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Top tags: acting  column  dialogue  guest blog  Voice-overs  Will Bucknum 

Ask a Game Writer: February-March, 2015

Posted By Ann Lemay, Sunday, March 29, 2015

Ann Lemay, BioWare writer, has graciously agreed to host a Q&A for members of the Game Writing SIG.

Please note: I’m keeping questions not answered in a file. If I haven’t answered you in this batch, your question may yet come up later. :)

            —Ann

HM:

What are some best practices for group writing, or writing content when you are part of a writing team?

ARN:

Writers tend to be solitary creatures. How do you interact with a collaborative writing style like a writer’s room like you find in television or some videogame studios? What do you personally do to adapt and flourish?

*** Merging two questions here, since my answer got a bit longer, and things overlap nicely.

Cooperation. Communication. Organization. A clearly structured confluence/wiki setup. Concrit (constructive critique)—both knowing how to give it and how to receive it. I could go on, but really, most of them will keep hitting the same thematic—being a good team player and understanding that your word babies sometimes have to be given up.  

Seriously, all of these are equally important. Working with a team means it’s not about your ideas; it’s about the best idea for the story that everyone is working on. It means that sometimes the cool thing you want to do with a character really messes up another storyline, and that you have to sit down to work out the details. Sometimes you need to let go of that really cool thing you came up with. And sometimes that idea you thought no one would like is the best solution for everything, everyone loves it, and you’ve solved a major issue (good times, those!).

It means being aware of what others are working on (or being in touch with whomever is aware of All The Things), and being able to adjust even at the last minute, so that no one is breaking anything within the narrative. You have to be quick on your word-feet, fast to adapt, keeping an open mind. You know to be good at communicating your ideas or thoughts to others, but also good at taking input from others. You also need to be adaptable, in that sometimes someone else’s writing may be passed on to you because of time constraints or workloads, and adapting to another person’s voice is also part of what game writers do. Being able to write your own character, but also being able to write other writers’ characters while staying true to their voice, is a skill you hone—but it’s an important one.

Playing to your strengths (lore, dialogue, barks, long scenes vs. short scenes, drama vs. comedy) is a thing that can be done on a team. Being a generalist is just as valuable, however, particularly during the end of a project when all the things people didn’t have time to do beforehand pop up, all at once.

Having colleagues to bounce ideas off of, to sanity test what you think might be good for a scene, to concrit your work—all of these things are amazing. And contribute to making your writing the better for it.

Editors are amazing people, and when you have them along to help your writing team, it is a glorious thing. Once the writing is done, maintaining the voice for characters that get shared across many writers is one of their tasks, and learning to rely on them (and to listen to them) is vital.

BH:

On days when passion wanes, how do you pull yourself up by your bootstraps to continue to produce quality work?

Taking a sanity break is really, really important for creatives, or anyone even. I can’t stress this enough. It’s ok to step away from the writing when you’re just beating your head on a wall. For my part, I’ll take a walk outside (sunlight—even on cloudy days—is good for you), mug one of my cats, walk on the treadmill if I’m at home, or generally just find another activity I truly enjoy in order to give myself a break. When at work, I’ll bounce ideas off a colleague or another creative, take a five-minute break and walk, etc. Each of us develop tools that work best for us in order to give ourselves that break, that moment of downtime. What’s important is acknowledging it is normal to need those, and to figure out what works best for each of us.

At the same time, particularly as a professional, you should note that writing for a living is, at the end of the day, also your job. Particularly in games, where a lot of downstream folk are waiting on your words, so they can do their own jobs. We can’t afford to wait for some creative muse to grace us with its presence. We can’t afford to wait for passion. We write. And some days, even if the words are shit, we still have to write because, otherwise, we keep a whole team waiting. So, then I focus on the structure of a conversation and just use placeholders (“this happens here,” “something about that is said here”) and get a scene down that way. Writing is rarely perfect on first pass—iteration is what gets you there, or at least working on getting closer to better than the first draft.

MH:

When creating a narrative-heavy game in a fantasy setting, what do you create first? Do you create the characters that will populate the world first, or do you form the world and populate it with characters?

Traditionally, you’ll see the worldbuilding done before character creation. You work from the macro level and wind your way down to the micro, because a lot of the worldbuilding will directly and relevantly impact aspects of the characters who will live in it. That said, honestly, some characters may come to life on you long before the worldbuilding is complete, and sometimes a whole world may in truth be inspired from one singular character. There’s no One True Way to do anything—there’s whatever works best for each individual writer.

