Earlier this year, I worked up the cojones to send a quick e-mail to writer and photographer Christy Marx. As I reviewed her long list of writing achievements, especially in television shows such as Jem and the Holograms, G.I. Joe, Bucky O’Hare and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I was reminded of the importance of saturday morning rituals in which nothing mattered more than sitting down with 2-3 bowls of hypersugary breakfast cereals and sitting 5 feet away from the TV when we could get away with it. At that time, for an awkward 13-year-old boy me, writers like Christy were just mysterious names in the credits whose job it was to keep me entertained between 8am and 4pm once a week.
But I did know her name, and her face, from another place. Christy Marx was that magical person featured on the back of two Sierra adventure game boxes. She designed, wrote and directed Conquests of Camelot (1989) and Conquests of the Longbow (1992).
In the 1990s, the bulk of adventure games followed a fairly common pattern: the hero set off on a quest to (retrieve/save/destroy) an (object/princess/enemy) that usually only the hero cared about. The story, if there was one, usually involved a series of loosely linked scenes that were supposed to add up to a plot. Puzzles were erected like roadblocks, meant to prevent you from finishing the game in less than 5 hours. I enjoyed those games – but later, as an adult with limited time and complex expectations, I now find many of those adventures hard to enjoy.
But Camelot and Longbow offered a different kind of experience. They were the first games I played where the puzzles weren’t culled from a 101 Brain Teasers book, and the NPCs were not item-droppers clothed in a “get me X and I’ll give you Y” interaction. Both Camelot and Longbow had stories and characters that mattered to me (and not just the protagonist) - it was the first time that I cared about the protagonist’s quest and wanted to help him through to the end. It was the first time I worked through a puzzle that was sculpted from the gameworld, rather than one clumsily shoehorned into a pre-existing story. The NPCs had lives of their own, some helping and some hindering my quest, but in all cases appeared to be people who hinted at a background replete with their own responsibilities, goals, friendships, grudges and stories. I played – and finished – both games twice this year and found myself thinking about their worlds and characters months later.
So when I had the chance to ask Christy Marx a few questions about her experiences writing and designing these games, I wanted my questions to count. I wanted to express how different her games were for me as a player. I wanted to ask her (okay – impress her with) what I thought were tough questions that only an articulate designer and writer could answer. In short, I choked.
Thankfully, that did not stop her from drawing thoughtful answers to my – paragraph long, kludgy – questions. In our conversation, Christy Marx articulates her thoughts on writing multi-dimensional characters, games as (a serious) art, storytelling, some of her literary influences behind Camelot and Longbow, and her desire to work on another adventure game (!)
(Minor spoiler warning: if you haven’t played Camelot or Longbow yet and plan to in the immediate future, and you are one of those types that becomes infuriated when someone else talks about the plot or characters of their favourite movie before you’ve seen it, you might want to stop here.)
CL: Your characters, from Jem to Robin Hood to King Arthur – all seem to focus on “inner strength” than outer strength or superhero-like powers. Why do these kinds of characters appeal to you as an author?
CM: Because those are the best kind of characters to write about: characters with depth, direction, purpose, passion and so on. Why would anyone want to write about, read about or watch a character with no dimensions, with nothing to make them interesting or worthwhile? Even an anti-hero character must have some piece of “hero” in there somewhere to make them work.
I think it’s more about making any character interesting by giving them a mix of strong and weak qualities. Where you find poorly done, cardboard cut-outs for characters is where they are presented as having no dimensions. They are simply one thing. That one thing can be heroic or evil, but if they have no other dimensions to them, they are flat. Even the worst people in history has reasons for the things they did, be they justifications or a genuine belief they were doing the right thing for their people, their country, their religion, or if very selfish (say a Henry the VIIIth) for themselves.
I think of people and therefore my characters as being a mix of many different types of qualities, being stronger in some qualities, weaker in others. And these things aren’t static either. If we examine ourselves closely, we’ll find moments when we behave one way and moments when we behave an opposite way, depending on the circumstances or who we’re dealing with.
Each one of us could probably think of one cause to which we’d donate our time and energy, and other causes we’d refuse to touch; or one person we’d go out of our way to help, but other people we’d avoid like the plague. So in one circumstance, we’re generous and helpful and giving, but change the circumstances and suddenly we’re stingy and cold and rejecting. We haven’t necessarily changed as a person, but our core beliefs drive our behaviors.
So when it comes to creating a compelling character, it’s more effective to have those dimensions in mind and let them play out in the character’s actions. A strong character with an inherent weakness is always going to be more interesting. It’s relatively easy to set up physical conflicts, but even more effective to add internal conflicts along with it.
It’s harder to accomplish this in games because you also give up much of the control to the player, as it should be, but you can still present them with ethical or moral choices and let them play out those choices and deal with the consequences.
CL: If you reflect on the last 20 years of children’s television shows (and video games), what kinds of values [if any] do you see expressed in the current crop of mainstream entertainment (films, cartoons, comics, games, etc)?
