Five For Writing – Lauren Stone

This week’s Five For Writing is a day late, for which I apologize, but I promise you it’s worth the wait. Today’s guest is Lauren Stone, narrative lead on the Division franchise and doer of All The Things story-related for Ubisoft. Her credits are diverse enough to include both Rainbow Six: Siege and Eagle Flight. I had the privilege of working with Lauren on The Division 2 and she is smart, fast, funny, and sharp. But enough of me talking about her; here she is in her own words.

1-What says good game writing to you?

Good game writing to me is narrative that supports, enhances and elevates the experience. Anything that helps support and build the world, the mechanics and the player experience is good game writing to me. Whether that is a piece of UI Text that gleans clarity or a cinematic
that makes you cry.

2-How do you keep a story like The Division’s going years after release?

By focusing on character. Though we may be almost 6 years past the original release of Division 1 we haven’t even spent a full year in the world in terms of the story’s timeline. We have really only made it to late-August in the currently released content and October in the new novel that is coming out in February 2022. The majority of our story is told in the past and through flashbacks in the form of audio collectibles and active missions. It’s been 6 years for us but only 10 months for our characters.
As we explore new regions, we meet new people and all of those people have rich histories and backstories that made them who they are and how they react to the situation at this point. We get the privilege of learning more about established characters by meeting people we’ve never met before and getting their perspective on the state of the world and what our characters have represented to them based on how they have been treated by agents of the Division or individual interactions with our established characters. We will be learning more about many of our established characters in future content releases over the next year and I’m excited to see how the community responds to the new information they get about these people they think they already know. The funny thing about people is we are always much more complicated than expected and unless you directly ask someone why  they do a thing and they answer honestly, you can never truly understand someone’s motivations or reasons for behaving the way they do. As long as people are complex and your  characters are built like real people, you will never run out of potential stories you can tell about them.

3-You help coordinate novels based on Ubisoft IP. What makes a good transmedia novel in your

One that respects the source material but explores different types of stories that work better for the medium. We get to be more internal in a novel. We get to focus on motivation and character in a way that you can’t really explore in the game without it feeling cheesy or like the writer is trying too hard to be clever. My favorite things about transmedia is that it allows you to engage in the world in ways that are suited to the medium. What works for film does not always work for a novel or an audiodrama, what is perfect in a comic doesn’t always translate to the game. If your world is rich you can make a piece of art in any medium. My weird dream that will never happen because I am a musical theater kid would be to make a Division Musical with Lin Manuel Miranda, my original dream before getting involved with transmedia was to have him get into a booth and just freestyle rap about the state of the world and be an NPC in a safehouse near Broadway. That Lin was just a person who survived and tried to keep making art. This is my weird fantasy that will never happen, but, eh, weirder fantasies have become reality and sometimes throwing things out into the universe can result in the world echoing back, “yes please, I want to have that.”

4-How do you instill narrative in a game like Rainbow Six: Siege, that doesn’t have the sort of
structure that generally allows for narrative development.

The same way I approach all narrative design. I look at the constraints as opportunities. All we have is barks, which means all we have is character. We have ambient audio to build the map, we tell a fixed story in the map. We use the art to build the world. We use the textures and marketing to ground the characters. Multiplayer live games in general are not built to tell a single player narrative experience. That is not the goal. A lot of the stories in games that are traditionally elevated as being amazing are really screenplays with combat beats. The richest and most complex stories are in games that are much more complicated than that. But I think people still expect the game to fit in a screenplay format, especially for award shows. We need to retrain people on what qualifies as story. It’s not just the cinematics. Especially when you can hold A to skip. It’s the content you engage with regardless of how expensive or long you engage with it. The small moments are the things that people remember. The weird lines and characters or a stunning piece of art. A moment that is real and evocative and makes you feel something and helps you better understand the world is a great piece of story, even a piece of graffiti that lets you know the True Sons are here, get ready, can be a wonderful and necessary story that helps the player engage more fully with the world.

5-What are you looking forward to seeing in game writing as we go forward?

I’m looking forward to people respecting barks. Respecting the Menus and HUD. Respecting each other’s work. I’m looking forward to the future where we realize everything matters and everything is worth focus, attention, energy and consideration. Every person in your world from the studio to the characters is deserving of having their humanity and contributions seen, celebrated and respected. I’m looking forward to people realizing that game narrative is a viable option to tell story, to build a career, to create stability and art. I’m looking forward to more people learning how to use the constraints as opportunities.

