Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure interview

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Alec Sokolow and Joel Cohen, the writers of Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure and Toy Story, talk about bringing toys to life

With Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure, Activision has taken a bold and interesting step in video games by marrying its latest IP to a range of toys. When players boot up the game, they need to use a plastic figurine in conjunction with the game’s “Portal Of Power” peripheral, to make a character appear on screen. The technology used to create this effect is impressive, but that’s only half the battle. To keep players of all ages interested, the developer knew it would need a decent plot in place.

To that end, Activision tapped up screenwriters, Alec Sokolow and Joel Cohen. Both profess that an interest in the medium drew them to the project, but it may have been their film credits that caused Activision to give them a call. After all, if you’re making a game in which toys come to life, who better to have write it than the writers of the Pixar classic Toy Story?

How did the pair of you join the project?

Alec Sokolow: We were very fortunate. We got a phone call from our agent – and that’s how a lot of things start in Hollywood – and we were invited in for a meeting in late September last year. We were very curious going in. We had no expectations and we didn’t really know what was going to happen. We met with the guys from Toys For Bob and Activision and you could tell that everyone there was anxiously waiting for… (laughs) something to happen! The first thing we were told was they were developing this game that they felt could be a groundbreaking game in the medium. The analogy they used was very specific. They said: “We feel like we have 75 pages of a brilliant novel but the pages aren’t consecutive and, in some cases, they don’t even feel like they should be in the same book. But if you guys could figure out what the rest of the novel is supposed to look like and make it seamless, we’ll all be very happy!” So that was the beginning.

Joel Cohen: We hit it off with them and everything came about very quickly.

AS: Once we were on board we had this massive battery of meetings and collaborations to get up to speed. There was so much information to have to try and process – some applicable some not – and the job we had was to make it all cohesive.

JC: We also took their analogy literally. We said: “Well, as soon as we get those 75 pages it’ll all make sense!” (laughs)

How much can you tell us about the plot?

AS: Well, in a kind of non-answer answer, I’d say don’t look at the plot of the game as its plot. The plot of Skylanders is a more ambitious and a more multi-dimensional plot where you, the game player, are part of the storytelling. The Skylander figurines, which we as adults call toys, aren’t really toys. They’re actually exiled heroes from Skyland who have been frozen in time in our world and can only be brought back to life to save Skyland by the game player. That’s the overall plot that hopefully enriches the overall experience and gives you some perspective and emotional subtext as you play the game. Once you’re in the game, any of the characters or levels or chapters will seem more familiar to a video game player.

So you’re saying this is a character driven piece?

AS: Absolutely.

JC: Well, that’s what we’d like to believe (laughs). You get tons of action. But our whole thing has always been character – you get them from Toy Story and Money Talks and even the Garfield movies. The developers basically had placeholders for 32 characters. We knew they’d have Spyro and Cinder and couple of other characters who predate the Skylanders game, but there was the opportunity to create 32 new characters here. That’s something we love to do. It’s fun for us. So we created 30 back-stories and biographies and histories for the characters.

AS: Just to add to that without getting to esoteric; if you think about plot, it’s a sequence of events that make up a story. When you think about it from the point of view of a character, plot is a series of challenges that force them to have growth opportunity. We’ve always tried to create plot off the needs of our characters. Now, in the case of Skylanders, it was more challenging and also more fun. We have 32 characters you can play with, but you could also get through the game with just one – everyone’s going to play this game differently. That variety forced us to make the game player into a character in the plot framework – hopefully we did that successfully. We see Skyland as a real place and the Skylanders as real, living characters, just frozen in their figurine form.

JC: You know, the directors of action movies – always in some sassy way – will say something like “action is character”. Our thing is that we’ve always started with character and it’s the emotional needs of the characters that push the story forward. Even in an action film, you’d never take a character that’s a complete blank and put them in a scary fast-paced car chase, because by the end of it you’d still know nothing about them. You’d need to use the chase to show things; are they afraid of speed? What roads are they taking? How did they react? It’s stuff like that that makes people interested and makes them want to know more. So if you were given 30 placeholders and you had to fill out the back-stories for them, does that mean you were in charge of giving them powers and, to some degree, deciding on their abilities within the game?

AC: Well, the technological abilities were already there.

So were you just deciding who they were and what they looked like?

AC: Right, and we tried to make some connection that lined up with what the developers were telling us. For example, there are characters that work well with certain other characters. Our job is to create a fiction that explains that – were they cohorts in this realm?