That said, if you like structure and organization when you create, which are both helpful tools when you take on something as big as worldbuilding for the kind of game described above, or you are doing this scale of worldbuilding for the first time, giving yourself guidelines and a world within which to drop your characters is generally the better idea.

Ann Lemay has been working in the videogame industry since 1997. Born in Montréal, Québec, she has bachelor’s degrees in art history from UQAM and in design art from Concordia University. More importantly, she was raised on Star Trek and Star Wars (both of which coexist peacefully in her mind) and has been reading, watching, breathing, and living all things science fiction and fantasy for as long as she can remember. She was given an Intellivision II for her birthday in 1982 and hasn’t stopped playing videogames since.

She joined Ubisoft Montréal as a community manager in 1997 and subsequently worked there as a game designer, narrative designer, and writer on a wide range of projects, including Naruto: Rise of a Ninja and the Assassin’s Creed Encyclopedia. In 2010 she moved to BioWare Montréal, where she wrote for Mass Effect 3 and Mass Effect 3: Omega, contributed to Dragon Age: Inquisition, and is now working full time on the next Mass Effect title.

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Guest Article: Welcome to the Booth—Now, Shut Up!

Posted By Will Bucknum, Monday, March 16, 2015

Written by: Will Bucknum

Being a dialogue writer for games can be rough. It is difficult enough to get your dialogue to look appropriate in games, but to also sound right is an even bigger challenge.

As someone who rides the line between being a writer for games and a voice-over producer for games, I’ve seen a whole host of scenarios related to how voice-overs are recorded and how much power each person in the process has in a recording.

Understanding What Is at Stake

Voice actors in games can range from total amateurs, to consummate professionals, to Hollywood stars, and a variety of degrees in between. If a game studio is going to spend appropriate money to record good talents, in a good recording space, with good equipment, and a good audio engineer/VO producer—then you are really spending money by the minute.

As a writer who has access to actors and VO producers during a recording, your best move is preparing the producer and talents as much as possible beforehand. Ideally, your role in a booth is to nod your head and to give context support when an actor doesn’t know how to say a line with the proper intensity and emotion.

Start from the Beginning

The physical script is where you really have the power to communicate the most. Make sure your script is well organized and contains as many context clues as possible for the producer and actors. Believe it or not, but creating a clear script with information about what is going on in the scene is often done somewhat poorly.

Make sure your script has what it needs, and make it look good. Generally, I like working with Excel spreadsheets that have columns for FILENAME, CHARACTER, DIALOGUE, and NOTES. If possible, character description pages should also be included with any relevant pictures, backstory, or even links to gameplay or cutscene videos.

After you have made the script, send it off to the voice-over producer, and try to make sure the producer has engaged the script. I’d suggest asking a few questions to engage the producer’s creativity and clarity on certain scenes. Talk about your vision, and ask them what they think about your vision. You want the producer to feel like you are an ally who is there to help, rather than control or get in the way.

Since most actors and producers think of themselves as talented professionals, there can be an awful lot of sensitivity involved. You don’t want to turn the booth into a tense standoff, which is why you want to communicate as much as possible BEFORE the recording session.

During the Session

The best performances come when the actor feels “in the zone” and is able to embody their character. You want to assist the actor getting into a flow as much as possible. Introduce yourself to the producer and actor in a very open and friendly way when you arrive. Bring a sense of excitement and energy, and try to put fear on the backburner.

Early on in a session, the producer and the actor usually dial in the voice and character that they’re going for. While you may feel somewhat more intimidated in the earliest moments of sitting in on a session, that is the most important time for you to focus on what you’re hearing and to be quick to say something if the character just doesn’t sound right.

This can be the tricky part—try to use phrases that are related to sound and acting. For instance, phrases like “slightly lower pitch,” “more nasally,” and “harsher delivery” are much better than “he needs to sound bigger,” “be more annoying,” or “he doesn’t sound upset enough.” Sure, you can say those things, too, but consider how the performance should sound instead of only what feelings aren’t getting across the way you’d like.

As the session rolls along, the producer and actor will get into a rhythm, and it should get fairly easy. Just stay focused, and listen while you follow along with the script for anything that could corrupt the meaning in the scene. Jump in quickly when you have to, and then let the train keep on moving.

