Complications Ensue: The Crafty Game, TV and Screenwriting Blog
Complications Ensue:
The Crafty Game, TV, and Screenwriting Blog



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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Q. I just picked up my first "LA" option for a short story I wrote. I'll be getting 2% net if it gets made. Now I've read articles on net versus gross in the industry and my agent ways I should just be happy at this stage of my career that it was picked up...... so of course I signed. However as a writer moving forward is there anything else I should be aware of or ask for that doesn't normally fall within the option contract?
The standard definition of net profits is "you don't see any profits." So whether you get 2% of nothing or 5% of nothing is unimportant. On the other hand as a newbie you're not going to get gross. It's pretty rare for even a veteran writer to get gross participation. If the movie is a hit, you won't get more cash from the movie, but you will get asked to write other people's movies at a much better salary.

I like to ask for the right of first refusal (ROFR) to write sequels, prequels and spin-offs, as well as TV pilots. Sometimes that turns into ROFR provided that I get a credit on the script. (No one can guarantee I get a credit because it's arbitrated by the Guild.)

If they're optioning your story or novel, you can often ask for ROFR to write the initial script. Very likely they will take it away from you after the first draft, but you'll get a screenwriting credit on the movie because when you adapted the script you brought in the plot and the characters. If you don't write the first draft, the most you'd get would be a "Based on a short story by" credit.

When I'm optioning a script, I like to ask for a production bonus based on the budget of the film. The WGC, but not the WGA, has this in the standard contract. Bear in mind the minimum scale percentage is a floor, not a cap, so you can negotiate more, if they really want the script. The nice thing about a percentage is that the producer can't really plead poverty. "But our budget is tiny." "No problem, then I get 2.5% of tiny."

Bear in mind anything that looks like "Writer will be consulted" bla bla bla is meaningless and unenforceable. "What do you think." "It sucks because this this and this." "Thanks, you've been consulted." Likewise anything that looks like "Writer will be considered." "What do you think about Joe?" "That guy? F*&& him." You've been considered.

Remember, you can insist on any contractual term, so long as you're willing to walk away. I've heard that Sylvester Stallone turned down $200,000 for the script to Rocky, because they wouldn't agree for him to star in it. He was broke at the time. Later, someone else bought the script for scale, but with him to star in it.

You could probably tell that story about a thousand other guys who never sold their script to anyone because they insisted on starring in it.

By the same token, if you're not willing to walk away, it's hard to get anything. You don't get the contract you deserve, you get the contract you negotiate.

99% of the time it's better to have an agent negotiate for you. But you don't want to leave the negotiating to the agent. You want them to be the face of the negotiation, but ultimately you have to tell them what your dealbreakers are and how hard to haggle, and how upset you'll be if they don't make a deal.

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Saturday, November 26, 2016


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Friday, November 25, 2016

We had an interesting office conversation today, about the late comedian/troll Andy Kaufman, which then drifted into whether sexist and racist jokes are okay. I don't appreciate them. One of the women in the office said she enjoys them because "it's just a joke."

But why do we tell jokes? Jokes are meant to make us uncomfortable in some way. We laugh when something goes wrong. A joke is always a setup that is derailed.

There are absurdist jokes, of course, that are just all about the derail:

"I went to a restaurant that serves 'breakfast anytime.' So I asked for French toast in the Renaissance." -- Stephen Wright

Our expectations are foiled, and we laugh out of the cognitive dissonance.

But most jokes are at someone's expense. "Tragedy," as Mel Brooks said, "is I stub my toe. Comedy is you die." For example:

My lover's been bugging me for the key to my apartment… finally I said, 'No, I'll let you out when I'm ready.' -- Heidi Foss

To dissect my friend Heidi's joke a bit, the setup is the assumed attempt on the part of the lover to have a closer relationship. The derail is that the lover is actually imprisoned. Note that the joke works because it's sort of horrifying. ("When I'm ready" is a nice touch because it mirrors the normal conversation: 'I'm not ready' for a closer relationship.)

Stereotype jokes are at the expense of a whole group of people:

Q. How many Harvard students does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A. Just one. He stands on the ladder, and the whole world revolves around him.

The point of the joke is that Harvard students are conceited. Here's another:

Two blondes were talking. "Last year," one said, "I slept with two Brazilian guys."
"Oh my God!" said the other. "How many is a 'brazilian'"?

