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Collaborative Storytelling

Andy Collins Posted:
Developer Journals 0

Andy: In last week’s article about the story of Moonrise, Ian mentioned that in addition to the large crew of devs working on this new Undead Labs/Kabam game, there are two of us tasked with writing for it.

I find that most folks assume that writing is a solitary task. They picture a lonely person toiling away in a quiet room, locked away from everyone and everything. While that may describe some writers, it’s definitely not how we’re approaching Moonrise.

This is not how we write Moonrise.

Ian: If you’re familiar with collaborative writing at all, you probably think of the television writers room. Usually a show-runner or head writer has a rough sense of the big picture for any particular episode, which is then broken down into specific events and pieces of information, or “beats,” and the order in which those play out. One writer on the team is assigned to flesh out that skeleton for a given episode, then the script is essentially rewritten in the room through suggested edits and adjustments.

Pictured: The writers room for Breaking Bad. Not Pictured: How we write Moonrise.

There’s plenty of variation on the writers room format...but that doesn’t really matter, because that’s not how we do it.

Andy: So let’s talk about how we do engage in collaborative storytelling.

At the earliest stages of writing for Moonrise, collaboration was relatively minimal. I crafted various world and story proposals in my quiet room, shared them with a few key members of the Moonrise team (including Design Director Richard Foge, Production Director Jess Brunelle, and Art Director Doug Williams), and then patiently awaited their responses. That kind of writing can be lonely and stressful (particularly when you’re a freelance contractor working remotely, with minimal contact with the folks providing feedback).

Personally, when I’m writing for a project that involves other people (such as a game), I crave feedback, particularly early in the process. There’s nothing more frustrating than spending hours and hours writing in a particular direction, only to find out that it’s not what the team wanted. But getting that feedback requires that people have the time to process their thoughts and communicate them to you, which is tough when they need to spend their days on other tasks.

Thankfully, after a few months of me being “lone story guy,” we recruited a new co-conspirator. And that’s when the story really started taking off, as mentioned in previous columns.

Ian: We don’t really have an auteur—a single, principal vision holder—for the story in Moonrise. Instead, Andy and I each spend good chunks of time thinking and planning, and then we sit down together and compare notes. When you’ve got a solid world planned, and you know your themes and your tone, things start to develop in a really fun, organic way, and that made life a lot easier.

Andy: Thankfully, Ian and I found our storytelling priorities to be in sync early on. We both understood what the studio wanted from Moonrise in regards to the story’s tone and general impact, and we had pretty solid agreement on how to achieve those goals.

Ian: It was very rare that one of us would pitch an idea that conflicted in any serious way, and when they did, it was easy enough to tweak one or both of our plans, usually creating a more interesting, complex narrative.

Andy: While it may seem fortuitous that we were able to collaborate on the story, there’s a lot more to a successful collaboration than pure luck.

Ian: It’s both the project and the people.

For the project, you need something with clear goals, or you wind up pulling in different directions. Nailing the kind of story you want before you start writing isn’t 100% necessary when you’re working alone, but with a collaborator, it’s absolutely essential.

Andy: Which is why you spend time discussion your inspirations and themes, and answering questions like, “What’s the tone of Moonrise?” before you start writing storylines and mission dialog.

Ian: At the personnel level, you need people who have learned to separate themselves from their work. Writers absolutely have to be able to take criticism seriously without feeling like it reflects on them or the quality of their work.

If there’s a problem, this approach might solve it.

Andy: I’ve found that a useful tool in a collaborative relationship is the “What If?” mindset. Here’s how to use this tool when a new idea comes up during your discussions.

If it’s your idea, avoid simply telling your collaborator, “This is the way we should do this.” Instead, ask them, “What if we solved the issue this way?” You’re asking for feedback, rather than overtly challenging their position. That leads to healthy discussion and can be much more effective in getting another person on board.

And if you’re hearing an idea from someone else, ask yourself the same question rather than going with a knee-jerk response. Stop to consider the possible results of the new direction, judging them based on those previously agreed-upon goals that Ian mentioned earlier, and share those thoughts out loud in a constructive way.

Ian: A big part of it is putting things on the scales. You can just say “yeah, but if we incorporate this new idea we lose X and Y and have to rewrite Z”, you have to really ask “does this new idea generate enough awesome stuff, in support of the themes we want to cover, and in strengthening to overall story, that it’s a net positive versus losing X and Y and rewriting Z? And if it doesn’t, are there changes I can suggest that get it there?”

Don’t treat the new idea as a threat to what you have, treat it as an opportunity to work together on something better than either of you came up with. When someone pitches something, it’s not your job to sit back with your arms crossed waiting for them to win you over. You need to make a sincere effort to embrace and elevate the idea, because if it’s STILL not worth the change, you actually know you’re making the right call.

Andy: Of course, you can’t collaborate unless you have a fundamental trust that the other person isn’t trying to undermine you. That means if you often find yourself in the position of dismissing other people’s ideas or rewriting all their stuff...collaboration may not be for you.

Similarly, you can’t win all the fights. Sometimes, even when you’re convinced you’re right, you have to take a step back and think about whether that particular issue is worth continuing to fight over. If I let Ian keep the version of this line that I don’t think is as good as mine, does the joke still work? If so, maybe I just let that one go and save my energy for the next disagreement.

