Okay, yeah, my name's Adam Gascoine. I'm 45 years old. I'm located in beautiful Los Angeles in California.
And, let's see, I think probably now I'm up to 13 or 14 years in the industry. I started in theater and many other different jobs that I had, and as a side hobby, a side passion, I was making maps for Quake, the old videogame. They released an editor with that game called Radiant, and I just loved building in it. I used to build sets for theater, so it was kind of a natural transition.
And one day someone from Infinity Ward, whose name was 420, was their online name. I can't remember who it was at the company now, but they saw my map and they said, "Hey, this is pretty good." And as it turns out, it wasn't. But they were kind. [Laughs.] Right? And that made me think, "You know what? Maybe I should just, like, pursue this a little bit."
So I sent it to a company called Gray Matter, who are a fantastic company. They made Return to Castle Wolfenstein. They also made the expansion to Call of Duty, which is why it kind of made sense -- because I was working in the Call of Duty engine, which was an iteration of the Quake engine.
Although, they won't say that. [Laughs.]
But effectively, it was an iteration on the Quake engine. And I got a job as what they call a builder, which is the person who just designs the 3D space. Now, in Radiant, you have an art team who make all the textures and shaders, all the look of the things that you place on objects. But the builders in Radiant actually kind of create the doorways and the windows and the buildings and the ground and all that and apply the textures.
So, that part of the industry has changed quite a lot. Apart from a few companies, it's mostly the art team who do that now. But I was a builder, which is kind of half art, half design.
What was that transition like going from the theater world to the game world?
Well, it was exhilarating. The first thing I noticed was is how hard you can get people to work when they're doing something they love. The hours people were working was -- I had never experienced anything like it in my life. And when I got the job, there was a producer whose name was Robb Alvey -- I'm not sure if he's still in the industry -- but he said to me, "You know you work long hours here, right? It's pretty hard. We don't tell you to work those hours, but people are here a lot.
And I'm like, "Oh yeah, I'm in theater. We've pulled all-nighters." I had no idea how hard they work in this industry. People were sleeping at their desks all of the time. People had beds under their desk, which just blew my mind. And so a lot of smelly people. A lot of funny smells. Lots of toys in the office to kind of distract you. But a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun. Teams were small. I think it was 20 people when I joined Gray Matter. And that was a big team to them at the time, but it was 20 people. So, if something needed done, you were the one who did it. There was no where to send it after. You didn't wait for it to come back. You had to go do it. So, people were working 'til 4, 5 in the morning everyday and I was not used to that kind of level of work.
So that transition was a little hard, to be honest.
Do those sorts of hours have anything to do with the industry's origins in Japan and their business culture?
I don't think so, no. Maybe it does on some sort of grassroots level before I even got into the industry. Maybe that culture was set up. But it feels like to me is what it is is that the products that these artists, that these creative people are producing is released by a corporate entity that doesn't understand the process very well. It's not a bad thing. You gotta have sellers and you gotta have makers, right?
But the sellers just set a date. They're like, "This is when this thing goes out."
The creators look at that date and say, "Well, okay, we can do it." But they don't know whether they can or not. They're not producers. They just make stuff. So as that date approaches and they realize they haven't completed it, the fear that comes with every artist -- are they gonna like my work? Is it good enough? Will I ever get another job? I mean, ask an actor. They finish a job -- Tom Cruise probably finishes his movie and then thinks, "I may never work again." That's just how artists think. So I think you don't know when to stop when you're an artist. You love your work. You're like, "I've gotta keep going. I've gotta keep going. I've gotta work. It's gotta be better. It's gotta be better."
You know, the people who are selling the products are not gonna say, "Hey, go to sleep." They don't care. They just want to sell the product.
You just said, too, about how at least one producer says they weren't telling people to work those hours. But do people in those positions, do they ever say, "Hey, take a day or two off?"
I mean, look, there are some stories in the industry about how bad it can get. Everyone remembers the EA Spouses debacle and I think there was one with Rockstar in San Diego for Red Dead Redemption where people were talking about the hours. My experience in the industry is there is an expectation for you to put the hours in, but not people directly harassing you and saying, "You've gotta." They would tell you, but honestly, I always got the feeling if I said, "I'm going home," they would go, "Okay." It would be fine.
A dead person doesn't make the game. So, they understand that. There is a pressure. There is a pressure to work very hard and it's a very competitive market, so if your work isn't good enough then they'll just hire someone else. Because the industry doesn't value experience as highly as it values motivation. Right? So, a young kid coming out of college who's probably better than me -- in fact, probably toward the end of my salaried jobs, I realized I was not the best at what I was doing or anywhere near it.
I had to work harder. And I think everyone feels that. And a good producer will say, "Hey, you need some rest. You've gotta go home." But they're also knowing, "If we don't ship this on Tuesday, we don't get paid." So it's this very difficult balance that breeds a lot of contempt between creatives and producers. I think it's just the nature of what happens when you're making a product.
I bet you the guys making cars, designing cars go through the same thing or any kind of creative environment you don't work 9 to 5. It's just not how it works. However, that can be taken too far like the EA thing and the Rockstar thing, and there are other companies as well. I will say the EA response to it, no one gives them credit because they're one of those hated companies, but if you work at EA now -- which I have done recently -- they kick you out of the building. It's really hard to pull the hours you need to pull to produce a good game, so when people look at EA games and say, "This is not as good, they let this thing pass, they haven't made as many changes," well, that's a product of the fact that people can't stay as late and work as hard as they want to. So it's this knife edge of: What do you want?
It's very hard.
I mean, there's that and also the fact that those really big companies don't have to be making games in that old model of what a big-budget game is.
Right. But I don't know of another model that works. That's the problem.
Show me it, because all of the good games -- like I play a lot of independent games, right? I mean, there's a documentary, I know you've watched it. I think it might be called Indie, actually?
Is it Indie Game: The Movie?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Look at the hours those guys are working, and they are choosing to work that way. That's their choice. They don't have to do that. A big company like EA can say, "Hey, you know what? We're not gonna make you work that way. We're gonna give you a job where you work no more than 9, 10 hours a day. You have to take an hour for lunch. We give you benefits and all that kind of stuff." And the end result is if they want a great game, it takes six years. Right? And no company can survive like that. So, it's this weird -- we're stuck in between the two worlds.
The problem is if you're a creator, yeah, you get angry. I got so angry about the hours I had to work. But as you get older you realize, like, "Well, what alternative is there here?"
When you got into the industry, what were you hoping it would be a career path towards?
I don't know. I don't really look ahead.
You know what I mean? I just realized that I didn't want to work in theater because I wanted to have some money and I really like drawing on the computer. I did realize when I got in there, because I was a little older -- I think I was about 31 or 32, maybe 30, somewhere in there, when I got into the industry -- that it was a very, very young industry. So, I definitely saw the potential to become some kind of leader in it just by the virtue of the fact I was a little bit calmer than everyone else. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Well, you were done with puberty.
A little bit, yeah. A little bit.
A little bit. More than others.
I think maybe I saw that, but when I went into it, all I was aware of is, "Hey, this is me getting to draw these shapes that I do for a hobby anyway."
Why did you decide to go freelance?
Well, I got sick of AAA games. The creation process is boring and honestly most of the work that goes into AAA games are aimed at a market that I'm no longer in. There are people of my age who still play Call of Duty and Medal of Honor and Halo and all that kind of stuff. I'm just not one of those guys. I used to play them. I thought Call of Duty was amazing. I loved that game when it first came out. I can't play the same shit anymore.
I think people who -- particularly Call of Duty fans, after three or four games, they're tired of it. They're like, "I'm done with this game." Then they start complaining and say, "Why doesn't it ever change?" But that's like asking George Lucas why he made Jar Jar Binks. We may not like it, but he did not make it for us. He made it for the new generation of kids. And I realized the new generation of kids who say, "Black Ops 2 or 3 is the greatest game ever," they're in the start of that cycle where they're gonna have three games where they're really into it and then they're gonna want something more out of their videogame. Well, I've just moved on, so therefore, I shouldn't make it anymore.
I always say videogames are a little bit like Saturday Night Live or "Weird" Al where it's not that one has necessarily gotten "bad," it's that it's always been for the same audience and you're starting to outgrow it.
But when it comes to shooters, why is it that the stories don't seem to change all that much from generation to generation or iteration to iteration? That's what I always hear and I can't say that with absolute authority, but I do know from a friend whose agency came very close to doing marketing on the new Call of Duty, that is the concern the company has, both that perception but also that reality: The games keep telling the same story over and over again for the same audience over and over again.
Okay, so, I think the reason is -- because I wrote, or originated the story for the first Black Ops. I didn't get credit for it, by the way. [Laughs.] Because I left the company before the game ships and that's just kind of how it works.
I didn't do any of the writing. There was a great guy called Craig Houston who wrote the script. But I came up with the story for it, and I realized the reason you can't really go more complex and why the same story keeps coming up is because the kind of person who buys a Call of Duty game has a very short attention span. And I know that's a stereotype, but it's also true. I mean, we just do.
Those people in general do not want to sit down and watch a 15- to 30-second cutscene. That's too long for them.
So what kind of story can you tell where they're firing an AK-47 while helos are flying in overhead and mortars are going off behind them and you've gotta hear some guy saying dialog about a deep, compelling character-driven story behind it? It just isn't going to work. You have to stop the action to tell that story.
That's why games like Last of Us work. You have to stop the camera. But the people who buy Call of Duty, they say they want a bigger story but they don't want to stop the action. So the development team looks at it and goes, "Hey, we just can't do that."
They have to think they want something different. We can't change their thoughts on it. But the truth is if we gave them something different, they would be upset with the game. They'd say, "Oh, it's so plodding. Oh, it's so slow. That cutscene took so long."
So, in the end, you just end up with a generic story of, you know, the hero guy who is basically double-crossed by someone on his team and he's out after this bad guy and he finds them and then realizes the bad guy isn't really the bad guy. There's a guy above him who happens to be part of his -- it's the same story.
It's a good thing I was sitting down here.
[Laughs.] It's exactly the same story over and over again because that's what the market wants. And that sounds awful. I sound like a marketing guy. But if you want something different, don't play Call of Duty and don't expect them to do something different.
Go play The Last of Us, a company that says, "This game is a narrative game. If you don't like it, don't play it."
But that perception of the audience is totally true, at least as far as your ability to say it so plainly. When I first got into freelance writing full-time, I did some work with Adult Swim, and the first thing we talked about was their audience. I asked, "Well, who do you feel your audience is?" And they said, "Well, it's pretty much what you think it is: insomniac stoners."
But I feel like these shooter games get picked on a lot, and sometimes they do sort of deserve it. I mean, the whole, "Press X to pay respects" thing [in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare]?
[Laughs.] Oh my God, yes. That was the one I left over.
Can you tell me about ways that teams working on these shooters are trying to broaden the types of stories that are being told?
Well, if you're working with a company -- so, the last salary job I had was with Naughty Dog, where they make those kinds of games. They're not shooters. But if you're working at a company that encourages an interactive narrative, like, something deeper, then the field is open. But if you're working at a company like Treyarch or EA for the Medal of Honor games or something like that, the field is not open because at the top line is always: Don't stop the player. You cannot stop the player.
So, invariably, when you're developing a story for one of those games, that's the governing narrative for your entire game. You're limited completely by that. Whereas, when you make The Last of Us or you make Uncharted or you make Mass Effect or you make Skyrim or any of those games, you can stop the player for as long as you want because the player has bought into that.
So when you're making decisions on Call of Duty about how you try and stretch the story out a little bit more, you just come up with "jump the shark" moments. Right? [Laughs.] Because that's all you've got. That's all you've got in your arsenal. I mean, honestly, we jumped the shark a little bit in Black Ops where the story was that the lead guy had been brainwashed and all of his actions that seemed to be benevolent you learn, "Oh my God, he's been brainwashed by this guy when he was in a Siberian gulag." It's ridiculous. But it's all you can do in all the time you have and it's Manchurian Candidate and it's a kind of fun thing to do. So there's not much else you can do.