JC: Stump-Smash is a good example. At the beginning we were told he’s this character made out of wood and logs.

AC: Right, so we look at this guy and say, “why does he want to go around using his big club-like hands to smash things up?”. So, we developed this back story for him where he was once this beautiful tree in a huge, lush forest and – once again, following a plot point we’d been given in Skylanders – some evil troll lumberjacks deforested his home and killed all of his friends and family. He was left alone and stripped of all his foliage – and so, he’s pissed off! He wants revenge! Given the chance, he’s going to crush anything standing between him and success. So, that’s where we came in. We had to try and figure out a way to have some fun and give the player some information about the character’s motivation at the same time.

JC: It’s the “Rose Bud” moment. Now the player knows why Stump-Smash is the person he is.

AC: But again, not knowing any of that won’t stop you from enjoying the action in the game, which I think was already there by the time we showed up.

So how much was already in place by the time you both stepped in?

AC: It’s hard to give a percentage. I will say that Activision had been creating this technology… maybe some of it already existed, but it certainly hadn’t been used in this manner. Bobby Kotick (Head Of Activision) had talked about being fascinated by the potential of this technology for about 25 years. So the gameplay and technology had been floating around, but Activision figured it out. When they were talking about the “75 pages”, what they were talking about was all of the stuff they had in place. They knew the constraints of it, but they also knew all the possibilities. It was essential to have one big thought or idea to tie it all together – that’s not what they were looking to us for, though.

JC: They had disparate characters with different abilities and we had to live with that – and we were happy to live it. We had to figure out what tied them all together as Skylanders, and how they came to be figurines in your room. The functionality of the game was there, but the explanations as to who the protagonists were and why they were here in our world and who was the bad guy – Kaos – in the story.

AC: Yeah, it’s kind of a tongue-in-cheek way of saying the player has to defeat chaos in the game.

In a way, it’s like you’re revisiting Toy Story, by writing another story about how toys come to life. Is that what attracted you both to the project?

JC: You know, it’s funny, when you’re in the moment you’re not thinking that. It’s only afterwards when someone points it out to you – in our case it was six months into the project – when you go, “hey, I think we may have been here before!” The thing is, when we talk about these characters we do get pretty anthropomorphic. We don’t sit there discussing them saying, “well, they’re just a bunch of toys”. To us they’re real. We’re adult in our conversations but we go back to what we thought was cool when we were kids.

You also have a lot of experience writing material that boasts cross-generational appeal. Do you think that might have influenced Activision’s decision to approach you for Skylanders?

JC: Well, the short answer is yes, but you know, Toy Story was a very serendipitous thing. The measure of that is that they were willing to hire relatively inexperienced writers because Disney didn’t really know what to make of this little outfit called Pixar that was based in San Francisco. They were using new technology for the first time, which, of course, turned out to be a game changer for the entire industry. Once again, we’ve found ourselves in the same position – potentially – here. Marrying toys and games is a first and hopefully that will turn out to be as much of a happy accident as was the case with Toy Story. The thing with Toy Story, is that in the four years it took them to make the movie, all the talk was about the technology. But when the movie came out all the talk became about the storytelling – and that’s our bias anyway. We’re kind of curious to see how it pans out with Skylanders in that regard.

AC: What is fundamentally different is, I think every parent or adult – regardless of whether they saw Toy Story with a child or they saw it on their own – has a romantic and sentimental connection with the toys they grew up with. That’s built into the film. In Skylanders, that may be different. In a way, what we hope to earn – rather than take as a given – is parents and adults being drawn to the game just because it’s fun.

The two of you write for film and television where the audience is a passive member of proceedings. In video games, the audience is an active participant. Was it a struggle to adjust to this change?

AC: The way I’d put it – without wanting to sound too high-falutin’ about it – is that movies are statements; characters have to change and the narrative has to have closure. TV shows are conversations; the characters don’t change all that much from episode to episode, stories begin and end in an episode and maybe narrative arches carry through episodes. Video games are all about asking questions. As a writer you have to ask questions of your player and create a space where they want to ask questions and also explore more. It’s an entirely different set of parameters to get to the same place where you’re loving the experience. It can be frustrating if you are in the mind set where you’re writing a story, but it can be very liberating if you look at what you’re doing as a collaboration with the player. It’s like having another co-writer on the project!


Nick Cowen © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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