I'm enjoying Deus Ex as a series of stealth puzzles. The story raises some points about craft that I'm working on myself.
The world is one in which "augs" such as Adam Jensen, our gravel-voiced hero, are discriminated against after a worldwide accident caused many of them to go haywire. There is terrorism by augs, unless it is by provocateurs seeking to blame augs. There's political infighting within Jensen's organization, TF29, and Jensen is also involved, you quickly learn, with an aug organization that suspects TF29 is being used against augs.
There are global stakes. Jensen seeks justice against terrorists, and truth against plotters.
Now I'm only about 20 hours in, and I'm a bit of a completionist, so I'm not to Golem City yet. But what I would love to see more of is personal stakes. What does all this mean to Jensen? You get to choose what Jensen says about all this, so he doesn't really have his own a point of view.
It's received wisdom in a Hollywood action movie that the hero should have global stakes and personal stakes. John McClane is trying to save a towerful of hostages, including his ex-wife.
Why? Because we can't relate to a towerful of hostages. "One death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic," as Stalin said. That's why King Kong has to have Fay Wray in his hand. She's there to give Kong a personal goal, without which he's just an ape run amok.
A story needs jeopardy or stakes. You'd think you have jeopardy in a video game, because the hero can get killed, but after the 37th time you reboot him, it stops feeling like real jeopardy. So you need stakes. And global stakes don't create emotional engagement by themselves.
I mean, did you sob with relief when your Captain Shepherd saved all sentient life from the Reapers? I bet you had more emotional connection when Joel in The Last of Us did that thing that he did at the end -- because it involved his relationship with one person.
Heroes have girlfriends (or boyfriends, or wards, or moms) to humanize them; it's the same reason that heroes with flaws are more engaging. We'd care about Peter Parker less if Mary Jane weren't in danger. Fighting crime is abstract; saving the girl he loves is personal.
I'm not saying Adam needs a girlfriend (or a boyfriend, or a ward, or a mom). But if the global stakes were tied up in personal stakes, I feel the emotional engagement would be stronger.
E.g., rather than having him investigate a bombing, have him investigate a bombing that put his best friend in a coma. Rather than have him prove that an aug organization didn't commit a terrorist act, have him prove that an aug organization of which his ex girlfriend is a member did not commit a terrorist act and therefore she should not be executed. (Or his boyfriend, or his ward, or his mom.)
Or, maybe his girlfriend, or boyfriend, or mom, has turned against him because they think augs are terrorists. Or they think augs are terrorists and should all be locked up except for Adam and one or two "good augs." Or a judge is going to take away his kid because he thinks augs are terrorists.
Ha ha, I know, Adam Jensen would never have a kid. (But what if he did? And he had to choose whether to make his kid an aug, or let his kid stay in a wheelchair?)
(There are in fact side quests which create some personal stakes; but they're missions he does for people he runs into, mostly, not people who are necessarily part of his life. If he fails these people, he doesn't lose anything.)
Look, I'm painting in very broad strokes here. There are much more surprising, provocative and challenging ways to make global stakes personal. I'm just using these as examples.
I also tend to think, by the way, that it's much easier to follow a story when there are personal stakes. And it gives the storytellers something to sink their teeth into.
I bring this up because this is an argument I have with Guillaume and David every now and then. The player character stories in We Happy Few are all intensely personal. At a couple of points during our development of the game, G and David have complained that the stakes weren't global enough. "I know Arthur's trying to find his brother, but that's not necessarily what the player is trying to do." I rewrote the ending recently to make sure that the player gets both a satisfying end to Arthur's story, and a satisfying ending to his own story, that is, the story of his gameplay.
We have done a fair amount of work aligning player motivation with player character motivation. When those two are aligned, you get the player engaged both emotionally and intellectually. When we release the story, let me know how we did.
Q. I've always had a strong interest in writing which is why I went on to pursue a degree in English. I would like very much to pursue know what it would take for me to become part of a team of creators. Is it better to have Master's degree as opposed to a Bachelor's? Would it be preferable to have degrees in different fields of study? Does Compulsion Games offer internships for individuals seeking experience and exposure?
We don't offer internships. We're a small team of 25 fairly experienced people. The company philosophy is that if you're good enough to work there, you're good enough to pay.
The game industry, like showbiz, is not particularly interested in whether you have a parchment in a frame with Praeses et Socii Universitatis on it. We're interested in whether you have skills, experience and talent. So if you're an artist, we don't care if you went to art school, we want to see your portfolio. Now obviously you learn a lot in art school, and you can put together a good portfolio there, so many games artists went to art school. But it's the portfolio, not the credential.
Same for programming. Show us what you've done, and we'll give you a programming test. Pass the programming test, and we'll interview you. You may very well have learned to program in a computer science department, but if you taught yourself online, or out of books, that's cool. The head of the company started working at 17 as a programmer. My first wife taught herself to program after finishing her Ph. D. in Folklore, and she's been a programmer ever since. (She figured that if she could learn 14 dead languages, computer languages couldn't be that hard. She was right, too.)
What schools do teach you is the tools. For example, Montreal's Cégep du Vieux Montréal will teach you Unreal. (For free, if you're a Québecer.) Level Designers and Environmental Artists make the world of our game in Unreal 4.
However, I don't know how you become a game writer. My path involved having written a hit comedy film and directed a bunch of shorts. I moved into games laterally. I did not have to convince anyone that I could write dialog, or tell a story. My first few game writing jobs did not involve any special software, or even much in the way of the elaborate spreadsheets we're using to track dialog in We Happy Few. So there were no software tools to know.
(Basically I now use Google Sheets, Google Docs, Final Draft and Pro Tools. Pro Tools is the only serious badass professional bit of software. It's for editing sound.)
