Woody Allen and Philip Roth

I happen to be reading The Plot Against America on this day before “the generation’s most important election” (they always say that, and they’re always right).

The book is dead on about the melting-pot insanity of America, and how a small boy’s imagination can get colored and shaped by larger world affairs. It’s f-in’ brilliant.

The cool part of that is that I’ve always hated Roth. Maybe it’s just too close to me, but his early famous Zuckerman stuff with all the “insight” about an assimilated and over-horny Jewish psyche seems like suck obvious, easy pickin’.  But most of his recent novels, featuring a narrator named Philip Roth, are just so damn wise, politically sweeping, psychologically revealing, and delightfully constructed at every turn. American Pastoral is on my personal hit list — one of those novels that frustrates me deeply because no matter how flighty my delusions of grandeur get I don’t think I’ll ever be able to pen one of that quality.

Then there’s Woody Allen, whose early stuff is beyond human in its blend of the profane and holy-smoky. Those Annie Halls and Sleepers were so good, in fact, that he can get away with currency to spare making crappy melodramas in the entire later part of his career.

Others have noticed this career flip-flop, and the two gentlemen’s braided trajectory.

So here’s a toast, to you, to me, to America: May we all start out Allen and end up Roth. Of course, it usually doesn’t work that way.

As Paul Simon wrote for Leonard Bernstein’s opera Mass:

Half of the People Are Stoned and the Other Half Are Waiting for the Next Election

Good luck to you, whichever side of the aisle you may imagine yourself on.

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The Great Story – Great Game Tool

At Last Year’s Game Developer’s Conference, I dropped in at the Writer’s SIG roundtable, run by Richard Dansky. The discussion turned to the problem of writers having no time in a typical game production to dig deep with their plots or characters. Most game writers have to struggle to crank out dialog in the midst of constantly changing level design and playability concerns.

I tossed out a question I’d been struggling with for a while, a question I didn’t articulate very well (not a good idea in a room of writers):

Anyone who has ever worked on a novel or even a screenplay knows how long it takes to write something good, to get every sentence to be meaningful and spot on, to achieve super subtext… And that’s just to write something good. Let’s not talk about Great… yet.

So my question was: Given the intensive process of commercial gaming, can we game hacks ever achieve truly good writing?

There was a bit of stunned silence. I guess some of my compatriots felt that writing in games is plenty good already. Then someone said:

“That’s a solved problem. It’s been achieved on TV. You just need a team. Teams of writers work together all the time to create episodes on very tight schedules.”

Hmmm. So let’s talk TV.

Most TV, most people would agree, is light and mindless. Don’t get me wrong: It actually takes seriously good writing to be light and mindless. Look at Seinfeld.

But every so often there’s something on TV that glimmers beyond the LCD and can actually be called Great. Great TV is, at times, on par with Shakespeare, The Bible, and Dostoevsky. Great has many definitions, but I like to think of it this way: Good is doing something masterfully. Great is doing several things masterfully on several levels in unison.

Helped by Great Direction, Great Cinematography, and Great Acting, TV as a medium has, in my opinion, achieved some Great Stories that could live on forever as classics. Some examples:

  • NYPD Blue
  • Sopranos
  • The West Wing
  • Six Feet Under
  • The Wire

Now, if you don’t care much for the above TV shows or don’t think there’s much difference between these and other dramas such as the CSIs, Law & Order, soap operas, or even Lost and Heroes, then you might as well stop reading now — or stop living in my universe — because in my opinion while good stories do their part to make life a bit less boring and much more pleasurable, Great Stories actually make life meaningful.

From whence do these Great TV shows come?

If you read interviews by David Simon (comish of The Wire), David Chase (Sopranos mob boss), David Milch  (of NYPD Blue and Deadwood fame), etc. it becomes clear that each of these individuals are, like many people named David, control freaks. They are Show Runners — “a curious hybrid of starry-eyed artists and tough-as-nails operational managers.”

Great shows may credit several writers, and may have sizable writing teams brainstorming to flesh out a script, and may release in an episodic format. But they always have one authorial voice. One unbroken tone that leads to a cohesive vision. In most cases, the Show Runner has already done a hell of a lot of work plotting out the entire season or even series. This puts a lot of weight in one headspace. But it allows for characters and situations to have a novelistic level of detail that makes them, well, Great.

