Shank dev and writer talk characters, story, and dating

How does one go from writing scripts for Bratz to Sony’s high-successful, mature-audiences-only God of War?

For game writer Marianne Krawczyk, it was simply a matter of knowing the right people at the right time. A friend was an Associate Producer on the God of War project, and doing what writers do, she asked if they were looking for any writers. A meeting with God of War director David Jaffe later, she had her first videogame-writing gig.

Now an industry veteran, she’s now teamed up with Klei Entertainment to brings its upcoming Xbox LIVE Arcade, PlayStation Network, and PC title Shank to life. Yesterday, I had a chance to chat with Marianne and Klei CEO Jamie Cheng. Hit the jump to learn more about Shank, and why Krawczyk thinks the character would make for a poor blind date.

Destructoid: So, Marianne, I’m looking at your writing credits, and it seems like you’ve been doing game since… 2005? Is that right?

Marianne: Yeah… I think 2003 I started on God of War.

Okay, but it’s been awhile. You’ve worked on all the God of War games that have been released so far. You’re kind of a big deal; I’m impressed.

Marianne: Thank you!

Before we get to your work with Shank, I just wanted to talk about how you got into games writing. Because I know before God of War you had worked on some Bratz and Sweet Valley High stuff, so that’s a little bit different.

Marianne: Prior I was working on different TV stuff, animation stuff, and that’s kind of what my training was. A friend of mine started as an AP on God of War. I was like, “Hey, do you need writers?” Because that’s what writers do. So she’s like, “no no, they have somebody.”

But one day she called and said they’re looking, so why don’t you come to this meeting. So I went to this meeting with David Jaffe and about three other guys, and David gave us the whole run down and he gave us a list of questions which I answered, and from there it kind of grew into [me starting] to work with them more regularly on the game. So God of War was my first game, which I think was a good choice. [laugh]

Yeah, that’s kind of a big deal, your first game in the industry happens to be as big as God of War.

Marianne: Yeah, it’s certainly where the luck comes into it. It could have been any game, I suppose.

Not Shank.

So prior to doing that, sort of the more mature stuff, you worked on Area 51 for Midway and The Sopranos: The Road to Respect and the God of War stuff… was there anything you learned working on young adult female-directed stuff that translated at all to these titles, whether it be God of War or Shank?

Marianne: No, I think… you know, I think it call comes down to what those characters will do, and it happens to be whether your character really likes high fashion, and Louis Vuitton, then that’s what you pay attention to. Or, they’re seeking revenge and redemption, then that’s what you pay attention to. So I think that’s the thing that crosses over, and then it’s kind of the content of that varies.

I guess there’s a fine line between searching for the best deal on shoes and revenge and redemption.

Marianne: Well, yeah, yeah. [laughs] I think, it’s just knowing what your character wants and their backstory and what not.

So going back to Shank, how did you get involved in this project?

Marianne: I met Jamie at the Austin Game Conference. I think we were both speaking and we were at a speakers cocktail hour or something, and Jamie came over to my table and we started talking. At the time, I had just finished working on a free-to-play kind of online thing, and I think that he was working on something similar. And we were just kind of talking about  all the pitfalls of that. He gave me his card, I looked up his stuff… I don’t know, could have been a couple months later. I just wanted to check in with him to see what was going on, and he brought up Shank and sent me some information on it, and it was just love at first sight from then on.

What about it attracted you?

Marianne: Initially the artwork. The rendition of Shank himself. I get a lot of jobs these days to create a badass. So the thing with the artwork was I looked at Shank and he was already a badass. So it was like “Cool, I can start digging in on his story.” I think that was it, and then as we kind of explored the world that Jamie wanted to explore, it just kind of resonated with me.

Jamie, before Marianne came in, what groundwork was there to work with outside of the art? Did you have the story and characters in place, and it was just her job to flesh that out, or was it a blank slate?

Jamie: We had a story to start, which I’m never going to show anybody because it was rather laughable. But from that standpoint, that’s what we knew — we brought Marianne on really quite early. When we showed Shank to Marianne we knew the feel of the game, and we knew the type of character that Shank was — yes, he’s a bad ass, and yes he’s out for blood. We even did a sample cinematic to get a sense of that as well, and that’s what we were showing  Marianne.

But in terms of the characters, we knew we wanted to tell a good story. We wanted it well told, actually, as well. So we felt like we weren’t trained in that, we didn’t know how to do that well, and when Marianne and I first met, we were just talking about how much fun it would be to build a project where there were no limits. We could do whatever the heck we wanted. Literally, whatever we wanted in our imagination we could just put into this game, and that was  fantastic fun. And I think that’s largely why it all came together.

Marianne, Jamie said the story was laughable. Did you get a chance to look at it?

Marianne: It wasn’t laughable. [laughs] It was fine. It gave me a good springboard. I think I turned in a couple of stories that just ended up going completely out the window also.

Jamie: Yup.

Marianne: So it was just kind of finding what that center was for this guy and this game. So it wasn’t laughable.

Jamie: Thank you!

Don’t be so hard on yourself. So we’ve done previews of the game, and I’ve poked around and tried to get as much information as I could. Outside of the fact that Shank is a story about revenge, I really don’t know what this story is about, and I don’t know too much about the character of Shank. Can either of you explain what’s going on here?

Marianne: Yeah, I’m not very good at this because I’m never sure how to explain something without spoiling it. But I’ll give it a try.

I think it’s a story about a man that’s kind of torn between being loyal and a betrayal, and I think he’s trying to figure out what the right thing is in a world where all those values have a lot of pressure and weight on them, but they mean something completely different and the consequences are far more deadly than everyday life. I mean, being loyal to your boss is one thing, but he’s not going to kill you if you go get another job. So there’s this whole different angle on things, and we try to negotiate that world. When it kind of all blows up in his face, that’s where the revenge part comes in.

Jamie: Yeah, and from my standpoint, I see it as we always set out to tell a more tight, personal story. I always felt that a lot of games were too epic, and too big for themselves. And what I wanted for Shank was to be able to tell something local, and I think that’s what we executed here.

Marianne: I think that’s right. A lot of games I work on is about the end of the world, where the guy’s going to push the button and everything’s going to explode and it’s high pressure. Which adds a lot of tension, but I think if you can get that personal tension in there, it just works that much better. And I think Jamie’s right on with that.

Can you tell me a little bit about how you’d characterize Shank? I mean, outside of the fact that he’s a badass — that much is obvious… he kills people with a chainsaw. Just sort of go into a bit more detail… explain to me Shank if you were trying to set me up with your friend, and it was Shank, how would you describe him.

Marianne: [laughs] I don’t know if I’d set him up with somebody! No, I think honestly in the world he lives in, he’s a pretty noble character. He’s trying to figure out what is the right thing and where his loyalties are, and what that means for everything in his life. And he think actually in his backstory he’s fairly restrained and calm about things, but he’s also deadly. So that’s where he stands, until he has to get revenge, and then the gloves are off.

Fair enough. So no dates with Shank?

Marianne: I’d just be careful about who I would set him up with.

I’ll bring a gun.

Jamie: I think he’s hot.

There’s my headline. Thank you, Jamie! So the art style is inspired by Golden Age comics and graphic novels; in terms of the writing and the dialogue, were you inspired by that as well, Marianne?

Marianne: A little bit. I think Jamie and I talked a little bit about a couple of graphic novels and stuff. I think we talked a little bit more about movies, and sort of a cinematic approach to this, even though it is done in this kind of graphic novel style. So we looked at a lot different films, where the character is kind of pushed to a breaking point. And you know, then once you get the character to the breaking point you give him some weapons and he’s all good to go.

Any specific examples of the films that you looked at?

Marianne: We were inspired by A Better Tomorrow, I think we talked about early on.

Jamie: Yeah, that was awesome. That was definitely one of them. Nick, do you remember A Better Tomorrow, have you watched it?

Yeah, I have. The John Woo film!

Marianne: I think early on we talked about Man on Fire. A couple other things. El Mariachi for the world we certainly looked at for inspiration. I think that’s the bulk of them. But a lot action films and pressed to the point of [breaking]. One of the other interviewers brought up Rambo, and we didn’t look at Rambo, but when I start thinking about it, yeah… same kind of situation. He’s just kind of put in the situation where there’s only one way out for him.

