This is an ongoing NDE series featuring interviews with Masters of Narrative Design™. As entertainers increasingly look to create meaningful interactive narrative experiences, looking at the lessons learned by these masters becomes increasingly valuable. Today’s master is the none other than Christy Marx. Christy is a lifelong lover of the written word, her works have spanned media formats and franchises ranging from “The Twilight Zone” and “Babylon 5” to “Elfquest”, “Spider-man”and “The Lord of the Rings”. She is a regular staple of the IGDA’s Game Writer’s Special Interest Group and speaker at UBM’s Game Developer’s Coferences. She is currently exploring the edge of storytelling in emerging media as “Narrative Designer” at Zynga. I’m hoping to see what we can learn from her wealth of knowledge and wisdom.
Can you talk about your role as a “Narrative Designer?”
CM: I consider my role as a Narrative Designer to be two-fold: a) as a game designer specializing in how to integrate storytelling with gameplay; and b) as a writer who carries out that integration. By “storytelling”, I mean all aspects of storytelling, not solely text or dialog — the full spectrum of audiovisual storytelling.
Yet another aspect is working with the design of the UI, as the UI is crucial in how story will be delivered. Likewise, it helps when I have significant input on the Tools side of things, so that implementing narrative is easy and timely to accomplish.
Or to put it more simply, you could say that a Narrative Designer is a writer who understands game design.
With that understanding, does your game writing influence game-play?
CM: In the videogames business overall, story is a low rung on the development ladder. There are happy exceptions, but in general I find that game writing is the first thing to be sacrificed if it inconveniences gameplay. Having said that, without superb gameplay, no amount of story is going to save a game, BUT there’s no reason this has to be a binary choice. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, story or gameplay. Ideally, both should be given equal weight and ways found to mesh the two rather than treating them as separate entities. The games business has a long way to go to reach this mutually beneficial method of development.
Not every game needs to incorporate story, of course, but for those that need it, good storytelling is on a par with good art, good music, good sound, good programming and good game design to elevate the quality of a game. Few people these days would consider releasing a game with crappy art, lousy code or half-assed design, so why should they consider releasing with inferior storytelling or writing?
What role does story have in ‘social’ games?
CM: Much of that is being in the process of exploration and discovery with some social games doing a better job of it than others. I see story in social games serving the same needs as any other game with story. Those needs include: conveying game information; setting any combination of theme, tone, mood or emotion ranging from anywhere between light humor to grim action; making your characters come alive and feel real; creating immersion for the player; giving the player a reason for what she’s doing and reasons to keep doing it; and giving the player a feeling of satisfaction and achievement.
Is there a particular reason this sector of game industry appeals to you?
CM: What I would love to do above all is design and write a good, old-fashioned adventure game like the ones I made for Sierra On-Line. That’s the sector I’m hoping will offer itself up to me. But really, any sector where there’s a genuine desire to mesh story and gameplay would make me happy.
What is the most challenging part of writing for games?
CM: There are the usual challenges involving non-linear thinking, the need to be quick and flexible in adapting to sudden changes to the game, delivering good writing while fulfilling all the other needs I mentioned earlier.
But to be blunt, I find the most challenging part usually is convincing the rest of the development team that story and writing is important, and not something to be treated as an afterthought or a thin veneer or given lip service with no real support behind it. A few years back, I worked on a project where one of the Leads insisted on referring to story as the “wrapper”. “We just need a wrapper for this feature.” I couldn’t get him to understand why that belittled what I could bring to the process. It’s a small thing, but small things give away larger underlying issues.
Looking back on your history as writer I find so many rich pop franchises that have influenced me and generations of storytellers. What story have you told that you are most proud of? Why?
CM: The projects I’ve worked on that made me the happiest and of which I remain proud are those where I had the most creative control. Jem and the Holograms remains my favorite work in animation and I’m constantly gratified by the impact it had (and continues to have) on generations of viewers. In comics, it was my series, The Sisterhood of Steel. In games, it’s my Sierra adventure games, Conquests of Camelot and Conquest of the Longbow.
Having crossed over to many media formats with your storytelling abilities, what does transmedia storytelling mean to you?
CM: I’m somewhat amused by this buzzword, which barely even existed when I started writing my book for Elsevier about writing for animation, comics and games. I had to sell them on the concept and I called it cross-platform writing.
Since then, I’ve seen two trains of thought developing around the concept. One train of thought says that it’s a single story told across multiple media. What the Wachowski Brothers did with The Matrix fits this definition nicely. They told a cohesive story across a single timeline with the same foundation and same characters in live-action movies, animation, comics and games.
Another train of thought is that transmedia means telling stories in multiple media based on a unifying, but not necessarily consistent IP. There are countless examples of this. Classic examples are The Batman and Spider-Man, who have undergone decades of evolution and change through comics, TV, films, games, and so on. Such IP are constantly renewed, reinvented and ported to any form of media possible, usually at the expense of consistency or cohesion. Hence we have the practice of retconning (retroactive continuity) where a character’s origin or history is rebooted in order to tell it over again from a new direction. And in some cases, over and over and over and over.
I feel both of these are valid definitions for transmedia. If you tell stories with shared elements (be it characters, a world, a timeline, an IP) and it spans more the one form of media, it’s transmedia.
