Craig Morrison: The Terribleminds Interview

So, this is an exciting flip here — the storyteller in today’s interview is none other than Funcom Montreal’s creative director, Craig Morrison. Surely by now you’ve heard of a not-so-little MMO called The Secret World? Anyway, he logged into the Giant Hallucinogenic MMO that is the terribleminds interview experience, and answered some question for us. Oh, and while you’re at it, check out this Gamasutra article where Craig talks about why MMO designers should be more concerned about the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what.’ Let the interview commence.

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

Storytelling has always been inspiring for me because it is one of the most important things a culture can do, any culture …

***

Fireside

Vishna stared into the flames, the embers drifted upwards at irregular speeds, like all the voices of the stories, and he knew more than most. Arcing and twisting, changing pace suddenly, taking new shapes and forming new tapestries, albeit far less lucidly than they once had. Some of their subtleties escaped him these days, a plot-point could burn out before he had committed it to memory, a side character may flash too quickly to be sufficiently defined for inclusion.

That came with age.

As he tried to untangle the similar, yet distinct, voices of two of the more capricious ancient sea-song merchants, another voice interrupted, one that should not be there, a younger voice.

Loud, wanting attention, using his name, not an ember voice …

Vishna turned from the flames and allowed his eyes to focus.

“Sar Vishan, would you tell me a story?”

The boy was clearly not yet of Ember, from one of the rising castes no doubt, those with aspirations above their station. Daring to approach the fireside of a Sar. The boldness of youth. The idea of it brought a smile to Vishan’s mind.

“I suppose it would be redundant to remark that you are not supposed to be here young emberling. These flames are not for those of your cycle.”

“I know,” head bowed, “but my caste came far for this telling, and then I wanted to hear more than the tales from the blue flame. I wanted to hear your tales.”

Vishan held his stern demeanor, “Lucius and Amanda are fine tellers, and the blue flames tell the stories for your cycle for a reason emberling.”

“… but Sar,” Vishan could tell the boy wanted to reply passionately, yet hesitated. Respecting the elder. Good. His youthful enthusiasm was at least tempered with some teaching it seemed.

“Speak freely emberling. You are, after all, already here. In the circle of flame no words should be resisted.”

“I do not offer offense,” the youth replied, eyes still to the floor, “it’s just I have heard all the blue flame tales, and most of their variants.”

“No two tellings are ever identical emberling.”

“I know Sar.” The boy nodded, recounting the same line taught to every emberling, “The voice of the tale forever flows.”

“So emberling, you claim you have heard every tale?”

“Yes Sar,” The boy looked up, forgetting, his pride empowering a little impertinence, “all three hundred and sixty two tellings across all three canon, and the five hundred titled lesser verse, with countless local variants and a few regional interpretations my kin deemed sufficiently neutral.”

“Impressive for an emberling of your years. No doubt …” Vishan had to admit, the boy reminded him more than a little of a certain emberling who had impertinently followed voices many year before, “however, you disrespect Lucius and Amanda. They are my voice in the circle of blue flame, and are fine tellers.”

“No Sar,” head bowed again, “I have already attended all their tellings.”

Vishan raised an eyebrow, “Already? This telling is but only three days old.”

“I slept only when they did. Now they repeat this cycle’s cannon, and I heard all their tellings.”

“So you come here. This circle is not usually for those of your cycle, as well you know.”

“I know Sar, but I can understand these tales, I really can, and I shall seek to learn the meaning of those I cannot not.”

Vishan laughed quietly, “You understand eh emberling? You will have to forgive an old Sar. The arrogance of youth may be but a long passed memory, but I vaguely recall what it was like to have no fear of that which you cannot yet appreciate. Still your tongue, this is not a rebuke. Just promise me that if I relate a telling, to you, when I should be resting no less, that you shall never close your mind to meaning. The tales relate meaning and perspective even to those of my cycle, or even when told by a different voice.”

“I promise Sar,” The boys eyes burnt almost as brightly as the embers from the flame.

“Then we have a story to tell, sit down and we shall begin …”

Why do you tell stories?

Because I am pretty sure they would find another, less enjoyable way to get out, if I didn’t. A way that would almost certainly involve mental health professionals.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

Find someone to trust for feedback and advice. On one level writing is one of the most inherently insular things you can do. Those are your words, your thoughts, your stories coming to life on the page, but you can usually take things to another level, one you may have thought you weren’t capable of, if you can find it in yourself to share some of the creation process. It’s the hardest thing in the world to do, but one of the most rewarding once you find the right person, or people, to be able to bounce things off, or get feedback from.

I guess you could argue that it is natural for someone like me to feel that way, as I come from an inherently collaborative creative medium. Very little ends up in our games that isn’t a team effort, into which many wonderfully creative people have had input … so you get very used to bouncing ideas around, and letting them grow based on that back and forth.

Oh … and read your work aloud whenever you can … I always find it incredibly beneficial to read my work aloud. That’s usually some really useful self editing right there!

What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?

That I should check my imagination, and that somehow writing ‘serious’ literature would make me a ‘better’ writer. I don’t feel you should ever try and dictate to anyone that they are writing the ‘wrong’ types of stories. There is of course much to be said for broadening your scope as a writer, but for me, I would hate to ever push people away from what they enjoy writing. You can develop and improve as a writer, or as a storyteller, in many different ways.

What goes into writing a strong character? Bonus round: give an example of a strong character.

For me it comes back to the old adage of ‘Show don’t tell’. If a writer feels the need to tell me every waking thought of a central character, or constantly ensure I know their opinions on the events of a tale, I feel that you miss out on part of the experience with a good character. The truly great characters for me are those that can draw you into a story, and create empathy, if not always sympathy, without the author having to force feed you their inner monologue.

A good character is an audiences bridge into settings that might not be familiar to you, allowing you to identify with characters that might otherwise have been totally alien to you. The readers imagination and life experience will always influence, even if it is subtly, their relationship with your characters. You need to give that room to flourish. You almost have to leave room for me, as your reader, to create an ever so slightly different version of your character than you did when writing it.

Strong characters? Wow, so many to chose from, so many have resonated down the years, for many different reasons. Then I also like to ask an awkward question – does a character have to be an actual person? Let me explain … when asked that question its hard for me not to jump straight to those characters that first inspired me to want to create real characters myself. For me that was those found in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, although with hindsight and re-reading I often feel the strongest character there is the setting and the atmosphere that he created so brilliantly for that hot summer of 1922. It was a world I had no relation to, and no knowledge of, yet I was immediately drawn in, and fell in love with those characters almost by proxy.

My father read me The Hobbit aloud when I was a child, and that imprinted the power of storytelling upon me, but it was Fitzgerald that made me think about characters and creating them for the first time.

More recently, Aomame, the central female character of Murakami’s 1Q84, was a wonderful character. She had me in the first chapter and never let go.

How does storytelling in games differ from more conventional types?

First and foremost it is an interactive medium. That in and of itself is a huge difference. The player generally gets to be involved in the storytelling, often making choices, or branching the narrative in different ways based upon how they want to play the game. In many genres of game that means that you are often writing or creating many, many different stories, or variations on a story, to account for the possible outcomes of the scenarios in the games. Now of course some games don’t provide any real choices at all, yet still benefit from the interactivity. A game like Journey is a great example there. It is completely linear, and in game-play terms, rather straight forward, yet the storytelling is still spectacular due to the atmosphere that the designers created, and then combine with what the audience bring to the experience. So games can have all kinds of different narratives, it is really no different than there being different styles and genres of literature. Games are like that as well, the type of game defines the type of narrative you might see … even when you don’t expect it. Some would argue that even a game like Angry Birds has a narrative, of sorts at least, that plays into the appeal. Just why are those birds so angry at the poor pigs? Ok, I’m not sure many would claim it is a serious narrative, and many within games would hurl rocks at me for suggesting it, but it fascinates me as a designer. There is often narrative where you least expect it.

What’s the trick then to carrying good story across to a massive multiplayer audience? What are the pitfalls?

