Alice: Ubisoft's plan to change storytelling in video games
A look inside Ubisoft's secret writer's room.
Production talent — the sort you'd find in a Hollywood film studio — has accumulated over the past couple of years in the top corner of a cold office building in Montreal. Sound engineers, location scouts, writers and tinkerers have remodeled the window-lit rectangle of desks and rooms into a one-stop shop for storytelling. But they're not making movies or television; they're making video games.
For the next generation of video games, Ubisoft, the publisher responsible for franchises like Assassin's Creed, Splinter Cell and Far Cry, wants to change the way we experience story in games. It believes this small chunk of space, dubbed Alice, will be the catalyst.
The space is as unusual as it is ambitious.
On one side of the rectangle is a fully-operable motion capture room. Though diminutive compared to the warehouses used in Los Angeles, the room is good enough to capture a one-man performance. The room is currently a bit messy because, we're told, the research and development team is working on some technology that's "hush hush." On the opposite side of Alice is a handful of rooms for sound. One room — a plastic capsule that appears to have been shipped in one piece from Mars — is a sound proof chamber for testing new sounds. Another, which looks like a very small lecture space, is equipped for Hollywood-style final mixing.
And in the middle, flanked by some other experienced writers and producers, is Corey May. Until recently, May penned the story of the million-dollar action game series Assassin's Creed. He's largely responsible for the the time-hopping, apocalyptic narrative that, in less than a decade, has spread its intrigue like thick peanut butter across not just games but books, comics, short videos and soon, a feature film. In the past few months, however, he's departed from one of the most coveted writing jobs in the game industry to spearhead the writing department inside Alice.
"My new job title, right? I'm not pretending I'm doing my old job title anymore, am I?" May looks right over at a publicist, who apparently nods, because the floppy-haired, spectacled and perpetually hoodied 30-something dives right in. "My name is Corey May and I'm the director of screenwriters at Alice."
How to abandon business without really trying
May wasn't supposed to end up here, in an old factory dedicated to video games and ensconced in snow.
He was raised near Hollywood, but not "in it." His father was a doctor and his mother handled medical billing for the practice. May's interest in entertainment came from a voracious appetite for films, comics, games and anime. His family, however, was practical.
"[My family] had a big plan for me," says May. "There's pictures of me as a 2-year-old wearing a Harvard sweatshirt sitting in the statue of John Harvard's lap. And they were like, you're going here and you're going to become a doctor and you're going to take over your Dad's practice." May initially attended Harvard with pre-med in mind, but after a botched Chem 5 class the shaggy Californian accepted that medicine wasn't in his future. So he took up the next most parentally approved degree: economics.
"I got my BA in it," says May. "Or AB, as they call it at Harvard. 'Ass Backwards,' but it's still a BA. I took a shit ton of English courses. Lot of lit courses, creative writing courses. I took a class on Eastern European science fiction, read some incredible books — that was probably one of my favorite classes. But still intended to be an investment banker or a trader."
In the summers he took jobs at a variety of banks in New York City. Suits didn't suit him. One job interview ended the moment he walked in and revealed his confidently blue hair. For the next interview, he re-dyed his hair a natural and more professional brown, but the employer took issue with his earrings. Finally, a job stuck and he stared at Bloomberg screens all day, copy editing reports and journal articles. He became deeply cynical about what he now refers to as "a big sham," the corporate trading and dealmaking that led to the financial collapse.
When college came to an end, May vowed to avoid New York. And so, on a lark, he applied to the Peter Stark Producing program at USC. Movies and business: the thing he loved and the thing he was trained to do. Why not? At USC, May met his business partner, Dooma Wendschuh, and after graduation they made their production company official. They printed business cards and letterhead. Thanks to some contacts made during a Disney internship, the duo sold its first project to Disney: a re-envisioned live-action The Wind and the Willows. Lots of writers and directors including Guillermo del Toro have been attached.
Off the success of the first project, the duo signed with a film agency. The agency received plenty of requests for writing on video games. This was the early 2000s when, for most professional screenwriters, the idea of writing games was akin to being sentenced to a layer of hell. Having loved the medium since childhood, May decided they should at least take the meetings. And that is how Corey May came into contact with Ubisoft.
"I was still wearing fat pants," May tells me, referring to the grotesquely outdated skater pants he wore when introduced to the Ubisoft executives in a Los Angeles bar. "I looked like a dying raver." May and his partner Wendschuh pitched the publisher an animated television show based on Rayman, the studio's appendage-less platformer character. The execs said thanks but no thanks. But they liked May, and invited him to visit Montreal. Yannis Mallat, now the CEO of Ubisoft Montreal, spent several days with the young producer in the city. At the time Ubisoft was on a creative hot streak, having produced critical hits like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Beyond Good & Evil.
Mallat told May the publisher needed someone to help with the next Prince of Persia. "It was a chance to build worlds," says May. "It felt very cutting-edge and at the forefront."
