The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

March 2002

by Terry Borst

filed 21 January 02 Copyright ©2002 alt.screenwriters

Transforming a television show into an interactive CD-ROM game is nothing new. Usually, this has meant slapping an iconic character (a Buffy, a Xena, a Captain Kirk) on a box cover and draping some of the show’s ambience around an arcade-like gaming environment that mostly appeals to under-20s.

Transforming 10pm TV shows into games isn’t done quite so often.

But if Legacy Interactive has its way, these are precisely the shows that can serve as a platform for a more emotionally compelling interactive experience — and the good news for screenwriters is that the company understands that if you want sophisticated interactive storytelling, you go to sophisticated storytellers.

TV and film writers Doug Stark and Suzanne Oshry were individually recruited to write “cases” for Legacy’s Law & Order CD-ROM game, after the company had licensed the show’s title from creator Dick Wolf.

Both writers had previously written for the Law & Order series. This past experience with the world of Law & Order led to their hiring, but it hardly prepared them for the task they were about to take on.

As Stark wryly notes: “I found very quickly that in creating an interactive script, even Jack and Jill could be turned into Lawrence of Arabia .” And Oshry discovered that a writer had to be simultaneously “in the story and outside of it … the story refracts in many directions simultaneously.”

Legacy’s Law & Order game (slated for Fall 2002 release) is first-person interactive. This means the viewer/player initially steps into the shoes of an NYC detective and is partnered with the show’s stalwart Lenny Briscoe, voiced by the same actor (Jerry Orbach) who plays the television character. However, while the voices are human, the visual environment of the game is computer-generated 3D animation, rather than the full motion video used by many mystery CD-ROM games in the mid-90s.

According to Oshry, once the player is presented with a case, the player must “gather evidence, search for clues, analyze lab test results, interview witnesses, follow leads, check police records, use surveillance or search warrants if needed, and interrogate suspects. The goal is not only to identify the primary suspect but also to have your evidence be strong enough to obtain an arrest warrant from the D.A.’s office.”

Of course, anyone familiar with the Law & Order formula knows this is only half the story: the player then steps into the shoes of the D.A., and an interactive courtroom trial commences. “Be prepared for legal maneuvering by the Defense, cross-examination meant to undermine your witnesses, and unexpected courtroom decisions by the judge,” cautions Oshry. “When the Defense presents their case you’ll have to effectively challenge their credibility. Surprise witnesses and evidence may turn up during your continuing investigation that could impact your strategy, and the verdict. A variety of complex storylines and outcomes are possible so your choices are critical to bringing the true criminal to justice and getting a conviction.”

For both writers, the initial development process was something they were familiar with. Says Oshry: “I wrote a treatment and then a more specific ‘bible’ for the storyline. Since there needed to be a successful way to investigate and prosecute as well as many linear and non-linear ways to thwart that success, I also needed a comprehensive scene breakdown to keep myself from getting confused.”

However, differences from more traditional scripting soon emerged. “I found right away that writing a script for an interactive CD-ROM requires layer upon layer of possibilities, [and] branches that sometimes lead to a payoff and sometimes don’t,” says Stark. “A CD-ROM soaks up a one-hour dramatic script like a square of Bounty [soaks up water].”

Stark remembers “going over many, many times the timing of the crime and where it took place … if a character needed to be added so that a new bit of information could be revealed, everything that character said, even if it didn’t eventually pay off, had to conform to the timeline of events and somehow fit in with the story’s world. That got to be trying.”

“Like any script,” Oshry says, “the story has to be compelling with an emotional angle that makes the player care about the characters, want to solve the crime and involves them in the moral or social point.” However, the interactive format created new challenges. Stark had to cultivate “the ability to look at an event from multiple perspectives, a la Rashomon“, while Oshry notes that “The game’s interface requires the player to get answers and provoke responses. The dialogue format the player uses relies on far more questions than a traditional script would.”

Oshry adds that “You can’t only ask yourself ‘what’s the point of this scene?’ as in traditional screenwriting, but how many different directions can this scene lead the player to follow — and what can happen in each one.”

The script for each interactive episode ran around 200 pages, and according to Oshry, included “cast and location descriptions for Legacy to use in their visual creation of the 3D characters and environments, [along with] many lines of additional dialogue for each character to use as one of several ‘possible’ responses to the player’s questions and as comments by some of them based on choices the player has made.” The script also had to include the distinctive Law & Order New York City vernacular. “I like the show and I’m a New Yorker,” says Oshry. “That part was easy.”

Stark reports that the Rashomon perspective he developed “has carried through to my other work — I’m much more aware of the motivations of the characters in my scripts, their necessity to the story and what drives them.” Oshry has also found the interactive scripting experience a plus: “As a storyteller and weaver of complex plotlines, writing a game like this one will definitely improve a writer’s skills.”

Craig Bannon, the Legacy Interactive producer shepherding development of the Law & Order game releases, says that “while we knew we could come up with an exciting interactive structure for the game, we also knew we needed to hire professional screenwriters to write the actual story and dialog.”

The payoff for producer Bannon was when S. Epatha Merkerson (one of the other principal actors lending her voice to the production) remarked that the script was “dead-on to the way the lines are done on the show.”

Both screenwriters would embark on interactive projects again, and Stark hopes “the success of shows like CSI — and the huge interest in documentary-type shows that deal with investigation on Discovery — make it easier to contemplate entertainment/game vehicles where the viewer/player can navigate his own way through mysteries and investigations” — a development he deems “pretty exciting for writers.”

However, to take full advantage of these potential new opportunities, screenwriters are going to have to grow and evolve. Oshry believes that “If writers want to make that move [into New Media entertainment], we have to do it on our own. Writers looking into opportunities in this arena need to study the market, know the developers, try to keep up with the changing technology, and absolutely familiarize themselves with what this interactive experience feels like. It’s such a wide open field that it could help to figure out a niche for yourself.”

In the early years of the 20th century, screenwriters were “gag writers” for silent movies. As entertainment genres, distribution platforms and technologies continue to evolve in the decades to come, will today’s screenwriters be seen as equally quaint?

Way too soon to tell — but in the meantime, the release of the Law & Order game may nudge the development of new entertainment forms another step further.

Written by tborst

January 21, 2002 at 10:47 pm

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