Insights for Non Artists:
Christy Marx Interview
credits in animation range over twenty years and include writing
for television, direct-to-video, and computer/console games. She's
also served as a story editor for numerous series, and received
the Animation Writing Award from the Animation Writers Caucus
of the Writers Guild of America in 2000, given "for a writer's
overall body of work, and for contributions to the field of animation
writing." This article focuses specifically on writing for
animated computer and console games.
it's important to establish if there is any difference in writing
a script for the screen versus writing a game script, though both
are animated. I asked Christy to clarify this, and she replied,
"Nowadays it seems that animation has taken over for the
'scenes' in games, after the industry had a fling using live actors
and sets. However, that could always come around again in popularity.
The useful things to know, then, are the fundamentals of writing
any script. If you study tv scripts, film scripts and animation
scripts, you will have the basic tools you need."
on to explain her personal approach. "I consult with the
game company as to whether they want a live-action style script
with only master shots, or an animation-style script with the
writer effectively doing the advance work of a storyboard artist
by calling out every single shot. If the company has an artist
with strong skills in storyboarding, I feel it's better to let
a visual person bring that skill to the script. If they want you
to give more guidance to the artist, then you should do an animation-style
script. What this requires of you as a writer, however, is a very
strong visual imagination in which you can see the animation shots
in your head in order to call them out in the script." She
says this advice relates to "writing 'cut scenes' or 'cinematics',
which are chunks of story where the player is fed the scene during
which he has no control over the game. Gameplay stops, the scene
plays, the game continues."
also include elements of dialogue, which are integral to gameplay.
When asked what goes into fashioning what characters speak, Christy
said, "writing dialogue is a whole different issue. Most
companies will have a writing or editing tool for you to use.
You need to be technically proficient enough to learn and use
such tools. But that's usually easy."
a lot of terms bandied about, such as level designer or game designer.
Level designer is in fact a programming job. Christy reminded
we should be aware of the differences, as these terms are not
interchangeable. In fact, a game designer may not even be the
person doing the writing. For the sake of this article, I'm narrowing
down the definition to "game writer" and asked Christy
to define what the difference between "game designer"
and "game writer" could be, if the game designer is
not actually writing the game.
what I see under the job listings for 'game designer' is somebody
that can do everything from management to programming to art.
I think such requirements are unrealistic, personally. My definition
of a game designer would be the person who brings the vision to
the game, who can guide it on a management level, and who can
come up with the storyline, characters, world-building, puzzles,
strategies, etc. However, rarely do I ever see companies looking
for a designer with genuine writing skills. They seem to be more
interested in the technical skills. Back-asswards, if you ask
nobody's asking me. So under this new set of rules, a game writer
would be brought in later in the development process when many
components are already created and set by the designer and creative
team, such as the world, setting, look and feel, characters, etc.
The writer might be asked to come up with story, or evaluate the
story, or do some additional world-building, or biographies for
the characters, or maybe nothing more than writing dialogue. I've
done all sorts of variations on these things."
into writing computer games in the early 1990s, during a slump
period in the animation business. That brought her to Sierra On-Line
in the Yosemite area (which since moved to Washington State and
acquired by Havas, now under the Universal Vivendi umbrella),
where the company eagerly pursued writers with Hollywood knowledge.
Christy created two acclaimed PC games for them: CONQUESTS OF
CAMELOT and CONQUESTS OF THE LONGBOW, featuring the adventures
of King Arthur and Robin Hood, respectively. More recently, Christy
took her first foray into console games with THE LEGEND OF ALON
D'AR for Stormfront Studios, published by UbiSoft, and designed
for the PlayStation 2. I wondered what the differences were between
designing a PC adventure to designing a console game.
one big, overwhelming and significant difference is that the console
games I worked on were completely linear, while PC games are expected
to be as non-linear as possible. There are technical differences,
of course, in terms of interface, how many characters you can
have on the screen, etc. But those are only marginally relevant
to the writing."
She then shared
some of her own industry observations. "I don't know whether
the consoles game designs I saw represent the way all console
games are designed, but if so, I would say they have put themselves
in a linear straitjacket. Don't get me wrong; I love being able
to tell a linear story. But there is no technical reason on earth
why a console game can't be a non-linear, exploratory game like
a PC game. The only restrictor is what the game designers have
decided is the mindset of the console game player. But since that's
all they feed to the players, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As for current PC games, they suffer from a lack of story sense
and a lack of good writing. Nobody's making great adventure games
to paint a picture of the general process a game writer goes through,
Christy responded: "There is no one process. It will vary
depending upon the needs of the company and the project. With
the LEGEND OF ALON D'AR, they needed just about everything done
from the storyline to the world-building to character-building.
