The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

September 2005

by Terry Borst

filed 17 June 05 Copyright ©2005 alt.screenwriters

Back in the early and mid ’90s, momentum developed behind the idea that Hollywood and the videogame business were about to converge into one giant media industry. A term was even developed for this convergence: “SiliWood” (Silicon Valley meets Hollywood).

But the very first appearance of alt.screenwriters (back in 1996) argued that the SiliWood concept was dead. Though the videogame growth path was clearly ascendant, it still paled in comparison to the business that film and TV did — and studios quickly realized that they were out of their depth in making videogames. In fact, the videogame world was alien to most of the executives and producers then working in Hollywood. The two industries retreated from each other’s embrace, and for awhile (particularly during the dot-com years), they stayed largely separate, with studios occasionally licensing current titles out to game companies.

However, the most recent Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) held in Los Angeles this past May (think Cannes and the American Film Market combined) demonstrated that the marriage between Hollywood and the game industry is now in full bloom. Thankfully, the SiliWood moniker has been retired forever. But for a new generation of executives, producers, directors, screenwriters and actors, “the biz” has changed forever. It isn’t film and TV anymore: it’s film, TV, and games. And the Third Screen is anything but an afterthought.

Let’s take a look at several trends that have emerged, and are of vital interest to working screenwriters:

Hollywood = Games

Quietly, the game business has been migrating to Southern California. This, after years of operating in more remote outposts in the U.S. and Canada, in order to cut costs and pay their artists and programmers less. The advantages of being in close proximity to the film and TV industries have come to outweigh worries about pay scales and rent.

Electronic Arts now operates a major studio in Los Angeles. Sony Online Entertainment (maker of Everquest) has long been ensconced in San Diego, and Activision (publisher of the Tony Hawk and Spider-Man games) has long been in Santa Monica. Jamdat Mobile (a major mobile games publisher), Tecmo (Dead or Alive) and Sierra Entertainment (Half Life) also call Los Angeles home.

In addition, traditional film studios have returned to the world of game publishing: Buena Vista Games, Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment, and Vivendi Universal Games all operate out of Los Angeles. Other studios are expected to re-enter the game publishing sphere.

Apocalypse Now

While videogame publishers were hiring WGA screenwriters 10+ years ago, the truth was that none of these writers had climbed to Hollywood’s A-list.

But increasingly, big name screenwriters have become major players in the development and scripting of games.

Bruce Feirstein, whose credits include the films The World is Not Enough, Tomorrow Never Dies and GoldenEye, has been scripting James Bond games for Electronic Arts. The Wachowski Brothers, of course, had a major hand in developing The Matrix games that live on long after the theatrical trilogy.

At this year’s E3, John Milius (Apocalypse Now, Jeremiah Johnson) held forth at the Electronic Arts booth, because of his scripting work on Medal of Honor: European Assault. Medal of Honor, which pioneered the World War II first person shooter genre, has become a blockbuster franchise for Electronic Arts. At the behest of Electronic Arts Vice President (and WGA screenwriter) Danny Bilson, Milius joined the franchise to craft the storyline and character arcs for the new edition, European Assault. “I’m not a game player,” says Milius. “But I love the idea of the possibilities of these things … and ‘Medal of Honor’ was a perfect fit.”

Milius got up to speed with a demonstration showing off the new technology designed for the game, so he could get a good sense of the look, feel, and limitations of the environment. “I remember how crude these things were when they first started,” Milius says, but now he found himself especially amazed by the breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, rendering the game experience even more immersive and realistic.

Work began with the development team’s proposals for some of the key European battles they wanted to replicate in the game. Milius contributed to the battle selection and to the shaping of gameplay to elevate the drama and tension of the experience.

“Within a battle there would be different missions,” Milius recalls. “And I would try to make these missions then tell you something about the actual battle.”

From there, Milius designed a scenario where the player assumes the role of Lieutenant William Holt, hand-picked by “Wild Bill” Donovan to be the first field agent of the newly formed Office of Strategic Services — the OSS.

The OSS backstory in turn helped drive the story arc: the player/protagonist would always be working on a larger mission, even while getting caught up in battles across the continent. Initially, the player/protagonist is tracking the deployment of the Nazis’ new 88 mm. gun (arguably the most lethal gun in the war), but this leads to something even bigger: the uncovering of the Nazis’ rocketry program, and a desperate Nazi plot to unleash a ‘dirty’ atomic bomb against the Allies.

The story arc succeeds in delivering much of the cathartic experience of a good movie to a game already packed with tension and adrenaline.

“Once we developed the story, we could then develop a villain,” Milius says. The villain became a sort of doppelganger for the protagonist: an undercover operative involved in the sinister doings of the Nazi atomic program.

“Then we could add a heroine … a French Resistance girl who saves [the protagonist] in his first battle.” Milius adds that “we were all working on the characters — where they should go and why they should be there.”

The team quickly turned the story-breaking sessions into what Milius describes as “wonderful graphic novels.” In short order, an extremely detailed story and set of scenarios had been hammered out and storyboarded.

Milius continued to contribute to the details of mission design. “You figure out what happens on each mission, why they have to go here, what happens at the end of this battle, how they have to cross this bridge to get out of St. Lazare, what happens if they don’t.”

“It’s a lot different than working on a [film] screenplay,” Milius says. He notes that the game designers and artists all had input in the shaping of the narrative, making it much more of a collaborative endeavor than most screenwriters are used to. “Everybody on the team was very impressive.”

