Chris Picone - CSH Picone
Mark Yohalem - Wormwood Studios (writer)
Interview by Chris Picone, 05 September 2017
Mark, the writer from Wormwood Studios, joins me today to talk about what it’s like writing for game developers including Bioware and inXile including his work on Torment: Tides of Numenera, and how his career in law had an impact on the world of Primordia. He also talks a bit about Wormwood Studios’ upcoming release Fallen Gods and even gives us a cheeky sneak-peek into an as-yet-unannounced project called Strangeland.
CSH: How did Primordia come about, and how did you first become involved? I understand it’s actually Vic (the artist)’s brainchild, but I can clearly see your influence.
Mark: Vic posted on the AGS forums asking for help from a writer, and I emailed him. I had just wrapped up working for S2 Games, Bioware, and TimeGate, and for the first time had some free time to take my hobby in an independent direction. I had wanted to make an adventure game since I was 12, and this seemed like a chance to make it happen.
Vic had been working on Primordia for a couple weeks before I joined, and he had drawn a couple scenes (the UNNIIC, which didn’t yet have that name) and a preliminary world map. He had the idea of two robots going from the desert to a city, but the story otherwise was quite different from where Primordia wound up (it involved rescuing a captured girlfriend robot from a robot bachelor pad) and fairly nebulous. He generously let me take things in a very different direction. I roughed out a storyline, and we actually stuck pretty closely to that rough idea. In case you’re curious, I posted all of my early design emails in a thread on GOG:
Fair warning – do not click this link if you don’t want spoilers. The contents are incredibly insightful but I highly recommend that you finish the game before going anywhere near it.
CSH: The original plot sounds like some kind of robotic Wayne’s World, a far cry from what it turned into! Tell us about your role in the studio as the writer? Is it a group effort to develop a story and then you write it, or does that task lie solely within your realm of responsibility?
Mark: In terms of “role in the studio,” this may misconceive Wormwood Studios a bit. It’s just three guys, on different continents, screwing around with making games. There isn’t an organizational chart or even a wall on which we could hang it.
On Primordia, I did the story, the puzzles, the dialogue, the characters, and most of the QA/production side of things in terms of playing through, reporting bugs, making sure characters faced the right way, and so on. (James had to actually do the work of fixing those things, though.) I guess I also have taken the laboring oar on public outreach.
But “I did” is a little misleading. I might come up with the idea for Clarity and send some vague references to Vic; but when he made her real with his art, she grew in my head as a character, too. And the three of us were always discussing things, sharing ideas, and so forth. The testers also helped in this regard.
CSH: Was it also your responsibility to engage publishers and other third parties? What about public relations, marketing, blurb writing, synopses, etc?
Mark: Yeah, pretty much that was me, although it was Vic who first talked to Wadjet Eye Games. I am an okay editor myself, but we had the benefit of wonderful testers who scrutinized the game very closely. A few writing errors still made it through, though.
Vic and James do a fair amount of social media outreach for the game, too, and Vic’s art galleries draw in a lot of attention.
CSH: Vic’s artwork certainly drew me in. As soon as I saw that image of Horatio, I bought a copy – I didn’t even watch the trailer first! You are incredibly fortunate to be able to work with an artist talented enough to bring such a rich world to life. Speaking of good fortune, I suspect there are many writers out there who have dreamed of making a game one day but are yet to do so. To satisfy their curiosity, what is the process for writing a video game? How does writing for a game compare to traditional creative writing?
Mark: I mean, there are lots of different ways to attack this question, and it’s too long for this interview, but I have a few points I’d definitely like to make.
(1) In games, the story serves the gameplay. In (some) other forms of writing, the writing itself is the focus. (This is not necessarily so for comics or operas or movies, but it is for novels or stories or articles.) So you need to know when to hold back, and you need to have a constant dialectic between the gameplay and the story (with the gameplay the stronger party)—you can’t tell certain kinds of stories in certain kinds of games. I’ve written and spoken a lot about how the “verbs” in a game’s story need to also be the “verbs” of the game’s gameplay. Here’s an interview I recently did that touches on the subject (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ipzJRfk0GgM). The basic idea is that the action of the story needs to consist of actions the player can undertake, so an adventure story should be about gathering items, combining them, solving puzzles, etc., because that is what the player will be able to make the character do.
