This is an ongoing NDE series featuring interviews with Game Writers in the Trenches™. The game industry is riddled with the unsung heroes of interactive storytelling. As game developers are increasingly looking to create meaningful virtual narrative experiences, listening to the real-world wisdom of these writers can help everyone on the development pipeline understand their trials, tribulations, and needs, in hopes of enabling them to do their job as they know best. Today’s game writer is Micah Wright, I’m hoping to see what we can learn from his experiences in the trenches of writing and game development.
Stephen E. Dinehart: First off congrats on your continued success; between comics, books, games and more I’m wondering where you get the time. The first project I’d like to address is your propaganda remix project. It is highly compelling from multiple perspectives. How did it get started?
Micah Wright: It started in early 2002… I saw a series of new WWII-era styled posters regarding “information security” that the National Security Agency commissioned, and something about them didn’t seem right. After staring at them for a while, I realized it was because at least one of them was a direct repaint of a Nazi propaganda poster, and all of them included a lot of techniques more commonly associated the social realism posters of Russia or China… military figures staring not at the viewer, but up and away to the glorious proletariat future. It really angered me that after 9/11 our government’s first instinct was to pass the USA PATRIOT ACT and strip us of our civil liberties, and here suddenly was a poster with Nazi imagery on it. I didn’t like the implications. I blogged about the image, and a reader suggested that I make fun of it, so I did. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I had about 50 posters that I’d repainted, so I posted them all onto one page and started getting crazy amounts of hits solely through word of mouth. That’s when I knew that there were a lot of people like me… people who saw which direction the Bush Administration was leading the country and weren’t on board with their plans.
SED: While things may have settled a bit with the new administration, you began the project at a highly controversial time. Did you have to shop the material long to find a publisher?
MW: Strangely enough, they found me. From the beginning, I’d allowed people to wheatpaste the images as they saw fit, and one day a guy who would eventually become my editor was walking down the street and saw one of my posters pasted onto a light pole and spent the next couple of days tracking me down.
SED: What additional hurdles did you have to overcome?
MW: Other than George Bush having an 86% approval rating when I started? Oh, the hate mail, the death threats, the usual. It was weird being so against the grain of society, but as the pointlessness of the Iraq War was realized by more and more people, only the die-hards were left to castigate my un-American-ness.
SED: Do you see the project expanding into other media formats?
MW: I never really thought much about it… I did the posters, they became a book, I’ve made cell-phone backgrounds, but other than that, I don’t know where it’d go. What’s sad is that lately I’ve been coming up with a lot of ideas for new posters. It seems like a sign of trouble that six months into the Obama Administration, I still see things to make posters about. I really hoped Obama would do away with all of this post-9/11 scaredy-cat baloney at the airports and spying on America and close Guantanámo, but he hasn’t. The national security behemoth continues on its lumbering path completely unaffected by the changeover between administrations.
SED: You are truly a writer with a broad breadth, of all the mediums you’ve worked in why do you continue to work in video games?
MW: Well, Games is a pretty fun place to work. There’s a real sense of being in on the development of a great new art form, which is exciting. The money’s okay… not as good as television or film, but better than a lot of other fields. No one’s getting rich writing comicbooks these day.
SED: Having crossed the divide even further, you are now writing “Rolando 2: Quest for the Golden Orchid” for the iPhone game publisher ngmoco:). Is that a full time gig?
MW: Rolando 2 was a really fun job. It was a freelance job, as have been all of my videogame jobs. I’ve never worked full-time at a developer, much as I’d like to… the opportunity just hasn’t presented itself yet.
SED: What is unique about writing for the iPhone?
MW: For a writer, it’s a bit constricting… but the limitations make it a fun challenge. It’s essentially reductive, like writing Haiku instead of a full script.
SED: ngmoco:) is made out of a world class team of talent, yourself included. What about working with the team there is most compelling?
MW: The team is great… good communication, fast decision making… all the things that you dream of in an employer. Simon Oliver, the creator and writer of Rolando, was a great guy to work with and bounce ideas back and forth with… truly accepting of new ideas and concepts for the game. It was a great experience and I hope to be involved if there ends up being a Rolando 3.
