Game Writers in the Trenches™ 6: Micah Wright – The Narrative Design Exploratorium™

Game Writers in the Trenches™ 6: Micah Wright

Micha WrightThis 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

Stephen 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.

SD: 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.

Micha Wright's Remixed Propaganda 2SD: 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.

SD: Do you see the project expanding into other media formats?

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.

SD: 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 artform, 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

SD: 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.

SD: 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.

SD: ngmoco:) is made out of a world class team of talent, yourself included. What about working with the team there is most compelling?

ngmoco:)'s Rolando 2 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.

SD: What do you like about the iPhone? Does it offer unique video game storytelling potential?

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.

SD: 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.

SD: As member, and chair, of the WGA New Media Caucus are you seeing changes in the way game writers are being contracted?

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.

Micha Wrights' Remixed Propaganda 1SD: Do you believe adopting a Hollywood style model would help video game writers and their stories?

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?

SD: 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.

SD: 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.

SD: 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.

Micah Wrights Remixed Propaganda 3SD: What place will writers have in the interactive entertainment of tomorrow?

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.

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
, I’m Stephen Dinehart, thank you for your time.
Remember it’s only through play that great stories happen! 

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This page contains a single article by Stephen E. Dinehart published on June 16, 2009 3:08 PM.

Reading Video Games was the previous entry in this blog.

Welcome to the Narrative Design Exploratorium. Please feel free to browse and comment.

Author Stephen E. Dinehart is a producer, designer, writer, and artist. You can find out more about him on his self-titled website.

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