The point of the joke is that blonde women are stupid. Oh, and slutty.

So why do I think it's not okay to tell racist or sexist jokes? Because the point of a joke about a stereotype is that it's only funny if the listener believes that the stereotype is, in some way, true. Change one word in the joke:

Q. How many Columbia students does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A. Just one. He stands on the ladder, and the whole world revolves around him.

That joke isn't funny, because almost no one thinks that Columbia students are particularly conceited.

Two Canadians were talking. "Last year," one said, "I slept with two Brazilian guys."
"Oh my God!" said the other. "How many is a 'brazilian'"?

What? Huh? Not funny. No one thinks Canadians are particularly dumb.

Now, jokes at the expense of Harvard students aren't particularly awful. Harvard students are on top of the academic heap. So the joke is sort of "telling truth to power." But jokes at the expense of blondes are not completely innocent. If I tell a blonde joke, I'm saying that, to some extent, the intelligence of women with blonde hair is suspect.

"But it's just a joke." Well, nothing is "just" a joke. If people didn't already suspect blondes of being dumb, the joke wouldn't land.

Now, there are stereotypes that are hurtful, and stereotypes nobody really minds:

Q. How many New Yorkers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A. None of your fucking business!

Most New Yorkers will laugh at that joke, because they'd agree that New Yorkers are brusque.

Q. How many Zen Buddhists does it take to screw in a lighbulb.
A. Three.

What? Oh. Zen Buddhists are inscrutable. Right.

But then we get into jokes based on not so innocent stereotypes. For example, jokes about how stingy [Hittites] are. [Hittites] don't find them funny, because they don't see themselves in them. And, the stereotype of [Hittites] as being stingy is part of a whole package of anti-Semitism that, in the middle of the last century, ended up in homicidal violence.

Similarly, jokes about how lazy [Sumerians] are, or how dishonest [Assyrians] are, are part of a whole package of racism that ends up with unarmed [Sumerians] being shot by cops, and candidates accusing [Assyrians] of being rapists and murderers that should be kept out of the country.

The point is: when you tell a joke based on a nasty stereotype, you are saying the stereotype is, in some way, true. Nothing is ever "just" a joke. By making a joke, the teller is saying that the stereotype is in some way true.

And by laughing at it, you are agreeing.

In fact, the whole reason for these jokes is so that the teller can put down a group of people and get away with it; and the listener can buy into the putdown and get away with it. But in this case somebody's not telling truth to power; they're telling lies, and they're punching down.

Of course, it's impossible to dissect racist or sexist humor without sounding terribly unfunny, like you "don't get the joke":

Q. How many militant feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A. THAT'S NOT FUNNY.

But jokes have power. We wouldn't tell jokes if they didn't. Jokes are how we allow ourselves to communicate truths that can't be communicated openly. That's why traditionally the court jester is the only person who's allowed to confront the King; he's allowed that privilege because his jokes are deniable. That's why, in dictatorships, you can go to prison for telling a joke at the expense of the dictator. That's why some cartoons making fun of Mohammed triggered riots.

Jokes based on false stereotypes have the parallel power that they can communicate a lie that no one dares communicate openly any more. The reason some white people tell jokes about lazy [Sumerians] is because they don't dare say things like, "Well, everyone knows how lazy [Sumerians] are." But turn it into a joke, and "it's just a joke," and you get away with it. And they are all the more hurtful because the target is supposed to laugh them off. So the target has no recourse, unless they're witty enough to craft a good comeback.

And that's why it's never "just" a joke.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

...'s talk about Dynamic Stories at MIGS. These are my notes as I wrote them up for my Compulsion Games teammates... The complete powerpoint is on Richard's site

Dynamic Story = Story that is not the same every time you play the game.

Why good? Replayability. Especially these days when players stream, it’s boring if all the streams are of the same stuff.

Types of dynamic story:

a. Explorable story space

What we’re doing in WHF and what most AAA games do these days: bits of narrative that you discover wandering around. Hopefully there’s enough that few players discover all of it.

Doesn’t have to mean environmental narrative. Her Story allows you discover bits of video through a text parser. You never actually go anywhere.

b. Open ended story

Give the player enough bits of a story that s/he can find his/her own meaning in it, but not so much that you force the player into your interpretation. One player may come away with a very different experience than another.

c. Reacting to player actions

Branching story trees. Generally, game devs stay away from branching trees because they get crazy fast. Trust me on this one. 31 endings on Stories: The Path of Destinies. (Which, hey! Won Best Indie and Best PC Game at the Canadian Video Game Awards last night.)

