Five For Writing – Evan Skolnick

Evan Skolnick is the go-to writer when it comes to learning about writing for games. An established and talented writer himself, he also teaches a legendary tutorial at GDC and is a professor at the University of Silicon Valley. Plus, he’s written an exemplary book on game writing, Video Game Storytelling.A former comics writer for Marvel, Evan has seen it all, done it all, and written it all. Now, without further ado, Five for Writing with Evan Skolnick:

1-How did writing for comics inform your game writing?

As most folks reading this probably well know, writing for games is a whole other animal vs. writing for more traditional media such as comics, movies, TV, novels, and so forth. Although I entered the game industry in 2001 as a producer, I almost immediately began contributing narrative content to many of the games in our studio.
And I had so much to learn about writing for this new (to me) medium! There really was no such thing as a dedicated “game writer” back then, and the term “narrative designer” was years off as well. There were no books or guides on the subject in those days. So, like many folks during that time, I was kind of on my own, figuring it
out as I went.

During this process, while I had a lot of new things to get my head around, there were some elements from my comics-writing background that did prove helpful. The first was that I noticed a significant crossover between super hero comics and video games in terms of the power fantasy aspect, and that both media forms often
included elements of science fiction or fantasy. The visual storytelling aspect of comics, including that age-old Hollywood maxim of “show don’t tell”, is quite applicable to many games. And squeezing a lot of story
into a small space — the art of being concise and economical with your storytelling — is definitely shared across the two media forms.

Finally, comics are a collaborative medium, and so that helped prepare me for the same aspect in games.

2-You teach game writing at the University of Silicon Valley and give an acclaimed storytelling tutorial at GDC. What’s the secret to teaching people game writing?

There are two separate audiences for these two examples, so I have two different
answers.
For GDC, it’s a one-day tutorial, and the audience members span all game development disciplines. So in that brief time I have with them, I focus on simply recognizing that game narrative is always a cross-discipline team effort, and try to give the developers in that room some basic storytelling knowledge to help them become better narrative collaborators, regardless of their role on the team.

At USV, though, the audience for our game writing and narrative design curriculum consists of aspiring game designers and writers, and it’s multiple semesters as opposed to just a single day. So it’s about giving these students capability and experience in as many real-world game writing and narrative design challenges as
they’re likely to face in the industry. I draw heavily upon my own 20+ years in game development to come up with these lessons, exercises, situations and challenges — for example, working in pre-established IPs, writing cutscenes, barks, and lore items, world-building, character development, choice design, voice recording support, collaborating with other team members, planning and scoping a game’s narrative elements, and so forth.

I’m not sure there’s a single “key” to teaching game writing, but the principle I probably emphasize the most is that game storytelling is an enhancement to gameplay, and should be working to elevate it, not elbow it out of the way or stomp all over it.

3-What does it feel like to have a game you’ve written (Cuphead) translated into a TV show?

Well, I didn’t create the world, characters or story structure for Cuphead, so I’m probably not as emotionally attached to this IP as one might expect from just looking at the credits. I came on late in the project, as we game writers often do, and so my job was to help the team — who already had a very clear vision of the game
they wanted to make — tell the story they wanted to tell.

It was a lot of fun, Studio MDHR was wonderful to work with, and I feel fortunate to be associated with what ended up being such a successful, high-profile game. But am I surprised that Netflix didn’t consult the game writer to participate in the animated show’s planning or write scripts? Absolutely not.

4-What advice do you have for aspiring game writers?

I get asked the “how do I become a game writer” question so often, a while back I wrote a blog piece providing my own answer. I think it still holds up!

5-What says good game writing to you, and how do we get more of it?

So many things are involved when it comes to good game writing, starting with itbeing good writing, period.

But that said, you can’t just hire any writer for this. If you take an award-winning writer from another medium and just drop them into a game project, they’re likely to struggle because there are so many unique aspects to game narrative development. It’s a bit like when F. Scott Fitzgerald tried to take his novel-writing skills to Hollywood toward the end of his career — just because he was a great novelist, it didn’t necessarily follow that he could adapt those skills to writing for the screen. It’s like that, but multiply the differences by a factor of five.

Unlike in more traditional media, where (in theory at least) “story is king”, game writing is generally a support role. This is a foreign concept to writers who are used to kicking off the creative process or simply handing off a script. Good game writing is expertly woven into the gameplay experience and enhances the player’s enjoyment. It adds powerful emotional stakes to what could otherwise feel like empty and repetitive gameplay experiences. When done right, it’s an intensively collaborative process across nearly the entire team.

So how do we get more of it?

Fortunately, it’s already happening. We’re getting more and more strong game writing, thanks to the increasingly accepted reality that having professional game writers and narrative designers involved and empowered throughout the process is the path to a better result.

Five For Writing – Justin Achilli

Justin Achilli and I go way back. Like, to the mid 90s at White Wolf way back. It was a pleasure to work with him then, and it’s been a pleasure to work with him in his time at Red Storm. He’s one of the sharpest game designers I know, as well as an excellent writer and editor, and a thoughtful, eloquent advocate for games. Here he is now, the man who more than anyone embodies Vampire: The Masquerade – Justin Achilli.

 

1-You’ve been involved with Vampire: The Masquerade for over two decades. How has it changed in that time, and how has your approach to it changed?

