Christian Thomas: I’d like to start with a question from one of the Special Issue’s contributors, Matt Barr, who’s at the University of Glasgow. He starts by saying that there have been many Star Wars video game adaptations, but that some of these captured the feel of the franchise better than others. He’s interested in how and why the best of these adaptations were successful, and for him, these are games like KOTOR and the Rogue Squadron series. He asks, “Is it capturing the feel of the Star Wars universe that makes these games stand out? Or are they simply very well-made games?”Ryan Kaufman: That’s a great question. And it’s something we used to talk about too because we were aware that certain games that we were creating really just had that Star Wars feel or felt like you were being immersed in the universe. But you could also create games that were mechanically really satisfying and maybe weren’t as immersive in the story, but gave you the feel. I’m going to go all the way back to one of the first Star Wars games I ever played, which was in the arcade and it was the vector graphics Star Wars. Do you remember that one?CT: Yeah, I do.RK: So, that’s a game where there’s no skill to it or anything like that. But it felt like you were there; it felt like you were piloting an X-wing and it gave you the first sense of what it would be like to live in that world, or to live and die in that world.
CT: I’ve heard a lot about that one, but I haven’t played it, unfortunately.RK: There may be some personal bias because I helped write it. Actually, to me it felt like The Mandalorian feels to a lot of people. It was an adaptation of the Spaghetti Western, but set in the Star Wars universe. The lead creative on that was Jon Knoles and he was a massive fan of Sergio Leone, and so was I. We talked a lot about that influence.
CT: You’ve pointed out the influence of the Spaghetti Western and Leone, and about bringing that element into the world and amping it up. That’s an interesting way to go—it’s doing something more than just trying to create a faithful world, but also taking it deeper into some “new” direction. Like KOTOR did, I think, especially when it was exploring the Force, in ways that weren’t done by Lucas. That’s one of the things that made that game emotional and important for me. Going in these directions that are new, while still having a faithful feel. I guess that’s always what’s difficult to balance with adaptations, right?RK: Yeah. I think you may have hit the nail on the head there. You need to have something new that you’re saying about it. And I think it has to be something that you care about. Much in the way that I think George was wanting to evoke the serials of the ‘30s, but he had all these other influences that he wanted to drag into it. The samurai movies, the Westerns and all that stuff.
CT: Right. What kind of player decisions or what kind of choices do you want to offer the player? What kind of gameplay actually works?
RK: With Harry Potter, one of the interesting things to me has been that the adaptation not only involves us as Jam City creators, but also of course JK Rowling’s property and her thoughts on it and her company’s thoughts on it. But then there’s this third energy, which is the fans. And what the fans want to see and what they get attached to in the story is actually quite influential on the creative process.
CT: I like that analogy. It makes me think of ordering wine, because when you’re asking for a sommelier’s recommendation on what to drink, they’ll throw it right back at you: “Well, what do you like?”RK: Yeah. What have you had before? What do you like? What are you in the mood for? And then try to take that and then “yes and…” it a little bit.CT: That’s a fun way of looking at how you handle the fans. Especially when you can look at what they’re saying online: things that frustrate them, or things that they love that you can tell they want more of, or they want certain threads to be explored more.
RK: It’s a pretty steady back and forth correspondence. As you can imagine, she has really specific ideas about her universe and how it all operates. And so, we send literally everything that we’re proposing and all the scripts to her company. And with some ideas, they’re like, “Yeah, this is fine”. And it’s not controversial. And then some other ones they’ll flag and say, “Well I don’t know about this one. Maybe we should talk about how it might come out”.
CT: Do they give your ideas, too? Do you riff off each other?RK: They’re good at bouncing ideas back: “Well, what if you tried this? Or what if you did that?” Or alternative ways that we might have it work.CT: Okay. I was wondering, too, how the business model for that game, and also for Vineyard Valley, how that affects the shape of the game, and the narrative, and the kinds of things that players do. Because you have to make money. In Vineyard Valley, you get these challenges interspersed between narrative sections—I think of them as a kind of Candy Crush-type of interlude. And if you end up failing the challenge and don’t have enough points to keep upgrading your vineyard manor house and continue the narrative, then you have the option to buy your way into that.
RK: Well, it informs the kind of storytelling that you’re going to do or the kind of storytelling that is going to work, I should say. And so, Vineyard Valley is a good example, knowing that we would have this game loop of, play the puzzle, earn a star, spend a star, play another puzzle. And the game is designed to have a mounting difficulty level so that players feel things aren’t just going along on a straight line. They climb and then they fall and then they climb and fall.
CT: That’s what’s made me keep playing. I want to see what happens in the story. I also want to see what happens to the place. I care about the place and I think there’s something that changes when you’re renovating it: you feel some ownership over it. If you’re not working on something yourself, you just don’t care as much. Were you doing that consciously when you came up with the renovation aspect of the game?RK: That was very much part of the mix. And thank you for calling out the renovations. That’s the third key tripod leg on which the game stands. There are the puzzles and the renovation and then the story, in terms of the content—that’s how it all works. And that renovation aspect is exactly as you said, it’s really key because that’s the place the player feels completely 100% of their investment, their time, their choices, their aesthetic. All that stuff becomes very important to them.
CT: That makes a lot of sense. And for me it also plays into this fantasy of having a vineyard. So I think the world you chose for it was an exciting one, too. I feel like so much of the fun in games is that they give you a place where you want to hang out.RK: Yeah.CT: Going back to player choices, one of the things that captivated me in Telltale games were the choices that involved things you and the other creators asked players to take ownership of. And the kind of things that you do in a Telltale game, which felt so revolutionary the first time I played The Walking Dead. You wouldn’t expect these really difficult choices to be so engrossing. I can’t say “fun” exactly, because it goes way deeper than that. It involves all these horrible feelings. Yet you really get into it. It’s totally immersive.
RK: For me, I’ve always thought of it as similar to why people take personality quizzes. Taking a personality quiz about yourself is, on the face of it, bizarre. You are you—you know yourself. Why would you ever take a personality quiz to have something objectively reflect back what you are? But of course, that’s exactly it. We want to see ourselves objectively reflected and make sure that we measure up to, “Am I really the person I think I am?”
CT: It’s such an interesting model for a game. Making those really difficult choices—there’s no easy answer to anything and you’re going to have consequences that are going to be negative no matter what you do. Which is so often the truth in real life. And I feel like you all really dug deep into that space. And people wanted to explore that very much.RK: And that was also really a conscious design choice on our part, was people often say, “Oh Telltale Games. It’s kind of like a ‘choose your own adventure.’” But it was actually the opposite of that because a “choose your own adventure” has a path through the story. And your job is to find the right path. With the Telltale games, we went the opposite direction and said there isn’t a path through the game. And your job is actually just to find your own way and create your own way. And that’s the point of the game.
CT: Right. You’re kind of at sea in those games. One of my favorites of the Telltale games is Game of Thrones. One of the reasons I like it so much—but I was always torn when I was in there playing, because it’s frustrating sometimes, too—is that you really explore depths of powerlessness in that game. I felt like you all as designers and writers took that to a new level. Because as Ethan, you’re playing as this kid, and of course you’ve gotten a glimpse of that playing as Clementine in The Walking Dead, too. You’re powerless—physically anyway—compared to all these adults you’re threatened by.
RK: Yeah, those discussions all happened on a team level. But I can tell you that from my personal journey—I was on The Walking Dead team helping create it, but there was a creative team that was really the nexus of that. Like Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin and all those guys. And so I helped with the design for that and I had this lucky nine months where I was observing what they were doing, helping them but really soaking it up.
CT: I never paid for a second episode so fast, as after that ending. I wanted to get right back in there.RK: Yeah—and then with Asher, it was more like, take a typical video game character, he’s a badass mercenary. But now he has to take care of a family. And so you’re stripping him of all that, the power of independence and the power of not being tied down and saying, reconnect with your family. What does that look like?
CT: I was going to ask you, too, about pacing with these games. With Telltale, you had the episodic format, where you have episodes that are maybe an hour and a half. So you could use a more traditional story arc, where you’ve got rising action and then you have your cliffhanger at the end. But with longer game formats, like you’ve got with Vineyard Valley and with Hogwarts Mystery, with these longer arcs, how do you handle the pacing? One of the games I’ve been revisiting recently is Alien: Isolation. And there are a lot of things I love about that game, but I feel the pacing is a real issue because you’re involved in these shorter missions that don’t feel totally connected to a larger goal. And the sense of building towards this larger climax of the overall narrative, since it’s so incredibly long—you lose that to an extent.