That’s another hurdle altogether and really comes in two important parts. With our style of games, massively multi-player online games (which all the cool kids like to refer to as ‘MMO’), it is often more important to create a believable world, so you have these two very different pressures. The first regular one of having a narrative to your game-play, and then the second of having a believable and compelling world.

In narrative terms MMOs have struggled somewhat with the traditional ‘hero’s story’ as it were because, put simply, we create a world which thousands, often hundreds of thousands or millions, of players populate. Thus it’s hard for everyone to be ‘The Chosen One’. To be honest we probably haven’t yet found the best solution as a genre for that one, and different games try to handle it in different ways. A game like World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic simply kind of ignore it and let everyone be the hero and have a world where all those players are simultaneously having the same experience. The next generation of tittles like our own The Secret World and Guild Wars 2 are trying some variations to try and make it feel more like a shared world, even if the issue is still there.

The holy grail of virtual world design would one day to be able to support player stories all being unique in a shared space, but the sheer amount of work and technology before we get there is daunting, and we aren’t there yet by a long shot. The again … I am writing this on my iPad … a device strangely like those Star trek wanted to convince me was science fiction just a few decades ago … so who knows?

Then you have more sandbox worlds, like that of EVE Online, where players make their own story-lines, but that is not so much creating a narrative as creating a situation where your players can create one. I think people can, and often do, argue about whether that really is a ‘created’ game narrative or not, as it is certainly not written by the developers, but is often totally compelling. So in those cases the storytelling comes from the players, because the developers created the possibility for that to happen, which brings us to the second important element

World building on the other hand often becomes more important than it can be in traditional literature, because with a game people can see … with their own eyes … what you create. It sounds simple, but it has a huge influence on the creative process. With books the audience is often ‘filling in the blanks’ as to background and how a place looks or feels. A game, like in television or movies, has to actually show the world. What’s more, is that in our genre, the camera isn’t as controlled or scripted as it might be in a movie, or even a mainstream computer game. The players are generally free to poke around and look behind stuff. Look behind stuff. It’s the stuff of artists nightmares! No getting away with the equivalent of a dressed movie set. That means that said stuff actually has to have a behind.

That can be extended on a kind of meta level too, in that players find these worlds more engaging if they can relate to the world you have created in different ways, and actually learn about it if they want to. What culture does it come from? What are the rules of this place? It’s actually a lot of fun, and part of the process I enjoy the most. You have to ask yourself questions, to figure out what something would look like in your setting. What would it sound like? How big would it be? Where would it be? You end up having to answer those questions and many more that you couldn’t have imagined before starting out. You find that as you answer all those questions you are slowly building up the world that you are creating, slowly but surely crafting same texture into things, and then starting to cast some shadows into the contours of your setting.

Recommend a game with your idea of killer storytelling:

The aforementioned Journey will pull at your heart strings better than most. It is an experience better left unspoiled until you play it, so just go try it! The entire game can be played inside four hours … four well spent hours.

In terms of more traditional narratives I am a sucker for the two Portal games. Valve have always done a great job with their narrative design, even if the silent protagonist thing isn’t to everyone’s tastes, and for me they really nailed it with the Portal games. People usually jump to mention a Bioware title, or the Rockstar games, when asked that question, but for me Valve are all too often unfairly overlooked in that regard. Those two games have such great voice acting, wonderful dialog, a twist or two before then end, are perfectly paced, never outstaying their welcome. They really are wonderful experiences from a narrative point of view. The writing merges perfectly with the game-play and the world design, and that is where the true genius lies. Nothing feels forced, and it all flows beautifully from start to finish … and at its center it has a wonderfully unhinged robotic AI with a wicked sense of humor … can you ask for more than that? Wait, yup, they thought of that too. The second game then ups the ante by adding a liberal dose of JK Simmons, I have yet to watch or play anything that wasn’t improved by a liberal dose of JK Simmons.

Sell us on The Secret World. Hell, even better, sell us on the game’s story. Why should we play? What will we see?

The team behind the game, lead by Ragnar Tørnquist, who is probably one of the best writers working in games, and has an insanely talented writing team, have crafted a fantastic world and mythos. It weaves modern myths, legends, and conspiracies into this amazing canvass that they have painted with some really memorable characters, plots and story-lines. The tag line we used to sell the concept from an early stage was ‘everything is true’, so in The Secret World you’ll find ghosts, zombies, werewolves, vampires, conspiracy theories, and it’s bursting at the seams with ancient secrets waiting to be revealed. This is a modern game inspired by modern storytelling, you are more likely to see a nod to Neil Gaiman or Josh Whedon than you are Tolkien in this one.

I am however completely and unashamedly biased, so best let someone else tell you! My favorite review so far has to be from the guys at Rock, Paper, Shotgun (great site by the way, if you follow games and don’t read them, correct that right now!) who said in opening “The Secret World is an excellent, intelligent and literate pop song with a thudding, repetitive ear-worm of a chorus”

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

1Q84 that I just mentioned, is a great read. One of my favorites in recent memory, closely followed by China Miéville’s Embassytown. With both I think I am giving away the fact that I am drawn to narratives that don’t rely on constant exposition to craft their worlds. I kind of like having to piece together the details myself as I go along, or get dragged along by a masterfully crafted narrative, slowly having things revealed to me, or even those that rely on the reader to pull some of it together.

Also, if anyone still wants, or needs, evidence that comics can tell stories quite unlike any other medium, you simply have to pick up Daytripper by by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá. The most inventive piece of storytelling I have come across in some time. Even if you don’t ‘do’ comics, pick it up, trust me, you won’t regret it … not one little bit. Don’t read up on what it is about, just buy it, read it, treasure it, and you will, as I am doing here, evangelize the experience to others.

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

Just one? Hmmm, for some reason the word ornery got stuck in my mind when my wife challenged me to use it during a writing challenge some time back. It’s a good word. I almost seek out opportunities to use it now. Curse words? I am fascinated by curse words in languages other than my own for some reason, I tend to find myself swearing to myself in French rather than English, no idea why, maybe that’s my minds way of censoring itself, in the same way your mother might use the word ‘sugar’ rather than ‘shit’ when you were a child … or maybe that was just my mother …

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

An Irish Whiskey that goes by the name of Middleton, sweet, and all kinds of awesome.

What skills do you bring to help the humans win the war against the robots?

I don’t know, depending on what we did to cause it, as it would invariably be our fault! I might be tempted to try and reason with the robots, and find some kind of logical loophole that would grant some of us amnesty from whatever wrath we had invoked. If working with software all this time has taught me anything, it’s that if humans originally made the robots, then there WILL be a logical loophole somewhere in the code!

If there really wasn’t, then I guess I would most likely be the annoyingly optimistic one with a plan. You know, the one that is invariably going to come to a foul, yet noble, end sometime before the third act.

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

The beauty of working with an online genre of games is that we are never done, and our medium is young! We get to create more stories, more characters, and even long term, more worlds. Ultimately I look forward to the next opportunity to create another world, and bring it to life for others to experience. With Age of Conan still rolling out new adventures, and The Secret World launching soon, we are also hard at work working on what kind of a world we create next. For me that is the best part of the process, creating game worlds. Whether it is deciding how to treat a license, as we do with Conan, or creating something from scratch, we get to build and create these incredibly visceral worlds. Worlds that hundreds of thousands (and occasionally millions if you are really lucky) of gamers get to experience, and they then bring their own stories to your world.

You almost feel a little like a proud parent in that regard. What we do is only part of the storytelling that takes place in these games, because each and every player is bringing in another chapter and character, anything from a would-be legend to a background character, they all contribute to the tapestry of stories that populate our worlds and make them unique. In many ways we provide an avenue through which others can tell stories, both intentionally and inadvertently.

I love the medium, and have faith that we have barely scratched the surface of its potential in terms of both telling stories, and empowering our players to tell theirs. It’s such a young medium, we still have much to learn.

4 comments

  • Thanks for doing this!

    I LOVE the Secret World. The story telling is amazing and the game itself is challenging in ways that most MMOs on the market today aren’t.

    Just terrific :)

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