Thanks so much to Lauren for her time and thoughtful answers, and check out her work on the ongoing saga of The Division.

Next week things are going to get a little crazy – I’m interviewing…an editor.

Five For Writing – Jesse Scoble

Jesse Scoble has the singular misfortune of being a good friend of mine. A Chief Narrative Designer at TenCent, he’s done stints at Ubisoft (HyperScape, Assassins’ Creed: Odyssey, Far Cry 5 and others) Wizard101, Webkinz and more. He has contributed to Beyond the Wall; The Bones; co-edited two short-story anthologies in the  Silver Age Sentinels TTRPG setting; and co-edited James Hsu’s Humans of MagicA resident of Montreal, he wants you all to know he makes a mean mojito.

And so without any further delay, I give you the multitalented Jesse Scoble:

1-What’s it like putting together a narrative for a game like HyperScape that is by definition non-linear?

I see you want to start with a softball question. So. Coming to HyperScape (Ubisoft’s near-future, dystopian battle royale), we believed what would differentiate us from an already crowded field would be to have a strong story. Some games have virtually no story, or maybe they have a framing story (say a modern warzone) but have no real sense of character, while some have incredibly rich characters (Apex Legends, Overwatch) but relatively thin plot. We wanted to have all of that.

We needed to create a new world – and elected to set it about 30 years in the future, in 2054, which wasn’t necessarily realistic in terms of the virtual world – the eponymous HyperScape – and then come up with an overarching storyline that would drive the world forward. Much of that centered on the company that created the HyperScape, a global megacorporation called Primsa Dimensions, and the creators of the company, genius inventor Mathieu Eiffel and his savvy business partner, Dr. Ivy Tan. The machinations of Prisma Dimensions would be the engine that drove the story.

In terms of the “framing story” – and what I mean by that is essentially a narrative explanation for the battle royale concept – we chose to embrace the battle royale game concept directly, and define it as an extreme sport in the virtual world of the HyperScape. In the dystopia of 2054, it was the most popular way to gain fame and fortune. The characters would fight and kill to try to get ahead, but as it was just a virtual game, then there was no problem seeing someone “die” or for various characters to fight each other even though they were friends or on the same side outside the game.

Finally – and perhaps most importantly – we wanted the characters to have depth and flavor, and to have strong ties to the world of 2054. We wanted to have a large and ever-expanding roster that would let us create characters from all sorts of different backgrounds and walks-of-life, and we’d show how these characters evolved from season-to-season as the plot of the story moved forward.

Another core challenge was that, unlike a AAA console action/adventure game (say Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry or Spider-Man or Witcher or whatever), players would only get tiny snippets of the story. There wouldn’t be traditional quests and we’d have very few cinematics. We had to be smart in figuring out how to relay the story in a way that would be comprehensible to those who only lightly skimmed the surface but would have strong connections for those who wanted to dig deeper into the lore.

Our team also had a robust transmedia approach (can I still say “transmedia” in 2021? Whatever.): we had a deal with Dark Horse to create a HyperScape digital comic; we also worked with a great 3rd party company to create a couple of short animations, our “HyperScape Stories” that spotlighted characters like Ace and Basilisk; and of course we had our internal team building season trailers, in-game cinematics (such as the End of Season 1 event), and so forth. 

Finally, the narrative and art team worked closely to create a dozen collectible “memory shards” that would be revealed over the course of the season. Each one had a piece of micro-fiction and an awesome piece of custom art, like a comic splash page or wallpaper screen. These really told the crux of the season’s story, allowing us to get into characters’ heads, feel the flavor of the world, and also conveyed the big moving pieces of the plot.

This meant a LOT of planning: how much info could we write into a character’s bio in the store? What would be consistent and change between different skins? What bio info would change from season-to-season? When was a character/skin going to be released DURING a season? What order would the memory shards be released? Could we do environmental storytelling on the game map that would link to the fiction? Where would the trailers or short movies come out? How do we tell an engaging story in the comic that links to everything else, but also feels self-contained? 

And – as you well know – in video games everything is always at a risk of moving. Things get delayed. A feature won’t work. Marketing throws you a curveball. 