I actually do have an MFA, but I think the most valuable part of my MFA was having an excuse to muck about with cameras for three years. I did learn a few things about directing actors and cutting audio, but I did not learn to write at UCLA, or Yale. I learned to write by writing, for free and then for money, for many, many years.
I don't have a terribly good idea how someone becomes a pro games writer. You can teach yourself Twine (it's trivial to learn) and create an interactive text narrative. You can learn how to make mods, and create story modules in various game engines, e.g. you could create your own Shadowrun story. You can attend game jams. There's good info in The Game Narrative Toolbox, which my friend Ann Lemay contributed to.
Game societies are good, e.g. the IGDA.
But there are no agents in game writing. In TV you write a spec and a spec pilot, get an agent, and get pitched to showrunners. I'm not sure what the equivalent is in games.
If anyone reading this has a better idea how to become a game writer, please write in!
As soon as I get back to writing script pages (as opposed to barks), I'm going to be trying out Final Draft 10. There are two main script formatting programs, Final Draft and Screenwriter. (There's also CeltX, which is free, but I don't know any pros who use it.)
I have friends who swear by Screenwriter (and at Final Draft!). Personally, I've always found Final Draft easier and more intuitive to use. It's probably not an accident that Final Draft started out as a Mac program and Screenwriter started out on PC. Screenwriter is powerful once you learn how to use it, but you have to just somehow know that, for example, the way to get a parenthetical is to type an open parenthesis at the beginning of a line of dialog.
Or read the manual, I suppose. Crazy, right?
The people who make Final Draft have just come out with Final Draft 10, the latest edition of the 25-year-old software. It has some neat tricks:
You can now hide alt dialog lines right in the script. You can have three versions of a line of dialog, and quickly switch between them. Handy if you're punching up a script.
This is really neat.
Final Draft 9 had index cards based on your formatted script. Each scene in Script View turned into an index card in Scene Navigator view. You could shuffle your index cards around.
However, unless your screen is much bigger than mine, you rarely have enough real estate to see all your index cards. I've wound up printing them out and moving them around on the kitchen table.
Beat Board is a more sophisticated way of viewing your whole story. You have a scene timeline; you can hang your scenes on the timeline, and quickly view them. You can color code them, for example if you want to track dramatic beats vs. action bears, or two subplots. Being able to view the whole timeline makes it easier to see if your structure is unbalanced.
At Compulsion, we have a lot of shared Google Documents. I share the encounter dialog with the level designers and the audio people. That way we can track a line from writing to recording to editing to integration.
Up till now, the only way to co-write a script in Final Draft is to email versions back and forth. That's the way I prefer to work. But when you go over the script on the phone (did you know phones can be used for talking?), only one person can talk. FD 10 allows several writers to open the same script and edit it at the same time, just like you can with a Google Doc.
Now, this is not a proper review of FD 10. The folks at Final Draft were kind enough to give me a review copy, but as it happens, I am doing everything at the moment except writing dialog pages. I'm helping a game cast an actor. I'm writing barks. I'm editing audio. So I'm going to have to wait until I'm back to dialog pages before I can tell you how well all these handy new tools work. Tune in later!
If you want Canadian government support for your movie, you need Canadians in key positions. There are ten possible points, for director, producer, writer, editor, composer, key cast, etc. The current government is planning to reduce the requirement so you don't need Canadian writers.
I have some experience that may be relevant.
In the 90s, I worked for a few indie production companies in LA that were trying to make movies in Canada. Specifically, they were trying to make Quebec co-productions so they could access Canadian and Quebecois government subsidies that amounted to about 25% of a film's budget.
A wholly Canadian production needed 10 out of 10 points. That wasn't very attractive to an LA production company because there were very few bankable stars willing to appear in a co-production. (Donald Sutherland came up a lot.) There were also not a lot of Canadian film directors acceptable to foreign distributors.
However, a co-production could allocate some of those roles to the co-production company. So a UK-Canada co-production could have, say, a British director if it had a script by a Canadian. It could have a British co-star. Moreover, each co-production company got to have one American cast member, so the top two cast members would be bankable Americans.
The point wasn't to make movies about British or Canadian culture. The point was to make low-budget direct-to-video movies for the international sales market; in other words, American thrillers and action movies and family films and so forth. The characters were all supposed to be Americans, and the stories set in the US.
I worked on, for example, an Israeli-Canadian co-pro; a French-Israeli-Canadian co-pro; a Dutch-Canadian co-pro; a French-Canadian-Israeli co-pro shot financed through a Welsh TV station and shot in Poland.
The Canadian government is now considering changing the Broadcast Act as regards 10-out-of-10 native Canadian productions that access Federal subsidies. They are considering reducing the required points to 6 out of 10.
So, let me tell you what will happen: American producers will swoop in and start making American movies with Canadian government money. These movies will be shot in Canada. They will have Canadian composers and Canadian editors. The name-below-the-title cast will be Canadian. But they will be American movies. The mailboxes will be blue, not red. The lawyers will wear suits, not robes. The stories will be generic thrillers and action movies and cabin-in-the-woods horror movies.
These American movies will snaffle up all the Federal funds for movies, so very few actually Canadian stories get told. No more Les Invasions Barbares; no more Atarnajuat: The Fast Runner; no more Incendies; no more Away from Her; no more Bon Cop / Bad Cop. Just Porky's and Resident Evil from now on.
Canada already has support for service productions -- films that shoot up here to take advantage of the weakened state of the Canadian dollarette. This would be taxpayers funding American stories.
Apparently the government is also considering loosening up the CMF rules, so American-written TV shows can satisfy Canadian content requirements for broadcasters.
Now, there are some good proposed changes. For example, under current rules, a Canadian produced show can't touch cultural subsidies without a Canadian broadcaster. This requirement may be scotched, and good riddance. I've had TV show pitches that had interest from, say, the BBC, but couldn't get a Canadian broadcaster, and therefore didn't get made.
