Emerging Writer’s Festival – Sunday

Sunday morning was spent rewriting my panel presentation – I’d decided late Saturday to change the focus of my talk from how great the collaborative process is, to talking about the collaborative relationship between author and audience and how that manifests in games.  This meant I missed seeing the speakers, but luckily through the wonders of technology, they had a speaker in the coffee room you could listen in on.

After lunch, I saw The Art vs Craft panel.  It was interesting structurally – having the panellists debate both sides of the argument against themselves – and the speakers were entertaining – Nathan Curnow wore a bunny suit to speak – but I came away with the same opinion I had going in: both Art & Craft are equally important.

Next up, was me speaking on the panel I Can Say Yes But In The End It Will Be No, talking about issues of collaboration and ownership as a writer with Liz Argall, Angela Bentzien, and Luke Devenish. Both Liz & Luke focused on the positives of the collaborative experience – an opinion that I share.  When it works, it’s brilliant, because other creative people take what’s in your head and make it better than you could have imagined it.  when it goes wrong, as I’ve seen it do, it can be incredibly frustrating though, but I think we all thought that the working with other artists had made us better writers.  Angela spoke about the practical nature of the work and of having ownership of it – especially as a theatre group, and having to come to a creative consensus.

I spoke about the role of collaboration between the author and the audience, and how that relates to ownership.  My theory is that you never really own the work, and that there’s always some form of collaboration, because writing – or storytelling – is about communication, and in order for communication to happen, you need at least 2 people.  In established media – prose, games, theatre, comics – the communication you have with your audience is one way –  it’s a creator / consumer relationship – but with games, you get the chance to turn that communication into more of a conversation.  Games are built in such a way that the audience actually has to engage with the telling of the story, they have to take action, they have to own their own agency, and they have to push through the game’s story.  Done well, narrative games have access to the audience’s emotions in a far more visceral form than the empathic response of prose or film because you aren’t watching someone on a screen do something, or reading about them doing it in a book, the audience is actively making a choice and then acting on that choice before seeing the consequences play out.  That’s something that’s really exciting and powerful to me as a writer, and hopefully I got that across in my allotted ten minutes – at least when I wasn’t suggesting members of the audience were stalking me, telling stories about mental illness, or talking about a girl who got away.

It was a lively panel, I thought.  From where I was sitting, everyone shared something of themselves, and I felt like I knew everyone a little bit better afterwards, which is exactly what I’m looking for when I hear people speak.

Next up, I went straight into my From Here to There session to talk about my experience writing games generally, and more specifically Doctor Who.  I think, a few years after the project ended, that this was a nice way to finally put the whole thing to bed.  I got to talk about how I got my start as a games writer, the greatest creative experience of my professional life (so far), the worst creative experience of my professional life (hopefully ever), and to talk in a bit more detail about the strengths and weaknesses of games as a storytelling medium.  It was tremendous fun, but also a little strange, because at times it felt like I was just having a conversation, but then I’d turn around and there would be 20 people in the same room, all listening to me, and all laughing in the right spots.

The last session was Letters to the Editor, a chance for David Ryding, the festival director, to bring back speakers and ask them questions from the audience.  It was a good way to finish up the festival – funny, insightful, and focused on the process of writing.

And that’s the strength of the emerging writers’ festival – it’s about writing, not writers.  I felt energised and inspired about my own work after hearing people speak.  I was reminded that there are as many ways of working as their are writers and that you need to find not only your own voice, but your own reasons for doing the work, and your own path through that.  I got to speak to some incredibly talented and interested people, who in turn, seemed to see me the same way – which left me with an insufferable ego for the following few days – and who also shared my drive to write and share and communicate and make it work in whatever way we need to.  That for me is the crux of the festival – bringing writers together and building a community, no matter what stage of your career you’re at.

