Game Writers in the Trenches™ 2: Tom Abernathy – The Narrative Design Exploratorium™

Game Writers in the Trenches™ 2: Tom Abernathy

Tom AbernathyThis is an ongoing NDE series featuring interviews with Game Writers in the Trenches™.  The game industry is riddled with the unsung heroes of interactive storytelling.  As game developers are increasingly looking to create meaningful virtual narrative experiences, listening to the real-world wisdom of these writers can help everyone on the development pipeline understand their trials, tribulations, and needs, in hopes of enabling them to do their job as they know best. Today’s game writer is Tom Abernathy, his journey as writer began in film, and now continues into video games. I’m hoping to see what we can learn from his experiences in the trenches of game development.

Stephen Dinehart: You are currently a Writer at Microsoft Game Studios. Your career has had you focused full-time on storytelling in some of the worlds top-tier studios, what is the most challenging part of writing stories for games?

Tom Abernathy: Without  question, the interactive element.  Those of us who have worked as writers in other narrative media are trained and experienced (if we ARE trained and experienced) in linear narrative.  The spin that interactivity – which is to say, non-linearity – puts on things can really mess with your head.  There are so many tools we’re used to having at our disposal – timing, sequence, parceling out information in a certain way, dramatic irony, on and on and on – that increasingly fly out the window the more control over the direction of things you give to the player.  We writers are used to driving the experience, and then in games, suddenly we’re not.  That’s a tough transition to make, and, after ten years in this industry, I’m still making it.

That being said, the challenge it presents is incredibly rewarding;
you’re forced to take out and reexamine all your habitual ways of doing
things and to ask yourself WHY you’ve done them that way and, now that
you can’t, how else you can do them and still get the kind of effect on
the player that you want.  Certainly, the more linear the narrative,
the easier it is.  But I’ve really come to appreciate and embrace the
challenge of giving some control over to the player.  It’s a Zen
experience; it’s all about letting go.

DAH! Box ArtSED: Was there a realization at some point in your life that you wanted to write specifically for games?

I think so, yeah.  Not in the sense of an apple-on-the-head moment, but
I remember quite clearly when I was in film school at USC getting my
MFA in ’95 or ’96, being in my apartment and looking to video games to
give me a break from the grind of that program, firing up the PS1 and
playing the stuff that was out that had any pretension to narrative,
and just wanting to hurl the controller at the TV set.  The kindest
thing I can say about most of those games was that the writing seemed
to have been done by a well-meaning amateur with some innate ability
but no craft, no sense of what separates good writing from bad or good
storytelling from mediocre storytelling or flat, boring characters from
characters that pop off the screen and get you interested.  (Never
having been a big PC gamer, I wasn’t aware at the time that, even then,
there were some PC games that aspired to more, writing-wise, and even a
few that achieved more.  But even if it had, I think the contrast would
have just made me angrier.)

And the thing was, given my varied
background as an actor, a theatre director, a filmmaker and a
screenwriter, I just KNEW I could do better.  I didn’t know how well I
could do, but I knew I could do better than what I was seeing, just by
bringing some of my skills gained in other media to games.  (One thing
I think helped was that, with such a varied background, I was already
used to approaching a new medium and figuring out how I could take what
I had learned in another and bring it to bear; I’d had to do that
several times already.)  So I went on a crusade to find someone in the
games industry who would give me a chance to do that.

SED: Can you tell me the story of your first gamewriting gig?

Having determined to set myself on the aforementioned crusade, I found
myself fortunate in friends – my girlfriend at the time, though a
Cinema Studies MA candidate at USC, had taken a job as an assistant to
Howard Marks at what was then Activision Studios (because no one ever
tells you how hard it is to actually get work in the film industry). 
(She actually now runs a games localization company, so it all worked
out for her.)  A close friend of ours moved to LA to take a production
assistant job at Activision which she had alerted him to, and so
suddenly I knew two people in games.  (If Constant Reader gets nothing
else out of all my blabbering, get this: The cliché about it being all
about who you know?  You have NO IDEA how true that is, in Hollywood
and in games.  Networking is the name of the game, end of sentence. 
And here I was, doing just that, essentially by accident.)