CM: I see the usual range of values that I’ve seen all along, though there does seem to be a trend toward having to be “dark” or “gritty” in order to be cool, and a higher level of cynicism. While I don’t disagree with being cynical to some degree, it needs to be counterbalanced with positive words and actions. Being cynical solely for the sake of being cool is a losing proposition.
CL: Did you have a specific audience in mind when you wrote the stories for Conquests of Camelot and/or Conquests of the Longbow?
CM: Mainly I wanted to satisfy the people who liked to play Sierra games. I didn’t stop to evaluate who they were, really.
CL: Both Camelot and Longbow are, to my knowledge, the only games in the world that include extensive bibliographies in their manuals. Why was researching the historical and fictional literature so important to you in the process of crafting the story?
CM: I couldn’t imagine trying to create adventure games around legendary characters like those without doing massive research. So many of my best ideas came from doing the research. I’d come across some fascinating tidbit that would spin me off in unexpected directions or spark new ideas. Everyone has heard of “Nottingham”, but what was it really like? I contacted a historical museum in Nottingham and learned about the ancient pub and the secret tunnels and all sorts of wonderful things that went into the game.
Also, there’s what the game seems to be about on the surface and what the game is really about — the theme of the game. As a writer, I want my games imbued with a theme in order to have the depth needed for good storytelling. Research is a vital part of achieving that. And if I was going to do all that research, I might as well share the sources. It only made sense to me.
CL: In the beginning of Conquests of Camelot, I have to admit that I greedily reached into the treasure box in Arthur’s castle to get a few more handfuls of coins than I needed. The parser responds, “Nay leave it be. Your mission must be kept humble, for safety as well as your soul’s sake.” I was struck by the moral tone – that greed/selfishness was antithetical to Arthur’s quest. Later, the game reminds the player that the quest concerns, “Not only finding the Grail, but your worthiness of possessing it.” Even later, Arthur is tempted by sexual pleasure and the easy life … “delights of the flesh” (sweetest fruits and meats) by kissing Fatima. Spirituality and morality seem to be central to the way Arthur’s story is told. Compare that to today’s games in which greed, hoarding, and the accrual of power are prized aspects of the game’s design. Can you tell us a bit about the role spirituality and morality play in the way you wanted to tell the Arthurian legends?
CM: How can you tell the story of Arthur any other way? The entire Arthurian Cycle as it has developed over the centuries, and especially when it incorporated the Grail mythology, is about morality, trust, faith, love, betrayal and redemption. Those are the vital elements that underpin the stories as we know them today. Yes, you could set out to do a purely historical Arthur (and there have been plenty of attempts to do so) and simply have him be a Romanized Celtic-British cavalry warchief who overcomes various enemies. But that isn’t as much fun as playing with the mythological elements, especially for a game. I feel that the reason the Arthurian legends have such staying power is due to the powerful themes that are woven throughout them. As writer, I never thought twice about the idea of giving the player moral choices. That’s what Arthur’s story is about.
CL: In an interview in Sierra’s “InterAction Magazine”, you mention how you and Peter Ledger worked together as a creative duo, bouncing ideas off one another during the creative process. Did you collaborate on any artistic/creative projects prior to Camelot, or was this your first opportunity? If this is not too personal, what do you miss the most about working with him?
CM: Yes, we’d been working together on comics for many years before that. He did the art for The Sisterhood of Steel graphic novel. We did a three-part story called Carlos McLlyr the Californio, a supernatural historic adventure set in 1840’s Los Angeles, and a number of other stories here and there.
Unfortunately, Peter hated working on computers with a passion, so he wanted nothing more to do with them after Conquests of Camelot. He was an artist who needed the tactile process of working with ink, paper and paint.
CL: I noticed that in both Camelot and Longbow there seems to be an implied tension between the emergence of Christianity and the demise of pre-Christian (Paganist, Anamist, Pantheist) religions. Old-world religion is expressed in the old gods (Mithras) who is “driven away” at the end of the game by the power of Christ and the grail; Marian as a priestess of the old powers of the forest/mother nature in Longbow. As far as I can tell, these were more or less part of the “background” or mythology of both games, yet played a powerful role in how your characters were written. (If I’m not talking out my ass here..) Why is this tension important to the way you tell both stories?
CM: I will admit that I was heavily influenced by the writing of Mary Stewart and her utterly brilliant trilogy about Merlin (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment). The passing of the old pagan gods and the rise of the Christian god is one of the main themes running through those books.
Unlike Mary Stewart, I’m on the side of the pagan gods. LOL! I don’t subscribe to the Christian faith and don’t mind tweaking its nose, so to speak.
CL: In Longbow, Robin Hood seems to walk a fine line between brigandry and morality. He robs a jeweller for instance, and is *more* apt to rob him because the jeweller insults his manhood and treats him as a common thief. But instead of robbing the jeweller for his money, he takes the jeweller’s cape instead and “more than repays” the man for the cape. This does not seem to be the same kind of clear-cut morality as Arthur has in Camelot. As a reader/player, does one character appeal to you over the other? What about as a storyteller?
