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.
This was a busy week for dialog. I recorded seven hours of sessions with six voice actors; next week I’ll record more.
Not every voice actor is equally talented. Some nail the line just from reading it; those actors are gold. I can easily get 180 lines an hour with someone that skilled. Fortunately, those are often the people who can do multiple different voices and accents, so we can use them for multiple encounters without the player thinking, “Enough with that guy, already.”
(On the other hand, there is always a limit to how different a human can make his voice sound; and the further someone gets from their natural voice, usually the harder it is for them to remain emotionally truthful as an actor.)
It goes more slowly with people who are less skilled. I sometimes have to build a performance, first saying, “really ask the question,” then “okay, and you’re 20 feet away from the player when you ask it” then “and you’re really pissed off.”
“Really ask the question” is something I have to say a lot. When you’re running through a bunch of lines on a page, it’s hard to invest your soul in each line. Sometimes they come out sounding like, well, like someone’s reading lines off a page. That’s when I have to say, “Okay, I really want to get a sense who you’re talking to,” or “Really ask the question like you want an answer.
Some actors can do an accent, or act, but not both at the same time. Fortunately, most of our NPC’s are regular middle class British folk, and so are our actors.
A lot of this work goes unnoticed, if I do it well. When it comes to conversations that you hear in the background, if it sounds human and real, then you won’t notice it. If it sounds wooden or contrived, you’ll notice that it’s bad.
I wonder what's playing on the Victrola. No, seriously. That's part of my job.
Or, you won’t notice. But you will know somehow. You’ll feel more like you’re in a game and less like you’re in a world. I like to say, “The audience doesn’t know, but they know.” I guess I'd unpack that to mean, “The audience doesn’t know what’s right, but they do know when it’s wrong.” If the actors, even in the background, don’t believe in the imaginary circumstances, then the player won’t, either. If we get details wrong, the player may not necessarily be aware of them, but the player will feel shenanigans are going on.
Apropos, Whitney and I had a big argument over dumpsters, or “skips” as they seem to be called in England. David needs places for the players to hide. Dumpsters would be easy to make. And there were dumpsters in England in 1964.
However, in our world, there are no functioning dump trucks. The whole point of a dumpster is that it is emptied by machinery, not by hand. So, from my point of view, there can’t be dumpsters.
We had a big jolly back and forth about that. (I might have said something like "I hate that with the fiery passion of ten thousand suns.") In the end, we settled on ash carts. They’re a bit like dumpsters on wheels – a small skip that a horse pulls. While the Wellies don’t seem to have any surviving horses, they probably do burn coal, and coal makes ash, and ash has to go somewhere. So ash carts make sense. And it is revelatory if a world without horses is still using horse carts to get rid of coal ash. Clearly some poor bastards are dragging the ash carts around when you’re not looking.
Ceci n'est pas une ash cart.
Also, we already have an ash cart, from Contrast.
The audience doesn’t know, but they know. They wouldn’t necessarily think, “Dumpsters, wtf?” But they would maybe feel like our world was a little less hallucinatory. Hand-drawn horse carts in 1964 reveal something about the world. It’s those details that create emotional engagement, I think.
We're off to PAX East in a couple of weeks. Come to our booth if you're there!
Q. Several times have I sent short excerpt writing samples to (below-the-radar) microstudios that asked for them in Internet classified ads. Not once have I even gotten a "hello" in response. I have a sneaking suspicion that these sorts of cattle calls are to bring in fresh material to "inspire" the writer on the other end rather than bring in new writers, but I really have no idea. In the big leagues I imagine that practice is quite common, but at this (purported) level I don't see much benefit in ripping off the other little guy, though I suppose it is possible that these are A-list screenwriters running a sort of scam. What do you think?
I’d be surprised if that were true. Most writers get their inspiration from watching movies and TV, or their own lives, or occasionally from reading scripts that have won awards. Speaking personally, I don’t want to read someone else’s version of a story. I want to come up with my version of the story. That’s the fun of being a writer.
Most people don’t hear back. Unless a studio likes some material and wants to bring the writer in, they’re not going to write back. The exception would be if someone is really good and the reader likes their work but their boss went another way, they miiiiight send an encouraging note. But that’s rare.
That said, I have no idea what these “microstudios” are or why they’re asking for writing samples in “internet classified ads.” Do any readers know anything about this? Legit development people generally ask agents for material to read, not the internet. A development person would rather read material that at least one person (the agent) has already decided is worth reading; and the agent protects the writer, too, because there's now a third party that knows that the development person has read the writer's work.
On the other hand, it certainly is true that at the studios there is a habit of bringing in a lot of writers to offer their “take,” and then going with the guy with the reputation. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ideas some of the lesser-known writers offer do manage to make it into the eventual script. That’s just part of the deal you accept as a writer. Ideas are cheap. It’s the execution that people pay for, mostly.
This week I wrote up another slew of encounters, including one in which we discover how Wellies become Wastrels. I wrote up a bunch of conversations that Bobbies can have between each other while you’re stalking them. Apparently they discuss boots and food a great deal, but you might learn one or two things about the world if you listen. We’re prepping for our big recording sessions next week, where we hope to get quite a lot of encounter dialog with multiple actors in England, drawn from, I am told, a theatre. Let us know if any of the new dialog, once it’s integrated, sounds stagey.
As you know we’ve been working on a “death and dying” update. Naturally, that calls for Arthur to have an obituary. Because we are quite mad, the obituary for each cause of “going on vacation” will have a few different bits of Arthur lore; all of which requires a bit more thinking than writing.
In my copious free time, I’m continuing to work on Mad Scotsman’s playthrough, editing the cutscenes. We’ve discovered that some scenes were not adding enough to his story to justify their existence, so we cut them, and I’m weaving the remaining scenes back together. That will take a little new dialog, a new encounter, and some environmental cues.
And, I’ve been looking for someone to video us at PAX. I think I’ve found a good guy. Hopefully you’ll see some nifty updates.
Meanwhile we’ve been discussing and designing the new multiplayer mode. Obviously we can’t have players just talking to each other with headsets; they won’t have the right accent, generally. To keep the “voice” of the game we’ll probably have to use some sort of system where players can select barks from a range of prerecorded responses. In keeping with our overall ambitions, it should be a pretty wide range of responses. Once we implement full body awareness, players with motion capture rigs (like a Kinect) should be able to communicate by gestures, too. We won’t have any of that ready for PAX, but maybe soon after. So far, we’re primarily testing multiplayer in the Linux build.
Everybody says a screenplay should have a theme, and game makers are coming around to the idea too. Well, I can't tell you much about it, but we are currently in negotiations to bring We Happy Few to a theme ... park! A major Japanese corporation, whose name sort of rhymes with "money," thinks We Happy Few would make the ideal theme park attraction. "You've really captured a whole world in your game," they tell us, and so they want to help us build a physical version of the world at a location I can't disclose yet.
This should be pretty amazing. I've always wanted one of those Happy Face Mask chairs for my living room. Maybe they can build me an extra one.
Obviously the attraction will mostly focus on the Village of Hamlyn; I'm not sure how many people really want to spend time in the Garden District. But what's most exciting is that they think they can make a deal with a pharmaceutical to bring an (over-the-counter, obviously) version of Joy to the deal. That's why the theme park won't be in Japan itself -- we need a country with slightly looser pharma regulations. But you'll not only be able to walk among the Wellies, you can be a proper decent Wellie yourself.
Just don't be a Downer. No one likes a Downer. You know what to do if you see a Downer, right?