But when you're working at somewhere like Naughty Dog, all of the decisions are based on what tells the story or what draws the player into the story. Not what makes them sit back in their chair and say, "Wow." It's what pulls them forward in their chair and brings them closer to the screen.
I remember this one meeting I had, and I think it was with Bruce Straley, who's one of the creative directors at Naughty Dog. And he told me something I'd never heard after 10 years or 11 years in the industry. He said, "Simple thing. Simple mechanic. Hey, when we start a cutscene, we want the player to start that cutscene by pressing a button. So when they go up to a door, and they'll open the door, let's have them press 'X,' and pressing 'X' starts the cutscene because it makes them feel in control of the world."
And now every time they approach a door they're gonna be thinking, "Okay, I might be getting a bit of story." In Call of Duty, that doesn't happen. You run through a gap you hit a trigger, and suddenly a cutscene happens. So you're detached from the story which we have to be because otherwise the judgmental crowd that play Call of Duty and Halo and those kinds of games are gonna be saying, "Oh God, here we go. I'm gonna run through this game and any minute now they're gonna take camera control. I want my gun back. I want my gun back."
So, it's very hard to make decisions on how you tell the narrative when you're doing Call of Duty. You just go for "bigger is better." The more explosions, the more outrageous the story, that's the only direction we can take. We have to take.
On the different games you've been involved in the stories and writing on, what is the writers’ room like? Both in terms of work environment, titles, and composition of people?
The writing room is usually pretty small. Often it is the writer, the creative director, the narrative producer, and whichever developer is appropriate for the type of meeting. If it’s about syncing the narrative with the gameplay, there will be a designer there when needed.
The designer’s presence also depends on whether the company is top down or bottom up. If the designers have conceived the level from the get-go, they have already written the bare bones story and the writer is there to make sure the interstitial narrative gels, and ensure the narrative offers minimal resistance to the design intent.
There’s a lot more freedom for the writer when it’s top down design as there are less voices and a bluer sky. However, the top down approach usually leads to communication issues and narrative/gameplay inconsistencies. Technically, I find it easier to work in bottom-up environments as the boundaries are well-defined. It’s obviously a challenge to carve a story out of disparate design conceits, but at least you know where you stand. There’s liberation in that straitjacket. The apparent freedom of having the creative leads and the writers working together in isolation quickly gets frustrating as the people who implement the ideas and solve problems are not there to bring you back down to ground.
As a writer, give me a small room with only one or two people to hash out ideas. As a developer, I want the designer to guide the process and make sure it actually gets done. The best work seems to come from dev teams that practice both methods. Top-down story development with broad strokes during pre-production to give the designers a simple beat sheet of what happens when, and then designer lead implementation with an adaptive writer to make sure the design is serviced.
The writing itself is solitary, as is all writing. Working with index cards to quickly scratch out ideas can help lay a framework, but the problems with these ideas only reveal themselves once the headphones are on and you have peace. Most of my ideas come after staring trancelike at a blank page for an hour while listening to some white noise -- something you can’t do in the writing room. While working at ID, we had exciting and dynamic narrative meetings to discuss a million different ideas –- but these were broad strokes. The fine detail often came at midnight in a hotel room with a glass of wine and new age concentration music playing in the background. Yes, new age music. I write to Jean Michel-Jarre. Or Pink Floyd. It depends on how violent the game is.
This will be an obvious question, at least for you, but I know it's different for every writer: How does the music help you write? Can you recall a specific "aha!" epiphany moment where the words started pouring out of you for a game and the music totally got you there?
Sometimes the music just puts you in the right emotional state. I often listen to the type of music I think the character would listen to so I’m thinking with them. They become the music and the music becomes the dialogue or tone of the scene.
If it’s plotting or technical writing, the music is there to eliminate distraction -- so I’ll play thematic music that I know well so I’m not actively listening to it, but the genre matches the style of game. Big bold classical music for a war game, electronic symphony for a sci-fi game, singer/songwriter folky stuff for strong narratives where not everyone has to die. So rare.
I do remember an "aha!" moment. Weird, I haven’t thought about it for years.
When putting together the story for Black Ops, we had been tasked with creating a story a little more eccentric than the usual CoD narrative. The executive producer wanted something that would make people drop their controller and say, "Holy shit!" While banging my head against the keyboard looking for some twist that would fulfill this mandate, I was listening to Pearl Jam’s Rearviewmirror to vent some frustration.
The music was intense, I was more intense and pissed off, and as the crescendo of that bitchin’ track climaxed an idea struck me: "What if Mason is brainwashed?" I think I wrote for about three hours straight afterwards, which is a long time for me. No ideas are original, and the influences that lead me to that moment come from a ton of places -- The Manchurian Candidate not being the least, but in my mind the entire plot was written by Eddie Vedder. Thanks Eddie.
I know you've worked on more than just shooters.
What do people in the industry working on these games think or feel about the consumption of shooters?
Well, I think -- do you mean the effect it has on people or where the industry is going?
Honestly, both, but I'd be curious to hear about the first half first. You hear the genre get picked on a lot, but I've never heard from people creating those games what they think of those reactions.
I think they feel exactly the same as the market does, which is that when you start you're all into it and it's enough to be firing on a plane as it goes down crashing into the desert. "Oh, we're gonna do a zero-G environment where you're shooting because the plane is crashing, so we're gonna have the chairs going through the air and it's gonna break in half and people are gonna fall out and you're still firing your gun." That's really exciting when you start making first-person shooters. No matter where you are on the team, that's exciting.
If you've done that four times, it's really hard to come up with something that excites you. It's like, "Oh, great, another tank battle. Okay, what are we gonna do this time? Okay, what happens if you're in the tank and you're actually on fire and you have 30 seconds to kill everyone before you can reach the fire?"
I mean, it gets ridiculous.
