Back to normality

So, my time in the Barossa valley has come to an end.  I had a really interesting time, met some new people, had some good conversations, and hopefully set up some connections for future projects.

The venue for the conference itself was amazing.  It was about 90 minutes from Adelaide, hidden quite well among the vineyards, and absolutely the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in – the view from each room stretched out over trees and vineyards to spotted brown and green hills.  It was peaceful and relaxing and if I’d had more time, would have been a brilliant retreat.  I got here a day early and discovered that registration wasn’t until 1:00 on Wednesday, so I spent the morning out on the balcony in the quiet just writing.

In terms of the actual conference – I didn’t get to see as much as I would have liked, and the main session I came up to see on Wednesday about classic principles of screenwriting was sadly cancelled.  Of the sessions I did see, I got a lot out of hearing David Weiss, one of the writers of Shrek 2, and Darren Star, creator of Sex and the City, talk.  I was really struck by their focus on Story (with a capital S) and on strong emotional change in characters.  The classical structural nature of this really appeals to me and it inspired me to take a step back from my own projects and be more focused on the nature of a story’s emotional charge.  I also had an interesting conversation with Clayton Jacobson, the director of Kenny, about a range of things, but most interestingly about his approach to layering scenes.

My session on writing for games went well.  There was a lot of positive feedback afterwards and hopefully some new projects will emerge from it.  Thanks to Jim Shomos for setting things up and Joe Velikovsky for presenting with me.

The main focus of my presentation was on the key differences between traditional screenwriters and games writers, including what sort of skills they share and what sort of skills they’ll need to pick up.  I only had 30 minutes to talk and really wanted to use some real-world examples, so I had to focus on a few main areas:

Games are not stories

Obviously, some games have stories, but the user experience isn’t the same as traditional media.  One of the things that traditional screenwriters need to understand is that narrative games contain two stories – the story the game is telling you and also the story constructed by their gameplay experience.  I also wanted to emphasise the mechanical nature of games, and how for most of the time, a player isn’t interacting with story, but with what the gameplay actions are.  Mass Effect is a really good example of this because it’s clearly a heavily story driven game, but most of your time is spent driving around on planets or engaged in combat.

During our Q&A session at the end, Joe brought up Brenda Brathwaite’s comparison of games to opera rather than to screenwriting, which, I think, is a useful consideration when you’ve spent a lot of time immersed in film because singing + story is a far more easily understood model than gameplay + story.

Games have their own storytelling grammar

We can do things in games that we simply can’t do in film or prose or music.  The most useful aspect of this is, for me, the degree of seperation you have from emotionally engagement.  In prose, you’re 3 steps removed from that engagement.  You need to read and parse the words on the page, then imagine the scene and events, and then you’re in a position to connect with the story itself.  In film, you’re a step closer.  You still need to parse the visuals and the images meaning there’s less imagining required before you can engage with the story’s world, but you’re still a step removed from the characters.  You have an empathic response rather than a direct emotional response.  In games, because there’s a one to one connection with your actions and the events on the story, when done well, a game can directly manipulate you.  The 2 strongest examples of this for me have been Shadow of the Colossus and Bioshock.

Shadow of the Colossus is in many ways, an incredibly traditional game; the player’s goals are clear – to kill the colossi and save your girlfriend- but the way that it makes you question those goals while still encouraging you to achieve them creates a very strange, very direct, mixture of empathy, melancholy, anger, and tragedy that is only available because it’s you as the player performing the action of killing these creatures who were, really, just going about their day to day business.

The same goes for Bioshock.  As a game, it plays with notions of agency and gives the player a huge amount of choice in how they play the game before pulling the rug out from under their feet and showing that choice in Rapture, as it is in video games, is largely an illusion.

There is nothing to fear from choice

One of the common refrains heard from traditional writers about video games is that they won’t be able to craft an emotional experience because the nature of the medium deferes authorship to the player or the audience.  My position on that is that choice simply gives you another element in your narrative toolbox to engage the player.  Choice is nothing to be afraid of, but it does need to be controlled or bound, and there isn’t a single story-driven game out there that offers the player absolute freedom of choice.  Those games are simulation based, and while they may have fictional elements to provide the game’s metaphor, they are more about the player constructed stories than they are about a delivered narrative.

Writers have skills, but they need to serve the experience

Throughout the conference, there was the constant assertion that writers were at the heart of the film experience.  With games writing, this is a little different.  Design of player actions is at the core of games, not necessarily the story.  However, there are a lot of things that traditional writers do bring to games that have, until recently, been sadly neglected.  I’ve noticed that game developers can benefit from a focus on structure and pacing, on stronger character development, and on using symbolism and thematic writing.  It’s important to remember though that these things have to serve the game, that the story needs to serve the mechanics, and not the other way around.

You can find a copy of the presentation here.

The conference was the first time I’ve also seriously used twitter – made more palatable by having no internet other than my phone for the 4 days (I had a fairly strong reaction against paying 50c/minute for the hotel broadband).  I’m still not sure what I think of it, but it was fun, and a bit of a challenge to write updates that would work for both it and Facebook at the same time.

It was also the first time I’ve driven between cities.  Normally when I travel interstate, I just fly (said as though I do it all the time when, to be completely honest, this is only the 2nd time I’ve been to conferences out of the state), but I really wanted to see the space between the major hubs on this trip.  The thing that really struck me is how much of Australia is huge expanses of dust and brush and burnt out trees with little pockets of human settlement dotted along the way.  Even though it’s quite a long drive – 10 hours – I quite enjoyed it, and a lot of the scenery along the way, especially once I hit the Barossa valley, was breathtaking.

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