My friend agreed with me 100% about the state of writing in games, and
together we conspired to get someone at Activision Studios to let me
write on their game instead of just handing it off to the level
designer or the audio engineer or the producer’s friend who was taking
an Intro Screenwriting class at UCLA Extension (don’t laugh; that’s who
usually wrote whatever needed writing, and still often does).  My Big
Break™ came when the honchos making Heavy Gear finally decided they
were tired of listening to my friend harangue them about me and, after
seeing a sample, contracted me to write the cut scenes for their game. 
This being 1997 or ’98, there were only about five cinematics, as I
recall, and they gave me not one iota of guidance as to the world or
the characters – and why would they have?  They didn’t understand that
I needed that stuff, because they didn’t really know anything about
what a real writer did; that was the whole point.  So I muddled through
and turned in a draft of which I was inordinately proud, and then I
never heard from them again.  Being a Mac person, I was never even able
to play the game, so to this day I don’t know for sure if they even
used what I wrote.

the foot was in the door, and my own learning process about the
differences between writing for movies, television or the stage and
writing for interactive experiences had begun.  It will probably never
stop.  And when Activision shuttered their studio and some of the guys
there spun off and created Pandemic Studios, my friend went with them
as one of ten or twelve original employees, and that led to me doing
more work for them as a contractor and, eventually, to my writing
Destroy All Humans!, which became my real big break (ironic trademark
reference not included).

SED: What are the primary creative differences between the, contract and staff, writing positions you have had?

Well, in this industry a contract writer is nearly always brought in
late in the process to write or re-write dialogue originally produced
by, usually, a level designer or audio engineer or producer’s best
friend, etc. (see previous answer).  His or her creative input is
likely to be neither desired nor appreciated, since by that point the
team is generally dealing with much more urgent issues, like the fact
that there’s no way in hell they’re ever going to make their date.  So
you smile and listen to what they have to say, which is generally brief
and harried, and then you go off and you try to make something coherent
and interesting out of the odds and ends you’ve been given.  I’ve
described the process as being akin to trying put together a jigsaw
puzzle in the dark; you’re given as many pieces as the team can put
their hands on, but there’s often no one who can explain to you how
it’s all supposed to fit together – which is the whole point; that’s
why they need you, although they may not realize it.  In every other
dramatic medium, that’s the writer’s job description: to see clearly
how it’s all supposed to fit together.  That’s what we do better than
anyone else…which is why I far prefer being on staff.  Even leaving
aside issues like having a stable income and benefits and all that
stuff – which certainly held appeal for me with a new baby on the way
when I came on-board full-time at Pandemic in early 2005 – the only way
a writer is ever going to get to do what a writer is SUPPOSED to do is
if he or she is on the team from the beginning, playing an
appropriately core role in the development of the game’s IP, world,
characters, and story.  We are uniquely qualified to do those tasks –
they draw directly on expertise we bring to a team that, in most cases,
no one else on the team has – and, speaking for myself, I’m only really
happy if I’m in on that part of the process.

I mean, I can toss
off witty and character-specific dialogue all day long, but, contrary
what most people running game developers and teams seem to think,
that’s not the meat of what a writer does.  The meat of our job is the
THINKING that goes on before a line of dialogue ever gets committed to
paper – the brainstorming and developing of fully imagined and realized
worlds and people and situations.  One reason we haven’t seen much good
game writing until the last few years is that few developers were
giving good writers the chance to do in a games context what good
writers do all the time in other contexts.  (Another reason is that the
discipline is still inventing itself; even skilled writers still
struggle with the challenges games present.)

So if you’re an
aspiring game writer – if games are your medium and you’re not just
killing time while you try to sell your screenplay – I honestly don’t
know why you’d prefer contracting to being on staff, assuming you can
find someone who’s willing to hire you on full-time.  Even the money
isn’t different enough to offset the loss of creative input.  If you’re
younger and like the flexibility, or if you get your primary creative
satisfaction from something else you do on the side, I guess I can see
the argument.  But that’s not how I work.

SED: As a staff writer are you able to have more influence on the design of a game in preproduction?

