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Q&A: Musson Talks Writing For Movie-Based Games

How does a movie become a game smoothly? Freelancer Dalan Musson, writer for The Golden Compass film-licensed games, has worked in both industries, and talks to Gamasutra in detail about how a film gets transitioned to interactive form with its inn

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

March 7, 2008

16 Min Read

Games and films both require writers for their scripts, of course, but there are obviously major differences between writing for games and writing for film. Now, how about when a writer must work on a game adaptation of a film? Working with Shiny Entertainment, freelance writer Dalan Musson did the writing for the video game based on The Golden Compass. He's worked in both the film and game industries. In this Gamasutra-exclusive interview, he provides fascinating detail on what's the same -- and what's not -- about writing for games versus film, explains the process he underwent with New Line and Shiny, and shares his perspective on the future of storytelling in games. Can you tell us about your background and your past projects? Dalan Musson: I started in the games industry in 1996, and worked for MGM Interactive, back when all the studios thought it was 100 percent necessary to have an interactive division. Which was a great way to get in, because I worked in production, and of course, we had a much larger slate than we had any right to. So I got to work on, like, ten or fifteen games over the course of two and a half or three years, and I got to see the start-to-finish of the entire process, which was a fantastic introduction to the industry and a great learning experience. Most of the games we put out, we did our best -- but there can only be so many hits in the market at one time, so... I worked on a lot of stuff that nobody's played. Unfortunately, it's the same thing with writing games. I've kept in contact with all my friends from the industry over the years, as I left the industry to go and be a freelance writer, and as I've come back into the games industry, it was a great departure from films. I wrote The Golden Compass' game adaptation, and before that, my big title was Iron Phoenix for the original Xbox. I wrote all of the one-player missions, like all of the story games, right before they decided to cut that, and they did online versus-only. That was kind of the story of my career, up until The Golden Compass came out. I felt really proud, because not only did I actually get credited for work that I'd done, which wasn't always the case, but the work that I had done actually made it into the game, which was the first time that I had finally gotten both of those things in one title at the same time. As far as the other titles that I've worked on, it was all stuff for the PlayStation 1 and the N64... and PC also -- a bunch of titles that nobody's seen and probably aren't going to purchase today because they've heard me talk about them. Are there any one of those that you actually really enjoyed? DM: There is a game on PlayStation 1 that's called Tiny Tank. Yes, I know it. DM: That makes, like, seven of us! Tiny Tank was a lot of fun. The production team was great. In fact, the producer of Tiny Tank is also one of the guys who worked on The Golden Compass. The development team was this team out in Hungary, and they were a riot to work with. They would put in all this weird, goofy, placeholder text to explain to us that, "Hey, this level isn't complete, but I put this loading screen here because we put so much awesome texture art in there," and blah blah blah. It was in this really horrible broken English, and we left like half of it in the game, like the released version of the game, because it's just so hilarious. But that came out, and Sony ended up publishing it, and business got in the way. I don't think it ever got a lot of the recognition that it might have deserved. I think some people back in the day referred to it as a bit of a sleeper or a cult kind of classic, and part of it was because of that wacky writing that you mentioned. DM: Well, there you go. As long as I was a part of something like that -- I'll take a wacky sleeper or cult classic for a triple-A hit any day. How was it working with New Line on a game that had to be launched with the movie? DM: That's a good question. New Line was actually fairly easy to work with. I don't know how the rest of the development team at Shiny... I don't know how easy a time they've had, but I know that every time I turn in dialogue or text or anything, I would get notes back from New Line...and I've gotten notes from studios before working on film projects. Those can be infuriating. You know, if you're working on a vampire movie, and six months into it, somebody says, "Whoa! Does it have to be a vampire?" or something. But we didn't get any of that with the game. A lot of it was, "Hey, this doesn't make sense with the continuity," and "Hey, can we not mention this character yet? We're going to save him for the second movie," and things like that. It was all really useful and helpful notes, almost like an editor working in a magazine or a book, as opposed to what you would expect from quote-unquote "studio notes." I've got to tell you, most people probably aren't going to believe me, but I had a fine time working with those guys. There was no real big headbutting, and no real problems. They got all the notes back to me quickly. I wish I had a terrible story to tell, but you know, it went as smoothly as possible under such tight deadlines. How much access did you have to the actual movie scenario? DM: You know, when I went in the first day to meet on the project, they handed