In the end, we made mistakes. Lots of mistakes. But we also succeeded to hit many of our goals, and learned a tremendous amount in the doing.

2-You have an extensive track record in tabletop RPGs. Ever thought about going back and doing more TTRPG work?

Yes, but no. It was extensive at one time, but I’ve been playing in the video game playground for three-quarters of my career now, so it feels like I haven’t done much in that space for ages. Hell, I worked on the first Game of Thrones RPG that was so long ago it was BEFORE season 1 of the HBO show.

TTRPGs are fun, but a helluva lot of work, in terms of research and organization and presentation. It’s hard enough putting together a halfway decent game for my local group, let alone something that’s publishable quality.

I’ve gone back to the well a few times in the past semi-recent years. I was a consultant on the short-lived Marvel Heroic RPG (from Margaret Weis Productions), with some luminaries in the industry, and that was a treat. I was invited to contribute to two different projects – one was a setting for Robin Laws’ DramaSystem called Narcocorrido; and then I revisited some of that material “through a neon lens” for Mark Richardson’s neocyberpunk RPG, Headspace (Carteles Unidos, in the Dystopian Dreams supplement), both of which were obviously inspired by my time living in Austin, TX. I’ve also contributed a few essays here and there, and co-edited a series of interviews with top-tier Magic players for a good friend.

These days, due to limited time and focus, I need to be really intrigued by a project to carve out the time for it. It either has to be a project where I have a lot of creative freedom and some degree of ownership, or something that is just so cool I can’t say no. That said, I have yet to actually do anything official for Dungeons & Dragons or Warhammer 40K, two IPs that I’d happily make the time to delve into (just throwing that out there in case the universe is listening).

Oh, and I have a brilliant idea for how to make an RPG out of HADES, the superb rogue-like from Supergiant games, in case anyone knows anyone over there.

3-What’s the most challenging aspect of game writing for you?

All of it? I realize that’s a useless answer. 

I think it’s trying to impart the “perfect picture” in my head to paper, and then have the rest of the team understand it. It’s so elegant and clear in my mind’s eye (well, hardly ever that, but it’s certainly better than whatever I end up scrawling on the page), and there’s so much of a gap that is created between the act of putting pen to paper, and then again between the person reading it and implementing the ideas. And this gap widens when dealing with challenges of language and distance.

At their worst, when gameplay and art and recording limitations are all dragging you down it can feel like the death of a thousand cuts. But the corollary is that when it all somehow hangs together – when the gameplay supports the narrative (and vice versa) and the art is glorious and the voice acting adds that je ne sais quoi nuance, it can create a magical experience for the player. And I live for that.

4-What’s your favorite part of the job when it comes to game writing?

Seeing these fifty(thousand) different moving parts that like-as-not won’t fit properly together or work well together or might not even work at all somehow come together miraculously and gel. It’s seeing those scribbles on the screen become real and extant, in a way that makes people engage and act. It’s creating both the big moments and the small moments, and when it works it makes people feel something. That’s the heart of it.

In particular, hearing/watching actors take the words on paper and breathe life into them is a kind of magic.

Perhaps most importantly, it’s getting to work with some incredibly smart, bright, funny, kind, talented and clever people.

5-You’re working on your first novel. How has that experience been different from game writing?

What do they say? “Writing is the easiest thing… you just stare at the blank page until your forehead bleeds.”

It’s… hard. I look back at random Facebook memories and realize how bloody long I’ve been on this road, and there’s no real end in sight (I keep thinking I see light ahead, but I’m pretty sure it’s just an oncoming train.)

First, because I can’t do anything simply, I decided for my first real attempt at a novel to co-write it with a close friend. And that’s been great. Also hard as sin. But having two heads to process ideas, encourage and cajole when the other side just doesn’t want to pick up a pen, bringing far more ideas and experiences than a single person – it’s like working with a teensy-tiny team. (Well, not “like.”) 

(And we have a third friend who has been the alpha reader for all of our ideas throughout this long and twisty process. Having a ‘built-in’ story-editor, of sorts, has been a godsend.)

But it’s hard. It was a big idea (for me, at least), and structurally complicated, and cutting edge – several and more years ago when we first thought about it. And the future doesn’t hold back. The realities of online culture, and such like, keep moving and evolving in ways I wouldn’t have considered. It’s not dated – yet – but if I don’t hurry up and finish it, it soon will be. 