But the 6-out-of-10 proposal would mean the elimination of Canadian culture on film and television. Canadian film and TV would become strictly service for American producers looking to save a few bucks. That's not why we have the Broadcast Act.
I know this isn't coming from the top. Lisa and I were honoured to have Justin Trudeau over to lunch years ago, when he was running for his first seat in Parliament. He was gung-ho about the need for Canada to support its own culture. More than that: when I argued that Canadian movies were good for tourism, he made the point that films that show the dark side of Canada were important too. A nation needs its voice.
I spent a decade working for American companies trying to get around Canadian cultural content rules to make American movies with Canadian taxpayer money. They hired Americans and Dutch guys and British guys who had "permanent residence" in Canada but actually lived in LA. One of the movies had an American writer, so they found an Israeli in Tel Aviv with the same name and gave him the credit. Producers will perform shenanigans if they possibly.
Reduce the points, and you open the floodgates. Don't be surprised when all the culture flows out.
Drama is conflict. Someone wants something; they can't get it. To make it a complete story, they get it, or they don't get it.
However, drama also needs conflict between what the audience expects, and what happens. Even if we know the outcome, we need to not know how it's going to get there, or at least not know how we're going to feel about it.
I recently read a few pages of a script about an Important Social Issue. As sometimes happens in scripts about Important Social Issues, the good people were good, and the bad people were bad. I knew what was going to happen and I knew how I was supposed to feel about it. And, indeed, events unfolded as expected.
In this case, the problem was that the main character was the person bearing the brunt of the Important Social Issue, i.e. the victim of discrimination. It's much harder to make a compelling story about a suffering saint. There's conflict, all right -- the saint can't get what he wants -- but I'm not pulled in because there's none of this second sort of dramatic tension. How are events going to unfold? How am I going to feel about them?
However, what if the same story had been told from another perspective -- from the persecutor's point of view? What if we humanized the bad guy, and showed him torn between his reasons for persecuting, and his dawning recognition that maybe he's not righteous. (Are we the baddies?)
Then I wouldn't be sure how to feel. And I wouldn't know exactly what was going to happen.
Or, if the saint isn't really a saint but a bit of a jackass. Or if the saint has doubts.
I realize that there are movies about saintly figures, from Jackie to Martin to Jesus. We know the stations of the cross, and we get a certain catharsis from watching a passion play. There's no dramatic tension. Instead, there's comfort in knowing exactly how we're going to feel. It's the sort of comfort we're seeking when we watch "mac'n'cheese" TV, where we know the cops will catch the bad guys and we're not even in much doubt how they'll do it. Or watching an old Star Trek episode.
But take a look at your work. Is there not only tension between the characters, but tension between the audience's assumptions and how you tell the story? Then you're off to the races.
So we watched THE GET DOWN on Netflix, Baz Luhrmann's show about the birth of rap during the disco era. I gather this show has provoked some controversy, being a show about black and Puerto Rican people in the South Bronx in the 70's made by a white dude from Australia. I don't really care if it's accurate. I'm not watching Baz Luhrmann because he's a documentarian. I'm watching him because ROMEO+JULIET and MOULIN ROUGE!
Oh, and because I lived New York in the 70's, and yeah, it was like that, dirty and beautiful, and full of despair and dreams.
Anyway, an hour into the show, after all sorts of michegas, a character tells the hero about a secret dance event called the Get Down, and asks, "Have you ever heard of someone named Grandmaster Flash," and chills went down my spine, because this is the epoch of disco and the kid is a rapper without knowing it, and yes, I have heard of Grandmaster Flash.
And I look on the TV, and I realize there's another 15 minutes of this. Whut? No.
No, Mr. Luhrmann. That is your out. That is how you end your pilot.
So we turned it off.
Not that we weren't enjoying it. But that was the perfect ending to the episode. So we made an executive decision.
TV writers watch differently. I have many times gone to a movie with my friend Doug, a movie writer, and afterwards we fix the plot.
Lisa sometimes accuses me of having ruined TV for her, because she now sees the seams and stitches of the shows she's watching — when the seams and stitches are showing, that is. On the other hand, when you see something really great, you appreciate it all the more. And you can turn off the show an hour in if it's earned its out.
Drugs are part of our game because, well, drugs are part of our world. There's a lot of people who would be much less happy (or even functional) without anti-depressants. Drugs are part of our history. People have been tampering with their body chemistry for thousands of years. I have a pet theory that human beings didn't become farmers for the sake of food. It's well established that hunter-gatherers work less and eat better than primitive farmers. But alcohol! Ah, once people discover that grains ferment, and they can get blasted, then they settle down.
(This isn't purely a just-so story. There's some evidence that the very first settled site in Europe was a religious site, not a city. Religion and pharmacology go together like bread and wine.)
Drugs raise interesting philosophical questions. Conventionally, if you are stoned or drunk, that's not the "real you." The real you is the sober you. But if someone is depressive, we tell them that the depression is an illness, a departure from normal. A lot of people with depression feel that they're only "the real me" when they take their meds.
Is there a "real you"? Or is the you that you think you are just a function of your body chemistry, and if that chemistry changes, then who you are changes, for good or bad?
So that's a philosophical question our game highlights. I don't think we're making the game in order to make a case for or against drugs. I think we're using fictional drugs to talk about who we are.
I borrowed THE ORIGINALS series 'cause it got a 7+ on the IMDB, but I had doubts about it literally the moment I saw what the lead actors looked like. They had that look that prime time actors have. They have the stink of Beverly Hills all over them. They're pretty, the boys and the girls, in a well-groomed, not particularly distinctive way.
And, sure enough, the dialog was kinda dumb and expositional, and the lore was ridiculous, and most of all, there was no way I could possibly believe that these three characters are the "original vampires."
