"The struggle of games writing is finding ideas that are the right size and shape"

Ed Stern, lead writer of the upcoming first-person shooter game <em>Brink</em>, on auteurs, bad acti

This week sees the release of Brink, a first-person shooter set on a floating city in a dystopian future where the earth has flooded and two factions -- Resistance and Security -- are battling for control.

The emphasis is very much on the gameplay rather than a linear narrative, which presented particular challenges for the writers. I spoke to its lead writer, Ed Stern, about story "postcards", French structuralist literary theory (really) and what Monty Python can teach games studios.

Brink is the first original game from Splash Damage. How did it come about?

I'm wary of ascribing praise or blame in such circumstances, because it's been through so many pairs of hands. It's much more ridiculous than a director saying "my film". A lot of the bits that sound like authorship are by me but that's a laughably tiny portion of the game.

We started off by saying: "We want to make this sort of a game, for this sort of a budget, that will allow the player to do this sort of thing -- so where is it set and what is it about?" I can only answer the last two of those.

One of the struggles of game writing in general is coming up with ideas that are the right size and shape. Quite often, the bits that don't work are perfectly good solutions to the problems but they don't work in the context of the game. That often means cutting all your favourite bits.

So you don't buy into the idea that games need an auteur?

You need a hand on the tiller but they're not doing the rowing. A game is hundreds, if not thousands of people's work. But hopefully there's an original impetus.

I felt that's what happened with Assassin's Creed 2 -- they succeeded in making the game they were trying to make the first time round.

People talk about development as if we know what we're doing and, of course, we don't. If we did, we could stamp these things out in weeks. And remember that while the roles on a film haven't changed for decades, with games, there are job titles that didn't exist two, five, let alone ten years ago.

The old joke that, a month after the game ships, you find out what it's about, is one I no longer find funny. It's a bit like bad acting. You think: "Don't they know how stupid that looks?" And, of course, they don't, because they're stood in a room with a camera pointed at them, possibly a long way away.

I think there isn't that much bad acting; it's just the wrong size, or it's in the wrong genre. As soon as you see that shot among all the other shots, it's glaringly obvious but that's a viewpoint that is denied the performer.

And that's exactly how every element of games work: you don't know how the whole package will turn out. When it goes wrong, it's often because one element seems to be in a completely different game. When it goes right, everything is mutually reinforcing.

And we get one chance to get it right. Of course, there are some companies that are so wealthy that they can go: "That didn't work, let's redo that."

Do you have a pet hate about game writing?

When I got to do this professionally and studied other people's work, I was hoping I'd get more critical. And I'm not: anyone who gets anything finished, in any shape or form, is a hero to me.

How good are games now, as a vehicle for telling a story?

Oh, terrible. Incredibly awkward, clumsy and indirect. They pass through so many pairs of hands. But that's not what they're good at -- story with a capital S.

I suppose it depends on whether you think of it as a stumbling art form that will one day rise and crush everything artistically as well as commercially, or whether it's an entertainment medium. And there's that joke: it's a medium because it's neither rare nor well done.

Anyway, the old saw is that the story of the game isn't "the story of the game" but "the story of the player playing the game". The narrative is an interactive one, not the back story or plot or exegesis.

There's also that -- is it Lacanian? -- distinction between the events in the order that they are retold and the timeline. [Helen's note: it's Emile Benveniste on histoire/recit -- I asked Jonathan Derbyshire.]

I think there are several risks to calling it art and there's no drawback to not. I prefer the head space of thinking of myself as a hack.

Erik Wolpaw, writer of Portal 2, said something similar -- there's nothing wrong with making the Caddyshack of games.

I would respectfully submit that it's much harder to make Caddyshack than some fraught Sturm und Drang drama, because with Caddyshack -- yes, it's a big-crewed comedy, but the tone is perfect throughout.

That's really hard -- but if you can just cut to something looking haunting in the distance, or someone looking glum, that's a drama.

Making a funny game does seem to be harder than making a good first-person shooter.

Yes, and making something that's funny the fifth time. There aren't that many jokes that will stand up to that.

I keep waiting to see who will make the first Monty Python-ish game. Obviously, there have been Monty Python games but . . . [In] the Michael Palin diaries, [you see them] doing voiceovers or writing scripts for adverts or sketches for other performers -- it's amazing how many Python sketches are about deconstructing sketches or terrible adverts or ridiculous public-information films.

So they had to write straight and struggle with the limitations of the genre. But, as soon as they started mocking it, breaking the fourth wall, it gave them such freedom. I'd love to see a game that silly.

There's some stuff a bit like that -- Ben There, Dan That is a ridiculous, scatological and very funny puzzle game by Zombie Cow, a British developer with that "bums are funny" sensibility.

