The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

October 1997

by Terry Borst & Deborah Todd

filed 25 September 97 Copyright ©1997 alt.screenwriters
Some of the biggest changes to come about in the interactive arena have been in the children’s market. Whether a title is entertainment, curriculum, or ‘edutainment’-driven, developers and publishers are looking for new and improved ways to capture the attention and devotion of their pint-sized critics. And critics they are. Kids these days! Accustomed to cool graphics, fast action and addictive gameplay — which means if the product even sends a whiff of lameness into the air, it’ll be dead faster than you can say “whatever.” Replayability is the baseline requirement — but “series potential” … that’s the brass ring. Anybody with kids and a computer knows about Broderbund’s Living Books series, Humongous Entertainment’s Putt Putt series, and even the meekest computer users have heard of Carmen Sandiego. It’s all about developing a property that will keep the kids (and the parents) coming back for more. The writer constantly needs to keep these elements in mind when he/she’s brought in on a project.

Perhaps more than in any other new media venue, children’s interactivity harkens back to some old-fashioned virtues: creative and engaging characters, combined with a creative and compelling story. This month we talk about characterization — next month, the story.


Any parent knows that one of the most important things to a child, from the earliest age, is his friends. While still toddlers, they begin making up their own friends. Whether created out of dolls, fluffy animals, or from the fabric of the child’s own imagination, these playmates are beloved companions throughout a child’s early years.

As kids get older, they branch out into the world of real friends, and hold hands (figuratively and literally) through their young adventures. Not surprisingly, then, the tens of thousands of dollars spent on “market testing” for kids’ games (sometimes per project) also show that friends are important to kids, and that aspects of sociability are important in the games they play. Duh!

What this means in title development is that the characters the kids play with in games should be a) someone the kids can relate to, and b) someone the kids want to relate to. In other words, they should have enough allure to become the kid’s friends. The characters that populate kid’s games won’t win their audience over if they’re too old, too stale, or too generic — common problems with characters in the past. And the only way a smart developer will tackle this ever-growing need for better characters is to have a bona-fide writer step in to fill the void. After all, who better than a writer to grab some thin air, breath some life into it, and come up with really cool characters who are engaging and fun?

One of the best things about writing for kids is the opportunity for the “fun” part of the equation. Kids love humor. Humor transcends gender. Humor builds bridges. Humor keeps them coming back for more. We’re not talking jokes here. The humor must come naturally out of a character, and out of the situation the character gets himself into (with the player’s help, of course). It goes unsaid that different ages respond to different kinds of humor. Offering someone a peanut butter and jellyfish sandwich works for four- and five-year-olds, as in Freddie Fish, while more twisted humor like that found in the website would appeal to the “older” kid’s crowd.

In order to develop characters who are rich enough to have anything evolve naturally out of them, we’ll need some good old- fashioned character bible work. After all, the goal is to keep the characters alive in the imagination of a child long after he’s turned off the computer.

Of course, out of great characters, great stories can be told. While out of great stories, rich characters grow. Entertainment writers have always known this, but the interactive community is just starting to understand the significance of this basic truth.

Written by tborst

September 25, 1997 at 6:55 am

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