Q&A with Darby McDevitt
Kevin Fukunaga (Scripts & Scribes): What sorts of skills and training does video game writing require? What is your background and how did you get involved in video game writing?
Darby McDevitt: It may sound obvious but video game writer hopefuls MUST be interested in games. They should understand how games work, how designers think about the player’s experience, how artists think about the world they are creating, and above all else, what draws players to play games. What makes a game compelling? What makes it interesting? The written aspect of any game is just one piece of a very large compound structure, so it’s important to learn what the other disciplines bring to the mix. There have been a handful of high profile cases where an acclaimed novelist or scriptwriter was parachuted into a video game project for a few months with the hope that his or her talent would singlehandedly elevate the product, but these experiments rarely bore fruit. Not because these writers lacked talent, but because their writing didn’t serve the needs of the overall experience. In games, it’s very easy to write material that feels “tacked on,” inconsequential, or completely at odds with the gameplay. For my part, I found a job in the game industry less than a year out of university. I was living in Seattle in the Spring of 1999 when I applied for a number of open jobs in the area. I landed a job writing for a website called the Junior Sports Network — a community portal for a sports game series aimed at pre-teens. From there I worked my way sideways and slant until I nabbed the opportunity to write my first game, a piece of educational software published by The Learning Company. For the next few years I wrote for various small games while taking on design duties when I could. It’s been 15 years now and I’m still a writer who dabbles from time to time in design. I don’t see the two disciplines as wholly separate, but many game companies do — a mistake in my opinion.
Kevin: How is a video game “written”? Can you explain briefly how a video game goes from conception to a completed, WGA Award nominated digital epic like Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag?
Darby: Games as large and sprawling as Assassin’s Creed titles are typically born as a result of many months of high-level discussions between the principle creative leads—the Creative Director, the Game Director, the Art Director, the World Director, the Mission Director, the Animation Director, and me, the Lead Scriptwriter… we typically start with a theme and a general description of the type of interactive experience we’d like to build. In the case of AC4 we had our hearts set on making a pirate game set in the Assassin’s Creed universe. From the start we had just a few concrete goals — we wanted certain types of land and sea gameplay and we wanted the Caribbean to be our setting. Once we get the basics set down, I start doing research… cataloguing thousands of ideas as I go, making lists of characters, concepts, scenarios, and the like, while outlining a general premise for our main story. When I have a solid first outline of the story, I show it to the mission director… he typically tears this outline apart, since he’s the guy who will turn this outline into actual gameplay… so if he sees anything in my script that involves two character’s sitting around chatting for more than five minutes, it gets modified into something more active. (Lucky for him, I don’t let it get to that.) We typically spend a few months going back and forth over this initial outline until we have divided it into a series of “missions” — discreet gameplay moments. This is when I take a first swipe at writing the scenes that join these missions together. At the same time, a team of mission designers begins the laborious process of bringing the interactive elements of the story to life. Here I help them with smaller narrative moments, emotional beats, and dialog, but the general flow of the mission remains theirs. In a perfect world the interactive elements of our story outweigh the passive moments — that is, we want the player to be playing the game more than watch it. But from time to time we fall back on cinematic sequences—“Cut-scenes” in industry parlance—to fill in some of the dramatic gaps… usually gaps that gameplay cannot handle well, such as love scenes, emotional moments, etc. Keep in mind, cut-scenes are not used in every game… but when they are, they are typically written and shot in much the same way that films are shot. We hire a director, we cast actors, we rehearse, we shoot, and we do ADR, the main difference being, all of our final scenes are digital, using characters and environments from the game. After a year of this, the game should be in good shape. That’s when we start playing it—day in and day out—testing to see if our ideas came together the way we hoped they would. I’m happy to say with AC4 that it turned out pretty well…. 2-plus years of intense work paid off.
Kevin: While writing is writing, there are definite technical aspects that differ between mediums. Being a filmmaker and also having written narrative fiction, how is writing for video games different and what kinds of special challenges does it pose?
Darby: Being a video game writer is probably one of the most social breeds of our diverse species… and while novelists, poets, playwrights, and screenwriters can usually work in blissful isolation for the better part of their projects, game writers must absolutely be embedded with their teams from the beginning of a project to its chaotic end if they hope to have a satisfying impact on the whole. At the same time, despite their constant presence, writers are not the most critical piece of this grand puzzle—they are but one of many artisans working in tandem towards a unified end. Imagine linked batteries in a power chain: traditional media typically works like a series circuit, with each battery playing a critical part in a linear path… remove one battery and the circuit is broken. That is to say, if a screenwriter stops working on his script, the film production comes to a halt until another writer is found. Same goes for a director or one of the lead actors, or an experienced editor. In other words, making films and writing books is a fairly linear process (with many exceptions of course). With games however, we work like a parallel circuit from beginning to end, with the writer being one of many disciplined artists working simultaneously in the same direction. You can often remove one of the batteries in this set-up and the circuit will still function, but the overall power output will drop and the final product will suffer as a result. I have worked on projects in the distant past where the designers could barely stand talking to the artists; the game was finished in a timely manner, the splitting seams were obvious in the final product. So if it isn’t clear by now, being a video game writer requires that you be sociable, affable, collaborative and willing to listen to a great number of people who don’t have your specific skill-set and may not share your immediate artistic or narrative concerns. And you probably won’t have theirs. This means you must have tremendous patience and the ability to reconsider your own work in light of the often esoteric needs of the game as a whole.