So, back to games. Clearly having one head honcho is charge is one piece of the puzzle to Greatness. Few would argue that what Great Games we have are the result of a lone Show Runner (or very small, very tight-knit team). Of course, giving one person, especially a writer, this responsibility would require a monumental process change in most game development studios.

But fine, we can dream. We can each imagine, one day, having a budget of millions and a staff of talented programmers, artists, level designers, and sub-writers at our command who for some reason are willing to put up with our bullshit.

But then there’s the larger question of what to do next. How can an interactive activity reach Story Greatness?

Clearly, we’ll need tools. Many smart people have experimented with many tools to help string together relatively believable and emotionally-charged characters and situations. Some examples:

– Will Wright’s The Sims or Spore or even Glenn Abrett’s Supple. These games are awe inspiring — they have fantastic AI, great humor, and awesome insight into the human mechanism. But for all of Greatness there, there none of the arcs or terrain of Great Story.

– The famous Façade experiment of Andrew Stern and Michael Mateas. It’s the crystallization of a Great Moment, but I don’t think this could hold out through the ups and downs of a whole tale.

– Chris Crawford’s Storytron (summed up in Different Approaches in the Quest for Interactive Storytelling) plays with verbs and objects to achieve some psychological complexity. Clever, but so far no example I’ve seen is actually even a remote pleasure to play.

– Omar Khudari’s The Act (which, granted, I haven’t played) sounds very cool as well: It uses a knob to dial the main character between extremes of emotions. So a scene can progress and you can choose to either jump the pretty girl or retreat the corner shyly. The story progresses based on which side of the emotional fence you keep falling. But does this mechanism support the breadth and depth that a good story needs?

The problem isn’t: How Can We Create Believable Characters? Because complex characters alone do not a good story make.

The problem isn’t: How Can We Create Emergent Yet Interesting Situations? Because dramatic situations alone do not a good story make.

The solution is not to take away the joy or be anti-commercial. All Great Stories are thoroughly enjoyable (if not fun). And since many people consider them essential to their culture, they sell like sonsabitches.

And the solution isn’t to take away the Action. The more we talk about artsy-fartsy notions of Story Greatness, the more we risk taking away what makes games games. They are not meant to be dramatic or comedic meditations, but interactive works of action. So says an unattributed EA exec in an excellent Atlantic Monthly article about narrative in games: 

“Blowing shit up is fundamental, because verbs are what make video games work.”

Hate to say it, but he’s right — at least the part about verbs is.

So the problem reduces to: How Can We Achieve Great Story within an Interactive, Commercial Construct so Utterly Reliant on Action?

Ugh. Ugly looking question. But more or less accurate.

Questions like these were chewed, digested, regurgitated, then chewed again in “The Watery Pachinko Machine of Doom” during last year’s Project Horseshoe — a discussion I was lucky enough to participate in. The core assumption of the workgroup, which I unwillingly subscribed to since I could find no logical argument around it, is that,

“The story that is generated through gameplay is the player’s personal story that has been mediated by the game systems… Story is the tail of what we do as designers, where the mediated experience is the dog.”

But I was and am uncomfortable with that notion. A few of us brought up the question of how authorial voice fits in. The group concluded that games are best at promoting a different type of author. As Danc summed up in the group’s report,

“In games, the voice of the designer becomes less about having a unique narrative style than it is about using various types of game systems in a distinctive fashion.”

Well, as much as I agree with that conclusion and appreciate the masterful use of Great Game systems… I still resist the idea that games can never have their own Jesus, Gatsby, Lolita, or Tony Soprano. In fact, the Horseshoe group used Reality Television as the closest other-media analog to what it was trying to achieve. Reality TV is not without its sociological brilliance. But it is consumable — not immortal like a Great Story.

The closest example I’ve found to achieving real literary depth and cohesion in games is Javier Maldonado’s Masq. At first Masq seems like a Choose Your Own Adventure game, but slowly you realize that the choices are almost always relevant. The choices you make in the game are spot on with the choices you would actually make in life, and the outcome of your actions are not always predictable. It’s more a “Your Own Adventure Chooses You” game.