For the next two years May lived in a downtown Montreal hotel. "The room service and the housekeeping every day were fantastic," says May, "but not being able to open the windows killed me. [...] I was keeping a lot of people at a distance. I'd go home from work on a Friday and stay in the hotel all weekend just playing video games."
It was contract work. May would rotate between Montreal and Los Angeles. Away from Montreal he'd grow nervous about the work happening without him. Away from Los Angeles he'd worry home was no longer home. "Eventually," May says, "I woke up one morning and was like, I can keep pretending that I'm not staying here or I could embrace it and actually find a place to live." He bought a house in the "McGill Ghetto" (not-so-lovingly named after the local university) and made friends who convinced him, finally, to hang up the fat pants for good. They've been exchanged for a new uniform: jeans and a hoodie. "I like to think I was doing it before Zuckerberg," says May.
A new project called Assassin's Creed helped May's transition, giving him something to focus his time on. That first Assassin's Creed took four years. "It was this big crazy weird super ambitious monstrosity," says May. "How are we going to go from what's in the creative director's head to what's on a disc? [...] As time went on I was more and more involved with the franchise, charting some of the aspects of its future. Not just writing on the games but overseeing the narrative elements of the brand as a whole."
By 2012, he'd been in continuous production for nearly nine years, never taking a break between projects. His experience sounds creative and rewarding, but also long and exhausting — like he put his head down to write and looked up to find a decade had passed.
"[Alice] was an opportunity to step away from the day-to-day writing," says May, "and get a broader view of narrative inside the studio and work ideally to address and provide a support system for concerns and issues I'd experienced while in production. So it's just taking the stuff I learned and experienced and trying to find a place I can share some of those lessons with the other writers at the studio. And perhaps most importantly function as an advocate for them. Because I oftentimes felt there was nowhere for me to turn during production, that there was no place I could go for help or guidance or if I wanted someone to take a look at my stuff or if I wanted feedback or advice. And so it's in some ways me trying to fill a need for something I wished I'd had."
Down the rabbit hole
Alice was originally formed in 2011 by Yves Jacquier, Ubisoft's director of production services.
"[We wanted] to ensure the best possible coproduction of narrative elements (whether through cinematics or gameplay)," writes Jacquier in an email for this story. "Narrative elements are very emotional and are [only] as good as their weakest link, whether that's technological processes or ensuring [we have] the right talent for the right need."
To put this in simple and clear terms: Alice is the name of the group of employees who work on the top floor of Ubisoft Montreal to improve the story of every Ubisoft game. It — read: Alice — is a resource composed of talent scouts, motion capture masters, research and development engineers, sound mixers and narrative guides.
Traditionally, these sorts of people would be contracted and re-contracted for each game. But many are now full-time employees, free to learn from each experience and develop trust in one another and the various developers at Ubisoft. As various members of Alice point out, their group is a long-term investment on the part of Ubisoft.
That is the purpose of Alice in its most basic sense. To foster a stable, experienced narrative team that can serve the many developers within Ubisoft.
There are of course other boons. The physical space itself also allows Ubisoft to save time and money by keeping the resources within arm's reach. "It's a lot easier for you to be present during these phases of production," May says. Previously team members would get on a plane to Los Angeles to record mo-cap for upwards of a month. The more work can be done on the same floor, the faster and easier the storytellers will be able to create, edit and improve their work.
All of these resources, we are told, are optional, which reinforces the idea that Alice is a tool. Every team in Ubisoft has many, if not all, of these resources separately. Alice is backup, a training ground, an extra pair of eyes and an advocate for story. "The idea," May says, "is that we're here if you need us or want us. We don't try to control or own anything. I'm here to help them. I'm not here to boss them around." Many developers under Ubisoft, so far, have taken Alice up on its offer. Team members point to actor Michael Mando, who played Vaas in Far Cry 3, as an example of Alice's handiwork. The technical team helped capture Mando's performance, while the talent team helped identify his character.
The first game to see significant support from Alice, however, is Watch Dogs, the upcoming open-world crime game that generated loads of excitement at last year's Electronic Entertainment Expo. During our visit to Alice, the writers and sound designers rush to conceal their Watch Dogs scripts and working videos from view. The second we leave their general vicinity, they frantically get back to work.
Breaking the story
For May, one of the big goals of Alice is to dissolve the cutscene/gameplay/cutscene/gameplay structure that so many video games rely on. "Obviously we haven't hit it yet," says May, acknowledging the Assassin's Creed series is as guilty as its contemporaries. "But the end goal is to break that mold." He hopes his work helps games to become seamless experiences in which game and story are one and the same.
To accomplish that, May says an important part of his job will be advocating for story at Ubisoft. Even for a franchise like Assassin's Creed, he points out that storytelling needs its cheerleaders.