Kevin: The Assassin’s Creed universe covers over a dozen video games across multiple platforms, short films, novels, comic books and an upcoming feature film. How difficult is it to maintain the history and continuity of the AC world and yet develop a new and interesting vision at the same time?
Darby: It hasn’t been too difficult maintaining the overall, broad strokes continuity of the series, despite being spread—as you say—across numerous mediums. And we always try to pick stories that mesh well with the medium in question. Books excel in areas films do not, and vice versa. The same holds for games. So from this standpoint, keeping things new and interesting boils down to innovating with in our gameplay features. New gameplay inspires new stories and new experiences. The only time it gets tricky maintaining continuity is when the gameplay changes and iterates over the course of a project. Game writers need to be able to adapt and evolve to rapidly changing conditions, because nothing is ever set in stone until the game is on the shelves.
Kevin: How big of a gamer were you before you became a video game writer/designer and what is your favorite video game of all time (that you didn’t work on)?
Darby: I have always played my fair share of games, but I wouldn’t call myself a gamer simply because I have many other interests that sap my attention. But I definitely have a shelf full of games that I love, adore, and play regularly. What games would those be? The Last Express, Shadow of the Colossus, Dark Souls 1 and 2 to name a few. I value these just as much as I value my Talk Talk records and my complete collection of Orson Welles films.
Kevin: You once said, “As a game writer, you’re there to make the walls look good, not hold the house up.” What did you mean by that?
Darby: I have always been of the opinion that well-designed game narratives, limpid prose, and beautiful, crackling dialog—while critical to the overall experience of a good game—should not be its driving factor (with the exception of interactive fiction, of course). Writing should take the same role as the visual art and the music… it should elevate the game experience, stylize it, add color, round out characters, and help shape it. But writing is not a core piece of the architecture that holds the game together. Anyone who has any experience with the last 30 years of console gaming will tell you that a good game with bad writing can still be fun, while a terrible game with great writing won’t be tolerated for long.
Kevin: What is the most common question(s) you are asked about Assassin’s Creed and what is your answer?
Darby: FAN: “When is the next game coming out and what time period will it cover?” DARBY: “Ask Google.”
Kevin: You were nominated for a WGA award for your work on AC4. Can you talk a little about how the WGA works with you as a video game writer and what the nomination experience was like?
Darby: I’m not deeply involved with the WGA, since video-game writers are only invited to join the WGA Video Game writers caucus. We don’t get full membership simply because many game writers are already full time employees of the companies they work for, with all the attendant benefits. This isn’t always the case though. But, despite my limited involvement in general, as a twice-nominated game writer it has been incredibly fun to share my experiences with them and their members over the past few years. The panel I sat on with my fellow nominees this year was great fun.
Kevin: While your most high profile writing work to date has been in the video game realm, you’re also a filmmaker and writer of narrative fiction. With your heavy workload for Ubisoft, how much time are you able to dedicate to your filmmaking, music and other writing and what other projects are you working on?
Darby: I don’t have to find time for my personal pursuits—it’s usually just waiting for me at home. I’m writing a play right now, and hammering out a few more articles on game development. In another few months I’ll probably get back to some songs I started last year. Or another small book. My filmmaking has suffered the most since moving to Montreal, however… I just don’t have the time to put together a team of the right people. C’est la vie. One day I’ll get back to it.
Kevin: What is your dream project?
Darby: I have a few ideas for games I’d love to bring into the world (stranger and more personal than Assassins Creed, though nothing so epic), and a number of film projects I’d like to direct.
Kevin: When you’re not making music (or directing music videos) or creating epic video game sagas, how do you like to spend your free time?
Darby: I read or write as often as possible, just to keep the brain busy … pausing often to go on long walks or hang out with my girlfriend. And I love traveling. Love love love.
Kevin: Do you have any advice or suggestions for writers aspiring to write for video games?
Darby: Play games and make games yourself. Even a card game will suffice. Or download a copy of Game Maker and start making your own Super Mario Brother’s clone, with a strange little story. Anything you can do to prove you have what it takes to trade blows with other game developers is grand. And of course, keep writing and publishing where you can. Short stories, a regularly updated blog, video blogging, game criticism, etc. Once you think you have what it takes, apply to whatever jobs you think you can stomach. Once you’ve sneaked in through a basement window, it’s not too hard to find the stairs to the first floor.
Kevin: Better inventor: Thomas Darby – inventor of the Darby Steam-Digger or Newman Darby – inventor of the sailboard?
Darby: You forgot the Reverend John Darby, who is widely credited with inventing the idea of The Rapture almost 200 years back. Quite a strange feat, that.
Kevin: If Altair, Ezio and Edward Kenway were competing on Dancing with the Stars, who would win and why?
Darby: Ezio, probably. He has the most flamboyant costumes. Altair wouldn’t bother showing up, and Edward would be passed out backstage before the show started.
Kevin: Ale, wine or rum?
Darby: Wine, then ale, then whiskey… rum doesn’t sit well with me, even after all that research…