Game Writers in the Trenches™ 7: Evan Skolnick
This 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 Evan Skolnick, having a long career in other media formats Evan comes to video games with a fresh set of tools to help answer time tested questions. I’m hoping to see what we can learn from his experiences in the trenches of game development.
Stephen Dinehart: First off can you tell me your title and what you do at your studio, Vicarious Visions?
Evan Skolnick: Sure. Officially, I’m a Producer, and less-than-officially, I’m the company’s Editorial Director. Which means that most of the time I manage video game projects, and in my copious free time I help with narrative quality control across all our titles. That can range from getting hip-deep in the story content from Day One (best case), all the way down to just being asked to review the in-game text a day before Beta (worst case).
For the past two years, however, I’ve been devoting the vast majority of my time to my role as Lead Writer on Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 (MUA2). On that project, the role has included collaborating with key design personnel on the overall game and story structure; writing all of the cutscenes; writing much of the in-game narrative content and serving as editor on the rest; managing freelance writers; helping with voiceover casting, direction and takes selection; and various other related responsibilities. It’s been a fantastic experience.
SD: You’ve been working in video games for almost a decade now — what has it taught you?
I guess the main thing this has all taught me is that it’s really,
really hard to integrate strong narrative content into a game. There
are so many barriers to brilliant execution of story in a game, it’s
not surprising it’s so rare. In fact it’s a wonder it ever happens at
SD: As a game maker, how do quality gamestories help you make a better gameplay experience?
By providing meaning, context and emotion. Gameplay provides the “What” and the “How”, while game narrative provides the “Why”.
Why even bother with “why”? Boiled down to its core essence, most gameplay can be pretty repetitious and over time could, by itself, seem increasingly pointless.
For example, contrast these hypothetical mission objectives from a Call of Duty-style game. The first version is the
normal one, and the second has had all narrative-related items completely stripped out. Gameplay in both is exactly the same.
1. One of our tanks is disabled and the crew is taking heavy fire. They need our help! Get to the outskirts of town and defend the crippled tank from the encroaching enemy forces until repairs can be completed.
2. Move to the tank-shaped polygon at coordinates 24,56. Prevent it from taking 300 hit points of damage before 5 minutes have elapsed.
In version 1, you’d initially hear your commanding officer barking at you to hurry up and get to that tank. Once you got there, you’d hear the
panicked yells of the men trapped inside the damaged vehicle, asking for your help. And you’d either hear their thanks if you succeeded, or their death screams if you failed.
In version 2, there would be no voiceover. Even in this relatively simple example, it’s obvious which version is going to feel more engaging. Character, world and story can fill out a standard game experience into something truly memorable and special.
That said, if the core gameplay stinks, the narrative won’t really matter. In general, gameplay is the meal and narrative is the spice.
SD:I’d completely agree, I had to design a tank crew with my coworkers for Tales of Valor, the technique you describe was precisely our approach. We still had talking heads, but the player could turn them off. Like you said, it’s all about context and emotion. Which makes me think of a thread I’ve been reading about the idea that a system like that ismsomething new. I’m not a fan of the linear vs. non-linear debate. In any AAA video game the point is moot. That said, what are your thoughts about the idea that’s floating out there that we should stop usingm cut-scenes all together?
ES: I don’t think about that debate much, as I think it’s kind of a silly argument to even get into. It would be like novelists arguing over whether books should ever be written in first-person voice, or movie directors debating whether they should collectively agree to abolish the crane shot. Cutscenes are a tool in the game writer’s arsenal. If a writer wants to use them, she should. If she’d rather try to work around them, that’s fine too.
SD: Does overt dramatic exposition have a special place in video games?
ES: If comprehension of that exposition is necessary in order to get through the game, then I’d say yes. I mean, if you’re watching a movie
and you miss an important plot point, it doesn’t make it physically impossible for you to experience the rest of the film. It just means you might be a bit confused for a while.
But in games there are bits of information that you absolutely need to grok if you’re going to progress. And that’s probably one of the myriad reasons exposition often feels like it’s being clumsily handled in games… the designers and/or writers are being forced to hammer the player over the head with this vital information.
SD: What about writing for games is most challenging for you?
ES: The dynamic nature of video game development is very exciting. You’re rarely doing the same thing two days in a row, and it’s a thrill to see the content coming together in the builds.