It is hard to play a vampire convincingly. You have to seem like someone who's been around for hundreds of years (or, in the case of someone with a claim to being an "original" anything, I'd hope, tens of thousands).
That's why we often portray vamps as noblemen -- courtly, gracious, aristocratic. Gary Oldman's Dracula in Francis Coppola's movie of the book. Catherine Deneuve's Miriam in THE HUNGER. An aristocratic air makes it seem like the owner speaks for his whole house, all of its legacy.
James Marston pulled it off as Spike in BUFFY: THE VAMPIRE SLAYER without falling back on an aristocratic air. He was as sure of himself as someone could be who's killed hundreds of people one on one, who knew his own strength, who rarely has to convince anyone with his words.
Tom Cruise was a surprisingly convincing vampire, because he is so very sure of himself and has an ego the size of a truck.
I bet Grace Jones would make a fine vamp. Wesley Snipes made a superb half-vamp.
But vamps are not invulnerable, only immortal. You want someone who seems like they've been around the block. Like you've seen some horrific things, and done some, and had some done to you. Like you're aware that although you are ageless, you are mortal. The little vampire Eli in Let the Right One In, the old vampire in Cronos: they knew that, while they had super powers, they could die.
The best vampires also seem like a person. Not just "a vampire," but ahuman being who became a vampire.
Spike was a great vamp character because he was a punk rock star who knew he was no match for his own urges. "If I had to do it all over again -- who am I kidding, I would do it exactly the same." Drusilla was fun because she was crazy.
The characters in THE ORIGINALS were distinct enough that you could tell, barely, who was the roguish, "bad" one, and who was the uptight, "good" one and who was the girl. The series has gone at least two seasons, so I hope the characters developed since then. But if you don't start with the characters being people, it's hard to get there.
If I were casting vampires, I mean, sure, have Antonio Banderas. But have some vamps with traits that have nothing to do with being a vampire.
I mean, as you get older, you get wiser, but you don't stop being yourself. You get more and more yourself as you figure out who you are, and stop trying to be other people. A vampire is someone who's had hundreds of years to figure out what turns him or her on, and doesn't have to care about what doesn't turn him on. A vampire might be devoted to overseeing and protecting his human family. She might be an alcoholic. He might be a compulsion car thief. She might be a drama queen who likes to have multiple human lovers whom she would never feed on.
Have Steve Buscemi. Have Clare Danes, with all her crazy cryface. Have John Goodman.
One last thought about lore: what prime time TV shows get wrong about lore is shoveling it into the pilot. That's a terrible way to treat lore. You get dialog like, "as you know, Bob, we've been vampires for three hundred years, but until recently I was immobilized by a magic silver dagger."
Obviously, people almost never remind each other of what they both know. But also, people who know deep things rarely talk about them. When they do, they just give a hint. They don't give you the download.
They refer to things elliptically. There are Southerners who refer to the "late, great unpleasantness" when they mean the Civil War.
They refer to things efficiently. You tell a Southerner, "It's Pickett's Charge," and you don't need to say more.
Lore is best used as a hook. Give a hint of something that creates a misty shape in the viewer's mind. Let their imaginations run with it.
In THE SANDMAN, Thessaly is a nerdy, humorless, utterly ruthless witch with big glasses. You get to know her as a witch for a while before someone asks, "How old are you?"
"I was born in the day of longest night," she says, "the year the bear totem was broken." And you suddenly realize that she was born before years had dates. Before days had numbers. She is incredibly old.
(And she's still pissed at Dream for the way their relationship didn't work out. And she probably didn't grow up thinking that forgiveness is a virtue, back on the tundra. And that's why she helps him destroy himself.)
I wasn't really writing this to talk about We Happy Few, just to vent about a terrible show and how it was terrible. But of course we have a great deal of lore in We Happy Few. We have a timeline that breaks off into alternate history in 1933. We have a people who did a Very Bad Thing that they've failed to confront.
And you'll put together what it was from newspaper articles, and old posters, and things crazy people say, and graffiti, and how the people entertain themselves. That's fun, and that's engaging.
If we just gave you a Star Wars-style title crawl, it wouldn't mean anything.
I got into an interesting disagreement with a Wikipedia editor on the page for We Happy Few. The page asserted that, in the game's lore, Nazi Germany invaded England, but the English did a "Very Bad Thing" to get their freedom.
This is not quite right. In our game, it's the "German Empire" that invaded. We didn't want to deal with Nazis or the Holocaust. In Germany, you can't even release a game with swastikas in it. So, in our game, Hitler was deposed shortly after attacking Russia. Rommel is Führer. Also, the Very Bad Thing happened during the German occupation, and the Germans left some time later.
Some time in the future, you should eventually see an Iron Cross flag somewhere, and maybe a portrait of Erwin Rommel.
So I fixed the entry.
The editor reverted to his original entry.
I pointed out that I'm the writer of the story.
The editor insisted I provide citations to prove that my edits were correct.
Wikipedia, it seems, does not allow primary sources. You can't read War and Peace and say it's set in Russia during the Napoleonic invasion. You have to go find an article somewhere that says it is, and then cite that.
This makes sense. You can't have people rewriting articles based on their own interpretations. Suppose I think Annie Hall is a depressing, nihilistic movie about the futility of love. What's stopping me from editing the entry on Annie Hall accordingly? Only this rule.
So you can not, for example, pull Marshall McLuhan out from behind the poster and have him contradict someone. You have to cite an article in which someone quotes Marshall McLuhan.
That puts a writer in an odd bind. I happen to know that it was not Nazi Germany that invaded England in We Happy Few, because I wrote the timeline and all the lore to go with it. But that's not proof enough. I have to tell someone else, and they have to write it somewhere, and then I can cite their article, which quotes me.
