As technological advancements in the games industry have marched forward, so too have the ability for games to tell interesting and innovative stories. One of the developers responsible for some of those stories is writer and narrative designer Evan Skolnick, veteran of LucasArts, 2K, and Telltale Games. Most recently, he helped the team at Studio MDHR conjure a story for the indie hit Cuphead.
At GDC 2018, Skolnick will be offering a crash-course on storytelling fundamentals for game designers of all backgrounds, and participating in other panels in the narrative summit. To discuss his lengthy writing career, and get you ready for his talk, we've reached out to Skolnick for a quick Q&A you can read below.
Could you please introduce yourself and your current role in the games industry?
Hi, I’m Evan Skolnick and I work as a freelance game writer, narrative designer and consultant, with my list of recently shipped titles including Cuphead, Star Wars: Battlefront, Mafia III, and The Walking Dead: A New Frontier. I’m also an instructor at Cogswell College in San Jose, spearheading the school’s innovative new Game Writing program. And I’m the author of Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques.
What inspired you to get started working in game narrative?
It was a long, gradual transition, and I’d say it wasn’t so much inspiration as necessity. It certainly wasn’t a plan!
Upon entering the games industry as a producer back in 2001 — having previously worked in comics — I quickly noticed that game designers were being asked to not only invent, test and balance compelling game concepts, mechanics and levels, but they were also being tasked with writing their games’ stories and dialogue. The designers were doing their best to balance all these responsibilities, of course, but the narrative results in many cases were somewhat subpar, given most designers' lack of training and experience in this area.
So I started to step in on the storytelling front where I could; first on games on which I was serving as producer, and later, on other projects in the studio. Over time, “story guy" became my unofficial second role. Eventually I had an opportunity to make it my main role on a AAA console game, serving as lead writer on Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2. It was nominated for a DICE storytelling award that year. At that point it was clear to me where I had the most to offer. As a former Marvel editor and writer, I had previous knowledge of how stories are made; and as a producer I had learned how games are developed. Combining those two knowledge bases is what being a game writer is all about, so I felt I had found a true calling. I haven’t looked back since.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your work?
A common challenge is often being brought onto a project relatively late in the cycle. While more and more developers are starting to realize that a narrative consultant’s helpfulness increases exponentially the earlier they’re included in the process, it is still fairly common for me to be asked to come in and improve a game story on a project that is already at Alpha or even Beta stage, with complete or near-complete levels, environments, characters, animations, etc. This puts the narrative expert into a role that Rhianna Pratchett has quite accurately dubbed “narrative paramedic”. You’re coming into an emergency situation and you’re going to help as much as you can, but your ability to affect the situation outside of providing some stability is severely limited. Again, this isn’t as common as it used to be, but it still happens.
Another challenge is working with a large team and trying to keep all its members producing content that is harmonious with the narrative intent. You just can’t be running around all day, looking over the shoulder of every team member as each asset is being created. You have to rely on team members possessing some good narrative instincts. That’s why I wrote my book, and also why I’ve been running this full-day tutorial for over a decade: not to talk to writers, but to talk to everyone on the team, to try to help provide them with some of those instincts. To help equip them to make good storytelling decisions on their own.
What are the most rewarding parts of your job?
When you’re working on a project, especially a big-budget project, it can be months or even years between writing something and seeing a tangible result from it, such as an in-game sequence or a cutscene. I remember once writing a plot twist in a cutscene, and the first time I got to actually witness anyone being surprised by it was almost a year later. So seeing things coming together after all that time and work can be very satisfying, especially when the execution is solid.
I also love teaching, whether it’s college students or GDC attendees or professional developers working in a studio. Seeing their eyes light up when I give them words to describe the narrative structures and principles they already pretty much knew (from decades of reading, watching and playing stories) is hugely rewarding.
Do you have any advice for those interested in joining your field someday?
Generally I have two pieces of advice. One, find a way to get educated in writing, and especially game writing. It is a very particular and tricky beast. Regular old creative writing courses or books aren’t going to get you there. Options include GDC as well as game writing programs at the few colleges that provide that kind of focus. There are also a number of good books on the subject of writing for games.
Two, have something in addition to game writing to offer if you’re trying to break into the industry. Unless you’ve already established yourself as a professional writer in another visual medium (such as comics, TV or movies), your first job in games will almost surely not be one of writer. You’ll be much more likely to break in if you’re trained in a more commonly sought role such as designer or producer. Once you’re in the door, of course, then you can let the studio know that you have interest and capability on the narrative side of the equation. That’s how it worked for me, and I’ve heard similar stories from others.
How has your experience working for indies like the Cuphead team been different than your studio experience at Vicarious Visions or LucasArts?
The indie experience these days seems to involve smallish teams that are scattered across the globe and held together with an online tool like Basecamp, Discord, Slack or similar. Whereas with a traditional studio there is a building, there are desks and IT departments and all the support elements you expect from a larger company. So when it comes to communication and the sense of being on a team, it's very different consulting for a scrappy indie startup vs. consulting for, say, Sony (which I am currently lucky enough to be doing on the dazzling Concrete Genie). However the work itself remains almost identical from my perspective. The game writing challenges and the rewards are similar; it’s just the team interaction mode that varies. I enjoy both!
What do you think is the biggest change you’ve observed in the craft of game storytelling over your career?
The emergence of the professional game writer/narrative designer. When I came into games back in 2001 you’d have had a very hard time finding a “writer” credit in any mainstream titles, and the term “narrative designer” hadn’t even been coined yet. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I entered games as a producer; I honestly didn’t see a role that was a better fit for my skill set of that time.
So it’s been very satisfying to be present in the industry as this new discipline has been emerging and growing; and of course some of the results have been just incredible. Game writing is a discipline that’s really starting to come into its own.
We still have a ways to go, I believe, but we also have this exciting, unexplored frontier of game storytelling just waiting to be discovered. And I feel honored to be a part of it.