Masq is told in graphic novel style, and involves a lot of reading. But what if the same techniques could be applied more interactively and graphically — so that the player can make relevant story choices at any given juncture using more modern game mechanics?

I’m working with Javier now on a tool to help codify his method of story design and create more depth in shorter and shorter periods of time. I’ll let you know what we come up with. But I have a nagging suspicion that we as an entire industry are missing a dead-on obvious technique that will unlock Story Greatness from our midst.

What is it?

My Career Path

Every resume tells a story. But that story is usually fiction, making the protagonist seem a directed journeyman willfully forging a path to master a chosen vocation, career, or trade.

The real story can usually be found between the lines.

The text in blue is the stuff you’ll find on my official C.V.:

  • Elementary School in Denver: I copied BASIC from magazines into my Commodore 64 to get free games. I joined BBSes to get free games. I learned some real programming to make some of the games better. I got an allowance sometimes.
  • High School: I worked at a podiatrist’s office linking a database about foot pain to a visual interface. I fixed my friends’ parents’ computers. I worked in an endocrinology lab putting radioactive rats in blenders. I made bad films. I wrote my first novel.
  • College: I got good pay from a wacky psychiatrist typing his scrawl into papers and submitting them to endless journals. I lost my job when AIDS got to him. I wrote my second, third, and fourth novels. I worked on the humor magazine, the horror magazine, and the daily newspaper. I volunteered at NYU’s Media Research Lab on a really cool project that let people walk up to a screen projection of virtual actors and interface with them. Wrote some software for interfacing between the video camera and a Mac and detecting some basic movement, but didn’t really touch any of the cool stuff.
  • Graduation. I almost went to ITP. I almost took a job working at a company that built databases to track TV ads, telling myself it was glamorous because it involved TV. Last minute, I got a gig doing Director coding at one of the original (and final) multimedia CD-ROM companies. I was working on my fifth novel.
  • When a semi-sociopathic game designer working on a sucky game I was coding quit in frustration, I took over. We worked 90-hour weeks. The game shipped, but still sucked.
  • Recruiters were on the hunt. I was offered nearly double pay to switch to an e-commerce company that for some reason was starting a game division. I gave it a whirl. I sat in the back room of a huge bullpen full of programmers hacking together a multiplayer real time strategy game in Java. I jumped in as designer on that one too because everyone else wanted to do “real work” and write code.
  • The game division officially spawned off into a game company called Actionworld. I wrote the engines for backgammon, chess, checkers, and some card games. I went back to my first novel and rewrote it to be more commercial. It still didn’t sell.
  • Actionworld spawned off into an online game store that turned the 11th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper into a retail warehouse and shipping facility. It also purchased a company that conglomerated game sites and sold ads called Unified Gamers Online (UGO).
  • UGO management talked to some investment bankers and knew it could go IPO. It became an affiliate site for all 18-24 web content and a Tier One Internet backbone. I played the role of big-time manager. One week, I hired a six people. I fired two the next week. We still made Java games and game lobbies.
  • UGO spawned off a pure game company called PlayLink. I became a Vice President and had an office. Everyone had an office. We were a handful of people in a 5,000 square foot office. I still made Java games and game lobbies. Every once in a while I’d hire someone or give someone some tasks to do. I learned a bit, but not much, about how to delegate.
  • When the IPO market for dot-coms dried up, UGO needed cash bad and stopped funding PlayLink. The company was sold to a gold mining company. The gold mining company purchased PlayLink with bundled stacks of actual cash money. The gold company had no active mines, but thought that the purchase would diversity their portfolio and draw attention to their stock again. It didn’t. They stopped paying employees.
  • Most people left. A few of us desperately looked for something, anything to do with our semi-cool multiplayer game site. I almost took a job working on web coding for an interactive ad agency, though the people that interviewed me made me nauseated with their hipness. This entrepreneur out of San Francisco just sold his prize site and had some seed cash and had this pretty decent idea of hooking up with PlayLink to make a skill-based game site where people would play games against each other and wager a few bucks, winner take all (minus our tournament fee).
  • And so I became one of the founders of NextGame. I worked for peanuts, but at least I had a (skill-based) job. I contributed to yet another Java game lobby and game server. I remade chess, checkers, and some card games. I wrote a new novel but didn’t know how to end it. I got married.
  • NextGame purchased a flailing company called iWin and changed our company’s name to that nice four-letter domain. We made a download version of one of our most popular Java games called Jewel Quest. I didn’t understand why people would pay $19.95 for a game they could play online for free, but it sold like hotcakes.
  • We abandoned the skill based model and focused on downloadables. I wrote a bunch of game and framework stuff in C++, which I had to dust off again. I co-wrote a screenplay and co-produced a low, low-budget film. I had a kid. I moved out to San Francisco. I bought my first car.
  • I began coding less and managing more. I designed some games and did story writing for other games, did some art direction, conceived of and did basic architecture of a DRM system, hacked up a system for playing ads inside games, envisioned a micro-transaction subscription model.  I had another kid.
  • iWin became one of the top “second-tier” casual game distributors.
  • I stopped coding altogether. I managed game engineers. I acted as producer on a game or two. I chased some albatross. I became a Vice President again and started attending financial review meetings. I began realizing why some of the seemingly stupid decisions I’d seen in the past were made. I vowed to do better.
  • I became the guy writing specs for all web product. I strongly opined about the games we were making and helped green-light some things that became hits (and many which did not).
  • I see a need, make a case, get some cash, and begin work on a highly experimental interactive experience that frames a game store and integrates it into a large multiplayer game itself. Stay tuned!

