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GS: So you've been a friend to the work of Marc Laidlaw and other writers such as Eric Nylund. Who are some of your other notable contemporaries and influences in terms of game writing?
Well, let's see. You know who I love? I met him once, I was so excited
to meet him, I literally started jumping up and down. I'm sure he's
forgotten all about it, but, I was so embarrassed. At the same time it
was so genuine, I was truly thrilled, like a fan girl! I love Tim
Schafer's work. I think he's fantastic. I mean, he's so fearless
creatively. I mean if he has an idea, he just goes with it, and he
executes it, and it appears in his games fully formed, and I loved Psychonauts.
The more I play it, the more I'm captivated by it. So, he really is an
inspiration for me, and his writing style and mine are completely
different, no doubt about it, but he's fearless. Sometimes when I'm
questioning myself, I think like, "what would Tim Schafer do?" and off
I go. So, I love him.
GS: Well, today's your lucky day, because I don't know if you've ever read any writing by Clive Thompson? He's a freelance writer in New York City, he does a lot of writing for Wired Magazine, and for wired.com.
SO: I think I've seen some of his articles. I love Wired, it's a great magazine.
GS: Well he did a guest stint on Luke Stapley's cross-platform podcast, where he talks about Rockstar's creative process, so here you go...
Thompson: Yeah, I mean the fascinating thing is that they did exactly
what they said they were going to do. In 1999, early '99, I actually
visited them here in New York. I was writing for a magazine called
"Shift" and probably the single worst decision I'd ever made
journalistically, in video game writing.
They basically said, "We want to show you what we're doing," and took me in there and showed me sort of their game development environment, and said, "We've hired all these guys who are like designers, but they're also like skaters, they're graffiti artists, and they're DJs. Because basically, games just dealt with all this weird, geeky dungeon crap - running around, killing aliens, night elves, all this stuff. It's totally, it makes games look completely juvenile, and we want to make them mature and adult, and you do that by, you know injecting all this great street culture and stuff like that, and make them really seem adult."
And I said, "OK, well that's a good philosophy. So show me what games you got here." And they said, "Well, we've got the rights to this game called Grand Theft Auto and we're coming out with this later in '99." And they showed it to me; it was a 2D top-down version of it. And I looked at it, and I thought, "God, in 1999 they're releasing a 2D game, I mean they're screwed. This is going to go nowhere." So, I said, "Yeah, no, I don't really want to write about you." I said, "You're company's going to, yeah no one is ever even going to have heard of it," so that was my early interaction with Rockstar Games.
SO: Oh my God, I love it. It's
funny it really comes across in their stuff, you get the sense when you
play it it is almost like, same with Tim Schafer, it is almost like
someone opened a window.
I think so much of game development so self-referential and, yeah exactly, like it is going to be orcs or aliens. Sometimes I look at the lineup of top 10 games and top 10 movies and top 10 and look at like the insane variety of content you get everywhere else. Please, please, can we start doing this in games? I think you would want to and I think of the games that are succeeding are starting to bring in some of that crazy out of left field content. I think Bioshock is doing it.
GS: Well people who care about this stuff, like some of our contemporaries who go to the DEC, they are always lamenting the lack of creativity in games. Then again when I go to the store and look at the shelf there's tons of creativity in games. It's there, but maybe people don't find it.
It is there, it is, it's true and it's such a chicken and the egg
thing. I mean I meet so many game developers, like I said because I'm a
freelancer. So I go to lots of different studios and spend quality time
with these guys, and women. They are all incredibly passionate,
interesting, well-rounded people.
The developers definitely want to make a variety of content and some actually do, but I don't know where the disconnect happens, for example, with Psychonauts, everyone loved it but it didn't sell well and I don't know why, and I don't know if games just continue to market to a certain segment of our society and therefore they are the only one who think about buying the games.
This is the huge question the people are asking all the time, but the reality is maybe the people who would enjoy this stuff aren't attracted to games yet. There is such a barrier with entry to games, you know, you have to be so good at them, and to a casual person looking at some playing a Xbox 360 game and like hitting all these buttons, it's like, "Oh my God, I don't even know where to begin with that." Whereas if I go to see a movie I can just sit down and sort of just take it in. I think platforms like the Wii are really going to drop that barrier for people who normally wouldn't think about games. Suddenly they're like, "Oh my gosh, this really is fun, what's this all about?" and that is exciting to me that's going to bring new audiences in I think.
GS: Speaking about new audiences, let's talk about your writing for a girl centered projects. What are some of your particular challenges that set your writing apart from traditional male-centric games?
SO: Are you asking about writing for games that are directed at girls or writing as a woman?
GS: Maybe a little of both.