So I think in the industry you tend to get a little bored of that. Not everyone. Some people can stick with it and those people are making the best first-person shooters now because of the people who are leading teams, because they didn't get bored of it. But a lot of people -- not just me -- on the team just cannot make good decisions for the game because they're like, "We've done this before!" And the producer's going, "It's not for you! The game is not for you! It's for the new breed! It's the new 17-year-olds, 14-year-olds, however old they are now when they're playing Call of Duty. It's for those guys!"
So the industry on the whole has a shelf life for making those games. Devs have a shelf life before they've run out of time. It's a sweeping statement, but I think it's true for a lot of them, and they tend to move on. But I think that's true no matter what genre. Not just first-person shooters.
Uncharted, when I played the first Uncharted, I was blown away. I thought it was a remarkable game. And something in my head said I have to go work with these guys.
The people there at Naughty Dog, who are the cream of the talent -- they have brilliant devs over there. Some of those have made three Uncharteds and they're gonna be make four and five and six and however many more -- well, I don't know what they're gonna do over there. But those people are bored of making that game. They're bored of it. Not all of them, but some of them are -- as great as we think those games are, they're like, "God, I can't do this one more fucking time. I'm out of ideas." [Laughs.]
So I think our opinion of it, of any game we're making is based on how long we've been making it.
It sours. The milk sours. It has a shelf life and there's not much more you can do about that except make a different type of game.
What do you make of the audience for shooters and them being blamed for aggression and vitriol?
Well, I have a rather unpopular opinion on that one, I think. [Laughs.]
Because I think it does affect people. But I think all culture affects people. It's ridiculous to say that it doesn't affect people. I think the argument often is, "Oh, well, then movies affect people."
Yeah. They do.
So does TV, so does books. Now whether it's our responsibility to change or not, I don't know. But I have a cousin, actually, in my family who is -- I think he just turned 11 or 12. I found out he was playing Black Ops, and I got disturbed, you know? I thought, "I don't know if I want an 11-year-old kid playing the game where it just says, 'Go shoot Arabs in the desert.'"
I just don't know if that's the message I'm interested in sending.
I worked on a Medal of Honor game. That really pounded that home to me, like, "Hey, do you want to be doing this? Is this right for you?" Not for the industry as a whole.
And I got out of it partly because I genuinely believe, like, we cannot deny that it has an affect on people. It may be up to the parents to decide. It's definitely not up to politicians, but it may be up to the parents to decide whether or not that kid should play that game. But I think it's crazy to say that we do not have an effect.
And so my opinion of the people that play our game is that a lot of them are too young.
Like, the people who are my age or younger or in their twenties, I mean, I hope they're not affected by it to the point where they only see the enemy as Arabs, and I think we're doing a good job of that, unfortunately. They're like, "Hey, that guy's brown, he must be the enemy." That disturbs me a little bit. I think our whole culture is like that, right? It's just a reflection of everything.
And part of me, I'm not the guy who necessarily wants to change the world, so, I'm the guy who says, "I think I might just want to get out of this one for a while and feel better about myself."
I don't want to do another Arab-looking model standing in front of you, he's yelling Allah akbar: Let's go shoot him.
I don't think that's the message I want to send. Especially considering it seems to be okay to have 14, 15-year-old kids playing these games because apparently they're old enough. I don't think they are, personally.
Some of the audience for these games, going on multiplayer and shouting epithets at each other and racial slurs and all sorts of things. I guess, basically, testing boundaries. But it isn't just kids, but, it is being exchanged among strangers and people who find that sort of thing a turnoff or a deterrent or just unnecessary or offensive.
And certainly game companies have to be aware of what's happening on their servers. Are there conversations about how to assuage or address some of it among the shooter-game teams you've been on?
At a minimal level there is. There's the low-hanging fruit of stuff of, you know, you would want to put some code in place that says, "Let's not allow anyone to have a swastika. Let's make sure no one's avatar or badge can be a swastika. Let's try and make no one's name a racial slur or any kind of swear word." There is a limit to what you can do.
In general, I think in devs, it doesn't really enter their conversation very much because it's like, "Hey, that's the market. That's the way they talk."
But I think it's equally interesting that we have the conversation about not putting in a swastika -- which is understandable. In Germany, you can't even use the swastika in any game. They don't allow it. We'll say, "Don't put the swastika in." But we'll be fine with a hammer and sickle. Just because that happens to be society's view is -- it wasn't too bad what Stalin did, it was just really bad what Hitler did.
And I think that same feeling carries across over what decisions we make about managing the community as a whole.
Because who's gonna make the call? If you ask a guy in Poland or in Afghanistan whether they would rather see a swastika in the game or the hammer and sickle, they'd rather see a swastika.
"Twenty-five million people died under Stalin. I don't want that thing."
So who's the government? This is a censorship question, I know, but I think the game devs in general just look at that and go, "We cannot manage that, so let's just pick the stuff that will get us in trouble that 99.9 percent of the market would say, 'Yeah, you should probably find a way to deal with that.' Let's find a way to not let people have really offensive racial names and not have really offensive avatars. But other than that? It's a free market, man. Let people sort it out."
This feeds into some of the stuff that happened last year, and I don't know when you went freelance, but game companies certainly have to know about Gamergate. But was there any discussion you heard about feeling a responsibility to respond or to acknowledge it?
Zero conversation. No one could care less. And I think the reason why -- and, again, just my experience.
I didn't learn that much about it because I was at Naughty Dog at the time and what would happen if I look up at my desk is I would see a dev company that has mostly men, quite a lot of women who work at Naughty Dog. I had a boss, Amy [Hennig], who had been in the business for a long time. She was my boss.
And I never felt any kind of issue with sexism in the industry at all. Again, I'm a dude, so maybe I'm just not sensitive to it. But I just never saw it. It just seemed like more guys wanted to work there.
I mean, when I went for job interviews, if I was in a room full of people? I don't believe that they're saying, "We're not going to interview that person because they're a woman." I just don't get that. And there would be 10 guys in the room and two women. So, I just never felt it. I never experienced any kind of issue.
