Updated: Apr 12
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Geoffrey: All right, welcome to the successful screenwriter podcast, where we are dedicated to anything and everything screenwriting. Here, we interview successful screenwriters and filmmakers to discover just what it takes to make it in the industry.
Geoffrey: Welcome to the podcast, we have on Ryan LaPlante, a fantastic screenwriter, and director. Ryan, thanks for being on the show!
Ryan: Thanks for having me!
Geoffrey: We wanted to bring you on because we were looking for an expert on a pretty cool field of writing: interactive content and mobile gaming, and I know that’s something you have a lot of experience in.
Ryan: Yeah, I’ve done both! So, to give the rough origin story of Ryan LaPlante, I’ve done screenwriting for a long time and I got hired by an interactive fiction company. That’s not really a term, but “Choose Your Own Adventure” is technically trademarked, so no one else produces Choose Your Own Adventure stories. [The company I worked for] does CYOE: Choose Your Own Ending, which is vaguely used because I don’t think anybody trademarked that. For example, Bandersnatch got sued because they referenced “Choose Your Own Adventure” by the CYOA book company.
Geoffrey: I had no idea, wow.
Ryan: So interactive fiction is the term. So I got hired for a mobile app that did interactive fiction stories, along with some visual content, but it was very much like a screenplay format. I ended up spending nine months to almost a year functioning as their head writer. I had written 17 different games of varying lengths; from stuff, you might play through in five minutes to some which were like four to six hours. The rough script length would go from 5,000 to 10,000 words, up to our longest one, which was 540,000 words, if you were to read every option of every script. That’s within 5,000 words of War and Peace.
Geoffrey: Oh my god!
Ryan: I will also give a shoutout, for a lot of our big stuff, I did write with Tom McGee who is a really great playwright, screenwriter, theatre person, all-around creative; and I also wrote with Brandon Hackett, who is an amazing sketch comedian, improviser, and writer as well. They were the core team along with the other people that we worked with. Way too many names. But I did that for about a year and I learned a lot because I was doing a lot of research into game development conferences, monetization, and how the audience interacted with the games. We were really playing around with the technical aspects as well as the narrative aspects. After that, I shifted into publishing with a site called Wattpad, which is YouTube for writers. That’s the simplest pitch [for Wattpad], they don’t use it, but they should. I think they tried not to have their brand based around the name “YouTube.” It’s quite good, they do a lot of online mobile publishing. I know a lot about the users, I know a lot about how people are engaging with interactive fiction or just with any sort of mobile fiction. I studied competitors as well as what we were doing the whole way through.
Geoffrey: Ryan is an alumni staff writer from WeFixYourScript.com where he teaches seminars for us at Script Summit. One of the reasons why I wanted to bring you on the show, it’s not just the fact that you’ve broken into this really cool subgenre of writing, it’s also because I like to present alternatives of where your writing career can go from screenwriting. I think interactive content is one [alternative], I think YouTube is another that is really starting to grow and build. When I first met Ryan, it was at a festival, an indie gathering type international film festival, which was fantastic. He struck me with how fearless he is in his writing and that really hit me. Because a lot of writers will write a big-budget film and then they hold themselves back, but Ryan refuses to do that. I respect that about you, and I find it inspiring. I think that’s what has led you into this career to break into new boundaries. Having that character trait can really pay off.
Ryan: Yeah, I will say that the way I got hired for this was a friend messaged me by text a four and said, “Can I meet you for a drink in two hours?” And I said, “What is this about?” Because he was like, “There’s a gig at six,” and I said, “Sure.” So I went to the bar and he said, “Hey, there’s this division that is desperately writing video games and they want to take one big swing. Nobody knows what they’re doing, can you start at 8 a.m. tomorrow?” And I just said, “Yes!”
Geoffrey: That’s what I’m talking about. If you were timid or worried, well for one you wouldn’t have met the guy in the bar at that time and hopefully not have ended up in a van with no windows. Let alone walk away with a gig. [Fearlessness] is such an important strength. I remember we talked about this interactive content before and you were telling me that it’s not like screenwriting where there is a set formula of how you do it. It feels like the interactive content, the way of writing it, is still very fluid. Is that accurate?
Ryan: Yeah, this is not a clearly defined field in a lot of ways. There are structures that people are really attached to. If you want to look at the best interactive fiction, theoretically, that is out there, it is almost all in the videogame world. So, if you’re not a gamer, you won’t have seen it. And you can really tell when you look at the Netflix interactive specials, because they are 20 years behind a lot of videogames of now. [Those specials] are like, “What if it’s a CYOA where none of the story adds up, but it’s fun?” Even Kimmy Schmidt’s special was like, “Here’s a joke. You picked the wrong joke! Bad! Go back! Pick the story we wrote!” This is not what we wanted.
Even some companies have branched out, like Assassins Creed and Odyssey, the one that’s set in the Sparta version. It’s really funny because I played the game and I was like, “Ooh it’s interactive now!” The game says, “Which side do you choose? First you start with Sparta, okay! Now you’re going to switch sides no matter what choice you make, narratively. And now you’re going to switch back and change your mind because you were betrayed, no matter what you thought. Alright cool, that was interactive!” What are you doing?
Interactive fiction, because it is such a creative and expansive field, there isn’t even a lot of shared language that is agreed upon. Each company is going to create their own individual coding languages, their own individual terms, and have their own writing staff. So, it hasn’t quite gelled in the way where every story has a three-act structure. We have a lot of shared dialogue terms that don’t exist in interactive fiction, currently, in the public sphere. I’m sure UB Soft has their own terms, I’m sure a lot of the companies have their own internal terminology, but they haven’t been made super public, yet.
