A Penny's Worth

Writer, Christy Marx

Christy Marx is a professional writer notable for her work in film, television, animation, comic books and video games (including Sierra's classic Robin Hood: Conquest of the Longbow).

» Quotes by Christy Marx

You've written that you "enjoy the challenge of the interactive media, the non-linear vs. linear demands of interactive writing". Can you talk briefly about the differences between the two?
With linear media, the writer is in full control of the story she's telling (setting aside what happens with things such as teleplays and screenplays where others then adapt and interpret the script). In that process, the writer makes millions of tiny decisions every step of the way to determine the one unique path she wants to take to tell that story.

With non-linear writing, the writer goes through essentially the same process...but has to take into account all of those possibilities as something the player might do. The writer is ceding that control to some degree or another to the player, while having to cover the variables that are created by the non-linear process. It's far more complicated and requires a more fluid way of thinking about how story can be embedded within non-linear structures.
Would you describe starting work on a new script as daunting like cleaning out the garage or relishing like digging into a six course meal?
It has better be something you want to dig into and accept as a challenge and be excited about, or why the hell are you doing it?
The shelf life of a television episode is much shorter than that of a feature film. Does your work for television shows sometimes feel disposable?
I would argue that TV series are on their way to being as immortal as movies, when you look at the way old series are released on DVDs, are found on YouTube and find new life all over the internet. The main obstacle is that it's easier to save and appreciate a movie that is 90 to 120 minutes of concentrated story vs. the many hours of distributed story across the life of a series.
The Internet era has multiplied the distribution channels exponentially for all kinds of entertainment media. What do you see as the benefits and drawbacks of this and how do you think this new reality should best be exploited?
It has tremendous benefits because it offers so many new opportunities to people who might never have been able to put their work in front of an international audience. The WGA fought hard to get large, commercial applications of internet work by studios and corporations covered by the WGA, as well they should, but there's also endless room for all sorts of new and experimental work on an independent basis outside of the traditional studio/corporate stranglehold. The downside is there's no editorial oversight on most of that work, so you have to sort through tons of dross to find the gems.
People recognize a good story when they see one, but have difficulty quantifying what makes it good. Can you describe the qualities of a good story?
This is my personal take on it and not everyone would agree, but I see it as interesting characters with interesting things to say and do, expressed with a clear beginning, middle and end that leads to a satisfying resolution. There are exceptions to this, of course, but a good story must give you someone or something to care about. And by a "satisfying resolution", I don't mean a happy ending. It can be sad or tragic or ironic, as long as it provides a resolution to all that has gone before in a way that satisfies the viewer or reader.
As a writer, when you watch films and television or play games, do you find yourself critiquing the script, or can Pandora’s box be closed temporarily?
I'm constantly evaluating and critiquing. It's very hard, nearly impossible, for me to turn off my internal editor! It's a moment of great delight to me to be taken by surprise in a film or TV show and believe me, it doesn't happen very often.
There is a contention that Gabriel Knight 3 killed the adventure game with its unsolvable "cat hair moustache" puzzle, or was at least emblematic of the trend towards unintuitive puzzles which ultimately lead to the demise of adventure games. Do you agree with this assessment, or were there other factors at play?
I haven't heard that about Gabriel Knight 3 and I'm not familiar enough with the game to say. There were many, many examples of non-intuitive puzzles in adventure games well before GK came along. It's one of the things I worked hard to avoid with my games.

I don't think that was a large factor, though. It seemed to me that a new paradigm in game play came along in the form of Seventh Guest and Myst with their extremely minimalistic approach to interface and game play, and this became the big, trendy thing to do. Everyone wanted to jump on the bandwagon and mimic that success, but almost no one managed to do so. Then the next big trendy thing hit in the form of Doom and Quake and the FPS genre and that took over the game scene for a while.

I've been hearing more and more talk about bringing back adventure games. I don't think it was the audience who lost interest in them, I think it was the studios, publishers and developers. I would love to work on another adventure game with today's technology!
In the interactive media field, how can writers successfully walk the fine line between puzzle difficulty and solvability?
It's more of the game designer's job than a writer's job. Any game designer worth her salt should know how to balance those game play issues. That includes writer/designers. Bear in mind, there's no one balance that is right for everyone. Any puzzle will always be too easy for some people and too hard for others. The trick is finding that large bell curve audience in the middle...at least if you're going for a large audience rather than a niche audience. That's game balancing. You must know the audience you're aiming for and adjust accordingly.
Entertainment media is heavily financed, has a long history to learn from and vast professional expertise and experience to draw on. How is it that flops with poorly written scripts end up being brought to market?
Are we talking movies, TV shows, games or what' There's no simple answer to that question. Bear in mind that all of these forms of entertainment are highly collaborative. A brilliant script can be utterly destroyed by producers, a lousy director, lousy acting, etc. But a poorly written script cannot conversely be saved by good directing or acting. Unfortunately, we often find people in positions of power who don't have the knowledge or experience to properly evaluate the quality of a script, or who think it's about how a big a star they can cast or how hot the CG is rather than the value of the story.