Word to the Wise

For non-licensed material, be very careful about using big name actors, particularly Hollywood actors if you can.* I won’t say to avoid using them; just try to make sure they have fully bought into the project and are committed to doing it right.

Working with some actors may just not be good. Certain Hollywood actors can be arrogant or otherwise bored or disconnected with games, and they don’t give a hoot about this project of yours. They know they have the power, and some little game writer isn’t going to tell them what to do. Working on licensed material makes this an impossible situation sometimes, but just do your best, and if so-and-so is a jerk . . . well, so-and-so is a jerk.

*Why game developers should include narrative designers/game writers in the casting process is the subject of a future article.

Make It Work

You may have gathered from my words that you don’t always have a lot of control during a session, and that your best chance of getting the results you want requires significant communication before entering the booth. And even with ample preparation, you may not always get it exactly as you heard it in your imagination. It may be disappointing, but ultimately the search for perfection can potentially derail an entire session. Micromanaging is just not going to work. Stopping an actor too often can remove all momentum, so sometimes you’ve got to just roll with it. Don’t let perfect get in the way of good, and remember—this is supposed to be fun!

 

Will Bucknum, founder of Voice to Game, is a Voice-Over Producer and Script Writer specialized in video games. As an experienced saxophonist, Will attended the University of Oregon and studied music, creative writing, film and media studies, and social and political theory on his way to earning several degrees. A top European game audio studio recruited Will to direct voice-overs and write and edit scripts for several years before he started his own company in 2013.

Will’s scriptwriting and editing is featured in most games with voice-overs that he has directed and produced. Many projects Will has worked on involved localization of texts, and he has recorded voice-overs in over 10 languages for a variety of projects.

Will has produced and directed voice-overs for over 50 games including hits such as Kick the Buddy: Second Kick/No Mercy, Star Conflict, Tanked Aquarium (by Animal Planet), Bug Heroes 2 and many #1 hits on Big Fish Games.

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Post-GDC Intitiative Roundup

Posted By Alexander Bevier, Thursday, April 10, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A lot’s been going on with the Game Writing SIG since GDC. After a successful, standing-room-only roundtable session, we’ve been discussing and working to get initiatives off the ground and serve the group.

Here are some things currently in development:

  • Scheduled Google Hangouts to discuss game writing with industry veterans, run by Garrett Martin and Symantha Reagor
  • Game writing critiques by Josiah Lebowitz
  • A series of what game writers and narrative designers are expected to do and know on a team by Dave McCabe
  • A SIG podcast managed by Carl Killian

We also plan to work on building onto the game writing samples we feature on the website. We also intend to start building on the Wiki to help explain terms, concepts and tools regularly used in game writing. If anyone wishes to help with these initiatives, email the sig at writing.sig@gmail.com.

Additionally, we will have some potential scholarship opportunities on the horizon. We’re working with other SIGs on this initiative and we’ll publish more information as it develops.

Finally, elections for the Game Writing SIG board are coming up. Committee members will be electing and voting board members to determine who will be on the board in the coming year. More information will be coming soon.

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Write Club GDC2014 Winners Announced

Posted By Alexander Bevier, Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, June 17, 2014

GDC's Narrative Summit concluded this year with another wonderful Write Club. The first, second and third place winners this year were Scott Russell, Laura Michet (right) and Alice Thornburgh (left). The three managed to answer questions about lettuce revenge and games about iconic comic book writers. 20 people participated this year.

For those who don’t know, Write Club is a casual contest held after game writing events. Players are given prompts that are similar to those seen in the games industry, but made ridiculous, such as "write three lines for when a character dies in a Pride and Prejudice RTS." GDC's write club this year was held at Soma Bar and Restaurant near the Moscone Center.

Thank you to Jeremy Bernstein for emceeing. Thank you to Doug Hill and Steve Williams for judging. Thank you to Richard Dansky for providing questions and prizes. Thank you to everyone for attending. It was a great night and we’ll do it again at the next game writing event.

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Scripted Dialogue and Voice-overs for Games

Posted By Will Bucknum, Friday, March 7, 2014
Updated: Monday, June 23, 2014

Let's visualize scripts written for game voice-overs a certain way, as how a musician views sheet music. Some sheet music is quite clear: notated with accent marks, dynamics, tempo, and scene changes. Others are more loose, and intentionally so. Jazz sheet music often replaces individual notes with hash marks indicating beats and a key signature, and – do what you will in this set of rules.

