Senior Staff Writer Christopher "Pwyff" Tom got the chance to talk with Tom Abernathy about video game writing and the upcoming Game Narrative Summit being hosted at this year's GDC Online.
As someone who went to school to study the more traditional narrative mediums (screenplays, novels, print journalism), the industry of video game writing has always been a fascinating topic for me. Novelists, journalists and even screenwriters (well, the writer-directors) can craft their narratives with great authority, knowing that the product and reality that they want to present will usually be the one they write down.
With video game writers, however, the experience is never purely their own, as game writers often need to make their voices heard over dozens of other contributors, some of whom believe that a large axe is a valid substitution for character motivation (and they may be right!). Of course, should you be a part of a team where sensible plots are appreciated, trying to present a meaningful story alongside an enjoyable game is still a huge challenge that even the best development teams in the world struggle with.
But this industry is not all gloomy for aspiring game writers, as long as we have fantastic events like this year's Game Narrative Summit, taking place at GDC Online in Austin, Texas, from October 10-13. It's been recently announced that award-winning writer Neal Stephenson will keynote this year's Game Narrative Summit, with the summit itself featuring sessions and lectures from some huge industry names like Valve writers Eric Wolpaw, Marc Laidlaw, Chet Faliszek and Jay Pinkerton, as well as BioWare's Wynn McLaughlin, Blake Rebouche and Hall Hood, in addition to Telltale Games' Dave Grossman. To find out more about this growing narrative industry, I sat down with Game Narrative Summit Advisory Board member Tom Abernathy, who is also a narrative designer at Microsoft Studios (and formerly Pandemic Studios).
ZAM: So far, feedback and reception of the GDC's Game Narrative Summit has been extremely good. How has the Game Narrative Summit evolved over the years? Does this year have a particular theme or trend in mind?
Tom Abernathy: No trends or themes, per say. We tried once, but it didn't quite work as we wanted it to! However, I would say that this conference has definitely evolved since the GDC was established. It mostly has to do with the fact that, over time, this discipline has matured and has become more accepted in the industry. There are always people who will look at us with a jaundiced eye but, to a large extent, we've begun to achieve what we've hoped for: to be seen as a serious discipline and an integral part of the game construction, and not just freelancers who come in to fix it all up in the last nine months.
At the same time, the advisors on the Game Narrative Summit board have become aware of the need to have a program that is, in itself, more mature and can speak to that audience. I think it's fair to say that we've intentionally become a bit less entry level. We started off being extremely accessible for aspiring writers from the top to the bottom, and we still are, but there is a great deal of material that is now focused on catering to the intermediate and experienced level narrative designers and writers. We wanted to get past the fundamental question of how it's done, and we wanted to get into the more sophisticated issues, like how narrative and game designers fit into development teams.
That being said, we're not leaving entry level people behind at all! This year, we're going to be doing a full day (after the summit has ended) of game writing tutorials, where we have some very big names - some very experienced people - who are coming in to host some seminar style workshops in order to help aspiring writers get a grasp of some of the fundamentals of our craft. Doing this allows us to focus our two days of the summit on higher level discussions.
ZAM: You mentioned that game writers and narrative designers are becoming more accepted in the development studio. How far do you think the industry has shifted?
Tom: I think the best indicator, for me, that the industry was shifting was when I went from being a contractor to working full time at Pandemic Studios. Back then, it was pretty uncommon for companies of any size to have full-time writers on board; it just wasn't something that developers saw as being a viable position to put resources into. These days, not just in places like BioWare (which has always employed its own writers), but every studio has at least one full-time writer on staff. It's become something that pretty much everyone acknowledges as adding value to the product and to the process.
For as long as I can remember, a lot of us have been preaching that writers need to be incorporated into projects, particularly with design, instead of just being brought in to rewrite designer dialogue. Writers in every other medium are used to building worlds and creating their own unique IPs, but when it comes to the game development process, we aren't doing that because we don't create from the blueprint that everyone else works from. Before we were even being brought in, the game's premise and fiction were already being scraped together by people who had no real knowledge of the craft.
To me, it's all about the writer being a part of the design team, and in the various places I've worked, there's been a constant dialogue between myself and game designers, art designers, level designers and even programmers. The great thing about having a writer is that they can answer detailed questions about the fiction that nobody else has really thought about, or really knows. It seems that people are recognizing this, and they're seeing that it's worth their while to employ writers, which is the best sign that we're succeeding.