Summary: 15 years, two jobs, no clear description of my current job, and no clear direction for what’s next. And pretty much lovin’ every minute.

Game On Da Brain

Feeling academically inclined today? Me neither. But I bet some of the articles below will tell you something about something.

My dirty little secret is that I like skimming through this type of work and feeling superior since I of course intuitively grok 98% this stuff (and without having to beg for grants).

My even dirtier little secret that I wish I had the time to write these type of masturbatory think-pieces!

Video Game Round Up 1 has games a social form, criticisms of the gaming, funny observations, games as art, anthropological work, and games and learning.

Round Up 2 is about Social Science and Anthropological Themes. Go human go!

Finally, Round 3 is about the Brain and Psychology – Meaning, Language, Gender, and History.

Vinny’s Story Challenge II

tonycoffin2See the Story Challenge 1 post to catch up.

Story Challenge II began when Vinny wrote an editorial on Gamezebo how much he liked the Sopranos. I agreed — it was the first time a TV series had seemed downright novelistic.

I sent Vinny this great blog post I found about the meaning behind the Soprano’s final episode. It was the most literary analysis of a TV show I’d ever read, and did a great job making the case that the series ended with Tony being murdered in front of his family.

One song in the episode was particularly affecting: “It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” by Bob Dylan. Turns out Vinny and I also share a passion for Bobby D lyrics.

And so that become our muse-object for challenge two.

His entry: Acapulco Blue.

Mine: Medium Rare.

“Lay it Down” Story Challenge

If you’re like me, and have the gall to consider yourself a writer but haven’t actually written anything worth squat in far too long, I highly recommend story challenges as a much needed butt-kick.

Just pick any muse-object: a photograph, a movie, TV show, other book, a person, a situation, or song.

Then pick a challenger. This part may seem silly, but for me, it’s essential. Something in me just gets kicked into gear only when there’s an element of competition involved — or at least the knowledge that somebody, anybody else is going to read and truly care about what I have just written.

Then have at it. You and your challenger riff off the muse-object. Use that object as the inferno’s spark, the Patient Zero, the avalanche’s first snowball — and let loose.

Then compare.

For my most recent challenge, I was lucky enough to find out that Vinny Carrella, a co-worker I admired for his game design chops and general grin-with-a-grimace attitude about life, was also a novelist who published a wonderfully twisted and originally lyrical novel called The Serpent Box

One day, musing about the life of literary writer as commercial game developer, I tentatively suggested the challenge and he bravely accepted.

Vinny suggested the muse-object: The song Lay It Down by the Cowboy Junkies.

His story is called “The Killing of Clyde”, and can be heard here, on the Bound Off audio-zine.

My story, Cottonwood, started slow then flowed out quicksilver-like. I was in Marblehead, MA on vacation and wrote it sitting in an uncomfortable pine chair overlooking that mean grey-green ocean which even the sunset can’t sweeten.