Unquestionably.  The team knows you; you interact with them
constantly.  You’re not some interloper from the outside, you’re one of
the team.  Just being able to have ad hoc conversations about stuff in
the break room with designers and artists and even programmers is

SED: Why is that important?

Well, if you’re not a very good writer, or if you’re just an English
major who wants to break into games but knows you’re not very
technically inclined, maybe it’s not.  But as I said, I don’t work that
way; if I’m not creatively invested in what I’m doing, I lose
interest.  It’s not the most effective way for a developer to use me. 
Put me on the team early and let me do what I do well: contribute to
creating and developing the world, the characters, the story, the tone,
the mood – even, given my background as a director and filmmaker, the
look – of the game.  Let me help craft the big picture.  (If there’s a
creative director or a team lead or a lead designer doing that, great. 
But often there isn’t, and heaven knows somebody needs to.  Might as
well be me, since I’m good at it.)

I mean, look, at some level
this comes down to something as elementary as: Why do your job well? 
Why care that much?  And I’ve certainly known and worked with (and,
sadly, for) plenty of people who didn’t much care about doing their
jobs well.  For them, it was about the money or the cachet (speaking of
some of the ones I worked for) or the chance to actually make a living
in video games (some of the ones I worked with).  And I guess you might
find that in any line of work.  (It is sad, though, when it’s the guy
running things.  I mean, imagine the impact on a team if their director
clearly is coming in to work for no reason other than the money he’s
getting paid or the stock he’s hoping to get if the developer gets
bought.  That sort of thing will kill morale faster than a BFG to the
left temporal lobe.)

As stated, that’s not how I work.  I care
about what I do.  I care just as much if I’m the lowest paid member of
the team as I do if I’m the highest.  That’s not to say I don’t want to
be fairly rewarded for what I do, and by normal standards (i.e. those
found anyplace outside Los Angeles County), I have been.  But that’s
not what gets me going; that’s not what makes me grind and crunch and
go to bed and wake up thinking about the project.  Pride in my work,
that’s what makes me do those things – and that’s why any dev team
should be thrilled to have a writer who feels that way, and that’s why
any writer who feels that way should want to get on staff full-time. 
Contractors don’t get that; they get higher per-week fees (and also
have to pay for their own health insurance), but they don’t get THAT. 
I can’t work without it.

SED: As a gamewriter how does well-crafted gameplay affect your work and vision?

Tom_Abernathy_AGDC.jpgTA: It aids me enormously.  What I think helps the game even more – and I’ll be talking about this in my session at Austin GDC
– is when the designer and writer have worked through the process to
craft the gameplay and the narrative in concert.  What I do is properly
viewed as a part of the design process, and my work benefits enormously
when choices are made in collaboration with design, just as the
designer’s work will be strengthened by choices made knowingly in sync
with the characters and story.  I won’t go into specifics here, but
even a cursory look at a game like Bioshock shows the creative power
and the magnitude of the experience to be had by a player when game
mechanics and mission design are created in concert with the
development of a character’s tactics and sequence objectives.  The
things the character wants and needs dovetail with the designer’s
mission plan; the character’s strengths and weaknesses are inextricably
woven into the powers and limitations the player is given. 
Interdependence like that between design and writing is hard to do, but
the payoff is undeniable.  The only question to the designer and the
writer is, are you willing to work that hard?  Do you care that much? 
(And if you don’t, why the hell are you doing this?  There are easier
ways to make money.)

SED: How do you see game development changing to meet the growing expectations of today’s audiences?

I’ll be honest: I don’t see it, not yet.  In my new position at
Microsoft Game Studios, I come into contact with a lot of developers,
and I see them all struggling with the massive practical difficulties
of ratcheting up their operations to make next-generation AAA titles. 
The technology is outpacing our ability to develop for it, both
effectively and economically; the process takes too long, and it takes
too many person-hours.  The industry’s reigning business model no
longer works as currently constituted – companies can’t continue
spending $20 million, $30 million or more on games that have to do
Gears of War numbers to make it back, because most of them won’t do
that kind of business.  I personally haven’t heard of any company who I
think really has that problem licked, at least not outside a specific
successful franchise.

