HOW DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS?
Featuring answers from Tameem Antoniades (Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice), Emily Short (Galatea), Gareth Damian Martin (In Other Waters), Kaitlin Tremblay (A Mortician's Tale, Ubisoft), and myself.
ORIGINALLY FEATURED ON GREGBUCHANAN.CO.UK/NEWSLETTER
Stories don't just come from nothing. Regardless of however conscious or unconscious we are of our influences, we are inspired by something - a concept, an idea, a dream - whether that something emerges from our own minds or the minds of those we work with. We then have to choose what project to work on, how to develop it, how to turn it into something real.
The following answers represent several approaches to coming up with ideas and shaping them into something workable.
Tameem Antoniades (Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice)
How do you come up with ideas? It’s a common question for sure. The “Eureka!” notion that ideas appear out of thin air hasn’t ever happened to me.
I see myself as someone who aggregates disparate ideas into a cohesive whole and that’s probably true of everyone. Usually I start with a core feeling that has impacted me greatly, perhaps from film, a song, a play, news or lived experience. It doesn’t matter where it comes from but if it is something that takes hold and doesn’t go away, then it is a sure sign that this core feeling is important.
From there, over a period of months, I start throwing concepts and ideas at that core to see if it enhances it and makes it feel more tangible. These concepts could be visual ideas like art work, scenes from a film, storylines, characters from other mediums, or thematic concepts. Mostly this occurs in my head before I put anything down on paper. Weak ideas tend to just fade away whereas stronger ones stick and I keep building from there. I’d say 95% of ideas don’t stick and sometimes the core idea just doesn’t grow and disappears.
But if the core idea survives, perhaps even a year or more later, I might have enough to create a concept for a game but even then, the process doesn’t end there. It keeps snowballing throughout development especially as the team start adding their own ideas to the core concept and it becomes my job to filter, reject or add to these ideas to protect and enhance the core concept.
We think of creativity as a romantic artistic magical process beyond logical comprehension. I see it very much as a methodical and logical process of aggregation, filtering and connectivity with the goal of creating an original interpretation or concept that gives new insight. To me at least, that is the creative process.
Emily Short (Galatea)
Where do you get ideas? Well. There are several questions here.
Maybe the question is "how do you come up with some premise to get a story rolling? How do you get a push for a game that you might like to write?" Here, I think, the answer is most often "by playing other games or reading other stories... and wishing they were something they're not." That sounds mean-spirited, but it doesn't even mean I didn't like the original material. Good work often spurs me with ideas for a somewhat-related project, but tackling some other topic close to my heart, or with a different gameplay mechanic, or a different approach to narrative causality.
But that's not the same thing at all as "how do you start on a commercial project?"! Commercial projects seldom start with a blank slate. Maybe I'm writing narrative to accompany particular gameplay; maybe I've been asked to fit a format, or a genre, or even teach a lesson, if it's an educational game.
In that case, the constraints are the groundwork for everything else. If the gameplay is already established, I ask things like: what kind of character would be doing these actions? What kind of world would they live in? Who would care about the outcome of this kind of gameplay, and why? ("This whole scenario has been set up to test the protagonist" is a weak answer, by the way — I dislike that trope almost as much as I dislike amnesia.)
If genre is already established, I look at the norms of that genre — what is the player going to expect to do, and what do they expect to accomplish? — and then think about where I can tweak those expectations... or else deliver on them even more strongly than expected.
Wherever I start from, I also know that the process of actually writing the game is going to transform the concept, often completely beyond recognition.
Gareth Damian Martin (In Other Waters) -
You would be surprised how many of my ideas arrive in my dreams. This isn't because they are flashes of inspiration or transmitted from a higher power, it's because they are organisms that, when steadily fed, have a tendency to grow in dark places.
There are definitely stages to this process, ones I've slowly learnt how to encourage, if not entirely control. I tend to believe ideas are pretty common, we have them all the time, the trick for me is isolating the good ones. I tend to read around the ideas I like, do little bits of research, get a few books from the library, idly doodle sketches of them in quiet moments. Eventually they'll take up root, and start occurring to me at random times without me trying. Things in my life will remind me of them. Once an idea reaches this point I usually make some notes on it and file them away, then I slowly move on. If its a good idea it will come back, make itself apparent. Each time it does I do a little more reading, a few more doodles, edit my notes, then leave it to fade again. Eventually these ideas start turning up in my dreams, they start combining, getting confused, dying off. And then one day they make themselves suddenly, unavoidably present and compel me to make them. And if I have time I do.