And Gamergate seemed to be press for the sake of press. I thought what was really ugly is the way they attacked [Zoe Quinn's] character. But I don't think that was indicative of the gaming industry. I think that was indicative of young men. I just think that's the way they are.
I think, unfortunately, we're kind of ugly people in that respect. I don't think that's gamers. I think that could have happened anywhere.
You think videogames in some small part, though, may be contributing to the overall culture that makes young men a little worse?
Yeah, I think the Internet is and I think games are an active expression of that, right?
'Cause it's anonymous and you get a chance -- your adrenaline is pushed by the game. So we're saying, "Hey, we're gonna take you to the absolute peak. We're gonna give you a psychotic virtual drug that'll push you to the absolute edge. We're gonna raise your heartbeat, we're gonna raise your adrenaline. We're gonna push all of this through you and we're gonna make you anonymous."
Yes, I think that's gonna bring out the darker side of some people and not necessarily their true side. Not necessarily who they are when you meet them face-to-face or how they feel. You know? You say things out of anger and out of spite and out of adrenaline that your rational mind suppresses.
And I think that Gamergate is a really good example of people at their worst but not necessarily people at their true selves. I just thought the assassination of her character was probably the ugliest part of it. Because I didn't get that. That felt like that was the most sexist thing about the whole thing. It felt like a deliberate divide and a deliberately oppressive way of controlling the issue.
Have you heard of publishers talking about the audience that has been built for videogames? Are they concerned at all?
I don't know. I mean, maybe I need a refresher on Gamergate, because I'm thinking about it and I'm wondering, "Well, what are you thinking about what happened would affect publishers?"
Well, there was that incident you were talking about, but what I mean here is that the people who are deciding what sorts of games get made at the major-budget scale could make moves or statements to make people who feel marginalized or unacknowledged welcome. For some people, it's still a daily hell.
Yeah. Honestly, I don't know. I never heard it talked about it in any meetings. I never heard it talked about amongst the team. I think the most I ever heard was I had a conversation over lunch where it was a group of us and one of them said, "What do you think about this Gamergate thing?" And someone said, "Oh, I don't care."
That was about it.
Because it's just -- none of our decisions or thought processes turn to that because we're just making games. We're not thinking on that level. I think the people higher up on the chain, or rather, on a different chain, they don't see that. They see numbers. So, let's take a big game like Call of Duty, where you have captured, let's say -- I'm making numbers up. But let's say you've captured 50 percent of your market. You're not looking at how you capture 100 percent. You're looking at how you capture 55 percent. And then 60. And then 65.
So they might be looking at Gamergate and saying, "Hey, there's a little group here that are not represented that we can get to buy our games." But there's no emotional attachment to what's going on there. There's no political standing about, "Should we correct this?" They're just seeing numbers.
They're like, "Hey, these people don't feel represented or these people feel slighted. Let's see if we can find a system that brings them into our world and makes them buy our product."
That sounds very cynical, but I really do believe that's the extent of when it comes to the administrative change of games-making. It's just numbers.
I mean, let's be honest: Industries are not particularly nostalgic unless it's to sell you a reboot or a repackaging of something. But you can't get to 55 or 65 unless you rethink your strategy; at the companies you've worked at that made shooters, then, are there ever conversations about how to broaden up the types of people that these games appeal to?
I think we touch on it, but usually what happens is if it gets touched on, it's more of a personal campaign. Right? It's not the feeling of pressure we should do this, it's more like a feeling of, "Hey, I think we need to do a woman. Not because the rest of the world thinks we should. I think we need to do a good woman who doesn't have a huge bust and whatever."
That's a personal thing. That's a creative thing as opposed to a social pressure or choice. The social-pressure choice might come from the administrative chain, but not because they want to see change. It's because they want to capture that extra five percent of the market. So, I don't think we address it because I don't think we really think it's big enough.
I'll give you an example.
Black Ops. We were casting on the first Black Ops and we cast these great actors who were doing the mo-cap as well and the whole casting session was great. I left the company. And when the game came out, Ice Cube was voicing one of the characters. And it blew my mind because, "What the hell? Wait a sec. We've got this Russian spy, or this guy who's going to be spying in Russia working undercover and in Vietnam and he's black?"
And it's Ice Cube. Everyone knows it's Ice Cube. Everyone knows the guy is black and everyone knows the character is black. It didn't make any sense in the context of the game. [Laughs.] It really didn't.
[Laughs.] It just made no sense to have a guy working undercover in Russia for America, who was black. It just didn't make any sense.
But that decision almost certainly came from the administrative chain to say, "Hey, you know what? We have a lot of black players around the world who play this game and they're not represented. I think we can push that market a little bit more and gather five percent more sales if we put Ice Cube in as the voice. People are gonna see that on the back of the box and say, 'I want that game.'"
And it worked. It absolutely worked. [Laughs.]
Talk to me a little bit about Kevin Spacey.
Earlier in the year I wanted to do a story about, well, why is Kevin Spacey in a Call of Duty game? And you did not work on that one, right?
I did not.
Are you able to speculate with some authority on what the thought process was on Kevin Spacey -- a celebrity who claimed the audience for these games has no idea who he is.
Like, who is looking at the box and seeing Kevin Spacey and going, "Oh wow, I'm definitely buying this game now!" Who is that? What's the thinking behind that's going to move needles?
Right. [Laughs.] Well, I don't think it's all completely cynical. Because I think what would happen is the producer of the game, whoever that might be at that time, the executive producer of the game, is given a directive that, "Hey, we need to get a big name." I think Sam Worthington was one of the voices, and the way that decision was made would be exactly the same as the way the Kevin Spacey decision was made: "We gotta have a big name on the back of the box. You and the dev team go away and think about it, but we need a name that we can highlight and get press for."
So they go back. The executive producer doesn't think of any contrived idea. There's no conniving. Thinks, "What actors do I like?" And when you're doing Call of Duty, you can get anyone in the world. I mean, literally, you can hire almost anyone. They have the money. So the executive producer is thinking, "Hey, you know what? I'm watching House of Cards right now and I love Kevin Spacey. That guy is awesome."