But for an embedded writer, this dynamism can sometimes prove to be a double-edged sword. You’ll find yourself spending a surprisingly high percentage of your time solving narrative challenges that have arisen due to the ever-changing and evolving game design. To bastardize an old quote: “No game writing plan survives contact with the dev team.”
During game development there is an almost-constant sense of the ground moving under the writer’s feet that is at times invigorating, and at other times unsettling. Gameplay has been radically updated, and scenes you worked hard to craft, polish and integrate no longer fit. There’s rarely even time for you to mourn the loss… the team needs a new solution, now.
All you can do is chuckle to yourself, let it go, and attack this new challenge. The good news is that a great sense of satisfaction is almost always awaiting you on the other side of creatively solving the problem. But staying focused and positive through these tribulations can at times be challenging.
Every writer needs to be flexible, of course, but I think the game writer might have the greatest requirement for the sustained ability to demonstrate this quality.
SD: I couldn’t agree with you more. I sometimes have great envy for creative processes that are less iterative. It’s almost the most challenging part of writing and designed narrative systems for games. Do you think that will ever change? That is do you think video games will ever produce games with a more Hollywood-centric model whereby the game would emerge from written documentation?
ES: No, I don’t think so. One thing that’s generally agreed upon in our industry is that iteration is at the heart of successful game development. The idea that we’ll someday get so smart that we can confidently design a game completely on paper without the need for significant iteration is folly.
SD: How much classical story structure do you use in the creation of your gamestories?
ES: Classical story structure is something I emphasize in my GDC game writing tutorial for beginners; in particular, the Three Act Structure and the Monomyth (or Hero’s Journey). It’s important to have these theories under your belt. But at a certain point in your development as a writer you internalize these structures to the degree that you don’t consciously think about them much anymore.
What I focus more on in my own work and when helping shape the writing of our games in general is characterization, believability, internal logic, consistency, and the avoidance of coincidence and deus ex machina.
Oh, and punctuation! My God, when did correctly using commas become a lost art?
SD: I’m a big semicolon fan these days; see I just feel better. No but really, while I love Campbell and his Monomyth, do you think that maybe we’ve embraced his critique of myth too much?
ES:Like any tool, the Monomyth can be used for good or for ill. It’s a structure that’s useful for beginning writers to be aware of. It’s often startling to them that so many stories, from the oldest myths to the latest summer blockbusters, all share so many components of this magic formula. I remember it surprising the hell out of me!
Does employing the Monomyth structure and archetypes guarantee you’ll have a good story? Of course not. Does avoiding them guarantee that your story will be terrible? Again, no.
It’s kind of like being an architect and knowing how most architects have approached building, say, a house. There’s some core wisdom there that has been refined and handed down for centuries: load-bearing walls, ventilation, lighting, flow, convenience. There’s no law that says you have to do everything “by the book”, but at the same time does it really make sense to throw out all that core wisdom?
For myself, the Monomyth serves as a handy checking tool. If I’ve written something and it feels out of kilter, I might do a quick Hero’s Journey check on it and see if there’s something major I might be missing, that might be making it feel unbalanced. I’ve used Dramatica the same way.
SD: Having crossed the divide working on Marvel comics and now Marvel video games, how much has changed? That is, when you sit down to write familiar characters is it like riding an old bike again, or do you feel that writing them into a video game somehow might give them a different voice?
ES: Definitely like riding the old bike! Spidey is Spidey, whether he’s in a comic or in a game. And thank goodness for that.
One especially interesting part of game writing for a project like Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 is writing the Spider-Man dialogue for a scene, then asking myself, “Okay, what would Captain America say in this situation?” And writing that. Then asking, “What would the Hulk say in this situation?” And writing that. And so on.
The variety of characters and voices in a game like MUA2 is a writer’s smorgasbord. It’s a rare treat.
SD: I’m sure it’s a fantastic feeling when it’s clicking, like the MU speaking in your head. What parallels can you draw between comic book and video game development?
ES: In both cases you’ve got creative people working together to create an entertainment product. Often you’re targeting the same audience – young (and young-at-heart) males – and providing them with a similarly-themed experience: the power fantasy.
There are many more differences than similarities, however. I may have transitioned from being a comic book editor and writer to being a video game producer and writer, but it didn’t happen overnight. I had a LOT to learn, and I am in fact still in that process.
SD: You’ve been with Vicarious Visions for nearly 7 years now… what can you tell me about the studio culture?
