Two guys you've never heard of are writing gaming's best stories

Deep into the making of “Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor,” the developers at Monolith Productions realised they had a problem. The game featured an intricate recreation of Tolkien’s universe, powered by an innovative system that let whole armies of non-playable characters adapt to interactions with the game’s protagonist. Yet amid all of this there was no binding plot to hold everything together.

“This was a huge challenge,” says Michael de Plater, design director at Monolith. “We were totally learning as we went along.”

It was at this point that Monolith, which is owned by Warner Bros., called in an assist from the top script doctors in the business.

Part 1:

You won’t have heard of Sleep Deprivation Lab.

The two-man company doesn’t have a website, and you won’t find its name listed in any credits reel. But Christian Cantamessa and Jeff Harkavy have worked on a number of highly acclaimed video games in recent years, including “Shadow of Mordor,” “Forza Horizon,” “The Crew,” and a clutch of others they are forbidden from publicizing thanks to non-disclosure agreements. Represented by Hollywood super agency CAA, they don’t come cheap.

Found yourself three quarters of the way into a multimillion-dollar video game project and your story makes no sense? Or has the narrative become cumbersome and bloated? These are the men you call.

“Every case is a little different,” says Cantamessa, who has been writing games for more than fifteen years and is perhaps best known for his work on “Red Dead Redemption,” the “Grand Theft Auto” studio’s acclaimed ode to Western cinema released in 2010. “That’s why they call it script doctoring. There is a disease somewhere. First it needs to be analysed and diagnosed. Then, finally, we can begin treating it.”

When it came to “Shadow of Mordor,” the developers at Monolith knew they had to make the protagonist, an assassin named Talion, into a rounded, driven character who could stand alongside Tolkien’s enduring cast of greats. “It was a very deliberate decision,” de Plater says about hiring Sleep Deprivation Lab. “We wanted Talion’s story to be, in some ways, modular and separate from the procedural storyline.”

But it was another creation by Cantamessa and Harkavy that made the biggest difference. Named Ratbag the Coward, the scheming orc became not only the most memorable character in the game, but also an essential component in its design.

“Our thought process with Ratbag was two-fold,” Cantamessa says. “From a pure gameplay perspective, we figured that it would be helpful to have a guide into Orc society and their army hierarchy because it’s such a big part of the game. Secondly, we wanted to inject some levity into an otherwise very serious narrative. Tolkien does this with great success in the books.”

Ratbag, while feeble, is ambitious. He allies with the game’s protagonist in hopes that the player will help him become a warchief.

“Through iterations of the cinematics script, we zeroed in on a voice and an angle for him, as well as his point of view of the world, that felt very refreshing,” Cantamessa says. “The harsher the situations we would put him in, the more his character emerged. This really sprung to life during the writing, not during some planning process, as is often the case.”

Cantamessa would not go into more detail about changes to “Shadow of Mordor” and was reluctant to talk in detail about any of his projects, but it’s clear that their work is often extensive.

“In virtually all titles that we have been credited with, most if not all characters are our unique creation — regardless of when we were brought into the development cycle,” says Cantamessa, whose own film, “AIR,” launches in US theatres later this summer.

At the same time, the script doctors were keen to stress that they are not only in the business of fixing things that are broken.

“Using our services doesn’t necessarily mean that a game is in trouble or is badly written,” Harkavy says. “But like Hollywood, we provide an extra set of eyes, pencils and typewriters to take something that is strong and to make a game’s story stronger, or to trim and condense it if it’s grown too large.”

This attitude is born from more than humility. Blockbuster video games are like digital skyscrapers, built by many hands; responsibility for their failures and successes are usually collective, and claiming otherwise can cause upset and, in the most extreme cases, lawsuits. As Cantamessa puts it: “Writing is a collaborative and highly iterative process. Regardless of timing, there is never any blame and no ‘improving’ as such — it is the process.”

Yet it’s hard to imagine that “Shadow of Mordor” would have been such a commercial and critical success without Sleep Deprivation Lab’s help.

Part 2:

As many high budget video games aim to match the style and presentation of Hollywood’s latest blockbusters, the services of Sleep Deprivation Lab, founded in 2012, are increasingly in demand. “These days, the cost of neglecting story in a game is high,” Cantamessa says. “Reviewers and consumers can destroy a game over its story. They might say it’s non-existent, repetitious, over-familiar, or just plain bad. So it’s crucial to get right.”

Indeed, praise for “Destiny,” a multi-million dollar blockbuster released in 2014, was tempered by criticism of its story, which was, in part, brought to life by “Game of Thrones” actor Peter Dinklage. Critics and players alike complained that it was confusing and dispensable. One website even posted a narrative recap of the game shortly after its launch titled “A summary for people who dozed off.”

By contrast, as Cantamessa points out, “the right story or premise can elevate a game. It can provide well-worn gameplay concepts with a new context and make the familiar fresh again.”

Typically, the team work in one of two ways with clients, which include Warner Bros. Microsoft, and Ubisoft. They either come in at the start of a project, helping to develop the narrative pitch in order to help secure funding for the game, or they arrive towards the end of a project to help steer the development team away from pitfalls. In the latter case, they usually find that the writing is either over-considered or under-considered.

“Either too much power has been given to the narrative, to the point where it ham-strings the design,” Cantamessa says. “Or there’s been an assumption in the team that a game shouldn’t have a formal story, precisely because it’s a game, and therefore should behave differently to film and television.”

Workshopping a game is not that different from a TV show or movie: “One of the things we believe in strongly is the writer’s room model, where we bring a minimum of three writers together to sit in a room and do everything from breaking the story, to characterization, and concept, all the way down to the structuring of an individual scene,” Cantamessa says.

Building a cinematic experience, per Cantamessa, requires paying attention to every element of a game. “Even the fundamental placement of enemies in a level tells a story,” he says. “The lighting of a corridor tells a story. It’s fundamental to the language of the video game medium that elements of the story will be told through the environment. So it’s crucial that, when we come in to a project, we work with every discipline within the wider team.”

For Harkavy, symbiosis between disciplines is the bedrock of their work. “If that fails, you can have the best writing in the world, but it’s not going to work in your game,” he says.

FullbrightOne recent example of storytelling through environment in Fullbright’s ‘Gone Home.’

Both Cantamessa and Harkavy agree that it’s not easy to pull off a cinematic game. Some would go further to claim it’s not possible.

During a panel discussion at the USC School of Cinematic Arts in 2013, film director Steven Spielberg expressed his uncertainty at the video game medium’s potential to tell stories, regardless of symbiosis between artists, designers and scriptwriters. “The second you pick up the controller, something turns off in the heart,” he said. “It becomes a sport”.

“Star Wars” director George Lucas, whose company LucasArts produced seminal story-based games throughout the 90s and who sat on the same panel, was more hopeful. “The big game of the next five years will be one in which you empathise strongly with the characters through a love story,” he said. “That will be the “Titanic” of the games industry, because you have actual relationships on screen instead of people being shot.”

Cantamessa, unsurprisingly, agrees with Lucas’ claim.

“The future of storytelling in games will be, I think, an exploration of themes and concepts beyond fighting — genuine efforts to elicit other kinds of human emotion.” We are, he says, already starting to see a shift as game-makers take more risks and, in his words, “focus more on characters and less on guns.”

Still, the shift has been slow for a medium that, to onlookers, appears obsessed with domination and the expansion of territory — themes that, as Spielberg points out, are more usually associated with sport than art.

Destiny moon guardianActivision/Bungie‘Destiny’ had a reported $US500-million budget but was almost derailed by a weak story.

“Moving away from the status quo is always a challenge whenever there is a lot of money at stake,” says Cantamessa. “Investors want to lower the risk that they will lose their investment and, one way to do this is by creating a variation or evolution of something that already exists. That doesn’t necessarily hamper evolution, but it certainly slows it down.”

Cantamessa believes that, while video games increasingly find their own ways to tell unique stories away from film’s example, by contrast cinema provides a useful model for exploring new artistic territory.

“In film we’ve seen genuine breakthroughs in narrative structure with ‘Pulp Fiction’ and cinematography with ‘Gravity,’ successes that have grown out of the independent scene,” he says. “Indies can break new concepts while risking less money. When they find a vein of gold, the larger companies typically come in and mine those veins. It sounds unjust, but this is how film has worked to evolve for more than a century. It may well happen the same way in games.”

For Sleep Deprivation Lab, any such expansion will only provide more opportunities. “I’m sure there will be, say, a romantic comedy video game one day,” says Cantamessa.

“We haven’t had one yet simply because the problems haven’t been sufficiently challenged. Clearly some concepts need to be reinterpreted for the interactive medium. You can’t just turn a rom-com film into a game, for example. But I guess it’s just a matter of having the right idea. To a certain extent, video games settled for just a handful of stories early on. That’s set to change.”

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