SO: Mmm. OK, well, let's see as far as writing for girls, in some ways it's easier because I used to be one, so I do get a sense a little bit about what's motivating them. I understand they want to be cooperative, in fact that reminds me of a funny story. I was at a studio, which will remain nameless. I was in the testing lab, and a lot of the guys come down to do a round of user testing and I was in the middle of the room watching, because we had just implemented some dialog and I wanted to see how it went.
All the guys had their back to me, of course. They were playing the game and they were just really tearing each other apart, but what I was really struck by was not what was going on on the screen, but what was happening with the players themselves. I mean it was a total carnage and destruction and violence and disturbing imagery on the screen, but the guys who were playing the game, like if you couldn't see what they were doing, it was so incongruous because the guys were giggling like little girls, like with utter and total unselfconscious delight. They were like children again; they were so happy and they were having such a good time. I was really struck by that.
GS: You mean like when you chainsaw one of your friends in multiplayer Gears of War?
Yeah, kind of like that. I know and it's funny, when I read these
reviews and I see these guys going berserk where I know I can just hear
them in my head, just laughing while they play that game. I want to be
careful what I say here, but men and women are probably, in some ways,
wired a little bit differently.
Cliff and I use to talk about this a little bit and I think that's not necessarily a barrier into entry, in fact quite the opposite. For example, you know, you look at the musicals in movies and in a lot of ways it's the quintessential American thing, right, Singing in the Rain and all these old things from in the '30s and '40s and '50s, but when you look at the history, a lot of those, most of those movies were made by European immigrants who came over and were able to see America with fresh eyes and translate it in this fresh way in their, in their work.
And you can look at someone like Ang Lee, who makes these incredibly powerful movies in English set definitely in America, and yet he's not from here and English is not his first language. So I think there's something to be said as a female writer writing male characters. It does take a little bit more work to get inside of their heads, but you do have that luxury of being and outsider and being able to see it with fresh eyes.
It's been actually really great. I've learned a lot about asserting myself. Since writing all the dialog for Marcus Phoenix, I found myself apologizing for things a lot less. Saying, "excuse me", "I'm sorry", I don't say "maybe" as much anymore or "I think". That's been actually really helpful in my work to be more confident.
GS: So you've referenced the creative process in film-making a few times. There are definitely some parallels there, for both media at their best are highly creative, but out of necessity they are also highly technical. Many of your clients comment on your thorough knowledge of the game production process. How does that affect your work?
The more I understand about game development the better I can be at my
job because so much of it, especially as a contractor, is about quickly
and efficiently integrating myself with the team and not having to be
told what to do or how to do it. When I first started working on games
I was a staff writer. I think if I hadn't had a staff position I
wouldn't have nearly the level of understanding about what it takes to
make a game.
It's hard to see from the outside. I mean people are just sitting at their desks typing away, like, "I don't know what they're doing." But if you're part of that system and you sort of see that information flow and you watch a project go from beginning to end. There are certain things that happen over and over and over again and you can anticipate them and expect them and have strategies for dealing with them.
For example, it is a given that a level is going to get cut deep in a production. So as a game writer you know it's going to happen, it's just a question of which once. So when they come to your office with that abashed look on their face and they stutter a little bit and they talk about their production meeting, you just sit there with a smile on your face and you're like, "Which one? Which one did you cut?" Theoretically you have strategies for dealing with whichever level they cut.
I think having that experience really helps because, especially when it comes to the game writing process, what I have found is that most studios are still sort of experimenting with ways to make it happen effectively. It's great to be able to get as many of the unknowns out of the way as possible so that you can really sort of attack the remaining problems, which is how to bring the story to life. Because I think as an industry we're all still trying to figure it out.
GS: OK, so let's get around to wrapping this up because I've taken up enough of your time. Here's the last question. Several of your client testimonials: Bob Welch and Henrik Strandberg at Atari and Ellen Hobbs at Amaze, make the point that you're punctual.
SO: Nice! That's my big fame to claim, I'm punctual.
GS: Do you think this might say something about the process of working with game writers or independent contractors in general?
SO: I don't know. It's an eye opener to me. Well I have to say I actually started out as a writer/producer, so I understand that deadlines are no joke especially when you're doing game development where everything is interdependent and everyone's waiting on that script and it has got to be in by certain times and get the recordings and get implemented, blah blah blah. That's the producer side of them talking a little bit although I hope I have more to offer than the fact I'm punctual!
GS: I don't know, I just found it interesting that three separate people made that point. I just thought there had to be something to it, you know?
SO: I guess so, although I have to say I didn't read those things too closely. Maybe I should take another look at them and be like, "Why did you say that? That's so weird!" Well thanks for giving me the heads up.
It's funny. I wanted to say also that I really am so glad that Gamasutra is doing these podcasts because it's such a great chance to listen to people that normally I don't get a chance to hear them wax rhapsodic on their process. I really enjoy it.