By Jonathan G. Lee
Scott Alexander, the game writer and former Circle member, began his career as a tech journalist. The Brooklynite began being drawn to videogames as early as 1999, writing for a number of outlets including Ziff Davis’s Yahoo! Internet Life and Popular Science. He then became an editor at Playboy magazine where he championed games as well. In 2010, he penned the script for Serious Sam 3. Then in 2013, he wrote and cast the critically acclaimed reboot of Shadow Warrior. Most recently, he was a writer on the newly released Hard West and is currently writing and casting Shadow Warrior 2.
I asked Alexander to go deep on what it means to be a games writer.
What drew you to game writing in particular? Was there a particular game or moment in a game that gave you that itch?
Well, I grew up playing the old school games like Space Invaders and MsPac-Man. I do remember being Miss Pac-Man and seeing the cut scenes in there, and thinking like, “Ohhh, well that’s adorable, they’re trying to tell a story.” But the medium was really limited in terms of storytelling. Coming up through the 80s, I played a lot of computer games so I was never really a console guy. Then in college, I wasn’t on the scene, so I missed things like the NES and the N64, but I moved right onto PC games in the mid 90s.
I played a game, I’m sure you know, Abe’s Oddysee?
Oh yeah, definitely.
That was the game that completely blew my mind in terms of narrative. I was absolutely absorbed by the gameplay and then there was all this amazing narrative and the cool puzzle solving. And the way that all came together was fascinating. I was a tech reporter already but that game looked at me going, “You need to start paying attention to games because this is not just a little interesting. This is a whole new thing.”
It really opened my eyes to see games as a narrative tool to tell stories in a way that has never been done before. After that, I started covering games a lot more as a journalist and I was able to meet the developers.
I met Tim Schafer and got the demo of Psychonauts from him. Playing that demo and seeing the ideas put in that game? I mean if any game has been influential on me, you know there are lots of games, but Psychonauts is by far and away my favorite game of all time. I have played it probably 15 times. I played it with each of my kids — I actually started playing it with my youngest now. She’s seven and she’s just old enough now to kind of get it.
I did a feature for Playboy around the time Psychonauts came out and there was this period, right at the end of the original Xbox and PS2 and the beginning of the 360 and PS3, where there was this string of really amazing narrative games — BioShock, Stranger’s Wrath, Fable 2.
On that round of games, I got to interview the creators of those games and I did a feature where I took 10 of the top game designers’ tips. I wanted to understand it because I eventually wanted to do it myself! I was so interested, so creatively engaged in videogames that I wanted to make them one day.
And I also kind of felt like the fight was over – like we could finally say to the public that videogames were a legitimate medium to tell stories. Everyone knew. BioShock was hugely successful game that was totally story-driven. I didn’t think games were in any danger and I didn’t need to defend them. After that, I started to see how I could get myself into the creative side of making games.
Regarding Tim Schafer and Psychonauts, I remember reading some developer commentary on Full Throttle and how they cast the protagonist, Ben. The devs got a bunch of auditions from these alpha male type voices with lots of growling and screaming but they weren’t really feeling it. Then they listened to Roy Conrad, who submitted a quiet audition using a gravelly bass with effortless confidence, and they gave the part to him immediately. You not only wrote the Shadow Warrior reboot but you were also involved in the casting. What were the auditions for that like? Did any of the voices cause you to reinterpret a character you had already conceptualized, sort of like the subject influencing the art?
Well, we were able cast Shadow Warrior entirely in Austin which was amazing. There’s a whole lot of talent in Austin because they make so many movies there.
As for the characters, I had a very clear idea of how Hoji [the companion character] should feel and sound from writing it, but Lo Wang [the protagonist] was a bit more of vague. We knew kind of what he was going to be, we listened to a bunch of guys and cast someone we loved, but it wasn’t until the first recording session where we really started to flesh him out.
We didn’t tear up Lo Wang’s script but after the first day, we spent the whole night going back through it with the actor and saying, “Oh, is this really exactly what you’re saying?” Voice acting can get so specialized. The actor always breathes into the part. Let’s say you’re making a film and you have an open part being auditioned for by Kevin Spacey and Robert DeNiro. Either way you’re going to get an amazing performance but they’ll be very different performances even though their script will be exactly the same.
Voice acting is incredibly subtle. It was incredibly enlightening to see how much work actors bring to their roles and how it changed my own work. Jason Liebrecht, who did the voice of Lo Wang, is a great actor and he really helped us define Lo Wang. He found that line between machismo and annoyance.
The Lo Wang of the original Shadow Warrior was a cheap racist caricature, but somehow, you guys were able to take that and turn him into a character you laughed with rather than laughed at, and in a very bold way. You preserved the few redeeming qualities of the character — the one-liners, the cockiness, and the dry sense of humor — and magnified them. Rather than washing away Lo Wang’s Asianness out of fear that you’ll leave room for offense, you ran with it and turned it to a source of empowerment. In the original, Lo Wang’s Asianness was the butt of the joke. In the reboot, Lo Wang’s Asianness is what makes him awesome.
What was your game plan for rebooting Lo Wang? Any target areas you wanted to address about the original character?
Yeah, we wanted to make absolutely sure that the game could not be interpreted as having a mean-spirited agenda.
The first thing we did, and this is almost like an opposite, third way of going about it, was. . . Well, given the fact that Lo Wang always makes a pun — there’s kind of a problem with a character that’s really bombastic and overblown. With those qualities, you can write a character who’s funny but it’s hard to sympathize with that kind of character.
So my first thought was, “Well, then we’ll have someone in his head who’ll make fun of him throughout the whole game.” If there is someone pointing out his every little weakness, every little thing that annoys him, with little retorts and one-liners to make him angry and throw him off balance, then he won’t have a chance to be too macho or too cool. When you take a guy like that and thrust him into difficult situations, leading people to have a reaction to him, then he ends up having an emotional girth.
Fundamentally, the guiding principle I worked from was to build Lo Wang from the inside out, not the outside in. He’s a person. We built out a whole backstory, and once we did that and made him a real person, it took months to build the outside. Finding all that from the inside, as opposed to looking at the outside at all these cultural signifiers, was the key. Any time you’re using cultural signifiers to try to shorthand, you get in trouble.
Were there any specific influences you were drawing from?
John McClane and Bruce Lee. Oh, we also made him a loner. He hates people, he’s not super social, he’s pretty into collecting.
Right. He literally has a mancave. That’s not a metaphor.
Like an actual cave, right!
A James Bond villain-esque bachelor pad cave with sakura trees, a waterfall, and somehow, a sportscar.
What about humor in games? Before Shadow Warrior, you worked on Serious Sam, so you have some experience writing jokes for games. Is telling a joke different in games then it is in other mediums?
It’s tricky. I think in a lot of games, players build their script, and they build their own ideas and characters. Mostly, humor in a game is just tone overall.
Bulletstorm did a good job of it in terms of setting a tone overall. Even though people say it was a little over the top and extreme, but it also felt like a different world. If you allow yourself to into that world, somewhere out there and not here, then it’s really funny.
But the parameters for humor are so big and that’s the great thing about working with Devolver. Look at what they put out like Hotline Miami. In mainstream games, I think there’s a lot more pressure to mainstream the jokes but that stuff doesn’t often humor. Humor is something that’s naughty; it’s wrong. If you look at something like The Hangover, the humor is based entirely on how inappropriate the behavior and choices are.
It also depends on your ability to breathe, being allowed to say whatever you want, and knowing when something is overdone. Occasionally, you’ll write something technically impossible where you don’t have the resources to deliver a joke but not in terms of ideas. It should always be go, go, go.
The latest game you worked on was Hard West, which is a big departure from your previous games.
Very, very dark game. No levity, no jokes. It involves demonic possession, insanity, and betrayal in the Weird West. Was that shift in tone something you enjoyed?
I absolutely enjoyed writing in a new genre and finding a way to make horror work. The plot points I worked with were a new territory in terms of narrative. I’m forcing you to make awful choices that’s closer to real-life, like, do I choose to lose my finger or my toe?
Forcing the player to choose between having ease in life as an asshole or I can have a harder time in my life but I can be good person. To be able to have a fixed base for that, it makes people uncomfortable.
When I was playing Hotline, I was thinking to myself, I’m the monster and I can’t stop. I want to but I can’t stop.
When I was playing Fable 2, I wanted to play good guy. I got a wife, a dog, had a baby, picked up some money, bought a house. Then my village got attacked and I was on my way back to save my family but I was too late. The bandits killed my wife and then I was like, fuck it, I’m killing everything. After that, I made every evil choice I could. I married three people at once and then put them in the same room so they would fight.