me a copy of the script, which had the final storyboards in it. I said, "Great! Can I get a copy of this?" and he said, "It can't leave this room," and he sat and looked at me while I read the entire script in someone's office. That was the first and only time I actually got to see the script, the storyboard, and anything like that. Luckily, the designers of the game had a little bit more access than I did, so a lot of their scenarios... anytime I had questions or anything, I could ask those guys and they could fill in some. Plus, I'm fairly familiar with the books, so even if they changed the order of events or something...you know, the basic core of, "This person goes here and talks to this person," I sort of understood who those people were and why they were doing it. Were you able to take notes, or anything like that? DM: No. No, no, no. That was part of him staring at me and looking. I asked if I could photocopy a certain page, and I couldn't do that. I understand. They don't want me posting the dialogue on Ain't It Cool News or something. I did the best that I could, given the circumstances. How did you find it working within license constraints, in terms of writing? DM: I answer that question a lot to writer friends of mine, and I really enjoyed it. It's a different set of skills and a different set of demands, because you're working within someone else's universe. In a way, it's more difficult because you can't go in certain directions with characters and story, because you have to stick within someone else's confines. On the other hand, it's a lot easier, because you don't have to create an entire mythos and an entire world around that. You already know "this character who behaves like this interacts with this character who behaves in this different way," and that's all done for you. A lot of the research and background is complete. You just have to fill in little bits and pieces there. It was fun, but I wouldn't want to do it on every single little project that I've worked on. Sometimes it's nice to be able to create your own universe. It was a nice change of pace, I think. I guess part of the work is already done for you, in some ways. DM: Exactly. Part of the work is done for you. I know you got script edits and notes from New Line. How much feedback were you given by the developers, and how much influence could you have on scenario? DM: When I sat down with Shiny, I've got say that was -- even going back to games where I've worked on the publishing side -- working with Shiny was a great experience, and immediately from the beginning, I never felt like the things that I said were unwelcome, or the suggestions that I made were not part of the plan. When I came in, and I said, "Hey, can I do these things?" they were completely open to any suggestions or any comments that I had, which was awesome. That said, the story...not only was it already written because the book was already done, the film was already done, and the scenario and the layout of each level of the entire game were already finished, so I couldn't really change any of that, but any sort of, "Hey, can we move this mission over here?" or "It doesn't make sense for this person to talk to this person yet." Any stuff like that where there was a little bit of wiggle room, they were completely open to suggestions, and... I joke with people a lot that writing films and writing video games are very similar, except the video game people are nicer. I don't want to talk bad about anyone I've worked with in film, but in video games, it felt like I was part of the team. And it's always felt like the writer was part of the team a little bit more, and that instead of being this red-headed stepchild and, "Oh God, the writer wants to do this," or something. They feel like your skillset is important, and that they expect that you have a different skillset than them, so that whatever you're saying deserves at least sort of a cursory glance or a cursory consideration. That was also really refreshing, you know? I'm used to someone saying, "Write this. Here is what I want." And I just happen to do that, period, end of story. In this situation, it was really nice to say, "Hey, I have a suggestion," and someone actually listens. Right. If they're willing to go out and hire a writer, instead of just having somebody that might be able to do it in the office, then they have some respect for you having some ability. In film stuff, some kind of revisions that you get might be, "Okay, thanks for your script. Now we're going to have another guy do his version." DM: Exactly, yeah. If you're writing I Am Legend, for instance, you're going to do a draft of the script, and then Will Smith gets attached, and he has a writer in mind, and wants to come in and do his...I understand that making a film, just like making a video game, is a collaborative process. How do you feel about the ratings of the game? Do you feel the ratings are going to reflect on you in any way? Did it sell well regardless? DM: I was reading the reviews and looking at the ratings of the game. Of course, you get a little bit defensive, because you're in love with this project, because you worked on it and blah blah blah. I feel like that having adult reviewers review a game that, in its core, is created for younger kids, you're not really getting...you know, the reasons that you and I are playing video games are completely different from the reasons that a ten-year-old is playing a video game. 25 and 30-year-old video game reviewers aren't really our core audience, so the things that they're looking for in that game, their sensibilities are completely different. I also feel like -- and this is not a slight at any reviewer, specifically -- I feel like