RK: It looks more like a season of television where you would say, “Let’s divide it up into X number of episodes. And we’ll build an arc over those episodes”. So each episode has its own arc and then you look at your season and say, “Okay, and that will also have a season arc”. And so paying attention to all those little dramatic, like you say, spikes, is really important. The only tricky part is unlike television or even Netflix, we can’t be totally sure that the player’s going to play through that in a week or something, so that they would still have it all in their heads. We’ve got to do a lot of reminding to make sure that if someone’s come back to the game and they haven’t played it in a month or something, they can still remember where they were. We have to have these little internal reminders.
CT: I hadn’t really thought about that challenge. Is there a way tech can help you with that? Maybe you know that somebody hasn’t logged in and played for a certain amount of time, so you could give more reminders? Or is that just getting overly complicated?RK: Yes and yes. Tech can tell you exactly when they last logged in. And you can remind them—you can be fully up to date. But I think it can get unwieldy to create enough reminders.
CT: That’s a cool way to do it, to give them some control of that, instead of just forcing them to watch an extended clip or something like that, that they have no control over.
RK: Well, the first generation of the game was way more aimed at a plot-heavy, mystery-heavy adventure game. Where you have characters in the game, but really the characters in the game are there to create mystery and puzzle aspects, so that the whole story feels more like a little mystery box that you’re unpacking. And the narrative satisfaction is much like in an Agatha Christie novel, getting to the end and going, “Okay, now I understand how everything happened. And all the things that were confusing to me earlier have been explained”.
CT: I sure do.RK: Yeah. And I thought that’s a place where we could begin and see what kind of story we could tell that would really bring that up, over and over. And then the lead writer on it had this—it was really just a sketch of an idea about people who were getting their heads chopped off. And that mystery of who was killing people became such a lesser concern, in terms of what the story was really about.
CT: I think it really worked. It’s interesting to hear that you switched the focus from what a game would normally do, which is make the mystery central, where people care most about who the killer is, and they’re going to find the clues, and that’s going to be the narrative they’re interested in. But switching the focus to the difficulties that these characters are having that you, as the player, must navigate, that grounds the game in real issues, in reality, even though you’ve got this fantasy world where it’s all happening.
RK: I think it was the other way around, for me at least. Because I wasn’t familiar with the Fables comics until after they’d signed the game and the game had been in development for a while. And then I was brought on for that reboot. And I had to quickly familiarize myself with the comics and the characters.
CT: You’ve explored all sorts of territory throughout your career so far. What’s next for you? Where—for you or for games in general—where do you think the interesting places are to go from here?RK: I’m really interested in the ways that games can help people explore their own psychology. And we scratched the very surface of that at Telltale. And I wish that we could push it further. Even to the point where I know certain types of interactive stories are used to help people with PTSD or addiction issues. And that’s fascinating to me. And I think how great would it be to actually have these games teach people about not just the personality quiz thing that we did at Telltale, but really ask, “Who are you, and what motivates you?” And actually get people to learn things about themselves that they didn’t know.
CT: You’re talking about something that’s very interesting to me too, partly because I’m in education. And you’re talking about a very specific kind of education, which helps people explore their own psyche.
RK: I played the very beginning and I got killed so many times I couldn’t finish it, sadly.CT: It’s totally brutal.RK: It’s so hard.CT: It’s so hard and it’s so long. But one of the things you do, as you know, when you get to the Alien part… you can’t kill the Alien. And it’s scary. They really make it scary in there. And your impulse is to run. And if you run, then you have your heavy footfalls and then the Alien hears that and it kills you for sure. And so you always have to be sneaking around very quietly, and hiding.
