CASE STUDY: Of Games and (going with your) Guts
Happy New Year, kittens and cats! With 2015 well underway, I find myself shifting gears out of (fiscal) necessity. It happens. The Beast must be fed, and those games and gadgets and goodies aren’t gonna buy themselves, right? Pity.
Most of us don’t have the luxury of making the things we want to make most the time. Instead, our stars tend to align in service of other masters. That’s where the term ‘service work’ comes from — it’s your focus and sweat, in varying measures of servitude. So all you can do is cross your fingers, twiddle your rosaries, and pray for decent pay, benevolent bosses, and a pinch of artistic satisfaction after the dice are rolled. I’ve just been lucky to get a few more sevens than snake-eyes.
Somehow — whilst chiseling away at the narrative marble to carve out screenplays, a book, a few comics (animated and otherwise), and potentially cool stuff that never saw the light of day — I’ve been able to fashion a (nearly) functional balance between passion projects and rewarding contracts. Writing and narrative design. Animation. Interactive stuff. You can even scope some of it here.
And I’m about to start work on another one, helmed by one of my fav’ game industry pals. We first collaborated on a pretty cool Japanese co-produced PS2 launch game. This was easily one of the most rewarding and educational experiences of my professional life; the scope was massive, the timeline tight, and the team endlessly ambitious. 15 years on, and things have come full circle in many ways. Colour me optimistic.
But it doesn’t always work out so smoothly. In fact, it wasn’t too long ago that I swore I’d never work on a game contract again.
I’m willing to bet that most of us have a skeleton or three in the ol’ contract closet. Maybe you bit off more than you could metaphorically chew, and ended up bloated and nauseous months after ship date. Or maybe it was a main course of inane ‘dog work’, with a side of shitty scheduling and insane expectations for dessert. Or how about the asshole/idiot/sadist for a boss, who runs you in circles of doubt and deadline despair until your morale and self-esteem are pureed and fed back to you through a jerk-soaked straw?
Or, more than likely, you knew the work was wrong. Not for you. A bad fit. It just didn’t spark the forge to get the creative magma pumping through your veins. But hell…your wallet needed a stack o’ them Devil’s shit-tickets, and fast.
Yeah…these things happen to the best of us. But we’re don’t talk about them. You gotta put your best face forwards at all times, especially in this Thunderdome economy, amirite? But someone once said that it’s crucial to reflect not only upon your triumphs, but equally upon your failures. Because that’s the only way you’re ever going to learn.
Well…I got me some learnin’, lemme tell you.
Almost two years ago now. The credit card was heavy in my pocket like a neutron star. Saw an ad on Gamasutra and LinkedIn for a ‘narrative designer’. It was with a Canuck subsidiary of a media behemoth. Like, Cthulu big, but with ears on top of tentacles.
Imagine this on your resume, the recruiter said. Think of what your friends will say when they see your new email address!
Fours Skypes later (one shirtless…but that’s for another day, children), we’re negotiating terms. My main goal besides cash-flow is to sharpen the chops with regular writing for a younger audience, in preparation for Shadowland. I fly soon after, receive my temp housing and orientation, and spend the first week acclimatizing to the…culture.
The team offices are all ‘open plan’. Boisterous small-talk is king. Smiling and political correctness are currency. Healthy friction and debate are abhorred above all else.
And then, early the following week, with countless team meetings and polite lunches and strained break-time chitchats (over admittedly good robot cappuccinos in the staff lounge), and at least 600 new mails cramping my infant Inbox..?
That’s when I find out that I would’t really be writing much of anything. Instead, I would be naming things.
Said names will be cheery and IP appropriate. Said names must pass through producer and marketing committees for approval. And then, once all approvals are given, I will update and enter the information into a dizzyingly complex database (at least for a Luddite like yours truly), with said things being named.
An old friend consoled me through exasperated and dumbfounded tears: ‘Dude…that’s like buying a goddamn hammer to kill flies. Or an Arabian stallion to plough your fucking field!’
After some (ahem) passionate discussions — along with speculative calculus from both sides of the differential — we reached an (ahem) agreement. Hands were shaken. Documents were signed. Parties were ‘wished well’ (ahem) with too-toothy smiles.
And I did not mourn. For I had learned.
Unless I became independently wealthy, married rich, or finally donned the crimson robes, ‘Service Work’ was going to be an ongoing necessity. But never again would I take a gig out of desperation, no matter how shiny it seemed. I could only do it if it felt right. Because whenever I’ve attempted otherwise? It’s always been a case of courting disaster.
Gloriously absurd disaster, sure. But disaster nonetheless.
***PROLOGUE/EPILOGUE: A TLDR BONUS***
You just spent more time reading than I probably did working at the aforementioned gig. Aces.
For suffering through that, I’m attaching the exclusive, one-of-a-kind ‘character audition’ I submitted to get their attention. Take from it what you will, dear reader…and keep on rockin’ your true passions in the free world!
