Sunday, 8 May 2016

Conquests of Pop Culture: An Interview with Christy Marx

Written by Alex

I recently had the pleasure of playing through Sierra’s excellent Conquests of the Longbow: The Legend of Robin Hood, and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it, Much the Miller’s Son notwithstanding. The game’s lead designer was one Christy Marx, whom you may have heard of: among other things, she was the mind responsible for Longbow’s spiritual predecessor, Conquests of Camelot.



In addition to designing two great late-80s/early-90s adventure games for Sierra, Ms. Marx is a talented and imaginative writer who has had an interesting and varied career in the creative arts. In fact, she’s responsible for a few things that I know you’ve heard of. What’s more, she’s a really nice woman who has been more than gracious with her time, responding to an out-of-the-blue email request for an interview from some weird lawyer/retrogaming chrono-blogger for the edification of The Adventure Gamer community. Over the last few weeks, I have taken questions from you, the readers, and emailed them to Christy, who found time in her busy schedule to answer them all. Enjoy!

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AA: Thanks again for taking the time to answer these. I think it might be best to start with something of your background before getting into the specifics of Conquests of the Longbow and your other game design projects, as your resume makes a lot of us who are into writing and pop culture jealous. How did you get started in writing, and given your background, how did you wind up at Sierra designing adventure games?

CM: I ended up writing by being a failed artist. At heart, I was a storyteller. I grew up with a deep love of comic books and thought I needed to draw them as well as write them. When I realized I wasn’t going to make it as an artist, I turned my focus to writing. I sold a Conan story to Roy Thomas when he was writing and editing the Conan and Red Sonja books for Marvel. I sold other comics stories to him, which gave me a break into writing for animation. Preparation, timing, and networking were the key elements to breaking into comics and animation.



I ended up at Sierra when a headhunter called to find out whether my husband at the time, Australian artist Peter Ledger, would be interested in doing art for computer games. Never one to let an opportunity slip by, I asked whether they were looking for writers as well. Peter and I drove up to Oakhurst, sat down in a room with Ken and Roberta to become acquainted, and by the time we walked out of the room we had a deal to move to Oakhurst and make them a King Arthur game.

AA: My parents never believed me that comic books were good for your career--now I have proof that they are. Turning to the Conquest games, there are several of literary and film versions of both the Round Table and Robin Hood stories. Did you have any particular versions that you used as a source material for these titles?

CM: CAMELOT: I went deep into the layers of myth and history on which the King Arthur stories are based. I delved into what little history is known of a war leader possibly named Artur, and I researched Welsh legends about Merlin. The Arthurian tales are an accretion, built up over centuries and elaborated upon. Successive storytellers pulled together bits of other myths and incorporated them, such as the Holy Grail lore, or added new modes of thought such as the rules of chivalry. I researched locations that have been associated with Arthurian legends and worked those into my version, such as Glastonbury Tor and the Chalice Well, even though they’re later additions.



ROBIN HOOD: I did a great deal of research into outlaws of the time period as well as researching the ballads and other versions of the stories that we know as the Robin Hood tales today. I contacted a museum in Nottingham and used a lot of wonderful historical material that they sent me about Nottingham castle, the tunnels beneath the castle, and the Trip to Jerusalem pub. Many years later, I spent a few weeks driving around England and finally got to visit both the castle and the pub. I even purchased a book that reproduced maps of all the shires in England from that time period and discovered Watling Street, which was built over an old Roman road.

Both game books included bibliographies of my sources.

AA: Did Ken or Roberta Williams make any decisions about the general direction, or were you given free rein to design as you saw fit?

CM: When Peter and I first met with Ken and Roberta, they were interested in having a King Arthur game. That appealed to us, so we agreed to do it. After that, we were left entirely alone to come up with the game.

With Robin Hood, I was beginning work on something different involving Greek mythology. There were about three Robin Hood movie projects in development at the time, so Roberta dropped a couple of heavy hints about wanting a Robin Hood game. That was fine with me, so I agreed. But after that, I was left entirely alone to create the game.

AA: Very interesting! If you had done, or were, given the recent resurgence of King's Quest and other Kickstarter-funded projects, to do a third Conquests game, would it have been based on Greek mythology?

CM: No, I think I’d do something more in the vein of the other games.

AA: Are there any such plans to revive the series?

CM: No.

AA: Getting back to the rich historical settings of Camelot and Longbow, you mention the bibliography in the game books. In general, the manuals to both games are full of great historical information which also serves as gameplay hints and copy protection. What is unique is how well these copy protection puzzles are integrated into the games themselves, instead of the typical "ENTER THE THIRD WORD ON THE SECOND PARAGRAPH OF PAGE 53" prompts that typically appeared in games of that era. Did other games or copy protection schemes particularly influence you to do copy protection in this manner?

CM: What I recall is that the company told me to put material into the printed booklet that had to be used within the game and explained it was for copy protection. I don’t recall whether I was shown any examples. I think I went with my own instinct, which was to make everything feel as immersive as possible. I didn’t want anything that pulled the player out of the game.

AA: Related to this, is piracy still the threat you saw it as back in the 90s? Has file-sharing, the "digital commons," and the Internet in general made you more or less optimistic about the fate of creators trying to make it in the game-design industry?"

CM: If anything, it’s worse. People casually pirate everything, including my books, which harms me directly. And some countries engage in wholesale IP theft. People don’t understand that any piracy of this kind is theft that harms creative people. It may harm us directly, as in pirating one of my books, or indirectly by making it hard to earn a living creating what we want to create. There’s this attitude that these are just big corporations they’re pirating so it doesn’t matter, but many of us depend on those larger entities to fund what we do and get projects made.



I have no problem with creators who want to share work freely. If they can afford to do that, good for them. But for the vast majority of us, we need to be paid in order to create. We have to pay the rent or mortgage, buy food, pay for health insurance, and all the same things as anyone else. Those royalties that I don’t receive when my books are pirated means that much less money for my survival.

Recently, I was outraged when the makers of a terrific puzzle game, Monument Valley, put out an expansion of their game at a low and reasonable price only to be attacked for having the gall to put any price on it. So they think game makers can spend months of their lives making something wonderful and receive no return for all their creative work?

It’s a new digital world out there with many possibilities for putting out creative work, but the bottom line is that creators should be rewarded for their work, and by rewarded I mean paid enough money to earn a living.

AA: That's pretty bleak, but the trend is similar to what has happened to the music industry over the past fifteen or so years: A lot of creative work produced at great expense, in money and effort, to the creators, and a public increasingly unwilling to pay for it. It seems like this genie is out of the bottle, and intellectual property laws have been woefully ineffective in dealing with these issues.

On a less-sobering note, our readers have a few more questions about Longbow before we get to some of your current work. First, the writing in Longbow is fantastic, some of the best of any game played for the website by far. What challenges did the medium present that differ from the other types of writing that you do?

CM: I came to writing for games from writing for comics, animation, and TV. Those are linear forms of storytelling. They have a clear beginning, middle, and end. One scene leads to another. When I started writing my first game, I knew that I had to take into account that players could access the story pieces in a non-linear manner. I thought I was taking that into account. My colleagues at Sierra kept trying to explain to me that I hadn’t gotten it yet.



I finally got it when I had a chance to watch players sit down and bash at the game. They truly would do anything in any order with no rhyme or reason. I had unconsciously expected players to follow a certain logical sequence the way I would. This was a turning point for me. I finally understood that players were the agents of chaos. By the time I was working on Longbow, I had a more solid sense of designing and writing a non-linear story while maintaining a strong storyline.

AA: Likewise, the music is similarly high-quality, and matches the game's various sequences to great effect. In the hintbook for Longbow, you describe how that was a conscious choice. Could you elaborate on how you used sound design in making Longbow?

CM: I knew that I wanted music that suited the time period. As it happened, the art director on the project strongly opposed that. He kept pushing for a more modern sound because that sort of thing was trendy in period movies at the time. I pushed back and insisted on sticking with what I wanted rather than going with a trend.

I was extremely lucky to have Mark Seibert as my composer. He was fully in sync with me and came up with superb music for the game.

AA: Another unique, and I would say groundbreaking, aspect of Longbow is the emphasis on multiple solutions and paths through the game, as well as how the player's actions influence its eventual ending. That level of complexity really hadn't been seen in adventure games before. How challenging was this to design and implement?

CM: It was challenging to find a way to tie together various threads of the story while allowing for major branches off the path. With Camelot, there were three points in the game where the player’s choices determine either a win or lose state at the end. I wanted Longbow to be more complex and nuanced. Working with the programmers, we came up with a weighted point system, so that the player’s various choices were incremental, adding up to one of several different endings. I gave players anywhere from two to four choices of how to deal with a certain character or situation, and had to account for the effects that would have. It was tricky, but good fun.

I don’t know how hard it was for the programmers. What they had the biggest problem with were the battle scenes where the player could end up losing too many men if they weren’t careful. Those battle scenes ended up being far more simplistic than I was aiming for, but I had to be realistic about what we could achieve. What I wanted was beyond the technical capabilities of the time.

AA: To tie these questions together, how is game design different than your other film and television work? Which do you enjoy more, and why?

CM: As explained above, it’s the difference between linear and non-linear, between directing where the story will go versus allowing the player to have determination in how the story will go. There’s a vast gulf of difference between those approaches to storytelling. I enjoy doing both. I love telling a straightforward story that’s under my full control. And I love coming up with ways to craft a story world for other people to play in.

AA: Before moving on to other things, there are two more Longbow-related questions. Regarding your time at Sierra, a lot of fans consider the late-80s/early-90s Sierra's "Golden Age" of adventure games. What was it like working there during the company's heyday?

CM: It was like being on the frontier during the Wild West. Nobody really knew what they were doing, and I sure as hell didn’t when I joined them. I had to teach myself everything from scratch. We were all learning while doing because we had no guidelines to follow. Sierra felt like a delightful creative maelstrom that somehow came together and worked. I think that was because we were smaller, tighter teams back then, though they seemed like big teams at the time. But they were tiny teams compared to what it takes to make games now. And so we worked closely together with a mutual sense of purpose. Everyone pulled together to turn out great, fun games.


AA: And finally, we come to the burning question that has been on everybody's mind since you agreed to this interview: Did you have anything to do with the Conquests of the Longbow "Easter egg" death scene in the remake of Space Quest 1?

CM: I know nothing about this. You’ll have to enlighten me.

I had never heard of Easter Eggs when I was making the first game, Camelot. One day, the programmers timidly told me about them and showed me a couple that they’d put into Camelot. I think they were scared to death that this Hollywood writer would give them a bad time for adding things like that without my knowledge, but I loved it. I loved the concept of hiding Easter Eggs and I laughed my ass off at the ones they came up with. I didn’t add any of my own to Camelot, but I deliberately worked at adding them to Longbow.

AA: The Space Quest 1 Easter egg involves a button marked "Don't Touch" in the escape pod during the game's first sequence. In the original EGA version, pressing it sends the player to Daventry, killing them in the process (of course). In the VGA remake, it sends the player to Nottingham Castle. Here's the link if you want to check it out:

                                   

CM: That was great fun to see.

AA: Since you brought it up, of all the Easter eggs you added to Longbow, which one are you most proud of?

CM: I can’t even remember them after all this time. The only one I remember is that you can find and talk to me as one the NPCs in the Nottingham market.



AA: And I think that's enough about Longbow! Let's leave Sherwood Forest and talk about the present. For readers who aren’t familiar with you or your work, what projects have currently been occupying your time?

CM: Nearly all of time is taken up by working at Zynga. I hold the position of Narrative Director.

I wrote some comics for DC over the past few years. I did a reboot of Amethyst. When that ended, I took over writing Birds of Prey for about a year. I did two Green Arrow books as part of the Confluence special event last year. I did short origin stories for Poison Ivy and Black Canary. However, last year I was struck by a guy on a bicycle who broke my leg and I had months of recovery from that.



I stopped that outside work so that I could focus as much as possible of my spare time on a Jem memoir. It’s an autobiography that leads up to and covers creating the animation series Jem and the Holograms.

My husband, Randy Littlejohn, and I have also written as a team for the past 17 years, and we continue to develop and work on projects together.

