From G.I. Joe to Zynga: the three-decade career of Christy Marx

From Jem and the Holograms to Zynga, Christy Marx's career spans all sorts of storytelling experiments.

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Christy Marx wrote stories that shaped a million childhoods, but you've probably never heard of her. Any child of the '80s or '90s has almost certainly heard of the cartoons she worked on, however: between Jem and the Holograms, G.I. Joe, Spider-man and His Amazing Friends, Mighty Max, ReBoot and a dozen others, Marx's writing helped glue a generation of kids to its television sets on Saturday mornings. Marx spent more than two decades writing in Hollywood, rubbing shoulders with geek icons like J. Michael Straczynski and Harlan Ellison.

Die-hard PC gamers may even remember her two Sierra point-and-click adventure games, Conquests of Camelot and Conquests of the Longbow, released in 1989 and 1992, respectively. Marx wrote, directed and designed them with no prior experience in the game industry. Twenty years later, she's still writing and designing. However, at Zynga she's working on social games — properties known for their simplistic, straightforward narratives.

Christy Marx's 30-year career has been anything but simplistic. It's the career of a writer who made her way from an insurance desk to Hollywood to Zynga by relentlessly finding new ways to tell stories — on the pages of comics, in "truly outrageous" cartoons based on toy lines and now in social games that are never meant to end.

Senior narrative designer

More than 2,000 people work in Zynga's 675,000-square-foot headquarters in San Francisco, a red brick building that once housed Sega of America. And many of them fit neatly within the young, 20-something tech crowd that migrated to San Francisco to make it big in mobile and social app development. Marx, though, has been writing for television, comics and games longer than some of her coworkers have been alive. She's a storyteller.

So what's she doing at Zynga?

More or less the same thing she's been doing in comics and animation and games for decades, it turns out: Building worlds in her head.

Marx is immediately friendly, with no hint of an ego. She's dressed in blue jeans and a button-down over a simple shirt. When she laughs, which she does often, it's sudden and raucous, the kind of laugh that fills a room and compels others to join in.

"Zynga only started hiring narrative designers a couple years ago," Marx says as she sits in the atrium, an open gathering space with skylights six floors above; it looks more like a hotel lobby than the center of a game studio. "The real challenge with the social game is just finding a way to get narrative in at all, actually. ... It's like trying to tell a story through a series of tweets."

Marx on the cover of Sierra Magazine

Social games are almost purely mechanical, but when Marx joined Zynga in late 2011, she started fleshing out backstories, doing writing that players wouldn't ever see, but that could potentially have a big impact on the quality of a game.

"I [worked] on Hidden Chronicles, a hidden-object game, and I got to develop — in conjunction with the creative director — the whole backstory, and came up with the characters, and the bios for the characters. I've been doing game bibles here," Marx says. "Nobody ever actually asked me to do it, but to me it's just a good thing to do, to write a story bible for your game that anybody can look at. It lays out the basic tone and feel of the game and who the characters are and what the setting is and all that basic information. That's the kind of thing I'm used to doing for animation and television, so I always do it for any game I'm working on here."

"When I first interviewed [here], a producer said to me, 'Why don't you have any other narrative designer credits on your resume?' I had to laugh."

Marx does design work as well — her official title at Zynga is senior narrative designer, which she finds amusing. "It's a fairly new term," she says. "A few people working within the games business as writers decided that there was a need for another category that we could identify ourselves [with]. People who could not only write, but do game design.

"When I first interviewed [here], a producer said to me, 'Why don't you have any other narrative designer credits on your resume?' I had to laugh — I said, 'Because it didn't exist!' The term didn't exist! You just called yourself whatever. Game writer."

More than any other job in writing, Marx loves world building — creating characters, deciding how their societies function, creating their politics and religions. Before building story bibles at Zynga, Marx worked on them for other games. For one fantasy RPG, she came on board when the game's setting, a chunk of land floating in space, was already established. But she had to figure out how the story, and its world, could function.

"They had created a look for all the characters, but they didn't know how to put it all together. The challenge for me was to figure out, 'OK, how and why does this kind of group of people exist on this floating chunk of planet? How can it exist? ... And then what are the rules of that?'"

Even within her world building, Marx finds ways to work in narrative. Why are these different races all floating on the same chunk of rock? Because they were created by an advanced civilization for different purposes. Why are the day/night cycles so short? Because the chunk would rotate faster than a larger planet.

