'Toy Story' Co-Writer Alec Sokolow Discusses 'Skylanders' and Video Games (Q&A)

Skylanders Giants - H 2012

"I think that somewhere out there is going to be a holistic experience, where you can have a satisfying gameplay and possess some kind of theatrical storytelling," the screenwriter tells THR about the convergence of Hollywood and gaming.

Screenwriter Alec Sokolow and his writing partner Joel Cohen have a huge video game hit with Skylanders. The duo that wrote the original Oscar-nominated Toy Story film have returned to toys, literally, in Activision’s hit franchise, which blends interactive toys and video games. After the original game, Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventures, became a critical and commercial hit, developer Toys for Bob recently released the second console game in the franchise, Skylanders Giants. There’s also an online game and mobile offerings for the expanding game universe. Sokolow talks to The Hollywood Reporter about video games and the potential for Skylanders to expand into Hollywood entertainment.

The Hollywood Reporter: What did you find interesting about building the Skylanders story?

Alec Sokolow: It’s always so cool to just create a new parallel universe, where there are rules and there are good guys and bad guys. The fantasy is just fascinating and it’s always fun for me.

THR: How did creating Skylanders, which also has a toy line, compare to work you did writing Toy Story?

Sokolow: Movies and videogames are so different. One’s a closed narrative and one’s an open narrative, but where it was similar, and where I think there was a lot of inspiration, is that when you think about the inner life of a toy in the life of Buzz or Woody and then you start thinking about the inner life of the Skylanders, it’s pretty similar. They have feelings, they have desires, they want to be heroes, they have competition. And so they become very much alive at that point, and then you just go from there.

THR: Why do you think we’re seeing so much Hollywood talent gravitate towards video games?

Sokolow: There are a couple of reasons. One is video games are fun. People are just in love with the very concept and play then incessantly. I also think that Hollywood has changed. It’s not that it becomes less interesting to work in Hollywood, but I think that movies have become much more video game-like, so this is just a natural crossover. I feel like the universe in the video game world and the universe of a lot of Hollywood movies could be pretty much the same.

THR: What are your thoughts on how Skylanders has evolved with the new Skylanders Giants game?

Sokolow: The game is just going to get better and better. The first Skylanders game was fantastic, but it was a learning process and everybody involved, including developer Toys for Bob, Activision and for us.  Skylanders have gotten more sophisticated. They get deeper into the themes of storytelling and, quite honestly, every single year the graphics and the engines that drive gameplay get better and that makes the entire experience better.

THR: How much have you played the original Skylanders game?

Sokolow: I play it 24 hours a day. I play with it in the bathtub. I play with it driving on the freeway. No, I have a son and so we played a lot when I first got the game and he enjoyed kicking my rear up and down and talking a lot of noise to me. Once we got leveled up and we got through, he wanted to play again, but I just watch him play.

THR: Did you play any video games growing up?

Sokolow: Oh, yeah. I was an Atari kid. I had the Atari 2600 and I played all the games. Obviously, Pong was revolutionary back in the day, but whatever the games were on Atari to me was really cool.

THR: Do you have a favorite memory you could share with us?

Sokolow: My memories are actually quite social in that I would cut school sometimes with a friend and we’d go and play games for the afternoon, or I had a younger brother and we’d spend the weekends playing the games. The memories really are about connecting with people you care about over video games.

THR: What are your thoughts about how far games have come since the Atari days?

Sokolow: It’s ridiculous. Atari is like cave drawings. The virtual reality in these video game worlds are just mind boggling. I can’t believe how good the fantasy has become.

THR: Do you play any games now?

Sokolow: I play Skylanders, I like Call of Duty: Black Ops. I play Madden with my brother still. I’ve gone through my whole life playing games with my younger brother. The fun in gaming is being able to talk some noise to the people you care about and have some fun competition.

THR: How do you see the convergence between Hollywood and videogames evolving and moving forward?

Sokolow: In a way I think parallel lines meet at infinity; right? They’re completely different in many ways, even though they both go into the category of young adult entertainment. The movie business, by and large, is getting a little bit unwieldy and has to come with more bells and whistles. There are more super hero movies. It feels like there’s a natural place for convergence, where the game world is also mining the same territory. I think that somewhere out there is going to be a holistic experience, where you can have a satisfying gameplay and possess some kind of theatrical storytelling. I do think it’s out there. I think it’s a little tricky just because of the requirements of both, but I think it’s out there. 

THR: What would be the process of turning Skylanders into an animated series?

Sokolow: We’d have to all send letters to Bobby Kotick. We’ve been trying to convince the folks at Activision that Skylanders would lend itself to a great Saturday morning cartoon and we certainly have put in some creative thought at how to do that. It really is a question of whether Activision wants to get into that business, and I can’t answer that.