"I like to think as time goes on," says May, "you can prove it's a valuable component, or a defining element of a franchise, that people understand the need for it. But I would say those arguments still continue; even though there have been five [Assassin's Creed games], there's still a push-pull. There are still people out there, even on the team, who would love to see something entirely systemic and that has no narrative at all. And I totally understand that, but at the same time you know what you're getting into when you sign up to make one of these games, so I'm sometimes confused when those arguments continue to happen. I'd like to think after a certain amount of time the defining elements of a franchise have been defined.
"It's a process," he continues. "And there's lots of back-and-forth and it's always useful because these opinions are valid. And we look for ways ideally to appeal to everyone's desires, whether it's building out more of the systemic stuff in the open world so that people who're interested in that have the ability to do that, or looking for ways to make narrative more inoffensive for people who don't want to participate in it. Trying to find ways to cater to different tastes is something that I'll always be interested in because for me there's no right way to approach or appreciate a game. So the more options that we can give players, the better. Provided that we don't lose sight of what defines a franchise. That's the balancing act." When he's not advocating, May spends most of his time reading scripts or playing builds of games, then providing feedback on the narrative. He's like a book editor, providing notes and feedback and maintaining a top-level consistency.
"Sometimes it can be as simple as saying, 'Hey, by the way, the game that he's working on is covering a lot of the same themes as your game. So you guys may actually want to sit down together and see if there's a way to a) differentiate, or b) find a way to work together if, for example, it's within the same universe. Can you, if you're looking at the same theme, consider coming at it from two different perspectives, so that by playing both games you get to sort of tackle something from different points of view?'"
Writing a game, he notes, is a lonely job. Scripts can be 20, 30, 40 hours long. Plus, as game contents are added or revised, story has to change with it. This is the first time Ubisoft has someone internally that can serve as champion, shepherd, sensei and open ear.
Home is where the cable box is
May still owns a place in Los Angeles and even pays a cable subscription, but stays with his sister to see his new niece. He visits regularly, but is gradually reducing the number of visits. "Some days I will call [Montreal] home and catch myself," says May. "Other days I will call L.A. home. I'm up here and my friends are here. I have no intention of leaving here. I'll stay as long as they'll have me."
May still works with his business partner Dooma Wendschuh. The Wind in the Willows was passed to Fox before being put to rest. The pair has been doing commercial work recently and has a small operation in L.A. with a few other employees. The company in L.A., May says firmly, doesn't take him away from his job in Montreal. If anything, it supports May. Wendschuh is the first person to take a pass on his work.
Sitting next to May is Khris Brown, the director of the Narrative Talent Group at Alice. She is a walking, talking ball of positive energy, dispensing jokes, affirmations and stickers (actual stickers) in equal measure.
Her desk is covered in Filmmaking 101 books. Notes on directing, on writing. She likes structure and screenwriting guru Robert McKee. She loves to help people. She shows off a small book of stickers showing cute symbols and dinosaurs. Stickers, we're informed, are used to brighten the days of those around her. Originally, they subdued loud children on her many work-related flights, but she's found they help with co-workers, too.
The two are, at first blush, an odd couple, but she says they have more in common than you'd think. "He's the nicest person in the world," says Brown. "I think he cultivates grumpiness — aw no, now I'm gonna hear it. You know, sometimes people cultivate a persona, but no, I adore him. He doesn't type in all caps to me."
She praises his script review notes and constructive criticism like a doting mother might. "I think every writer has come up here at some point." She excitedly explains their mandate to build a writer's group, a room in Alice for writers to talk about any sort of story idea. "When you talk about the studio system, you imagine like Hemingway and Fitzgerald; there's this notion of this romance, of this room of luminous brilliance, and I think that's the thing Corey's going to drive."
For now, things are quite modest. May prints out each script and goes over it page by page with pen. He reads through it multiple times, writing meticulous notes. He gives his writers a preemptive heads-up that he's read their pieces. Then he invites them to discuss the notes in person. Afterwards May finally sends the notes over email. It's a slow but thorough process.
After two years of nonstop writing on Assassin's Creed 3, it's a markedly slower pace. "I like it. I'm so happy about it. It feels like doing something in the same world, but from a slightly different perspective. For me, it's been a very easy transition. Hasn't been long enough for me to miss [writing scripts.] Right now, I don't miss it."
"The creative process, if it's done right, is terrifying," Brown says. "If you're making something that's safe, if you're making something that's just some cobbled-together pastiche, of like, 'Oh, I saw Scarface and then I saw Lethal Weapon and then I saw this and I want to make some bad-ass guy,' then you end up with derivative crap that gets shoved to market; it's a disappointment to everybody. Nobody wants that. You want to be in a place where you're terrified and your heart is on the page. In order to do that — in order to do that safely — you need to know that you're going to have people who not only are going to support you; they're going to catch you; they're going to have faith in you. If you talk about what is the heart of Alice, that's what it is. We want to give you a place where you can be absolutely terrified and know that you're going to be OK."
May is typing away at his computer. He's smiling.
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