Despite all this, Marx says she's "first and foremost a storyteller." That's been her thing since she was a kid. Since before she could read, even. She conjured up stories to entertain her brother, practicing rudimentary sequential storytelling with stick figures. Her three-decade career as a writer, which started in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, can be traced back to one defining childhood influence: comic books.


The comic book diet

Marx grew up in the small city of Danville, Illinois. in the 1950s and 1960s — a city small enough that she knew every spot in town to find comic books. She'd buy them off spinner racks at the grocery store and at Woolworth's, but she had to sneak them home. Her parents forbid her from bringing comic books home after psychiatrist Fredric Wertham wrote Seduction of the Innocent in 1954, which painted comic books as a corrupting influence that led to juvenile delinquency.

"I would literally smuggle them into the house," Marx remembers. "I would pry the screen off of my bedroom window and tuck them in through the window. I would do whatever I had to do."

The obsession started by chance — one day at school she found a Challengers of the Unknown comic in her desk and started reading it. One comic and she was hooked. She started drawing her own, even though her parents discouraged the hobby. Seduction of the Innocent inspired the formation of the Comics Code Authority, which censored comics in the name of "wholesome" entertainment.

The culture surrounding comics made Marx an outcast. "I was a complete freak, being a girl that obsessively collected comic books," she says. "I basically ended up living in my own fantasy world. There just wasn't really anybody like me around that I could connect to. I was so outside the norm."

Eventually, the same demonization of pop culture would affect her career as a television writer. But before that, Marx spent years in Los Angeles, after dropping out of college, in a career as diametrically opposed to children's entertainment as possible.

"I was in LA for probably seven or eight years before I really seriously applied myself in that direction and made the breakthrough. I was working as a special risk underwriter, which meant I spent all day long evaluating the medical records of people who were so sick they couldn't get ordinary insurance. Some of the sickest people you've ever seen in your life. And I finally decided I just couldn't stand doing this anymore. I just had to change my life."


Games on tape

In 1994, Marx and friend Katherine Lawrence collaborated on the story for an interactive playset called BattleVision. The toy came with a VHS tape of animated "battle scenarios" against the fortresses of T.E.R.R.O.R. A plastic satellite dish on the playset, when pointed at the TV, could read what was happening on screen, and kids racked up points by firing off plastic missiles and triggering the base's other guns. Tiger never produced another VHS tape to go along with the set, but the original two scenarios are easy to find on YouTube.

Another game Marx wrote, Tales of the Crystals, was based around a cassette tape. She describes it as live role-playing for girls. "I wrote all these interactive audio adventures [that] were trying to combine a bit of live action role-play with a bit of fantasy and a bit of educational activity. ... It was early on in the days of just starting to think about how you could do other forms of interactive media." The audio adventures are also preserved on YouTube.

So she did. Marx began taking night classes on screenplay writing at the Sherwood Oaks Experimental College, which brought in working writers and actors and producers to talk about the industry. She networked. She got a job in the production end of the TV business and worked up to script reading. Then came the big break: Meeting Roy Thomas, then-editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, and successfully pitching him a story for the comic Savage Sword of Conan.

"My dream was to break into writing for comics," Marx says. "I got to know this whole group of comic book people, and there was an organization that still exists actually, called the Comic Art Professional Society, in LA. I started attending those meetings and doing a lot more networking and that was how I got my break into writing for animation."

In 1979, Marx met an Australian artist named Peter Ledger at one of the Comic Art Professional Society meetings in LA. They sparked, but he was headed back to Australia. A couple of years passed; during that time, one of Marx's friends at CAPS told her that the DePatie-Freleng studio was looking for writers who could do Fantastic Four for an animated series.

"I just called and said, 'I've written a Fantastic Four story,' which I had, and it got me in the door," Marx says. "And I was just hired."

Then Ledger came back. "This time it really caught fire," she says. After a year together, they moved to Australia for three months so Ledger could get a divorce. And then they were married.

Marx with the Jem and the Holograms doll

When the couple returned to California, Marx's connections through CAPS and her experience with Marvel's cartoons landed her a job writing episodes of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero for Sunbow Productions and Hasbro. The Hasbro connection won her an even bigger role as the head writer and developer of Jem and the Holograms, an '80s cartoon (and toy line) about a famous rock group. Marx describes it as MTV meets a soap opera for kids.

She wrote 22 of Jem's 65 episodes and served as story editor for others. The series has since become a cult favorite — fans still hold an annual convention called JemCon.