(species: Odobenus rosmarus – KGB)
While the world slowly turns, and the friendly folk lay snug in their beds, something stirs in the distance. It moves in silence, cloaked beneath the waves, and gets closer by the second. It’s a relic of a forgotten time, creeping along the bottom of the ocean floor, using tiny pings of sound to find its way in the dark. And then it starts to rise and move towards the surface, towards the sun, to the shores of Club Penguin Island. It is a hulking submarine known only as DOMINATOR, and fearsome Commander Walrusski rules from its belly!
Well…at one point he might have been ‘fearsome’. Walrusski – known to his close friends, if he still has any, as ‘Wally’ – was a respected officer from a great frozen land in the north, and the crew under his command would tremble in his presence.
In those glorious days, when he barked an order to his troops, his voice rang and echoed through the metal tube like angry thunder. He was never known for being shy or cautious, let alone polite. Instead, he was renowned in his homeland for leading dangerous expeditions beneath the northern ice, sometimes for months at a time. Down below, in the quiet world near the ocean’s floor, was where he was happiest: mining for riches, searching for energy, and catching the biggest and tastiest fish in the hemisphere. No one bothered him there with silly concerns. No one questioned his decisions, or his instincts. And no one dared complain about the smell of fishy bits still hanging from his whiskers.
But one fateful day, that would all change. You see, the Commander was obsessed with exploring. He yearned to travel further and further from home, mapping the undersea rifts and towers of rock, and catching exotic fish that no explorer had yet seen (or tasted). His crew became worried that someday, if they pushed too far, they’d lose their way. His response was swift and sure: “Nonsense! There is a secret to finding one’s way in the dark, Comrades…and only I am blessed to know it!”
That had always been true before. Walrusski had successfully returned from hundreds of missions, often at the exact hour he had promised. He was celebrated at home, and awarded many medals for skill and bravery. Even when DOMINATOR’s old navigation equipment acted up, the Commander’s senses of direction and distance were uncanny. And in all those years, he never shared his secret. He’d simply smile to himself, and tap the tips of his two shiny tusks for good luck.
One morning, after a particularly grueling mission, the Commander decided to give his crew a short vacation. Some time on a sandy beach would surely stop their childish whispers and complaints, and if there was one thing he couldn’t stand it was complaining – well, that and bad fish. From the twitching of his whiskers, and the familiar humming in his tusks, he knew they were near somewhere warm. There was something else, too. Something new. He felt it in his bones, and it made his leathery skin tingle. It was close. It was powerful. And he knew he had to find it.
Walrusski gave the order to surface immediately. He didn’t need to check the readings, or turn on the sonar ping to scout ahead. Instead, he ignored the concerns of his crew, and looked through the sub’s periscope. The vessel was rising too fast to spot the object in time in the blur of blue water and rainbow-coloured fish. DOMINATOR’s nose smashed into something hard, and it scraped with a terrible shriek against the ship’s hull. The collision threw everyone down hard against the deck…everyone, that is, except the Commander. Instead, he was slumped over the iron viewing tube, covering his face in shock. When he pulled his flipper away, the crew gasped – Walrusski’s left tusk was broken in half.
His men were quick to take control of the ship, completing its move to the surface. When they asked him what they should do, he just stared at the broken piece of tusk on the floor, until finally admitting aloud, “I don’t know. I think…I think we are lost.” The crew panicked. Within minutes, they abandoned the ship and swam through the shallows to a nearby island, leaving Walrusski behind in the dark. He stood there in silence and confusion for a long, long time. And then, something stirred him. It was a sound coming from beyond DOMINATOR’s cold walls. Faint, yet unmistakable, for he had heard it many times before. It was cheering.
When he looked through the periscope and scanned around again, things began to make sense. A huge metal anchor was hooked under a stone nearby, attached to a rusted length of heavy chain. This was what he hadn’t seen, what his vessel had crashed into, and he raised the viewer along its length to see what it held in place. When the scope broke the water’s surface, he couldn’t believe his eyes. The crew – his crew – were laughing, and dancing, and celebrating…with a bearded bird. A penguin. And this penguin stood onboard a ship that flew a pirate’s flag.
The Commander was so angry he couldn’t move — only his whiskers shook. All he could do was watch and curse as the bird’s boat raised anchor, and then sailed into the fiery sunset. When the ship was out of sight, Walrusski stirred to action. First, I make repairs. And then? He had lost his comrades, his dignity, and his gift of navigation. He knew he may never find his way home, and DOMINATOR was losing power fast.
But he hadn’t lost everything. There was still something out there, hidden nearby. Something he had sensed before the accident. Something powerful. When he closed his eyes and quieted his mind, he could see it. This force would be the key to completing Commander Walrusski’s final mission, which was the only thing that mattered to now. Revenge.
KNOWN SAYINGS (in your best Russian accent)
- “Pretty is nice…but strong is nicer!”
- “What begins in mouth…ends in belly.”
- “He who wins is He who can wait.”
- “Do not speak to me of fish head soup. Bad memory.”
- “Homeland is like Mother: ugly, cold, and many time zones to cross.”
- “Moustache makes the man!”
- “You play ‘Where’s Wally’ with me? You lose.”
- “We sing songs of epic glory…and salted crab!”
- “QUIET! COMMANDER IS ONLY ONE WHO SHOUTS!”
- “Perhaps is time for new recipe book, yes?”