Video Game Writer Interview: Evan Skolnick

Photo by Joel Aron

With over 25 years of combined story and game development experience at world-class entertainment companies such as Marvel, Activision and Lucasfilm, Evan Skolnick brings a unique perspective to narrative experiences in the games we play. An international speaker and educator, he has imparted core storytelling techniques and knowledge to well over a thousand working game development professionals. He is the author of Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques. Game projects on which Skolnick has worked include Star Wars 1313Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2The Godfather: Five FamiliesOver the HedgeSpider-Man 3Spy Muppets and many others. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and two sons. Visit www.evanskolnick.com.

 

Justin Sloan: Thank you for sharing your vast experience with my readers, Evan. How did you first get started writing for games?

Evan Skolnick: It was a long, slow transition for me, from writing and editing comics at Marvel and other publishers, to being a project manager and content director for interactive media like websites and CD-ROMs, to eventually landing a job as a senior producer at a small video game studio in New York City called Hyperspace Cowgirls. I was overseeing the development of multiple kid-targeted titles such as Stuart Little 2 for PC and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron for GameBoy Advance. Being the person on staff with the most writing experience, I stepped in and either wrote or script doctored the story content on these titles to help improve their narrative quality.

Later, when I was working as a producer at Activision studio Vicarious Visions, I would perform similar duties on titles I was managing, as well as some of those I wasn’t managing, upon request. This slowly but inexorably led me away from being a producer and toward what I now consider my true calling, which is as full-time game writer and narrative designer.

JS: Knowing what you do now and seeing how the industry has changed, would you do anything different if you were just starting off today?

ES: I’m not sure – I’m pretty happy with how things turned out. I feel very fortunate. There are times I wonder if it might not have been better if I had gotten more deeply into game writing earlier on. But I wouldn’t give up the years I spent being a game producer, because while at times I found it creatively stifling, as a producer I learned the entire game development process, which is a huge plus for my capabilities now as a narrative developer… understanding how what I do fits into the entire process, and having a producer’s mentality and tool set when it comes to scope and scheduling.

JS: Let’s get right into the good stuff—your book: Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know about Narrative Techniques. For anyone who has not looked on Amazon yet, what would be your quick pitch on why they should read this book and who the target audience is?

ES: The book is something of a distillation of the full-day tutorial I’ve presented annually at the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) for the past eight years and counting. The basic idea is this: nearly all game developers are storytellers, whether they realize it or not. They’re ultimately the people who do the work of bringing a game’s story to life.

You can have the best of narrative intentions on your game project, and hire the most talented game writer around – but if the rest of the team isn’t aligned with the goal of telling a great game story, or if they’re on board but untrained in storytelling, your final narrative result will probably end up being mediocre, if not worse.

So, with the GDC tutorial and now with this book, I’m trying to reach those non-writer game developers who are nevertheless part of the storytelling effort. Designers, artists, animators, audio experts, engineers, producers, even QA testers – they all have their part to play in the story development effort, and I try to provide them with a crash course in fiction writing and how core storytelling principles can be applied to their own craft.

For aspiring or working game writers, this probably isn’t the best book for them to read for their own development, since it’s pretty foundational material. But it might be a very useful book for writers to hand out to members of a game development team with whom they’re about to work. It’s designed to provide a common language of storytelling that can smooth the way to fruitful collaboration throughout the development process.

JS: What inspired you to write this book, and what were some of the complications that went into writing it? If a writer out there wanted to put together a book of their own, how should they get started?

ES: The inspiration for the book, as well as the source material for much of it, comes from my aforementioned game writing tutorial. A few friends had mentioned to me I should think of writing a book version of the presentation, and while I agreed it might be a good idea, I just never got my act together enough to actively pursue it – writing up a book proposal, figuring out which publishers to shop it to, and so forth. It just never quite rose high enough in my priority list vs. paying work I was focusing on at the time.

Luckily for me Patrick Barb, an editor from Watson-Guptill – one of Random House’s imprints – reached out and asked me if I was interested in writing a proposal for a book version of my GDC tutorial. That took a lot of the up-front effort out of it for me, and so I wrote up a proposal which they quickly accepted, and we were off and running.

I imagined the writing of the book to mainly involve taking my hundreds of GDC tutorial slides and adapting them to book format. But of course it ended up being much, much more involved than that. For example, in my tutorial, I make liberal use of videos from games and movies to illustrate my points. In a book not only is video off the table, but even copyrighted materials such as box art or screenshots or extended text excerpts – these were all suddenly not in my arsenal, either. So finding ways to illustrate my points that didn’t involve the use of any of these materials became quite a challenge.

Finding the right tone and voice for the book was another hurdle, and I eventually settled on one that was as close as possible to the relaxed approach I take with my GDC presentation. One reviewer on Amazon.com said, “Where similar books I’ve read were dry, Skolnick takes a friendly, conversational approach to his prose and peppers in pop culture references and humor here and there. I imagine that if he and I sat down over a cup of coffee to discuss game writing, this book represents exactly how he’d sound.” This pleased me very much because that’s exactly the approach I was going for.

With regard to advice to other potential book-writers out there, I feel like my situation was somewhat unusual in that I was approached by the publisher, and also in that I had a working presentation to draw upon when determining content and structure. Even given all that, though, there were still times that I struggled mightily with the writing of the book. It took quite a bit longer to complete than originally planned, and when I submitted my first draft I felt it was a long, long way from being at the quality level it should be.  So my advice would be to stick with it, even through periods when it seems pretty grim!

JS: Will the reader learn similar material as they would if they were to attend your GDC talk? How might reading the book and attending your tutorial complement each other?

ES: The first part of the book, “Basic Training,” is very similar to the content of my full-day tutorial. However the second half, “In the Trenches,” really goes beyond that material and digs much more deeply into how members of each game development discipline can apply the teachings to their own day-to-day craft.

Even though I recommend that owners of the book read the entire second half and not just the chapters that directly apply to their own area of specialty, I’d probably be reluctant to present something along those lines in my tutorial. I’d be concerned that taking a half-hour to discuss (for example) the specifics of how audio experts can become better storytellers might be seen by all the non-audio experts in the audience as not the best use of their very precious – and costly – GDC time.

JS: Having presented at GDC for several years now, what would you advise newcomers do to prepare? Should they bring business cards? Research presenters beforehand?

ES: The GDC site has a great session scheduler that allows you to plan out your time there beforehand, at least in terms of which presentations you want to attend. GDC actually flies by pretty quickly, and you want to make sure you maximize your time there.

What I often find is that there are conflicts between two or more talks I’d like to attend, being held in the same time slot. That’s when the GDC Vault comes in handy, where you can eventually find video versions of almost all the presentations at the show. A subscription to the Vault gives you access not only to the most recent GDC’s talks but going back quite a few years into the past, as well. So you can attend one talk and then watch the video of the other a month or two later.

Newcomers to the show should definitely have business cards they can hand out, and they should make sure to use the cards they receive from others to follow up with those folks in the days and weeks following the show, especially those they particularly connected with.

JS: What should they expect from the conference, as far as takeaways and the business of their schedules?

ES: It can vary in terms of takeaways. I generally find that when I attend a one-hour talk, I’m happy if I come away with one or two really useful tidbits of information I can use in my day-to-day work. You probably shouldn’t expect a lot more than that of any short presentation at GDC.

Be prepared for the social aspect, which can be just as important as the show itself. IGDA SIG gatherings, dinners, drinks, and parties – this is where some very important friend-making and networking can happen. Try to find out where and when the parties are, and see if you can get an invitation to them in the weeks leading up to the show. It can be difficult and frustrating if you wait until you’re actually there to get into some of the bigger parties. They’re fun, of course, but as I said, they’re also an important part of “seeing and being seen” at GDC.

JS: Stepping back to the work you have done, is there any main project you feel really challenged your storytelling skills? Do you have a rewarding experience you can share that may inspire aspiring writers?

ES: Writing for games is always challenging. There are so many obstacles that you’re trying to dodge… it’s kind of like playing a game! But the challenges and obstacles tend to vary from project to project.

One of the challenges I have found most often is that of collaboration, especially with team members who don’t have any kind of narrative background or training, and yet are definitely going to be involved in bringing the story to life. At times it can feel like we’re speaking different languages. That’s really the thinking behind my tutorial and the book – to try to close that gap a bit and help create more storytelling-savvy developers across the industry.

JS: For writers that may have seen small steps toward success but are very much still in the early days of their careers, how would you advise they keep the career going strong?

ES: Always keep on top of developments in the industry, especially as they pertain to storytelling. There’s still so much discovery to be done in this area! Who’s finding new ways to tell stories in games? Stay on top of it, play the games, figure out what’s going on under the hood.

And I’d also say keep your networking going. Stay in touch with folks, make sure they’re aware you’re out there.

JS: Thank you again, Evan. Before we sign off, do you have any other advice that I may not have asked about, or a summary of the advice above that you feel we should pay special attention to?

ES: Near the end of the book I sum up my hopes regarding storytelling in video games. It’s a recap of what I cover in the second half of the book, chapter by chapter. But ultimately it’s also advice to game developers of every discipline with regard to narrative quality and success. Here’s some of what I said:

I hope team leaders will realize that game narrative isn’t an afterthought to be tacked onto an existing Alpha, but a critical game component to be included in the creative process from the very first days of development. I hope they will instill in their entire teams a shared sense of ownership over the quality of the game’s story.

I hope designers will continuously seek new, innovative ways to express story through gameplay. I hope they’ll take the time to go beyond this book with their investigation of the principles of fiction, an understanding of which has the power to improve a designer’s effectiveness in countless ways.

I hope artists and animators will never forget that everything about the visualization of a character, item, or place conveys narrative information. I hope as they’re developing every visual, they always remember that each one has the potential to either improve or negate the effectiveness of the game’s storytelling.

I hope engineers will keep in mind that they have an important part to play in the successful expression of a game’s story. Whether they’re tasked with developing tools, world physics, audio systems, or any other technical component of a game, I hope they’ll take an active role in discovering what the narrative intent is and how they can help bring it to life.

I hope audio experts will see in narrative experts kindred spirits and potentially staunch allies in enhancing players’ emotional engagement. I hope audio developers will take personal responsibility for getting as much knowledge of the game story, characters, and world as possible in order to support that vision as only they can.

I hope QA testers, those unsung heroes of game development, take the principles and lessons from this book and apply them to the critical eye with which they evaluate every nuance of an in-development game.

And finally, I hope game writers and narrative designers will realize that educating the rest of their teams in the core principles of storytelling is a crucial step to productively working together over the long haul of a game project.

I hope narrative experts will acknowledge and demonstrate that storytelling isn’t a responsibility to be compartmentalized or territorially guarded by a single developer, but an experience to be collaborated on and shared across an entire team.

 

Video Game Storytelling

 

 

Furthermore, if you would like to read more interviews of this nature, see my book Creative Writing Career: Becoming a Writer of Movies, Video Games, and Books. 

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