So, hopefully, someone will quote this blog post in their blog, and then I can cite myself.
We are looking for: A senior animator; a senior level designer; a gameplay programmer; a senior QA person; and an AI programmer. Check us out on LinkedIn. You do not have to live in Montreal; about 20% of the company works remotely.
I spent the first part of last week beating the game! As the narrative director, I don’t always get the luxury of time to sit down and go through a full playthrough. This week I did, and it took me about twelve hours! It was nice to finally get Arthur to the hatch on Apple Holm.
... which also meant writing a score of bug reports for issues that only I’m going to catch. I’m the guy whose responsibility is making sure that the world makes sense and that all the characters have in-game reasons to do the things they’re doing, and so I found a bunch of things I’d like to improve.
Of course after Tuesday morning’s launch, we’ve all been absorbing players’ reports of bugs. Some of them are bugs we know about. Some of them are not bugs at all. Some of them are new issues. For example, some people have complained that the NPCs can get a bit repetitious. Partly this is a bug in when they tell you to back off. Partly this is because we haven’t yet implemented the systems for atmosphere and showcased conversations. You should be hearing them talk lots more in our second update.
But, issue heard, I’m going to be writing and recording many more things for Arthur and the NPCs to say.
Of course, like Whitney, I’m sort of at the beginning of the pipeline – a lot of the things I do hit the game in weeks or months, rather than tomorrow. So I have to keep putting things in that pipeline.
Last week I recorded two voice actors for a series of audio flashbacks for Arthur. I've just finished editing them. You’re going to know a lot more about what exactly Arthur’s remembering.
And, I’m just starting on a similar system for another playable character, the Girl in White, or as Sam thinks of her, She Who Must Not Be Named. She’s going to have some surprising things to say for herself. You won’t hear this stuff for some time, but you will.
On our Reddit AMA today, greyandbluestatic asked, "how do you approach storytelling in games versus cinema and literature?"
Here's my answer:
The short answer is, there’s no difference. A story is a story. Specifically, in my books, a story is:
a. a fictional person we care about
b. who has an opportunity, problem or goal
c. who faces obstacles and/or an antagonist and/or his or her personal flaws
d. who has something to lose (jeopardy)
e. and something to gain (stakes)
Moreover, a story is told to
f. an audience.
You can see how these apply equally to movies and books and games. If one of these elements of story is weak, the story is usually weak. When I say “weak,” I mean it doesn’t leave us with a powerful feeling.
That’s what story exists in games for. The gameplay is “How?” The story is “How do I feel?” Ultimately, it’s “Why do I care?”
The key difference, of course, is that storytelling is all about “I make choices for you,” while gameplay is “You make the choices.” So delivering a great story in a game has to take that into account.
On the top level of the game, we have a series of cinematics that tell each playable character’s story. The gameplay aspect is that you have to complete story missions to get to the next cinematic. That’s pretty familiar.
The other levels are environmental storytelling. There are things you see and things you hear as you run around trying to stay alive long enough to craft your way out of the predicament you’re in.
So, these are things that the Wellies and the Wastrels say to each other and to you. They show you the world you’re living in, and how they feel about it.
These are the things Arthur says to them and to himself. These show you how he feels about things. They show you who he is.
For example, you may feel good about killing a Wastrel, but he usually doesn’t. That’s unusual, in a game hero.
There’s dear old Uncle Jack. He’s always happy and upbeat, but you can listen between the lines. Why is he telling people how to identify cholera? Why is he talking about flour substitutes?
You’ll see posters that tell you what the rules of the world are, and what the history of this world is. You learn that Britain lost the war. You start to get a sense of what it is exactly that everyone is trying so hard not to remember.
You might find letters in the mailboxes that tell you more about the people around you, and what their stories might be.
I’m trying hard to create a sense that the NPCs are not software agents that are there to give you things if you poke at them in the right way. They’re people in a fictional world, that have their own stories – their own goals, and their own obstacles – that would be doing something even if you weren’t looking.
The key to everything in the game is that what’s not said is as important as what’s said. The game’s story is a puzzle you can put together through repeated playthroughs. (You won’t get the whole puzzle in any one playthrough.)
Tl;dr: the cinematics are straightforward, linear narrative. Everything else is a puzzle.
And, eventually, once the story comes out, you may discover that the cinematics don’t tell you everything either, and there may be a bit of a puzzle there, too.
On the IMDB, 22.5% of voters give GHOSTBUSTERS a 10; 42.5% of them give it a 1. Among women, the movie gets a 7.8; among men, it gets a 4.1.
I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of the guys giving the movie a 1 have not seen the movie. If you had, it would be very hard to give it a 1. It has a plot that makes sense. It has state of the art special effects. It has a finale which destroys dozens of buildings. It is a fine piece of cheese.
So it turns out there is an explicit campaign to kill the movie by the usual suspects. They're mad because the movie wasn't made for them, and how dare anybody make a big special effects movie that isn't made for frat boys. I mean, these guys liked the previous movie, so they own the franchise, right?
What's interesting to me is how much the movie wasn't made for them. It's an action movie with female stars. But it's not a female-led action movie in the Resident Evil/Tomb Raider vein, about a hot chick who does man things. It's not about the male gaze. I mean, the only really hot chick in the movie is Kate McKinnon. She's on fire, but she's not interested in the male gaze, is she?
Which one is Leeloo Dallas Multipass?
Nope, the movie stars four women who spend most of their time talking (pseudo) science. Their emotional drama is not about men, either. It's about female friendship. Every single reel of the movie passes the Bechdel test.
In other words, the movie is not only not made for internet fanboys, it's actually madeforwomen.
I had a great time. It was fine a piece of summer fluff as I'll probably see this year. But I'm the secondary audience, the way women are the secondary audience in every other summer action movie.