(2) This is not true of all fiction (or all story-telling) but for the most part other forms of story have a range of tools to dilate or contract time and focus in a way that games can’t as well. You can use fast-traveling and you can skip forward (or backward) in time, but it’s hard to use a technique like, “As Horatio explained his story to Clarity …” Dialogue and actions tend to need to be shown rather than summarized. This presents a variety of problems especially in terms of getting third parties up to speed. (You can use cuts to some extent to help this…)
(3) In many forms of writing, digressions are a flaw, but in games, digressions are really the heart of the experience. The overwhelming majority of Primordia’s text occurs outside of cutscenes or even dialogues with NPCs—it’s in quips when you examine or interact with objects, in interjections from Crispin when you linger in a room, random entries in the Information Kiosk, etc. Increasingly I see game designers talk about tools to lead the player down the correct path (e.g., visual cues like lighting or assistance tools like journals or quest compasses), but to me games are best when they invite the player to wander, tinker, and experiment. Primordia is not an open-world game in any sense, but there is lots to play around with. Reduced to a novel, Primordia would be short and inert.
CSH: For those of you who have not yet read “Fallen,” I recommend that you do so. It’s a short story written by Mark and set in Primordia’s world, and very probably the last foray into that setting that we will ever experience. I feel that it also highlights the differences Mark just explained. You can find it here: http://www.primordia-game.com/fallen.html (it’s spoiler free).
Mark: I did try with “Fallen” to include some elements that would … emulate is too strong a word, but perhaps “echo”? … the adventure game experience. There is a lot of cryptic or non-linear story-telling—thematic material in the margins and the like—designed to be something like puzzle-solving for the reader.
CSH: Mark, I understand that – like most indie developers – your job as a writer for Wormwood Studios is only a part-time affair, and more of a hobby. In which case, where do you earn your crust? And more importantly, what impact has your work had on your writing?
Mark: By day I'm a lawyer. I was a prosecutor when Primordia was being made, and I work for a law firm doing civil litigation now. I also do the occasional work-for-hire writing, like on Torment, in addition to our own independent stuff. So making games has to be done in the margins of the crowded page of my life (especially when you factor kids and other responsibilities).
The law obviously had a huge influence on Primordia's story–not just Clarity, Charity, Arbiter, and the courthouse sequence, but also the selection of themes and policy "dyads" (liberty vs. security and so on). Even when I'm not writing about legal themes, my legal training guides how I research, analyze, and present ideas, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, no doubt.
CSH: How on Earth do you find time to write games around a full-time legal job, a family, side projects, and all the rest? And how do you consolidate your legal and creative writing skills? I have a hard enough time separating my creative and essay writing, and I do neither for a living.
Mark: “Objection, Your Honor, compound question!”
There are 168 hours in a week, and I spend around 45 of those sleeping. Even a very demanding job typically doesn’t take more than 60 hours a week. That leaves 63 hours. So, actually, there is lots of time in life, it is more a matter of energy, will, and what you’re willing to give up from that marginal time. Before I had kids, it was easier to spend more of that marginal time on game development. With kids, it’s harder. Even 10 hours a week is hard, but then I waste a lot of time on other things, so, again, it’s mostly a matter of energy and will.
I think I approach all forms of writing pretty consistently. I like to do a lot of research, read things in the relevant format, try to tell a good story, do many rounds of revision, and agonize over how to turn phrases. Obviously there are massive differences, but at the end of the day, it’s all the English language, it’s all about finding the words that will hold someone’s attention and win their trust. For a game story to work, it requires the player to trust it enough to invest his or her emotions. For a legal brief to work, it’s the same thing, really, but directed at judges.
CSH: Not that it sounds like you have any spare time, but do you have any hobbies outside video gaming? Did they have any influence on your games?
Mark: I spend a lot of time with my kids, and actually that has affected how I view games. In particular, watching how much they enjoyed some adventure games but disliked dialogue-heavy ones (like Grim Fandango or Broken Age) was interesting. My kids actually do just fine with the supposedly impossible aspect of old-school games (hidden items and tricky puzzles) but they find semi-interactive cartoons boring. My older daughter actually wrote the dialogue for and voiced one of the robots in Primordia when she was two and a half (“Strange robot, go away. Go back to spooky place!”).
Other than that, reading’s really my only hobby. "Reading" is pretty dumb as a hobby, but certainly it has a huge influence on my work. I try to read around 50 books a year. Typically when I set out to make a game in a certain setting (say "space opera" or "robots/post-apocalypse" or, in Fallen Gods' case, "fantasy inspired by Icelandic sagas"), I try to read everything important ever written in that space. For instance, when we were making the now-abandoned Star Captain, I read over 100 space opera novels. For Fallen Gods, I think I've now read all of the major and most of the minor Icelandic sagas, not to mention the Irish and Anglo Saxon ones and the Kalevala, plus a dozen Norse history and mythology books, and I think all the extant Anglo-Saxon poems, and then a few books about Old English etymology, etc.
I'm not sure how helpful it is, but it pleases my vanity.
CSH: How did you get into game writing in the first place?
Mark: I’ve been writing stories and programming more or less my whole life. My grandfather, a NASA engineer, got my brother and me an Apple II\c (hooked up to a B&W television) when I was six or something and taught me how to halt the boot process and program in BASIC. I used to be “narrator” for a “narration game” (i.e., GM for a narrative RPG) for the neighborhood kids and I spent the next 30 years or whatever trying to figure out how to make a “narration game” for computers. It’s impossible. But along the way, I got tugged in different directions—Hugo Whodunnit made me think I could make an adventure game, and that was a goal from like age 13 on, which Primordia finally fulfilled. In terms of professional game writing, that started in college with Infinity, a defunct GameBoy Color RPG. Once you have your foot in the door, it’s a lot easier to get more work, and I wound up working with Infinite Interactive, Nikitova Games, TimeGate, Bioware, S2 Games, and inXile—maybe a couple others along the way.
CSH: That’s quite a portfolio! This interview’s getting a bit lengthy already so I won’t ask you about all of those experiences – but what can you tell us about your recent experience working on Torment: Tides of Numenera? And what are you working on now that Torment is finished?
Mark: It was a dream come true. I've long regarded Planescape: Torment as the pinnacle of game writing, and to work with many of the geniuses responsible for that game, and so many others I loved (like Mask of the Betrayer, KOTOR 2, the original Wasteland, etc.), was just extraordinary. Everyone I worked with was a considerate colleague, and a skilled teacher, and the kind of collaborator who makes you work harder out not out of envy for their talent, but for admiration of it.
That said, the actual work consisted of scripting and writing very long, complicated branching dialogue/narrative, which is exhausting, in a setting I didn't create or control, with game rules that never quite made sense to me. The actual process of creation was much less fun than Primordia, though I was very proud of what I did, particularly the character Inifere and his Mere. No other game will have a cannibal pun "poetaster" and "poorer tasting" when deriding bad verse, that's for sure.
CSH: Working on a game like Torment is the sort of thing most writers can only dream about. Tell us about the process involved working for a big developer. What were their expectations of you? How much say did you have in the development of the characters you were writing (or in other elements of decision making)?
Mark: Ah, most of the developers I’ve worked for didn’t really care very much about storytelling and let me do my thing, for better or worse. Bioware and inXile were exceptions in that regard.
Because this is a hobby, I generally tell employers to pick what they think is a fair price and then discount it by 25%. Over time they tend to raise my pay if they like my work, so it has been a good proposition for me. But because of that, and because I’m generally pretty responsible, I tend to get away with asking for a great deal of flexibility in terms of my hours—it’s really impossible for me to commit to any schedule.
On Torment, I had quite a bit of control over the Meres, and I would say a good amount of control over the characters, too. Their basic contours (e.g., what quests they fitted into, how they needed to move the plot) were fixed, and there was usually a starting concept, but the team was generous in letting me change that concept around. I don’t think Inifere as I rendered him was anything like what they originally envisioned, for instance, aside from being a cult leader found on a particular map.
I’ve been very lucky in every job I’ve had to have colleagues who took the time to nurture me—even at companies where story was viewed as a hood ornament at most, I was struck by the kindness and generosity everyone showed from management to testers. I know there are lots of horror stories about the industry, but to me it has been a pretty remarkable place.
CSH: How did you get picked up by a developer like inXile? Did you approach them or did they approach you? It sounds like you would prefer to return to working on your own (or other indie) games but would you consider jumping ship and working for the big developers if there was an opportunity to do so?
Mark: I approached them. It’s a longish story, but the short version is: a site called the RPG Codex was one of the best boosters of Primordia, and several inXile employees were hired from that site and others posted regularly there. That led to a connection between me and Colin McComb, which eventually led to me getting the job (with much grovelling along the way).
I loved the inXile crew, and I am very proud of my work on Torment, but at the end of the day, working on a project that big is like pouring your heart into the ocean. No matter what is in your heart, the ocean remains the ocean. I would rather have a small backwater pond so that when I look into its surface, I see myself reflected. That is partly vanity but partly because I learn about myself from my writing and value that out-of-body experience.
That said, there are a handful of games that exercised an outsized influence on my childhood, and I would jump at the chance to work on them. If the Gollop Brothers came to me and offered me a chance to work on an X-Com game, or Paul Reiche and Fred Ford came to me and offered me a chance to work on a Star Control game, or Brian Moriarty asked for my help on a Loom game, etc., I would have to say yes, because I am indebted to them and because those are games that I’d like to work on someday. Torment was such a game. But I wouldn’t go around chasing that work anymore, let alone chasing other work in hope it might lead there. I’m too old, and I don’t have enough energy to spend it that way.
CSH: If you were able to make enough money from your game sales, would you give away the legal job and write games full time?
Mark: I would never work on games full time. It’s a fun hobby, but the law is also very fun, and so are other things. I always dreamed of teaching English, so I’d probably try to do that. Anyway, part of what makes game making fun for me is the lack of a financial imperative—I don’t have to worry about what my games make, and that is very liberating. A tiger is a fun thing to visit at a zoo, but not as fun to ride. A very successful genre novelist was my dad’s college roommate, and I gather he has lived in constant tension about how the next book will be received. I don’t have that anxiety, at least not the same way.
CSH: I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone describe the law as “fun” before. Mark, what can you tell us a bit about your upcoming RPG, Fallen Gods?
Mark: The basic gist of the game is that the player is one of the eponymous "Fallen Gods," who must win his way back to the Cloudlands—our Asgard—by hook or by crook. Basically, it is a bleak game that blends Norse mythology and Icelandic folklore (and European folklore more generally) with a dark worldview that fell upon me when reading a series of books about the aftermath of various revolutions (Russian, French, Bolivarian, and anti-colonial wars of liberation in Africa). The current pantheon of Fallen Gods successfully overthrew the indifferent, and even cruel, primordial gods who ruled before them (a blend of titans and animistic prehistorical gods). Despite this signal and perhaps noble victory, the new gods, led by Orm the Trickster, have proven fairly inept as divinities and catastrophes have befallen the world: political, ecological (I was also reading, among other things, The Earth Without Us and The Sixth Extinction), and spiritual.
Here's a video: https://youtu.be/DBodb6NSIL0
The game is inspired by Barbarian Prince and Lone Wolf, which are respectively a single-player board-game RPG and a series of game books from when I was a kid. Also, King of Dragon Pass. But it probably most closely resembles a Norse FTL. You explore a procedural map, have little text-adventure events, grow in power, and win or lose. You have 90 days to get back home or it's game over.
CSH: I remember Lone Wolf distinctly, although I’ve never heard of Barbarian Prince. Can you give us some insight into the main character?