CM: They’re two entirely different types of characters. King Arthur represented nobility, courage, valor and similar values while Robin Hood represented being an outlaw, living by one’s wits, and justice in an unjust time. It wouldn’t make sense to write the same kind of game about two such different characters. In the Camelot game, the moral choices were clear-cut. In Longbow, Robin Hood is a trickster-hero, so I wanted more shades of gray in the choices. By the second game, I had a better sense of how to accomplish that, as well.
With Longbow, I gave the player a number of options for dealing with each person they encountered and hinted at the best choice. But ultimately, the player gets to decide how they want to behave.
Personally, I have a bit more fun writing a trickster-hero like Robin Hood than a more straightforward hero like Arthur.
CL: Camelot ends with Arthur sadly watching the love relationship between Lancelot and Gwenhyver (“But though your land is healed, your heart is not. Perhaps it never shall be.”), while Robin Hood ends in a happy-go-lucky marriage. The former, to me, is a pretty emotionally ambivalent (almost tragic) ending for the protagonist, while the latter ends in comedy. As a reader/player, do you prefer one ending over the other?
CM: One is based on a romantic tragedy and one is based on ballads about cunning and sly humor. The source material dictates the direction, though you can have Longbow end somewhat tragically with Marian dead. I don’t have a strong preference for one over the other. I just want a gripping story that is well told.
CL: In a post on your blog you mention three guidelines for an artistic understanding of video games: a significant/substantive subject matter, attention to writing, acting, and visual presentation, and the maker’s reputation as an artist or outsider-to-art. Given that video games, cartoons and comics are thought of by the public as “mere entertainment”, do you see “art” as an important part of the way you tell your stories? Or did “entertainment” mean something different for you from the beginning?
CM: Those weren’t guidelines for videogames. I was trying to work out what it was that seemed to elevate a movie from being “mere entertainment” to being considered an arthouse film or to have a higher level of artistic quality. Let me go over them again (and revise them slightly):
Guideline #1: the movie needs to be about something significant or of substance that has an impact on the viewer.
Guideline #2: the quality of the audiovisual components, acting, writing, etc. needs to be unique or of special quality (not mundane or commercially ordinary).
Guideline #3: the intent of the film’s primary “creator” (usually the director) is known to be about something other than commercial success or making money.
I used Spielberg as an example. He was lauded when he made big, blockbuster movies that were huge successes. He was initially lambasted mercilessly when he madeThe Color Purple because people didn’t accept him as a maker of a serious or artistic film. I think it took Schindler’s List for him to finally gain that acceptance.
Then I wondered whether those guidelines could be applied to games. Or to comics, for that matter. I personally feel they can be applied. In comics, for example, look at how differently Maus was treated from other comics. Maybe it only takes two out of three in order to qualify. Maus fulfilled #1 and #2. The art was okay, but nothing special, however the subject matter and the creator’s background was enough to give it the “art” cachet. And possibly to the mainstream the use of anthropomorphized animals was unique (though not to those of us who know the medium well).
There are people making what are called “serious” games, meaning their primary role isn’t to entertain, but to use elements of entertainment in order to teach or train in a real world setting or for a real world purpose. And yet I haven’t heard one of those games being referred to as art, so what’s missing?
This is getting long, so I’ll leave it up to others to decide on the validity of these ideas and explore how they might or might not be applied. It’s something I’m still in the process of thinking about myself.
For me personally, I just love to tell stories. I’m a born storyteller, that’s what I love. I like my stories to have some substance and not be fluff. I strive for quality. But I’m also a professional, and when I’m being paid to produce a piece of commercial work, I deliver what is asked of me with the highest quality I can manage within the parameters of the job.
After all, creative people have to pay the bills, too. Some of the most famous art in history was done on commission. Michelangelo didn’t want to paint the ceiling of the Apostolic Palace, but the Pope made him and what we got out of it is the Sistine Chapel.
CL: Do you have a particular audience that you personally prefer to write for (in any medium)? Has that changed over the years?
CM: No, I don’t. The majority of my work has been for the eight to twelve year old demographic and I enjoy that a lot, but I’m happy to write for any age group or type. I write the stories that I enjoy telling and that seems to work great.
CL: Today, would you ever want to work again as the creative lead/chief writer/designer/head honcho/ on a unique game with a small team, as you did in the 80s and 90s with Peter Ledger and the Sierra On-Line team? In other words: is there a particular story that you’ve always wanted to tell in the form of a game?
CM: I can’t tell you how much I would love to be designing these kinds of adventure games again. I believe a small, tight, well-knit team is better than throwing tons of people at something. I’d love to continue the Conquest series and have Charlemagne in the back of my head as a candidate, though I’d like to use a strong woman of history to build a game around, too.
But I would also love to set a story in 1920’s Hollywood during the silent movies. I adore that time period. I have an anachronistic crush on Rudy Valentino.
Thanks Christy, for taking the time to answering some questions that I’ve had running around in my head for years, as well as ones that I had not even thought of. And while I’m here: Are you there, Mithras? It’s me, Chris. Please set up Christy Marx with a game design studio so she can send us on some wonderful adventures again.