"That was my first job doing full-on realized development, where I basically got to do everything," she says. "They had [the] basics in terms of the doll line ... but I had to come up with 'Who were these people?' Relationships, who was going to carry the bad guy thread — I came up with the Eric Raymond character, who I named after my brother, which he loved! The whole structure of [protagonist Jerrica] running a music company ... I came up with the foster girls, which I went a little bit overboard on because I came up with 12 foster girls. I created all of that because I knew we had to have enough material to fill those 65 half-hours."

Jem was, in Marx's words, one of the best experiences of her life.

While she was working on Jem, Marx met and befriended another animation writer named Katherine Lawrence. Like Marx, Lawrence loved fantasy and sci-fi and comics. They became close friends and collaborated on more than half dozen shows over the next decade. And that wasn't unusual for Marx. In fact, that kind of collaboration led to her first job in games.

After Jem finished its run in 1988, Marx started writing for the live-action series Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. Captain Power attempted to appeal to adults with a post-apocalyptic setting and season-long character arcs; for kids, there were toys that could interact with the television during CG action scenes. This was a new storytelling challenge — Marx had to figure out how to blend the animated sequences into the narrative of each week's episode.

"It felt very cutting edge," Marx says. Chalk that up to story editor J. Michael Straczynski, who would go on to create Babylon 5. "I had written a five-part miniseries for the second season. And [then] this total asshole decided to go on one of these crusades and turn our show into what Wertham tried to turn comics into in the '50s. He started blaming the show for all kinds of violence and having horrible negative effects on kids because they were shooting guns at the screen ... and he basically destroyed the toy line. Mattel just backed out."

It was a disappointing loss, but if it wasn't for Captain Power's cancellation, Marx may not have two decades of game design history under her belt today.

Point and click

After Captain Power's cancellation, things got worse. The 1988 writers strike, the longest in Hollywood history, left Marx without work for months. Money was tight. Then, out of the blue, a headhunter called her husband, Ledger, about an art job at Sierra On-Line. The company was based several hours north of Los Angeles in Oakhurst, Calif. and Marx, the consummate networker, asked if they were looking for any writers. Sierra said it was. The couple was hired as a writer/designer team, not unheard of for a company built on the work of Roberta and Ken Williams. They set about making their first game, called Conquests of Camelot: The Search for the Grail.

For Ledger, the limitations of 1988 computer graphics — 320x200 resolution, 16 colors — proved frustrating. But for Marx, it was just another medium to adapt to. Most of Sierra On-Line's "game designers" had no real design training. Leisure Suit Larry's writer was a music teacher who learned how to program in his spare time. Police Quest designer Jim Walls was a retired policeman who barely knew how to use a computer.

Marx compares late '80s Sierra to the Wild West. "Basically, they would hire anybody to design a game, because there was no such thing as an established designer ... I went around, talked to the programmers, and said, 'Tell me what you do. Tell me how this works. Tell me what I can do and can't do.' And then I sat down with all the artists and animators and did the same thing. I basically went around and taught myself what this was about, then put it all together into what would now be called a game design document, just put it all together, and they didn't know what hit them."

Marx sees some of that same Wild West pioneering spirit at Zynga, too. Sierra's designers were discovering what worked and what didn't in computer games in the 1980s, and social games are likewise in their own infancy.

"I think there's still so much to be learned about [social games]," she says. "Zynga's right in there exploring and inventing ... and we have more and more designers now. I think there's a lot more of that dedication towards 'How can we innovate?' ... There's a lot of that here, which I really like."

Conquests of Camelot and Conquests of the Longbow, which Marx wrote and designed, adapted Arthurian legends and classic Robin Hood stories into point-and-click adventures. The games aren't as well-remembered as other Sierra properties, like King's Quest or Quest for Glory, but Marx's penchant for world building gives the classic folklore a unique richness. The games also show off her passion for fantasy and strong female characters.

"I went back to the original source material and tried to build something that felt true to that material, but at the same time, [built] something a little bit new on top of it. So I tried to obey the rules about who and what Robin Hood was, and what he represented. But at the same time, I [threw] a little bit of Druid magic in. ... [Writing Conquests of Camelot], I wove some of the goddess mythology into it. When I did Longbow, I did a similar thing with Maid Marion. I gave her a more mystic background."

Conquest of Camelot

Hard times

After finishing her second game at Sierra, Marx returned to animation to write for the cartoon adaptation of Bucky O'Hare, a sci-fi comic starring a proto-Jazz Jackrabbit, and Mighty Max, an adventure series starring a kid with a magic cap. In 1992 and 1993, she headed up development for the 65-episode Conan: The Adventurer.

