Wednesday, February 17, 2021

From Destroy All Humans to the Saboteur to Guild Wars 2: An Interview with Narrative Designer Tom Abernathy

Tom Abernathy grew up surrounded by entertainment.  As a child, he acted in various plays and films.  In college, he studied to become a theater producer, and transitioned into film school to learn about directing and screenwriting.  It was the latter that had his interest, but during this time, he played video games.  Intrigued by the untapped storytelling potential of the medium, Tom eventually found himself tasked with writing the story to a game about a little grey alien invading 1950's America.

That game, known as Destroy All Humans, helped put his foot in the door and into the gaming industry.  In this interview, we discuss Tom's endeavors writing Destroy All Humans and its sequel, as well as Pandemic's final game The Saboteur.  Tom also discusses about how the industry has changed, and what it takes to become a narrative designer.  I want to thank Tom for agreeing to do the interview.

1. What led you to pursue a career in the gaming industry?

For a little background, I was a professional child actor when I was younger.  I did my first professional stage play when I was 11 and my first movie at 13.  By the time I was in college, I didn't want to be an actor anymore and looked at theater directing.  I studied that but after I got out, I realized I wasn't going to make it as a theater director, so I went into film school.

As a secondary skill, I started taking screenwriting classes.  I got interested in screenwriting as a way to develop my own creative material into films.  Even before my first term, I was enjoying figuring out what my movies were going to be.  I started realizing I liked screenwriting a lot because it worked with the pace of my mind and was more stripped down.  I came out of film school with developed screenwriting skills and honed them in Hollywood for the next few years.

At the same time, a friend of mine from high school had come out to LA and gotten a job at an Activision production studio.  He rented the apartment above mine and every night we would get together and play PS1 games.  We would often complain about how bad the writing and storytelling for most of them was.  Remember, during the late 90's games were just starting to have the technical potential to do more than what came before, so it was apparent to both of us that they weren't succeeding, especially since video games were competing for my time and money, along with things like film and television.

It was clear there was no reason the storytelling couldn't be the same quality as the other mediums I enjoyed, but that wasn't happening, and I found it really frustrating.  I wanted interesting narratives that were as enriching as the ones in other mediums.

It became my mission over the next five or six years to try and build relationships with game studios in LA while I was trying to make it as a screenwriter.  By 2003 or 2004, narrative designers still didn't exist, and you had people trying to do the same thing I was but with not much success.  Fortunately, I built a strong enough relationship with the company that my friend ended up at after the Activision-owned studio shut down that it gave me the big opportunity I had been trying for.

One of Tom's first industry jobs was working as a tester on Minority Report: Everybody Runs.

2. You've worked as both a writer and a narrative designer, how different are the roles?

Narrative designer is a role defined differently by people.  It can be almost indistinguishable from a writer.  Early in my career, I was like both a writer and narrative designer, but only because I was on my own.  I was contributing to the fictional world the game was going to take place in and I think it's important to define such roles based on how I perceive them.  Even people in the industry misinterpret the idea of narrative design as being all words and text, and while those things are involved, it's not what game narrative is all about.

You can have a game like Journey that has no words or text other than the title, but it provides a narratively satisfying experience and characters.  What game narrative is about is context and meaning.  By that, I mean the fictionalized context the gameplay takes in.  Things like the world, characters, etc. and the meaning that emerges from it as a result of that context.

For example, if I shows a grey-box environment that has a rectangle at either end of a rectangular space and I give you a ball and say, "Your goal is to kick the ball around with other players and get it in the vertical rectangle at the other end," that sounds like it could be fun for 20-30 minutes or even more if the gameplay is engaging enough.  If I say instead, "You're the goalkeeper for a Major League Soccer champion and there's an audience screaming their heads off since there's 10 seconds left on the clock," suddenly there's a whole new emotional environment around the experience and it means something to you now that it didn't before.