Those particular plot points were given to players by developers. For Hard West, I wanted it to be a very slow ramp, where things start off in innocence and things progress step by step and then it’s like the frog in boiling water.
What’s the relationship between designers and writers? Do writers craft a story around mechanics established by the designers? Does it ever go the other way around?
For Shadow Warrior, the dev team created it entirely themselves and we were writing around them. One of the areas it intersected was why Lo Wang has powers and how he gets them, and that’s because of his companion Hoji. Hoji’s main purpose was to be an emotional anchor in the game but he was a good narrative reason to explain Lo Wang’s abilities.
And I understand this is hard to avoid, but sometimes mechanics get in the way of storytelling and it really bothers me whenever I see it. Like for example, Grand Theft Auto IV. Brilliant environmental storytelling! The story is amazing, Niko is a great protagonist and you feel so much for the guy, and the world feels so real. Then outside the cut scenes, Niko is this cold-blooded killer carrying out contract killings and doing stuff that’s really despicable. But I love Niko, I identify with him, and this game is doing something interesting with immigrant stories, but it’s hard to do that when I’m throwing people out of planes.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved throwing people out of planes, but that’s why it’s really hard to strike that balance. It was a poignant story that was beautiful and austere and also silly and over-the-top, but it made sense. Cause you’re like this is a goofy, crazy world where you can use jetpacks and drive around tanks. Grand Theft Auto IV is a nearly perfect game, and yet giving players that open world choice affects how the player experiences the story.
When people talk about great game writing, they’re usually talking about plots and characters. Are there other aspects of game writing we should be taking notice of that aren’t immediately obvious?
One of the best games I’ve played was linear with no dialogue. Brothers: Tale of Two Sons. Oh my God, the level of emotional truth they were able to evoke? Zero dialogue. That game could be played in any country in the world by anyone who knows how to use a controller, and for everyone who does to get a satisfying emotional experience? That is an unbelievable achievement.
That’s the way a painting works. That’s the way a photograph works. Games like Flower and Journey. And then the Brazilian game. . .
Papo & Yo. The one about the boy from a favela and his monster friend.
Yeah. Environmental storytelling in that game is huge. Then you have something like Gone Home, where the story is told through all the objects in that world and not by people. That’s really interesting. Designers and writers having the freedom to scope a game much smaller in this app economy with Steam and consoles has provided an outlet for 5, 10, 15 dollar games that feel properly priced. They’ve opened up a way to push new experiences.
Do you see anything emerging trends in game writing? New ways of writing or some games that are pushing the envelope?
Generally, the revolution in the amount of power that’s been given through GameSalad and Game Maker — these simple widget, drag-and-drop programs that allow people to at least get storyboards and wireframes that they can iterate on, that’s really exciting.
It’s always been tough to make big, big games. If you make a game for $100 million dollars and it doesn’t sell, it’s a real bummer. A lot of people will be mad. When you can risk less, like making a movie for $20,000 dollars, you can earn it back and make a second movie.
People being able to ease into this on their own is a great thing. The guys who made Hotline Miami were working out of their kitchen. It was just two guys on two laptops. Because of the new software out there, you don’t need a fancy computer and you don’t need 10 years training to make a game. The talent for great art and writing still have to be there but the technological hurdles are less.
Still, there are some artificial barriers that don’t need to be there. Like Computer Science. Do you have a PhD in it? Well, then you can’t work at a game developer. The technical knowledge it required to make Pong and Donkey Kong was outrageous. It’s almost a miracle those games were even made. Now, we’re marching past that.
I can’t wait to see what Dennaton Games will make next. They said they’re not going to do another Hotline so I’m curious. And Creative Forge. What crazy thing do you have cooking up next?
Can you tell us about any projects you’re working on currently?
Aside from Shadow Warrior 2, there’s nothing I can talk about, but I am absolutely excited to do more work in the genre. The stuff I’ve done has only made me more hungry for the next thing.
It’s a really exciting time for stories. Finding exciting stories is what I try to do as a journalist and what I do as a fiction writer. To be able to translate that into a new medium and have these true discoveries, like you can make the player feel like this, or you can create a story with a type of storytelling that’s only happened in the past 20 years.
It’s just sort of awe-inspiring, so I’m excited.