RK: I had an idea that it might be interesting to do a squad-based thing, a game about being in the military. One that used a place that was really problematic, like Afghanistan or Iraq or something like that. And weave a story around that, that had you making these moral choices that you might see in The Walking Dead, but in an increasingly realistic setting. So that instead of shooting zombies, if you’re in this realistic moral world and you’re shooting humans, people you encounter who’ve had collateral damage from military bombings or other things that weren’t played as fantasy as much as—maybe it’s a fictional yet realistic story—the way things have really happened, and are still happening.
CT: There’s a guy named Skip Rizzo at USC—the Institute for Creative Technologies. He’s done work on exactly what you’re talking about. He’s created a couple of things. One is similar to what you’re talking about, which is meant to be an inoculation against PTSD—it was developed to train soldiers about to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s called STRIVE, and it’s this series of interactive episodes based on real scenarios that vets have gone through. Skip has also put a lot of energy into working with vets who have come back, who are dealing with PTSD by taking them through guided experiences in VR environments. He’s also been working with soldiers around trauma from sexual assault, creating, as I understand it, some very visceral scenarios that invoke horror, in a sense, that are designed to help people who have undergone similar experiences. This kind of exposure therapy sounds wild, but according to Skip, it definitely does not retraumatize people. In many cases, it’s the only thing that actually helps.RK: That kind of research and that kind of therapy is absolutely fascinating to me. Any time I see any mention of it, an article, whatever, I’ll read it. It’s like you say, it’s horrifying how powerful it is. But also fascinating too: could we create therapies that could help people by going to these places that are considered too frightening? But maybe that’s what we need to examine.
CT: STRIVE is very Telltale-like, in the sense that there are no simple answers, no easy ways to win. You’re just faced with a horrific situation and you’re going to have to navigate it as best you can. But there’s really no—you don’t feel like you can win this thing at all.
RK: Yeah.CT: So you’ve got to wait for the bomb squad to show up. And there’s one guy who’s saying, “No, no, no. I’m going to go out to give him water”. And then they talk about it after—you have a conversation with a captain after the scenario is over—and he basically says that sometimes, you’re going to have to do the opposite of everything you were taught as a kid, in terms of your values. You want to help people in need, you want to protect people who are, or at least seem to be, innocent. All those good things you were taught—you’re going to have to do the opposite of sometimes to protect yourself and your fellow soldiers.RK: That’s interesting that you said you have to do the opposite of what you were taught to do as a kid. To be altruistic and to help others. There were many moments during the Telltale times, Game of Thrones was a classic example, where we would basically put you in a situation where if you did something that was the nice thing, to help somebody, it would end up screwing you.
CT: I’ll never forget that.RK: And so, again I feel like that’s just scratching the surface. What if we could teach people and inoculate them, so to speak, just against the normal pressures of life? Why shouldn’t everybody know how to calm themselves down or take a deep breath? And why shouldn’t everyone know how to negotiate an argument and instead of getting emotional and trying to lash out at someone, stop and figure out what they’re trying to tell you. Why shouldn’t everyone have those skills?CT: I totally agree. People call the games you worked on at Telltale games for entertainment, but I feel like they did so much more than that. I feel like it was training. That was one of the things all of us who played them got out of them. We were trained in those skills. We just didn’t think of it as training. We thought of it as entertainment because we were doing it by choice.RK: Yeah.CT: This is the area where most educational games fall down. They come with these lofty goals. And they are important goals: we’re going to teach you how to do all these things that are important. But yet they aren’t engaging to play, most of them, because they’re made by educators. And it’s just not most educators’ forte to know how to really engage players because they don’t have expertise in storytelling, or in creating exciting game mechanics. I wish that academics and industry people like you could work together on these sorts of things, because again, I think that Telltale games did teach people important things. Have you thought that about the games you worked on at Telltale? About how players may have been changed by them?RK: No, I never looked at it quite through that frame. But I think you’re right. We didn’t really look at it that way either at the time, but just had an inkling that there could be something more there.CT: I think at some level that’s what’s behind their power. As you were saying, the Rodrik moment, that’s the kind of moment that as you play it, you think, “Wait, that’s something I could really do in my life, too”.
RK: This was my pleasure. Talking like this, it’s kind of rare that you get to have a quite deep conversation about what games could be and how they operate. A lot of what you usually end up talking about with games is more just about salesmanship. So it was really nice to sit with you and talk more about the impact these games have on us as humans.
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