Katie Ellwood interview

Ryan talks movies, next gen gaming and lucky breaks with Katie Ellwood, writer for The Getaway...

If you’ve played any of the Getaway games, you might know who Katie Ellwood is. Or at least you should – she wrote the screenplay for the original game, and then joined Sony Computer Entertainment as a script consultant and assistant producer. She’s now the narrative producer and writer for the Getaway franchise, currently working on a version for the PlayStation 3. We asked her some questions about her job…

DoG: How did you get into writing scripts for games? Was it as difficult as breaking into the film or stage industry?

Katie Ellwood: It was a lucky break. I was writing at university… stage plays, screenplays, nothing produced. Through a friend I did some general PR work for a Sony conference. We got to know some of the people and I started proof reading a novel that one of the guys was writing. I sent down a play I’d just finished, so he could return the favour. It turned out he was the director of the Getaway. We ended up writing the screenplay together. It was all about the right place right time back then.

There are very few writers agencies in this country that specify in writing for games. But that’s all changing. Also the major talent agents in LA are opening game-dedicated departments. They are beginning to recognise this specific writing talent. The UK is following suit.

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As with everything, the industry is demand led, so the more requests that come in from developers, the more accessible the industry will become to writers. We are seeing a lot of crossovers too, as more film and TV writers try their hand in games. For me games writing has led to some great opportunities in film. I think for many writers it’s the other way round.

DoG: How does writing for games compare to screenwriting? Is it difficult, or example, to get the correct balance between player involvement and narrative flow?

Katie Ellwood: Games can be structured very differently where as (on the whole) films are linear. Different types of game (RPG, Linear, Branching) call for different types of writing and understanding. Also with games writing you have to understand that your story plays second fiddle to THE GAMEPLAY. Gameplay is king in video games. If a game doesn’t play well, it has to be the best story of all time that keeps a player involved. Possible? I guess so. Ideal? Certainly not.

In movies, ‘story’ is the beginning of everything. Without a great screenplay, your movie stands no chance of getting made. I doubt a game has ever been green-lit on story alone. It’s usually a mechanic or strong concept. Following this story can go miles to creating a world for the game to live in… and create compelling characters that can, and do, take that game to another level. Emotionally involvement paired with captivating gameplay is the holy grail of video gaming in my opinion.

DoG: Games are evolving at an incredible rate, but genuinely memorable, three-dimensional characters are still relatively thin on the ground in comparison to film; do you feel that it’s more difficult to create protagonists/antagonists for games than films?

Katie Ellwood: It’s difficult. It’s a case of how far you create a character, and how much you need to leave for the player to establish. What I mean by this is that the players’ relationship to a player character is very different from a viewer’s relationship to the lead in a film. In films your protagonist is the active one, always pushing the story, the one making all the smart decisions and performing all the dynamic action. How often have I heard off the film or TV producers’ favourite script note, ‘The lead must push the story more!’

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As a game writer, if you take that decision away from the player and give it to your lead character it breaks the player’s involvement. For example, a character makes a cool decision or takes that door in a non-interactive cutscene, you are cheating your gamer out of being the hero.

The same is true of ‘over characterising’ a game hero. In many ways you want the lead to be somewhat of a blank canvas; someone who observes the world around them and has the ability to act and change it for the better (but only if the game player is up to the challenge). Thus it’s our job to make that hero appear cool, endearing, funny, whatever the game player does.

Also, for the most part we are operating in a space similar to action movies. Even though the story genre may be distinctly different (fantasy, horror etc.) the fact remains that the essence of mainstream games is being involved in action, often fast paced. Thus, as with action movies, most of your character’s screen time is dedicated to shooting, running, driving and so on. Players become frustrated when you break the flow of this for a lead character monologue.