It’s also very lonely, despite having two friends involved so closely. And it’s hard to know what the right paths are for the characters, at times, to get to where I want to get. 

It’s taught me a lot about organizing my work and ideas, outlining and structuring a story, and developing character voices. Not all of which I’ve mastered yet, despite professionally writing for too many years now. And, as mentioned, a whole lot of time has passed since we first conceived of this story. I like the characters too much to want to abandon them, but it’s hard to say how and when I’ll finish this story satisfactorily, even if just for a limited audience.

A huge thank you to Jesse for his thoughtful and engaging answers. Tune in next week when I’ll have another writer in the hot seat!

Five For Writing – Lucien Soulban

What is there to say about Lucien Soulban besides the fact that he’s got one of the coolest names in the game writing industry? Well, I could go into his extensive video game credits (Watch_Dogs 2, Rainbow Six: Siege, Far Cry 3&4 and many more) or I could talk about his tabletop RPG writing (such as Orpheus, or his extensive work on Mutants and Masterminds). Then again, I could mention his fiction, or I could just say that he’s one of the most talented writers I know and someone I am proud to call a friend. So it is with great pleasure that I give you Five For Writing with Lucien Soulban

1-What are the differences for you between writing fiction and writing games?

Ooof, you’re really starting with a “no-easy-answer” right off the bat here. This question has so many moving parts… and you’re smirking. I know you, Richard, you know this isn’t easy to answer and you’re smirking because you’re pleased with yourself. Okay, brother, bearing in mind there’s so much more I could be sharing….

Writing games lies in “interesting” and fluid territory because it’s constantly at the mercy of the technology and business models that drives the industry, and narrative has to adapt alongside it. Fiction is at the mercy of its publishing mediums and distribution networks, but aside from adjusting voice and content to cater to more modern audiences, it’s got its methodology pretty well nailed down, while videogames have to change the very way in which they tell stories.

When narrative became a serious component of production teams, we looked to Hollywood to define our goalposts, but it was mostly linear storytelling. Open world and persistent open world shifted that model again, and then battle royals and team-based shooters and monetization* shook the trees even harder. It was difficult enough that some big companies decided that “single-player games are dead….” Each time the industry re-oriented itself, it’s demanded a near polar shift in narrative structure to adjust and reprioritize what story means in those instances. And writers have to prove adaptable in a way that isn’t demanded of fiction writers (and before anyone flies off the handle, yes, fiction writers have a changing and volatile landscape to contend with, but imagine if the very way you wrote and told stories had to change as well).

On the whole, however, there are some elements that never change despite our fluid craft. Very few mediums allow for the exploration of character like fiction does because fiction gives you access to a character’s thoughts. Videogames need to jump through a few extra hoops to do that, and often getting access to a game character’s thoughts eventually betrays the narrative integrity of those thoughts because they’re coupled with artificial gameplay components: “Where do I go next?” “There must be an axe around here to kill that boss,” “hmm, a puzzle. Maybe the answer was something I read earlier,” etc. 

In short, any item of investment to make narrative work in a game comes with a price tag, and often times, the only way to justify that price tag is by linking it back to gameplay or level design. Thus, our subtext is dominated by contrivance. What fiction can do with a deft and authentic hand, videogames have to work at to create the authentic inner world of their characters.

In today’s market, however, where video game writers have an easier time over fiction writers is that we don’t need to brand ourselves or to pitch work with an eye on creating a full-on IPs. All that stuff is already frontloaded for us. We have marketing teams that do that and our branding and IP is generally built around gameplay. We have a relatively quantifiable customer base that lets us know how many units we can sell and whether they’re into the content we’re creating. Sure, it means steering said content in specific directions to accommodate the brand, but it doesn’t all fall on our shoulders. The burden is shared and even alleviated thanks to the experts we work alongside.

Naturally, that dovetails nicely into the big difference between writing for games and writing fiction… persistent group input. Writing fiction, you’re in this wonderful little bubble, working on your own stuff until it’s done and until you’re ready to share it. Video game writing is constantly scrutinized and evaluated whether you think it’s ready or not. In fiction, the job of the first draft isn’t to stand up to scrutiny… its only job is to get written. The precision comes after that. The story and the novel come after that. Hell, I even read once that Pixar doesn’t know the final themes of its movies until the first draft is written. In video games, a complete first draft of the script isn’t an option. You’re getting feedback from the moment your writing is put to the page, and everyone has an opinion. Everyone. Every. One. If you ever suffered from imposter syndrome, imagine that inner critic has an external chorus verbalizing some of your worst fears about yourself and your ideas. It’s an ongoing battle as people are constantly pointing out the very issues you’re struggling to prognosticate and solve. 

*Caveat time… this isn’t about the storytelling methods being used by Indie studios, but rather what Trip-A and Quad-A games chase as money milking ventures.

2-You started in tabletop RPGs. What did you take from that experience that has helped you in your other writing endeavors?

There’s a high degree is intersectionality between every writing discipline you tackle and its application elsewhere. That’s the nature of writers, right? Cannibalizing knowledge to Frankenstein ourselves? Learning playwrighting in university and continuing to read movie scripts and plays helped me create better scenes for games without relying on camera shots to convey a moment. Working on tabletop RPGs, however, taught me a number of valuable skills, whether I was an editor, a developer, or a writer.

The editor part was I got my mistakes out of the way by practicing on poor RPG writers before I learned what not to do (seriously sorry, White Wolf writers… didn’t intend to sharpen my blunt skills on your sharp talent). It gave me the skills to provide proper feedback to my team… telling the writer what they needed not only to adjust the material at hand, but to change their approach for the future. It also taught me how to keep my ego out of the way and not advocate for rewriting text in my own voice.

When to comes to video games, the lesson learnt from my tabletop years was to leave space for the player. The player matters and is often an unspoken protagonist. It’s an oldie but a goodie in terms of examples, but nobody talks about their gameplay experience in relation to the character. Nobody says “Master Chief jumped out of his Warthog and threw a sticky grenade on the bumper so it exploded inside the bunker.” ‘I’ the player did all this, and the player will recount that story as “I jumped out and I threw a sticky grenade.” 

That means whenever I craft narrative in video games, the player’s experience is foremost in my mind. They are the people who will own the protagonist, not me. So I have to consider how to create stakes that motivate protagonist and player alike. I have to create antagonists that reach through the screen to threaten or discomfort the player somehow without triggering them with bargain basement stakes. The situations have to be understood and universal for the players. And then all that feeds back into my own fiction as I engage with the reader of my novels. How do I tell the story beyond the protagonist’s experiences?

Finally, as a developer, working on games taught me a lot about world building. A universe with its unique “physics” must exist beyond the backdrop of the levels your players are racing through. Not only do they need to understand how that world can exist, but you need to find elegant ways of making that universe relevant and cohesive but without drowning them in exposition. You need to find tricks to impart and reinforce that universe’s logic through passive means until the player/reader absorbs it all through things like subtext and mood and characterization. Fiction writing can help in this way, through principles of how and where to weight your descriptions, but tabletop design creates the most solid framework for creating a world with movement rather than a world frozen by the shutter. Naturally, what you can apply to video games and tabletop games as world building elements, you can then apply to fiction… the cohesion over overarching logic. 

3-Have you ever thought about going back to tabletop? Why or why not?

HA! Did I leave and nobody tell me? I still do work for tabletop games when I can, though I stepped away from contracts during COVID. Working for a video game company that was 3 hours behind me, finishing later in the evening to accommodate their work hours, and then decompressing two feet away from my workstation was mentally and emotionally exhausting, and I quickly recognized the dangers of doing additional contracts during quarantine. But yeah, I love tabletop games and it remains at the heart of who I am as a geek. Writing for tabletop games is not only familiar territory, but it’s also an exercise in joy for me. I get to create something without constant supervision or scrutiny, and I have time (within reason) to craft something that is more or less intact and cohesive before anyone lays eyes on it. Most importantly, I get to write up to my audience, assuming for complex decision-making and theory crafting and reading comprehension. It’s not to say that games or fiction dumb things down, but there is the reality that you’re opting for a wider market share and that market share is in the millions of players. That changes how you make the material accessible and the requirements behind suspension of disbelief. That said, tabletop games (especially as a freelancer), is definitely a hand-to-mouth existence, and me still writing for that industry is definitely an exercise in privilege. I do it because I can afford to do it, because of video games. I know far too many people scrambling and struggling to make ends meet with freelancing, so if I had to do it for survival, my answer would likely be different.

4-You’re currently working on a Dungeons and Dragons video game. What’s your favorite D&D monster, and why?

I know you, Dansky. You want me to say Neo-otyugh, but I refuse. Mind Flayer has always been my favorite. From the moment I saw the image of an Illithid, it stuck with me as this frightening opponent and it resonated with me as the first creature of true horror I’d seen in D&D. Sure, dragons can breathe a variety of cool elemental attacks and are scary, but the Illithid was the first creature for me that stepped outside of that Judeo-Christian mythology box and became something sinister and terrible. That also explains why my runner-up critter is a Beholder. Sadly, in the competition, the Beholder lost out in the Swimming Suit portion of the competition, so the Mind Flayer gets the coveted crown and scepter.

5-Back in the day, we got in trouble when I asked you about gay leading characters in AAA video games. Where do you think we are now compared to then?

Hooboy, we did, didn’t we? We upset some people’s misperceptions about themselves on that one. I was off about the timing when I said it would be about a decade, though I got the Naughty Dog part right as being one of the companies open and unapologetic about their leading character being LGBTQIA+. And I have to give mad love and props to Square Enix for their “Life is Strange” series. I think when it comes to characterization, story, and overall quality of writing, their benchmarks are miles ahead of many narrative-driven games. I keep thinking back on that moment, however, on that question you asked and the situation I was in at the time. You think that when shit hits the fan, it’s all coming from one direction, but nope. One fan, multiple poop trajectories, and a lot of bruised egos.

There was a lot of positive LGBTQIA+ representation already when I made the comment, and I should have caveated my response in regards to the work already being done out there. That’s obviously not where the majority of flack came from, though. Some folks were definitely not happy with my answer, either because I pulled the curtain back on the “wizard” or because I refuted the active spin doctoring or because folks thought I was shitting on their good will; recent news articles and revelations can speak more about the realities of all that if you know how to read between the lines. 

So, compared to then? We’re far more ahead of the curve then I expected. Companies that led the charge on representation haven’t collapsed back in upon themselves in failure, and in succeeding, they’ve emboldened the more risk-adverse among their peers. I’ll be honest… I do worry that some companies in and out of the industry are just doing this to get on the bandwagon, to cash in on a cause that’s been deemed “safe” or acceptable. I hope they understand why proper representation matters instead of painting by the numbers, but kudos to those genuinely working towards it. My paranoid brain keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop, on that pendulum to swing back hard, but… I think it’s no longer a matter of when will we see this or that. The dam’s broken wide open, and now it’s a matter of reach rather than “will-it-won’t-it.”

My final answer… we’re in a good place, but it’s still precarious. Some people get why representation matters, but I think the harm will come from companies buckling and back peddling under the complaints and orchestrated bad-reviews campaigns, or those companies waiting on their inclusion dividends to pay off in sales.

Huge thanks to Lucien for giving such thoughtful and generous answers, even if he doesn’t like neo-otyughs. (Don’t know what those are? Don’t ask.) Until next week, then, when I’ll sit down with John “Deathginger” Goodrich. See you then!

Game Developers Conference Acceptance

I am pleased and proud to say that once again my Game Narrative Round Tables have been accepted for the main track at GDC. I’ve been running these off and on, mostly on, since 2007 or so, and I like to think they’re a valuable addition to the game writing community. Bringing folks who work in game narrative together so they can meet face to face, exchange ideas and best practices, support one another, and most of all have it reinforced they are not alone means a great deal toe me. Narrative can be a lonely job in game development – many studios don’t have narrative teams, so it’s hard for narrative specialists to find community or even someone who speaks their professional language. That I am able in some small way to help provide this is something I’m proud of.

GDC 2022 is March 21-25. The Game Narrative Summit, complete with the winners of the Student Narrative Competition, will run the 21-22nd. The main conference, including the round tables, will run the 23-25th.

Hope to see some of you there.

And the Video Is Live

The kind folks at the WGGB have put the video of the panel I was part of, as well as the other four in their festival of game writing, up on line. If you’re interested in learning about various aspects of game writing from some of the sharpest minds in the business (and me), go here and get your knowledge on.