Archive for May, 2012

This weekend I was down in Santa Monica, enjoying a nerd-powered tapas breakfast with a group of friends and a few film/TV folks I had never met before. As is customary when meeting new people, the subject of my profession came up. It’s a conversation I’m familiar with, and it usually goes something like this:

“So what do you do at Insomniac?”

“I’m a game writer.”

“So you, like, write the code?”

“I write the stories. What the characters do and say.” I pause so they can digest the revelation that my job actually exists.

“So an entire studio takes your script and turns it into a game? That’s awesome!”

Here is where my dilemma begins. Their assumption isn’t off base; in fact, it’s a pretty logical conclusion given how the rest of the entertainment industry operates. And yet, it is so completely backwards that it would take me the rest of the meal to explain the differences. So, do I launch into an explanation just so that they leave the table enlightened? Or do I take another bite of my eggs benedict, smile, and allow them to think I wield more power than I do, just so everyone can move on and talk about The Avengers?

This time I rattled off a short, bottled answer about it being collaborative and let it go at that. But every time I get asked that question, I’m reminded of just how skewed the perception of game writing is. I’ve met feature writers who tried their hands at game writing and crashed spectacularly, all because they weren’t ready for the mercurial madness of game production. So how can an industry that regularly churns out cinematic content be so different than the film industry it cribs from?

Well, for one thing, game development almost never starts with story. Every time I go to a convention, I meet fledgling writers who tell me they have an amazing game idea they’d love to pitch me. But the truth is, games aren’t pitched like movies or TV. What gets a game green lit is invariably tech or gameplay driven. A studio discovers they can do incredible realtime zero-g simulation with their engine? We’re doing a space adventure! Did the design team discover some super fun time-based game mechanic? Let’s do a time travel game! Games are built around two simple questions: “Where does our tech shine?” and “What is fun to play?”

Crafting a game story is more about assembling pieces given to us by other departments. Once we know what our core concept is, the Creative Director, Design Lead, and Writer will sit down and look at everything we have to play with as if it were a puzzle: minutes of animation time, number of characters we can build, the number of levels, etc. If the art department is passionate about a desert level, we’ll try to work it in. If a set piece was successfully prototyped, we’ll try to work it in. So while developing a feature starts and ends with the story, developing a game means assembling a puzzle with constantly changing pieces. Items are cut, rethought, added, and changed with such astounding regularity it’s almost impossible to track.

Which brings me to the next hurdle – extreme iteration. The primary goal of every game story, from Mass Effect to BioShock to Ratchet & Clank, is to provide context for gameplay. Why am I here? What am I doing? How do I succeed? Why did I fail? The answers to these questions are both critical and unpredictable. At Insomniac we test and rework every level, setup, and boss encounter to ensure the player understands what they’re doing while (most importantly) having fun. Often times, this can mean modifying characters, rewriting VO, or even cutting full levels – and as a writer, it’s my job to make sense of it. It doesn’t matter if your hero wouldn’t go through that door without backup. Those NPCs were cut, and gameplay says he needs to go through that door. Make it work!

Another common stumble feature writers make is thinking their scenes are the main focus. The best cinematics are used to pay off what could not be done technically in gameplay, provide our heroes with emotional weight, or simply cover a level load. They’re not there so you can have your gruff antihero monologue for an hour about his dark past.  Drama is great, but video games aren’t just show-don’t-tell; they’re do-don’t-tell. The medium is about experiencing the world, not watching it. Feature writers are used to a format where they control what the characters do, so this switch can be challenging. Think of it this way: it’s tough to execute an emotionally resonant exchange between two characters when they’re free to teabag each other.

The last factor feature writers struggle with is the all-too-familiar focus test line. You’ve heard them before in games. You’re walking along, slaying dragons or looking for that third generator to reboot, and suddenly your hero says something so dry and on-the-nose that it sounds out of character. “Looks like I need to access that door to reach the security room. Maybe I should use the [insert McGuffin here] I just got in the previous room!” Suddenly, you’re reminded it’s a game, and you wonder why such a terrible line exists. It’s not because the writer is bad. Well, sometimes it is. But other times we find that subtlety is lost on a lot of players, and we need to state clearly and explicitly what they need to do in order to get through a setup. Taking the hit so the game can shine is a tough part of our jobs, and many writers can’t handle it.

I’ve often joked that game writing is like building a raft of twigs and twine, and riding it down a waterfall while designers snip the twine. But changes are a part of the job, and when you find the game magically becoming more fun and engaging, you begin to understand why those changes had to be made. Those who can roll with the punches and bring a project home with a fun story will find that they took part in building an amazing experience. And that is something that no movie could ever dream of doing.

TJ

When I was around six years old, my father took me to see The Goonies at a small Cineplex near our house in rural New Jersey. What I’m certain was meant to be a way to burn a few Sunday hours (or possibly offer my mother a respite from a son with all the caution and respect of a small Kansas tornado) ended up being a pivotal moment in my childhood. Spielberg and Columbus’s tale of seven kids searching for pirate treasure captivated me with such an iron grip that I knew, even at that age, that I wanted to be a writer. Or Batman.

