Wagner's music is better than it sounds. - Mark Twain
A colleague recommended I look at Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. I am finding it strangely difficult to read. Overall, there is a lot here that feels heavily inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien and Dungeons and Dragons: what I've heard called "generic fantasy." I.e. a world patterned on Medieval Europe plus monsters and sorcery, longing for a lost golden age, with some sort of generic Big Bad behind all the shenanigans.
But what stops me dead are the names. I stopped reading after I ran across a character named Mordeth who was promising to help the heroes. What are the odds that someone named "more death" is really bad? And so he was.
This is the Cruella Deville school of character naming, where if you listen carefully, you can guess who's evil.
Then there are the names that are just misspelled versions of names from the mythologies of Europe and the MidEast. The Big Bad is called Shaitan (Arabic for Satan). There are magical objects called "sa'angreal," which is a variation on "sangreal," the Old French for the Holy Grail. There is a servant of the Big Bad called Sammael, which is one of Lucifer's names (Samael, "Venom of God") with another "m" stuck in there for kicks. There's another servant of the Big Bad called something based on Asmodeus.
This is the Draco Malfoy school, which requires knowing another language. (Draco Malfoy is Latin/French for Dragon BadFaith.)
(Full disclosure: we have a character in We Happy Few called Nick Lightbearer. Lightbearer is of course "Lucifer" in English. The Devil is also known as Old Nick. So he's "Devil Devil." But in my defense it's the stage name of a rock singer who's trying to be bad. His real name is Norbert Pickles)
Like a lot of writers, I spend way too much time thinking about their character's names. I find it difficult to write a character without a name; searching for the name kicks up ideas about the character. If Sally Boyle had been called "Edith Finch," for example, she could not have been the same woman. Arthur Hastings could not have had the last name of Shepherd. So Jordan poaching names with old power, without necessarily using them to mean the thing those names refer to, bugs me. (There are also "angreals" and "ter'angreals" -- Jordan loves random apostrophes as much as metal bands like umlauts.)
Tolkien put a lot of writers on a dangerous track with his names. Sauron sounds a lot like it means a big lizard. Morgoth sounds like "more Goth." But he got to some of those names via legit old languages. "Gandalf" is literally Old Norse for "Wand-Elf."
Other names are from the languages he invented, complete with vocabularies and grammars. Elvish is based on, and sounds a bit like, Finnish. Galadriel means something like "Radiant Crown Daughter" (in Sindarin, "galad"=radiance, "rî" = crown, "iell" = daughter).
I like to say that "The audience doesn't know, but it knows." It knows when you get it wrong, or don't do your homework. A name built legitimately, by the processes that make names in real languages, sounds more convincing than a name made up by using scary sounds, or when you just poach words that you hope the audience sort of vaguely knows but doesn't really know.
But then, Tolkien was a linguist. His translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight out of 14th C Middle English is still a classic. If he puts an apostrophe somewhere, you can bet it's an actual glottal stop (as in "Hawai'i").
None of this is to say that Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time books are "objectively" bad. Who am I to judge? Obviously people love them, including my colleague. I am just trying to break down what bugs me about them, personally.
In dialog, characters don't have to respond literally.
Bob: "Do we need cauliflower?" Alice: "We're busy tonight, aren't we?" (Alice is assuming that Bob is thinking of going to the supermarket tonight.)
Player direction lines generally need to be straightforward. But I like to leave logical jumps between lines intended as drama.
Likewise, people often fail to process what the other person said immediately, or respond only to the surface level, and then catch up a few lines later.
Bob: "Red or white?" Alice: "I'll just have soda water." Bob: "Red would go with the steak." Alice: "I'll go get the plates." Bob: "Wait. Really?"
... which might be an overhead conversation between minor characters or NPCs, which the player may get the hidden meaning of, or not. If it's important for the audience or player to get the meaning, then wait a few lines for the people who got it to feel smart, then:
Bob: "Oh my God!" Alice: "I peed on the stick this morning while you were asleep."
Likewise, people often respond to what they think they heard, or were scared of hearing, or wanted to hear, rather than what was actually said.
Dramatic dialog with these "flaws" feels human. It does demand a bit more attention. But that's a feature, not a bug. If you can get the audience or player to work a bit to process what they're hearing, they pull themselves emotionally into the scene.
I wouldn't recommend writing fanfic. You're using characters already imbued with personality and style, so you aren't forced to learn to create a character on the page. Also, you can't really show fanfic to somebody you hope will hire you unless they are also a fan of the same world. Also, dialog meant to be read and dialog meant to be performed are entirely different beasts.
I would recommend writing spec screenplays. I would also recommend taking an acting class, to learn how a scene pulses between the characters, and to understand how every character needs to have an intention and a goal in every line they speak.
I would also recommend your choice of writing and performing your choice of poetry, standup comedy, or rap. I wrote poetry in high school. I still fuss over the syllables and word placement of a line the way I learned to do then. It matters which is the last word in a line of dialog. It matters when in the line the other character clocks what the character is talking about/asking for/doing.
