‘Seven: The Days Long Gone’ is a 3D isometric RPG in which players can freely explore the sandbox world of the Vetrall Empire. Set in a “beyond post-apocalyptic” environment, the title will redefine how the isometric RPG genre is played. The climbing system allows you to free-traverse obstacles of any height, both horizontally and vertically. On the prison island of Peh, you will experience rich stories of conspiracy, discovery and betrayal, set within an unforgiving world filled with mysterious technology and dark age superstition. As a master thief possessed by an ancient daemon, you are deported to Peh on a mission that could decide the fate of all humanity. Engage with Peh’s fascinating array of inhabitants, many of whom invite you into tales of shattered hopes and desperate struggles for survival. But don’t forget to watch your own back: creatures and people alike won’t think twice about abruptly ending your stay on the island.
Warbanners is a fast-pased turn-based, story-driven, strategy game with role-playing elements. As commander of the mercenary squad known as the “Silver Griffins”, you will discover ancient artifacts, solve dark mysteries and crush your enemies. How your adventure unfolds is up to you: along the way you will be called upon to make difficult choices, many of which will have unforeseen consequences. Warbanners’ combat mechanics include consideration of a number of factors, such as lighting levels, direction of gaze, morale, and fatigue. Additionally, many of the objects on the battlefield are interactive. For example, you can cut down or set fire to trees, and freeze rivers to change the landscape to your advantage. Why not build a bridge or a barricade, dig ditches, or move objects to confound your enemies? As your mercenaries level up, they will learn new skills and their attributes will improve. Further, each “Griffin” can be equipped with magical potions and artifacts to imbue them with a plethora of buffs. Finally, you can bolster your company with the Assistants scattered throughout the world. They do not fight, but for a modest joining fee will convey bonuses that may just turn the tide of battle in your favour.
There are a handful of luminaries who I happily follow on Twitter with zero chance that they’ll ever follow me back. One of Pixar’s leading directors and screenwriters, Andrew Stanton, is one of those people.
The other day, I saw one of Stanton’s tweets commenting on a TED talk that he conducted back in 2012. The presentation is so incredibly insightful, and contains so many inspirational nuggets of storytelling advice, that I thought it would make a good blog topic. The talk itself is certainly worth a watch in full, though. Here it is.
One phrase in Stanton’s talk stood out to me in particular. It comes courtesy of British playwright William Archer: ‘Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.’ Stanton calls the quote incredibly insightful. Drama is at the heart of all storytelling, alongside love, as Michael Hauge teaches. So let’s break down the quote.
First: anticipation. To create a good story, you must make the audience want to find out what happens next at every point of the tale. As Stanton explains, storytelling isn’t far removed from joke telling: you must know your ending – your punchline – and everything that occurs prior to the ending must feed into this over-arching goal.
Early on, you should make a promise to the audience that your story will be worth their time. As Stanton explains, “a well-told promise is like a pebble being pulled back in a slingshot, [that when released] propels you forward through the story to the end.” To back up the promise, you need to make the audience care. It’s crucial that they’re emotionally, intellectually, or at least aesthetically invested in the story.
Easier said than done, right? Well, Stanton explains how crafting the superb, largely-silent WALL-E confirmed a belief that he’d had for a while: that the audience are satisfied when they’re working out the story and its themes. Importantly, Stanton advocates, they just don’t want to know that they’re doing it. In other words, you shouldn’t spoon-feed the audience the story, but arrange its elements in such a way that grabs attention. They can anticipate what’s going to happen, but they can’t be completely sure, and they’re trying to work out how you’ll get to the end.
As Stanton neatly summarises, “it’s this well-organised absence of information that draws [the audience] in.” He and fellow Pixar writer Bob Peterson rather grandly call this approach the ‘Unifying Theory of 2+2’. Essentially, the premise is that you shouldn’t just give the audience “4”, but should give them “2” and “2” and allow them to put them together themselves. Of course, the audience often won’t be certain if they’re getting it right until you fulfil your promise at the end.
It should go without saying, but story is far more than just plot. It’s a culmination of plot, themes, dialogue, and characters. Stanton focuses on characters as a key proponent of change in stories, itself a fundamental requirement. As he explains, if a story becomes static, it dies, because life is never static.
All good characters have a “spine” – an inner motivation; a dominant, subconscious goal – that drives them. The character’s spine should dictate the decisions that they make. They may not always be the best decisions, but they must be consistent with the character’s personality. Stanton gives the examples of Michael Corleone in The Godfather: his spine was to please his father, even after Vito Corleone’s death.
Finally, Stanton reveals what he thinks is the key ingredient of all great stories, and one that is rarely cited: the ability to evoke wonder. Stanton calls it the “secret sauce”, and I don’t think anyone could argue against that given Pixar’s uncanny ability to produce heart-warming tales time after time. Unfortunately for us mere mortals, it’s not the easiest thing to imbue our creations with wonder!
To conclude, I’ll leave you with this quote from Stanton taken from the TED talk. He refers to characters in a story, but it’s equally applicable to all of us as we seek for meaning in our lives: “A major threshold is passed when you mature enough to acknowledge what drives you, and to take the wheel and steer it.” Whatever we wish to achieve or create in life, it won’t happen until we understand why we want it, and actively go after it. Andrew Stanton has done just that, and become one of the most respected storytellers in the world as a result.
Being a suburban lad through and through, every time I head down to the supercharged mass that is London I have to tell myself I’m going on a mission or an adventure. That way I mentally prepare for the chaos.
A few weeks back, I headed down to The Big Smoke on a mission of utmost importance: directing the voice over (VO) work for Seven: The Days Long Gone. I met up with my co-directors Jakub and Karolina, the Project Lead and Quest Designer, respectively, and we made our way to the PitStop Productions recording studio near King’s Cross.
Unfortunately for the voice over artists we had chosen to voice Seven’s main characters, I took to my directing role like a dictator to brainwashing. I’m confident that these highly-experienced actors appreciated my relentless input. Not that confident, mind you, but it’s too late for self-doubt now! When I jumped into the booth and had a little go myself, naturally I found that it’s much harder than it looks.
It may be a cliché, but it really was surreal to hear many of the lines I sweated over brought to life by these talented voice actors. When I write, I mutter every word to myself, particularly when it comes to dialogue. It helps me to check the lines feel natural, and that punctuation crops up where natural pauses occur. It’s not very scientific, admittedly, but it works for me.
Even with this process, however, I didn’t always appreciate the intricacies of a line because I didn’t always imagine the character speaking it in context. The voice over recordings were a timely and pertinent reminder that in-game dialogue is far from the end product. That may sound obvious, but it can be hard to keep the bigger picture in mind when writing; imagining the state of the world at that particular time, and everything the character may have gone through. These considerations are further complicated by the fact the player may have acted in a variety of ways up to any given point, so there often has to be an element of neutrality to the line. They may have forced the protagonist to start an impromptu open graveyard, for example.
I enjoy storytelling in many of its guises. In addition to working on Seven, I’m currently writing a long-overdue short story entitled Kellen’s Plan, and working on my first screenplay, called The Henchman. I realise that by dabbling in all of these different forms of media I risk spreading my time too thinly, but I think the potential rewards outweigh the risks. I want to immerse myself in every facet of storytelling, because I’m increasingly finding that core story principles are crucial regardless of the format. The primary goal is always to elicit emotion, stories are always metaphors for life, there always has to be conflict throughout, and the protagonist has to go through a metamorphosis of some description.
Despite the storytelling core running through all of these media forms, there are of course major differences between them. One of the most significant is the way in which the story is enjoyed. In video games, the stories that are created have to serve a greater purpose: they have to feed in to and enhance the world created. The writing is brush strokes of one colour on a vibrant, many-hued canvas. Films and television shows constitute an intrinsically visual medium, so screenwriting must enable the reader of a script to visualise how the words on the page could be brought to life. Writing literature is one of the more closed-ended of the forms, in that the writer tries to convey exactly what they wish the reader to experience. Even this requires interpretation, however; as Stephen King says, description should start in the writer’s imagination, but end in the reader’s.
