Storytellers Of The Decade: Corey May Interview

Posted on November 11, 2010

We asked the writer of Assassin’s Creed to explain his thoughts on interactive narrative, characters, and his favorite game stories.

As part of our cover story on this decade’s 30 greatest characters, we chose several creative voices from across the gaming world that have contributed profoundly to the growth of storytelling in the medium. After careful deliberation, one of the storytellers we chose was Corey May, script writer for Assassin’s Creed 1 and 2. We asked May several questions about the way he understands story and characters within games, and he had the following to share.

In what ways does storytelling in games differ from in other mediums? More specifically, how does the inclusion of player interaction alter the way you approach plotting, character development, and thematic concepts?

For me, medium does not impact the story being told. At most, it will impact the way the story is told. I think there is a distinction here. So player interaction doesn’t consciously impact the approach, but it may have an impact on some of the execution. The actual stories told in the various Assassin Creed games are determined by ideas we have, places we want to go, themes we want to explore, characters we want to create, fantasies we want to experience. If these things are influenced by the medium, it’s subconscious. It’s not intentional. But that’s just me. Other writers may have other methods or approaches. So this is just how I work. I don’t intentionally incorporate the medium into the narrative. When Minerva looks at Desmond at the end of AC2, maybe that’s commentary. Maybe it’s a suggestion she’s looking at the player. But the player IS Desmond. So make of that what you want.

Interactivity still has an influence. With Assassin’s Creed I’ve been very fortunate. You are – for most of each game – reliving an experience. It is predetermined. It’s mostly linear. For moments when it isn’t, it’s simply a matter of creating multiple versions of a scene. So it’s additional work – accounting for the possible player (or environmental) inputs – and then writing accordingly. But it’s generally binary. So for a handful of scenes I’ll write two versions instead of just one. A scene for case A and a scene for case B.

When we’ve discussed introduced increased variability, it definitely has an influence on plotting. I find myself favoring a far simpler main narrative – ensuring there are a few major main beats and then wide gaps where you tell lots of little stories that are self-contained, but don’t create too much insanity at choke points. The focus tends to shift from telling an overarching stories to telling lots of little stories that color in the world. People can only track so many threads at once so you can’t overcomplicate your main narrative if you’re going to offer tons of choice in between major moments.

What different skills are required for someone writing in games or someone writing for movies or TV?

If you’re going to write a game YOU NEED TO KNOW GAMES. I can’t stress this enough. You need to play games. You need to understand how games are made. You need to recognize it’s an intensely collaborative process. You have to be willing to work harder. You can substitute work harder with the word compromise. But you MUST KNOW GAMES. I know this sounds like it should be obvious: know and enjoy the medium you work in. But I have encountered several people working as game writers who don’t play games and that’s weird to me. Because games are so collaborative you have to understand them – so that when a designer (mission, level, gameplay, etc.) comes to you with an issue or an IDEA – you understand why they’ve come to you – and can find a way to address their concern.

I think you also need to love games. I don’t know – maybe there are amazing game writers out there who hate games and don’t play them. So maybe I’m wrong. But that’s definitely weird. If you aren’t interested in games, why are you working on them? I don’t like writing. I hate it. I hate putting myself out there. But I love games more than I hate being vulnerable.

What do you think of the recent spate of video game movie releases and upcoming movies? Is there still a disconnect between Hollywood and the gaming industry? Is it getting better or worse?

I’d say: status quo. I think adaptation decisions are still primarily driven by the source material’s revenue and not content. I’m skeptical and cynical. I absolutely think there’s a disconnect between Hollywood and the gaming industry. I think that history is littered with missed opportunities, ignorance, arrogance and greed. I think Hollywood is disrespectful towards the gaming industry. I think it’s viewed as: an ancillary market, a well of source material to be “fixed”, or the realm of those who couldn’t hack it in showbiz. How can anything interesting or meaningful be borne of a relationship if you start from such a dismissive position? Give it time, though. We’ll reach a point where the people in positions of power understand and respect games.

But on the flip side it doesn’t help that some people in the game industry are opportunistic and bitter. They see games as a means to an end. Games aren’t “good enough”. They aspire to make their games more movie-like. I don’t know what that means. Stop talking about cinematic experiences. Focus on making games. If you don’t want to make games then stop making them. You want examples of “interactive cinema”? Uncharted 2. Bioshock. Portal. Closest we’ve come. Fantastic stories + fantastic gameplay. Win. I love these games. I love Valve and Irrational and Naughty Dog – because they appear to EMBRACE what they are – video game developers. They don’t prioritize gameplay over story or story over gameplay. They focus on the whole thing. The experience. If I can someday be half as talented as the writers working at those places, I’ll be happy. That’s why I love working for Ubisoft. They let me aspire to that. They encourage it. But even their support may not be enough. Just ask Victrix on neogaf. When it comes to Assassin’s Creed this is what he had to say: “The entire over-arching storyline is one of the most embarassingly awful bits of writing I’ve had the displeasure of experiencing in any medium [sic].”

Anyway, I don’t pretend my answer is any kind of truth. Maybe I’m right. I’m probably wrong. Or I’m forgetting something. But whatever the case, there’s definitely a disconnect. Both sides are responsible. Fix that *** and who knows what amazing things might happen.

Next up: Corey May’s favorite game stories and characters

Go to Source (Game Informer)

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Categories: Game News, Game Secrets

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