So the question is, how do you lick it? 
Well, you can do what Valve does, and finance your games with
technology you develop and license, and thus remove some of the
financial pressure of having to rush a game out before it’s really
ready.  I know some business development people who are skeptical of
Valve’s model, especially the downloadable part, but I see in it a
similarity to what Pixar did, developing RenderMan and tasking John
Lassiter et al. to create content with that technology to show it off
and sell it, until they were able to get to the point where the content
was really driving the company, as they had always hoped and planned
for.  Even now, they still make a lot of money off the technology
they’ve created, but it gives them the freedom not to be dependent
exclusively on the whims of the market.  That, it seems to me, is a
direction Valve could move even farther in if they want to.  (I have no
idea if they do.)

But to really lick it, I think we all may have
to adjust our idea of what a video game is.  Every day we move closer
to that Matrix-y ideal of creating experiences so fully immersive that
the user might even forget it’s not “real.”  In some ways that goal is
almost in sight, in terms of environmental art and physics and stuff
like that.  But making something that looks and feels like a world is
one thing; programming it to come alive in a way that supports such a
fantasy is another.  From a writing point of view, I won’t be truly
happy until somebody writes AI code that, working from my first
principles, can create its own spontaneous dialogue in the voice of a
given character, thus bringing into sight the possibility of an
experience that, once set in motion, literally creates itself based on
user input.  I don’t see that happening anytime soon, but I can dream.

the meantime, some designers and programmers may be dismissive of game
writing – though I think their number shrinks each day, and has never
included the best ones I’ve met – but players are not.  I just finished
reading the reviews gathered on Metacritic for Pandemic’s Mercenaries
2, a game that I’m rooting for since I know a lot of the people who
worked on it.  I’ve been astounded to see how many of the reviews have
dealt with the story and the writing – especially since the story in
the first Mercenaries was non-existent and writing was NEVER sold as a
big part of that franshise.  Like it or not, players and critics are
coming to expect ever-more sophisticated writing from all but the most
narrative-free of games.  It’s not really optional anymore, and
developers and publishers would be smart to sit up and take notice. 
(MGS has done, which is why it hires writers like me and great editors
to work with us on all the games it publishes.)

Having worked with THQ where the Narrative Design position is being
‘openly’ embraced, do you see you work as a gamewriter being different?

TA: Well, it’s not really accurate to say I worked with THQ in any significant way, aside from their producer on the DAH! games,
Derek Proud, and in any event DAH! 2 came out almost two years ago.  I
was unaware that they’ve embraced the Narrative Design position – I
don’t know that they had done so while I was still involved with them –
but if so, I applaud them for it.

I’m not particularly
doctrinaire about titles, aside from the issue of the lack of respect
that of “writer” tends to engender at game companies.  While at
Pandemic I was made a “writer/designer” (and, later, “senior
writer/designer”), a title change I welcomed simply because I knew
people in this business respect designers a lot more than they do
writers.  All things being equal, I’m prouder of the title “writer”
than anything else I’ve ever been called (except “Daddy”) and more than
content to be called that.

The problem, though, is that
everybody has a different idea of what “writer” means.  Given my
background, I have a very specific idea of it, as noted above.  In
every other narrative medium in which writers are involved, the writer
is the originator, and frequently keeper, of the vision of a project,
the creator of the blueprint from which others build the actual
edifice.  This has not been the case in games – in the same way, and
for the same reasons, that early 20th Century filmmakers had no one
“writing” their movies but simply made the stories up themselves on the
day of the shoot – but there’s no good reason it can’t be the case,
assuming the writer involved understands gameplay and game design well
enough.  In earlier days the technology wasn’t sufficiently advanced to
need narratives more sophisticated than what a talented amateur could
come up with, but those days are gone.  Of course the concept for a
great narrative game can come from anyone – but to develop that concept
with skill, craft and artistry you need someone who can do what a
writer does every day on any project in any other medium.  It’s simply
a matter of a branching-off of a sub-specialization, just as game
design itself was once a branching-off of a sub-specialization, and the
fact that some designers are so threatened by game writers is
mystifying to me.  