Now, as we move onto Next Gen consoles, the machines are more capable of streaming content as the game is running. Thus we are able to integrate story, the exposition and the dialogue throughout the game play. One character might be talking to his partner when in cover from a shower of bullets, apologising for sleeping with his ex-girlfriend. The delay in playing dialogue files is minimised so we can be more specific about when to play a wisecrack – there’s nothing more dumb than a character who tries to say a cool line when he’s under fire, or dead. All of this power can be harnessed to create more realistic worlds. Believable characters and situations in games are not just written they are played.

DoG: Given that game creation is such a huge collaborative effort, to what extent does game design influence the script, and vice versa?

Katie Ellwood: The closer the collaboration between design and narrative, the more seamless and organic the story. As I mentioned above, game design leads the way on the low level mechanics of a project. Story, however, can definitely play a major role in designing the overall plot of the game. I’m a firm believer that if the designers and writers work closely, the story and the game play will.

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DoG: Games frequently borrow from cinema – Kane and Lynch, for example, borrows heavily from Michael Mann’s work –in a medium that is still relatively young, do you think it’s difficult for games to step out of cinema’s shadow?

Katie Ellwood: Not really, I don’t think they were in the same space until relatively recently. A decade or two ago no one would have thought them similar mediums. Only since the advent of ‘cinematic’ titles have games stepped into the shadow of movies. I recall Getaway being considered a radical approach to gaming in that it aimed emulate the structure and visuals of movie production. Over the last 7 years, mainstream games at least, have pushed towards moving pictures.

For instance, top-down driving games became thrid person perspectives, more like movie car chases. Even classic racers such as Gran Turismo, which has always given the driver a choice of multiple views, is nudging even closer to emulating TV coverage of races.

Action adventure games definitely became move cinematic not only with cut sequences, but with in game cameras that hark to cinematic technique and follow cinematic trends, such as the new love affair with the hand held / steady cam approach. Games use up masses of processing power to emulate camera and post production techniques of film: lens flare, depth of field, film grain and different grading / colouring. Yes, cinema has been a massive influence in recent years.

However, with trends you always get rebellion and while there has bee a strain of games that aim to follow a filmic formula, there have also been distinctive titles that aim to celebrate the classic forms of gaming: contemporary platform games (such as Locco Rocco or Little Big Planet) and RPGs (such as Zelda and Super Mario Bros which never attempted to move into a filmic arena.)

DoG: How does writing for the new generation of consoles compare to the previous one? Does the newer technology provide more scope, or has learning what it can do been a hindrance?

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Katie Ellwood: Game writing and designing has always been about creating within boundaries. That’s part of the challenge and part of the fun… I have always thought constraints breed creativity where as freedom can lead to laziness, lack of focus and even blandness. Having said that the Next Gen of consoles have liberated us in other ways. As I mentioned previously, there are wider possibilities to use that processing power and tell a story during the game play. We can stream a wider variety of dialogue and animations to progress the story and characterisation rather than breaking the flow of the game play for a cutscene. If games are about immersion, then we are now about to deepen that immersion.

DoG: There’s been some talk lately of government underfunding in the UK games industry, and that as a result some of our best talent is heading abroad. Do you believe this to be true, and if so, what should be done? 

Katie Ellwood: I think the British games industry has considered itself to be a great creative hub over the past decades. We have produced some of the most interesting, best selling and trend setting games of the 90s and naughties. However, it may be that as the industry grows up and developers grow up, their priorities are changing. Development talent now have families to support, they have mortgages and cars and they want pay back for all those years of hard slog and late nights. The talent is going for the buck. There’s also a huge creative energy coming from across the pond where the salaries are larger and the rewards greater.

What should be done? Well,the big studios can take care of themselves . It’s the smaller niche studios over here that we need to take care of. That’s often where creativity lies. I think it’s important that someone, perhaps the government, steps in to stop the smaller companies from dying or getting sucked into the vast growing machine of the big studios.

Katie Ellwood will be on the video games panel, along with Emma Westecott, at the Birds Eye View film festival, which runs from the 6th to 14th March in London this year.

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