ES: Vicarious Visions has grown from a staff of about 70 when I joined in 2002 to over 200 today. While the company has gone through some transitions, I’d say its culture remains a unique combination of creative and corporate sensibilities.
When I started at VV there were still many “garage band” developers out there, running on enthusiasm and talent but little discipline. Even back then VV was way ahead of the curve when it came to treating game development like other software development, and applying tools such as focused project management, risk assessment, mitigation strategies, peer reviews, and so forth.
So, I’d say VV’s studio culture is equal parts fun and serious business. From agile project management training to mustache-growing contests, and everything in between.
SD: That sounds like a fantastic production environment. I’m a firm believer that the production process for games shouldn’t be too different from other media endeavors. No wonder you’ve managed to stay with them for 7 years. It must almost feel like home. Being of the culture, what would you lose if you decentralized the process and brought teams together to execute projects, and then let them go their way until called upon again, again in a Hollywood style model?
ES: Actually, within our walls we do have our own little version of the Hollywood model, since we’re often working on multiple projects a once. Our teams do break up at the end of a project cycle and very often are rearranged for the next round of projects. It’s a cross-training approach that mainly arises out of the specialized needs of the next group of projects.
However, I don’t think the true Hollywood-style model – in which everyone on the team is essentially a contractor on a single-project basis – is a very good idea for game development in general. Certainly not across the board. The Hollywood model pretty much assumes everyone in the industry is located in the same city. That isn’t true at all for video games. And even if it were, you’d really have a problem on the programming and technology side of things if you were constantly firing your entire staff of engineers for one project and then hiring a bunch of different people for the next one. It would be hugely inefficient.
The Hollywood model breaks down even in Hollywood, when you get to CGI production houses – which are probably a lot closer to game developers than most standard movie studios. Look at Pixar, PDI, Blue Sky… these are creative, tight-knit, tech-oriented studios that don’t lay their people off in between projects. Their cumulative, shared learnings are not something they’d just want to give away, and neither would we.
SD: That’s a great point. Where does writing fit into the big picture at Vicarious Visions?
ES: I’ve been an advocate for high-quality writing in our games for most of my time at VV. Management has always been receptive, and the company has been kind enough to regularly send me to the GDC conferences to learn from the business’s top narrative experts, and also to present lectures and tutorials on game writing to the industry at large. I also offer my presentations at VV to our Design team and anyone else who has an interest.
However, like most game studios, we don’t have any full-time resources dedicated to writing. There are a number of very good writers and narrative designers at VV, but they all have other responsibilities as well.
Now that we are moving full throttle into the Action RPG space, we know we will need to continue to step it up in the game narrative department. I believe as we move forward this will become an increased area of focus for the company, so we can deliver games that will rival those of the very stiff competition that’s out there. I’m excited to be a part of that.
SD: Sounds like you have a prime opportunity. I’m a firm believer that there should be full time writers and/or narrative designers on staff; part of the process from day one; a person that owns the story, and is its keeper. It’s a hard role to implement, but by golly I’ll see it happen. That’s why I’m looking for falling stars.
After a quick look over at the AGDC website I realize you speaking at this year. What’s the topic?
ES: I’m co-presenting with MUA2 Narrative Designer Jonathan Mintz. We’re doing a one-hour lecture which is essentially a behind-the-scenes retrospective on the narrative development of MUA2… everything from creative decisions to nitty-gritty pipeline stuff. We learned a lot during development of this title and we want to share some of those hard-earned lessons.
SD: I look forward to it. If you had a super power what would it be?
ES: Ruining anyone’s enjoyment of a book or movie by deconstructing it afterward.
SD: Seriously, though, do you have any advice for young readers looking to get into writing and entertainment production?
ES: Ah, the classic question. I really hate trying to answer this one because I’m afraid someone out there will attempt to follow my advice, investing years of his life into it, only to find that what worked for me didn’t work for him.
My so-generic-as-to-be-nearly-useless advice for someone who has genuine writing talent (without that you really don’t have a chance) would be: get educated, get writing, get feedback, get connected, get your foot in the door, get busy, and get lucky. Probably in that order.
SD: Your new project Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 takes place in Marvel’s Civil War period — a fantastic event in the Marvel Universe involving the Superhuman Registration Act. The property is fraught with contemporary political commentary. Does any of that make it into the game?
