This is the third part in an ongoing NDE series featuring interviews with Masters of Narrative Design™. While a seemingly new term, the design of story experiences is nothing new. As game developers are increasingly looking to create meaningful virtual narrative experiences, looking back at the lessons learned by these masters becomes increasingly valuable. Today’s master is David Sosna, director, writer, producer, actor, and engineer, in his seasoned career he has worked on Tv dramas, music videos, feature films, video games, live performance and more. He gets the job done, on budget, on time, and focuses on giving his audiences the most entertaining experiences possible. Today I’m hoping to see what we can learn from his wealth of experience in popular media.
Stephen Erin Dinehart: David, thank you for taking the time to interview with the NDE. How do you feel your previous work in entertainment relates to your current position?
David Sosna: I spent my motion picture career as a First Assistant Director on feature films. That work focused on deconstructing a script, extracting its requirements, providing an unambiguous schedule of what to shoot when, with what assets present. Then, during shooting, running the set, making ad hoc decisions, keeping the train moving. Now that I’ve switched to Associate Producer, my previous work experience is much more applicable.
SED: As a person who has worked on high profile projects for film, Tv, the stage, and video games, how does well-crafted narrative affect your work?
DS: When working on content, especially narrative design, story is everything. Story and dialog, actually. For me, the old saw, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage” still works. I just saw Batman last night. The world thinks it’s a great movie. I think the last half of the picture is incomprehensible, lacks credulity and is too frenetic and opaque to be understood. That’s not good story telling, in my view, in spite of earth-shattering grosses.
SED: When mentoring me at Relic you provided the best notes I’ve seen. In that, what are your top five rules for creating quality game screenplays?
DS: 1) Write believable, interesting characters that the audience cares about. 2) Keep it moving. 3) Excise excess. 4) Be unambiguous and easily understood at all times. 5) Make every word count, be required and believable; especially dialog.
SED: How do you see the storytelling in games differing from other forms of storytelling?
DS: The interactive nature of games is an obvious huge difference. In some games, player choice changes storytelling timelines, event orders, outcomes, etc. In other games, the same line may be required to be written many ways, and voiced many more ways. If you’re a tank commander and encounter another tank, greetings to friend and foe differ. Conversations when taking fire, and when not, differ. Conversation when wounded, or down men, or equipment differ from dialog from healthy commanders and platoons. None of those things are present in film narrative. Some novels employ similar and other, singular techniques, as do graphic novels. But games often use story minimally, or only in service of getting the player in position to blow up men and material with sufficient fictional stakes.
Videogame storytelling often seems to be exposition: who the principals are, what they want, how they feel about each other, etc. It’s often not as structured as film storytelling. Games seldom devote full attention to an arc with a hero starting low and ending high; a staple of motion picture storytelling. Often, because most people don’t play games all the way through.
SED: Is that lack of a complete arc a detriment to the experience?
I think so, but don’t know what to do about the majority of players not getting to the end of the game story. No one writes movies anticipating audience leaving before the last reel. The whole purpose of the character arc in film, start low-end high, is to create the “Hollywood Happy Ending”. In games, is a happy ending desired? Does the Hero require change? Self-Discovery? Self-Revelation? Or just a Bond girl and a beer after vanquishing hordes of Orks? So it’s a case by case basis to make that decision. Videogame dialog frequently doesn’t have the naturalistic and concise quality that film dialog does.
SED: Do you think that’s partly due to lack of a post-production process, one that allows editing, as in film?
No. It’s bad writing, mostly. Rather than, “I love you deeply and being with you improves me and imposes on me a desire for self improvement”, prefer “You make me want to be a better man.” It’s not only shorter and better, it’s quotable.[see example clip from “As Good As it Gets” to the left]
SED: What do game makers have to learn from other forms of entertainment development?
DS: Minor characters and their subplots are very useful storytelling devices that are often absent in video games. Using this technique can enrich and deepen the player’s gaming experience. Brevity and believability, within the context of the story, are crucial and well understood in other entertainment forms.
SED: Do you mean in conjunction with major protagonists and their plot arcs?
DS: Minor characters often reflect, in an amusing way, the same struggle that the Hero goes through. Errol Flynn’s “Robin Hood”, for example. Robin and Maid Marion were finding love, as were Robin’s valet/footman and Maid Marion’s Maid.
You were First Assistant Director on the cult classic film “The
Warriors” [watch trailer] in 1979, over 25 years later it was released as a video game,
in 2005. What do you think about adapting properties to new-media
DS: With a timeline that long, it’s doubtful any of the people who bought the game were familiar with the movie. The picture was released and pulled almost immediately because an L.A. gang shooting was misunderstood to be a result of the motion pictures ‘ability to incite riot’ in its audience. Two rival gangs encountered each other in the lobby and settled an old dispute with concealed weapons before the movie began. Paramount Pictures, the releasing studio, was notable in their lack of willingness to explain the facts of the incident to the media and shelved the picture as a demonstration of how not to protect its intellectual property.
SED: Doesn’t sound too dissimilar from the recent incidents associated with Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series.
Difference being, Rockstar didn’t pull the game and diminish their revenue stream out of unwarranted fear. They stood their ground and said, “If you don’t like it, don’t buy it.” Paramount, at that time, chose a less courageous posture and lost money for no good reason. Fortunately, I’m no longer in the picture business, so I can say these things with impunity. But back to the case of ‘The Warriors’, I’m not sure there is any correlation between the film and the understood context of the game’s audience.
SED: Good point.