Literally the secondary audience -- Lisa wanted to go, and our friend Jackie wanted to go, and I said, oh, okay, I'll come along.
The picture does a fine job subverting the genre, actually. The only parts of the movie that are about a guy are (a) the villain and (b) Chris Hemsworth, playing the dumbest imaginable receptionist. Kristen Wiig hires him because he's cute.
I'm probably preaching to the converted here, but I'm disappointed in the fanboys. You're mad that one out of ten summer blockbusters was not made for you? You're mad that someone rebooted a movie from 1984 and didn't make it exactly the same as 32 years ago? You actually are going to the trouble to ruin a movie for the people who want to see it, so that you can have All Teh Screenz?
There's a lot of entitlement going around. There's right wingers who feel their marriages have been taken away from them because gay people can also have them; or feel their bathrooms have been taken away from them because trans people might also use them. There are the Trump voters, who feel their country has been taken away from them because we're not in the 1980s any more (I think).
The best way to criticize the arts is to make your own. That's what Paul Feig has done. He's not saying comedies have to have better roles for women. He just went ahead and made a ('nother) comedy with good roles for women.
This week I’ve been playing the game a lot. Hey, this is a fun game!
Playing it, of course, I’m discovering various ways in which the world does not entirely make sense. For example, who is putting rotting meat in mailboxes? When that happens, I generally consult with the designers. Either I need to come up with a sensible reason for what’s going on, or we need to change what’s going on.
It’s very important to me that everything in the game makes sense. It doesn’t have to make logical sense. Wastrels aren’t logical. Wellies aren’t logical. Human beings are rarely logical. But there is always a reason why people do things. Wastrels aren’t randomly crazy; they’re driven mad by guilt and sorrow, and whatever Joy has done to their memories. Wellies live in denial; their happiness is a veneer over the things they are trying so hard not to remember. Things they do should be revelatory of these themes.
I’ve also been rewriting journal entries. If you go into Arthur’s journal, you will now find many things he has to say about what’s going on. Some of these things may be actually useful to solving the your problems in the game. Some of them will fill you in on Arthur’s past. Take the time to read them, when you’re in a quiet, safe place!
Oh, and, letters. I’m not entirely clear who’s delivering the mail, but someone seems to be. At any rate, Wastrels and Wellies are writing to each other. Some of these letters will tell you about the people around you. Some of them will warn you about things you’re going to run into. Worth a read, I think.
I’ve been working on rewriting the objectives and Arthur’s journal entries into the voice of the game. The journal entries are fun because I can write whatever I want without worrying what it will cost. I don’t have to record them, no one has to animate someone saying them. The player can take the time to read them or not. So I can scatter Arthur’s personal observations and backstory throughout them.
It’s a bigger job than it looks, because as I go through them, I’m also discovering encounters that aren’t quite as they were designed, or don’t quite make sense within the world. My job is to make sure that every encounter makes narrative sense. A level designer might write a level so that you’re supposed to go here and dig that thing up. But how does Arthur know there’s something to dig up? Usually it’s a matter of retconning: I know that he’s supposed to do this, so what’s a good reason in the world of the game for him to do that. Sometimes it’s a matter of rejiggering the encounters, so the LD’s and I have a palaver. Rejiggering almost always makes the encounters more compelling; necessity is the mother of invention.
Since we last spoke, I had the chance to get [person who company COO Sam won’t let me tell you about] into the sound studio, and Arthur should have quite a bit more to say in this next build, and even more in the one after that. I also finally found the perfect person to play Percy. He’s a fantastic young actor named [hah, like Sam would let me tell you that]. I’ve been writing a lot of audio flashbacks that you will eventually hear. At some point, Percy will become real to you, the way he’s real to Arthur. Jose, Chris, Valentino (our sound partners at Signal Space) and I have also been recording multiple voices for all the NPC’s. You probably won’t hear them all in the next build – we have to make a face animation for every voice doing every line. We have software that does most of the heavy lifting, but there’s a fair amount of massaging that Remi has to do, to the point where he’s been whining about not being an animator. So that will all, I think, come out in the second EA update, not on launch.
On a side note, every voice actor I’ve talked to is kind of embarrassed about the Brexit vote. It’s sort of like talking to someone who you thought had a great marriage, and now they're getting divorced.
We’ve recorded every single passive conversation, dozens of them. At some point, players are going to start hearing some rather silly conversations around them, and also some rather illuminating conversations. Oh, and the Wastrels will have five new ways to tell you to sod off. But hopefully they’ll do it less often.
Meanwhile, the usual narrative director-y things. What is written on this cabinet? What note does this guy have in his pocket? What does the end screen say? Could we please have a dozen letters you can find in the mailboxes? What are the signs on this bridge? What are the coins called? What’s a better name for Mrs Stokes’ letters? How would you describe a banger? What’s the description text for a light bulb? Can we have bunting in this building? (No.) What can we call this park?
Each of these sends me down a rabbit hole, but I usually find something that amuses me, and hopefully will amuse you. Not everything is a narrative Easter egg. But quite a few of the names of places and people are there for some reason or another. Enjoy!
Some of my jobs are sort of big-small. They require much more thinking than writing. Generally they involve staring at the wall for forty-five minutes, giving up in frustration, and then getting the answer on the bike ride home. If that doesn’t work, a ten minute chat with my wife, who’s also a writer, usually gives me the idea I need.
So, I had to write an ending for the Early Access version of the game (it’s temporary until we have the narrative available). My first thought was to give an emotionally satisfying ending; but G felt that we didn’t want players to feel they’ve completed the game when we haven’t even completed the game. I needed to come up with something for Arthur to say that tells the players (a) there’s more coming (b) something about Arthur’s frame of mind.