ES: Oh, most definitely. Game Director Dan Tanguay, Narrative Designer Jonathan Mintz and I worked closely together to make sure the
contemporary themes of the Civil War comics made the transition to our version of the story. It would have been a disservice to jettison that meaty material! Plus I think the modern audience is ready for a Marvel game with more depth and relevance than has traditionally been seen.
We especially focused on trying to keep those moral shades nice and grey – in other words, not simply painting Anti-Reg as good and Pro-Reg as
evil (or vice versa). When it’s a choice between national security and personal liberties, both sides usually have some good arguments. At a
certain point in the game the player is forced to choose a side, and we really want them to experience the angst of making that momentous decision.
The choice shouldn’t amount to, “Oh, I guess I’ll choose to be the Good Guys this time around, and check out being Evil next time.” We want the player to really ask himself, “Geez, which side is right?”
SD: That sounds like a lot fun. Many people, including myself, are excited to play it. Having looked at the possibilities for using this property for a game, I was surprised how melodramatic it was. I don’t mean that in a negative sense, but it was a lot less combat driven than I expected. I’m wondering how your game has streamlined drama, keeping the experience more action focused, while maintaining all the depth of the event?
ES: The Civil War comics storyline is high drama, no question… operatic at moments. You’ve got the heroic ideal being shredded before the public’s eyes, a government turning on its people’s protectors, and super hero friendships and even families being torn apart by this conflict.
So it was powerful, but it was also voluminous, with more narrative content than we’d want to try to shoehorn into a single video game.
Therefore, going in we really tried to focus on the main themes and the key moments of that story, and craft a “What If?” scenario based on them
that would work for our four-character, dungeon-crawling mechanic. Anything that didn’t fit that mechanic, we either modified – sometimes quite heavily – or worked around.
Also, Civil War is only a part of the story in MUA2. First off, there’s an extended lead-up to the actual war. You couldn’t just start this game with the heroes already at each other’s throats, after all.
We felt that in the comics the groundwork for Civil War really went back to the Secret War storyline, in which Nick Fury calls in some old favors from some super heroes to lead a secret, unsanctioned attack on Latveria. The resulting fallout causes public attitudes toward super heroes to take a decided turn for the worse, and that’s when the heroes begin to show different attitudes on how to deal with the rapidly escalating situation. This rift expands until it’s a gulf, and the heroes find each other literally at war with each other.
It’s funny you mentioned classical story structure earlier, because in most games you really don’t get much of an Act One – an introductory section of the story in which the main character is largely at peace in their Ordinary World. Very often in games the main conflict is already upon the player within the first few minutes of gameplay, or even in the opening cutscene.
However in MUA2 we really do have a good-sized Act One, during which the groundwork for the main conflict – Civil War – is laid. As you know, in
traditional linear storytelling, Act One ends when the hero finally takes on the quest to resolve the conflict. And that’s exactly where our Act One transitions to Act Two… at the moment the player makes his or her choice by joining a side in the super hero Civil War.
Also, our story goes into a totally new direction in Act Three. The Civil War comics storyline was intended for comic books and was designed to serve as a springboard for new kinds of stories to be told in the Marvel Universe, under a new status quo. Conversely, our version was designed for a close-ended video game and to provide a satisfying finale for the player, no matter which side they chose. Since our goals were
different, our story ultimately goes in very different places. This not only serves our game structure, but it will also help to keep even hardcore Marvel fans guessing right until the end.
SD:That’s a interesting solution for the scoping ‘dramatic curves’ on the property, as it were. I find it compelling that you had so much creative license in that adaptation. Has you work with Marvel comics in the past helped you to act as a bridge between worlds?
ES: I’m not really sure if my status as a former Marvel editor and writer helped smooth the way, but the folks at Marvel were super-supportive throughout, offering helpful input and feedback, and giving us a great deal of latitude.
I think once we all agreed that this wasn’t a strict adaptation but a “What If?” version of Civil War, it opened the door for us to do what we felt was necessary to retool it for the best game experience.
SD: Has the team made any effort to change the narrative delivery in the franchise? Or does it use similar narrative devices to Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 1?
ES: True to the franchise, we still have action-oriented cutscenes that are sprinkled throughout the game, bridging gameplay experiences and progressing the main plot. In addition to these pre-rendered movies, we’ve got a number of engine-driven cinematics in which the player will actually see the four characters in their current party participating in cutscenes.
We’ve also expanded on some of the previous narrative devices such as NPC conversations by making them more cinematic and more directly relevant to the story. On top of all that we’ve added a number of new-to-the-franchise narrative delivery methods, such as mission briefings and debriefings, dossiers, and audio diaries.