As far as “Narrative Designer” goes, then, I
think that what I’ve done in my capacities at Pandemic and, to some
degree, at MGS falls under what many people would see as that title’s
job description.  Standardization of titles and roles in this industry
wouldn’t be a bad thing; I guess that’s what the IGDA is trying to
accomplish.  In any case, if it makes someone happier to call me a
writer or a narrative designer, or to be called one or the other
themselves, that’s cool by me.  I’m going to be approaching my work in
the same comprehensive fashion either way.  So for me, no, there is no
significant difference.  (Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham: “Honey, would you
rather I were making love to him using your name, or making love to you
using his name?”)

SED: What does gamestory mean to you? How does it differ from other forms of storytelling?

It means the story that the player perceives through the experience of
playing the game.  That’s potentially distinct, of course, from the
story the writer or anyone else intends the player to perceive.  In
other narrative media the writer, or the writer and director, determine
the story and the audience receives it; he or she has a subjective
experience, but that experience is a reaction to stimuli which are the
same for every member of the audience.

In a game, on the other
hand, the player is active and makes choices throughout the experience
that change the stimuli, and perceives his or her resulting experience
as the narrative.  What’s important about that is that it means that
EVERYTHING that happens to the player is potentially a carrier for
story: the sounds, the environments, the NPCs, the physics,
everything.  Put simply, it’s the difference between watching someone
else’s experience – even at an intimate remove – and living it
yourself.  For my favorite recent example, please see Portal, a game
with two characters and perhaps fifty lines of dialogue, but LOADS of

SED: Is gameplay capable of creating the same kind of emotions experienced when consuming a well-crafted film or novel?

I don’t know, and I’m not sure it needs or should even want to.  Again,
I come back to that key distinction: In other narrative media, we
receive the artist’s work and experience it as at least somewhat
passive observers.  In games, however, we are a full partner in the
work itself.  We live it; we determine its course, to some extent at
least.  Can we feel those Aristotelian states – pity, revulsion,
catharsis – about an experience in which we are not merely an observer
but a participant?  Or are they by definition the emotions of an
observer, and rendered unattainable and irrelevant when that distance
is removed?

It reminds me of the way that, after I went to film
school, friends sometimes remarked that I was less fun to go to the
movies with – I couldn’t discard the knowledge I brought to it; I
couldn’t, as Lawrence Kasdan wrote in The Big Chill, “let art wash over
me” anymore the way I used to before I could analyze what I was
seeing.  Now, that didn’t make the experience any less enjoyable for me
– I loved going to movies more than ever – but the way in which I was
engaging with movies was more active and analytical, less passive and
purely emotional, than it had been before.  I wonder if that’s the
natural state of the game player, and if, by logical extension, it’s
foolish of us to dream of evoking from him reactions which are passive
and emotional and, in the end, simply not viable in our medium. 
Perhaps we should embrace the cooler, more active and analytical
reactions of someone who is aware simultaneously of living in the real
world and yet acting in the one we’ve made for her.  (Of course, that’s
another kind of distance, in itself.)  I don’t know that that’s true,
but I do wonder about it.

SED: How does narrative structure help you create a better game?

One might as well ask how structure helps a writer in any medium, or
indeed any artist at all.  My acting teacher in college, from whom I
learned more about the creative process than from anyone else, used to
quote an old martial arts mantra: “Discipline is freedom.”  Sounds
absurd; what in the world could it mean?

What it means is this:
talent without technique is useless.  It flounders about like a
headless chicken.  You cannot grow at anything you want to be good at
until you learn and practice and master its technical elements, because
until then the work you do will be sincere but amateurish.  Charlie
Parker did not pick up the saxophone and immediately begin to
improvise; he mastered scales and fingering and embouchure and modes
and harmony and syncopation… and then, and only then, once he had
learned and practiced those things until they were ingrained deep into
his bones and he could call them up effortlessly into his mouth and
fingers without conscious thought, only then did he begin to
improvise.  When you have learned and mastered everything you can in
your craft, then you are liberated.  You can stop thinking about that
stuff and start creating.

The analogy to narrative structure is
worth making.  One of the great things about learning the craft of
screenwriting is that you grasp quickly the inescapable truth of
William Goldman’s dictum, “Screenplays ARE structure.”  Meaning that a
screenplay is a blueprint and the structural integrity of its story is
essential to its success; the natural rhythms that emerge from a story
soundly built are almost inevitably more satisfying to your audience
than a rambling, “this happened then that happened” tale.  Imagine a
building made from a blueprint that ignores the need for structural
integrity and weight support, and you’ll get a small sense of the
potential dangers implied in the analogy.  A story without structure
meanders aimlessly without purpose, and sooner or later loses the
interest of its audience.  With extremely few exceptions, people need
to feel that the storyteller knows where the damn thing is going. 
(Goldman’s other famous dictum about Hollywood is “Nobody knows
anything,” which, while unquestionably true, is another meme for
another conversation.)

Organ Box Box ArtSED: What is one of your favorite gamestory experiences and why?

I’d have to go with Portal, because that’s the game that still stays
with me ten months after I played it.  I truly think it’s a harbinger
of things to come, not just because of the minimalism and the clinic
that Wolpaw and Swift and the rest of them put on in giving us less
rather than more and letting us fill in the blanks ourselves, but
because it does what gamestorytelling must do if it’s ever going to
grow beyond just aping the conventions of other media: it recognizes
the demands of an interactive medium and adapts to them.  There are no
cinematics.  There are only two characters, and one of them’s a
cipher.  The gameplay never stops to give the player an information
dump.  The storytelling is woven into the gameplay and the environment
and the (very little) dialogue, spoken only by GLaDOS; it’s subtle and
organic and inextricable from the experience of playing the game.  It
is, in my opinion, the best example yet of video game writing working
hand-in-hand with design in a way which can only happen in this
medium.  (This is one of the big points of my talk in Austin, by the
way.)  The more I think about it, the more I think it’s practically
perfect, an exquisite sonata of a game.

SED: How do you see story fitting into the interactive entertainment of tomorrow?

Here’s the thing: there’s no getting away from story.  The recalcitrant
designers who refuse to see the similarity between our situation now
and theirs twenty-five years ago can turn a blind eye all they want,
but the simply fact is that, as I said earlier, people perceive a
narrative whether you intend it or not; our brains are hardwired to
seek out patterns in noise.  And the more sophisticated the rest of the
interactive experience is – the more it replicates reality, or at least
“realities” – the more the audience is going to expect narratives on
the same level.

And the bottom line is (and I know I’m making
few friends among designers when I say this): Most game designers can’t
do what a good writer can do.  It’s not in their skill set, though some
of them would like to assume it is.  While a writer/designer at
Pandemic, I learned enough about design to know what I’m not good at. 
What the really talented designers I’ve been privileged to watch, like
Tom French or Scott Warner or Chris Blohm – the things they can do, I
just shake my head in wonder at.  They’re brilliant people and thinkers
in their discipline, and I would never in a million years be able to do
what they do.  And their role in the game development process is
central, and nothing will ever change that.  But most designers (though
not all) have no real training or experience working as a writer or a
shaper of narrative in any medium.  And the good ones know that, and
welcome good writers, because they know we’ll make the game better, and
in the end, that’s all most of us in this industry really want.

SED: Thanks for your time Tom. I look forward to your session at the Austin Game Developers Conference.

stands out as a great example of a cinematic storyteller swayed by the
power of interactivity. His works stand out with the character, charm
and wit he clearly displays as a person. In the trenches of game
development lurks a creature so heinously talented that he will one day
shake the media we so proudly stand upon, that creature is the game
writer, one we will surely come to learn more about. Tom’s session at the AGDC “Galatea 3.0: Designing and Writing Great Game Characters”, is on Monday at 4:30 PM. Hope to see some of you there. For the Narrative Design Exploratorium, I’m Stephen Erin Dinehart.

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This page contains a single article by Stephen E. Dinehart published on September 10, 2008 11:25 PM.

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The NDE’s author Stephen E. Dinehart is a transmedia designer, writer, artist, and Creative Director at NarrWare LLC. He is currently working on unannounced projects. Read more @

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