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GDC Online: Neal Stephenson On The Future Of Games And Narrative

GDC Online: Neal Stephenson On The Future Of Games And Narrative

October 11, 2011 | By Christian Nutt

In a keynote conversation at GDC Online, author Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash, REAMDE) talked about his thoughts on the future of games, and the intersection of narrative craft with virtual worlds.

As part of the Game Narrative Summit taking place during the event, journalist Geoff Keighley sat in conversation with Stephenson as he discussed his new game infused video book REAMDE, as well as his thoughts on video games as a medium.

First, an important question: is Stephenson a gamer?

Stephenson decided to combine games and exercise -- the former because he likes them, the latter on the advice of his wife, a physician -- so he plays on an elliptical machine. "I basically play Halo 3 in solo non-network mode for 45 minute stretches, a few times a week," he said.

What Writers Can Contribute to Games

He thinks that writers have a lot to contribute to games -- "I think it's got a bright future, because what science fiction and fantasy writers do, that's different from other kinds of writers, is that they create worlds," Stephenson said.

"The thing that's really compelling to a lot of readers of those genres is the moment when you open the front cover of the book and you see a map of an imaginary world. It tells you that this isn't just a story, but it's one of many possible stories in this world."

"Books can do a fairly good job of that," he said, but "I think a lot of the same world-building skills and world-building mentality are going to transfer extremely well into the game world, and it's going to be a natural blend."

However, there is a conflict, in his eyes. He calls the cutscene/gameplay divide "a stopgap."

"The place where we are right now, is that it's difficult and awkward to have the story really develop. You can build a world that has a back story. You can tell all sorts of stories about what happened in the history of that world, but in order for game levels to work, you have people acting out the same little story fragment, over and over again."

Stephenson said of having narrative designers embedded in teams "intuitively, that seems like much the better way of doing it. I think we're coming out of an earlier phase of the writer's relationship to the game."

He likes the game, but he suspects that a lot of Halo 3's backstory, "I sense, was written after the fact... Clearly the better way to do it is to have the writer on staff and interacting all the time with the people who are building the game."

He only notices dialogue when it's "screamingly bad" -- but on the other hand, "I'm very appreciative... [of] funny little bits of dialogue or interesting pieces of characterization."

"I think that -- if I'm representative of the audience -- it's a pretty forgiving medium, the bad stuff you ignore 'cause you're too busy playing the game and the good stuff is appreciated."

He also talked about the divide between a create-a-character -- not as interesting as he anticipated, and a developed protagonist, such Red Dead Redemption's John Marston. And he also sees "someone you empathize with, and feel comfortable in their skin" versus "someone very different from me" -- "they're both very valid and interesting things to do."

The Future of Games and Writing

"I suspect that in 10 or 20 years, we'll look back on that as a kind of transitional phase into something where the story can actually develop and not just constantly kind of reset and replay," said Stephenson in the onstage Q&A.

"If you're trying to create canned cutscenes, the tree of possibilities gets so huge that you can't do it that way... Where we need to get is a place where you can tell the story as you go along, like in the old-school pen and paper Dungeons & Dragons style of game."

"I'd love it if we could get to a place where you can kind of create your own story; where you're more fully simulating the entire world to the point where there's total freedom to act out whatever story you want. I think that's going to be a long time in coming," he said.

"By definition what a writer is doing is laying out a series of events that is then not changeable, so that's actually a really fundamental and interesting question as such," he commented -- what the writer's job is at all.

"Clearly the world-building part of it is always going to work," he said. "If the stories of games become more interactive, writers still have a good sense of how to set up a story."

Will There Be Games Based On Stephenson's Work?

As far as adaptations of his existing work into games, he doesn't really like the idea. "I think the thing to do would be to develop the world and the game material at the same time," he said. "It's one of those 'be careful what you wish for' things, with both movies and games, so I haven't been super aggressive about pursuing it."

He doesn't have much interest in working in-depth on a game project, either. "The problem is always that, at the end of the day, I can sit on my butt, and make things up and write them down, and get paid for it, so it's hard to get me interested in doing in anything that involves leaving my house, or dealing with other human beings," he said.

However, there is an "embryonic" game project in the works based on the collaborative writing he's been working on, The Mongoliad.

"We have a demo that we're showing around that exemplifies what we want to do," he said. The story follows a group of fictional "ninja, knight, monks" who assassinate the Mongolian Khan to protect Western civilization.

The goal? "Here's a way you can become a character and participate in that world interactively."

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