That's the job of narrative in games.  Some people say narrative is the icing on the cake, I think it's the egg that binds the cake together.  It touches all the other parts ideally and puts them all in the same direction to create a unifying experience.  If you're lucky and you do it right, it makes the player feel things and fall in love with the experience.

3. One of the first projects you worked on as a writer was Destroy All Humans, how did you get attached to that project?

Some of the people from the studio my friend used to work at had gone on and started their own company called Pandemic.  I already had a connection through them via my friend, which allowed me to do some things like write the manual for Dark Reign 2 and some other writing jobs.

Before either E3 2003 or 2004, my friend called me and said, "Listen, there's this game we're doing an E3 demo for and the team that's the making the game has written some stuff that's supposed to be funny, but it isn't, and the president (Andrew Goldman) is looking for someone who knows how to write."  They asked if I could write a page and a half of spec dialogue and I said yes.

I could go into the details of why, but to keep it simple, I turned out to be the perfect person for the project because the pitch for this game was Mars Attacks as a game, but you play as the alien, not the humans.  They knew it was set in the 50's and they knew they wanted it to be funny in the vein of The Simpsons.  I was in my mid 30's at the time, so I had a cultural memory of the 50's.  I wasn't alive then, but I grew with things like reruns of Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best, and I also loved science fiction from an early age.

Long story short, I wrote a page and a half of spec dialogue and the demo did gangbusters at E3.  They asked if I wanted to write the game and I said absolutely.  Before the game had even come out, everybody at Pandemic and THQ was happy with the work I had done and felt strongly about it.  THQ had put quite a bit of marketing behind it.  I'm not sure anything else I've done besides Halo Reach had the same marketing push Destroy All Humans got.

There were banners put up during the NBA Finals and the commercials they made were great because they got the joke.  They were spoofs of the 50's sitcoms and featured a moment where the housewife would jump up and zap the husband with a ray gun.  It turned out to be a bigger hit than they expected, and for me it was a case of the right person in the right place at the right time presents a door for itself and I walked through it.

The original Destroy All Humans was a moderate success, selling more than one million
copies by March 2006.

4. How did you approach writing the first Destroy All Humans?

Like I said before, the people at Pandemic wanted Destroy All Humans to have the willingness and irreverence to parody stuff that The Simpsons did so well.  Its influence wasn't just felt in shows that came after it like Family Guy, but also live-action stuff like Modern Family.  I understood what they wanted tonally, and I was familiar enough with 50's science fiction films that I was knew what genre they were pitching it in.

I had also seen Mars Attacks and felt it had failed.  Yet, you learn as much from things that don't work as things that do work.  I had thought about why Mars Attacks didn't work and was able to apply it to Destroy All Humans.

What I was asked to do for the spec dialogue was write a page and a half of thoughts that Crypto sees when he reads people's minds.  It was obvious to me when I saw the prompt what the gag was.  I knew what was dumb about the 50's and knew how I felt about the politics of the era like McCarthyism and calling everyone a Communist as a way to scare people.

When I saw the prompt, the joke was that underneath the middle American exterior, everybody is secretly depraved.  The exterior is placid and conservative, but the interior is people asking, "I wonder I can extend my two-martini lunch to a three martini one?"  or "I wonder if I can get away with shooting up before I go back to work?"

The best one that I hit upon in the spec script audition and ended up as a running gag in the final game was the one that says, "My mind says X, but my body says Y."  This was mostly inspired by the fact I had learned that movie star Hedy Lamar was a brilliant person who created a lot of stuff including what led to wi-fi.  The joke I wrote for the demo was "My mind says Hedy Lamar, but my body says Jane Mansfield" because Hedy was in a way the thinking man's centerfold.

The thoughts weren't just a way to make a quick gag, it was to say people are driven by their appetites in some way even if it doesn't look like it.  I had a ton of fun doing it and knew I was doing it well.  The humor was funny on many levels, so even if you didn't understand a joke, you at least got a laugh from causing destruction.