Geoffrey: I think you said you created a couple of systems.
Ryan: Yeah, we had gone through enough iterating and creation that we came up with our own internal terms to use for things that were based on things that were out there and were kind of simplified. And then we came up with narrative rules and principles for making satisfying interactive fiction for audiences.
Geoffrey: That’s some groundbreaking stuff right there, to just sit down and say, “I’m going to create a system of structure!” It’s impressive! For screenwriters who are interested in turning their work into interactive content, how would they know if it’s fit for that? How would they know that the concept or story they have is right for interactive media?
Ryan: I think, when you’re looking at creating an interactive story, adapting might be hard but possible, creating is also difficult. There are two things I would ask, which is (for an adaptation) is there more than one ending that is equally interesting? Because if there’s only one really good ending, you don’t want to have just one really good ending to an interactive fiction story and then have three mediocre endings. Because users are weird and will go down paths you didn’t expect. I can’t remember the exact number, but roughly less than 10% of users will actually go through your interactive fiction [story], again. Usually, people go through once and they walk away. So if you spend a lot of time investing in repeat people, you’re really investing in way less of the population that you can, and it’s a ton of work.
Ryan: If you have two really great endings, that’s cool. But if you have one ending, then just do a traditional story. The other thing I would ask is, would people want to put themselves in the shoes of your protagonist? If you’re talking about film, there are two ways to play with the interactive fiction. One is you are the character, so you’re making the choices as the character, which is comparable to the Tell-Tale games: “You are Batman. What does Batman do?” Then you can have the fun of deciding, “Am I Batman or am I Bruce Wayne?” Or it’s the Bandersnatch method, which is you are outside the story and making choices for, arguably, what you want to see happen. I don’t like that.
Geoffrey: They experimented with that in filmmaking, I want to say, back in the sixties. They had some experimental films where you could sit in the audience and vote where the film should go. And I feel that it’s not as personal.
Ryan: I think it makes it an intellectual exercise: “What beat do I, as an audience member, think should happen in this story next?” Oh god, don’t make people choose that, make them feel things. The questions they have to decide because ultimately everything comes down to the choices, are those choices that a person would be interested in making or would struggle to make emotionally? And that is where you can get people. Because it’s “What If?” and if it’s an interesting “What If?” story for someone to be the protagonist instead of watching them, then it’s primo interactive fiction.
Geoffrey: It’s like the old Fallout games, where you had to do that. I played one of the old Fallout games and decided, “I’m going to play a bad guy. I’m going to go against my morals and play as a bad guy.” I got to this one part where they had captured kids and they were holding them in cages, and I was like, “Okay, I’m going to destroy everyone in this camp and free these kids.” Because I was at a point where I was thinking, “I can’t. You’ve got kids in cages, guys, I’m going to have to destroy this whole town now and free these kids. I’m sorry.”
Ryan: Yeah, or you can trap people with it. We did a horror title called Daughter of the Night, I think it’s still up; but it was great because horror wise, I was like, “I’m just going to force you into a lose-lose situation.” The rough plot of the game, because it’s always about “what ifs” and we knew we wanted to do vampires and horror, you are a young woman who is about to propose to her fiancé. You go to this bar, he meets you, you’re about to propose and he says, “we can’t do this, we need to break up.” Then two vampires attack you and it turns out your fiancé is a vampire. You have to join his vampire family and pass tests to become immortal. You then go through a series of worse and worse horror challenges that you have to decide, and if you choose not to do it, you just get murdered. It was also a lot of fun to set up a bunch of different murders, because there are certain options where you can do the right thing, but it gives you less political sway. You can do a gross thing and definitely win, but then your fiancé might not like you anymore. Then we had to write a couple of different endings at the end. Some of the fun of that challenge includes, “what do you want to see as the end to this vampire journey?” That includes: “Okay, you die.”
“Okay, you kill all the vampire, but you also kill your fiancé.”
“Okay, you become a vampire. You’re a successful monster who now rules the clan, but your fiancé hates you because you’re a monster and he leaves you.”
“You save him, you defeat everybody, but you turn into a giant goop monster and he leaves you. So you’re like a Dorian Gray painting monster left in the basement, having done the right thing, but you’ll never escape.”
We wanted to deal with those types of purest principles, so it was so much fun.
Geoffrey: Hearing it from an interactive content mindset, it sounds like a lot of fun to write. It’s like, “How do I come up with these crazy increasingly difficult circumstances with really satisfying endings?” It’s an opportunity to mess with people, I can see a lot of evil geniuses sitting down to write this stuff.
Ryan: It’s a lot of fun. It’s also incredibly technical, but it is a lot of fun.
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Geoffrey: I have no doubt. Did the mobile gaming company you work for have a lot of creative control? Or were you able to go through and make the story you wanted to make?
Ryan: Story wise, we got to go through and create the story we wanted to make. I would check in on titles, because there are weird questions you have to ask like, “How sexy do we want to be if we’re writing a sexy game? Or how violent?” At one point I think we had the Tap scale of sexiness, which ranged from Care Bears to Riverdale to Terminator, because we’re all old. Terminator will have a sex scene that’s justified, because it’ll have nudity but it’s not about sex. Then the scale goes from 50 Shades of Grey to porn. We settled on Terminator.
Geoffrey: There you go! I would have never even considered that.
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Geoffrey: Did you have to deal with demographics a lot, or consider who you were writing for?
Ryan: Yeah, we actually did a bunch of user testing. We’d write the first third of the game, then they’d bring people in to play it, we’d watch them play through it live, and talk with them while they were reading/making the choices and watch how they would react. We’d also track as much data we could on the choices players were making and the choices people were willing to pay to make, which was interesting.
Geoffrey: That’s very interesting.