DS: With big popcorn ‘tent pole’ pictures, like Marvel and DC comics based films, some properties adapt well. In fact, portions of ‘The Dark Knight’ Batman look like a video game on film. The chase through Lower Wacker in Chicago with rocket propelled grenade launcher and the forty-foot truck flipping over backwards come to mind. But the larger problem, it seems to me, is twofold: what if the movie’s lousy and does no business? What’s the value of the video game license then? Is there value in continuing work on a video game with mortally wounded IP? Second, it takes longer to make a video game than a movie. Even with full and timely cooperation from the movie studio, currently somewhat infrequent, games to be released day and date with the movie require rushed production.
Rushing a video game seldom results in positive outcomes. And video games often require extensive technology development, something that doesn’t often happen in motion picture production. No one’s inventing a new camera or film stock for a specific movie. (With the exception of Jaws 3D, on which I cannot comment for potential libel issues.) So the movie can finish shooting, have an extensive postproduction period and still be in release before the game is truly finished.
In that, making a new game to be released with a new movie is dangerous if not foolhardy. Making a new game out of an old movie is possible and can often produce positive results; Lego Star Wars, for instance.
You were 1st Assistant Director on Michael Jackson’s music video
“Thriller”, could that project be turned into a video game?
DS: Probably not without extending its small premise to the breaking point, unless a casual game was the goal. “Thriller” was about a guy who turned into a werewolf and danced with Zombies. There’s not much video game there.
SED: You could get points for shaking ‘it’
zombie style? I digress, and clearly I just want to be an extra on the
You created the computer graphics for the classic film “War Games”
[watch trailer] and now you work at one of the world’s best studios for strategy games.
What was your vision of computer games back then, and how does that
affect your work today?
DS: I was one among many who collaborated on the construction of the computer graphics. Colin Cantwell and Steve Grumette made huge technical achievements. Others helped, got in the way, or got fired for grand theft. Still others make specious claims to this day about their participation. The truth may only be settled, if ever, in a bar fight or a 10 round undercard match between aging geeks working comedy relief in a Mixed Martial Arts Pay Per View cablecast.
SED: That’s hilarious.
DS: I’m blushing. <blush/> The Crystal Palace, NASA like control room set, had 23 or 26 rear projection screens with the WOPR ‘output’ displayed. While common and real time in actual military environs today, at the time, the technology demonstrated was pure fakery and well ahead of its time. To give you a sense of the technology, Colin Cantwell created each frame of each of the 23/26 screens’ images on a HP computer that ran HP Color Basic 3000. It took 5 minutes, 300,000 milliseconds, to draw a single 2D frame. We weren’t sure we’d finish the computer to film recording in time for production, it was such a massive and time consuming task. Games then had little relation to games today. I
certainly didn’t have the capacity to imagine in 1980 what games of
2008 would look like. We were happy with ASCII graphics of games sold
on floppy discs in plastic envelopes.
SED: With that taken into account: what is your future vision for interactive entertainment?
DS: Better dialog, better plot, better cut scenes, better internal architecture, better engines and toolsets; real stories with real interactivity that involves the player more intensely than today’s games. More high-level abstraction in development tools so games with a more limited, but equally committed audience can be created in a cost effective timeline. This could produce two big new areas for future games if the tech is realized: one would be for games like railroad dispatcher, air traffic control on a larger scale, logistics management simulations, etc. Here, there’s little story and mostly managing large flow streams of real world entities; they are too expensive to build for such small audiences today, but possible in the future. And there are audiences out there for those kinds of games.
The other, more difficult but with wider audience possibilities; actual dramatic interaction between characters; beyond Sims, closer to a soap opera or continuing episodic television series, where character’s have to make choices and outcomes and interactions change accordingly. The graphic quality would surpass Metal Gear Solid, would have a better story, more fully developed characters and choosable, human like interaction. Sims on steroids with life changing choices.
Sounds like you have a pitch for EA Partners? “Sims on steroids with
life changing choices.” I’d play that.
DS: I’d like to say something about the only picture I could send you in time: I was younger, better looking, thinner then. But more importantly, the guy standing next to me was a wonderful man, Bill Watkins. He was our production manager and a sweetheart who really knew his work and how to get along with everyone. I miss him and the picture business is diminished without him. His son Mike’s gone on to a major directing career after a good long run as a fine Cameraman.
This picture’s a lift from a short scene I had in “Coming to America” [watch trailer] where I brought the jewels to Eddie Murphy’s girl friend. I was the well dressed delivery man and Bill, my boss, was the guard. It was supposed to be amusing that he was my side kick. The problem was, the cameraman lit for sunny day on the stage to keep the plants bright, as if from the sun. It was about 110 on the stage, about 140 in that damn wool 3 piece suit with a wool overcoat. I was dripping with sweat when it was over.
To this day, the Director, John Landis, teases me that I was sweating because I was nervous. And I deny his assertions with equal vigor.
SED: Thanks for taking the time to
talk with me David; I look forward to playing your future creations.
DS: Can you give me the $59.95 now? I’ll credit your account when the game comes out.
SED: Put it on my tab; my pockets are kinda empty; I promise to let you know when my endBroke(now) function starts working!
Talking with David is always fun, he’s a good guy, practical, and full of that no bullshit Hollywood style that makes you know he ain’t no joke, just really funny. I’m sure by the time I’m done writing this he’ll be elevated to the position of producer, and for us all in games, it’ll make our industry a better place. For the Narrative Design Explorer™, I’m Stephen Erin Dinehart. Thanks for taking the time to read this, I hope you found inspiration in these words. Please feel free to comment.