... yes, rap. Study on how Eminem twists words around his rhymes, how he fits them into the rhythm. Great dramatic dialog has a music to it. And having to find rhymes (and half rhymes and double rhymes) that communicate what you want to say makes you realize how many different ways there are to say something, and how many you have to go through to find the best one.
WHF is often compared to Bioshock Infinite with good reason, and while WHF has a LOT more features than Bioshock, there is one aspect that WHF lacks: story choice. Bioshock Infinite is a completely linear game but the story does include choices that doesn't affect the overall story beyond a small aesthetic change or getting/missing a powerup, and yet it's very significant.
For example, one of the first choices the player is presented within Bioshock Infinite is whether or not to harm an interracial couple which is being accosted by the crowd. You can choose to throw a baseball at the couple, throw it at the @sshole announcer, or do nothing. That's 3 choices that don't affect the overall story in any way but give the player the feeling of choice. What you decide will radically define who you are no matter what else happens
I guess what I'm asking is, can the development team please let me not be a jerk to Sally, Ollie, etc? It doesn't have to affect the storyline, just let me decide what type of person Arthur (and his friends) will become. It would make it so much easier to connect with him and the other two characters. If 3 options is too many, at least please give me a total of 2, a positive and negative. It would be massively appreciated. Arthur and his friends will still be mildly terrible people even if they treat each other fairly.
So. The lack of story choice - with the exception of Arthur's two big choices - was partly a result of bandwidth. We just didn't have enough level designers and animators to make small story choices.
However, it is crucial to the story that certain characters are terrible to certain other characters. Everyone in our world has been broken by the experiences they've had. If we let the player play these characters as less terrible, then that might come through as an idea, but it wouldn't punch you in the gut.
Bioshock Infinite kind of lets you off the hook, doesn't it? You can throw the baseball at the announcer because you're a decent non-racist person. But the truth of the situation is that lots of decent non-racist people would throw the ball at the interracial couple, because they're in the middle of a scary mob, and then feel horrible about it, and then attempt to justify their actions to themselves for the next thirty years.
Our story is about memory and denial. Those have a terrible cost. If you felt uncomfortable, well, then you entered into our story, and believed it at some level. Which is awesome, and thank you.
The irrepressible Richard Rouse III invited me to be part of his annual MIGS "Brain Dump" panel. I thought I'd post my thoughts from that here. The overall topic was "Easy to Learn, Hard to Master." I decided to talk about--
How to Suspend Disbelief.
As you probably know if you're reading this blog, in August, we shipped a game called We Happy Few. It’s set in a Britain where everyone is taking a drug called Joy to forget the terrible things they did in the War. Also the terrible things they’re going to do to you.
My job as Narrative Director is to get people emotionally engaged. Which means immersing people in a convincing world.
This turns out to be quite hard to master. It’s given me grey hair.
Making a convincing world is not easy, because the real world has bazillions of elements, while your fellow devs have to painstakingly create each object, each gesture, each activity in the world. Obviously, they want to keep things as simple as possible.
Thing is, when players meet a world that is too neat, too simple, too symmetrical, they call shenanigans.
Reality has a shape, and its shape is ... queer. Asymmetrical.
The Earth is not really the center of the Solar System.
Reality is made of temporary solutions that got potchkeyed on top of other temporary solutions, and now everything’s all stuck together, and nothing can be fixed. Reality is not the game you designed, it’s the game you shipped.
So if you want to create a reality, don't design a fish. A fish makes too much sense. Someone could have intentionally designed a fish. Instead, design a platypus.
When I was at Yale, I took a course on the Afro-Atlantic tradition. Of all the courses I ever took on screenwriting, this one, which had nothing to do with screenwriting, taught me the most about screenwriting.
In West African drumming, I learned, you don’t play the beat. You play around the beat. In West African textiles, you don’t make a perfectly symmetrical quilt. At least one of the squares is off center. Or different.
Our game worlds tend to go in the opposite direction. Everything is a little too symmetrical. Too relevant to the main character. Quest givers wait around to give you a quest. Monsters hang around for you to kill them.
The player is the center of the Solar System.
To create a convincing world, you need to create a layer of asymmetry. Of kruft. Rumple the bed so it looks slept in.
Give your non-player characters stories that the player will never know the beginning or end of. Yes, as far as game design is concerned, they’re there to give the player a quest. But they think they’re trying to settle a score, or get laid, or renovate their kitchen. The player is just an accident that got in their way.
Give your characters secrets. Hint at these secrets in their dialog, in the way they dress, in their animations, in what they clearly mean, but can’t bring themselves to say.
Let the player unravel the secrets if you have time and resources, but secrets are good even if you never reveal them. They shape the world, like whatever it is that makes that bump under the rug.
Let your world have absences: things that are so obviously missing you can’t help notice they’re not there. The adults in Wellington Wells jump in puddles and play in playgrounds. Uh, that reminds me, shouldn’t there be kids?
Let your world have mysteries. The backstory in Horizon Zero Dawn is a mystery which gives a structure to the world.
You don’t even have to resolve all the mysteries. People want to know what happened to the kids in We Happy Few. I know, but I’m not gonna tell you.
Sometimes the opposite happens. Your fellow devs will also want to add things that have nothing to do with the player, the story, or the world, because they are “cool” or “funny". Oh, God. “Cool” and “funny” are the death of a thousand cuts of immersion. Reality has an asymmetric shape, but it does have a shape. Players can tell the difference between things that happen for a hidden reason, and things that happen for no reason. One “cool” won’t kill immersion. But the world loses a bit of blood, and the players start to care a bit less, and more than anybody realizes. They will call shenanigans. In other words, the players don't know. But they know.To create a convincing world, you’ll have to kick up a fuss from time to time.
When I worked in TV and film, I used to wonder why directors were such jerks. Then I directed a bunch of short films, and there were things I knew were wrong during the shoots, and I didn’t kick up a fuss to get them fixed, because I didn’t want to be a jerk. And the films weren’t as good as I’d hoped.
You will have to piss people off from time to time.
That doesn’t mean be a jerk. You have to be passionate and convincing, but not be a jerk about it. If you do it right, people will love you even when you do piss them off.
I’ve been passionate and convincing, and I’ve been a jerk.
It helps if you don’t fight for “your” ideas. If you fight for what the game needs.
The immediate need is for someone to work on We Happy Few DLC in Montreal with us. This is a contract gig, so probably you have experience working in video games; but if a TV writer/playwright/novelist, at least you play video games.
We are agnostic about some things (PT or FT? junior or senior?); the key criteria are you know what a video game is, and you can write dramatic dialog with distinct, memorable voices. So I'm asking for a 2-4 page scene, which I'll probably look at first.
Also Compulsion is a really cool place to work. Check out our posting for the deets...
“We started with a few mandates: an isolated town that takes drugs and wears masks; Britain in the early '60s; no kids. From there, we retro-engineered the story. Why are they taking drugs and wearing masks? Probably to deal with a trauma. What sort of trauma? Why not something to do with the kids? If it’s Britain 1964, it probably is a trauma associated with World War II.”
Each piece led to others. After roughing out some ideas about the setting and the time period, more details started to fit naturally into place. “Given the drugs, it made sense that the characters all have individual traumas in their past, in addition to the overall ‘original sin’ of the town.”
Alan Bradley asked me a few questions about how Early Access shaped (or didn't shape) the narrative in We Happy Few. Check out the interview.
A. Get a demo reel together, get an agent, audition for roles, get a better reel.
This is my current casting proecess
Post a breakdown on Breakdown Services (North America) or Spotlight (UK). Generally I will only send it to agents, because those actors are already “curated.”
They send me submissions of people with demo reels.
I listen to the demo reel. My #1 criterion is “do I believe this performance?” Does the actor sound like they’re reading lines, or do they sound like a person in a situation.
My #2 criterion is vocal charisma. Does their voice “pop”? Some actors sound a bit generic. Some have a distinct voice I want to hear more.
I ask some of the submitted actors, through their agents, for an MP3 of them performing sides - a scene I’ve written for the audition. Here’s where having a home studio is better than just having a phone to record the audition, but so long as I can clearly hear the performance I don’t care about sound quality.
I listen to those. Same criterion. Obviously, are they right for the part? Do I believe the performance? Do they have charisma?
I direct (and record) an audition over Skype / Facetime / Google Meet. I see how well they take direction.
I pick an actor.
To give you a sense of the scope, I just got 200 submissions for a role, listened to maybe 50 demo reels (I was pressed for time), asked 8-10 people for MP3's, and called back about 4. I have no idea what other people do, but I think I spend more time on casting than other voice directors.
We all remember things in ways that suit us. In Arthur's playthrough, he is the hero, or the victim, of events; it's not his fault. Sally comes across as a bit of a flake, a bit of a mantrap, even though he's mad about her. But maybe he was not listening carefully, because Sally's explanations sound a whole lot more convincing in her playthrough. Sally even remembers saying some things that Arthur flat out doesn't remember."
I do think our world is grounded in some sort of honesty and reality. I think the best science fiction takes the real and pushes it further, until it can make its point. But if there’s no reality to begin with, it’s not grounded and there’s no emotional meaning. If it is grounded, it becomes clearer what you’re trying to talk about.
“What the community told us is that they liked these goofy encounters with these crazy people more than they liked the systemic situations. We said, ‘OK, we’ll write more goofy encounters then,’” said Epstein.
I think we have an organic process, so I can't speak for Guillaume (Provost), who's the studio head and the Creative Director, [but] we're a studio that has kind of a flat structure, so Guillaume hires immensely talented people like Whitney Clayton (Art Director), David Sears who did SOCOM, who is our Design Director on this game, and then, y'know, lets them rip. And it's an iterative process, so you don't want to draw up a design document and then just make that design document, you know?
“There’s a proverb that you shouldn't copy the masters — you go after what they went after,” says Alex Epstein, the Narrative Director for We Happy Few.
PC Games Insider's Alex Calvin How Compulsion developed We Happy Few on Early Access"On our forums, people were asking over and over whether there was going to be a story. We were like: "Yes, there's going to be a story. We're making the story; we're making three stories". But there's been so much vapourware in this business that people are like: 'Pull the other one'."