There's a couple of things that happened which told me we had succeeded in what we were trying to do.  One of them was a New York Times article about the game, specifically its satire.  In 2005, the New York Times did not write about video games.  The only way the press talked about games was if it was about how the industry was rivaling Hollywood in terms of size, or if someone like Bruce Willis got paid a gajillion dollars to do something by Activision.

The writer of the article got what I was trying to do, so I was happy about that.  The other thing was I had a friend from high school who called me out of the blue and said, "The funniest thing happened.  I got this game for my stepson called Destroy All Humans and we've been playing it and this stuff reminds me of my friend Tommy.  It sounds just like his sense of humor, how weird is that?"

She didn't know I was working in video games, I had just started.  She continued, "I waited through the credits and saw your name and I couldn't believe it.  It (the writing, e.d.) sounds just like you."

THQ and Pandemic were kind enough to let me sit in on the voiceover sessions from the beginning.  The audio designer came out there just to make sure I wasn't going to be disruptive, but I knew to let the director be the director.  I was able to give guidance and context in the studio to the VO director, Doug Carrigan, who would pass it on in his notes to the actors and make it all sound like I hoped it would sound.

Yet, what it boils down to is I got lucky.  I've worked in the industry for 20 years now and how I ended up where I am now is because of connections.  People trust people they know, so if somebody you worked with comes to you with an open role that you were suggested for, the people hiring will listen to that because it separates you from the piles of resumes they have.

5. How long after did you get the memo you'd be doing the sequel?

THQ was happy with what they were seeing and hearing, so they decided to green light a sequel before the first game came out.  There's a period in game development where developers try to figure out what to do next, so the writer is not needed.  Designers need to spend time building up the raw materials that will be used to make the game.

The team in Australia had a new director and lead designer, but what's funny is the idea for the sequel came out of a conversation the designer and I had.  He wrote me in an e-mail that he had been musing about the sequel and asked whether to stay in the 50's or go to the 60's.

I told him we shouldn't do the same thing over, so let's do the 60's.  Then he replied, "Yeah, let's make Crypto James Bond," and I told him, "Dude, that's awesome.  Crypto as Bond in the 60's, I could really sink my teeth into that."  They came to LA to pitch what they had, and it was inspired by James Bond, Austin Powers, and the spy films of Michael Caine.

The only thing I had a problem with that I did not convince them to change was having San Francisco as the first level.  You have to remember that there are cultural differences between the team in Australia and the one in Los Angeles, so for the first game, their view (Australia, e.d.) of America was one seen through the lens of media, hence way The Simpsons was a huge influence for them and why initially, the aliens were a bit more like the ones from the show.

They wanted to parody America, but it was an America most of them had never been to.  Much of the second game takes place in locations like London, and they knew more about that culture than I did.  Conversely, our ideas of the 60's didn't match up.  Their ideas were centered around mods and rockers, early to mmid 60's stuff, whereas in America, how we define the 60's didn't come to be until 1967 and 1968.

I felt London should have come first, then San Francisco later.  The team was so determined to get out of America that I was unable to persuade them.  I also felt they had a reductive idea of what 60's culture was in America.  Their ideas centered around hippies and how dirty and miserable they were, which I felt was unfair and I did not feel comfortable treating them that way.  This is why I feel the San Francisco level is the weakest one.  It was the one my heart was least in and I did my best to soft-pedal it, but I don't think I did a really good job.

I did end up playing one character called the Freak because me and Doug Carrigan realized we had forgotten to cast the character, so I ended up playing him.

Like its predecessor, Destroy All Humans 2 was a hit. Making at least $13 million
in revenue alone.

6. How did you approach writing the other locales?

The London level is an improvement over the first, the problem is it has what is probably the hardest mission to do in either of the first two games, where you have to chase a motorcade or something like that (it's the mission "From Russia With Guns", e.d.).  It's devilishly hard and I'm certain 80 or 90 percent of the people who played quit there because of it, which is a shame, because every level of the game after gets better.

The Tokyo level was one of the fun-nest things to write and I got to play jokes on myself.  For a long time, I didn't know the meaning behind Nippon Ham-fighters, I thought it sounded funny for a Japanese professional baseball league.  Only while we were writing did someone say, "No, they're not the Nippon Ham-fighters.  The team is owned by Nippon Ham, Fighters is the name of the team."  I felt really stupid, but it was one of the funniest things I've heard, so I put in a joke that the city's baseball team is called the Ham-fighters based on my misunderstanding.

Some of it might come off as jingoistic now even though I didn't intend it.  I love Japan and managed to spend some time over there when working on a later project, and Tokyo is one of the most incredible places I've ever been to.  I meant nothing in a disparaging way, but I loved poking fun at Japanese pop culture as much as I did American and English pop culture.

The Tunguska and moon base levels.  The guys from Pandemic Australia came to me with a barebones plot outline up to getting into Tunguska.  They had the idea of going to these two places, but the only had the plot for at least the first two levels.  Something narrative designers are often called upon to do is retcon a bunch of choices that weren't coherent and turn them into something coherent.  If you can do that, it's something you can make a living doing.

Regardless, they knew the enemy was a new alien race called the Blisk.  When I was young, you got to order books from Scholastic and every few months, a package would arrive with the books you picked.  One of the ones I had gotten was a "strange but true" stories type of deal since I loved Ripley's Believe It or Not, Guinness World Records, books with unusual facts.

One of the books was about the Tunguska blast of 1908 where there was a massive explosion in Siberia, and no one knew what caused it.  When they had told me the fourth level was going to be in the Soviet Union, specifically Tunguska, the first thing that popped into my mind was the Tunguska blast.

I started to think about the Blisk, the Tunguska blast, and the sketchy origin story we had laid out in the first game.  In developing the sequel, I thought, "What if the blast was actually the crash landing of a Blisk ship?"  From there, I thought that the ones who survived disguised themselves as humans and were the driving force behind the 1917 October revolution with Lenin and Trotsky and formed the spine of the Communist party.  And I concluded, "What if the history of the Soviet Union is the history of the Blisk on Earth?"  and I sat there thinking, "Holy crap, that's the coolest idea I've ever thought up!"

I was able to tie it into something that was coherent, made sense, and tied it to real-world mythology.  I told designer Rob Davis and we made a branching dialogue tree for the climatic scene where the Soviet president reveals what's going on.  As someone who doesn't like things that are superficial and flimsy and is satisfied by deep, rich actions, I don't know if I've ever had a more satisfying idea, creatively speaking.

Quickly, I have to say a word about Natalya.  I don't remember fi she was in the developer's mind already or not, but I loved the character.  I loved 60's sci-fi stuff like Barbarella and coming up with a character who was sort of a Bond girl but also progressive in terms of sexual politics and took no scruff from Crypto  was a treat.

To be able to create a solid female foil for him was gratifying and Courtenay Taylor killed it.  Finding actors who can do plausible Russian accents was not easy, but not only that, she got the character.

7. Were there any story ideas you had for Destroy All Humans and its sequel that ended up on the cutting room floor?

That's a good question, but for the first game, almost two-thirds of the plot had been figured out, about up to when Crypto finds his dead predecessor on a slab.  I worked with them from there to come up with the rest of it.  In the case of Destroy All Humans 2, they had laid out the base plot for a couple of levels.  Because that was the case, I don't recall any story ideas I had.  Those guys may have dispensed some stuff by the the time I was in, but to a certain degree, enough of an idea had been laid in story-wise.

8. I know you sat in for the voiceover sessions on the first game and based on comments by other people, the Furons were supposed to have British voices but they got switched to American voices.  Can you elaborate on this?

As I've said, the original idea was based on the aliens from The Simpsons.  It was workable, but not funny. With The Simpsons, the aliens are rarely used.  They're almost like Statlor and Waldorf from The Muppet Show.  When I was brought on, the higher-ups at Pandemic LA decided it was something they did not want.

Interestingly, I never heard about the British idea.  I've heard about it since, but I wasn't told at the time.  I don't know if it was a communication issue or whether the people in LA didn't want to color what I might bring to it, but I don't remember anyone speaking to me.  All I know is they weren't satisfied with designer dialogue that had been recorded for the E3 demo.

When I was writing Crypto, it took me a while to find his voice.  He is more formal when he lands at the barn, and that was some of the first dialogue we recorded, but I was still feeling Crypto out along with him and Pox's relationship.  I don't know when I realized it needed to be a bit contentious a'la M and Bond, but I realized it pretty early.

So, Grant Albrecht comes in and Douglas and I are talking about what his voice should sound like.  At this point, I realized who Crypto was, he's the American Id unchained.  He's a rugged individualist in the way Bond is.  He's a lone wolf who pays no attention to what orders he's given and does what he wants to do.  I brought an American-ness to him, and what I found after he lands on Earth is that he kind of likes it.  He find out has more of an affinity for the place than he imagined.

I knew that, but I didn't know the voice.  Grant is in the booth, and we started playing with voices.  We started with the classic American action leading type.  The short list included Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Charlton Heston, and Jack Nicholson.

The Jack Nicholson immediately intrigued me one because Grant does a good impression, but also because it brought to mind Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  He's a guy who could go off at any minute.  The voice worked, but it wasn't quite right.  We needed something from one of those other guys to lock it in.  At some point, I asked Grant, "What if you tried doing 2/3's Nicholson and 1/3 Charlton Heston?"  He opened his mouth and I nearly jumped out of my seat next to Doug Carrigan telling him that's it.

People recognized the Nicholson, but I thought it was important to have the 1/3 Heston because it wasn't right without it.  It was a tough enough balance to pull off that with Grant and we'd have to play back the audio to keep him on track because he could fall off into just Nicholson or Heston.  I love the performance and I think the Charlton Heston aspect doesn't get enough credit as it should.

"Crypto is like Bart Simpson crossed with Austin Powers wielding a Zap-O-Matic and
with a chip on his shoulder."

9. Were there any talks of Pandemic doing Destroy All Humans 3?

Not really.  The reason is the second game, while it did well, didn't do any better than the first game.  Of course, the economic rule of games is that each successive sequel is supposed to make more money than the previous one.  THQ came back to us and asked us to do Destroy All Humans 3 even though Pandemic had a contract for just the first two.  Plus, they were only willing to give us 15 million dollars to do it and they wanted it done in nine months.

I couldn't tell you what the budgets of the first two were, but what I can tell you is that the development time of the first game was three years and for the sequel, at least a year and a half.  The top guys at Pandemic said, "We don't feel we can hit the quality bar we have hit with our other titles and even the first two games.  We'd gladly do it with the proper time and resources, but that's too barebones."

In some ways, I wished I had been able to be in contact with the guys who wrote the other two games, that way I could have told them stuff like how it's not just a Nicholson voice, there's Charlton Heston too.

10. One of the other games you wrote during your time at Pandemic was The Saboteur.  How did you get attached to the project?

Around the same time I was working on Destroy All Humans 2, another team led by Tom French was putting together a WW2-themed project and asked if I could work as a writer.  Rarely do we get the opportunity to create an original IP.  Very rarely does a person in my position get to create a world, to make fundamental decisions about what that world is like.

There were a few things that had been penciled in when I was brought on to the team.  Interestingly, in the original demo for The Saboteur the character was more of a Jude Law, "Pip, pip, boy!" type of character, which no one liked.  They knew they wanted the character to be a Grand Prix driver who gets recruited into the SOE by France.  Originally, it was set in all of France, but we cut it down to Paris because of scope considerations.

Before I started doing research, I didn't have a proper understanding of how big the scope of World War II was.  It's so big then anyone's head can comprehend.  Having given ourselves this idea was great.  One thing Tom and the other leads knew they wanted someone grounded, more of an underdog.  They had figured out they wanted a best friend who was his mechanic and that the racing team they were part of was inspired by Enzio Ferrari.