they have to knock at least a few games to make it seem like they're doing their job. You can't just give everything an 8.5, because that's not really interesting, either. So if a game comes out that is for younger kids and most of your readers aren't going to buy anyway, I think it's sort of safe to give it a lower review. That being said, from what I hear, the game's doing really well with the little kids, man. They all really like it. I think the core audience appreciates it and likes it, and that's all you can really go for. Was your script and text used for multiple SKUs? Does that sweeten the deal for a contract writer, or are you just paid for a script, and then it's used however it's used? DM: I don't know how it works for other people, but in this case specifically, this was...I delivered one script for the entire game, broken up into each individual level, obviously, as they were completed, and that was used for the entire game on all of the SKUs, and that was it. This was just a work for hire, and they're allowed to use it however they want. So it's not like, "Since this is coming out on six platforms, I need to get paid six times as much?" DM: No. (laughs) I wish. ...It's funny you bring that up, because there's a parallel to the writer's strike. It's like, "Hey, you're using our stuff that we wrote for this one medium, television, and now you're using it on the Internet, and using it for promotional materials and this and that." I think it's obviously two different worlds, but I think this is eminently fair, what I'm doing for them. They paid me a completely fair price for my work, and whatever they then do with what they paid me for...and I knew even going into it. It seems like something that will eventually have to be dealt with in the industry, probably. I'm on the Writer's Sig mailing list for the IGDA, and they came in and told us that game writers aren't involved in this writer's strike, so nobody has to stop. Do you see film writers trying to muscle in? DM: I have a lot of film and TV writer friends asking me about it -- and this is horrible to say and I'm going to try and say it as nicely as possible -- but once they see the paychecks, I think it shocks them back into reality. While writing video games is a fine living for any sort of quote-unquote "normal person," when you're used to getting film and television money, video game money is a lot different. The game writers that I know that have also worked in film all sort of like it for the same reasons that I do, which is the creative respect and the fun that you get to have working on video games. Because also, the thing I notice about anyone who works on video games in any capacity is you get into the industry because you love video games. You didn't get into the industry because you wanted to make money. And that's starting to change, as you're bringing in film executives who are moving into game studios and running marketing and areas like that. But I think the rank and file of the video game people -- like the designers, the programmers, and the artists -- those are all video game nerds. They grew up on video games, myself included. To work on a video game is a lot of fun, and the fact that you also get paid for it is also secondary. I was having a discussion recently about writing versus design, in terms of what actually makes a story good. Have you played Portal? DM: I haven't played Portal yet, but I've heard only good things about it. Let's see if I can find another example. Have you played BioShock? DM: Absolutely. Okay. So in that scenario -- much moreso in Portal because it's shorter -- not everything is completely based on exposition. You see a lot of it. A lot of it is in the architecture, and... DM: Subtleties. Yeah. What's interesting to me is that as some games are getting better in terms of story and scenario, I'm wondering who is more responsible for what is good about these games at this point. It seems like the two really have to come together. DM: That statement, that the two have to come together, I agree with more than anything. Obviously, there's a huge difference between dialogue and architecture in the game, both of which can add something tremendous to the overall feel and tone of the project. I think that while the writing in BioShock was amazing, it was helped by the art, and that sort of art design of that world that they created, and vice-versa. If that amazing world that they created...if the dialogue was really goofy, it would've completely pulled the player out of that amazing, immersive world. I think when writers work closely with those design teams, and the designers can sit down with them and say, "Hey, I have this level. It looks like this, and the vibe I'm going for is like this. I'm looking for that weird '50s McCarthyist paranoia universe." The writer can then spin his gears and create dialogue that fits with that and complements that work. Ultimately, however a team decides to work, I think the earlier a writer gets involved, the better, because designers, while amazing at designing games, aren't necessarily going to be writers, and in a lot of cases in the past, they've had to be. So they've had to come up with the entire storyline, all of the dialogue, the overarching plot, and the character development. They've had to do all of that themselves, and I don't think that's fair, because they also have to design the mission that goes on within the level, you know? I think if you bring a writer in and the writer and designer can sit down and spitball some ideas and come up with some cool stuff, you end up with a better overall product.

About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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