So often you get a series of choices, but really it’s just one choice repeated: Mass Effect's Paragon/Renegade. Bioshock's Harvest/Rescue.

Or, choices, but only some of which change the story, and then only change a little bit of the story: Walking Dead.

d. Shifting story elements

Procedurally generated story. In Richard’s game, The Church in the Darkness, you are there to rescue someone from a cult. Sometimes the cult is a suicide Jim-Jones-style cult. However, sometimes, it’s just a bunch of hippies who want to be left alone. The Blade Runner game changed who was a replicant from playthrough to playthrough. In both examples, the payoff is you Actually Have to Pay Attention to the story around you. If it turns out that in the story they're just nice hippies, or humans, you're not supposed to go shooting them.

e. Character Simulation

The Sims. The Civilization franchise. Characters have personalities and react to your actions according to them. Faction-based systems: characters will react differently to your dwarf rogue depending on how they feel about dwarves and/or rogues, and how nice you’ve been to their friends.

The player here is choosing what story s/he wants to be part of.

f. Drama Management

Here Richard’s talking about games like Façade that try to make a story out of whatever it is you are doing. Shadow of Mordor’s nemesis system turns an NPC into your nemesis if he’s killed you before.

Wot I Thought

The Holy Grail of game narrative is emergent narrative. Emergent gameplay is when you design systems the players can use in ways the developers did not plan for, e.g. rocket jumping.

Most of the dynamic storytelling methods listed are not emergent. The Shadow of Mordor people like to claim that SoM’s nemesis stories are emergent, but someone had to write and record all the nasty things the orcs say to you when you come back from the dead, or they do.

On Stories: TpoD I pitched the idea of a sort of Collectible Card Game or faction-based narrative. I.e. NPCs have a basic reaction to you, which changes according to what you do with other NPCs. So if you kill someone’s brother, they will no longer sell you a sword, but they might fight you. If you marry their brother, they might tell you where some loot is.

This is not emergent narrative, either. It feels more like it, because you discover the story branches according to your own wanderings through the game. But someone has to write each branch of each NPC’s story tree.

(In the end we just went with a straight ahead story tree for Stories: TpoD. Nothing wrong with a story tree, they’re just hard to write so every path feels like a good story, in which the seeds of the ending are in the beginning. And they’re a lot of work.)

To make really emergent narrative, you’d have to create narrative building blocks that players can arrange in different ways.

Say you have one building block: dude’s getting a divorce.
Second building block: dude’s sleeping with someone who’s not his wife.

Both of these are narratively fraught events, but they have a different meaning, and tell a different story depending on their arrangement.

If you see:

dude sleeping around -> getting a divorce

Then the player probably interpolates the story “he cheated, so his spouse is dumping him.”

But if you see:

dude getting a divorce -> sleeps around

Then you might interpolate, “finally free of his toxic marriage, dude is seeing other people.”

This method is probably hella difficult to pull off, and I’m not sure I’d want to do it in a game. But then:

Q. Knock knock.
A. Who’s there?
Q. Control freak. Now you say, “Control freak who?”


So there you have it. We’re doing a lot of environmental narrative, and some open ended story telling, but the other techniques will have to wait for some future game.

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Monday, November 07, 2016

What I did in the past week, in between frantically checking and rechecking fivethirtyeight.com, was write up the playthrough for She Who Must Not Be Named. Last week was the rethink. This week I wrote it up, and I’ve started in on the scenes, including one with our Hammer [Films] Villain. There’s a fair amount of carnage; we’ll have to redo some minutes of animation. But the story will be better for it – more jeopardy, and more aligning of player objective with player character objective.

Also did the same for our Mad Scotsman, although his story is holding up a bit better. We can probably keep most of our animation, but some of the dialog in those cutscenes will change.

Meanwhile, Lisa is creating gobs of environmental narrative for all sorts of places. Environmental narrative comprises the letters and diaries and signs and objects that you might find here and there that tells you what has been happening in the place you're lurking about. It creates the worldiness of the world.

All of which means more recording sessions, of course. I’m looking forward to it!

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