We were influenced a little by Casino Royale.  That movie made quite a thing of being about an unfinished Bond, someone who was a blunt instrument and not like the Roger Moore Bond.  We wanted to roughen up the character.  We also considered what nationality he should be.  If he's British, then he's Cockney, and to Americans, British equals a little less masculine, and that was something we couldn't get around.

At some point, I told them Irish because to an American sensibility, we have a lot of affinity for the Irish cause in the past, they were perceived as the roughhouse type.  We wanted him to have an identifiable profile, and Indiana Jones was what we used as a basis.  We didn't all agree on this, which is why some aspects of the final product are a bit more R-rated and worked better than I though it would.

It took forever to come up with the name.  I spent at least a year and a half coming up with the name Sean Devlin.  I pulled Devlin from a a character in the Cary Grant film Notorious, and it was a name that was onomatopoeia in a way that you knew he was rugged and could handle himself.  My other choice was "Rogan" because it was a name that sounded like "rogue."

During the naming process, we ironed out the way we would establish him as being blue collar, which was that he was the first mechanic for Marini and Jules, his best friend, joined later.  Devlin had been pressed into service because they didn't have a driver and it turned out he was pretty good at it, yet he still thought of himself as a mechanic.

11. How did you develop the characters and world?

We had the crew, and it was decided that early on in the game, Jules should die.  We wanted to kick the player in the gut and get them emotionally invested.  I wanted players to get attached to Jules in the little time he's present, and be as charming as he can be, so that when he gets killed, it's as bad for you as it is for Sean.  I spent a year and a half working on the story, with occasional input from Tom French, the artists, and some other writers hired by contract.

The director wanted there to be a brothel.  Sorry, wrong word, a burlesque house.  This was when our disagreements about the tone began to rear its head.  I went about making the burlesque house Sean hangs out at as nice and non-threatening as I could.  I got the name Beldin Nuit from the movie Belle du Jour and beldin is French slang for lady of the night.  Some aspects of the brothel were based on contemporary flicks like Amelie, but I also knew there were many mom-and-pop type shops in Paris.

I started to think about love interests for Sean and like the Bond movies, I wanted there to be numerous ones.  Like Natalya, I wanted them to be strong and interesting.  As I researched the SOE and French resistance, I was struck by the fact the two factions started as allies and eventually became antagonists to each other.  There were two movies that came out around development that were helpful in this regard.  One was Veronica Garron, which was based on a woman who was in the SOE.

Another movie was The Black Book, a Dutch film about a woman in Amsterdam who is recruited by the resistance to sleep with a Nazi officer in order to try and get secrets from him.  What I arrived at was there had to be two love interests and they should represent the point of view of the organizations.

One should work for the SOE, the other for the French resistance, and over the course of the game, as the relationship between the two factions begins to fray, so should Sean's relations with the women.  They should represent a choice Sean needs to make about where he was going to put his allegiance.

The first one I came up with was Veranique, who was the daughter of the club owners and a teacher before the war.  She started going to the French resistance meetings, and it's how Sean ends up in the group.  Likewise, I decided the other character warlike Paris Hilton but smarter.  She initially uses her money to dabble in activities like race car driving.

I liked the idea that to set her up as the voice of the SOE for Sean, she would be recruited by the SOE to be a pilot.  In that way, I could physicalize them as the angel and devil on Sean's shoulders.

You may know more about what happens than me since I haven't played it much, but another guy was brought on who added a couple of characters.  Based on what I played, he didn't change as much as he claimed.  I don't know to what extent how all my ideas played out, but these were my intentions during the time I was on.

We were originally going to go to the end of the war but the team was asked by EA to stop at the liberation of Paris because they wanted to leave it open for potential sequels.

The Saboteur was the last title put out by Pandemic.  In December 2009, the Australian and Los Angeles studios were closed.