Sheet Music 1

Recording voice-overs is the art of taking the "music" written by game narrators off the sheet and into a performance. Just as there are many paths to performing musical pieces successfully, there are many paths to successful voice-over performances. However, music is still music; performance is still performance. Game narration designers can follow several practices that consistently lead to good performances.

Balancing voice-overs and gameplay

Balance is a common issue with voice-overs. When and how to implement voice-overs can be tricky, but let's start with a few principles:

1) Games are meant to be played. Given opportunities for players to skip past non-playable moments are usually taken. Voice-overs shouldn't be optional, like icing on a cake – they should help provide a foundation for good gameplay.

2) The longer voice actors speak, the greater the chance that players will begin to tune out. Say what you need without over-explaining.

3) Use voice acting to add to the emotional content of the game. Voice actors rarely need to explain the mundane details of each quest and getting from point A to B.

4) Balance is important. Games should have a mix of different kinds of voices. When possible balance male voices with female voices.

With this in mind, find ways to put lines that aren't emotionally interesting into the in-game text without having them voiced.

Principles in action

When recording a voice-over, my general rule is that it isn't right until it creates a sense of energy/intensity and movement to the line. This is why phrases such as "He was elected mayor 20 years ago, and in that time life has grown peaceful in our small village" are more difficult to record than "Iwill never stop until I get my revenge!"

Voice-overs hinge on emotional investment. My actors and I question every line – "What is the character feeling here? How can we make this sound interesting?"

What is interesting about a mayor governing a peaceful village? Is the village not peaceful now? Why? Is he stating this to develop a sense of foreboding or loss? Is the player just on friendly ground for the first time in a while? Is this character trying to set up the player to take advantage of him later? Are the townspeople actually homicidal cannibals trying to lull passersby into a tranquil repose leading to a great feast of human soup like in those old Bugs Bunny cartoons?!?

Why do we care and what does it mean emotionally? These are the lines that often lead to extra phone calls and e-mail exchanges. The last thing we want is to record a boring voice-over.

As a writer, one method you can use to ensure that the emotional content comes through in the acting is to provide notes throughout a script. Game narration designers have several ways to do this.

Option 1 – Explain the goals of the dialogue before each scene

"Scene 2 – Welcome to Town

The player is welcomed to town by a strangely pleasant townsperson. He should seem a little too friendly, and give a slight sense of creepiness in his forwardness. This scene is setting the player up to take sides in a political struggle between the town's establishment and an outsider trying to reform long-standing corruption."

The advantage to these kinds of notes is that it leaves flexibility to the voice-over director and actors on how to convey this emotionally. Instead of focusing on how each line should contribute to this goal, the whole exchange is open to interpretation. In passages like this, it is often helpful to allow the director and actor some flexibility to alter the script.

Option 2 – Provide notes line by line about the emotional context and plot subtext

TownspersonWelcome to Littleville! We don't get much visitors around here!Very excited, warm, almost too much
TownspersonYou sure look like you've seen a lot of the world. Plan on staying long?As though giving an invitation
TownspersonThat guy over there – He was elected mayor 20 years ago and in that time, life has grown peaceful in our small village. With a sense of pride and accomplishment, but almost overselling it
TownspersonWhy don't you go talk to him? I'm sure he'd be glad to meet such an interesting traveler such as yourself.Somehow it doesn't feel like an invitation, more like a command

 

Following these principles and techniques should help to ensure strong voice-overs throughout your game. However, no writer is guaranteed to always be mistake free and never overlook things. The best advice is to start working with your voice-over producer and actors early enough so that you have time to rewrite lines as needed and have time to alter in-game texts.

 

Will Bucknum, founder of Voice to Game, is a Voice-Over Producer and Script Writer specialized in video games. As an experienced saxophonist, Will attended the University of Oregon and studied music, creative writing, film and media studies, and social and political theory on his way to earning several degrees. A top European game audio studio recruited Will to direct voice-overs and write and edit scripts for several years before he started his own company in 2013.

Will's scriptwriting and editing is featured in most games with voice-overs that he has directed and produced. Many projects Will has worked on involved localization of texts, and he has recorded voice-overs in over 10 languages for a variety of projects.

Will has produced and directed voice-overs for over 50 games including hits such as Kick the Buddy: Second Kick/No Mercy, Star Conflict, Tanked Aquarium (by Animal Planet), Bug Heroes 2 and many #1 hits on Big Fish Games.

Tags:  acting  column  dialogue  guest blog  Voice-overs  Will Bucknum 

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