Ian: And you need that energy. It’s not always easy to subsume your personal style or preference in favor of the collaboration. You have to be willing to cut your favorite line, or drop the joke that was funny, if it’s not working toward improving the whole. As Andy mentioned in our previous article, we’re at a point where much of the dialog has been edited, tweaked, rewritten and touched up back and forth so many times that I couldn’t tell you which of us wrote what you’re reading.

Andy: That’s actually one of my favorite things about collaboration.

Ian: There are a lot of good writers who can’t or don’t want to work this way. The idea of having a final product that isn’t theirs is unacceptable.

Andy: That approach can work in certain situations, as long as the writer in question has the talent and endurance to do it all and the authority to reject feedback they don’t like...but a large-scale computer game is rarely that situation.

I’m a huge fan of collaborative design on almost any project, as long as you have a team of people you can trust to put away their egos and pull together toward the end goal. My formative years of design came at Wizards of the Coast, where the R&D philosophy was heavily collaborative. I saw firsthand the amazing synergy of many talented people working together toward a common goal, and I thrived in that environment.

But I’ve also encountered talented designers and writers who preferred the solitary approach, believing (rightly or wrongly) that their vision was the only one that mattered. Collaboration’s not for everyone, nor is it necessarily the best approach for every project.

Ian: So if collaboration is hard and uncertain, why do it?

First, there’s the very practical reason that, while two people don’t necessarily write twice as fast (edits, rewrites, taking suggestions), they can certainly write more material more quickly than one person. So pragmatically, having the content designer be able to get involved in writing the missions was essential if we wanted a lot of things for players to do.

The more noble answer is that a good collaborator makes your writing better. When you’re able to use the best ideas of two people, and in many cases, elevate the ideas of the other person, you can get some really fantastic stuff. I mean, this is the whole reason writers have favorite editors.

Note to future readers: Light bulbs used to look like this.

Lastly, and kind of most ephemerally, there’s value in creating work for a company (even a small, close-knit company like Undead Labs) that you have a certain distance from. Realizing that what you’re making isn’t yours, and instead belongs to everyone, changes the way you work. It’s not like we’re not invested—we are, deeply—it’s just that it makes it easier to make the right choice for the schedule, or the art, or the feature when you put the writing and story in that context. This isn’t about me making a great story, this is about all of us making a great game.

Andy: Once Ian and I knew we were on the same page for our story approach, we worked with Moonrise designer Brian Giaime and our boss, Richard Foge, to map out key story beats for each of our chapters. With few exceptions, this industry and its players hold that gameplay vision takes precedence over story vision. That meant we needed to understand the needs that gameplay would place on our story, and we also needed the mechanical side of our design team on board with the ideas we had.

We also collaborated with our art director, Doug, on our (and his) visions for the various regions, clothing styles, and supporting characters. There’s no point in describing things that can’t be drawn (or will look bad when they are), and a smart writer learns to trust the artist’s judgment on such things.

And of course, we kept production schedules in mind when requesting features and characters. The best ideas in the world are useless if there’s no time to implement them.

Deadlines: The ultimate inspiration.

I’ve seen examples where the story side of a game seemed to evolve without interacting with the gameplay, art, or production disciplines, and it always strikes me as a lost opportunity at best, and a critical failure at worst.

Ian: It’s not like everything was smooth 100% of the time. There are moments where one of us went a little too far down a path, only to find out the other had something very specific in mind. We’ve also both been guilty of making what seemed like a harmless change, only to realize it was a carefully considered decision made after careful deliberation. But the great thing about working with another professional (and sitting close enough that Andy doesn’t know I’m almost touching him right now)...

Andy: Uh...creepy?

Ian: ...is that potential conflicts like this have been non-issues. When it happens, one of us either shoots a quick email or taps the other on the shoulder, says “did you do or change X for a reason?” and we sort it out.

In an unrelated Fun Fact, both of us get along with our siblings.

Andy: One thing I found after Ian joined the team was that we had a lot of shared vocabulary, which is very useful in building a collaborative relationship. I don’t mean that we liked the same big words, but rather that we had a body of jokes, pop culture references, and even grammar quirks in common. That gave us some early short-cuts in getting to know one another, and also meant that when one of us needed a point of comparison for a story element, the other person usually knew exactly what was meant.

Ian: You want to speak the same language without saying the same things.

Andy: There’s no point in having a collaborator who’s just a clone of you, because then you miss out on the synthesis of differing viewpoints coming together. To use a reference that came up recently (because we are nerds), we are not Tomax and Xamot...and everyone around us is thankful for that.

Ian later grew a beard to cover the scar.

Ian: For example, I have this great beard.

Andy: And I am actually a talking dog...who must now return to my home planet.

Ian: And I instantly knew that was a reference to the Poochie episode of The Simpsons.

Andy: BECAUSE YOU ARE NOT A CULTURAL ILLITERATE...unlike those folks who still wash themselves with a rag on a stick.

Okay, I think we might be done here...so I’ll end with a couple of questions for our readers: What’s a good example of collaborative storytelling that you’ve played or watched? And if you’ve collaborated on a story or other creative project, what was that experience like?

You can share your answers in the comments below, or on the [Undead Labs forums]https://forums.undeadlabs.com/].

We’re off next week, but we’ll be back again in early December with a chat about the process we use to name the creatures of Moonrise. And we’ll even bring along guest writer Brian Giaime to share his thoughts about this “wonderful and fulfilling” activity. See you in two weeks!


Andy Collins