12. What are your key takeaways from your time at Pandemic?

I learned about game development.  Tom French taught me about game design, and I also had two different experience working with teams in the form of the Destroy All Humans team in Brisbane and The Saboteur team in LA.  The Brisbane folks I didn't get to spend as much time with in person, though I visited them twice.  That was a team where our cultural differences and communication difficulties meant we had some challenges, namely because we couldn't directly talk.

The Saboteur team was different in that I was embedded with them the whole time for three years.  For writers, when you get put onto a game design team and are around them all day, it's quite different if you're used to working alone in a room with no noise.  I got a ton of experience working with voiceover actors and adapting my skillset to be really specific with working with them in the most effective way possible.

I also learned how important producing is to a game.  If I ever started my own studio, the first person I'd hire would be the top producer because if you don't have strong producers, you'll never get anything out the door.  If you don't get anything out the door, you won't last long.  That is something Pandemic found out, to its regret, and it's not the only developer I've worked with that was true of.

Pandemic was a wonderful place to be that rivals ArenaNet in my affection, but it was an important thing to experience that if you fall too in love with the projects you're trying to make, and get too perfectionist about it, that's the most dangerous thing to do to development process.  This can set you back months, sometimes years, and you can't afford that.

If it's a triple AAA product, especially one that's part of a franchise, you need to get a new game out the door absolutely no more than three years or sooner if you can still make it good.  You need to have it out on the market or else your lights aren't going to stay on.  That Pandemic could not achieve what it was trying to do with games like Mercenaries 2 and some projects is part of what led to EA shutting Pandemic down.

13. What do you do when you're stumped for ideas?

When I was at Pandemic, Matt Colville and I tried to put together a narrative team that was not project specific but was spread across the company.  It's the easiest way for me to do things like make sure we're hitting the same quality bar we hit for all our other products.

It's useful in another way.  I have yet to see a storytelling problem that isn't more effectively solved by having more brains applied to it.  I figured out early on that, ideally, if I could make it happen, I wanted to have and utilize a writer's room.  I am not necessarily the guy who's going to come up with all the brilliant ideas, but what I am good at is sitting in a room, hearing people make suggestions, and figure out which ideas will work with others.  When brought together, we can make it three times as awesome and then twist it in a way that makes it more awesome than that.

14. Besides working in video games, you've done a couple of projects in film and radio, like 2014's Bad Country.  How did you get attached to that project?

During my time as a screenwriter, I had the experience most screenwriters have, which is writing a lot of movies that almost got made and never did.  I was hired by a well-known show runner named Hugh Wilson to write a screenplay based on the experiences of two cops in Baton Rouge.  In the early 80's, they found there was a guy living in their parish who was the head of the Aryan Brotherhood, the prison inmate branch of the Aryan nation.

One of them decided to see if he could roll this guy and turn him into an informant.  There are hours of these cops detailing what happened, and they see it as an adventure.  What I think was evident to me listening to the tapes that I don't think was evident to them or the producer was this wasn't a romp.  It was a story about a guy who thought it would be fun to reach down the disposal, pull out the dregs, and play with them.  He didn't realize he might be jeopardizing his soul in the process.

That's what I saw in the screenplay.  I wrote a screenplay that was entertaining in many ways, but it gets the dark the farther it goes.  I called it The Real Deal, which was a title that had a number of different meanings.  In my mind it represented the deal with the informant Jeremy Peters, rather, the deal with the devil he accidentally made.

Long story short, this was not the version of the story Hugh Wilson or the guy who first brought the story to him wanted to see.  They saw it as a fun, exciting thriller, I saw it as something like Serpico.  I forgot all about it and moved into the game business, when out of the blue I got an e-mail from the producers who acquired it.

They wanted me to look at the new script someone had written.  I read it and noticed it featured a character I had written in my version of the story.  When I told them, it made them nervous, but I instead asked them to just give me a "Story by" and "Associate Producer" credit and call it a day.

While the producers had hoped to give it a theatrical release, Bad Country instead
went straight to video and came out in 2014.

