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Seeking out Hollywood for robust narratives

International New York Times, Dec 24 2017, 21:35 IST
In an undated handout image, a screenshot from the game

In an undated handout image, a screenshot from the game

When Pete Samuels, a founder and the chief executive of Supermassive Games, began working on a survival horror adventure video game called "Until Dawn" in 2015, he knew he wanted the story to unfold like that of a horror film.

So he turned to Hollywood. Samuels sought out Larry Fessenden, an American screenwriter and director whose credits include the horror films "Wendigo" and "The Last Winter," and the screenplay for "Orphanage," an in-development English language remake of the Spanish horror film "El Orfanato" from director Guillermo del Toro.

"The gaming audience is growing, and tastes are broadening," Samuels said. "Great films and great television that tell good stories are more widely available to many more people than ever before, and there's definitely an increasing population of the gaming audience that are enthusiastic for games with a thoughtfully constructed narrative."

In an era of prestige television, high-quality streaming services and indie films that sometimes haul in blockbuster box office receipts, video games are facing stiff narrative competition. So video game creators are increasingly turning to film and television writers to help craft their stories.

In 2014, Sledgehammer Games worked with Hollywood screenwriter Mark Boal (his credits include "The Hurt Locker" and "Zero Dark Thirty") on the story for the first-person shooter "Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare." That same year, former Pixar writer Stephan Bugaj worked with Telltale Games to develop a narrative for the studio's popular episodic adventure game series "Game of Thrones" and "The Walking Dead."

Last December, Naughty Dog, the studio behind blockbuster action-adventure franchises like "Uncharted" and "The Last of Us," announced that Halley Gross, a writer and story editor on HBO's "Westworld," would help write the studio's coming game, "The Last of Us Part II." The game will follow its two protagonists, Ellie and Joel, as they make their way across post-apocalyptic America fighting off zombielike monsters.

Video game fans have long signaled their appreciation for narrative games. Action-adventure games, which typically have more complex story lines, are among the top three genres for PC games, console games and mobile games, according to Newzoo, a video game marketing intelligence company. In April, the Entertainment Software Association released a survey that found that 59 percent of gamers consider the story when buying a title; it was the third-highest influencing factor behind quality of graphics and price.

But writing for a video game can present hurdles for television and film writers. That's because unlike film and TV audiences, gaming audiences are not passive spectators. With a story-based game, you expect to be able to exercise some agency over how the story unfolds - or at least to experience the story in a way that feels more intimate and personal than a film or television show. Writers have to take that interactivity into account.

With "The Last of Us Part II," Gross approached that challenge together with Neil Druckmann, Naughty Dog's creative director. Gross, who is a gamer, said she signed on for the project because it was an opportunity to learn more about making games while working with characters she was already familiar with.

"I believe storytelling in games has the opportunity to create an unmatched level of empathy," Gross said. "You're not just a spectator. You're experiencing someone's journey firsthand."

At the outset, they approached the game similar to the way they would a season of television, said Gross, with the two brainstorming the entire story line and figuring out major milestones for the narrative. Once those were in place, the similarities between writing for television and games fell away.

"In television, you're collaborating with other writers," Gross said, and "only once the script is in a fairly locked form do other departments get involved," she explained. "At Naughty Dog, each narrative beat is infused with not just the ideas of the writers, but also by design, art, and more."

Gary Whitta, whose film-writing credits include "The Book of Eli," "After Earth," and last year's "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," said he had seen how storytelling went from nonexistent in games to becoming "more the standard." Whitta, who got his start as a gaming journalist, has consulted on narrative and story development for a number of video games, including Microsoft's popular first-person shooter series "Gears of War."

Over time, Whitta said, he figured that his skills would be less needed in the video game industry. That's because he expected storytelling to become more developed in the industry itself.

"As the skill sets become more mature, developers will devote more internal resources to it, developing their own story talent," he said.

For now, building robust and dynamic stories can still be difficult, especially in games that have several outcomes depending on what each player decides. When developing the story for "Until Dawn," for example, Fessenden worked with a collaborator, the writer and director Graham Reznick, whose credits include the 2008 experimental horror feature film "I Can See You." Together, they crafted a creepy cabin-in-the-woods story focused on a group of teenagers.

The game was conceived as a first-person game, which Reznick said felt "much less cinematic." Supermassive Games then decided to switch to a third-person perspective, and began employing techniques usually reserved for films, like fixed camera angles, editing between shots, and high resolution facial capture for the actors.

"This let us actually write dialogue and express ideas closer to how we would in film - a loaded glance in a cutaway could be much more powerful than a line of dialogue shouted from offscreen," Reznick said.

In the game's final version, players can alternate among characters during the game, making decisions that affect the outcome. The game, which features the voices and likeness of actors Rami Malek and Hayden Panettiere, was released on the PlayStation 4 in 2015. It later won a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for its originality.

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