Which brings me to a question I’ve been thinking about since I was asked to take part – am I an emerging writer?  Well, yes and no, I think.  I’m still learning.  I’m still finding my feet.  I’m still bluffing my way through some of it.  But, I know I can do it – at least for games.  So, in that area, I don’t know that I am emerging, but I don’t know that I’m established quite yet either.  Maybe we need another definition – something between emerging and emerged – but I suspect we’d then need two more definitions to bridge those, then 4 more to bridge those, then 8, then it would never stop and our dictionary would contain nothing but words to describe the stages of a writer’s career.

Maybe then, it’s enough to just say, I’m a writer, and I’m doing this work, and that’s where I’m at.  I think that’s what I’ll do.  At least until somebody stops me, takes my hand, shakes their head, and says, ‘sorry son, ‘fraid you’re not a writer.’

And I’ll look them in the eye, and there’ll be a moment between us that stretches out just a little bit too long but neither of us will say anything, and when they’re just about to pull away, their fingers losing their grip, their cold hand retreating, I’ll smile, and then I’ll kick them in the shins and run off down the street!

Emerging Writers’ Festival – Saturday

I spent the entire weekend wrapped in the Melbourne Town Hall (and Fad Gallery) for the 2009 Emerging Writers’ Festival.

On Saturday, I wasn’t speaking so I was able to attend panels, get a sense of the space for Sunday, and hear cool people talk about interesting things.

First up was Seven Enviable Lines where the festival’s six ambassadors – Luke Devenish, Kathryn Heyman, Rachel Hills, David Milroy and Pooja Mittal – spoke about the seven pieces of advice they wished they’d been given starting out.  As a fiction writer, I found Luke Devenish and Kathryn Heyman most interesting.  Luke is a playwright & teacher who’s worked on both Neighbours and Home and Away.  He had a really strong sense of the craft of writing and was an incredibly open and personal speaker, both things that I look for and try to do when I’m presenting too.  Kathryn Heyman is a novellist, and again, had a strong sense of craft and willingness to share.  I knew I’d get to catch up with Luke at some point because I was on a panel with him, but I resolved to talk to Kathryn at some point, but sadly only got to shake her hand as she was leaving the bar on Sunday Evening.  She told me I had very soft hands.  I told her I was a writer and had never done a day of hard labour in my life.

I saw two From Here to There sessions – Hollow Fields with Madeleine Rosca, and The Librarians with Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope.  These sessions were designed to give the audience more of an in depth look at a particular piece of work.  There’s something consistently comforting in hearing the stories of how people create.  There are always enough trials – the length of time it took to get the Librarians off the ground; Madeleine having entire pages of her comic rejected and having to rework them – that it reminded me that this is part and parcel of the writer’s life.

The Great State Divide was an attempt to answer the question – is there a regional voice for each state in Australia.  As an outsider, I find the question of an ‘Australian Voice’ an incredibly interesting one, but I’m not sure this session managed to answer the question.  The speakers were diverse in both content and quality – the highlight being Sean Riley who told the incredibly personal story of him growing up in Tasmania and the very clear moment where he realised he wanted to be a writer.

Last on Saturday, before retreating to Fad Gallery in Chinatown, was The Pitch where a broad range of publishers – some established, some independent – let the audience in on what they were looking for.

The day let me put into words something that I’ve thought for a long time but never actually verbalised.  Seeing such a large group of writers, with such broad ranges of experience, I still found myself drawn to particular things – and it wasn’t necessarily what they said, but how they said it.  I’m interested in people who share something of themselves at conferences, who, afterwards, you feel like you know a little bit better.  If they manage to impart something useful, some glimmer of knowledge about how to proceed, great, but I’d much rather hear someone talk who could speak with conviction and passion about why they write, letting their personality shine through.

Sunday writeup coming soon…


So, we’ve been rattling around behind the scenes for a while now, but it’s now officially out in the world – Eve Penford-Dennis & I are working on putting Freeplay on for 2009. We’re both very excited about the possibilities of the event and in continuing to support the gaming community.

Check out the announcement and our website.