The whole process of bringing lines to life in the VO recording session reminded me of the importance of keeping in mind where your words are destined to be next in their journey. It never ends with whatever you chuck on to the screen; whether it’s the voice actors who breathe life in to lines for a video game, or the director transforming them into fluid action for a screen show, or the reader taking the seed of your prose and letting it bloom in their imagination. In short, don’t forget that your aim is to write something that shows your imagination whilst appealing to someone else’s.
Strike that. Reverse it.
Okay, I admit it. One of the main reasons for writing this blog entry is so that I could use my favourite Willy Wonka quote. If that’s not a good enough reason, then tough. It’s good enough for me.
Recently, I’ve been juggling a hefty workload, and dedicating a great deal of effort to resisting the temptation of play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild all the time. Both have only been partially successful. A combination of engineering work, large volumes of writing for Seven: The Days Long Gone, and gliding around Hyrule, has kept me from working on writing samples and short stories. I have to prioritise, and I don’t like it. This got me thinking about one of my favourite topics: time.
Then I had an existential crisis, so I stopped.
But seriously, don’t you agree time is a concept that is simultaneously fascinating, amazing, and a little scary?
The fascinating part is that time plods along at the same rate for every one of us, yet passes completely differently. How we perceive time is completely subjective. In my old job I would’ve sworn the days were about 64 hours long, but a day of playing Zelda, reading, and writing passes in a few hours. What’s more, we may be exposed to some of the same world events, but how we interpret them, how we react to them, is unique to each of us.
Time can also be amazing, particularly when thought of in terms of the innings we’ve been given thanks to the birds and the bees. At risk of coming across as uncharacteristically saccharine, the very fact we’re here at all is pretty incredible. Yes, we will all experience hardships in our lives. Some have it much tougher than others, which in itself is worth remembering in the darker moments. But time also gives us many opportunities, if we only seek them out and seize them. Take the cherished times spent with loved ones, for example. Or the exhilarating moments of risk-taking that crystallise into life-long memories.
Lastly, as tempting as it is to ignore it sometimes, there’s the fact that time is a little scary. It cannot be stopped. It cannot even be slowed down (unless you manage to cosy up to a black hole, apparently, but such a thing might even top the list of “holes” you don’t want to get too close to). Scariest of all, though, is that not one of us can say with any degree of certainty how much time we’ve got on this rock. So my question is simple: why spend any more time doing things you don’t like than is absolutely necessary?
Now hang on, there, before you throw your hands in the air, yell “You’re right, Tom!” and charge outside starkers. (I mean, you’re more than welcome to do that. I’m just not responsible for the consequences.) I’m not saying we should chuck ourselves face-first into the river of time and see where it takes us. There’s a fine line between taking calculated risks to do the things we really want to do, and just being reckless.
What I do advocate, however, is not being content with the everyday grind. If it feels like you’re getting nowhere in life, and your job doesn’t give you an ounce of satisfaction, you’re probably right. There’s only one person who can do anything about that. Time is precious not because we have little of it, per se. No, time is precious because we don’t know how much we have mapped out before us. It’s so easy to stand still and just let life march past us.
Making the best use of time isn’t about packing as much in as possible. It’s far too easy to worry about wasting time. Every so often, we all need those TV series binges to detach ourselves from reality. In my opinion, making the best use of time involves doing those things you’ve always thought about trying, but just never made the time for.
For example, if you’ve always wanted to write a song but never tried, then just give it a go. If you’ve always wanted to do that one wacky activity but let apathy hold you back, then just book it. If you’ve had a story idea burning away in your head but never acted on it, then free up some time and share it with the world.
Alright, all of these things are easier said than done, but what do you have to lose? If they work out, you may have just discovered a life-long hobby. It may even turn into a job. If they don’t work out, then at least you tried, and you’ve put to bed the nagging feeling that only repressed ambitions breeds.
And what if the thing you want to try is a little off-the-wall? Well, in that case, I’d refer you to my second favourite Willy Wonka quote: ‘A little nonsense now and then, is cherished by the wisest men.’ Roald Dahl knew his shit.