So that name would be put forward not because it's cynical, not because it's just -- it's a marriage of the marketing team saying, "We need a big name," and the dev team saying, "We like this actor."
And every decision at the highest level is a tussle between those two.
Because you say that gamers don't know Kevin Spacey, but I guarantee you everyone at Treyarch knows Kevin Spacey.
And people outside of videogames know who Kevin Spacey is, and that may be a way of growing the audience or awareness of the medium.
So, I'm working on an independent game right now. I'm working on a small company. And we're trying to figure out when we release it. We're thinking of releasing it in February or in March simply because there aren't that many games coming out so that the press -- I mean, you guys have still gotta write, right? So maybe we'll get a bit more attention and we're not fighting with Call of Duty or Uncharted or whatever big game is coming out. And I think the same decision on Kevin Spacey. It's not that gamers would associate with Kevin Spacey. The devs just think that Kevin Spacey is an amazing actor and they want him in the game. And the management thinks it's a big enough name to get the press to say, "Let's write about this. Let's write an article about this." So, it serves its purpose.
I don't want to harp a ton more on shooters, but ostensibly the final Metal Gear just came out and the thing that's odd about Hideo Kojima's games is --
[Laughs.] That's one of many things that are odd about those games.
Well, it's an anti-war game that to the outsider still looks like a war game. And I'm curious of what you make of anti-war messages in shooters?
I never know where they come from. I think they're not very well thought out arguments that -- you're just making a very simple stance. I haven't played the new Metal Gear Solid. I've just seen the YouTube videos, so, I kind of feel like I've played the game.
I think the anti-war messages tend to be more like devs saying, "Hey, what would we see in a movie at this point?" Well, there'll probably be someone saying, 'War. War never changes. God, war is terrible man, what're we gonna do?'" And it's that. It's a fairly superficial thing. I don't want to cast aspersions about the whole industry. But in general, that point is put in there not because it's cynical and not because, "Hey, we gotta send this message out," but because that's what you'd see in a movie.
If your writer is not a movie writer, if your writer is the design team, you've got way bigger fish to fry than that particular piece of dialog and that particular message.
And I think when the anti-war message, or any of those messages, get more complex, that's because you've brought on a dedicated writer. And not all teams do that. It's still written within and then you call a writer in to clean it up and not make it sound so shit. So, I don't think there's much to say about the anti-war messages, honestly. I think they're just there because that's what movies do.
Are you saying that just because Kojima has said repeatedly he's so influenced by movies?
No, I think it's superficial. I don't think there's any real meaning in that. I don't think it's that particularly thought out. Like, if it really was, he'd have made a game, like, the entire thing constantly be anti-war. It's so ironic he's making a war game about a warrior who just destroys people. It feels like it must be superficial or because it's Kojima and he makes incredible games. It is so deep that it's gonna take me at least 10 years to figure out what he was saying.
But at this level, I just think it's superficial. I think it's like, "Hey, deep compelling music: Go!" And then you watch that bit, the strings swell in the background, and then you move on. "Did we get an emotional response?" "Yes." "Great! Achieved! Move on!"
How do stories actually come together on bigger games? I know you mentioned you were a writer for Black Ops and you are working on the new Doom.
The problem is it's different on every game. I'll give you a couple of scenarios. One is that you have a narrative director, like Naughty Dog. So, for the Uncharted games and The Last of Us, the narrative director comes up with a story first or a general feeling for a story first and gets together with the creative director or the gameplay director, the game director, and says, "How is this a playable thing?" And then they build the story and the game in tandem. So, "Hey, we need a doorway here. The player's gonna go through, we're gonna show a cutscene."
The other way of doing it, which was Call of Duty for many years, is they just made really cool content. Stuff that looks awesome. And then the design team says, "This is the purpose of this mission." So, before the writer gets onboard, you'll have a mission happening in Afghanistan and then a mission happening in Guadalajara or something, I don't know. And there's no narrative connection between those two things at all. So now you have to build a story of how those objects connect together. That's obviously way more difficult to do. But that often happens because games companies in the past didn't think writers were that important. So you would bring them on at the last minute to come in and clean up all of the crap. But now, I think that's changing. There tends to be a story structure in place right at the beginning of the game. Very flexible, but then, the game director goes up and says, "This is how we turn it into the game, and those decisions affect the narrative and vice versa."
I think that's the more common method of making games now.
Certainly in indie games, like, did you play Super Meat Boy?
Yeah, of course.
So, like, those guys, in that documentary, talked about how he had an idea, a very vague idea about what the story was. But the narrative really blossomed out of the interaction onscreen. So, if you started with a premise and then a prototype in the gameplay, and then both sides kind of flourished through development, I think that's how most games would be made now in general.
When you're actually writing on games, what is the actual work? When you're sitting down, is it in spreadsheets? Are you in Final Draft?
Yeah. Final Draft or Screenwriter or -- you're writing a screenplay, right? And invariably you develop a language which is part screenplay, for the actors and the producers and any additional writers for them to recognize that language, and then part for the devs so that they understand. So, it's just basically a very long screenplay. That's for the narrative.
For the gameplay, I have a huge amount of dialog you start moving into spreadsheets. Like the GTAs and the Skyrims, where they have, I don't know, 100,000 lines or whatever else they have, there is -- I don't know exactly, but I would imagine there is a basic narrative written in Final Draft or Screenwriter, but there is also, rather than putting in that script, "The dragonslayer says this or he says this or he says this," they don't do that. That all goes over to a spreadsheet. But in general we use Final Draft.
What feedback do you get? Do they give you story notes? Do they give you character development notes? Do they give you those kinds of writerly notes?
Oh, yeah. Particularly if you're a contract writer. I think if you're an embedded writer who's there from the beginning and kind of high up in the chain, like Neil Druckmann [at Naughty Dog]. If you're a writer like that, who's high up in the chain anyway and has been working there for a long time, it's a little bit difficult to give them character notes because he didn't just wander in off the street. I think he was a programmer and then moved up and move up and moved up and moved up and always wanted to write and be a writer. So he's put in his hours, his 10,000 hours. You don't really give that guy character notes 'cause who the hell are you, but when you walk in as a contract writer, I think people in general are a little bit more willing to say, "This is the story we're gonna tell," because you're walking into their territory.