SED: What do you like about the iPhone? Does it offer unique video game storytelling potential?
MW: I don’t think we’ve seen even the surface of what’s possible on the iPhone. I’ve only seen one story-driven game for the iPhone so far. I’d love to see a lot more. It seems uniquely built for a choose-your-own-adventure type game.
SED: What does game story mean to you? How does it differ from other forms of storytelling?
MW: Right now we’re in a weird place in the evolution of games & story where the sales push is slowly shifting from graphics to story. Ten years ago, it was enough to just come out with a new WWII shooter or a new game where zombies chased you down a hallway. The promise of ever-better graphics was the publishers’ sales tool to drive people to new machines and new games. Now, however, we’ve reached a plateau as far as graphics and realism go… how much MORE real do I want a WWII shooter to look? Do I really want to subject my audience to realistic combat wounds? Most of them would probably vomit if they shot someone and their brains came cascading out. Then there’s the danger of desensitization to realistic violence, which I never want customers to fall prey to. Then there’s the cost… the more graphics ability we add, the more expensive these games become to produce. Added to which, we’re right on the verge of the Uncanny Valley with regards to game characters… have you seen the Heavy Rain previews? Those characters almost look real, but our reptilian hind-brains quickly pick up on the fact that there’s something wrong with them and so we violently reject them. No, we’ve reached the end of graphic realism as the primary sales tool for our medium. So what’s next? It has to be story. WHY am I running down this hallway shooting zombies? WHO am I in this game? WHAT is my goal, other than just getting to the next level? This is where writers come into the process, and why more and more game companies are hiring writers to participate in game design earlier in the production cycle.
SED: As member, and chair, of the WGA New Media Caucus are you seeing changes in the way game writers are being contracted?
MW: I think we’re seeing more outside hiring as game companies realize that perhaps their lead designer is the best guy they could hope for to design the game, but maybe not the best writer to execute his own ideas. It’s just a matter of specialization… I’m hiring the best level designers, the best lead designer, the best musician, why am I letting the writing be taken care of by the janitor after he’s finished emptying the trash cans? That was the old system: let whoever wanted to do it write the dialog, it doesn’t really matter, anyway, etc.
SED: Do you believe adopting a Hollywood style model would help video game writers and their stories?
MW: I think adopting a Hollywood production model would help videogame companies get their costs under control, and I think likewise, it would help them come up with better, newer, more innovative ideas. In Hollywood, with some exceptions, your Director isn’t your Writer. Sure, there are a lot of guys who do both jobs, but generally, they were writers first and became directors to realize their vision onscreen without interference. I’d love to see a Hollywood-esque system where a company calls me in as a writer and the lead designer says “we have a gameplay concept that’s all about fighting in zero-gravity. Can you pitch us a great story to go with it?” That way you’d get the best of both worlds, instead of just slapping a generic story on top of your cool new shooter.
The other good thing about Hollywood is that they have two seasons: Summer Blockbusters for the part of us which likes to watch stuff explode, and Winter Dramas for the erudite, discriminating viewer in us… but in games, it’s all Summer Blockbusters, all year long, with the odd Japanese freakout like Katamari Damacy slipping through the cracks to freshen things up. The oldest gamers are now in their late 40’s and early 50’s … why are there no games for them? In Hollywood, the Producers see the money and make cheap, simple films to appeal to those viewers… where’s the equivalent in games?
SED: What do you seek to accomplish in your game stories?
MW: To enhance and support gameplay. If possible to make the audience feel something about what they’re experiencing, other than just the catharsis of killing the enemy or whatever. To push myself as a writer, to push the medium.
SED: Do you believe game stories create catharsis? Have you experienced it?