I suppose that as video games create more tropes and stock characters, there will be more to parody.

I'm surprised people aren't doing more of it. You start off with a blank page and all you've got are game-isms and tropes that you're trying to Velcro together.

To come back to Python, in one of the films there's a Gilliam still image of someone reading a story to a child and he describes this incredible scene of a thousand knights in sparkling armour -- and says: "It's far too expensive to be animated in a film like this." Which is brilliant as a joke about the limitations of film-making.

But games don't get to do that. They don't make jokes about their narrators, or the weird plight of their non-player characters -- OK, a few do; Valve is fantastic at it.

The great thing about Portal is that it's almost as fun to watch as to play.

And it's not just games that do that -- where the fun is in the room. One of the great pleasures of watching a football match is the crowd.

But literature is very lonely, now that we no longer read things aloud around the fireplace or wait for the next instalment of Mr Dickens's monthly opus.

There's a great cartoon addressing the idea that video games make you antisocial. It started off with a couple holding controllers, looking blank-eyed. And it says: "How terrible! Look how cut off from each other they are! They could be watching a film instead!" And the next frame just removed the controllers. So this accusation that games are solitary isn't particularly dangerous.

I think games are much hipper than they're given credit for; they have awareness of the ridiculousness of their own situation and the fiction of the game. You become a connoisseur of the difference between the narrative significance of your action and what you've done to achieve it. "I'm a hero -- I pressed a button!"

What was your route into game writing?

Complete accident. I was working in television; I still think I'm much more of a reader than a writer. It was a weird combination of previously useless skills, like being interested in games, being able to hack copy together.

With Brink, what are you most proud of?

I'm really proud we were allowed to try to do something different -- and I think we pulled it off. If the great button-mashing public don't find it to their taste, it won't be for lack of us trying to jiggle the formula a bit.

We're very lucky as a studio that we get to do that -- there are lots of people who are stuck doing "games of the film", where they are basically handed the design documents. Of course, there were things that didn't work and had to be cut, which is screamingly tedious, but mostly it was very fun.

I'm impressed that you're reaching out and trying to make the game more accessible. There are series that make me think: "I've missed the boat."

I'm probably never going to play a Final Fantasy game.

I worry it's already happened to me with first-person shooters. I have a friend who admits that he plays games on "easy" and that's very appealing.

I think it's Bad Company 2 that has a difficulty setting of "content tourist" -- which is me. I'm not really interested in a hard boss battle. I just want to see what happens in the game.

I think the challenge [for a writer] is that you're not making one game, you're making dozens of different games for every profile of player and they all go in the same box and they all have to be valid representations of what the game is about. So you can't just have a slider for how much damage the AI opponents do.

Think about it in terms of pop music: at some point, you could just be into pop music, before all those sub-genres formed. You'd just be interested in "the new singles".

Now it's not possible. No one's into everything. Other than movie reviewers, who watches every kind of film? And who on earth can play every kind of game?

Now that you work in the industry, do you still play games for fun?

There's a bad habit of just playing games technically -- here's the art direction, here's the music style -- like a student rampaging through books looking for quotes to use. You're not really reading it; you're just trying to fillet it. Unfortunately, there are a lot of games I don't have time for.

Brink is released on 10 May in North America and 13 May in Europe and Australia. You can follow Ed on Twitter here.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Marc Maron: a conversation with the anxiety co-pilot

Now that the interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads and featured guests from Iggy Pop and Barack Obama, what does its host Marc Maron want to say?

Richard Pryor decided to talk about race. Sam Kinison used his fame and his family history to talk about God. Bill Hicks asked why nothing produced in America seemed quite worthy of the people who consumed it. Now that the intimate, interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads on iTunes and has featured guests from Mel Brooks to Iggy Pop and, this summer, Barack Obama, what does its host, the comedian Marc Maron – adopter of stray cats, recovered addict and vinyl hoarder – feel he has to say?

“I think the type of conversations that I have on the show are something that is missing in our lives,” Maron told me one recent Friday, down the line from the garage in the garden of his home in Highland Park, Los Angeles, where WTF has been recorded twice a week since 2009. “We’ve lost the knowledge that it’s not that hard to have an hour-long conversation with someone. You’re built to carry whatever problems they have. I think it’s good for the heart.”

If the Maron family crest bore a motto, it might be that timeless adage: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Born in 1963, Maron was raised by a real-estate broker mother and an orthopaedic surgeon father, first in New Jersey, then in Alaska, then in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “My father is and was both an overactive hypochondriac and a physician,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Attempting Normal, “which is a bad combination.” After studying English at Boston University, he began performing stand-up comedy at the age of 24.

“I don’t think of myself as a joke guy,” he told me. “Most of what I do is creating a dialogue around my own problems. Some people call it ‘navel-gazing’ but I’d prefer to call it ‘compulsive self-awareness’.”

And there have been many problems. Maron, now 51, began his 2013 comedy special Thinky Pain by telling the audience in the basement of the Village Gate nightclub in New York that he didn’t “have a lot of respect for people that don’t have the courage to lose complete control of their life for a few years”.

When Maron was 35, unhappily married, hoovering up booze, weed and cocaine most evenings, he met a beautiful aspiring comedian 12 years his junior, who told him he looked dreadful and offered to help him get sober. And she did, more or less. He divorced his first wife and pinned his hopes on his second. By 2009, he was living on the US west coast, divorced for a second time, barely able to work and newly dismissed from the morning talk show he’d co-hosted on the left-leaning Air America radio network.

“It was a period where I needed to talk a lot,” he said, “but also to sort of re-engage with something I think I had practised as a child: being part of somebody else.” With the former Air America producer Brendan McDonald, Maron began recording conversations with comedian friends, seeking advice, delving into their lives. He asked stock questions, such as “What did your old man do?” and “Who were your guys?”, as if they might provide some clue to where he had gone wrong. Then people started to listen.

“I started getting emails saying somehow or other the dialogue with my guests, or my monologues, were making people feel better or getting them through dark times,” he said. “I never anticipated people would get that type of help from the show.”

In a recent episode with Ian McKellen, Maron explained to the British actor that his listeners were “sensitive, slightly aggravated, usually intelligent people”, not so much “a demographic, more of a disposition”. By 2010, WTF had attracted a cult following. Robin Williams came to the garage and talked about his depression. Maron’s fellow stand-up Todd Glass came out as gay on the show after a string of suicides among young LGBT people. Friends whom Maron had known throughout his career, including David Cross, Sarah Silverman and Bob Odenkirk, joined him to reminisce. His 2010 interview with Louis CK, arguably the best-known US comedian of recent years, was voted the greatest podcast episode ever by the online magazine Slate.

“Comedians in their infancy are generally selfish, irresponsible, emotionally retarded, morally dubious, substance-addicted animals who live out of boxes and milk crates,” Maron wrote in his memoir. Yet, as they mature, they can become “some of the most thoughtful, philosophical, open-minded . . . creative people in the world”.

“The best comics are people that have taken the chance to live a life independent of mainstream culture and expectations,” he told me. “They’re constantly looking for an angle on the information coming in. They write things down. It’s the life of a thinker, or a philosopher, or poet – however you want to put it.”

I suggested that poetry was an ideal analogy for comedy, not only because poets reframe reality in a truthful way but also because they can be savage and resentful, particularly to fellow poets. It’s a fact Maron openly concedes about himself.

“I’m the clown that thought Louis CK’s show Louie should be called F*** You, Marc Maron,” he said at the 2011 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. The episode of WTF with Louis CK, a friend since the late 1980s, is remarkable not only for the moment when CK becomes audibly emotional as he discusses the birth of his first child, but for the way in which he unflinchingly airs his grievances with Maron, who confesses to envying CK’s success so much that they lost contact for a time. “You were being a shitty friend by being jealous,” CK says. “I could’ve used you . . . I got divorced. I got a show cancelled. I could’ve used a friend.”

So, in 2015, with a TV series about his life on the IFC cable network concluding its third series, the widely discussed interview in which Obama opened up about parenting, gun control and racism in the US and a series of high-profile appearances in Dublin, London and Sydney booked to showcase new material, surely the glass at last looks half full? “Maybe,” he said. “There are some people whose ego is able to accept the love and adoration of an audience. I’ve always been one to question that.”

Yet the improvements to his life – recognition, financial security, reconciliation with old friends – are undeniable. “Most creative people move through a tremendous amount of insecurity, which can turn to hostility. But the podcast became socially relevant and some of the insecurities dissipated. I could accept myself, for the most part, and realise that all the hard work I’d done for half my life had manifested into something that connects with people.”

Maron’s biggest anxiety today, he explained at the end of our talk, before opening the garage door to face the day, is that he’s “swamped with work all the f***ing time”.

“I beat myself up feeling like I should be out in the world, seeing a play or some art or something. Often, when I do monologues, I think, ‘I’ve got nothing to talk about.’ But then I go on and talk about nothing.”

The truth is that Marc Maron isn’t Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks – but that’s OK. We live in a different time. Perhaps what listeners need most is not more opinions, but a little help getting out of their own way: a co-pilot to navigate the anxieties of living day to day. “That’s exactly right,” he said. “The little things.”

Marc Maron performs at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 3 and 4 September

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses