This is an ongoing NDE series featuring interviews with Masters of Narrative Design™. While ‘narrative design’ is not a term in common usage, the design of story experiences is nothing new. As game developers are increasingly looking to create meaningful virtual narrative experiences, looking at the lessons learned by these masters becomes increasingly valuable. Today’s master is writer and author, Flint Dille. As a storyteller whose works have spanned from Dungeons and Dragons campaign modules to Pic-a-path novels, films and videogames and the book The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design, Flint brings an acute narrative sensibility from his vast experience in interactive narrative design. I’m hoping to see what we can learn from his wealth of knowledge and wisdom.
Stephen E. Dinehart: You have been writing for years under the label GZP, can you explain what that is and how it came about?
Flinte Dille: GZP is Ground Zero Productions. That’s my company formed in 1991, before the term Ground Zero took on a whole different meaning. I now refer to it mostly as GZP for obvious reasons. It was formed as a holding company for my work and for some copywrites and trademarks. At various times it has served as a film production company, a videogame production company and worked in both the private and public sectors. When I came up with the name, it was both the sense of starting at Ground Zero (the beginning) and the idea that ground zero was the focal point of an explosion. Its served me well because I always feel like I’m just starting out. I had no idea what ghastly implications it would take on. Ironically, Ground Zero Productions has done a lot of work in counter-terrorism efforts with various government agencies.
Is that the same as the Bureau of Film and Games?
FD: No. Bureau of Film and Games is a company I own with John Zuur Platten. I’ve always liked the name. Rich Liebowitz came up with it. We ran with it. It is mostly a holding company.
When did you first know you wanted to be in the business of stories?
FD: I tried to write my first novel when I was in 7th Grade and wrote a fraternity House murder mystery when I was in college (which has mercifully escaped publication). Went to USC for a masters degree in writing (cinema) and have been doing it pretty much ever since. I’d always known I wanted to do games, but I had no idea how to get into that business. That happened, mostly by chance, a couple of years later.
You have written fiction within high profile franchises like 300, Batman, Dungeons and Dragons, G.I. Joe, James Bond, Superman, and Transformers; just to name a few, how do you approach authoring for pre-established franchises?
FD: I really enjoy translating a franchise from one medium to another. I grew up loving James Bond movies, so it was great to be able to do a James Bond game and live in that universe for a couple years. Same thing with Batman and Superman. With Transformers, it was a little different, we were kind of making up the franchise as we were going along (other people had done the spade work, but we were figuring out the rules and the mythologies, etc.). In some cases, you get to put parts of yourself into them (Flint).
The approach, technically, is first to break down the franchise into Franchise Elements. If you’re doing Scooby-Doo, you have to know about Scooby snacks and ‘Jinkys’ and all of the little things that make a franchise a franchise. With Bond, we isolated 135 things that are part of the franchise, ranging from ‘Shaken, not stirred’ to “Bond, James Bond’ to the mandatory presence of an Aston Martin. You can’t fit all of them in, and in some ways the definitive thing about a particular expression of a franchise is what you leave out. Look at what’s missing from the new James Bond movies, for instance.
That word, ‘expression’ is very important.
Every franchise that’s been around for a while has had different ‘Expressions.’ For instance, the Dark Knight is wildly different than the ’60’s Adam West Batman. Still, they are both Batman, they both have an Alfred and Joker and a Batmobile. But there are franchise elements missing. The Adam West version stays away from Crime Alley. Its not about that. It is the fun, camp Batman. Brutal parental murders aren’t a lot of fun. Likewise, you don’t see Zap and Pow in the Dark Knight. Different expressions. Frank Miller said something very insightful about Batman. There are 50 ways to do it, and all of them work.”
Translating to another medium, say from film to game, is an interesting exercise. You don’t want to slavishly follow the film, usually, and even if you do, you have to make more stuff up. Games need different things than films. Games usually need lots of different ‘cannon fodder’ (guys to kill) and more wildly different environments and bosses than a movie. A game is a 10 hour experience (or more) and a movie is a 2-3 hour experience. Different issues. Games are about action and problem solving. Movies are primarily about characters. Also, you have to figure out how to adapt the character. If you’re making Mission:Impossible, how much of the game is a Sim of being Ethan Hunt and how much of it is a Mission:Impossible story that the player is working with. Does Ethan Hunt know pretty much how to use his gun (auto target) or do you have to use the gun (manual target)?
Right now, I’m working on Sin City for Red Mile. The idea there is to figure out how to get the mood and tone of the graphic novels into a game. We’re wrestling with things like, ‘is it really going to be all black & white? Can we tell a jagged, staccato story in games. How do we convey the fact that ‘people take a lot of killing’ in a game? How do you get across the idea of an impressionistic, surreal world that you could never map, in a game. Tricky and fun stuff.
Does writing for existing franchises differ greatly from writing for original IP?