AA: To the extent that you can, could you describe your current role at Zynga? How has your experience with adventure games shaped the work that you're now doing? Are there any current or future projects that you would like to promote to your fans here?

CM: A Narrative Designer is someone who is a professional writer combined with a game designer. I define a Narrative Designer as a visual storyteller who meshes storytelling with gameplay.

Narrative Director is a title that let me choose for myself because I’m doing more than Narrative Design. I work with various teams on new games in development, so I can’t talk about them yet. Sometimes I mentor or oversee work done by contract writers, though that’s rare. Sometimes I do the bulk of writing myself. It depends on the needs of the project.

Working on adventure games taught me about game design, which enabled me to become a Narrative Designer. Other than that, I can’t say that the lesson of adventure games have much application to the type of mobile games that Zynga does. Or to mobile games in general. It’s not that you couldn’t do adventure games for mobile. The challenge is how to do that and make a living at it. F2P requires a whole different mindset of game design. And Zynga is heavily invested in the social aspects of F2P, which also doesn’t work well with the type of solo-play that works for adventure games.

AA: One of our writers, Joe Pranevich, was a great fan of Jem as a kid, despite probably not being in the target audience. My little sister was as well, so I have lots of memories of that show. Can you tell us something of your inspiration for that show and your involvement in creating the core characters and story?



CM: In the mid-1980s, MTV was the hot new thing. There were a couple of female performers who hit it big then: Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. Hasbro took a toy proposal that had come to them and decided to turn it into a line of fashion dolls for girls based on female rock bands. They knew and liked the writing I’d done for them on G.I. Joe. I was hired to take their prototype line of dolls and turn it into animation series. They already had the holographic computer and the earrings to create the secret identity. I got to do everything else. I turned the dolls into fully-fleshed out characters, created the story foundation of Starlight Music and the Starlight foster girls, the villain of Eric Raymond, and so on. I did all of the development work and I wrote 22 of the 65 episodes.

AA: And finally, since this is an adventure game blog, I have to ask: Where do you see the adventure game genre going in the future?

CM: I see promising games out there that I think show us the way: the story-driven games based on major IPs that Telltale puts out on an episodic basis; the story-driven, world-exploration games such as Fire Watch and Gone Home; and I’ve seen many of the “casual” games that encompass mini-games such as hidden objects and match-3 puzzles that also incorporate standard adventure game mechanics. In addition, I think we’ve hit a point where many people look back with nostalgia to the old adventure games and would love to play that sort of game again, if there were a way to make them viable.

AA: Christy, thank you so much for taking the time to answer all of these questions. It's been an absolute pleasure.

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You can find Christy at:

8 comments:

  1. This is a fantastic interview, honestly I think the best we have ever done. Bravo!

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    1. I wouldn't go that far, Joe, but I appreciate it and am just glad you enjoyed it. It helped that Christy was so open and available for all of our questions. A real class act.

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  2. Great interview! Christy came to Sierra about a year after Lori and I. We saw her around the building, dropped in on her team from time to time, and occasionally did something social with her, Gano Haine, and Ellen Guon (Beeman). But we had almost no interaction with them on game development. In hindsight, that's really a shame. Those were and are three great female game developers at a time when most games were made by men. They're also all really good people.

    Our friend Richard Aronson was the lead programmer of Conquests of the Longbow, his first game industry job... which I talked him into interviewing for. It didn't take *too* much talking, as he and his wife loved Oakhurst and Yosemite.

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    1. It seems like Sierra was a very collegial company to work for back in those days, and very fun; the "Wild West," as Christy puts it. That sense of fun comes through in the games produced at the time.

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  3. Lightning Lord10 May 2016 at 18:32

    I regret missing out on the chance to ask Christy what she thinks of the new Jem comic, which is, dare I say it - outrageously good.

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  4. Lightning Lord10 May 2016 at 18:33

    Also, Sisterhood of Steel, which is a great fantasy comic I wish would get reprinted. And to tell her that her late husband's art is great, and I really miss his work.

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    1. @Lightning Lord,

      I am sorry I did not get your questions in time! I did let Christy know when the interview was going up, so perhaps she'll stop by and comment. I think that would be preferable to me emailing her more questions.

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