"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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Are we taking Woody Allen for granted?

In some ways, Allen is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect.

Do you know what a state Annie Hall was in when it first emerged from the editing room? Maybe you’ve heard that its original title was Anhedonia – referring to Alvy Singer’s inability to experience pleasure – but it wasn’t just a title. That was the film that Allen shot: a Fellini-esque stream of consciousness, honeycombed with flashbacks to Alvy’s Coney Island childhood, featuring a murder mystery, a Nazi interrogation dream, an elevator trip to hell and a basketball game between a team of philosophers and the New York Knicks.

“Terrible, completely unsalvageable,” said Allen’s co-writer, Marshall Brickman, of the film they saw as a rough cut in late 1976. Only one thing worked: the subplot involving Alvy’s romance with Annie Hall. “I didn’t sit down with Marshall Brickman and say, ‘We’re going to write a picture about a relationship,’” Allen later said. “I mean, the whole concept of the picture changed as we were cutting it.”

His reaction to the success of Annie Hall – his biggest hit at the box office at the time and the winner of four Academy Awards – was the same reaction he had to any of his films that went over too well with the public: he disparaged it, while quietly absorbing its lessons. Bits and pieces of Annie Hall showed up in his other films for the next two decades – Alvy’s Coney Island childhood resurfacing in Radio Days, the murder mystery in Manhattan Murder Mystery, the elevator trip to hell in Deconstructing Harry – while reshoots and rewrites became a staple of most of his pictures, granting him the freedom almost of a novelist working through successive drafts.

“It was remarkable what he did for me,” Diane Keaton later said of Allen’s ear for Annie’s Chippewa Falls language: self-conscious, neurotic, a little jejune in her attempts to sound smarter than she is, “flumping around, trying to find a sentence”. Annie Hall was a breech delivery, as indeed it had to be, as the first film of Allen’s that was almost entirely taken over by another performer, a voice other than his. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, Allen studied the great magicians and in many ways his greatest achievement as a director has been to make himself disappear.

Introverts often grow up thinking that they are invisible – a fear, perhaps, but a strangely comforting one and something of a sustaining fantasy should they become famous. These days, Allen has the invisibility of ubiquity, noiselessly producing a film every year for critics to take a whack at: is it good Woody or bad Woody?

Allen is a figure occluded by the scandals and speculation of his private life, which still sends tabloid Geiger counters crackling, some two decades after his break with Mia Farrow. The headlines could almost be the pitch for a Woody Allen film, were it not that Allen has already made it. In Zelig, the chameleonic hero is, you may remember, “sued for bigamy, adultery, automobile accidents, plagiarism, household damages, negligence, property damages and performing unnecessary dental extractions”, before finding redemption in some Lindberghian derring-do – an accurate forecast, in a sense, of Allen’s return to making crowd-pleasers in the mid-1990s. Except that Zelig was released in 1983. On the rise and fall of Woody Allen, Allen, it seems, was there first.

His 46th film opens in cinemas on 11 September. In Irrational Man, Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a dishevelled, alcoholic philosophy professor who decides to pull himself out of his funk with a spot of murder, which has long replaced masturbation as the favoured activity of the Allen male. I’ll leave it to Allen’s old shrinks to tease out the connection between comedy and murder, spotted by Freud in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious – why else do we talk of comedians “killing” it, or “slaying” their audience, if not for the release of hostility common to both? And I’ll leave it to the critics to decide the relation of Irrational Man to the earlier Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

The problem with late Allen is not that the films are bad necessarily but that they are sketchy: spindly and dashed off, the result of a too-easy passage from page to screen. Allen’s has to be the shortest in show business. A film a year, as regular as clockwork, with zero studio interference. He is the one genuine success story to emerge from the big, hairy, super-freak auteurist experiment of the 1970s – the auteur of auteurs. Francis Ford Coppola crashed and burned. Martin Scorsese crashed and came back. Robert Altman was driven into exile, Terrence Malick into early retirement. Who would have guessed that the only film-maker to keep chugging along would be the writer of What’s New Pussycat?

It may tell us something about auteurism as an idea, certainly as a production model in Hollywood, which has always reacted to success by throwing money at it, granting film-makers ever greater control – a dubious drug denying them the artistic constraints and collaboration in which their creativity first flourished. It vacuum-packs their talent.

The one-man-band aspects of Allen’s career mask the juice that he gets from his co-conspirators: Keaton, but also Dianne Wiest, Farrow and Judy Davis. Most of his biggest box-office successes have been co-written: Annie Hall and Manhattan (with Brickman), Bullets Over Broadway (with Douglas McGrath). “The first thing he says is, ‘If you’re not comfortable, change it,’” said Wiest of working on Hannah and Her Sisters.

“It’s as if he’s got a feather in his hand and he blows it and it goes off in a dozen directions,” said Jeff Daniels after starring in The Purple Rose of Cairo. It’s a lovely image, for that is what the film is about: the unruliness of creation running disobediently beyond its creators’ grasp. This is the great Allen theme. It is the theme of Bullets Over Broadway; of his other great farce about artistic creation, “The Kugelmass Episode”, his New Yorker short story about a professor of humanities who drops into the pages of Madame Bovary to conduct an affair with its heroine; and of his one-act play Writer’s Block, in which the characters of an unfinished manuscript push open the drawer and take over the author’s Connecticut house. It is the theme of all of the romances, too, in which women grow, Pygmalionishly, beneath the green fingers of the Allen male, only to outgrow and leave him.

The biggest dead patches in his work, on the other hand, have come when he was most cut off from collaborators: the run of movies he made in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Farrow, clenched in silent agony and overdosed in brown; or the series of comedies that he dug out of his drawer for DreamWorks in the early 2000s – The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Any­thing Else – long after he had lost interest, or could summon the energy for farce.

In some ways, Allen today is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect. He encourages his actors to change his scripts as much as they want, but who is going to pluck up the courage to tell the quadruple Oscar winner that kids don’t “make love” any more, or fall for “nihilistic pessimism”, or name-drop O’Neill, Sartre and Tennessee Williams? Jason Biggs, the star of American Pie and American Pie 2 and Allen’s lead in his 2003 film Anything Else? I think not.

One should, however, resist the temptation to give up on him. Midnight in Paris moved with the sluggishness of melted Camembert but Blue Jasmine had the leanness of a cracked whip, in part because in Cate Blanchett Allen found a collaborator willing to go the distance with him on a theme close to his heart: female vengeance. “Take after take after take of very exhaustive, emotional scenes,” recalled Alec Baldwin. “I sat there at the end of the day and thought, ‘She is unbelievable.’”

If Allen’s early films mined comedy from Thurber-like fantasists and romantic Machiavels and his mid-period work drew rueful comedy from reality’s refusal to co-operate, his late work seems most preoccupied by the painful urge to peel the world of illusion, to see it stripped bare. He is now at work on his 47th film, starring Blake Lively, Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, Parker Posey and Bruce Willis – and the excitement there is surely at the thought of Willis, once the king of the wisecrack and exploding fireball, now 60, collaborating with a film-maker deep into his own twilight. Both men could well find each other’s groove, or, better still, shake one another out of it. Yipikaye, pussycat.

Tom Shone’s “Woody Allen: a Retrospective” will be published by Thames & Hudson on 11 September

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism