TMNT: Double Damage and Writing for Games

This is Friday Fiction after a fashion.

Please to direct your web browsers to this rather ungainly URL. This is the latest offering from Urbansquall Games and it features a story “written” by yours truly. Why the quotes? Well, that’s the topic of today’s post.

For starters, it was awesome to get to work on a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles project. I was a fan of the movies, the cartoons and the original Eastman and Laird comics. Good stuff all around. However, writing for a video game, writing for a flash video game and writing for an established and lucrative license are all very different from writing in general.

There’s a pretty broad range of eras of TMNT to choose from. The early comics work has a different feel and different characters from the early cartoons, which are different from the early movies, which are different from the later cartoons, which are different from the latest movies, which are different from the latest cartoons. At the outset, I wasn’t given any directive at all in terms of the story. So, I crafted up a couple Turtle story concepts I thought would be fun to tell. Baxter Stockman is trying to recreate the ooze that transformed the Turtles, Bebop and Rocksteady engineer a mass breakout from the local zoo to create an army of animal mutants, Shredder is evil and kidnaps April—that sort of thing. Classic Turtle escapades from the early cartoon era.

Well, matters immediately become more complex when you factor in that you’re not always going to have an artist who has nothing to do all day long but draw the ideas you want to appear in your video game, especially at small companies. The mandate came in from the lead designer that I had 4 areas to work with that our artist would be able to manage on top of creating all the enemy and character graphics that I was going to be asking for: city streets, rooftops, warehouse and—a pressure-release section—a techno-lair for the final bad guy.

[What do I mean by pressure-release section? This is a portion of the project that can be jettisoned if time doesn’t permit. Since a chunk of levels can be forfeited, you need to ensure the story can survive without those levels as well.]

So, the story became a very basic one. April discovers a warehouse in the city with Foot soldiers everywhere. They trail her and just after she alerts the Turtles, she’s kidnapped. The Turtles rush to her location and give chase through city streets and across city rooftops, eventually following the Foot back to their warehouse where it is discovered that Baxter Stockman is trying to create serum for super soldiers. After he is defeated, the Turtles continue their quest to track Shredder to his hi-tech HQ, where they ultimately defeat him and save the day.

So far, so good. Basic. I’m not exactly wowing myself with my story prowess, but its certainly functional and the color can come in the details.

But then we submit this idea as part of the overall game design to the client… and they shoot it full of holes. Turns out they’re looking for a different era of Turtles than we were providing and there are a few details their licensing people want tweaked. Easy enough to handle, but embarrassing to have had your hands slapped by a major client. As a rule, do not expect that when you have questions about items you consider critical to your work that a major client will respond quickly so you can do you job. More often than not, they’ll be silent until you’re forced to just do SOMEthing before deadline, and then they’ll be mad you didn’t do what they expected you to just assume they wanted. 100% of my experience with major game firms shows this to be true (yes, yes, 100% means I’m only 2 for 2, but still, 100%).

Story is approved at last! Time to write? Not yet. How is the story going to be told? Scripted scenes with in-game animation? Ideally: yes. Practically speaking: only if you have the time. Telling story like that is the most integrated with gameplay itself, and it requires a lot of code adjustment and tweaks that your coders might not have the time for. After all, at the end of the day, the game needs to be fun more than it needs to have some brief story elements. Their time will very likely not be devoted to your requests.

So then do you just have little markers in the level that when the player walks over them they see a dialogue box? Nah. It’s clunky for story… plus that’s how tutorial elements for gameplay are delivered.

What do you do then? In our case, we found another artist who could do animated comic-book style pages for us. However, the project has a tight timeline and the artist was only given enough time for about four to six pages of work. Now it’s time for me to try and break the story into comic-book ready blocks of action, something I’d never thought about before. I tried to keep action high and dialogue minimal and to communicate as much story as possible in broad strokes to ensure that the artist had enough time to make something quickly and have it communicated in the equivalent of 12 to 18 comic panels. It’s trickier than you might think to imply broad swaths of action and progress with virtually no dialogue.

This goes well… but then it’s clear the pressure valve needs to be applied and we lose 5 levels and this changes the comic situation. Two pages are cut. We’re now missing a boss character, and his absence happens to change the logic of the story overall. Now the evil goal of the Foot clan is vague. They kidnap April for finding their mysterious warehouse, the Turtles find the warehouse and rescue April and battle Shredder twice in the process. They defeat him… but what was he trying to do in the first place? Well, hopefully you won’t think too hard about that because it’s too late to add new pages now.

Aaand now it’s done. So, similar to, but on a smaller scale than tales of screenwriters with their films that hit the Hollywood grinder and emerge looking nothing like how they started, writing a video game title for major client is barely something that can be called your own work. It’s more commonly a collaboration between the writer, the artist and the lead designer for the game with the client throwing as many wrenches at you as they can.

We pulled it off and I think I’m happy with the product, but I’m not sure I can say I’m proud of it from a story perspective. I’m proud of the accomplishment, and happy for the experience. I really liked trying to craft instructions for an artist for comic panels, too. It’s a uniquely collaborative writing exercise. Trying to envision your words in a fashion clear enough so that someone else can make them concrete is a pretty neat task. It’s hard for me to feel too much ownership on an end product that has very little of my words and ideas of mine that were heavily augmented by a large corporate third party. I’m not trying to say I’m emo bitter kid about this, but I do want to communicate that projects like this are almost never your baby when they’re completed. They become “the job” and they’re really kind of everyone’s success more than they are yours.

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