In the writer’s room with Matt MacLennan

Having just joined gameco Ubisoft Toronto, MacLennan tells Playback about storytelling in a world where if the audience is bored "they just push a button and go kick some ass without me."
02-10-12 Matt MacLennan

With series such as Call Me Fitz, The Listener, Billable Hours and Whistler to his credit, screenwriter and producer Matt MacLennan knows his way around a TV script.

But he’ll be flexing his creative muscles in a whole new way in the months to come, as he sets to work for the Toronto office of game giant Ubisoft on the latest installment of the successful Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell game franchise.

Here, MacLennan tells Playback about making the switch from to writing scripts the audience experiences passively, to one in which the audience is in the driver’s seat.

Can you tell us a bit more about this new gig? Can you say what game you’re working on?

I can’t tell you much about the game specifically, but I’ve been hired on as a screenwriter to work on the latest installment of the Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell franchise for Ubisoft Toronto. I work as part of a team responsible for all dialogue and narrative elements in the game. It’s a big game and franchise, which means huge audience (The Splinter Cell franchise has sold almost 22 million games, generating over $500 million dollars since the series debut in 2002).

We understand this hire was made through the Writers Guild – can you tell us more about how it all came together?

I don’t know how often gaming companies hire writers from the WGC or WGA. I think it was a new experience for both the company and the union. They both worked really hard to come together which was great. Everybody showed that they are ready, willing and able to work to collaborate. It’s great to see that happen. I hope it means a lot more union writers will find gigs in the gaming world and the story telling in games will get better and better.

What attracted you to this position? And how does it gel with your previous experience?

I love a challenge, love pushing the limits of what I know and have done as a writer. And I love gaming. Truth be told, I kind of got into writing as a product of gaming. Like a lot of writers, I loved playing Dungeons & Dragons as a kid – which is a really narrative driven game – and played too many video games to count.

Story is an important element in games and often there is a gap where player expectation doesn’t meet what they experience on screen. I think that gap is where writers like me belong. The industry is starting to recognize the importance of story (e.g. Paul Haggis just wrote for [Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3]) and it’s great to be part of that growth and innovation.

The mediums for telling stories always change, but a good story is always good story. I’ve written something like 30 episodes of TV on 17 seasons worth of shows (some of which I produced as well). I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot and make enough mistakes to understand what works and what doesn’t. That experience parlays well into work on gaming.

Creatively, what do you think your greatest challenge will be in switching from television to interactive?

It’s important to always remember that a game isn’t TV – it just isn’t. The player is the protagonist of your story and they aren’t about to sit there passively while events unfold around them. I set the bar high when I write game material because I know that if it isn’t dynamic, interesting, and full of conflict, character and tension, then the audience isn’t going to stick around for the next scene. There is no next scene. They just push a button and go kick some ass without me.

Matt MacLennan is repped by The Alpern Group.

Photo: Della Rollins / Della Rollins Photography,