She and her husband continued to live in Oakhurst after leaving Sierra. And then, on the night of November 18, 1994, Ledger was driving home when his car was broadsided by a semitrailer. He died on impact.

"'94 was real tough," Marx says simply. A sadness creeps into her voice as she talks about Ledger. Nearly 20 years have passed since his death. Ledger's art lives on in many places, including murals around California and in the pages of comics, like a coffee table collection of classic Carl Barks works called Uncle Scrooge McDuck: His Life and Times. Ledger airbrushed and hand painted Barks' artwork, and the out-of-print book now sells for upwards of $400 online. The work Marx and Ledger shared together endures in Conquests of Camelot and a graphic novel they collaborated on called The Sisterhood of Steel.

She's since remarried to writer Randy Littlejohn, who she met at Sierra On-Line, of all places, when she returned there for another job in the late '90s. Love blossomed while the pair were working on a Babylon 5 game. Unfortunately, the game was canceled in 1999 during major restructuring at Sierra. It wasn't the last game project Marx would lose to a cancellation.

"It's heart-wrenching when you put a couple years of your life into something and you're completely devoted to it and it just goes away."

She worked with game icon John Romero at Slipgate Ironworks on an MMO project for more than two years. Like the MMO/TV show Defiance, Slipgate's MMO was envisioned as a transmedia property that could include games, television, comics. That project, too, was canceled amidst restructuring.

"It's heart-wrenching when you put a couple years of your life into something and you're completely devoted to it and it just goes away," she says."You know you had something that was great and nobody will ever get to see it. It drives you crazy as a creative person."

In 2004, a decade after Ledger's death, tragedy came again for Marx. Her best friend and frequent writing partner Katherine Lawrence committed suicide. Marx still holds onto guilt over it.

"It was really devastating that she did it. ... She was a very talented person, but obviously a deeply troubled person. I just wish I could have caught onto what was happening earlier, but at the time I was living in Frazier Park, which is north of LA, and she was living in Tucson, so unfortunately I didn't catch the little warning signs that I should have caught. Had I been able to be a little closer, I think I would've seen it."

Marx takes some solace in serving as executor of Lawrence's writing estate, and keeps her website online as a memorial. It lists games and shows she'd worked on, like a WGA-nominated episode of sci-fi series Hypernauts and the educational Super Nintendo game Mario Is Missing! Ledger's site lives on as well.

In memoriam, Marx has written "The Artist is gone, but the Art lives on" and "TV writer, SF writer, game writer, my best friend, gone too soon."

Christy Marx today

Despite losing loved ones and watching Sierra On-Line and Slipgate Ironworks crumble, Marx is still in love with writing. She's always busy. At Zynga, she's working on unannounced projects and has big ideas for how to work more story into social games.

"Trying to do a long linear narrative with a beginning, middle and end doesn't work for [social] games," she says. "I think you could take an approach where you have overlapping episodic material so that you have a general larger structure. And within that you set overlapping stories so that you keep pulling them, so even when they finish one story they have the beginning of another story overlapping it. ... Or you need something that's modular. Maybe there's a set of different things they can choose to do at their own pace. Maybe somehow they can overall add up to a larger story, but [players] can still tackle satisfying pieces of them."

Trying to adapt stories into a difficult medium seems like it would be frustrating. Limiting. But if that was how Marx viewed her career, she never would have worked so successfully in so many mediums.

"No matter what you're working in there's always constraints of one form or another," she says. "It's not so much that there are constraints. It's how creative you can be be within those constraints. That's one of the things I love the most about taking on any new form of media, and one of the things I loved about diversifying my career. I love that challenge."

Marx in 2013

The little time she doesn't spend at Zynga goes to writing comics. For DC's New 52 initiative, Marx has been writing a rebooted Sword of Sorcery, which DC last published in the early 1970s. Its final issue runs in May 2013. She's also writing DC's Birds of Prey series, which stars a team of female superheroes like Batgirl and Poison Ivy. Comics, at least, give her an opportunity to write strong female characters — and she no longer has to sneak her comics in through the bedroom window.

And on Friday nights, with a week of narrative design behind her and a weekend of comic plotting ahead, Christy Marx takes a brief break from writing to enjoy a video game for a few precious hours.

She and her husband, Littlejohn, play World of Warcraft together. They've been questing as the same avatars for six years.

You can bet she's got some stories about them. Babykayak

Editing: Matt Leone, Charlie Hall
Image Credits: Christy Marx, Wesley Fenlon, Sunbow Productions, Sierra On-Line, Milton Bradley
Design/ Layout: Matthew Sullivan, Warren Schultheis