In that case, they showed me the visual designs and left the rest
up to me (which they and the client had to approve, of course).
On another project, they already had all the visuals designed
and knew what their basic story was. I was brought in to rewrite
the story to a professional level, and do a lot of work on building
the character backgrounds. In that case, all I needed to see was
their existing written material and their sketches of the characters."
She also had an experience where "they only wanted me to
write an opening movie, but to do that I had to read, absorb and
understand much of their game design, but I never got to see a
single visual. Each project has its own process."
A game writer
generally does not remain involved with a project as it proceeds
to the rendering stages and beyond. I asked her if she ever got
these kinds of opportunities.
back when I was the designer/director/writer on my first two games
with Sierra On-Line. I did get to spend a fair amount of time
being involved with ALON D'AR, but at a distance, since I didn't
live near the company. I loved being the designer on my games.
I loved working with my teams, with the programmers and artists
and composer and QA to bring it all together. It was immensely
From my perspective
as an outsider, it seemed to me that it would be tougher to break
into console writing in today's market, despite the booming growth
of the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube, so I posed the question
to Christy. Here are her thoughts on the subject: "Yes, I
think it's gotten very tough for the freelancer. If I were willing
to move to a major city and go to work full-time as an employee,
I could have had any number of jobs by now. I'm just not interested
in doing that." Christy further elaborated by saying what
she felt was needed to break in as a freelance game writer. "To
get purely freelance writing jobs on a game seems to require that
you be a big name writer in an associated field, such as TV writing,
film writing, or be a sf or fantasy novelist. Even then, the jobs
are scarce. Companies still don't seem to understand the need
to use professional writers to do their writing. They wouldn't
dream of letting a game out the door with amateur graphics or
amateur programming, but they think nothing of using amateur writing."
serious about breaking into computer or console game writing,
Christy first emphasized that "[o]ne prerequisite that always
remains the same, no matter what you want to do in games, is that
the companies want people who know the field. You must educate
yourself and be able to convince a prospective employer that you
know a lot about games, that you have a lot of experience playing
games, and that you are highly enthusiastic about games."
if it was better to specialize in writing strictly for computer
and console games, or become familiarized with writing for various
animation forms, she replied, "[i]f your primary goal is
to be a writer who also happens to write for games, you need to
choose some field of writing and become an established professional.
It could be film, animation, comic books, novels or whatever.
Then you would have the means to approach whatever game company
interests you, present your resume and try to get writing work.
If your primary interest is in becoming a game designer, you need
to find an entry-level position and work your way up." As
far as appropriate positions to pursue for finding that door into
a game company for a non-artist, "[t]hey simply don't have
entry-level positions for writers, at least not that I tend to
see. You might get really lucky and find a job writing technical
manuals, but I don't see that as a good position to work up to
game designer. I've heard the opinion that breaking in as a QA
tester (Quality Assurance -- play testers) and working up the
ranks is a valid route. I can't comment on that, though it strikes
me as a tough way to go and a big jump from heading a QA dept.
to being a game designer. Still, it's a possibility, if not a
strong one." She adds, "[t]here are management jobs
also, of course, such as producers and project managers, but those
are rarely creative jobs. You'll see for yourself what those entail
by reading up on the job listings for those positions."
emphasizes a long-standing tradition exists for programmers to
also be designers, which she finds "problematic" as
"programmers rarely have the skills to be good writers and
game design suffers without a good writer involved. If you possess
both talents, you're in a strong position to become a designer."
four major areas for employment in the computer and console industry
within the United States -- Seattle, Washington; the San Francisco
Bay area and Los Angeles, California; and Austin, Texas. Though
don't be surprised to find companies in places like Chicago, Las
Vegas, San Diego, and North Carolina. Christy's advice on how
to choose a locale is simply this: "If you have a definite
preference for where you want to live, concentrate on companies
in that area. But if you're willing to be flexible, you might
find you have a better chance breaking into companies located
outside the four big regions."
is known in the animation industry for her work as a production
coordinator for Nickelodeon's Invader Zim. She also served as
a Production Coordinator for Extreme Ghostbusters and a Production
Assistant for Jumanji: The Animated Series. Muir is an accomplished
writer and often participates on panels or as a guest speaker
at conventions like Comic Con International.
to Los Angeles in 1996 from Cheney, WA (population approximately
8,000), knowing she wanted to be part of the animation business.
Since then, she's never strayed far from making that dream reality,
whether it be actively working on a production or writing articles
about the industry.
You can email
Shannon Muir at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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