MW: That’s an interesting question. I think gameplay certainly creates a form of catharsis… I felt like a ten-foot-tall god the day I beat the “protect whats-her-name” level in Goldeneye way back on my Nintendo 64. I’ve experienced a number of really moving moments in games, but I’ve never, say, cried at a game, whereas I’ve wept like a baby at several films. Does that mean the interactive aspects of gaming means the format is essentially distancing? Or does it mean I’ve just not played the right games? Or have those games just not been invented yet? I’m not sure what the correct answer is, and I feel we’ll be debating it for some time.
SED: Does narrative structure help you write? How?
MW: Well, every game I write has a 3-act structure. I think it’s pretty much a mandatory requirement for Western entertainment. Even the worst videogames tend to have a beginning, middle and end… sometimes those aspects are better executed than other times. Now, that said, there are tons of differences between a film structure and that of some games, and a traditional 3-act structure doesn’t always lend itself to some types of games at all. World of Warcraft, for example, doesn’t have much of a standard narrative structure, but its players seem to fill in those missing pieces for themselves via the story of their character and their guild or what have you.
SED: What place will writers have in the interactive entertainment of tomorrow?
MW: More and better. What differentiates GTA III from GTA IV if not the writing? They went DOWN in the number of character customization abilities from 3 to 4, not up. There were fewer odd jobs (no taxi missions, for example), no haircut changes, fewer clothing choices, you couldn’t get fat or work out to make yourself a megabeast any longer… what was the last sequel with fewer gameplay options? No, what made GTA IV a better game than GTA III despite the sandbox gameplay losses, was the better story and better writing. On many levels, it was a real breakthrough. I would love to have seen more forced character choices and options, but for the first time, those types of branching storylines existed in the GTA franchise, even if there weren’t a lot of them. The Rockstar writing teams are getting better and better with each game, and they were already some of the better people in the business. Heck, look at their game based on The Warriors… a great brawling game, it utilized the major story points of the film, but extended them and expounded upon them, coming up with a completely original prologue to the film’s storyline which explained some of the mysteries of the film. That’s something I think games do very well… expansion and exploration of Intellectual Properties from other mediums, and you need writers to accomplish it properly. Transformers 2 cost $200 million to create and is only two hours long, but the five games Activision is releasing day and date with the film didn’t cost half that and provide many more hours of gameplay experience. If they weren’t tied to the film’s storyline, I bet they’d sell three times their eventual numbers. Once we’ve run dry of Harry Potter films, I could easily see someone making fantastic games which take place in that universe, the stories for which are just as good as the books. Look how great the first Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic game was, for another example. I’d love to write a game set in the Lone Wolf & Cub universe, or a crime game set in the comedic milieu of Donald Westlake’s Dorfmunder books.
Typically games has been a business where the Publishers believed they created the best ideas themselves… but that opinion is breaking down, and as we go forward, we’ll see it loosen up more, and you’ll see more games based on non-obvious IP. Like games based on non-current movies, like the upcoming Ghostbusters game, or more games based on books. In 2002, I pitched Warner Bros. Interactive a game called “Turner Classic Videogames” which would use the storylines from three old black-and-white films to recreate the best parts of those films. My theory was you couldn’t make an 80-hour game out of the black-and-white version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” but you COULD make an exciting 20-hour game out of it, then re-use the props, game engine, costumes and background scenery for a 20-hour game based on “I Was A Fugitive From a Chain Gang” or “On the Waterfront” and ship them on the same disc. The WBIE producer looked at me like I had just grown an extra head, but I guarantee that there’s a market for a game based on Logan’s Run or The Dirty Dozen. Not some lame remake of those great films, but an immersive experience set in those “lame” and “old” movies which somehow manage to get played every day on cable. I noticed the other day that there’s a major game coming out based on Dante’s Inferno. How great is that? Things are changing every day in games, and that’s one of the things I enjoy most about working in the field.
Thanks for taking time to interview with the NDE.
Micah’s work spans from controversial political remixes, to light hearted hand-held fun. As one of today’s most prominent game writers, and forces of change in game writing I know we will see him having an effect in the industry for years to come. I hope you’ve learned something from this interview straight from the trenches. For the Narrative Design Explorer, I’m Stephen Erin Dinehart, thank you for your time. Remember it’s only through play that great stories happen!