And you're trying to take their vision and turn it into a script. So, when you submit a script, producers will read it, they will give you feedback on the content, and sometimes that feedback is a little layman. It doesn't really get to the root of the problem. So the writer's job ends up becoming, "Okay, how do I interpret this to not break every narrative rule I've ever learned just to serve them?" [Laughs.]
Because often they can't write dialog, but what do you find is that a lot of them actually are pretty good writers in that genre. They may not be able to write a screenplay, but they know how to write game dialog. So, often it's just cleaning up and coming in with options and fresh ideas like, "Hey, have you thought of making this character different or that character different?"
And then just sitting down in front of Final Draft or Screenwriter and banging it out.
Yes. "Interior." [Laughs.]
Yes. All of that stuff. Oh my God. Getting people to understand the language of Final Draft is really hard. Surprisingly hard. It seems so obvious. Like, "What's INT.?" "Interior, dude. Come on!"
"Well, why is it interior? Why do I care it's interior?"
"Because you're inside?"
From your perspective, what makes for the ideal shooter from a design and writing point of view? What's the best that you've seen, the best that you've done?
[Laughs.] Well, the best I've seen is probably still Bioshock.
I was blown away by Bioshock. I thought it was just beautiful. I loved everything about that game. The first one. Not Infinite. The first one, and the second one was good, too. Anyway, so that was about the best.
But what makes a great shooter as a writer? The gameplay. [Laughs.] Because I don't think shooters are the right medium, to be honest with you, because the word "shooter" is in the title. [Laughs.] The name of what we want to do in that game is in the title, in the genre name. And so, I don't think -- like, I love the Telltale games and I think they're called -- there's a name for that genre, now. Narrative --
Is it "interactive fiction?"
Yes, interactive fiction. In interactive fiction, I need a really good, compelling story with characters because it's in the name of the title. In a first-person shooter, I just don't think the story is that important. I want it to be very lightweight. Ideally, a lot of the story told in loading screens when that time is otherwise wasted.
Infinity Ward did a great job with their motion-graphic stuff, on the first Modern Warfare where, in between, where you had all these really cool overlays and it was very CIA-oriented and a Homeland kind of feel. I want the story told efficiently and as quickly as possible, but, frankly, I don't in general want to see a story in first-person shooters because I just don't think they work very well, which is why I don't play first-person shooters very much anymore.
So, for people who aren't that familiar with videogames, for people who hear that shooters are awful and they're ruining our children -- what's good or redeeming about the genre?
Shit. What's good or redeeming about the genre?
I don't know because I feel very bitter about them in general.
So, like, I can answer that in third person or in games like Journey or in games like that where I can say it's the art or it's beautiful or it's the emotional connection or it's helping players get in touch with their inner selves.
Okay, here's a good thing. [Laughs.] I think it allows people to get their rage out in a controllable manner. And I genuinely think it does that. I have seen people come in to play tests who are just angry. Angry people. And you see them sit down and play this game and they get it all out on the screen and by the end they're exhausted and they're not gonna be angry with anyone for a while. So, I actually think it is a release for people. I think it does let people who have a lot of pent up feelings -- particularly, adolescent feelings, it allows them to really get this stuff out in a manner that is acceptable and controllable. I think that's probably the best benefit.
What do you do to be a better writer for coming up with stories for games?
Well, I wear women's underwear.
Well, that would probably relax you.
That's not what you meant, though.
I usually look for more esoteric games. I tend to find that that opens my eyes and makes me feel a little bit more like, "Oh, God, I gotta keep on top of my game because the developers are getting younger and younger and more thoughtful and more deeper into their craft." Like the development of painters over the centuries, you look at people making games now, single people in their own house, which is where them and two other people are making games far superior than what I could have made. And it's not a tool limitation, it's just that as we get more knowledgeable about what the craft requires.
So I find playing the more esoteric and out-there games and out-there releases and stuff like that makes me better at what I do. I think it was Jim Jarmusch -- or probably a ton of people, but Jim Jarmusch said, "Steal from everyone." [Laughs.] Because the idea is you see it and you make it your own and you make it better. Or maybe it was Salvador Dali who said that.
Truly the Jim Jarmusch of his day.
[Laughs.] I'm paraphrasing, but he said, "Steal from everything." And you take it all in and you absorb it in. So I find myself playing a lot of smaller games. I love Steam. I spend a ton of time -- I don't really play the console very much anymore because, I don't know, I find the whole front end and the noise and the happy colors and the sound really annoying. I usually open up Steam and I will just scan through because I find the platform very exciting. The new one, Steam, and it's not all EA games and it's not all AAA releases. It's obscure, small, free-to-play games and stuff like that. So I play those games.
And that helps me realize there are different ways of telling stories and I get better at my craft.
Do you mainly look to other games for inspiration or do you turn to other stuff as well?
Well, no, I'm very selective about the television that I watch. I very rarely watch television. So, what I do is I binge, as is the way we do it now. I binge-watch a show after I've had at least 50 recommendations from people. [Laughs.] If two people recommend it, I'm not watching it. If 10 people do, okay, I'll watch it. And I binge-watch that, but other than that my TV's never on.
And then I'll watch any movie that's been made. No matter who's made it, I will watch anything because I just love movies. So, I don't really read anymore, which is kind of depressing.
Do you think that's because of the Internet?
Yeah, I think just my attention span has been less. I guess I do read. I read the Internet. [Laughs.]
I sat down to read The Lord of the Rings again for, I don't know, the fifth or sixth time in my life. And I've always been able to read that book. It just takes me away. I couldn't get past 20 pages before I was distracted. And so, yeah, I find reading is just not as important anymore. Particularly if I can't get it done in half an hour.
Do you read any games media or blogs or pay attention to any of that?