SD: Mission briefings! Interactive Dialog; I’m sold. What’s one lesson you’ve learned in the writing of this game and producing such systems?
ES: Ironically, it’s the same lesson I’ve been spouting at the start of my “Learn Better Game Writing in a Day” GDC tutorial for years now: that one of the first things a game writer needs to come to terms with is that unlike in books, comic books, television shows and movies, your story isn’t the most important thing. It’s not all about you.
Because in video game development, gameplay is king. Story is a secondary consideration, and as a game writer you need to be prepared to be trumped, trumped, and then trumped again by various other important factors. Gameplay is the one I expected, but at times our narrative intentions needed to bow to other needs as well, such as animation, art, audio… and those are just the A’s! Flexibility is key, and yet it’s also important to know when you need to try to draw a line in the sand to preserve critical narrative beats.
Explaining why certain story components are immutable to fellow team members who may or may not have a grounding in fiction theory can be a challenge. And that’s really the thinking behind my GDC tutorial in the first place. If more folks industry-wide just had that basic grounding, we’d at least be speaking the same language. There might be an overall increase in respect for good writing and what it can bring to the game experience… and ultimately, smoother and more productive interactions within development teams.
SD: When you started as an Editorial Assistant at Marvel all those years back, did you ever think you’d end up a game writer?
ES: Nope. And not to date myself, but that was a very long time ago and there really wasn’t much writing in mass-market games back then. The console systems just couldn’t support storytelling in any compelling way. There was some good stuff happening on the PC back then, but I didn’t own a PC.
Even during my time at Acclaim Entertainment in the late 90s, it really hadn’t occurred to me that there could be (or someday would be) serious opportunities in video games for a writer. At that point I was looking to the Web as the future of storytelling. I kind of smack myself in the forehead now when I think about it. But hindsight is 20/20, and at the time I just didn’t see it.
It took me a while to arrive at the party, but I’m very pleased to be in this industry at this time, when video game narrative is so clearly just beginning to realize its true, immense potential.
SD: It’s a lot of fun, but do you miss it; your comic days that is, or is there something sweeter in game writing?
It’s hard to think of any place I’d rather be right now than working as a writer in games. It’s a dynamic atmosphere and an opportunity to be involved the development of totally new kinds of storytelling experiences. And it is an incredible feeling to work closely with so many creative people, collaborating to develop interactive stories that will be experienced by literally millions of people.
That said, I do fondly remember the relative simplicity of comic book development. Looking back, it seemed like such a straight and clear path from writing the story to putting it in the reader’s hands, in pretty much the form I originally envisioned. Ah, but I’m probably being overly nostalgic and seeing that process through rose-colored glasses. It couldn’t have been that simple, could it?
SD: Finally, what do you see as the future for interactive storytelling?
ES: Actually, not to shamelessly plug, but I wrote a chapter on that very topic for the IGDA-sponsored book Professional Techniques for Video Game Writing. To sum that chapter up, I see it like this: in the near future, I believe we’ll see more studios taking narrative more seriously, to the point that they staff up with one or more professional-level writers who will be involved in story concepting at the very earliest stages of game development. The result will be better and better story/game integration, and less and less painfully bad story structure and implementation in games.
A bit further down the road, I expect narrative to emerge as its own discipline, out of the shadow of being a sub-discipline of design. We saw art and design do this decades ago, breaking away from programming. And more recently, I think it’s fair to say that audio has emerged as its own discipline. I believe narrative’s day will come.
In the far future, I think we may see the development of a true real-time story generation system, able to dynamically react to player actions and generate narratively-sound characters, plot points, complications, and ultimately a satisfying resolution that’s truly unique for each player. It would also be able to write and convincingly speak dialogue on the fly. Essentially, it would be able to do everything a human Dungeon Master can do, but in a digital space.
I’m not sure I’ll live long enough to see that… but if I do, you can bet I’ll be pre-ordering!
SD: Thanks for taking time out your busy schedule to interview, Evan. I know many people are excitedly looking forward to your newest creative endeavor, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2.
Evan is a fine example of the exemplary talent being attracted into interactive media from traditional media formats. By integrating people with development, design, writing and production experience from other media our industry is becoming a force to be reckoned with. For The Narrative Design Explorer, I’m Stephen Dinehart; thanks for tuning in. Remember, it’s only through play great stories happen.