I like the fluidity of this process, it points to a truth for me - you can't force ideas, but you can foster them. It also means I never worry about forgetting a good idea, in my experience they always come back. In Other Waters, for example, may be an idea I trace back to time spent swimming in the sea in Northern Greece, but just the other day I found a drawing of a futuristic diving "loom" I had done months before. And once I started thinking I was suddenly reminded of a story I wrote as a child about a biologist studying whale sharks who was led to the ruins of an ancient civilisation by tracking them deep under the sea. Ideas come back, even if we don't recognise them, even if they've changed. After all, they come from us, and we don't stay the same, so why should they?
Kaitlin Tremblay (Ubisoft, A Mortician's Tale)
For writing games, whether it’s AAA or indie, there are always two main elements I try to pin down while brainstorming ideas: what do I want the player to do and what do I want the player to feel?
I write games because I’m interested in how interactions can inform or elicit emotions, and all of my ideas grow out of this intersection. I don’t want to just tell cool stories or create compelling characters (although I do want to do that); I want to create a story, no matter how big or small, that only can be told in a video game.
For my horror game Say When, for example, I wanted to have the player attempt to make someone feel better by offering advice. In order to provide a space for players to realise that giving advice to people with mental illness involves needing to actually know and understand the person as a person, the advice the player offers these people would often backfire in unpredictable ways. I wanted them to feel frustrated and uncomfortable when they failed so they can begin to understand this concept. It’s about thinking about a core action and how an emotional response naturally grows out of this action. Then, what’s a story that can be believably told about this action/emotional state? Coming up with ideas becomes more productive when I set these parameters for myself of player action and desired emotional response.
This method scales up to my work at Ubisoft, as well. I want the player to do something and I want them to feel a certain way when doing it. So when I try to come up with a story to tell, I think about how interactions mix together to create the chemistry that I want. It’s always a process. The first idea is rarely ever the one that sticks. It’s about finding the right combination of character motivation and world consequence that doesn’t create a disconnect with what action the player is going to be performing.
Greg Buchanan (NMS: Atlas Rises & Others)
I'd draw a clear distinction between material I write for the universes of others, and those I write for my own personal stories.
Some of those universes I'm hired to work on pre-date my own involvement - and although the majority of my work that's out there represents my own creative vision and I've generally been allowed a great deal of freedom on work-for-hire projects, there's a certain level of care and reverence required to be able to do a good job in such arrangements. When coming up with your ideas, you have to treat the IP of others as a toybox you've temporarily been allowed to play with, that you must not smash or deface, and with which you should have as much fun as possible for those few hours you've been given it.
If others have worked on a franchise before my time, I will play through and make thorough notes on those elements of the lore that interest me or which seem to have unanswered questions; I will also record the way I felt throughout playing the game, even those non-narrative components, to ensure I know the kind of feeling I'm aiming to create in my own writing. These combine in a kind of soup from which, at some point or another, I'll suddenly throw the controller down and start writing in my notepad.
If I'm writing for my own original work, idea generation becomes far more difficult - I'm no longer working with some kind of plan or order created by someone else. Some game studios have no idea what they want to do with the story when they start, but at least they know what the actual gameplay is. Here, with original solo-material, I'm trapped in a void of second-guessing myself and throwing ideas at the wall. And when you face doubt as a writer, you have to make a decision: am I just feeling that same natural frailty every creator experiences every so often, or am I experiencing a sign that I should do better, that I should feel excited about what I do?
Whether for better or worse, this has made my own solo work quite experimental, strange, and full of complexity as time has gone on - but hopefully all the more interesting, when people finally see it. In 2016 I released two political games, Paper Brexit and Paper Drumpf. Sometime later this year, I'll be able to reveal the radically-evolved follow-up to these titles: a strange game about love, power, and the Mandela effect, inspired by the Mass Effect series and featuring a journey of a hundred years.
"Tell me. Who wouldn't want to be a King?"
SUBSCRIBE FOR MORE INTERVIEWS AT GREGBUCHANAN.CO.UK/NEWSLETTER
NEXT NEWSLETTER: Newsletter on writing supernatural games out May 30th! Ft. interviews with @HazelMonforton (Dishonored: Death of the Outsider), @rebeccahaighdev (Du Lac and Fey), @MadQuills (Roki, Duelyst), and @CashDeCuir (Fallen London, Sunless Sea).