No. Not really. Most of them, I'm very cynical about. The IGNs, all of these things, I find them very cynical. I've really started to realize that reviews of games are just so irrelevant. They just mean absolutely nothing to me. So I don't have reviews to read. And the press is usually sensationalist stuff, but maybe important, but not in my small sheltered life it's not. It just doesn't mean anything to me. If there's a big thing, I will.
I sometimes read, like, Gamasutra, because there are good articles on it. And I will follow YouTube channels of devs sometimes and blogs of devs occasionally if they're talking about stuff that interests me. But on the whole, I feel that as a writer now I can get my inspiration from any kind of creative narrative and carry it across. So I don't have to focus on needing to know the game world because I play enough games to be involved with games now.
Is that common? You're, I think, the third games writer to tell me they don't really pay attention to the games media. Do you get the sense that unless you're in marketing or a publisher at the big-budget places, you really just don't pay too close attention to the games media?
Right. Well, I think, yeah, we know the hype. Like, I've learned that any pre-footage that's shown, anything at E3 or PAX or any of those kind of things, any articles that are written before the game comes out, any articles that are written within one week of the game coming out have the potential to all be bullshit. So why bother paying attention to any of that stuff?
The only thing that matters is if a friend, a fellow dev, calls you up and says, "You have to go play Faster Than Light. You have to go play FTL. It's one of the best games you've ever played in your life." Then I will go -- that's the only interest I have, really, because it is. I've played it and it's an amazing game. Still playing it after 200 hours in the game. An aazing game.
But if I read press about it, I actually wouldn't have gotten that much on FTL before it was released. I would now, because it's a huge hit. But no one would have talked about FTL. Maybe a couple of places. Maybe Kotaku would have had a little thing on it. But in general, they wouldn't have been interested in that game. So, I'm not interested in it. I don't need to know the story of the next Call of Duty. I already know that.
So, yeah, I tend to stay out of it and focus on the smaller stuff instead.
So, you have been distancing yourself from the shooter genre, and I assume that's why you went over to Naughty Dog, right?
How would you like to see the genre of shooters to evolve or change?
I don't think it should. I think it's fine where it is. I just think it's not for me anymore. I don't think the problem is shooters. The problem is me.
But I don't think it's a problem. I think it's a natural evolution. I guess that's what I realized. I think when I first left shooters, I was a bit more angry. And it was like, "Why isn't it changing? It's the same game over and over again." But you know, you get older, your reflection gets a bit better, you wear glasses to help you see through some of this bullshit, and you realize that the problem isn't that I'm making the same game and it never changes, it's that that's what I did. That's not supposed to change. The game is not for me. It's my job to go out and find a game that is now appropriate for me.
And at the time, it was Uncharted. It was like, "I want to make that game. That's the kind of game I want to be involved with." And I went out there and I worked there for a couple of years and it was amazing and I was overwhelmed by how good everyone was at their job over there. But I've also moved on from that. I don't want that kind of game either.
Nothing wrong with those games. It's me that's changed.
So you're saying part of the function of the shooter is it should model some sort of idealized masculinity or masculine camaraderie? That's just sort of the purpose it should serve?
I don't think it needs to serve a purpose. I think it just creates itself. That's like saying, "What model should art serve?" It's whatever you want it to be, right? It's whatever the person wants to create. You don't have to play -- I think if we feel that Call of Duty or first-person shooters should be a model of a particular thing then that's no longer a piece of art. That's just like a corporate entity. Then what's the point of that?
To me, I just don't feel that it actually has to change in any way whatsoever.
That's the way it is. I don't think it's its job to affect society. Society may be affected by it, but it's not its job to say, "We're gonna lay the groundwork for what we're gonna be in the next generation." It's not their job.
What do you think videogames have accomplished?
Well, I think they've created an outlet for a lot of artists that wasn't there before. Well, it was there, but the path is easier. So, digital artist is a really good example.
If you want 10,000 people to see your work and if you want to potentially get a job as an artist now, it's viable. You can go do that. It was really, really hard 20 years ago for people to do that.
So I think it's allowing very creative people to find an outlet for their work and for them to actually make a living out of it, which I think is really exciting. Particularly for artists. Art has become a much more viable profession now. [Laughs.] Whereas before it was kind of a shot in the dark and like, "God, I hope someone likes what I'm doing!"
In general, it's still a very big market, but if you're a good digital artist, you can get a job. Just send your stuff over to a games company. You'll get hired.
And that's pretty exciting. I like that.
I think that they've done a great amount for -- this is going to sound weird, but they introduce people to a whole new attitude towards music, which I think is really exciting. Like, I think that because of soundtracks and the kinds of composers that are getting involved in videogames now, which is reaching an audience -- I mean, movies were doing this as well, but games reach them on a much more deep and compelling level. I think that's exciting. I think people's tastes in music are gonna be much wider and much more free-ranging because game music is not normally the same music that we hear on the radio, right? So, now we're hearing classical, we're hearing these beautiful digital compositions like the Ben Prunty stuff and there's beautiful compositions which 17-year-old kids would never have been listening to. So I find that exciting.
And they're giving a lot of actors work. There you go. [Laughs.]
So it all comes back to theater again, huh?
It does A lot of actors getting voice-over and mo-cap work, thanks to the games industry.
I should ask, because I like to talk to people who have worked outside of the game industry: Do you keep in touch with your friends from your theater days? What do they make of your working in games?
Nah, they don't care. The only thing that bugs me is that when people have absolutely no idea what the games industry is or what games are, just say that anyone who in anyway has looked at a videogame is a gamer. There's just this generic term that's applied to people. That, my wife, even in the beginning of our relationship would introduce me as a gamer. I would say, "I make videogames. I'm a dev. We're standing in a house that was bought because of what I do. When you say 'gamer,' people will think I just sit there drooling in front of a television."
Which I do, naturally.
But in general I find the people who have no concept of the industry at all, I usually don't talk about it because we just have no common ground. There's nothing to talk about there, so we'll talk about theater or movies or something else. In general, people don't care.
But I'll tell you who does care is their kids. Oh my God. I've been to parties with movie stars and when the kids have found out that I made Call of Duty, they were all over me. It was awesome. [Laughs.]