But though I spent that day forward learning about the craft of writing, I never stopped to ask what the day-to-day life of a writer was until college. Like thousands of other aspiring writers, I formed a hilariously romanticized idea of what professional writing is. Maybe it’s something we do subconsciously to motivate us during those days of rejected scripts and closed doors. We imagine a light at the end of the tunnel that tells us the struggle is over, and we can now relax with our Powerbooks and just be creative. Make our own deadlines. Work from wherever we choose on whatever we want. But if you’re reading this, and you have chosen to dedicate your professional life to writing, there are several things I’ll tell you here I wish someone had told me. And before you ask – no, none of these lessons would have changed my mind at all.

 

1. No story will ever be 100% your own.

Unless you’re self-publishing, no story will be completely controlled by you. There is no scenario in which you will submit a draft and have an editor/director/producer say, “Okay, wait here while we bring your ideas to life.” Even if you are directing your own work, there is always someone to answer to. Every project is a team effort, so check your ego at the door and get ready to invite in ideas from other people. The good news is, this almost always yields positive results. Notes are a good thing, as they offer fresh perspective and relieve the tunnel vision writers suffer from after they have rewritten a scene into oblivion. The flip side is, yes, you will sometimes have to make changes you disagree with. But trust in your team that the change is being made in the service of the story.

2. Being fast is just as important as being good.

Editors expect you to produce, and produce quickly. Your job is to churn out quality pages on whatever schedule is asked of you, no matter how aggressive it is. I’ve had writers tell me, “You can’t force creativity. I’ll just take a few days to recharge. My editor will understand.” Actually, your editor will be calling me or any number of writers who pride themselves on pushing past writer’s block so they can turn in on time, every time. And you’ll be replaced by the time you put down the video game controller. Honor your deadlines and put in the work.

3. Develop a stable of ideas for pitch meetings.

When you start building a name for yourself, you’ll go on what we call generals; casual meet-and-greets with execs around town. It essentially means the script you or your agent submitted isn’t right for them, but they like your work enough to call you in for a chat (this is also jokingly referred to as “The Bottled Water Tour”). During these meetings you’ll be asked to pitch your next idea. And another. And another. This is why it’s never enough to have one big idea. To stay relevant, you need several ready to go.

4. Location matters.

Trust me, I get it. LA is a ridiculous place full of plastic people, shitty parking, and more sushi bars than any city has the right to have. But if you’re looking to break into film or TV, you’re not going to do it from the east coast. Everyone thinks they are the exception to the rule, but the fact remains that the industry is out here. When an exec calls you for a meeting to talk about your script, they want you in that week. No one will wait for you to hop on a plane.

5. Focus, focus, focus.

When I was in college I wrote an action script. Then I wrote a horror script. Then, a comedy. Looking back, all of these scripts were pretty terrible in their own right. But it wasn’t my inexperience as a writer that hobbled me during the agent submission process. Well, it wasn’t only that. New writers who submit scripts in varying genres don’t appear versatile; they appear unfocused. It looks like they are trying to find their stride. This doesn’t mean you have to pick one genre and stick with it the rest of your career. Focus on one until you’re through the door, and then, when you’ve found success, spread out to other genres.

6. Write to learn, not to earn.

I know, it’s such a cheesy expression. But it’s true. Let go of the idea that the script you are writing now is going to sell, because statistically it probably won’t. If it’s good, it will get you one rung up the ladder. It will get you an exec who wants to track you, or an agent who wants to meet you. From there, you’ll take meetings and write another script. That will get you another rung up. Finally, after writing several scripts and paying your dues, you’ll start to see progress. Just be patient and humble and willing to learn from those around you.

That’s all for now! Good luck, and keep writing.

— TJ

Welcome!

Posted: May 20, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

I have to confess, I am a bit of a hypocrite. For years I swore I would never start a blog – not because I have any problem with the medium, but because of the sheer time commitment. Working writers are always struggling to make deadlines and develop original ideas. We live in (or perhaps only I live in) perpetual fear that one day we’ll find the idea well dry and begin a mad spiral into Washout Land, where socks are worn with sandals and writers sit around a Starbuck’s coffee table comparing their lives to the Hero’s Journey. So blogs always seemed like a distraction, and I swore them off much the same way I did anything with the word “Kardashian” in the title.

But over the past year, I’ve found that I may have been a bit hasty. Every week through Twitter, I get questions about what I do. It’s a flattering reminder that writing video games, comics, and features is a privilege, and it’s one I take seriously. As a kid growing up in New Jersey, I didn’t have any way of learning from working writers. Most of them lived in, well, not New Jersey. And the Internet was so new they were still ripping off the shiny cellophane around it. So I decided that if I ever did become a working writer, I would do what I could to encourage other hopefuls. Or at least give them an honest look at our profession so they could decide whether to continue, or run off screaming into the wilderness.

This takes me back to Twitter. I try to answer as much as I can, but though I agree that brevity is the soul of wit, 140 characters is just pushing it. I wanted a place where I could talk about all things story. I wanted a place where I could answer questions, or talk about what I’ve got in the works. I wanted a place where I could communicate with the same people who make my job possible.

Often times I won’t be able to go into specifics – Insomniac and DC have been far too good to me for me to betray their trust (plus, Ted Price is a skilled fighter). But I promise to share what I can, answer questions whenever possible, and keep my ranting to a minimum. Maybe.

Welcome to my blog. Apologies in advance for the madness.

Best,
T.J. Fixman
Professional Make-Stuff-Upper