Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Choosing Your Own Path: Olivia Alexander on Writing for Games and the "Probability Tree"

Since I started working on She Got Game, I’ve been thinking about what differentiates video games from other media. We probably all know our fair share of music, art and film buffs. But what is it that attracts us specifically to the format and narratives of video games? To answer this question, I asked Olivia Alexander, an aspiring game writer studying creative writing at Concordia University in Montreal, one of Canada's gaming hot spots. A quick glance at the map below will give you an idea of how many game dev companies it has, including the biggies like Ubisoft and BioWare:

Olivia started off by talking about her own creative writing process and how it relates to games. I asked: How is writing for games different from writing for other media? How is storytelling evolving?

Heavy Rain cast

I think now and for the past couple of years, there’s kind of been a game renaissance in terms of story. There are not-yet-perfected but new methods of storytelling. For instance, one thing that’s pretty popular is what I think they call the “ethics engine.” It’s pretty much like a choose-your-own-adventure game, but in this immense probability tree. Games like that include Mass Effect and some of the more recent Fallout games. Choices you make in conversation change how the rest of the story is going to play out.  That sort of engine was really intriguing to me and I loved the idea of that. I’d like to use Heavy Rain as an Example. It’s by a developer called Quantic Dream. Heavy Rain isn’t quite the same as—you know—choose option 1-2-3 or 4 in a conversation. It’s a murder mystery in which you play maybe 7 different characters. It’s not just things that you say that affect the story—it’s things that you do, things you accomplish, decisions you make or don’t make. They either get you a very good ending, a very bad ending or something in between.

What interests you specifically about writing for games?

Olivia Alexander
I’ve always really liked storytelling. I was convinced I was going to be an actor for a long time until I realized that I really don’t like that environment. That’s why I’m going to school for creative writing here at Concordia. For a while I was convinced I was going to do film and television, but that also didn’t sing to me.

People have asked me before, “Why write for video games?” The example I like to use is that say you’re watching a horror movie and you’re just a passive participant. You’re just along for the ride. You don’t have control over anything cause that’s the nature of film. You’re watching a horror film and there’s a group of kids. They say, “Oh man, we should split up. I’ll go in the basement!” and you’re sitting there thinking, “Don’t be dumb. Don’t go in the basement by yourself. You’re gonna die.” In a video game, you can choose not to go in the basement, and you can force the story to go in a less expected direction. You can force it go somewhere else and you can make the story surprise you.

What other qualities do you look for in a story?

A lot of stuff Naughty Dog makes is also very cinematic, especially the more recent stuff with the Uncharted series and The Last of Us. You’re not changing the story, but even if it’s a longer storyline, you’re still more engaged than you would be in a film. What interested me in writing, is both of those big story options. There’s the more conventional writing method which is like film, and there’s this new method that I like to call the big “probability tree.”

What are your sources of inspiration and motivation?

I’m motivated through the opposite of dissatisfaction. With games and pretty much all media, I like to think that I should only take in that which makes me stronger. I want to be a part of it. Because it’s still a developing medium, I want to see the best in everything. I’m reluctant to leap to something as having a bad story. A lot of the stuff I write myself is based on action as the big mask with something else behind it, like some sort of issue or pressing matter. Most of them are character pieces.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Torontaru: A Night of Friends, Old and New

Torontaru: A Night of Friends, Old and New

If I’m not working on a Wednesday night, chances are I’d rather put on some sweet beats and stay in than venture out into the grim winter streets of Toronto. But last night was a little different.

Dinner plans with old friends are sacred, so I was hesitant to tack on more to the end of the night. Still, my lady’s a good sport so I put it out there anyway:

(text) Hey I was thinking we could do dinner at my place and then head to Get Well after—tonight is Torontoru’s video game social night :P

C said she was up for it, so I was in luck. And thus while waiting on sweet potato fries in the oven, we commenced the long overdue what-are-you-up-to-in -life talk.

C and I first met years ago in a cramped Japanese tutorial classroom, and if memory serves our first coffee date lasted a solid three hours. Needless to say, we became pretty close and had fun bonding over other brands of nerd culture. Gaming has played a big part in her personal life for a long time, and She Got Game is pretty much my life these days. Strangely enough, gaming had remained in the shadows of conversation until last night.

I had heard that Torontaru gamers’ social nights were pretty popular so we hit the bar early hoping to avoid a lineup. C laughed, “When you said Torontaru, I thought you were just being cute—you know saying something Japanese-ey for old time’s sake. And when you said video games night I thought you were just talking about playing the arcade games at Get Well. I had no idea you were talking about an actual meet up!”

Upon first arrival, the crowd seemed pretty uniform: white males in their 20s and 30s, mostly bespectacled and bearded. We were definitely the exception and not the rule, but C mused that she enjoyed the familiarity of this tight-knit social scene. If you’re looking to build a new social gaming circle, it can be tough to know where to look, she explained. You don’t exactly just walk into work one day and invite your office co-workers to play Dungeons and Dragons. Even if it’s become kind of “cute” or “cool” to be a gamer these days, there was a time when you got beat up for it in high school. And it’s not just guys who are up in arms about it. Girls can be particularly mean and competitive with each other in the gaming world. I nodded.  

I tried to relax into the vibe of the event. The energy in the room felt calm and friendly—neither painfully socially awkward nor aggressive. People seemed to float between conversations, alternating between friends and strangers. Still, my attention was focused on our conversation. I also opened up for the first time about the obscure interests I had had as a kid. In most cases, nobody had ever even heard of the things I was into, so it hadn’t even occurred to me to seek out a social group based on common interest. (The Navigator? Anyone?)

Just as we were getting into the deep and personal side of nerd culture, the universe let out something to balance out the mood. That’s right friends, an SBD. It started out faint—barely noticeable. We tried to carry on the conversation like normal, but it just wasn’t happening. At the same time, our faces contorted as we gasped for air. We broke into hysterical laughter and finally C broke the ice, “Well…if you’re in a room full of guys, chances are sooner or later you’re going to get hit with a fart in the face.” Now surely that if nothing else would clear all the ladies from the room, right? Well, wrong! As the night went on, more and more women flooded in and by 10pm the place was packed.

Luckily, the next gust of wind was far sweeter:  I caught sight of MC Bourdua, the organizer of Torontaru and producer for Polytron and Cellar Door Games. Effervescent, clever, funny and totally comfortable in this environment, MC was a pleasure to run into. In keeping with our earlier conversation, she mentioned how hard it was to find a gaming social group when she first moved to Toronto from Montreal. Recognizing that need, she decided to organize these monthly social events for gamers to bond and hang out in a casual environment. Evidently, it’s totally taken off.

The evening ended on a high note.  C and I left Get Well buzzing with excitement as we imagined meeting other likeminded people at the next Torontaru hangout. While our debut didn’t end up involving obscure gaming conversations with strangers, I think it inspired something equally as cool. It became the catalyst for discovering a whole world of common geek interests with a good friend already had. I only just got my toes wet, but Torontaru gets my stamp of approval. I’m looking forward to the next one—which you should check out for yourself. Who knows, perhaps we’ll meet there?

The fab lady who organizes it: