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Game On for Alex Kain's Historical Feature

Alex Kain has had success writing for notable video games and comics, and now his historical feature film project ,"Leave Luck to Heaven", has garnered the top spot in Filmmatic's Pitch Now - Season 6 competition. Alex describes his intriguing Nintendo period-project and the story behind its creation below.

1) How long have you been writing?

As long as I could hold a pencil. I started writing and drawing comics at a fairly young age, inspired by a steady stream of Calvin & Hobbes collections coming in through the door (which I'd like to think that helped establish a baseline appreciation for dramatic timing, setting up and paying off jokes, and economy of storytelling). I stopped drawing comics when I realized my best friend was a WAY better artist than I'd ever be, so I switched to writing and now he's a professional artist and I'm a professional writer--so that worked out alright! I still write for comics, though--with a 12-year-running comic series I co-created with artist Rachel Bennett called Beyond the Western Deep that has been published in a few different formats over the years.

Professionally though, I've been writing since 2007. I started out at a small mobile games studio in Connecticut and wrote most of our game stories simply because I enjoyed doing it. I actually enjoyed it so much that I started taking on side projects after hours and on the weekend to focus on it more, and that led to more and more writing opportunities in the indie games sector (where I'm still fairly active today).

2) What screenwriting training have you received?

It was all on the job! The first time I cracked open Final Draft, it was to pen a game script for a failed Streets of Rage pitch to Sega that was due just a few days after getting the assignment. Dotemu would go on to do amazing things with the franchise so I can't be too upset about that!

Everything before that was usually written in Excel (game writers are often cursed in that way) and was less about dramatic structure and more about setting up the stakes for the next bit of gameplay. They were fun stories, but I knew I could do better. In 2012 I helped pen the script for a lovely indie game called Dust: An Elysian Tail that was fully voiced, and I'll just say this: you learn A LOT, VERY QUICKLY about yourself and your writing style the first time your lines leave the page and become an actual performance.

I started writing scripts on the regular when I joined ArenaNet in 2017, and it was our Narrative leadership at the time that really started to instill some proper storytelling methodology (thanks Tom and Bobby!) and helped me hone my craft into something approaching decent writing.

3) What writing habits work for of you? Do you write in short or long shifts, at scheduled times?

Because of my day job, I have to be fairly economical with my writing time. Every Saturday and Sunday morning, I go to a nearby coffee shop and get 3-4 hours of focused writing time in. My team at ArenaNet recently made four day work weeks an option, so now I try to work on Friday mornings too. If I'm feeling like I'm not getting good output at a spot, I'll switch to another coffee shop. At any given time I'm usually rotating between two or three spots around Bellevue. I just need to make sure I'm not in my apartment; I find it particularly difficult to do work writing and personal writing in the same physical space.

4) What is your day job, and how does it influence your writing & project choices?

I'm a Narrative Lead at Guild Wars developer ArenaNet, so there's a lot of overlap as you can imagine. I'm writing scripts, running through them with other writers and game designers, sitting in voice over sessions and supporting our wonderful VO recording team (my fiancée is actually our VO lead!), and keeping a close eye on how the narrative comes together through the gameplay experience.

I used to be concerned about ideas for one project bleeding into another, since I tend to work on so many different projects simultaneously and they often share genres (fantasy being a particularly common one for me). I try to set strict lines of demarcation on the moment-to-moment storytelling, specifically with the characters. If the characters in a scene are unique enough, it's actually fairly easy for me to shift my brain into that project's gear and not have to worry about overlaps.

5) We really like "Leave Luck to Heaven" as a project, how would you describe the concept to our readers?

Well, I'm glad you enjoyed it! As for the concept: it's the early 1980's and video games are a technological wild west. Over the course of five years, the story follows a handful of artists and creators at a then little-known Japanese company called Nintendo as they try to break into the American game market, then save that same market from being wiped out entirely.

6) How did you come up with the premise behind "Leave Luck to Heaven"?

I grew up playing Nintendo games--Super Mario Bros. was the first game I ever played, actually. Nowadays, I'm a bit of a retro gaming enthusiast (I'm the guy with not one, but many old-style CRT televisions in my office), and I'm always on the lookout for fun stories about the industry during its formative years. I'd known for a little while that Donkey Kong came from an internal contest at Nintendo and that was the game that shot Shigeru Miyamoto to game design stardom--but as I learned more about the events surrounding it, the more that narrative arc started to manifest.

When I finally moved out to the greater Seattle area in 2017, where much of this story actually takes place, the bug finally bit and I fleshed out the whole story. Having worked in video games for a decade at that point, I knew first-hand the... let's call it unique relationships that can exist between management, artists, and engineers. I found opportunities to characterize these different elements through Miyamoto, Yokoi, the Arakawas, and the rest of the Nintendo crew of the day. I didn't want it to just be a procedural, I really wanted to explore the perspectives of the creators and how each field--from engineering to art to business--grappled with this weird new thing called "video games." Games are this strange mix of high technology, fine art, and performance art--with audience participation thrown in for good measure--and getting these seemingly disparate groups to collaborate has nearly always been a key element of pushing the medium forward. I wanted to show just how impactful the results can be when a team of unique personalities across wildly varying disciplines is firing on all cylinders and supporting each other.

7) What are you working on now? What do you plan on writing in the near future? Other projects related to gaming or comics?

Right now, in addition to my day job at ArenaNet, I'm in the middle of two separate Western Deep-related works (the fourth volume of the comic and an adventure game we're developing concurrently), and a few indie games that I can't talk about just yet. I'm always on the lookout for new projects, though!

As for screenplays, I'm kicking around a possible spiritual follow-up to Leave Luck to Heaven that focuses more on the American PC development scene of the late 80's and 90's. There's so much existing dramatic potential there, and there's nothing I enjoy writing more than artists talking passionately about their craft--and this was a time period where entire genres were being invented from whole cloth atop the shoulders of some of the most innovative technical minds of their generation.

8) Where would you like to be writing-wise in 3 years?

I'm hoping to still be at ArenaNet for one! I love my team and the project I'm working on, and the creative challenges I get to confront every day keep me sharp!

One thing we've talked about for a while on the Western Deep side is taking that world into animation, so I may look into that. I'd love to write for animation someday, given my love for the craft. Our Western Deep adventure game is being built around hand-drawn Don Bluth-inspired animation, for example.

I'll say that if in three years I still have the mental flexibility to hop between four or five different simultaneous projects like I do now, I'll be pretty happy!

9) Any advice for those about to write their first feature length screenplay?

The thing that helped me crack this first, real feature length screenplay was the beat board. Final Draft has an incredibly helpful layout with page goal estimates that track your writing progress in real-time, so you can stub out every character arc, act, and scene visually. By breaking the entire story down by character arc and scene beats, I was able to learn a lot about the story I was writing, and how it would need to change to become the story I actually wanted to write.

Once the story is broken apart like that, it can feel a little like you're just assembling pieces of a puzzle and you already know what the final picture will be--which some writers don't take to. I know that there's something to be said about surprising oneself in the writing that I missed with this format--that kind of spontaneity that leads to surprising new dialogue beats or discovering something fun about a character you hadn't noticed before. I made sure to leave myself a little room to explore within these beats, improvising against myself a little to keep things on track but push against the boundaries I'd set in the beat sheet. This approach led to a few beats needing to get shuffled around and a character finding a stronger voice than I'd expected resulting in some major reworking of the third act... but I'd like to imagine that's all for the better!

Congratulations once again to screenwriter Alex Kain, our Season 6 Pitch Now Winner. All contact and script requests for Alex will be forwarded to his attention.


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