For the longest time, Vampire (and all of the World of Darkness games) were made by a company that was a physical book publisher first and foremost. It needed to print and sell books to survive, so a lot of what went into the games served that end: Print stuff with a perceived value and sell that. We were writing and developing sequential periodicals as much as we were writing and developing games. Things like “metaplot” and “canon” emerged less from an intentional continuity and brand-building, and more from survival instinct.

Now, though, the company that owns the World of Darkness (Paradox Interactive), isn’t a physical book publisher at all. So my work on Vampire and other titles is refocused on building a sandbox in which people can tell their own stories rather than printing some-thousand words of plot advancements.

2-You’ve worked in both tabletop and video games. What did you carry over from one to the other?

Overall the thing that I find most important is to respect the player’s time. Audiences have a huge amount of options in terms of entertainment, so I think it’s important to realize what your game offers, whether it’s a TTRPG or a video game or whatever, and deliver on that promise.

I had been working on MMOs a while back and it used to bother me how a lot of MMO marketing was “you can be anything you can imagine in this enormous living world!” but their gameplay was built around three or four very distinct classes or roles and combat quests. That always seemed really disingenuous to me. Better to have a very limited scope and help the player tell the best story they can within that scope than to try to tick every box and deliver adequately on only a few of them. Pendragon is an amazing TTRPG, and characters are comparatively very limited in what they are: Arthurian-era, mostly knights. And look at, say, Stardew Valley — it doesn’t have one tenth of the feature list of, say, Star Citizen, but it’s made millions of people very happy by letting them tell a very distinct kind of story, and it doesn’t pretend to do anything else.

I think that’s the most important part. Let the player tell the story and live the fantasy you’ve promised to them. Games development is project management, so your resources should be scaled and devoted to fulfilling your promise.

Not a sexy answer, I suppose, but a good one, I think.

3-What do you feel is unique about game narrative, and have we been reaching its full potential?

The big difference between games and “one-way” media is the interactivity. In a game, the narrative is helping the player tell the story, so if the story relegates the player to making insignificant choices, it’s telling them that they don’t matter, that what the story “is really about” can happen without them. That does a disservice to the player, who’s playing to see the outcomes of their actions, to make choices and learn what those choices effected.

I don’t think we’re at the point of realizing the full potential there, and I think we’re still a distance away. Look at how long writing as a craft has existed, or creating visual art, or making music. Compared to those media, video games are in their infancy, and they’re a unique blend of all of those things and then some. Some of what’s limiting us is technical or technological — we can’t yet have an AI “game master” that’s as versatile as a human one, and we can’t ship an infinitude of digital assets to visualize or realize what a human game master can describe. But some of our limitation, too, is commercial, in that it’s really expensive to make games and the people funding them want to recoup their costs, so the expenses of risk-taking are much more controlled than in, say, an individual’s effort to tell the story that they’re burning to tell.

4-How do you think game design should be used to tell stories?

I think of game design as the “toolbox” the player has. A game effectively proposes a problem or a series of problems, and the design defines the parameters by which the player can attempt to solve those problems. So there are really two stories to every game (and sometimes they overlap very closely): the story of the player playing the game, and the story events that contextualize the game itself. The player’s story, and the world story that includes the character the player is portraying.

I think this is the part where I’m supposed to bring up the “does Tetris have a story?” exercise 😉

But seriously, I like the definition of a game as a series of interesting choices. “What happens when I do this?” is the source of myriad stories. They don’t all have to be epics or infinite. Some stories happen in a moment’s time.

5-Do you prefer open-ended or linear game narratives, and why?

As a personal preference, I enjoy open-ended narratives, because they make me feel more like I’m in charge of my own destiny. Especially when I’m able to create my own character, I feel like setting my own goals and realizing them is part of that open-endedness.

Which isn’t to diminish linear game narratives, of course, and I’ve worked on many of these. In complement to the above, when I’m playing a specific, named character, I tend to appreciate linear narrative smore, because I buy into the story that this is that character’s story and I’m helping realize it, as the player.

In the end, it has a lot to do with the promise that’s being made to me, especially in game worlds that are part of franchises. In a Star Trek game, I want to boldly go! But I also accept that I’m probably going to end up in conflict with the Klingons at some point. “Linear” doesn’t have to mean the player is resistant to being directed toward an outcome. If it’s part of what you buy into when you undertake the narrative, it’s reasonable to have some expectations.

 

Huge thanks to Justin for taking the time to sit down and answer these. You can find his wit and wisdom on Twitter, and in the continuing output of World of Darkness books.

Tune in next week for another interview!

 

Game Developers Conference Acceptance

I am pleased and proud to say that once again my Game Narrative Round Tables have been accepted for the main track at GDC. I’ve been running these off and on, mostly on, since 2007 or so, and I like to think they’re a valuable addition to the game writing community. Bringing folks who work in game narrative together so they can meet face to face, exchange ideas and best practices, support one another, and most of all have it reinforced they are not alone means a great deal toe me. Narrative can be a lonely job in game development – many studios don’t have narrative teams, so it’s hard for narrative specialists to find community or even someone who speaks their professional language. That I am able in some small way to help provide this is something I’m proud of.

GDC 2022 is March 21-25. The Game Narrative Summit, complete with the winners of the Student Narrative Competition, will run the 21-22nd. The main conference, including the round tables, will run the 23-25th.

Hope to see some of you there.