What is not transmedia is adapting a story from one medium to another without making it a new story. The Lord of the Rings movies are adaptations of the books, not transmedia. The LOTR games, however, share the world, key elements and perhaps some of the characters, but use them to tell new stories in a new format. That’s transmedia.
Of those ridden waves of media-formats has anything changed or are we still just aiming for a story well told?
CM: In my opinion, we — meaning we writers, anyway — are always aiming for a story well told. I mean really, who wants to use a new medium to tell a crappy story?
Being a total fanboy of several of your works in properties like Elfquest, TNMT, Conan, Jem, Babylon 5, and The Matrix Online, just to name a few, I can’t help be awed by your breadth and versatility. How do you approach writing for a new story world?
CM: The approach I take will depend entirely on the nature of the IP. With an established IP such at LOTR, Conan or Elfquest, I immerse myself in the source material. In those cases, I was already thoroughly familiar with the body of work. All the same, I go back and study the source material intensely. I have tremendous respect for the original writers of such works. With Conan, where I had to adapt it to animation (a particularly difficult task), I drew as much inspiration as I could from Howard’s original works, but had to make rather large changes in tone and action in order to make it work as an animated series for kids.
TV projects, such as Babylon 5 or Captain Power, come with the world, characters and basic elements laid out by the creator, so it’s a matter of working within the guidelines they create. The same is true for animated projects I worked on, such as Bucky O’Hare where I had a comics series to work from, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles which was one of the early transmedia properties, jumping as it did from comics to animation to features.
With projects that didn’t have an established IP, such as Jem, the first thing I have to keep in mind is the format. Working out the guidelines for 65 half-hours of animation requires different thinking than working out a new story for a console game. The former has to have enough depth and complexity to keep it going for the long-term, while the latter needs something that can be easily conveyed within the bounds of stand-alone console gameplay.
However, any time I have the freedom to create something new, I approach it on a macro level down to a detail level. With Jem, it was all about the large cast of characters. It was a soap opera with music and action. I didn’t need to invent a new world, so I focused on those relationships.
If I have a whole new world to invent, I think about the physical aspects of the world and how that would impact what lives on it; how the geography influences the development of the things that live there; what the societies, cultures, economies, religions and politics would be for each group, and finally it gets down to creating the biographies of the individual characters that fit inside that macro-view of a cohesive world. That’s the fun stuff. I love creating an entire world in order to make my story work.
Could you recount the story about how you met Richard and Wendy Pini?
CM: Having been, as I said, a rabid comics reader, I followed Wendy’s Elfquest series from the beginning and loved it. I began attending the San Diego Comic Con when I was making the shift from a fan and reader to a professional writer. During that time, I also played the Celtic Harp, a brass-strung Caswell lap harp. I’m not a particularly great musician, but I managed to teach myself a Wolfrider song that had been included in an issue of Elfquest. Knowing that Wendy would be at SDCC, I went to the Warp Graphics booth with my harp, found Wendy and played the song for her. She was totally delighted and we began a long-standing friendship. She’s a unique, talented woman and Richard is her rock. I treasure both of them.
As an avid book reader, does classical story structure influence your work?
CM: If by “classical story structure” you mean telling a story with a beginning, middle and end, then absolutely. I am first and foremost a storyteller. I want people to thoroughly enjoy any story I tell and feel satisfied at the end of it.
Who are your biggest influences?
CM: Within the field of writing, I was most heavily influenced by Mary Stewart (whose mastery of first-person storytelling is amazing), Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, J.R.R. Tolkien. I was heavily influenced by more comic books than I could ever recount, having been a rabid reader of comic books and newspaper comic strips from the time I could read. The original Star Trek influenced me (OK, I had a thing for Spock. Stop snickering.) I have simply been in love with both the printed word and visual storytelling my entire life, with an emphasis on fantasy and science fiction.
How do you see professional story development changing to meet the growing expectations of today’s audiences?
CM: What field are we talking about here? If we’re talking about games, I hope to see increased demand for more mature, complex stories that are well integrated into the gameplay, with story and gameplay blending seamlessly toward a common goal — giving the player a satisfying experience. That means continuing to think about the visual and audio components of telling story, in addition to text or dialog. Writers will more and more need to be visual storytellers who think in dimensions beyond the written word alone.
Will automatons even be able to tell stories without human intervention?
CM: I could see AI developing to the level of using the basic “rules” of story to turn out something that seems like a story on the surface. But I don’t think anything can fully duplicate what the human heart and mind adds to what lies beneath the surface. I think good writing is the ability to find words for those things that are beyond words.
In that, what does story mean to you?
CM: What I look for personally is a fiction that takes me away from the mundane, that transports me to new, adventurous, unusual places and times, and gives me compelling characters to learn about and care about and follow to whatever end awaits them.
What is your vision for the future of story?
CM: I don’t think I have anything as high falutin’ as a vision for the future of story. The best I can do is keep trying to improve my craft and keep telling the kind of stories I would want to enjoy myself.
Christy, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to interview with the NDE.
Christy is true veteran of the entertainment industry, let alone video game storytelling. Her humble honesty, candor and experience make here a incredibly compelling person to speak with. She remains committed to story and is surely an inspiration to us all. I know I have learned, and I hope you can say the same. For The Narrative Design Explorer™ I’m Stephen Dinehart.