Good action movies ramp up the pace nonstop starting around halfway through. But the filmmakers need to check in with the characters. So we contrive to pin down the hero and the heroine somewhere for a little while. They’re hiding, so they have nothing to do but talk. In TERMINATOR, it’s the scene in the culvert where Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese finally get to know one another. Kyle talks about John Connor and what he means.
So this is that. A brief time where Arthur is in no danger, and can check in with himself.
This is where it’s helpful to have something to say. Fortunately, there is a bit of philosophy at the heart of the game. “Is there a true self?” as Arthur is fond of asking himself. If you take pills to be happy, is that happiness true or untrue? Someone close to me hates taking his anti-depressants because he feels they make him be not-himself. Someone else close to me takes anti-depressants because he feels that he’s not himself without them – the depression is the external thing.
Like all good philosphical questions, there isn’t really a right answer to that one. Obviously, the game takes a side. But that doesn’t mean that Arthur knows what the right answer is.
So when you play through the EA release, you’ll get a bit of philosophy. But don’t expect emotional closure. For that you’ll have to wait till some time after the snows come.
Someone on the Compulsion Games forum for We Happy Few was concerned that there is another game out there, Lisa the Painful, where people take a happy drug called Joy. Did we steal the idea?
No, obviously not. I came up with the name Joy in roughly February 2014. That game came out in December 2014. (I had to look it up; I've never heard of it.)
The reason we called our in-game drug Joy is it makes you really happy. Joy is the #1 English word for "surpassing happiness." Probably anyone who was looking for a name for a drug that makes you really happy would at least consider the word "Joy."
I can't take credit for the happy drugs idea. One of our inspirations was Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, which is about a society where people take a pill called "soma." But our main inspiration is North American happy culture. Depressed? Take a Prozac. Stressed? Take a Valium. Bad news? Don't put it on Facebook! Only Downers put bad news on Facebook!
(Not that I'm against anti-depressants. They help a lot of people.)
Point is: talking about happy drugs is an obvious thing to do if you live in our society, just as making a movie about alcoholics was obvious in 1950.
As a screenwriter and story editor, I've seen any number of my ideas duplicated in films and TV shows I didn't write, sometimes produced by production companies that saw my pitch. That's not because my ideas were stolen. It's because certain ideas are bubbling up to the top of the zeitgeist stew at any given time. I was pitching a hacker action movie a year before The Net came out. But so was everyone else. I was pitching a Pretty Boy Floyd movie a year before Larry McMurtry was tapped to develop a Pretty Boy Floyd project.
Roger Corman was asked about the similarities between his cheapo film Carnosaur and Jurassic Park. "Steven Spielberg is an honest man," said the King of the B's. "I don't for a second think he would steal my idea!"
You can't copyright an idea; you can only copyright the execution of an idea. You can't copyright "game about people who take happy drugs" because making a game about people who take happy drugs is "obvious." Anyone can get there by just observing the world. What makes our game unique -- or the other game unique -- is how that idea is elaborated in plot and character.
But the novelist advised would-be writers that they should not choose the career “as a way to make money, to make a name for yourself or any of these other external things.
“If you have to write, if the stories are in you, if you made up names and stories for your toy spacemen when you were little, if the stories come to you, ask yourself the question, ‘What if no one ever gives me a penny for my stories? Will I still write them?’ And if the answer is ‘yes’, then you’re a writer,” he said. “Then you have to be a writer. It’s the only thing you can do. If the answer is ‘No, I’m going to quit after a few years because I’m not selling’, then maybe you should quit right now and learn computer science. I hear there’s a real future in these computer things.”
The past two weeks I’ve been primarily writing and recording (and occasionally editing) encounters. Also, more systemic barks, and more passive conversations you’ll overhear if you stealth around. (I don’t think any are in the game yet, but we’ve recorded a passel.)
Encounters are odd beasts. I get the bones of them from David. He’ll say something like “a bunch of Wastrels are cooking a rubber ducky in a stew pot. If you get the duck, you get a recipe for Rick the Stunt Duck.”
Then I’ll say, “Okay, what’s the nonlethal version?” (We have been making progress towards the functionality that would allow a nonlethal playthrough; I think you’ll see it working in the next build. Although playing nonlethally will be a huge challenge, I think it introduces a moral dimension to combat.) And David will say, okay, if you talk to all of them, you get the ducky. And if you talk to all of them the next day, you get something else.”
So now it’s in my court. Why are four Wastrels cooking a rubber duck? What do they think the ducky is? How does your talking to them make them give you the ducky? (And by “talking,” I actually mean, “clicking E to interact.”) What changes in their perspective on life now that they’ve given up their ducky? How can I make that ridiculous and yet somehow humanly truthful?
A fair amount of my job is retconning David’s designs. “If this made sense, what sort of sense would it make?”
Meanwhile, the team keep me busy with questions like “what should be scribbled on this rock” to “what should we call this park on the map” to “what’s the tooltip for a bucket? Okay, how about a bucket full of Motilene?” to “what do you hear when you pick up a phone in the Garden District?” to “what do you call the hole a Bobby pops out of?”
Well, we're back from PAX, where we had some pretty nifty cosplayers, even though the game isn't out yet:
I learned a bit at PAX. First of all, that people are over the moon about our game. People were lining up for an hour and forty minutes to see it. Actually, the line was capped at 1h40; you had to mill around to wait for a chance to jump onto the 1h40 line. And when you reached the head of the line, you could play the game for twenty minutes, if you didn't get yourself killed first.
Also, details. Watching new people play our game, I noticed that players were not always aware they were wearing the wrong clothes. So I wrote some barks for Wellies to get bent out of shape if you’re wearing rags, and Wastrels will mock you for being dressed all fancy.
More excitingly, I finally got a PC on my desk. I write on a Mac, but I can’t use our tools in Unreal Engine 4, which means I can’t tinker directly with the game; I have to impose on the Level Designers. Since then I’ve been rewriting journal entries into Arthur’s voice — a job I’ll have to repeat with the other playable characters.