15. How has the gaming industry changed since you started?

We're more reliant on sequels and franchises now, just like the movie business.  I think that's unfortunate because I think it makes for a less rich body of work.  The difference is a lot of filmmakers who don't make big movies have migrated over to TV.  There is a place for people to go do that kind of work and still enjoy it.

We don't have something like that for games.  Games like Destroy All Humans or The Saboteur wouldn't get greenlit today because the appeal is seen as too limited when the goal is to appeal to the broader market and the best way to do that is with a pre-sold product the public already loves.

From the dev's point of view, in a general sense, a lot of us are tired of just working on the next Halo or Assassin's Creed.  It's an endless repetition of successive sequels or smaller, pocket versions of the same thing like Spider-Man: Miles Morales.  I love them, but it gets old.  Yet, you look at something like Cyberpunk and it's hard to launch a new IP.

I also think we need to do a better job of figuring out a business model that doesn't put human beings and their families in uncertain or unstable positions.  It causes a tremendous amount of trauma and drives them out of the industry.

The other thing that drives people out is toxic leaders.  We don't have a process for making leaders who are grown and mature.  Maybe you get lucky and have somebody good, but what is far more frequent is the rank and file are marvelous people to work with, but the upper levels of leadership are occupied by people who don't know the limit of their knowledge and expertise.

They think expertise in one area means it transfers to another, which is not the case.  They often behave towards others in a way that is traumatizing and despicable.  So often in our business, the earlier generations who were picked on in high school got some power, feel like they're the king, and act like it.

The result is this paradoxical situation where the people on the ground are wonderful and if they have issues, we can work them out.  When you get to the executives, far too often, those people are capricious, mercurial, are quick to act out emotionally and not apologize for their behavior.  We need to have trauma-free workplaces, but the industry tends to forget that.

16. If you weren't in the gaming industry, what do you think you'd be doing?

I think it's safe to say I feel a bit of regret having left Hollywood because TV is so great now.  In the mid 90's, television was still a medium looked down by the film folks.  To the teachers at my film school, TV meant cheap sets, seeing shadows of the crew or boom mic, writing that was sub-par, and acting from actors who weren't meant for film.

The film industry has funneled people who are interested in doing something interesting but not gigantic and spectacular into television.  I could teach a class that charts the evolution of television and connects the dots from show to show.

Ironically, working on Guild Wars 2 has allowed me to fulfill my desire to work on serialized content since we're gradually developing the world and characters.

17. What advice would you give to those looking for a career in game writing or narrative design?

The short answer is there is no beaten path.  The upside is that's there's no specific thing you need to do or has to be done.  Someone asked me recently do you have to have gone through some game design program or undergraduate degree.  No.  Nobody cares whether you've gone through a program.  All anybody cares about is if you know what you're doing.

The caveat is can you demonstrate that you bring the goods.  For writers and narrative designers, that means if you're applying for a job, you need to show a portfolio of work that demonstrates your skills.  The second thing is connections.  I did not get a job in the industry that didn't involve someone I know going to the person that was hiring and saying they should talk with me.

Some are probably wondering how they should make this happen.  My answer is making it happen by getting out there, going to where places make games are, and making friends with them.  I mean it sincerely.  If you're trying to get in, find some people who are starting out like you.  Ideally, find someone who is in a game program or making an indie game.  They are close to your level and might need help with something they don't know how to do.

Go to the special interest groups like the IGDA (International Game Developers Association) and sign up, pay the membership fee, and meet the members.  Go to game events like GDC.  The most important relationships are built after hours, after the sessions are done.  Find those people, lurk outside where they do the conventions if you have to.  Lots of people do it, so you won't stick out like a sore thumb.

For narrative folks, we are a small group of people and are easy to make friends with.  We tend to have things in common and we all want to see you.  We want you to come and introduce yourself.  We help people connect because they will help you connect with other people and create opportunities to start being creative.  Just getting in the door to talk is the hardest thing to do, along with being able to do the job well.

It's not impossible, it's doable.

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