Milius notes that EA “isn’t hidebound like the studios. They’re willing to try anything.” In some ways, the CGI game environment was incredibly freeing: “For Stalingrad, some of the things I wanted to do you could only do in a game. Even with CGI, the scale of it would be impossible in a movie.”

That said, limitations were still encountered. Even the virtual world is sometimes constrained by budget and time. “I had a wonderful, very cinematic opening for the Battle of Stalingrad. Everybody loved it. Then [the team] felt terrible because they didn’t want to tell me they couldn’t do it.”

Milius’s very positive experience scripting the game has left him musing about the future of entertainment and storytelling. “When games get really ambitious — when they take the time to establish mood, and contemplation — you’re going to have some very interesting games and experiences. We’re just on the edge of this thing. What it’s going to be 5 years from now, who knows? When people say there’s movies and games — and are these things going to interchange with each other? — well, it’s all the same thing. It’s all telling stories. [The game environment] may be the way we tell stories. This may be the new medium. We’re in its infancy.”

In the meantime, Milius expects — and looks forward — to working on another videogame. “I enjoy doing this. It’s really a lot of fun.” And with relish, he admits: “They appreciated my storytelling skills.”

Bobby Moldavon, Project Manager for European Assault, concurs with this appraisal. “One thing John Milius brought to the game was a greater depth, and a greater reality to the characters.” He particularly remembers a small detail Milius added to a game moment: “A teddy bear’s left in the rubble after the battle’s been fought. It’s a reminder that real people are part of this.”

Big Name Screenwriters

Milius and Feirstein are not the only big names writing videogames. The roster deepens every day.

  • Terence Winter (The Sopranos) has written Bulletproof, a game starring rapper 50 Cent. The storyline has 50 Cent taking on New York’s drug underworld to defeat an international conspiracy, in an urban crime epic.
  • Clive Barker (Hellraiser), meanwhile, is writing the action horror game Demonik, which is also expected to emerge as a feature film, with Barker writing and directing and John Woo producing (Woo himself is directing the action-adventure Stranglehold, his first videogame, for an expected 2006 release).
  • David McKenna (Blow, American History X) is writing the videogame Scarface for Vivendi Universal. The premise: Tony Montana survived the film’s final mansion shootout, and must rebuild his empire from scratch. The project illustrates the new interest in repurposing classic films (such as The Godfather, Dirty Harry and From Russia With Love) as videogames.
  • John Singleton (Boyz ‘n the Hood) is writing and directing the videogame Fear and Respect, an urban crime thriller set in Los Angeles.
  • John Carpenter (Halloween, Escape from New York) is writing and directing the horror game Psychopath.
  • Variety reports that Randall Wallace (Braveheart) is developing a real-time simulation game (Command and Conquer is one of the classics of the genre) for an unnamed publisher.

CAA, Endeavor, ICM, UTA and William Morris are just some of the agencies employing agents to work full time in the games arena, connecting their traditional film/TV clients with game projects.

“It’s All Telling Stories”

The accelerating use of experienced screenwriters to write for videogames was not the only big news out of E3. A press conference signaled a clear new trend in developing original intellectual property, where the lines between platforms get blurred even further.

Executive Producer Daniel D’Or, in tandem with actor Michael Ironsides, announced a convergent project entitled Ice Planet, which had been conceptualized from the ground-up as a simultaneous online videogame and broadcast television series (to be launched on the same day).

Events occurring in the multiplayer videogame are planned to influence the series, while broadcast episodes would introduce new content, clues and quests to the online videogame.

D’Or’sprevious track record includes producing 66 episodes of the internationally syndicated Space Hunter (shot in Canada). Given the demands and difficulties of successfully producing a series, why would anyone try to combine a videogame and a series in a way never done before?

“It’s time to be branching into the future, and I want to be there at the beginning,” says D’Or. His epiphany occurred when he sat down to play Doom some years ago. “That first experience did it for me. I thought I was going to play for a few minutes — and I wound up staying up all night playing. It was so powerful. Games, frankly, provide a more powerful experience than the TV shows we know.”

“We’re going to layer the TV and game experience so you can’t tell where one stops and the other starts,” D’Or promises.

Production is expected to start in the Fall, with an initial order of 22 episodes — and game production that will offer up some 20-40 hours of play.

Notes producer Philip Jackson: “This is a product with an explosive future.”

Last year, the Discovery Network prototyped a project with similar aspirations: a convergent game and television experience, designed to explore new creative territory while ideally winning back some of the audience that has been lost to videogame entertainment.

There can be little doubt that other networks and production companies are exploring new content hybrids that further combine interactive media with more traditional storytelling forms. Whether these emerge on next-generation game consoles such as the Playstation 3 or Xbox 360 (also announced at E3), or on interactive TV set-top boxes, or on the Web, the time is now ripe for screenwriters to begin conceptualizing new forms and new experiences that they can bring to buyers.

A decade ago, film and TV executives and producers were largely unaware of the videogame world. Today’s execs and producers, however, grew up with the medium — and they are willing to take risks that were unimaginable only months ago.

Having been handed new canvases and new palettes, the creative challenges are mind-boggling. How can these blended experiences work? How can the interactivity truly complement and enhance linear storytelling? What kind of demands can you place on an audience? And the ultimate goal: can you create experiences no one’s ever seen before, that transcend both games and film/TV?

At E3, Entertainment Software Association president Doug Lowenstein raised the question of whether an interactive Passion of the Christ might be truly possible. In other words, could videogames — in appropriating and reinventing tools borrowed from film and TV — go even deeper to get at the core of the human experience, and transport us in new and profound ways?

It’s a good question. The door has never been more wide open.

Written by tborst

June 17, 2005 at 3:23 am

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