FD: Totally different. When you are working with an existing IP, somebody has already done all the basic work for you. You have to be extremely aware of what the audience expects and you have to answer to licensors. I always like to bring something new to the franchise when I do a game. When I did Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu, I got to create a new villain for the Batman universe. Warners turned it into a novel that Devin Grayson adapted from the game script.
With existing IP, you are working within the framework of what licensors (the people who own the property) will allow you to do. Everybody loves working on
their own IP, or at least ‘new’ IP. It’s hard in a game space, because you have to create so much stuff and because of the intensely collaborative nature of the game business. So many people have to share the vision from inception to expression. There are so many ways to get derailed.
Its fashionable to say that ‘it all starts with a story’, but I don’t really believe that. I tend to think in terms of worlds – good guys, bad guys, neutral guys. A world of order and chaos in conflict. You have to decide what is valuable in your world. Is it money or is it better weapons? Is there magic in your world? If so, how much and what kind? How about technology? What is the morality of the world? What is the scale of the conflict? How serious and how funny is the world? If it is funny, what kind of funny is it?
Its hard to create something that’s totally new. Simply to be able to communicate your ideas, you have to reference other things. Or course, the things you reference come from something else. The odd thing is that in western culture it is usually the bible, because it is hardcoded to our culture. Greek mythology is big, too. There are a lot of ways of measuring the success of an IP, both creatively and commercially. To me the validation of an IP is whether it is a cross-media franchise. Can this be a game and a TV show or movie?
When Andre Emerson and I did ‘Dead to Rights’ we started with the idea that
we wanted to do Film Noir meets Hong Kong. We created Grant City and a
whole corrupt world filled with colorful characters. The validation
was that paramount optioned it. I did a game called Terror TRAX which
was really a pick-a-path adventure shot on video about a special squad
of cops who hunt the paranormal. Very gritty and street level. When it was adapted as a TV pilot by Renny Harlan, it morphed into a completely different animal not necessarily better or worse, but different.
John Platten and I sold a game document called Backwater to Dimension. What started out as a way of trying to figure out how to do ‘auricular gameplay’ (play partially by sound), turned into an old school slasher film called ‘Venom.’ New IPs are like a Rorschach. People tend to see in them what they want to see. If you have a strong vision, you have two big struggles 1) expressing it in such a way that other people understand and 2) protecting it from the elements (time, budget, other visions, etc). There is a good reason that great new properties are few and far between.
Have you seen a tremendous change in game storytelling since you began working in games?
FD: Yes and no. Much of what I’m trying to do now is what we were trying to do back in TSR days with paper games. There’s a story narrative and a game component and you want to harmonize them. With video games, it has changed greatly with the technology. The goal now is to make the story and the game so closely integrated that you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins.
Are there gamestorys that stick out to you above the rest? Which?
FD: There are a lot that have been very interesting and I hate to answer the question for fear of offending people. Some recent things of note to me have been the minimalist brilliance of Portal, and the dystopic
world of Bioshock. In those cases it isn’t so much the story itself, but the way it is told and the way it harmonizes with the game. I’m kind of fascinated right now by what they’re doing with WoW and the Litch King expansion. They run a cool balance between open world RPG and having an ambient fiction emerge to change the world. Storytelling in MMOG’s is the future. MMOG’s and ARGs.
Do you have a set of criteria by which you judge that?
FD: The reason your question is hard to answer is that often, great storytelling is invisible. You just like the game and don’t know all the way why. Sometimes, the opposite happens. The game is good, but it somehow feels kind of empty. That emptiness is an emotional attachment, which is what story brings to a game. You can see that with professional sports. The last Superbowl was a narrative about the unstoppable team versus the Cinderella team. The most successful quarterback in modern times and the little brother of a great quarterback who had to prove himself. That’s true in videogames. Story gives subtext.
One of my favorites to-date is your title which is to see a sequel of sorts call Riddick: Dark Athena, was Chronicles of Riddick: Butchers Bay. I enjoyed it both analytically and from a fan standpoint. What can you tell me about writing for Butchers Bay?
FD: I did that with John Zuur Platten. That project was one of those projects where everything worked. Great developer. Great producer. Vin was a joy (I was involved with TSR for 15 years and have seen some of the hardest core gamers in the world. I haven’t seen one harder core than Vin)… There was a lot of back and forth and some conflict. The results more or less vindicated everybody. Some projects, for their own esoteric reasons, just work.
The simple plot line made it really compelling as a game, the players objective was constantly clear by virtue of story. How did you come to make it a “Great Escape” plot?
FD: The funny thing about Riddick was that we weren’t allowed to see the script for the Chronicles of Riddick. When Pete Wanat, the producer pitched it, he said, ‘okay, so here’s the story. In the first scene, Riddick is captured and put into Butcher Bay (a prison mentioned in Pitch Black) and then in the last scene, he escapes. You just have to figure out the middle part.” Wanat was well aware of the irony of what he was
What do you think made it such a critically acclaimed gamestory?
FD: You sort of have a choice. You can say, ‘I’m going to tell a very simple story – guy gets captured/guy escapes’ and then dress it up with a lot of interesting characters, sub stories and themes, or you can say I’m going to make an extremely complex story, and have simpler sub-conflicts and characters – Dead to Rights, which was the first time
I won story of the year’ was that. Unbelievably ornate story and simple characters and motivations. You have to balance story and characters. If it is all too complex, it just gets too esoteric and convoluted. If its too simple, it falls into trite and cliché.
Do you think good gamestories effect sales numbers?
FD: Yes. I’ll rip off a thought from Danny Bilson on that one. He was saying, ‘if you hire a real writer and let him just do his job, it buys you two points on your metacritic score. One is the point you don’t lose when somebody says the story sucks and the other is for what you get when they say it is good. Those are the two cheapest points in the game business. The other important thing about story, and this one is so obvious that we always miss it, is that story is the first thing people see in a review or on the back of the box. Yeah, it’s important for sales.
You have experience adapting films, “pen and paper RPGS”, and even action figures into videogames. Have you seen a franchise which moves well across medium? What kind of qualities helped it do that?
FD: All of the big ones move pretty well from medium to medium. Its hard to think of one that has done better than Star Wars. Its everything.
Movies, Novels, TV, multiple types and iterations of video games (who could have ever expected Star Wars Lego to be one of the best games in memory?)… Superheroes live or die on the strength of their Rogues Gallery. Batman and Spiderman have the best. They’ve done okay in games. But triumphed in every other mediums.
Then there are what I call “Osterizer” franchises. Vice City, which kind of put GTA on the global map, was an assembly of ’80’s glam crime, starting with Miami Vice. The cool thing was that I got to play one of the ponytailed thugs. Better than being pinned to Crockett and Tubbs, it was about the world of the time. It was a great mirror world of our world. Art directed reality. That’s what I was saying before about world. That flamingo pink color in Miami Vice, the Jan Hammer soundtrack and the music video feel was as much of a star as Don Johnson – and Don Johnson did a great job.
Take Conan and Lord of the Rings and a few other things (Gray Mouser, etc.) and throw them into an osterizer and you have D&D. What is Warcraft other than D&D done to an amazing degree. Bear in mind, I’m not trying to diminish anybody here. Tolkein, Gygax and the WoW guys all did brilliant work… But they were all, to my mind working on the same franchise. And, to return to an earlier point, that franchise was based on Northern Myth (and then grafted on other mythologies, but in the beginning were was Tolkein and C.S. Lewis referred to as ‘northerness’.). Talk about tried and true. Try retelling stories over campfires for a couple millennia and you’ll work the chinks out… Your
stories turn into a Jungian stew which works for reasons that transcend explanation.
What format do you prefer for writing your games? Are you a spreadsheet man, or pen and paper?
FD: Microsoft Word. I use a lot of templates as nets to catch ideas (see The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design for more on that). I draw flow charts like some people doodle. I don’t have the art skills to doodle. Rarely do I use pen and paper. I take notes on a digital recorder when I feel comfortable enough to do so.
Do you think the screenplay as a form has any place in game development?
FD: Yes. Games will eventually evolve their own form, but the form for that medium, like any new medium, will be based on the form for previous mediums. Screenplay format came from the necessity of a page per minute format that also clearly delineated the tasks of different people in the cast and crew. It was an industrial age format. Plays were an enlightenment age format. We’ll find the information age format, hopefully before the information age ends.
What do you see as a potential future storytelling in games?
FD: I suspect, and hope, that there will be a million different kinds of game storytelling. One thing I love about the medium is that you start fresh every time. You have a different, and ever technically improving pallet. I think we’ll start seeing ‘Indy’-style stories, like Indy films, smaller, more esoteric stories from smaller more esoteric teams (like Portal)… We’ll see more sophisticated MMOG storytelling where my character lives his own individual epic story inside a MEGAstory… We’ll see ARG storytelling where I will adopt a new identity and participate in a fictional world superimposed on the real world. We’ll see simple pick-a-path daily comic strip stories on our phones. We’ll see kid stories, adult stories… If I wanted to be a billionaire, I’d figure out how to do stories for seniors where they could live
alternate versions of their own lives. In short, I think we’re entering the richest time in fiction ever, and there are an endless number of ways we can tell stories to ourselves and to others… Or, to add onto what was said earlier, there will be a million ways to tell stories and all of them will work.
Flint thank you very much for your time and thorough responses. As always, it’s a pleasure speaking with you.
Flint has an acute sense of storytelling that emerges from his vast experience in story development for popular media franchises. I know I have learned, and I hope you can say the same. For The Narrative Design Explorer™ this is Stephen E. Dinehart.