And, of course, I’m continuing forward on editing our audio cutscenes whenever I have some spare cycles. The animators seem to like our actors’ work:
The animators have to listen to the scenes hundreds of times, so it means a lot when they dig the audio acting.
Often when you're casting, you find someone who's a thrilling actor, but just all wrong for the part. You file that information away for later. Juliette Gosselin, who starred in my short film ROLE PLAY (and would have starred in my proposed feature ALICE IS PERFECTLY FINE NOW), was someone we auditioned for YOU ARE SO UNDEAD. She was terrific, but way too real for YASU. But we brought her back for ALICE. So too for K______ K_____, who was wonderful, but not right for Twiggy With Hypodermic.
Perhaps my favorite of all of these TV writing books is Crafty TV Writing. It’s universally applicable, accessible, and yet also dives into the fine, granular details when the topic warrants it. Chapters 1-3 are must read as is page 236, How To Run A Writer’s Room.
Well, this is lovely and I feel honored. Stephanie Palmer, of Good In a Room, wrote a post listing her ten favorite TV writing books, and she names my now ten-year-old book her favorite of all of them.
Thanks, Stephanie! I'm honored!
Stephanie will also send you the "10 most wanted TV Pilot scripts" as PDFs, so reason enough to go to her site.
"Scarborough Fair" is a really pretty song, especially as Simon and Garfunkel sing it. But it's one of those deceptive songs. It's a really, really angry song:
Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Remember me to one who lives there,
For she once was a true love of mine.
Tell her to make me a cambric shirt,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Without any seam or needlework,
Then she shall be a true love of mine.
Tell her to buy me an acre of land,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Between the salt water and the sea sand,
Then she'll be a true lover of mine.
Tell her to reap it with a sickle of leather
Parsley, sage, rosemary & thyme
And to gather it all in a bunch of heather
Then she'll be a true love of mine
If you're just listening to the melody, you might not notice that the singer is basically saying, "Yeah, if you see my ex? Tell her I'll take her back when ... y'know what? Never."
The traditional version has both the man and the woman setting each other impossible tasks. It doesn't seem to have ended well.
There are a lot of songs that are a lot sadder or angrier than they sound. "Bye Bye Love," for example.
You can get a lot of mileage out of these. Chantal Kreviazuk took the lyrics to "Leaving on a Jet Plane" seriously and got a hit out of it. John Denver, who wrote it, makes it sound almost chipper. She's not the first; Peter, Paul & Mary really got into it.
I tend to think that "Walking After Midnight" -- which almost always goes down as a perky ballad -- is about a woman looking for her alcoholic husband after the bar closes. But maybe she just misses her ex. Either way, it could the Chantal Kreviazuk treatment.
Point is: listen to the lyrics, too.
I like to say that Shakespeare's plays are bulletproof -- if the actors understand what it is they're saying. Shakespeare's characters want stuff from each other. They say stuff to each other in order to get it. The poetry is there because sure, why not, but the plays are never "about" the poetry.
Interestingly, exegesis (the art of unpicking the knot of meaning) is a valuable skill to a creator. No one starts with a fully-fledged world. We start with a hook or a premise. What makes a coherent whole out of the work is that the rest of it proceeds from interpreting what you already have. We started WE HAPPY FEW with some premises: England, 1964, everyone wears happy masks, everyone takes happy drugs.
Building the world from there, we asked, why would people be taking happy drugs? Why are they wearing happy masks?
I pick up details about the world by thinking about them. Why are they taking happy drugs and wearing happy masks? Isn't that redundant?
Well, that suggests that they tried one and then added the other when the first didn't cut it. Doesn't it?
If there are people who aren't taking their Joy -- well, why not? Maybe it doesn't work for everybody. If it doesn't work for everybody, then presumably they've tried reformulating it. That's where we got the chocolate, vanilla and strawberry flavors of Joy.
If they have nowhere to call, then what do they do with all those phone booths?
Of course, sometimes you don't get to build the world from scratch. On CHARLIE JADE, we came on board as the replacement writing team. We had to read eight episodes and ask ourselves, "if these all made sense together, what sense would they make?" Since we were not in contact with the previous administration -- and since their episodes sometimes seemed inconsistent -- we did a lot of retconning.
And, a lot of exegesis. If Charlie is the enemy of Vexcor, why haven't they killed him? Aha, they must want to know who he's working for. Or they want to know what he knows.
I find it exhilarating when I "figure out" something about the world I'm creating. There's an "aha!" moment sometimes, when I realize, huh, if this, then that. And "that" can often be horrifying. But because it stems logically from what came before, it is inevitable and it is not gratuitous. And when the audience reaches it, they'll realize the same thing: "Oh, God, I hadn't thought of that. Of course that's true, too."
I've been trading a few emails with a young writer who's upset about some of the lack of respect in the biz.
My feeling is, in showbiz, you can have a good attitude about things or a bad attitude. Lots of people have bad attitudes. It does not help. If you want to have a happy life, either you decide, f*** it, I’m going to have a good attitude about all this stuff, and just laugh at the disrespect and hard knocks and bad luck and nepotism and so forth … or just go into a business where merit is more consistently rewarded. Talent and hard work will, eventually, get you where you want to go, but it can easily take ten years.
Look, it's showbiz, Punky. Everything they say about it is true, both the good and the bad. Talent does get rewarded. Talent does get disrespected before it's rewarded.
Also, find one other thing that you like to do, and do that regularly. I've heard that Harrison Ford was a carpenter before he was a movie star. Apparently he’s still a carpenter. When he turned down bad acting gigs, he’d tell his agent, “I’ll just build another cabinet.”
Whether or not that is accurate, it is still true.