When I look at a game like Shank — and you’ve shown a lot of the gameplay, you haven’t shown to much story — it’s this 2D action title, really kind of balls out. Typically the story in games like these really isn’t that important. You hear a lot of gamers, even in games where there is a focus on the narrative, they’re just skipping the cut-scenes. So it’s almost like a “why bother” situation.

As developers, why even bother to give a story when stabbing someone and then killing them with a chainsaw would keep many gamers happy.

Jamie: I see that, but also I see when we look at our company we see what we want to do in the long term and to us story is universal. Story is something that will always be there, [it’s something] that people will always want. I think there’s a lot of missed opportunity. Yeah, chainsawing someone is fun, and we put that in for sure, and heck… it’s a ton of fun to use three weapons at a time and do all this combo stuff. But yeah, I think from a long term standpoint, people want to see that. It’s an opportunity, and that’s one of our strengths.

Marianne: I agree. I think there are a lot of gamers that just want to have fun, and the entertainment value is just chainsawing people. And I get that. But this year we’ve seen a lot of stories in games that I think is actually making the experience better. So we have Uncharted and Alan Wake and Heavy Rain, Batman: Arkham Asylum. All of those games have a heavy narrative. I think once you dovetail that kind of gameplay into the narrative, the whole experience becomes more meaningful and more satisfying. I think it’s just going to continue to go that way. I think gamers are going to want more narrative in their games.

Do you find that puts more pressure on you as a writer to get people to care?

Marianne: I think that’s always the goal, right? To find the universal emotional ticking point for everybody. So when you find out whatever happens to Shank happens to Shank, hopefully that will resonate with people and have meaning. That’s the way it was in God of War when you found out about his white skin. Everybody was like “Woah!” That’s what the big kind of mystery was and it worked on a personal level. So I think that’s always the goal. It doesn’t always pay off, but that’s usually the hope, in all games and film.

Jaime: How do you feel about it, Nick?

I’m all about the story. I will sit there and watch all of the cut-scenes. I like games that give the opportunity to go back and watch the cut-scenes, unlocking them as you play through the game. Because I’ll actually go back and watch them.

Jamie: Oh, okay. Huh.

Marianne: At the end of Uncharted I just went back and kind of watched the cut-scenes, to see how it held up, and you know, it did. It was great. And that was a cut-scene heavy game for sure.

Yeah, they did a fantastic job with Uncharted 2. In terms of the direction, the technology, and the writing — how it all meshed — they kind of raised the bar.

Marianne: Yeah.

And after playing Uncharted 2, playing other games, it felt like something was missing.  Even the games that were even written well, it felt like something was missing.

Marriane: Yeah, I agree. I think every year or so we should have someone raise the bar. And bringing it back to Shank, I’m hoping it will raise the bar overall for downloadable games. I get asked a lot “Oh, it’s different because it’s a downloadable game.” But to me, it’s very much the same, because the goals are the same — to make it the best that it can be. Because it’s a smaller platform, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have all of the impact that it can.

Right. And in ten years they might all be downloadable games anyway, so…

Marianne: Right. Five years!

If it was up to me, it would be next week. I have so much crap in my house, if I don’t need to have an extra disc, great.

But in terms of Shank outside of the game, is there anything like a graphic novel or an animated film beyond that to add to the story? Or does it begin and end with the game?

Marianne: I would think the world is developed in a way that that could happen. Whether it does or not kind of remains to be seen. But I think the world and the secondary characters besides Shank are rich enough that there’s a lot to do. I don’t know how Jamie feels about that, but that’s what I think.

Jamie: Yeah, well I mean, Marianne, that’s what we always talked about. We wanted to build something that was deep enough to be something more. Again, Shank isn’t a huge game, but it’s a very well-told part of this world, and we can expand on that over time. That’s something that I’m excited about.

I look forward to checking it out, killing people with chainsaws, and learning about the characters and the world. When does it come out?

Jamie: It’s coming out this summer.

Great. Thanks for your time. Hope to catch up with you see Shank at E3 this year!

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