With games, there remains large resistance to using professional writers. There's still this sense that anyone can write and writing may end up in the hands of whoever has enough time on the development team to do it. The games business needs to learn that having a professional writer involved on a game project from the earliest possible moment is vital to the quality of the game.
Medical professionals are warned against becoming personally involved with their patients in order to preserve objectivity. Is it difficult to avoid sentimentality when you invest so heavily in a script, and how much leeway or discretion are you typically given?
Certainly it's important for a writer to be invested in her script. A good writer cares about her work and strives to make it the best work she can produce. However, a professional writer, especially in a collaborative field, knows that one must be merciless at the same time. I don't care how much you adore some line of dialog or some scene, if it doesn't ultimately work for the finished script, you cut it. When you're working for someone else and have a client to satisfy, you may have to be merciless in ways that make you unhappy, but that's part of the cross you bear when someone else is paying you to work for them. The trick is to find a way to fulfill what the client wants without compromising the quality of the work.

The amount of leeway will vary from project to project depending on circumstances and the nature of the client. Some clients will have a strong idea what they want and be more controlling. A well established licensed property will have more restrictions than a new or original IP. On Jem and the Holograms, for example, I had a huge amount of creative freedom and it was wonderful. I think it also showed in the quality of the show.
Writer's block is a common affliction of those working in creative fields. How do you overcome writer's block when you're drawing from a dry creative well?
It is a common affliction' Or is that myth based on a few larger-than-life examples' I've never had that problem. One thing about the type of work I do is that I have deadlines and I can't blow them off with an excuse like writer's block. For me, it's about the discipline of sitting down and producing the work that must be produced. If you're skilled, experienced, talented and have the right attitude, you'll produce good work. There's nothing quite like a deadline with a lot of money at stake to focus the mind. LOL!

That said, I've seen many discussions amongst novelists about what to do when they feel blocked during the course of a novel, which is more like a marathon than the shorter run of a TV or film script. The most common advice I've seen is to go off and do something completely different. Take a hike. See a movie. Work on an entirely different story. Break out of the cycle that has you blocked by putting your mind to work in a radically different way. What usually happens, and this is true a lot for me, is that a story continues to simmer along quietly on the back burner and suddenly, of its own accord, it bubbles to a boil and presents you with the solution you need to continue. I would say that "writer's block" is less about having the creativity than it is about hitting a problem whose solution is temporarily not in sight.
The minor toes are essential to the human body, but garner little attention or credit except when they're broken. Do you find writing to be a similarly thankless task overshadowed by more prominent positions?
It's true that writers in film, TV and games receive less respect than, say, a director on a film or the big star of a series or the designer of a game. But again, these are collaborative works. The role of a writer is important, but the writing alone is not the end result of the project. I prefer to see everyone who deserves credit receive it for being a part of that collaborative process. Certainly, what the writer contributes should be seen as vital and often isn't. It's hard to get past the old notion that anybody can write. Sure, anybody can write, but can they write a brilliant piece of professional work'

Overall in my career, I've received a gratifying amount of respect and admiration from my peers and from fans. I haven't felt neglected.
Entertainment media breathes dimension and life into a writer's script. How closely does your vision typically match the final product and can you describe the experience of watching a show or playing a game whose script you have written?
I came up with Marx's Three Miracles of Scriptwriting for movies, but it can be applied to TV and games.

* The First Miracle -- is that your script gets made at all.
* The Second Miracle -- is that the movie is actually good.
* The Third Miracle -- is that the movie comes out being anything at all like your script.

I've been lucky. With a few rare exceptions, I feel that most of my scripts were produced without extreme changes from what I wrote. There will always be some editing and changes. That's the reality of the work. It's a tremendous pleasure for me to see my scripts realized on the screen where it still feels essentially like my work. My adventure games for Sierra On-Line were 100% under my control, so I was especially happy with how those came out. I had virtually no editing at all on my Jem episodes, so I'm very happy about those. I've had further validation over the years that where my work was the most intact, I had the most positive feedback from fans.
Writers are generally more sensitive to avoid common grammar and punctuation mistakes which plague the average person. Are there any particular errors which grate your fine tuned literary mind?
People who don't know the difference between you're and your, or their, they're and there. I'm not a language purist, though. I see language as a living entity that grows, changes, mutates and evolves. We need to maintain a certain base of common understanding, but we can't fight the evolution either. It's going to happen, whether we fight it or not.
It's an interesting dynamic that writing can be both a passionate hobby and grinding vocation. What has been your favorite project to date and what would be your dream project in the future?
I'd say the most rewarding time I had was on Jem and the Holograms. I also loved working on my two adventure games. The key for me is to be the person with the creative vision and the control to carry out that vision. A future dream project would be one that gives me that creative control, preferably on an original work of my own, whether it's a TV series or video game.
C.S. Lewis wrote that "experience is a brutal teacher". What advice would you have given your younger self if presented the opportunity?
There were a couple of times I sabotaged my career in ways that I wish I had avoided. I would tell myself: a) don't pass up a potentially excellent opportunity just because it isn't perfectly, exactly what you feel like doing; and b) keep your peevy rants to yourself until the contract is signed.
Would you rather a time machine or a teleporting machine?
I'd go with teleporting which would be incredibly handy and practical especially for visiting distant family, whereas if I had a time machine I'm sure I would manage to somehow totally screw up history.

Conquests of the Longbow: The Legend of Robin Hood which was published during the heyday of adventure games in the 1990s, was the jewel in your two part series of adventure games for Sierra On-line.

How was your relationship with Sierra and your work on the Conquests series conceived?
It happened completely by accident. Sierra was located in the small, obscure mountain town of Oakhurst near Yosemite Park. It was a beautiful area, but they had to cast a wide net to find people who wanted to live there in order to work on the games. They hired a headhunter who heard about my (late) husband, the Australian artist Peter Ledger. They initially contacted Peter about doing art for their games. At the time, I was in the middle of a long, tough WGA strike and out of work, so I asked if they would be interested in a writer & artist team. When Ken and Roberta Williams saw my background, they were enthusiastic. Peter and I drove up there, spent a day interviewing with them, signed a deal on the spot and immediately moved up there, even though neither one of us knew anything at all about computer games.

Ken and Roberta were already interested in doing a King Arthur game. I wasn't willing to create an original property for them because they insisted on owning everything outright, so a King Arthur game was a perfect compromise.

I was planning to do a game based on Greek gods after I finished Conquests of Camelot, but there were about three Robin Hood movie projects in the works at that time, so Roberta really wanted a Robin Hood game. That's how I came to do that one.
Can you describe the experience of researching, writing and developing Conquests of the Longbow?
I'm big on research. I bought as many reference books as I could find on the subject and the actual outlaws of the time. I read the original ballads on which the entire Robin Hood legend was based. I contacted the Nottingham Museum library, bought maps and books, and got great inside info from them. I absorbed the historical info, came up with cool historical tidbits that other people didn't seem to know about (such as the ancient pub and the secret tunnels beneath Nottingham Castle). I thought about all the various takes that had been done on Robin Hood to that date and searched for a twist to make it stand out from those.

Nearly all other takes on the legend had King Richard coming back from the Crusades and pardoning the outlaw after a chance meeting in the forest. What fascinated me was the historical fact that King Richard had been held for ransom in Vienna on his way back from the Crusades. It struck me as a perfect backbone on which to build a game. Turning Maid Marian into a sort of secret Druidic priestess was pure invention on my part and gave me fun stuff to work with so that she wasn't just another hapless maiden.
Can you describe the reception and feedback to the game?
It was fantastic. I received hundreds of fan letters. The game won two awards. And even now, some fifteen years later, I continue to receive wonderful letters of appreciation for the game. People ended up pursuing specific careers from being influenced by the game.
Looking back on the game is there anything that you would have liked to change?
Nothing that the technology of the time would have allowed. I could think of a lot that would improve it based on what you can do with graphics and programming now. The area that fell the shortest, due to budgeting and time constraints, were the few battle scenes. I wanted actual battles to take place, but we had to cut back on how those worked.
What have players described as the most difficult puzzles in the game to solve? (eg. touching the gargoyles in the correct sequence to open the gate to leave the monastery in the Fens, opening the puzzle box with the fire ring)?
I don't recall specific feedback on the puzzles after all this time. For Camelot, people really loved the riddles, though.
There's a temptation for players to imitate rivers which take the path of least resistance by resorting to online walk throughs when confronted with even marginally difficult puzzles. In an Internet age which promises instant gratification and easy access to information, can this Achilles's heel be neutralized or does it sound the death knoll of adventure games which rely so heavily on tenacity and problem solving ability?
I think you make the game for the people who want to play along. If they get stuck or need help, I'd like that help to be available rather than have them give up. You can't force someone to be tenacious. My husband and I play World of Warcraft every weekend. We don't hesitate to use thottbot.com to find out where something is or get hints because frankly, we don't have spare time to waste. It doesn't keep us from enjoying the game.

There were designers at Sierra when I started there who would deliberately make some of their puzzles difficult or even nonsensical in order to sell more hint books (designers got a cut on the sales of hint books). I was appalled by that attitude. I wanted every piece of my game to fit within the logic of the story and be reasonable to figure out. It didn't have to be easy, but as a designer I felt I owed the player the courtesy of something that made sense.