Mark: He was born in heaven and, because the gods have grown poorer in faith, has been cast overboard, landing ignominiously in a world that is dying. Horrified by what he sees, he knows he has to get home at all costs, and sets out to do just that. You can't save the world, only yourself.
CSH: That’s a whole different kettle of fish to Primordia, although I note they both have heavy philosophical themes. Where do you find the inspiration?
Mark: Usually there is a kind of game I want to make (a point-and-click, a procedural story-telling game with Barbarian-Prince style gameplay, etc.) and it interlocks with a kind of narrative I want to explore, and then it grows outward from there.
All of my games have been influenced by other media. It would be ludicrous to claim otherwise. Setting aside its obvious gaming inspirations (Fallout, Planescape: Torment, Loom, Beneath a Steel Sky, Monkey Island), Primordia’s inspirations certainly include: (1) my grant-aunt’s poem “The Inheritors,” which I talked about here: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/12/05/the-big-idea-mark-yohalem/; (2) many science fiction novels, including Lem’s Cyberiad, Simak’s City, and Wright’s Golden Age; (3) many more literary works of fiction, particularly from Borges, Calvino, Kafka, and Gogol; (4) many cartoons I grew up watching, particularly He-Man, Go-Bots (especially “The Last Engineer” arc), Batman: The Animated Series, and Pirates of Darkwater; (5) many movies (for instance, there are a few allusions to The Big Lebowski, a favorite of mine); (6) dystopian literature in general, particularly The Road, Darkness at Noon, A Canticle for Liebowitz, and 1984; and (7) Shakespeare, if only for the goofy references. Incidentally, that’s just what I came up with in the past couple minutes, the tip of the iceberg. Some people may be able to create ex nihilo, but the best I can muster is bricolage, combining other people’s great ideas in ways that, if I’m lucky, are at least a little surprising.
It’s hard to be more precise than this. I guess what I would say is that over the course of my life there are games I played that left such a powerful impression that I knew I wanted to make such a game. That is oftentimes about mechanics, not story, or about feel. Sometimes the mechanics and feel suggest a genre. When it comes time for me to make the game, I try to consume everything I can in the genre. I mentioned some of my reading I did for Star Captain (trying to scratch by Star Control II / Weird Worlds itch) and Fallen Gods.
Also, games grow in inspiration as they go. Truth be told, the biggest inspirations for me in working on Primordia were Victor Pflug and James Spanos. The same is true of my wonderful colleagues on Fallen Gods. The best I can do is try and live up to their high example.
CSH: Well, you certainly set the bar high. Primordia sold almost 200,000 copies, which is incredible, and I couldn’t help noticing that your website and Facebook pages are filled with fan art and cosplayers, which is almost unheard of for an indie game. To what do you attribute this success?
Mark: I think we have done a pretty good job of repaying their loyalty with our loyalty, which is easy to do because every time someone says the game made them happy, I get a vicarious burst of joy myself. Also, I think it helps that between the three of us, we put so many different things into the game that it has lots of "hooks" that can catch a player, and is rough enough around the edges that people can see themselves in it. I don't think Primordia is a game that is "out of reach"; it's something our wonderful fans, who are artists and storytellers and mechanical geniuses themselves, could create. Some games are so perfect, or so grand, that it's like they came from another world, or burst from Zeus’s head, but I think Primordia feels like what three regular guys can make in their spare time.
CSH: Finally, when we were talking before the interview, you mentioned you have an adventure game in development, called Strangeland. What’s that about?
Mark: A man wakes up in a nightmarish carnival and watches a golden-haired woman leap into a bottomless well for his sake. He's mocked by crows, a mechanical fortune-teller, and the riddles of an eyeless dotard. Something terrible screeches from the top of the towering rollercoaster at the heart of the carnival, and he knows that the woman will keep jumping, and falling, and dying, over and over again until he deals with it.
I think it is fair to say it is a quilt made from the scraps of our various projects that suddenly turned into something much bigger, and hopefully much better, than we expected.
Thanks so much for your time, Mark. I will be watching the Wormwood Studios website with a keen eye, eagerly awaiting news about Fallen Gods and Strangeland. You can expect to hear from me again.