Emerging Writers’ Festival

Now that the program has been officially launched, I think it’s safe to tell the world that I’m going to be speaking at the Emerging Writers’ Festival next month.  I’m doing a panel session talking about what happens when you’re the writer on a much larger project and then a From Here to There session talking about the process of writing for games and how I got my start in it.

Both sessions are on Sunday 31st May at the Melbourne Town Hall

1:45 in the Yarra Room – I Can Say Yes Now But In The End It Will Be No

3:00 in the Melbourne Room – From Here to There

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.


This week, I’ll be speaking on a panel at the National Screenwriters’ Conference.  It’s entitled “Writing- It’s more than a game” and the details are:

“The differentiation between games and films is blurring rapidly. As game graphics and other technical innovations reach a highpoint, games are depending more and more on character, story and plot… and traditional screenwriters are becoming a valuable resource for the games industry.

The major global film market (15-30yo) is spending more time and money on games than cinema – and the trend isn’t slowing. So is there a place for you in game writing? Do you have to be a user to appreciate the form? How do your skills translate to this exciting field? And is the sky really the limit? Find out how you can tap into this exciting writing opportunity from three internationally respected games writers.”

I’ll be on with Jim Shomos & Joe Velikovsky.  It’ll be an interesting panel, I think.  One of the things that I hope to stress is that games are not stories – they may contain stories, but they aren’t the core of the experience.  After hearing Zareh Nalbandian from Animal Logic talk at GCAP about convergence, I was struck by how there’s a big gap in what film people think games do and what they actually do.  His talk focused mostly on the things that narrative games share – strong stories and characters – and almost completely ignored the mechanic aspect of it.  I think there’s a lot that games can learn from traditional writers, but I think there’s a lot they have to learn about the medium before they can seamlessly make the transition.

I’ve also set up a professional development workshop with VITTA for March 27th titled Games for Learning and for meeting your VELS requirements as well! Details are:

“Games and Game Design allow a number of interconnected disciplines to interact with each other -from story writing to art to programming to design.  This workshop takes a game from its initial idea through various stages in development, demonstrating how traditional literacy and numeracy skills can be applied to game design, the planning process involved in games creation, how to deconstruct and manage large numbers of ideas, and how to brainstorm and creatively solve game related problems.”

I’m planning to blog and twitter the NSC.  Follow my twitter feed here.

This past week…

It’s been a busy, but incredibly positive, week.  The biggest news is that I’ve submitted the final work for a project that I’m incredibly excited about and should be able to talk about very, very soon.

I also finished the first draft of the first new content for my novel in over a year.  I’m working on adding chapters to fill out some character development and to stop the main beats of the plot feeling so rushed in the second act.  It’s been really strange to go back and write new content for those characters in that world, especially as it’s a novel that I began 3 years ago and the person I am now is very different from the person who sat down to write it originally.   What’s been most surprising is seeing patterns evident in the book that reflect things I’ve been going through in my personal life, and only now being aware of them.  It really brought home how the creative process is, in many ways, a process of digging through yourself.  It also really brought home how crappy first drafts are.

Other news is that I’ll be talking at the Media and Design School in Auckland at some point in the next few months, and hopefully at the Melbourne Emerging Writers’ Festival in May.

I also received feedback from my two presentations at the Victorian IT Teachers Association Conference.  You can find it here.

Site update & a short review…

I’ve added a school visit section to the site.  You can wander around it here.

I also found this brief review and collection of blurry photos from my talk at GC:AP.

“The next session I popped into Paul Callaghan’s talk on a theory of everything. He is the head of games design at AIE Melbourne and thought it would be interesting to find out a theory on everything. He was quite entertaining and talked about how a theory can be applied to all things of ‘play’ while he said play isn’t the correct word for it; it was the only thing he could think of that could be used to best describe it. He talked about that in almost everything we do we test the world, build a hypothesis, test this within the world and the re-evaluate and redefine the hypothesis. But in certain worlds there are rules we know and are aware of, or quickly learn, so we are always testing identities and ‘playing’. He mentions that we are still exploring the grammar behind the games design world and that his theory is evolving with that.”