big Heads.) To our delight, when our announcement trailer came out during the Xbox Showcase, social media and critics were all talking about how our game was a “wacky answer to Valorant.”

What if they love what they see and it’s not the game you’re making?

In my book on writing movies, Crafty Screenwriting, I suggest pitching your screenplay before you write it. Rather than writing a whole script and then trying to sell it, pitch a bunch of ideas out to buyers and see which spark interest. Then write the script that got the best reaction.

Samuel Z. Arkoff used to take posters for movies to potential buyers. The movies that buyers wanted, he commissioned scripts for those movies and then shot them.

What if you try to make the game they want? Don’t do it if it will hurt the game, obviously. But maybe the game the fans want is a better game. Maybe lean into that.

We essentially did that on We Happy Few. It wasn’t an announcement trailer, it was demoing the game at PAX. As I discuss elsewhere, we were working on a procedurally generated game, but what fans most liked in our demo was the hand-crafted individual encounters. So we went back home and pivoted the game to focus on hand-crafted encounters.

Listen to the fans.


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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

At some point, you may be called upon to propose a title for a game. This generally won’t happen on a AAA game, where the title is the province of the marketing department, and is something like Assassin’s Creed: More Templar Shenanigans or Splinter Cell: Tracklist. But on smaller teams, writers are often involved. I’ve been part of the team coming up with names for We Happy Few, Stories: The Path of Destinies, South of Midnight, Biomorph and, as of yesterday, the company I work for, Netease, announced the game I'm working on, Fragpunk.

Developers usually give their game a working title or a code name to begin with. We Happy Few started as Glimpse. South of Midnight was once just Midnight. Some games only have a code number. The video game industry is secretive; most companies don’t like anyone to know what they’re working on until they're ready to start building awareness.

A working title can inspire people, and give them a sense of what sort of game they’re working on. Midnight is the witching hour, and the game is about a girl with witchy powers; if it had been a more humorous game set in the South, we might have codenamed it Moonshine. Glimpse referred to an early game mechanic where the procedurally generated world would regenerate whenever you weren’t looking. (We quickly realized that would just be annoying.)

The title needs to be something that players feel good about playing. I'm not sure I'd want "Alex is playing Shower With Your Dad Simulator" to come up on my friends' Steam feed, though obviously there are people who do.

It also can’t be too hard to type. I pushed for our game to be called I’m Afraid We’ve Come to the End of Our Time, but that was perceived as too long, in spite of What Remains of Edith Finch and Everyone's Gone to the Rapture. (We did eventually make a little spinoff VR game called We’ve Come to the End of Our Time.) Even Call of Duty gets abbreviated to COD because twelve letters are just too darn many to type.

But the main purpose of the title is to get people interested in finding out more about the game. It can do that in a few ways.

It can, first of all, just tell you what the game is about. Thief is about a thief. Portal is about making portals. Civilization is about building your civilization. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego is about figuring out where Carmen Sandiego is. Unpacking is about unpacking. Guess what I Was a Teenage Exocolonist is about?

More often, the title hints at what the game is about without stating it so baldly. The Deus Ex games are about technologically enhanced human beings. Deus ex machina is a familiar Latin phrase meaning “god out of the machine.” The main character, Adam Jensen, is part man (made in God’s image) and part machine.

(In classic plays, the writer would sometimes get his characters in such a pickle that the only way he could bring it home was to have an actor fly in, supported by a crane (a machine), playing a god (deus, who would then sort things out. Deus ex machina refers to the writer resolving the plot arbitrarily rather than through the actions of the characters themselves. It's an implicit criticism, like "hat on a hat," although H.G. Wells got away with it in War of the Worlds.)

Kentucky Route Zero is about a road trip. But routes are never numbered zero; and are you really still in Kentucky? Mysterioso.

Call of Duty is a game about war. “Call of duty” is an old phrase referring to serving as a soldier.

All of these titles suggest rather than saying. A playing seeing “Kentucky Route Zero” will hopefully think, “Huh. What’s that about?”

How can you be South of a time of day? The rule in marketing is “sell the sizzle, not the steak.”

We Happy Few suggested that our few townspeople were happy, which indeed they are, but only because they're on happy drugs all the time. There are also fewer and fewer of them. Players could guess that the title was ironic. But how?

Biomorph is about a critter (a biological) who takes the shape (morph) of other critters.

What sort of a game are you trying to sell people? Is it quirky? Is it a survival game? Call it Don’t Starve. Is it about an octopus masquerading as a suburban dad? Octodad. Is it a dungeon crawler which is also a dating sim? Boyfriend Dungeon. A bureaucrat in a depressing Soviet-style transit office? Papers, Please

Of course, a game title can just be plain mysterious. The Return of the Obra Dinn is pleasantly ominous.

But a completely obscure title may not help with marketing. Disco Elysium was a hit, but probably not for its title. Undertale? Sigma Theory? Umurangi Generation? Engare? Goragoa? Zoombinis? These titles are distinctive, and shoot right to the top of the Google search standings. So that's good. But they tell you very little about the game. It’s probably best when the title doesn’t just stand out, it gives you a hint at least of the tone of the game.

So, why is it called Fragpunk?

Play the game when it comes out, and find out!


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